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The current situation in Syria

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Syria is the great rotating platform of the Middle East. Paraphrasing the statement by Mackinder, the well-known British geopolitician of the early twentieth century, “who rules Syria commands the Middle East, who rules the Middle East controls Europe and Africa”.

This is the profound meaning of the “war between the wars”, as Israel once defined its air operations in Syria.

Israel, in particular, does not want Iran to be hegemonic in Syria.

This is the reason why, first and foremost, it tends to achieve a clear balance with the Russian Federation, which will certainly not leave Syria completely in Iran’s hands.

In fact, in November 2018 Israel started new bombings of the Iranian business districts, such as Kiswah, near Damascus, or Harfa, a strong Hezbollah position near the Golan Heights.

In Syria Bashar el Assad’s forces are pressing the jihadist positions in the Idlib region, as well as the cities of Lahaya and Masasnah in the Northern Province of Hama.

The anti-Bashar groups, i.e. the Free Syrian Army, Tahrir al-Sham, also known as al-Qaeda in Syria, and Jaish al-Izza, a jihadist group affiliated with the Free Syrian Army, with armaments supplied by the United States, but operating mainly in the areas near Hama, faced the Shiite forces’ attack very well and still hold a large part of Idlib.

Idlib is, in fact, the most important corridor for de-escalation, as established by the Astana Agreement, but it is also the city in which Syria connects to Turkey and, hence, to the primary lines heading for Europe.

Turkey has so far taken control of the Murak pass, in the Northern Hama province, while Tahrir al-Sham, that previously held that region, has repositioned itself in Kafr Zeita, again in the Northern Hama province.

In the Western part of the Idlib province, the group led by al-Qaeda in Syria, namely Tahrir al-Sham, has negotiated a “ceasefire” with the other jihadist groups, which allows it to keep control of six villages in the Ghab Plain.

Meanwhile, Assad’ Syrian Arab Army, with the elite forces of the 42ndDivision, dubbed “Ghait Forces”, and the 4th Armoured Division, is moving from Southern Syria to the Northern region of the Latakia province.

It should be remembered that all Syrian fighting Corps also have powerful Russian advisors.

The Iraqi Shiite militants, led by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, have moved to Hama’s Northern province, while the Fifth Corps of Assad’s Army – again with Russian support – carries out reinforcement and backup actions between the North of Aleppo and Hama and Latakia’s Northern region.

Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, i.e. the Syrian “section” of al-Qaeda, destroyed all the bridges of Al Eys, in the Southern Aleppo Province.

Hence the Aleppo-Idlib Northern axis is the centre of gravity of this war, while the South is becoming essential  for covering and protecting the Northern regions, which are now decisive for the solution of the Syrian war.

The jihadist group, however, has currently positioned itself on the side of the demilitarized zone of Idlib, which is controlled by Russia, Turkey and Iran.

Meanwhile, some groups – probably linked to Daesh-Isis, which is far from having been “eliminated”, as the Western press propaganda maintains – fight against the al-Qaeda-linked groups in the Idlib region.

This region is the centre of gravity of the war. Operations attributable to ISIS have also been carried out in Aleppo.

Meanwhile, the YPG Kurds effectively fight the jihadist groups surrounding the Kurdish city of Afrin, which is currently controlled by the Turkish troops.

In the meantime, Russia has put its anti-missile defence batteries back into operation in the Western province of Hama.

Hence what does Iranians want from Syria? Initially Iran used the Damascus corridor almost exclusively to transfer arms to the Lebanon.

Currently, however, weapons are manufactured directly in that country. In fact, Hezbollah has approximately 150,000 rockets, missiles and mortar shells, which are produced  both in Iran and in Syria.

The ferocious anti-Zionist policy of current Iran is based above all on Hezbollah’s remarkable ability to attack Israel.

According to Israeli intelligence, one in four buildings is a military base of the Shiite group in Southern Lebanon.

In 2017, however, the Israeli air force began to hit hard on the weapon landline stretching from Teheran to Beirut.

Hence Syria has become a sort of second Lebanon, with the current establishment and deployment of an Iran-led army on the field, in addition to the normal maintenance of the lines for transferring weapons from Iran to Southern Lebanon.

Hence this transformation of Israel’s operational logic has led to a change of Iran’s tactics.

On the basis of the agreement signed between Iran and  Assad’s regime on August 26, instead of operating solely on Syrian territory,  the Shiite Islamic Republic will merge almost entirely with the Syrian armed forces, while Iran’s  war industries will be integrated with those of the Baathist regime.

In all likelihood, Iran wants to replace the fallen soldiers of Assad’s army with its own.

Nevertheless Iran is increasingly using Iraq as a storage area for missiles and it also wants to use the Iraqi Shiite militias in the future.

The fact remains that Iran is increasingly standing out as a regional winner in the Syrian conflict.

Russia is certainly not happy about it.

After the US quick withdrawal from Syria, which enables Assad’s regime to stand as the sole protector of the Kurdish groups of Rojava, the Russian Federation is developing a new strategy.

Together with Iran to the Syrians, the Russians are moving to the middle Euphrates river valley, so as to later cross that river and conquer the areas previously occupied by the US forces and their Syrian allies, namely the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), that fought mainly against Isis-Daesh.

The aforementioned region is rich in oil, but Russia and Syria are mainly trying to prepare for the offensive of the Turkish Army on the city of Manbiji, one of the symbols of the Kurdish independence movement.

Considering the US withdrawal, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), however, are dealing with Assad and the Russian forces to grant passage on the territory they previously conquered.

Moreover, with a view to securing the border between Iraq and Syria, the Iraqi regime is actively collaborating with the Russian-Iranian coalition.

Nevertheless, at economic level, things are not going so well for the Syrian-Iranian and Russian coalition.

In eight years of war, however, Assad’s forces have lost control of most Syrian oil wells and natural gas fields.

The phosphate reserves and the agricultural production areas have also fallen into enemy hands.

Syria has reserves worth 2 billion oil barrels – and Bashar al-Assad’s regime stopped light oil production in 2012 and  heavy oil production in 2013.

Before the war, Syria produced an average of 385,000 barrels a day.

Currently, according to official sources, Assad’s regime extracts only 20,000 barrels a day.

In its action against the jihadist groups, however, the Syrian regime has recently reconquered – one after the other – the most important oil areas, namely Shaar, al-Hayl, Arak, Hayan and finally the area of Al-Mahr, in the region of Palmira.

Meanwhile, the Kurds – already supported by the United States – keep control of their oil fields and gas deposits in Eastern and North-Eastern Syria.

The areas controlled by the Kurds – currently in contact with Assad’s forces  – account for 30% of the Syrian territory.

The Kurdish forces have conquered approximately 1,000 wells, some of which are in good condition and can easily start production.

The Kurdish wells, controlled only by the forces of Rojava, are enough for the consumption of the whole area. Probably the Syrian government secretly bought oil from the Kurds so as to resell it at a higher price, since the Kurdish oil had  a much lower price than the one charged on the international market.

As to natural gas, the largest well is the old Conoco, in the Eastern region of Deir Ezzour, which is still controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

One of the old axes of the US presence in Syria.

A well that before the conflict produced 21 million cubic meters a day, as against the current 8.5 million cubic meters, while the Syrian government maintains that it currently produces 16.5 million cubic meters a day.

Obviously the cost of gas for Syrian citizens has multiplied by ten during the war, which is still continuing.

With specific reference to phosphates, of which Syria was one of the top exporting countries, in all likelihood the over 2 billion tons of  Syrian reserves will be spoils of war for both Russia and Iran.

The largest production area is again in the region of Palmira. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps took full control of the region in 2015.

In 2017 Syria also signed an agreement on phosphates with Russia, thus leaving Iran aside.

Only Russia, however, does invest in the Syrian phosphate extraction areas.

As to olive oil, the main Syrian agricultural resource, before the conflict Syria was the top Arab producer, with 100 million olive trees and 1.2 million tons of olive oil a year.

As a result of war, production has fallen by 300%.

The provinces of Aleppo and Idlib were the major olive oil production areas.

Let us now analyse the behaviour of Turkey, which is the other great army operating in Syria.

Turkey’s army – the second largest within NATO – which also seems to be strangely not interested in the Syrian war, has carried out extensive and effective operations in Northern Syria.

Apart from some obscure operations – such as the one of Tell Rifaat, where the Russians immediately gave in to the Turkish forces surrounding the country – the somehow  hidden and secret alliance between Turkey and the Russian Federation seems to be increasingly clear.

Why? Probably because Russia wants to prevent Turley from siding too much with the United States.

Moreover, after the Turkish shooting down of a Russian fighter aircraft in 2015, and after President Erdogan’s official apologies to Russia, it seems that the Turkish-Russian-Iranian axis is strengthening, above all to define and control the “de-escalation zones”.

There are four de-escalation zones: 1) the Idlib province, as well as the North-Eastern areas of Latakia province, the Western areas of Aleppo province and Northern areas of Hama province. There are over one million inhabitants in this zone, dominated by an alliance of al-Qaeda-linked jihadist groups.

2) the Rastan and Talbisehenclave in Northern Homs province. There are approximately 180,000 inhabitants in this zone and its wide network of rebel groups includes al-Qaeda-linked fighters.

3) Eastern Ghouta in the Northern Damascus countryside. Controlled by Jaish al-Islam, a powerful rebel faction that was participating in the Astana talks, it is home to about 690,000 civilians.

4) The rebel-controlled South along the border with Jordan that includes parts of Deraa and Quneitra provinces. As many as 800,000 civilians live there.

The agreement envisages that the jihadist rebels and government forces should halt hostilities for six months.

Russia will continue to fly over the areas, but refrain from conducting air raidsto bomb enemy positions.

In short, Turkey is siding with Russia and the latter is interested in having Turkey as a key ally in Syria, with a view to breaking NATO’s Middle East strategy and having a strong army operating in Assad’s territory, as well as reducing its engagement and hence the cost of the Russian mission to Syria.

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

Qatar World Cup offers lessons for human rights struggles

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It’s a good time, almost 12 years after the world soccer body, FIFA, awarded Qatar the 2022 World Cup hosting rights and five months before the tournament, to evaluate the campaign to reform the country’s erstwhile onerous labor system and accommodate fans whose lifestyles violate restrictive laws and/or go against deeply rooted cultural attitudes.

Ultimately the balance sheet shows a mixed bag even if one takes into account that Qatari autocracy has proven to be more responsive and flexible in responding to pressure by human rights and labour groups than its Gulf brothers in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.

On the plus side, the initial wave of condemnation of the country’s repressive kafala labour system that put employees at the mercy of their employers persuaded Qatar to become the first Gulf state, if not the first Arab state, to engage with its critics.

Engagement meant giving human rights groups and trade unions access to the country, allowing them to operate and hold news conferences in Qatar, and involving them in drafting reforms and World Cup-related model labour contracts. This was unprecedented in a region where local activists are behind bars or worse and foreign critics don’t even make it onto an inbound flight.

The reforms were imperfect and not far-reaching enough, even if Qatar introduced significant improvements in the conditions for unskilled and semi-skilled workers.

Furthermore, on the plus side, the hosting rights sparked limited but nonetheless taboo-breaking discussions that touched on sensitive subjects such as LGBT rights and the granting of citizenship to non-nationals.

Qataris openly questioned the granting of citizenship to foreign athletes so they could be included in the Qatar national team for the 2016 Olympics rather than medical personnel and other professionals who had contributed to national welfare and development.

Hosting the World Cup has further forced Qatar, albeit in a limited fashion, to come to grips with issues like LGBT rights that do not simply violate the country’s laws but go against its social grain to produce an inclusive tournament.

In some ways, that may have been more difficult than reforming the labour regime if one considers the difference between standing up for democratic freedoms that may have broad public support and the recognition of LGBT rights. In contrast to democratic rights, opposition to LGBT rights is deeply engrained in Qatar and other Muslim societies. It would likely be socially rejected, even if they were enshrined in law.

The difference means that the defense of LGBT and other socially controversial rights forces activists and human and LGBT rights groups to rethink their strategies and adopt alternative, more long-term approaches.

It also means that they will have to embrace less Western-centric attitudes frequently prevalent in the campaign to reform Qatar’s labour system. Those attitudes were evident in debates that were also often skewed by bias, prejudice, bigotry, and sour grapes.

Moreover, the criticism often failed to consider the context. As a result, achieving results and pushing for reform was, to a degree, undermined by what appeared to be a ganging up on Qatar and a singling out of the Gulf state.

Labour is an example. Human rights groups and trade unions treated onerous labour conditions in Qatar, even if the World Cup turned it into a prime target, as uniquely Qatari rather than a global problem that manifests itself in other parts of the world such as Southeast Asia and even Western democracies like Britain. Recent reporting by The Guardian showed that expatriate medical and caregiver personnel face similar curtailing of rights and abuse in Britain.

By the same token, Qatar was taken to task for being slow in implementing its reforms and ensuring that they were applied not only to World Cup projects but nationwide.

The fact is that lagging enforcement of policies and legal changes is a problem across the broad spectrum of Qatari policies and reform efforts, including the Gulf state’s high-profile, fast-paced, mediation-driven foreign policy.

Qatar’s handling of illegal recruitment fees paid by workers is a case in point.

The Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy, the Qatari organizer of the World Cup, has obliged companies it contracts to repay the fees without workers having to provide proof of payment. Companies have so far pledged to repay roughly USD$28.5 million to some 49,000 workers, $22 million of which have already been paid out.

It is a step the government could apply nationally with relative ease to demonstrate sincerity and, more fundamentally, counter the criticism.

Similarly, in response to complaints raised by human rights groups and others, the government could also offer to compensate families of workers who die on construction sites. Again, none of these measures would dent Qatari budgets but would earn the Gulf state immeasurable goodwill.

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‘Effort and patience’ required to restore Iran nuclear agreement

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A view from the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant in Iran. (file) Photo: IAEA/Paolo Contri

Despite diplomatic engagements, restoring the so-called Iran nuclear agreement continues to be hindered by political and technical differences, the UN political and peacebuilding chief told the Security Council on Thursday.
 

In the landmark accord, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – reached in 2015 between Iran, the United States, China, France, Russia, and the United Kingdom – Iran agreed to dismantle much of its nuclear programme and open its facilities to international inspections in exchange for sanctions relief.

In 2018, then-President Trump withdrew the US from the agreement and reinstated the sanctions.

Achieving the landmark JCPOA took determined diplomacy. Restoring it will require additional effort and patience,” said UN political affairs chief, Rosemary DiCarlo.

Although the landmark Joint Commission to restore the Plan resumed in November 2021, she acknowledged that despite their determination to resolve the issues, the US and other participants are yet to return to “full and effective implementation of the Plan, and [Security Council] resolution 2231”.

Appealing to both

Together with the Secretary-General, she urged Iran and the US to “quickly mobilize” in “spirit and commitment” to resume cooperation under the JCPOA.

They welcomed the reinstatement by the US in February of waivers on nuclear non-proliferation projects and appealed to the country to lift its sanctions, as outlined in the Plan, and extend oil trade waivers.

Together they also called on on Iran to reverse the steps it has taken that are inconsistent with its nuclear-related commitments under the Plan.

Monitoring enrichment

While the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has been unable to verify the stockpile of enriched uranium in Iran, it estimates that there is currently more than 15 times the allowable amount under the JCPOA, including uranium enriched to 20 and 60 per cent, which Ms. DiCarlo called “extremely worrying”.

Moreover, on 8 and 20 June, IAEA reported that Iran had started to install additional advanced centrifuges at the Fuel Enrichment Plant at Natanz and began feeding uranium into advanced centrifuges at the Fuel Enrichment Plant at Fordow.

In his latest report, IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi, informed the Council that the UN agency’s ability to verify and confirm the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear activities are key to the JCPOA’s full and effective implementation.

Iran’s decision to remove site cameras and place them and the data they collected under Agency seals, “could have detrimental implications”.

Improved relationships ‘key’

Bilateral and regional initiatives to improve relationships with Iran remain “key” and should be encouraged and built upon, according to Ms. DiCarlo.

Additionally, Member States and the private sector are urged to use available trade instruments to engage with Iran and Tehran is requested to address their concerns in relation to resolution 2231 (2015) on its nuclear issues.

The senior UN official also drew attention to annex B of the resolution, updating ambassadors in the Council on nuclear-related provisions, ballistic missiles and asset freezing.

We hope that diplomacy will prevail – UN political chief

Triumph for multilateralism

The JCPOA was a triumph for non-proliferation and multilateralism,” said the UN political affairs head.

However, after many years of uncertainty, she warned that the Plan is now at “a critical juncture” and encouraged Iran and the US to build on recent momentum to resolve remaining issues.

“The Secretary-General is convinced there is only one path to lasting peace and security for all Member States, and that is the one based on dialogue and cooperation,” she said.  “We hope that diplomacy will prevail”. 

In Iran’s best interest

Olof Skoog, Head of the European Union Delegation to the UN, speaking in his capacity as the Coordinator of the Joint Commission established by the JCPOA, to the Security Council, recognized the negative economic consequences that the US’ withdrawal from the JCPOA has had on Iran but affirmed that restoring the agreement is “the only way” for the country to reap its full benefits.

He reminded that the Plan would comprehensively lift sanctions, encourage greater international cooperation, and allow Iran to reach its “full economic potential”.  

“It is, therefore, important to show the necessary political will and pragmatism to restore the JCPOA,” said Ambassador Skoog who, while acknowledging the sense of urgency, counselled against “escalatory steps” and to preserve sufficient space for the diplomatic efforts to succeed.

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Dynamic diplomacy: From SCO to BRICS

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Image source: Tehran Times

The tree of Iran’s balanced foreign policy approach is on the verge of being a one-year-old child. Stronger than before, Iran is pursuing dynamic diplomacy in a variety of cities such as Doha, Ashgabat, and other capitals. Baghdad will also join the list soon.

While Iran’s top negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani is engaged in intensive negotiations in Qatar with the United States through the European Union delegation, Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi and his oil and foreign ministers are in Ashgabat pursuing transit diplomacy as well as the legal regime of the Caspian Sea with the littoral states. 

Prior to his departure for Ashgabat on Wednesday, Raisi spoke to reporters about the purpose of his visit to Turkmenistan. 

“This visit is taking place at the invitation of the esteemed president of the brotherly and friendly country of Turkmenistan in order to attend the Caspian Sea littoral states summit,” he remarked.

The President called the Caspian Sea a common heritage and capital for the littoral states with more than 270 million people. 

“We have good relations with the littoral states of the Caspian Sea, but in addition to reviewing the legal regime of the Caspian Sea and peaceful use of the sea for the purpose of improving security at the sea, what will be discussed at the sixth summit of the Caspian Sea littoral states is cooperation between countries in the fields of transport, transit, trade, management of marine living resources, environment, as well as preventing the presence of outsiders in the sea, which is also agreed upon by all coastal countries.”

Prior to the beginning of the summit, Raisi met Serdar Berdimuhamedow, Turkmenistan’s President, as well as Chairman of the People’s Council of Turkmenistan, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow.

During the meeting with the President of Turkmenistan, Raisi pointed out that the implementation of the memoranda of understanding and cooperation documents signed by the two countries during Berdimuhamedow’s recent visit to Tehran will accelerate promotion of cooperation between the two countries.

Later, Raisi met with the Azerbaijani President, Ilham Aliyev. 

During the meeting, Raisi reminded Aliyev that the presence of the Israeli regime in any part of the world undermines security there.

The president also had a brief meeting with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the summit. 

There’s little doubt that Tehran has not put all its eggs into the basket of the JCPOA revival, as it actively seeks to establish trade relations with the neighbors. It’s short-sighted thinking to assume that Iran has to wait for the United States to return to the JCPOA, while it can enjoy the benefits of regional alliances such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), or BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa). 

On Monday, Iran’s former Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh, who was holding his last presser, told the Tehran Times correspondent that Tehran has submitted a membership request to the BRICS secretariat via Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian. While dynamically trailing balanced and active diplomacy with the neighbors, Tehran is awaiting Washington’s serious political decisions to return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

Source: Tehran Times

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