Talks aimed at transferring US nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia serve as an indicator of where the Saudi-Iranian rivalry is heading as well as the strength of the informal Saudi-Israeli alliance against Iran.
The possible transfer could spark a new arms race in the Middle East and constitutes one explanation why Saudi responses to President Donald J. Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel were muted and limited to rhetorical statements.
Mr. Trump’s decision was perhaps most challenging for the Saudis, who as custodians of Islam’s two holiest cities, would have been expected to play a leading role in protecting the status of the city that is home to the faith’s third holiest site. Saudi Arabia was represented at this week’s summit of Islamic countries in Istanbul that recognized East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine by its foreign minister, Adel al Jubeir, rather than the king, crown prince or another senior member of the ruling family.
The difficulty for the Saudis is not only their close cooperation with Israel, willingness to increasingly publicly hint at what long was a secret relationship, and their position as the US’ closest friend in the Arab world, who reportedly was willing to endorse a US Israeli-Palestinian peace plan in the making that would fail to meet the minimum demanded by Palestinians and Arab public opinion.
With Mr. Trump backing Saudi efforts to counter Iranian influence in a swath of land stretching from Asia to the Atlantic coast of Africa despite mounting US criticism of the kingdom’s conduct of its military intervention in Yemen, Riyadh has a vested interest in maintaining its close ties to Washington. While having been put in an awkward position, international condemnation of Mr. Trump’s Jerusalem move has also increased Saudi leverage.
Mr. Trump’s support for Saudi Arabia as well as his transactional approach to foreign policy that aims to further US business interests holds out the promise of tipping the Middle East’s military balance of power in favour of the kingdom.
In the president’s latest effort, his administration is weighing allowing Saudi Arabia to enrich uranium as part of a deal that would ensure that bids by Westinghouse Electric Co. and other US companies to build nuclear reactors in the kingdom are successful. Past US reluctance to endorse Saudi enrichment and reprocessing of uranium has put purveyors of US nuclear technology at a disadvantage.
Saudi Arabia agreed with the US in 2008 not to pursue enrichment and reprocessing but has since backed away from that pledge. “They wouldn’t commit, and it was a sticking point,” said Max Bergmann, a former special assistant to the undersecretary of state for arms control and international security.
Testifying to Congress in November, Christopher Ford, the US National Security Council’s senior director for weapons of mass destruction and counterproliferation, refused to commit the Trump administration to the US restrictions. The restrictions are “not a legal requirement. It is a desired outcome.” Mr. Ford said. He added that the 2015 international agreement with Iran that severely restricts the Islamic republic’s nuclear program for at least a decade, made it more difficult for the United States to insist on limiting other countries’ enrichment capabilities.
Saudi Arabia plans to construct 16 nuclear power reactors by 2030 at a cost of an estimated $100 billion. Officially, Saudi Arabia sees nuclear power as a way of freeing up more oil for export in a country that has witnessed dramatic increases in domestic consumption and contributing to diversification of its economy. It would also enhance Saudi efforts to ensure parity with Iran in the kingdom’s ability to enrich uranium and its quest to be the Middle East’s long-term, dominant power.
Saudi Arabia has large uranium deposits of its own. In preparation of requesting bids for its nuclear program, Saudi Arabia in October asked the US, France, South Korea, Russia and China for preliminary information. In addition to the United States, the kingdom has in recent years concluded a number of nuclear-related understandings with China as well as with France, Pakistan, Russia, South Korea and Argentina.
Mr. Trump’s apparent willingness to ease US restrictions services his campaign promise to revive and revitalize America’s nuclear industry and meet competition from Russia and China. Saudi contracts are crucial for Westinghouse, a nuclear technology pioneer whose expertise is used in more than half of the world’s nuclear power plants. Westinghouse declared bankruptcy in March because of delays in two US projects.
A deal that would lift US restrictions in return for acquiring US technology could enmesh Saudi Arabia in bitter domestic political battles in Washington evolving around alleged Russian interference in the election that brought Mr. Trump to office. Controversial Trump campaign aide and short-lived national security advisor Michael Flynn sought to convince Israel to accept the kingdom’s nuclear program as part of his efforts to promote Russian nuclear interests in the Middle East.
Mr. Trump’s willingness, against the backdrop of uncertainty about his readiness to uphold US adherence to the 2015 agreement with Iran, could unleash an arms race in the Middle East and North Africa. Mr. Trump recently refused to certify to Congress that Iran was compliant with the agreement.
Dropping restrictions on Saudi enrichment could not only fuel Saudi-Iranian rivalry that has wreaked havoc across the region, but also encourage other recipients of US nuclear technology to demand similar rights. The United Arab Emirates and Egypt have accepted restrictions on enrichment in their nuclear deals with US companies as long as those limitations were imposed on all countries in the Middle East.
Saudi Arabia has long been suspected of having an interest in ensuring that it would have the ability to develop a military nuclear capability if ever deemed necessary. For decades, Saudi cooperation with nuclear power Pakistan has been a source of speculation about the kingdom’s ambition.
Pakistan’s former ambassador to the United States, Husain Haqqani, asserted that Saudi Arabia’s close ties to the Pakistani military and intelligence during the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s gave the kingdom arms’ length access to his country’s nuclear capabilities.
“By the 1980s, the Saudi ambassador was a regular guest of A. Q. Khan” or Abdul Qadeer Khan, the controversial nuclear physicist and metallurgical engineer who fathered Pakistan’s atomic bomb,” Mr. Haqqani said in an interview.
Similarly, retired Pakistani Major General Feroz Hassan Khan, the author of a semi-official history of Pakistan’s nuclear program, has no doubt about the kingdom’s interest.
“Saudi Arabia provided generous financial support to Pakistan that enabled the nuclear program to continue, especially when the country was under sanctions,” Mr. Khan said in a separate interview. Mr. Khan was referring to US sanctions imposed in 1998 because of Pakistan’s development of a nuclear weapons capability. He noted that at a time of economic crisis, Pakistan was with Saudi help able “to pay premium prices for expensive technologies.”
The Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) said in a report earlier this year that it had uncovered evidence that future Pakistani “assistance would not involve Pakistan supplying Saudi Arabia with a full nuclear weapon or weapons; however, Pakistan may assist in other important ways, such as supplying sensitive equipment, materials, and know-how used in enrichment or reprocessing.”
The report said it was unclear whether “Pakistan and Saudi Arabia may be cooperating on sensitive nuclear technologies in Pakistan. In an extreme case, Saudi Arabia may be financing, or will finance, an unsafeguarded uranium enrichment facility in Pakistan for later use, either in a civil or military program,” the report said.
The report concluded that the nuclear agreement with Iran dubbed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) had “not eliminated the kingdom’s desire for nuclear weapons capabilities and even nuclear weapons… There is little reason to doubt that Saudi Arabia will more actively seek nuclear weapons capabilities, motivated by its concerns about the ending of the JCPOA’s major nuclear limitations starting after year 10 of the deal or sooner if the deal fails,” the report said.
Rather than embarking on a covert program, the report predicted that Saudi Arabia would, for now, focus on building up its civilian nuclear infrastructure as well as a robust nuclear engineering and scientific workforce. This would allow the kingdom to take command of all aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle at some point in the future.
“The current situation suggests that Saudi Arabia now has both a high disincentive to pursue nuclear weapons in the short term and a high motivation to pursue them over the long term,” the Washington Institute said.
New intrigue over nuclear deal
The Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) demonstrated unprecedented foreign policy activity in August as Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif visited Finland, Sweden, Norway, France, China, Japan, and Malaysia in the second half of the month, and Russia – in early September.
Tehran’s genuinely belligerent spirit is due to the situation in which it found itself in connection with the US sanctions. The United States withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Action Plan (JCPOA) in May 2018. On August 7, 2018, Washington slapped the first package of restrictive measures on Iran that hit the Iranian car-manufacturing industry, as well as its trade in gold and other precious metals. In November the same year, the United States imposed sanctions on the Iranian energy sector and disconnected Iran from the international interbank system SWIFT. True, from November to May 2019, the White House provided benefits for the purchase of Iranian oil to eight countries (China, India, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Turkey, Greece, Italy). But this period is over.
In April 2018, Iran exported about 2.5 million barrels per day (b/p/d). In July 2019 this figure dropped to 100 – 120 (taking into account condensate and light oil) thousand b / d, that is, decreasing by 25 times. Accordingly, oil revenues, which make up a significant part of the Iranian budget, have plummetted (according to various sources, from 25 to 40%). As a result, the socio-economic situation in Iran is deteriorating as prospects for settling the crisis appear dim and illusory as long as the problem of sanctions persists.
Undoubtedly, Tehran has consistently been trying to find a way out of the confrontation with the United States. The parties involved are playing it tough, with the game being fraught with unpredictable consequences. A lot is at stake, first of all, security in the Middle East and maybe, all over the world.
The current intrigue is about whether Iran and the US are ready to strike a compromise in their mutual claims. Where is the “red line” they are unable to go over? It has to be underscored that neither Tehran nor Washington plan to sort out the conflict by war.
Iran’s claims to the US are numerous. The main thing for now is that the United States ought to lift anti-Iranian sanctions and return to the JCPOA.
The United States too has a list of requirements for Iran, which boil down to five main ones:
1. Transformation, breaking the nuclear deal (JCPOA) in order to block the possibility of creating nuclear weapons by Iran, including by introducing an open-end validity period for the document.
2. A ban on the creation of ballistic missiles in Iran.
3. Setting a limit on Iran’s military policy in the Middle East, Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
4. No more support for terrorist organizations, primarily Hezbollah and Hamas.
5. Human rights in Iran.
The latter requirement is clearly optional, is purely propagandistic, so, in all likelihood, it will not be on the agenda of a possible Iranian-American dialogue – be it in absentia, directly or with the help of intermediaries.
Now about the players, who run this complicated, at times confusing and even contradictory game.
Naturally, the role of Russia and China, as the authors of the JCPOA, is decisive. But Russia, under the current conditions, is restricted in its capacioty to exert any practical influence on Iran and / or the United States apart from devising proposals, recommendations and evaluating the process of solving the JCPO problem.
For China, the “Iranian-American problem” is a tool in the fight against the United States on the globally extensive fronts of the US-Chinese trade war. Beijing’s policy towards Tehran will largely depend on the results of this war. Improvement of Sino-US relations would mean a cooling toward Iran and vice versa.
What is essential given the situation is the position of Scandinavian countries, which are home to a large number of Iranian emigrants. What is also important is that Scandinavia has traditionally good economic ties with Iran. A large role in the settlement of Iranian problem belongs to Japan. Perhaps, it is these considerations that determined the August visits of the Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif, which covered these countries. It was vitally important for the head of the Iranian diplomacy to win support or, in any case, explain to the leaders of these states the Iranian views on resolving the “Iranian-American problem”, particularly now that the political games are approaching their peak.
Considering all this, it should be recognized that at present, the future of the JCPOA and Iran is determined by three players – Iran proper, the United States and the European Union. Significantly, the European Union from the very beginning opposed the anti-Iranian policy of US President Trump, spoke against America’s withdrawal from the JCPOA, and came up against the imposition of sanctions. At the same time, the EU, while insisting on maintaining the JCPOA and lifting (easing) sanctions, like the United States, will not accept Iran’s missile program, its Middle East policy, Tehran’s support for Hezbollah and Hamas, or problems with human rights in Iran.
Tactically, however, there are tangible differences between the positions of Brussels and Washington. The EU is not ready to solve all Iranian problems at once and is trying to create conditions for the resumption of the negotiating process, primarily between Iran and the United States, without pressure on Iran, without sanctions.
The EU has launched INSTEX, a tool for supporting trade settlements with Iran. And even though it is ineffective, but the Europeans (unlike the Iranians) hope that everything will work out well.
At present, of the three EU countries participating in the 2015 nuclear deal (Germany, France, Great Britain) France is taking the lead to settle the Iranian issue. It is clear that Britain will leave the EU at the end of October 2019, although it will continue to cooperate with the European Union on all foreign policy issues, including Iran. German Chancellor Angela Merkel – a symbol of Germany and an authoritative but unofficial EU leader – will soon resign. Given the conditions, French President Emmanuel Macron – young, active, persistent, with ambitions akin to General Charles de Gaulle, has a chance to become Europe’s political heavyweight No. 1.
In fact, President Macron has become a mediator between Iran and the United States. The agenda of the recent G7 summit in the French city of Biarritz (August 24 – 26) included relations with the IRI but no one had expected any surprises in this area. Suddenly, on August 25, at the initiative of President Macron, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif arrived in Biarritz. The head of Iranian diplomacy held talks with several leaders, and even planned a meeting with the US president. However, Trump did not receive Zarif.
Nevertheless, at a press conference that took place on the last day of the summit, Trump answered a question on Iran in a much friendlier manner than one might expect. “If the circumstances are right, I would surely agree to this [a meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. VS.] ”In addition, Trump described Rouhani as “an excellent negotiator,”and the Iranians as “nice people,” and expressed confidence that“Iran can become a great power, but they should not have nuclear weapons.”
The very next day, on August 26, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said: “If only I knew that visits by and meetings with a certain person could help my country and solve the problems of my people, I would go for it” – apparently, there is a hint at possible negotiations with President Trump.
Would they be possible – such negotiations? Observers and political analysts are at odds about it. Some argue that such an option is unlikely. Others say why not. After all, Trump met with Kim Jong-un – the dictator of North Korea. It was Trump’s press conference and the reaction to his speech by Rouhani that prompted rumors that the presidential summit could be held in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, which goes into session on September 17.
Of course, it is difficult to make any predictions to this effect, since it is more than challenging, particularly for Iranians, to set the distance that they and the Americans must cover to meet each other halfway, forgetting about their mutual phobias.
Despite all his so-called unpredictability, which analysts endlessly talk about, Trump is constantly resorting to the professional tactics of a hardcore businessman by offering his counterparties excessive requirements or largely unrealistic or unacceptable conditions and thereby drags them into negotiations during which he makes some concessions.
The Iranians find it harder. While the need for compromise in a dialogue with the United States to lift or at least ease sanctions is beyond doubt, the Iranian authorities can not lose face. Any compromise should look like a victory. This is what causes difficulty. Both President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif in their foreign policy efforts have to constantly look back on their domestic audience, first of all, on their political opponents from the radicals who abhor either the JCPOA or any negotiations with the West, more so with the United States.
It was no accident then that almost immediately after Foreign Minister Zarif’s talks at the G-7 summit, he reiterated that no meetings with US officials would be possible unless Washington returned to the JCPOA, while President Rouhani confirmed that lifting the sanctions was the main condition for negotiations.
To harmonize all the requirements of Iran and the United States is practically impossible as Tehran (at least, officially) will never agree to curtail its missile program and drastically change its policy in the Middle East (although a gradual process of reducing military activity there is possible, given that the Middle East policy is not very popular inside the country either).
And President Trump is not ready for an instantaneous lifting of sanctions, especially now that the 2020 presidential race is right round the corner.
Given the situation, it is clear that the two parties are to work out something in-between, a kind of intermediate, temporary solution. At the same time, official Iranian-American negotiations, perhaps at the highest level, remain issue number one.
French President Emmanuel Macron is doing his best to assist with solving the Iranian problems. A settlement plan he has devised received the approval of European diplomats a few days ago. Although no details of the plan were released in the media, unconfirmed reports say it provides for the lifting of sanctions for some buyers of Iranian oil and gives Iran an opportunity to export about 700 thousand barrels of oil per day. This is more than two to three times its current volume. In addition, it is planned to provide Iran with a credit worth about $ 15 billion so that it could use hard currency to circumvent the US sanctions imposed on it. In response, Tehran is expected to get ready for negotiations and return to the meticulous implementation of the JCPOA.
In accordance with the plan, Iran undertakes to find a way to reduce tensions in the Persian Gulf amid the recent spate of tanker seizures and to begin well-structured negotiations on missiles, regional issues and on what will happen after 2025, when the current agreement expires.
In this regard, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has said that it is not yet clear whether the US will refrain from sanctions on additional exports of Iranian oil. However, there have been no signals from the White House that the American president could block this initiative. Referring to France’s plan to save the deal, Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi made it clear that the US had shown flexibility. Of course, the deputy foreign minister could not but add that this is the result of Iran’s maximum resistance in the face of maximum pressure from the US. For Iran this is all but a new victory.
Considering these far from clear circumstances, there is one factor that could ruin the positive tendency that manifested itself at the beginning of September. This factor has to do with Iran’s steps to cut its nuclear deal commitments.
The fact is that September 5 marks the end of the second sixty-day period of Tehran’s gradual withdrawal from implementing certain requirements under the nuclear agreement.
In this regard, the Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif has presented an ultimatum to the European Union: “If Europe does not take the required steps till Thursday (September 5), then, according to the decision of May 7, Iran will notify them of the launch of the third stage of withdrawal from the JCPOA. As stated by Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi, “the third step is fully developed and is ready for implementation. It is tougher than the first and second ones and was designed to achieve a balance between the rights and obligations of Iran under the JCPOA.”
On September 2, Iranian Foreign Minister representative Abbas Araghchi and a group of economists flew to Paris to discuss Emmanuel Macron’s plan and at the same time to clarify the details of the third step of the IRI towards an exit from the JCPOA.
Iranian diplomats say that if the diplomatic efforts of Iran and the EU achieve a result, Tehran will abandon the third step.
At present, the political and diplomatic situation around Iran is centered on the French plan. There are still many questions to answer but the main ones are two. First, will it be in the interests of Iran (that is, will Tehran accept it)? Second, will the US hinder the implementation of this plan? French diplomacy has worked with both sides. Moscow has expressed support for this initiative.
There is hope for the approval of the plan. For President Trump a further aggravation of the situation involving Iran in the run-up to the 2020 presidential race is undesirable, to say the least. After all, nobody knows what the ongoing escalation of the conflict will lead to. What is clear is that this escalation will become worse in case the French plan falls through.
For Iran, the export of oil and a 15-billion loan are more than important. All Tehran has to do in return is to abandon the process of reducing its obligations under the JCPOA. The other points of the plan can well be under long and tedious discussion with the European Union – up to the presidential election in the United States. And then, there is a chance that Trump will lose and the Democrats will win.
From our partner International Affairs
Netanyahu wants another meeting with Putin
An escalation of the Arab-Israeli confrontation was reported in late August following a terrorist attack that took place in a holiday resort popular among Israelis. A homemade bomb killed one person and left several others injured.
On the night of August 25, the Israeli Air Force carried out air strikes against three countries at the same time: in Iraq, it struck at the positions of the Badr Organization, in Lebanon – at the Hezbollah information center, and in Syria – at the headquarters of an al-Quds unit that is part of the special-task forces of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Gaza came under attack as well. “A country that allows its territory to be used for attacks on Israel will face the consequences,”- Benjamin Netanyahu said, demonstrating political inflexibility to the voters ahead of the second parliamentary elections this year that are scheduled for September 17. In confirmation of his words, the Prime Minister warned the military to be prepared for any turn of the events.
The countries that suffered in the attacks filed a protest. Lebanese President Michel Asun described the strike as a declaration of war, while Prime Minister Saad Hariri asked the US Secretary of State and the French presidential advisor to “intervene to prevent a military escalation.” However, in a telephone conversation with Netanyahu US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo de facto supported Israel’s actions which, he said, serve to protect Israel against external threats.
In its statement the Russian Foreign Ministry expressed concern over this yet another instance of the escalation of tension in the region and the possibility of a “large-scale armed conflict” with unpredictable consequences. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has called on Israel and Lebanon to demonstrate restraint.
Iran’s military-political activity in Syria, which is strongly opposed by its adversaries – the USA, Israel, and the monarchies of the Persian Gulf, is turning them into potential allies to counter the so-called “Iranian threat” thereby initiating what recently seemed totally unbelievable – the rapprochement between Jerusalem and Riyadh and Jerusalem and Abu Dhabi.
Israel boasts the status of “a major US ally outside NATO,” which is something the incumbent American president, unlike his predecessor, keeps repeating whenever possible. It is necessary to recall that in December 2017, Donald Trump officially recognized Jerusalem (including the eastern part of the city) as the capital of Israel, and in March this year he pronounced the Golan Heights part of the Jewish state. The political proximity of the allies makes many in the Arab world talk about joint military operations of the United States and Israel in the region, in particular against Shiite groups in Iraq. And about cooperation in Kurdistan. According to a number of Iranian and Arab media sources, Israeli instructors, along with American ones, are training Kurdish peshmerga, forming a buffer between Iran and Syria.
As for Syria, it has been in a state of war with Israel since the proclamation of the state of Israel, and this state of war has been on for years, interrupted by an occasional armistice. Diplomatic relations were not established. Considering all this, Israel is not only bombing, as it claims, Iranian military facilities in Syria, but from the very beginning of the civil war, the Israelis, have been supplying fuel, medical equipment, and food to the Syrian population as humanitarian aid.
According to the Russian Ministry of Defense, the Syrian authorities assisted Moscow in securing the repatriation of the remains of an Israeli soldier who went missing in Lebanon 37 years ago. However, the Syrian Information Minister, Imad Sarah, tried to disavow the Russian Ministry’s statement, suggesting that the special operation had been carried out by Mossad and the “terrorist groups.” This is no wonder: Damascus has to respect the feelings of its Iranian allies.
In general, the configuration of relations in the region is gradually changing. Even though in 2015 Russian troops came close to the Israeli borders, this did not worsen bilateral relations: the next year, after celebrating the 25th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Russian Federation and Israel, Netanyahu told reporters that Russia had turned from an adversary into a friend.
However, this relationship can not be described as absolutely cloudless. In a recent interview with The National Interest, “a high-ranking Israeli Defense Forces officer” said that his country’s leadership “has no illusions about Moscow,” because in Syria Russia is closely cooperating with forces that Israel considers a major threat to its security – that is, Iran and its allies. On the other hand, the Russian-Iranian agreements carry advantages for the Jewish state: Moscow, in a friendly gesture towards Jerusalem, has persuaded Iran to move the units under its control more than a hundred kilometers away from the Golan Heights; it has organized a patrol by the UN peacekeepers of the Syrian territory adjacent to the Golan Heights; and it helped to preserve Jewish shrines and burials in Aleppo.
The Russian-Israeli ties even survived the incident involving a spy plane in the fall of 2018, in which 15 Russian servicemen were killed. The Russian Ministry of Defense rightfully accused the Israeli military command of “criminal negligence” and “ingratitude”.
Despite the complexity of relations with the US and Israel, the need to coordinate their actions “on the ground” led to a meeting of the Russian Security Council Secretary, Nikolai Patrushev, with his American and Israeli counterparts. During talks in Jerusalem this June, the Israeli Prime Minister strongly assured the Russian side that there was no danger for Russian troops in Syria from the Israeli military. And that means a lot.
Simultaneously, the deployment of Russian S-300 air defense systems to Syria, and especially the acquisition by Turkey of even more effective S-400s, has introduced new adjustments to the alignment of forces in the region. Israeli sources of Breaking Defense believe that these missiles will instill “new order” in the Syrian airspace: far from being friendly to Jerusalem, Ankara will now be able to control most of it.
In early September, Netanyahu spoke about the need “to organize a new trilateral meeting of the US, Russia and Israel in Jerusalem with a view to discuss how to get Iran out of Syria.” But, as it turned out, the prime minister took a hasty decision. According to Israeli media, the Russian embassy in Tel Aviv said that the Russian Foreign Ministry “does not see any point” in holding a three-party summit, as Russia “expects Israel and the US to fulfill the earlier agreements.” For Israel, it means acting on its commitments to establish “full coordination” with the Russian side regarding attacks on Syrian territory. AlthoughMoscow respects Israel’s right to ensure its security, it considers its preventive strikes (incidentally, prohibited by Article 51 UN Charter) a destabilizing factor not only in Syria, but throughout the region.
Netanyahu got the message without showing any alarm: he was quick to announce an early meeting with Vladimir Putin, the 13th since the start of the Russian military operation in Syria and the third this year.
Apparently, the election PR campaign will not be the key purpose of his visit to Russia (the Russian president enjoys support among a significant section of Israeli voters). The two parties will also discuss better coordination of actions in the Syrian campaign, and will touch upon issues involving Iran and Turkey. Also, everyone understands that the Russian Air Forces contingent deployed in Syria cannot, under any circumstances, come under Israeli air strikes — this is the “red line” for Russian-Israeli relations. The consequences of such a hypothetical incident are fairly predictable. In addition, there is a possibility that the Israeli leader will again try to offer himself as an intermediary in Russian-American relations. But this is secondary in relation to the regional problems. From our partner International Affairs
How Syria Defeated the 2012-2019 Invasion by U.S. & Al-Qaeda
On August 31st, the brilliant anonymous German intelligence analyst who blogs as “Moon of Alabama” headlined “Syria – Coordinated Foreign Airstrike Kills Leaders Of Two Al-Qaeda Aligned Groups”, and he reported that, “Some three hours ago an air- or missile strike in Syria’s Idleb governorate hit a meeting of leaders of the al-Qaeda aligned Haras-al-Din and Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) aka Jabhat al-Nusra. Both were killed. It is likely that leaders of other Jihadist groups were also present. The hit completely destroyed a Haras al-Din guesthouse or headquarter. The Syrian Observatory says that more than 40 people were killed in the strike. The hit will make it much easier for the Syrian army campaign to liberate Idleb governorate.”
At long last, Syria’s army and Russia’s air force are no longer being threatened with World War III by the U.S. and its allies if they proceed to destroy the tens of thousands of Al-Qaida-led jihadists whom the U.S. had helped to train and arm (and had been protecting in Syria ever since December 2012) in order to overthrow Syria’s non-sectarian Government and replace it by a fundamentalist-Sunni Government which the royal Sauds who own Saudi Arabia would appoint. All throughout that war, those Al-Qaeda-led ‘moderate rebels’ had been organized from the governate or province of Idlib (or Idleb). But now, most (if not all) of their leadership are dead.
Turkey’s leader Tayyip Erdogan had hoped that he would be allowed both by Russia’s Vladimir Putin and by the United States’ Donald Trump to grab for Turkey at least part of Idlib province from Syria. But now, he is instead either participating in, or else allowing, Syria’s army and Russia’s air force, to slaughter Idlib’s jihadists and restore that province to Syria. On 9 September 2018, Russia and Iran had granted Turkey a temporary control over Idlib, and Erdogan then tried to seize it permanently, but finally he has given it up and is allowing Idlib to become restored to Syria. This turn-around signals Syria’s victory against its enemies; it’s the war’s watershed event.
Here is the history of how all that happened and how Syria is finally a huge and crucial step closer to winning its war against the invaders (which had originally been mainly Al Qaeda, U.S., Turkey, Qatar, and the Sauds,, but more recently has been only Al Qaeda and U.S.):
I reported, back on 10 September 2018, that:
Right now, the Trump Administration has committed itself to prohibiting Syria (and its allies) from retaking control of Idlib, which is the only province that was more than 90% in favor of Al Qaeda and of ISIS and against the Government, at the start of the ‘civil war’ in Syria. Idlib is even more pro-jihadist now, because almost all of the surviving jihadists in Syria have sought refuge there — and the Government freely has bussed them there, in order to minimize the amount of “human shield” hostage-taking by them in the other provinces. Countless innocent lives were saved this way.
Both Democratic and Republican U.S. federal officials and former officials are overwhelmingly supportive of U.S. President Trump’s newly announced determination to prohibit Syria from retaking control of that heavily jihadist province, and they state such things about Idlib as:
It has become a dumping ground for some of the hardcore jihadists who were not prepared to settle for some of the forced agreements that took place, the forced surrenders that took place elsewhere. … Where do people go when they’ve reached the last place that they can go? What’s the refuge after the last refuge? That’s the tragedy that they face.
That happened to be an Obama Administration official expressing support for the jihadists, and when he was asked by his interviewer “Did the world fail Syria?” he answered “Sure. I mean, there’s no doubt about it. I mean, the first person who failed Syria was President Assad himself.”
Idlib city, incidentally, had also been the most active in starting Syria’s ‘civil war’, back on 10 March 2012 (that’s a news-report by Qatar, which had actually helped to finance the jihadists, whom it lionized as freedom-fighters, and Qatar had also helped the CIA to establish Al Qaeda in Syria). Idlib city is where the peaceful phase of the “Arab Spring” uprisings transformed (largely through that CIA, Qatari, Saudi, and Turkish, assistance) into an armed rebellion to overthrow the nation’s non-sectarian Government, because that’s where the Syrian branch of Al Qaeda was centered. On 29 July 2012, the New York Times headlined “As Syrian War Drags On, Jihadists Take Bigger Role” and reported that “Idlib Province, the northern Syrian region where resistance fighters control the most territory, is the prime example.” (Note the euphemism there, “resistance fighters,” not “jihadists,” nor “terrorists.” That’s how propaganda is written. But this time, the editors had slipped up, and used the honest “Jihadists” in their headline. However, their news-report said that these were only “homegrown Muslim jihadists,” though thousands of jihadists at that time were actually already streaming into Idlib from around the world. Furthermore, Obama lied and said that the people he was helping (the al-Saud family who own Saudi Arabia, and the al-Thani family who own Qatar) to arm, were not jihadists, and he was never called-out on that very blatant ongoing lie. But the U.S.-allied, Saud-and-Thani-financed, massive arms-shipments, to the Al-Qaeda-led forces in Syria, didn’t start arriving there until March 2013, around a year after that start. And, then, in April 2013, the EU agreed with the U.S. team to buy all the (of course black-market) oil it could that “the rebels” in Syria’s oil region around Deir Ezzor were stealing from Syria, so as to help “the rebels” to expand their control in Syria and thus to further weaken Syria’s Government. (The “rebels,” in that region of Syria, happened to be ISIS, not Al Qaeda, but the U.S. team’s primary target to help destroy was actually Syria, and never ISIS. In fact, the U.S. didn’t even start bombing ISIS there until after Russia had already started doing that on 30 September 2015.)
A week following my 10 September 2018 news-report, I reported, September 17th, about how Erdogan, Putin, and Iran’s Rouhani, had dealt with the U.S. alliance’s threat of going to war against Russia in Syrian territory if Russia and Syria were to attack the jihadists in Idlib:
As I recommended in a post on September 10th, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan jointly announced on September 17th, “We’ve agreed to create a demilitarized zone between the government troops and militants before October 15. The zone will be 15-20km wide,” which compares to the Korean DMZ’s 4-km width. I had had in mind the Korean experience, but obviously Putin and Erdogan are much better-informed about the situation than I am, and they have chosen a DMZ that’s four to five times wider. In any case, the consequences of such a decision will be momentous, unless U.S. President Donald Trump is so determined for there to be World War III as to stop at nothing in order to force it to happen no matter what Russia does or doesn’t do.
What the Putin-Erdogan DMZ decision means is that the 50,000 Turkish troops who now are occupying Idlib province of Syria will take control over that land, and will thus have the responsibility over the largest concentration of jihadists anywhere on the planet: Idlib. It contains the surviving Syrian Al Qaeda and ISIS fighters, including all of the ones throughout Syria who surrendered to the Syrian Army rather than be shot dead on the spot by Government forces.
However, after Erdogan got control over Idlib, he double-crossed Putin and Rouhani, by trying to solidify his control not only over Idlib but over adjoining portions of Syria, I headlined on 14 July 2019 “Turkey Will Get a Chunk of Syria: An Advantage of Being in NATO”, and reported:
Turkey is already starting to build infrastructure even immediately to the north and east of Idlib in order to stake its claim to a yet larger portion of Syria than just Idlib. This might not have been part of the deal that was worked out by Russia’s Putin, Iran’s Rouhani, and Turkey’s Erdogan, in Tehran, on 9 September 2018, which agreement allowed Turkey only to take over — and only on a temporary basis — Idlib province, which is by far the most pro-jihadist (and the most anti-Assad) of Syria’s 14 provinces. Turkey was instead supposed to hold it only temporarily, but the exact terms of the Turkey-Russia-Iran agreement have never been publicly disclosed.
Turkey was building in those adjoining Syrian areas not only facilities from two Turkish universities but also a highway to extend into the large region of Syria to the east that was controlled by Kurdish separatist forces which were under U.S. protection. In July 2019, Erdogan seems to have been hoping that Trump would allow Turkey to attack those Kurdish proxy-forces of the U.S.
For whatever reason, that outcome, which was hoped for by Erdogan, turned out not to be realized. Perhaps Trump decided that if the separatist Kurds in Syria were going to be allowed to be destroyed, then Assad should be the person who would allow it, not he; and, therefore, if Erdogan would get such a go-ahead, the blame for it would belong to Assad, and not to America’s President.
Given the way Assad has behaved in the past — since he has always sought Syrian unity — the likely outcome, in the Kurdish Syrian areas, will be not a Syrian war against Kurds, but instead some degree of federal autonomy there, so long as that would be acceptable also to Erdogan. If Erdogan decides to prohibit any degree of Kurdish autonomy across the border in Syria as posing a danger to Turkish unity, then Assad will probably try (as much as he otherwise can) to accommodate the Kurds without any such autonomy, just like in the non-Kurdish parts of the unitary nation of Syria. Otherwise, Kurdish separatist sentiment will only continue in Syria, just as it does in Turkey and Iraq. The U.S. has backed Kurdish separatism all along, and might continue that in the future (such as after the November 2020 U.S. Presidential election).
Finally, there seems to be the light of peace at the end of the nightmarish eight-year invasion of Syria by the U.S. and its national (such as Turkey-Jordan-Qatar-Saud-Israel) and proxy (such as jihadist and Kurdish) allies. Matters finally are turning for the better in Syria. The U.S. finally appears to accept it. America’s threat, of starting WW III if Russia and Syria try to destroy the jihadists who have become collected in Syria’s Idlib province, seems no longer to pertain. Maybe this is because Trump wants to be re-elected in 2020. If that’s the reason, then perhaps after November of 2020, the U.S. regime’s war against Syria will resume. This is one reason why every U.S. Presidential candidate ought to be incessantly asked what his/her position is regarding the U.S. regime’s long refrain, “Assad must go”, and regarding continued sanctions against Syria, and regarding restitution to Syria to restore that nation from the U.S.-led war against it. Those questions would reveal whether all of the candidates are really just more of the same actual imperialistic (or “neocon”) policies, or whether, perhaps, one of them is better than that. Putin has made his commitments. What are theirs? Will they accept peace with Russia, and with Iran? If America were a democracy, its public would be informed about such matters — especially before the November 2020 ‘elections’, and not merely after they are already over.
Author’s note: first posted at strategic-culture.org
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