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Iran-Saudi Rivalry: Sectarian or Political?

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The international community always declares ‘Sectarianism’ as a triggering factor behind all the conflict and clashes in the Middle East, and it injects this idea in the mind of the researcher in such a sophisticated manner which does not allow them to think beyond it. Despite having sectarian difference both, Riyadh and Tehran kept engaging each other in a cordial relation during Raza Shah’s times. it was not the Shia ideology behind the Iranian Revolution which turned the two friends into foes, but the political struggle for the dominance in the Islamic World. The Iranian revolution is considered by Saudi Arabia as a ‘Kick-off’ to challenge its supremacy, which resulted the Kingdom began to struggle to sustain its superior position through alliance in the region.

In the last quarter of 20th century, the two regional rivals remained counterpart in numerous ups and downs, while President Akbar Rafsanjani tried to cool down the hostility temperature in his tenure, but it provoked when the United States’ troops positioned in Iraq to topple the President Saddam Hussain’s regime.

The United States’ invasion in Iraq endangered the neighboring Iran which stimulated its struggle for the acquisition of Nuclear Weapon-considered as a threat to Middle East peace and stability. As a reaction, on December 26th, 2006 the United Nations Security Resolution passed resolution 1737 to impose diplomatic and economic sanctions on Iran to roll back its nuclear-related activities for the acquisition of a nuclear weapon. Later, these sections were lifted in 2015throughthe Iran Nuclear Deal agreement.

The 2011’sseries of protests for regime change in the Middle East and North Africa named ‘Arab Spring’ shook the political dynamics of the region, and it gave the opportunity to two regional rivals, Iran-backed by Russia and likewise Saudi Arabia by the United States to widen the area of influence by supporting state and non-state actors, while Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen are the main ground of confrontation of their agents. Up till now, six resolutions regarding Syrian civil war have been vetoed by Russia solely, while six times China vetoed with Russia. The United Nation was established to bring peace and avoid wars around the world, unfortunately, it has failed badly on Syrian crises. Contemporary, the Middle East is depicting the situation of USSR-US Cold War which stated after World War II. During the Cold War, the United States and Union of Socialist Soviet Republican did not confront each other directly but remained involved on different proxy wars.

The Middle East crises are not the sectarian one, neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia wants the destabilizing Middle East. It is the interest of the great powers that keeping the region in turbulence in order to secure their own national interest. Today, not only the developed states but also developing and under-developed state proudly portray themselves the part of 21st century.  States around the world join hand for innovation and developing state of the art technology. Regrettably, these are not cooperating for the peace in the Middle East.

The United Nation’s member states are contesting together against Islamic State-a terrorist organization mostly targeting Iraq and Syria. Since Second World War, the History is witnessed that the Middle East attempted five times to have a combined military force for its regional security in diverse appearance i.e. the Middle East command, The Baghdad Pact, The Gulf Cooperation, The Arab League’s joint Defence Pact, The Middle East Defence Organization, unluckily none of them succeeded by cause of less cooperation from member states due to diversion in organization’s formulation objects or the member states did not find any charm in that particular coalition. Since the Arab Spring, The Kingdom took three times to have NATO- like structure i.e. The GCC Militarily Force, The GCC Regional Police force and the Joint Arab Force, these steps didn’t result different as previous. In 2015- the Saudi’s crown prince Muhammad Bin Salman- famously as ‘Mr. Everything’ presented the idea to establish a combined Military force for counter-terrorism named ‘Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Alliance’(IMCTC). However, its foundations are not clear as firstly the IMCTC do not have included any state with Shia dominated government. Secondly, it is an Islamic military alliance then why US-a non-Muslim country is a part of it? The reports suggest that this military alliance was formulated not to counter terrorism, but to counter Iran’s growing influence in the region.

Let’s have a glimpse of developed countries- having both the Catholic and Protestant population, the question arises do these two schools don’t have differences? Why they don’t go for war? The researchers have valid arguments to answer these questions. Some of them may argue in the context of literacy, while others may talk about Islamic ideology, while, one cam discuss Shia-Sunni grievances.

In the Middle East, Russia and the United States is sponsoring and supporting Iran and Saudi Arabia respectively against each other. The United States and Russia are at top of the list of arm exporting countries, while Saudi Arabia and Iran are their major client in the Middle East. By connecting the dots, it can easily be observed the one country which characterizes itself peace-preacher is the main arms supplier. Do we call it the ambiguous role of the United States? By checking the basic foundation of Islam, the message of peace can be carried out. So why Islamic sects are to be considered the basic reason behind Iran-Saudi Arabia rivalry?

Last year, the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the ‘Iran nuclear Deal’ agreement is also criticized by President Barack Obama, and however the leaders of signatory countries expressed penitence over it, even peace cannot be attained between two states by empowering one state and weakening the other as the United States did by signing US-Saudi Arabia Arm Deal Agreement with Saudi Arabia in 2017 to supply armament periodically for 10 years to strengthen the Kingdom militarily, and while in case of Iran, the United States withdrew from Iran-nuclear deal agreement to bring back Tehran under the umbrella of economic sanctions to make it week state in the region.

Peace in the Middle East cannot be attained without the termination of the external actor entanglement in the internal affairs of the region. The two rival states, Iran and Saudi Arabia’s disagreements can only be addressed through appropriate actions by hitting their point of departure.

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Middle East

Turkey and the time bomb in Syria

Mohammad Ghaderi

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The Turkish attack on northern Syria has provided conditions for ISIS militants held in camps in the region to escape and revitalize themselves.

Turkey launched “Operation Peace Spring” on Wednesday October 9, claiming to end the presence of terrorists near its borders in northern Syria. Some countries condemned this illegal action of violation of the Syrian sovereignty.

The military attack has exacerbated the Syrian people’s living condition who live in these areas. On the other hand, it has also allowed ISIS forces to escape and prepare themselves to resume their actions in Syria. Before Turkish incursion into northern Syria, There were many warnings that the incursion would prepare the ground for ISIS resurgence. But ignoring the warning, Turkey launched its military attacks.

Currently, about 11,000 ISIS prisoners are held in Syria. ISIS has claimed the responsibility for two attacks on Qamishli and Hasakah since the beginning of Turkish attacks.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump said that Turkey and the Kurds must stop ISIS prisoners from fleeing. He urged European countries to take back their citizens who have joined ISIS.

It should be noted that the U.S. is trying to prove that ISIS has become stronger since the U.S. troops pulled out before the Turkish invasion, and to show that Syria is not able to manage the situation. But this fact cannot be ignored that ISIS militants’ escape and revival were an important consequence of the Turkish attack.

Turkish troops has approached an important city in the northeast and clashed with Syrian forces. These events provided the chance for hundreds of ISIS members to escape from a camp in Ayn Issa near a U.S.-led coalition base.

 The camp is located 35 kilometers on the south of Syria-Turkey border, and about 12,000 ISIS members, including children and women, are settled there. The Kurdish forces are said to be in charge of controlling these prisoners.

Media reports about the ISIS resurgence in Raqqa, the former ISIS stronghold, cannot be ignored, as dozens of terrorists have shot Kurdish police forces in this city. The terrorists aimed to occupy the headquarters of the Kurdish-Syrian security forces in the center of Raqqa.  One of the eyewitnesses said the attack was coordinated, organized and carried out by several suicide bombers, but failed.

In response to Turkey’s invasion of Syria, the Kurds have repeatedly warned that the attack will lead to release of ISIS elements in the region. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyib Erdogan denied the reports about the escape of ISIS prisoners and called them “lies”.

European officials fear that ISIS prisoners with European nationality, who have fled camps, will come back to their countries.

Kurdish forces are making any effort to confront Turkish troops in border areas, so their presence and patrol in Raqqa have been reduced.

Interestingly, the Turkish military bombarded one of temporary prisons and caused ISIS prisoners escaping. It seems that ISIS-affiliated covert groups have started their activities to seize the control of Raqqa. These groups are seeking to rebuild their so-called caliphate, as Kurdish and Syrian forces are fighting to counter the invading Turkish troops. Families affiliated with ISIS are held in Al-Hol camp, under the control of Kurdish forces. At the current situation, the camp has turned into a time bomb that could explode at any moment. Under normal circumstances, there have been several conflicts between ISIS families in the camp, but the current situation is far worse than before.

There are more than 3,000 ISIS families in the camp and their women are calling for establishment of the ISIS caliphate. Some of SDF forces have abandoned their positions, and decreased their watch on the camp.

The danger of the return of ISIS elements is so serious, since they are so pleased with the Turkish attack and consider it as an opportunity to regain their power. There are pictures of ISIS wives in a camp in northern Syria, under watch of Kurdish militias, showing how happy they are about the Turkish invasion.

In any case, the Turkish attack, in addition to all the military, political and human consequences, holds Ankara responsible for the escape of ISIS militants and preparing the ground for their resurgence.

Currently, the camps holding ISIS and their families are like time bombs that will explode if they all escape. Covert groups affiliated with the terrorist organization are seeking to revive the ISIS caliphate and take further actions if the Turkish attacks continue. These attacks have created new conflicts in Syria and undermined Kurdish and Syrian power to fight ISIS.

From our partner Tehran Times

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Middle East

The Turkish Gambit

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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The only certainty in war is its intrinsic uncertainty, something Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan could soon chance upon.  One only has to look back on America’s topsy-turvy fortunes in Iraq, Afghanistan and even Syria for confirmation.

The Turkish invasion of northeastern Syria has as its defined objective a buffer zone between the Kurds in Turkey and in Syria.  Mr. Erdogan hopes, to populate it with some of the 3 million plus Syrian refugees in Turkey, many of these in limbo in border camps.  The refugees are Arab; the Kurds are not.

Kurds speak a language different from Arabic but akin to Persian.  After the First World War, when the victors parceled up the Arab areas of the Ottoman Empire, Syria came to be controlled by the French, Iraq by the British, and the Kurdish area was divided into parts in Turkey, Syria and Iraq, not forgetting the borderlands in Iran — a brutal division by a colonial scalpel severing communities, friends and families.  About the latter, I have some experience, having lived through the bloody partition of India into two, and now three countries that cost a million lives.   

How Mr. Erdogan will persuade the Arab Syrian refugees to live in an enclave, surrounded by hostile Kurds, some ethnically cleansed from the very same place, remains an open question.  Will the Turkish army occupy this zone permanently?  For, we can imagine what the Kurds will do if the Turkish forces leave.

There is another aspect of modern conflict that has made conquest no longer such a desirable proposition — the guerrilla fighter.  Lightly armed and a master of asymmetric warfare, he destabilizes. 

Modern weapons provide small bands of men the capacity and capability to down helicopters, cripple tanks, lay IEDs, place car bombs in cities and generally disrupt any orderly functioning of a state, tying down large forces at huge expense with little chance of long term stability.  If the US has failed repeatedly in its efforts to bend countries to its will, one has to wonder if Erdogan has thought this one through.

The Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 is another case in point.  Forever synonymous with the infamous butchery at Sabra and Shatila by the Phalange militia facilitated by Israeli forces, it is easy to forget a major and important Israeli goal:  access to the waters of the Litani River which implied a zone of occupation for the area south of it up to the Israeli border.

Southern Lebanon is predominantly Shia and at the time of the Israeli invasion they were a placid group who were dominated by Christians and Sunni, even Palestinians ejected from Israel but now armed and finding refuge in Lebanon.  It was when the Israelis looked like they were going to stay that the Shia awoke.  It took a while but soon their guerrillas were harassing Israeli troops and drawing blood.  The game was no longer worth the candle and Israel, licking its wounds, began to withdraw ending up eventually behind their own border.

A colossal footnote is the resurgent Shia confidence, the buildup into Hezbollah and new political power.  The Hezbollah prepared well for another Israeli invasion to settle old scores and teach them a lesson.  So they were ready, and shocked the Israelis in 2006.  Now they are feared by Israeli troops.   

To return to the present, it is not entirely clear as to what transpired in the telephone call between Erdogan and Trump.  Various sources confirm Trump has bluffed Erdogan in the past.  It is not unlikely then for Trump to have said this time, “We’re leaving.  If you go in, you will have to police the area.  Don’t ask us to help you.”  Is that subject to misinterpretation?  It certainly is a reminder of the inadvertent green light to Saddam Hussein for the invasion of Kuwait when Bush Senior was in office. 

For the time being Erdogan is holding fast and Trump has signed an executive order imposing sanctions on Turkish officials and institutions.  Three Turkish ministers and the Defense and Energy ministries are included.  Trump has also demanded an immediate ceasefire.  On the economic front, he has raised tariffs on steel back to 50 percent as it used to be before last May.  Trade negotiations on a $100 billion trade deal with Turkey have also been halted forthwith.  The order also includes the holding of property of those sanctioned, as well as barring entry to the U.S.

Meanwhile, the misery begins all over again as thousands flee the invasion area carrying what they can.  Where are they headed?  Anywhere where artillery shells do not rain down and the sound of airplanes does not mean bombs.

Such are the exigencies of war and often its surprising consequences. 

Author’s Note:  This piece appeared originally on Counterpunch.org

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Middle East

Could Turkish aggression boost peace in Syria?

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On October 7, 2019, the U.S. President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of American troops from northeast Syria, where the contingent alongside Kurdish militias controlled the vast territories. Trump clarified that the decision is connected with the intention of Turkey to attack the Kurdish units, posing a threat to Ankara.

It’s incredible that the Turkish military operation against Kurds – indeed the territorial integrity of Syria has resulted in the escape of the U.S., Great Britain, and France. These states essentially are key destabilizing components of the Syrian crisis.

Could this factor favourably influence the situation in the country? For instance, after the end of the Iraqi war in 2011 when the bulk of the American troops left the country, the positive developments took place in the lives of all Iraqis. According to World Economics organization, after the end of the conflict, Iraq’s GDP grew by 14% in 2012, while during the U.S. hostilities the average GDP growth was about 5,8%.

Syria’s GDP growth should also be predicted. Not right away the withdrawal of U.S., French, British, and other forces, but a little bit later after the end of the Turkish operation that is not a phenomenon. The Turkish-Kurdish conflict has been going on since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire when Kurds started to promote the ideas of self-identity and independence. Apart from numerous human losses, the Turks accomplished nothing. It is unlikely that Ankara would achieve much in Peace Spring operation. The Kurds realize the gravity of the situation and choose to form an alliance with the Syrian government that has undermined the ongoing Turkish offensive.

Under these circumstances, Erdogan could only hope for the creation of a narrow buffer zone on the Syrian-Turkish border. The withdrawal of the Turkish forces from the region is just a matter of time. However, we can safely say that the Turkish expansion unwittingly accelerated the peace settlement of the Syrian crisis, as the vital destabilizing forces left the country. Besides, the transfer of the oil-rich north-eastern regions under the control of Bashar Assad will also contribute to the early resolution of the conflict.

It remains a matter of conjecture what the leaders of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Russia agreed on during the high-level talks. Let’s hope that not only the Syrians, but also key Gulf states are tired of instability and tension in the region, and it’s a high time to strive for a political solution to the Syrian problem.

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