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The current situation of US Forces in Iraq and Syria

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Despite some initial strategic and political doubts, the United States has kept on maintaining and strengthening its military presence in Syria, especially in the Eastern part of the country, as well as in Western Iraq.

 There are now over 400 US military soldiers already stationed in Syria, with approximately 200 in the North, i.e. in the Aleppo region and in the Eastern Euphrates area.

 The US forces arrived in Syria directly from the Iraqi Kurdistan, through the border crossing of Al-Waleed.

 According to the latest information, this includes 70 means of transport and other vehicles for transporting oil, as well as for armament and logistical support.

  The total number amounts to over 250 vehicles.

 The convoy is mainly heading for the base of Ayn al-Arab, north-east of Aleppo, but also for Jabaleh, north of Raqqa.

 Indeed, this continues the policy of maintenance and, sometimes, expansion of US troops in the region – a US policy that has been going on since last January.

 Other 200 soldiers have just been deployed to the Jordanian base of Al-Tanf.

 Initially that base had been created to counter Daesh-Isis, but now it runs almost on the side of the most convenient and likely line of communication between Iraq and Iran  – a line that, thanks to the current presence of US forces, is becoming the breaking point of the “Shiite crescent” that is supposed to connect, by land, Tehran and the Hezbollah positions in the Lebanon.

 Hence, if we consider an amount of US soldiers already present on the Israeli-Syrian border- not confirmed by President Trump, but very likely to be there -the American soldiers in Syria total 1,000, while other US intelligence sources talk about over 1,500 US soldiers who are expected to remain in Northern Syria.

 The bases that the United States will use are six.

  They are all located in Iraq, exactly where the Daesh-Isis jihadists are heading after their final defeat in Syria.

 Nevertheless, this is the second target.

 The Marines are present above all in a base near Ramadi, the capital of the Anbar Governorate, which is 1,110 kilometres away from Baghdad.

 The US reinforcements arrived also at K1, a North American base near Kirkuk.

  After having served as collection point for the troops operating in Syria and for all armaments and infrastructure, currently the K1 base serves to control the Northern part of the Syrian-Iraqi border, on the side of the Kurdistan sector in Iraq.

 The third US organized presence in Iraq is the air base of Ayn al-Asad, which was visited by President Trump last Christmas.

 Hence, a simple strategic deduction is already possible: the US forces in Iraq are such as to allow full land and air control throughout Iraq. Therefore the six bases are capable of ensuring continuity between the Iraqi command on the border with Syria and the rest of the US strategy in the Middle East.

There is also the aforementioned Al-Tanf base, which is now fully operational, located just 24 kilometres away from the Syrian-Jordanian-Iraqi triple border. Said base has been strengthened with Marines and electronic networks, in addition to new heavy artillery positions.

 Also the base of Al-Raqqa – the old “capital” of the Caliphate in Syria, is already active. Another base which is still operational is the Remelin base, north-east of Hasakeh, which has always been the political centre of the Kurds.

 Thanks to this new configuration, the control of US forces on the ground is such as to check the movements, intelligence and communications of a wide part of the Iraqi territory, between Hasakeh and Tanf, right in the middle of the border between Syria and Iraq.

 Hence what is the strategic logic underlying this new deployment and configuration of US forces in the Syrian-Iraqi region?

 There is a simple answer to this question: US pressure on the Golan Heights, which means very clear military and political support for the recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.

 As is well-known, the Israeli part of the Golan Heights was conquered by the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) during the “Six-Day War” of 1967. Nevertheless, in 1981 the Israeli Parliament, namely the Knesset, enacted the Golan Heights Act, which extended the Israeli law, civil administration and jurisdiction throughout the territory.

 As we may recall, at the end of the “Six-Day War” of 1967Israel conquered as many as three specific territories: the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt and obviously the Golan Heights from Syria.

 Again in that phase, the UN Security Council adopted  Resolution 242 – also known as Land for Peace – which  proposed, in principle, a stable and formalized peace between Israel and the neighbouring Arab countries, in exchange for a partial or total return of the territories to the previous sovereign States.

  Before 1967, over 150,000 Syrians lived in the Golan Heights, while currently 25,000 Druze Arabs, most of them Syrian citizens, live in the area, as well as over 20,000 Jewish settlers, but all those living there are anyway liable to Israeli citizenship.

 In 1981 Israel announced the simultaneous annexation of East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights while, shortly afterwards, with Resolution 497 the UN Security Council condemned the Jewish State only for the annexation of the Golan Heights.

 There were negotiations, even secret (in 2010), between Israel and Syria on the issue of the Golan Heights’ sovereignty.

 At strategic level, the area is extremely important for both  Israel and Syria.

 In the Golan Heights, however, there is also the drainage basin of River Jordan, Lake Tiberias, the Yarmuk River and of some underground water networks reaching up to the Mediterranean coast.

Not to mention oil. Allegedly, oil reserves – worth millions of barrels – have recently been discovered under the Golan Heights territory.

 Certainly, while – on the one hand – this Trump’s announcement for support to the Israeli designs on the Golan Heights has its strategic rationality in relation to the US interests in the region, on the other, it can also be interpreted as strong support for the electoral campaign of Benjamin Netanyahu, who still seems to be the US favourite candidate.

 President Trump’s policy on the Golan Heights, however,  is new and, to some extent, contradictory.

 The United States, especially in the Middle East, has always been thinking of negotiations on the territories as a result of direct talks between the parties concerned.

 Moreover, the international law which is currently in force, however, does not recognize the Israeli sovereignty over the territories occupied during the 1967 war.

 It should also be noted that in 2010 Israel offered a sort of Land for Peace agreement to Syria.

 Nevertheless negotiations ended in March 2011, obviously due to the beginning of the Syrian civil war.

 At the time, however, the Golan Heights were for Israel without any control from Syria and were characterized by  of war between the Al-Nusra Front, also described as al- Qaeda in Syria, Isis-Daesh and some other jihadist groups.

 What was the use of dealing with Assad?

 Furthermore, still today, Syria does not ensure any  support to the population and security for the Golan Heights: currently only Israel provides water and basic services, while also taking care of the economy and, obviously, internal security of the area.

 As early as Barack Obama’s time, Netanyahu has also been asking for the US “green light” for annexation.

 Hence, at a time when President Trump wants to control the areas of the Golan Heights from the centre of Syria and Iraq, the US and Israeli goal is to disrupt the terrestrial line between Iran (and Iraq) up to Syria and Southern Lebanon and, above all, the Mediterranean – which is also the primary goal of Iran’s participation in the Syrian war.

 This was the subject of the negotiations held on March 18 last, in the secret meeting between Iraqi, Syrian and Iranian leaders.

 Moreover, for President Trump, even if the operations in “Syraq” were supported also by Putin – as currently seems to be the case – they would be designed to reach a clear goal, i.e. stopping every operation aimed at the unification between Syria and Lebanon.

 Furthermore, the idea of a “common market” between Iran, Iraq, Syria and the Lebanon is now widespread among the ruling classes of the region.

 It is an obvious strategic expedient.

 However, it will certainly not be the subject of the negotiations between the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo and the Lebanese President, Michel Aoun, from whom the former wants to know one thing only, i.e. whether the Lebanon accepts to be part of the Iran-Syria-Iraq-Hezbollah axis. In this case the United States will hit- with harsh sanctions – the Lebanese banking system, which is already undergoing a severe crisis, while the other steps of the US Presidency in the Middle East – after the recognition of the Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights – will be the following: a tightening of sanctions on Iran; the possible conquest of a military base in Northern Lebanon and, finally, strong military presence in both the Golan Heights and the other areas, albeit within the Israeli region.

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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Developments on Korean Peninsula risk accelerating regional arms race

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A week full of missile tests; this is the current environment on the Korean Peninsula. On Wednesday, North Korea fired two rounds of ballistic missiles into the East Sea while South Korea tested its first submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) just a few hours later. Wednesday’s tests follow a week of rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula, the consequences of which can be felt beyond the two Koreas.

North Korea ramps up tensions

According to North Korean state-run media reports, the reclusive state carried out a series of successful tests of a new long-range cruise missile over the weekend while referring to the missiles as a “strategic weapon of great significance”. Calling the weapon ‘strategic’ may imply a nuclear-capable system. Although North Korea is banned from using ballistic technologies due to U.N. Security Council resolutions, these same rules do not apply to cruise missiles.

Despite the tests, Washington maintained its position to resume dialogue with the North and “to work cooperatively with the DPRK to address areas of humanitarian concerns regardless of progress on denuclearization,” US Special Representative for North Korea Sung Kim said on Tuesday. Still, the US Indo-Pacific Command did acknowledge the cruise missile launches and said the tests highlight the “DPRK’s continuing focus on developing its military program and the threats that poses to its neighbors and the international community.”

China reacted to the test by calling for restraint by all relevant parties and for a ‘dual track’ approach to be followed involving “phased and synchronized actions to continuously advance the political settlement of the Korean Peninsula issue.”

North Korea then upped tensions further by conducting yet another missile launch on Wednesday. This test marked the first time the DPRK launched a missile off a train-mounted ballistic missile delivery system, which they referred to as the “Railway Mobile Missile Regiment”. According to Japan’s Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi, the missiles were believed to have landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone. The location of the landings don’t seem to be a coincidence as earlier that day North Korean state media had criticized Japan’s newly unveiled defense budget, referring to the country as a “war criminal state”.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga strongly condemned the latest tests, calling North Korea’s behavior “outrageous” and a “threat” to “the peace and security of our country and the region”. The US State Department also called the tests “a violation of multiple UN Security Council resolutions” while emphasizing the Biden administration’s commitment to trilateral diplomacy and cooperation with Japan and South Korea.

What’s more, North Korea appears to have resumed activities at its nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, according to a report published by the International Atomic Energy Agency last month. The report stated that “The DPRK’s nuclear activities continue to be a cause for serious concern” while adding that “The continuation of the DPRK’s nuclear programme is a clear violation of relevant UN Security Council resolutions and is deeply regrettable.”

In July, North Korea warned of a “major security crisis” in protest against the combined summertime military exercise between South Korea and the United States. This increase in rapid missile testing seems to be the result of North Korea’s dissatisfaction with both Seoul and Washington’s actions over the last few months.

South Korea joins in on the missile testing

Although the international community is used to hearing about North Korean missile tests over the years, what is much less common is to hear about a missile test conducted by the South. Hours after the North fired its missiles, South Korea tested its first submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM).

North Korea’s Kim Yo Jong—the sister of leader Kim Jong Un— was quick to respond to the tests the same day, warning of the “complete destruction of inter-Korean ties” and criticized Seoul’s “illogical, antiquated and foolish attitude”, according to North Korean state media.

Through the test, South Korea became the first country without nuclear weapons to launch an SLBM. Besides the SLBM, South Korea’s presidential office said in a statement that the ROK military had also developed other new missiles, including a supersonic cruise missile to be deployed in the near future, and a new ballistic missile that has “overwhelming counterattack capability” by firing a larger warhead. Indeed, South Korea’s arms industry has grown exponentially over the last two deacades and continuous to expand rapidly. According to he SIPRI arms transfer database, South Korea rose from the 31st ranked arms exporting country in 2000 to number six in 2020.

Besides South Korea, Japan is also beefing up its military capabilities. Last month, Japan’s Defense Ministry sought a record $50 billion annual budget that would entail the largest percentage jump in spending in eight years. China was quick to criticize the move, accusing Japan of “trying to find excuses to justify their decision to increase military spending,” On the other hand, Japan blames China for “unilaterally changing the regional status quo,” affecting “the security of the Taiwan Straits, but also Japan’s security.”

The missile tests conducted by both Koreas this week further exacerbates the security situation in the region, negatively impacting far beyond the peninsula alone. The recent developments also don’t bode well for improving inter-Korean relations or US-DPRK ties. Diplomatic negotiations between the US and North Korea have been stalemated ever since the 2019 Hanoi Summit fell apart. So far, Biden has only verbally expressed interest in resuming talks, but is unlikely to do so unless North Korea makes concrete commitments to dismantle its nuclear weapons program.

Inter-Korean relations are also unlikely to improve in the near future, given the time constraints. South Korea’s President Moon has roughly six months left in office, and it is unlikely significant diplomatic progress can be made in this timeframe.

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HTS enters Turkey’s plot against the Kurds

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Ever since Turkey entered the 2017 Astana agreement with Russia and Iran Ankara has been relentless in its efforts to sell the international community the idea of absolute necessity of Turkish military presence in North-East Syria to support the moderate opposition and deter the Assad government.

The Astana meetings that followed the initial agreement indeed resulted in making Turkey responsible for the state of the Syrian opposition in Idlib and Aleppo provinces but – and there is always a but when it comes to the decade-long Syrian conflict – Ankara’s mission was never defined as ‘support’ of the opposition. Instead, Turkey volunteered to perform an arduous task of separating moderate Syrian armed groups from those who were considered radical and posed a potential security threat on both regional and global levels. This process, dubbed ‘delimitation of the Syrian opposition,’ is hardly any closer to completion now than before raising the question of the extent of Ankara’s ability – and intention – to fulfill its pledge.

Shared goals

Turkey’s insistence on supporting the moderate opposition conveniently combines with the recent attempts of Abu Mohammad al-Joulani, leader of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) which is de-facto dominant power in the Idlib de-escalation zone, to recast the image of the group. Although HTS is considered a terrorist organization by the UN and a number of global powers al-Joulani made a number of high-profile media appearances to promote the group’s vision of the future of Syria and confirm that its ambitions are confined to national scale only.

Talking to the Turkish version of The Independent al-Joulani spoke against any foreign military presence in Syria, making no special mention of the Turkish army. Meanwhile in Idlib, a position of the Turkish military located next to those of HTS is a common, even natural occurrence. This co-existence of regular armed forces and radical terrorists is not affected neither by hard evidence of HTS involvement in committing war crimes, nor even by the fact that HTS is listed as a terror group by Turkey’s authorities.

Shared enemies

In his interview to The Independent al-Joulani has also touched upon the position of the Syrian Kurds, another key axis of Turkey’s policy in Syria. Commenting on the current developments in Afghanistan the HTS leader suggested that the aftermath of the US surprise withdrawal from Kabul will also have an impact on the Kurds or, as he put it ‘the US-backed enemies of the Syrian revolution.’ He also accused the Kurds of conducting attacks in living quarters in the areas of the “Olive Branch” and “Euphrates Shield” operations carried out by the Turkish military in Northern Syria.

HTS has never been in direct confrontation with the Kurds. However, al-Joulani’s words highlighted his open hostility towards the Kurdish administration, that, as the HTS leader purports, is only able to control a huge swath of Syria and maintain relative stability thanks to the US support. This Kurdish dream will crumble as soon as the last US plane takes off from the Syrian soil, according to al-Joulani.

Does this opinion reflects Turkey’s intention to put an end to the ‘Kurdish threat’ should the US withdraw from Syria? The events in the Afghanistan provide enough evidence to conclude that it’s entirely possible. Indeed, such concerns have been expressed in a number of articles authored by both local and international analysts.

The bottom line

Turkey’s regional policies and HTS leader’s statements confirm that Ankara seeks to transform HTS into a bully of sorts. The group’s primary task would be to exercise pressure on other armed units to facilitate the delimitation process orchestrated by the Turkish authorities. As the US grip over the region gradually loosens and HTS control over Syria’s north-west tightens thanks to its efforts to achieve international recognition with the tacit support of Turkey, the Kurds are facing an uncertain future. Moreover, close coordination between Turkey and HTS harbors negative consequences not only for the Kurds but rather for all of Syria.

To prevent this, the international community must intervene and deny HTS the opportunity to position itself as a part of the moderate opposition and gain the right to establish legitimate administrative bodies. Otherwise Syria will face law-twisting terrorists running their own statelet with all the support that Turkey is able to provide as a prominent regional power.

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To include or not include? China-led SCO weighs Iranian membership

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The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan may help Iran reduce its international isolation. At least, that’s what the Islamic Republic hopes when leaders of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) gather in Tajikistan next weekend.

Members are admitted to the eight-member China-led SCO that also groups Russia, India, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan, by unanimous consensus. Iran, unlike its rivals in the Gulf, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, has long had observer status with the SCO.

The Gulf states have so far kept their distance to the China-dominated regional alliance created to counter the ‘evils’  of ‘terrorism, separatism, and extremism” so as not to irritate their main security ally, the United States.

Acceptance of the Iranian application would constitute a diplomatic coup for Tehran and Iran’s new hardline president, Ebrahim Raisi. Mr. Raisi, a proponent of closer relations with China and Russia, is expected to make his first appearance on the international stage at the SCO summit in Dushanbe since having assumed office last month.

Iranian officials hope, perhaps over-optimistically, that SCO membership would help them counter the impact of harsh US sanctions. Ali Akbar Velayati, an international affairs advisor to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has advised the Raisi government to look East towards China, Russia and India asserting that they could “help our economy to make progress.”

Similarly, it is not clear that membership would substantially reduce Iran’s international isolation or significantly improve its existing relations with other SCO members. What membership would do is effectively give Iran a veto should Saudi Arabia and the UAE choose to seek more formal relations with the SCO in response to a reduced US commitment to their security. The SCO is expected to grant Saudi Arabia and Egypt the status of dialogue partner at its Dushanbe summit.

Gulf confidence in the reliability of the United States as a security guarantor has been rattled by the chaotic US departure from Afghanistan as well as the recent removal of the most advanced US missile defence weapon, the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, and Patriot batteries from Saudi Arabia  as Yemeni Houthi rebels were successfully hitting targets in the kingdom.

China and Russia have in the past been reluctant to entertain full Iranian membership because they did not want to upset their delicately balanced relations with both Iran and its detractors. Policymakers, in the wake of Afghanistan, may figure that the two-year application process will give them time to prevent upsetting the apple cart.

To be sure, Tajikistan, in anticipation of a Taliban victory, first publicly promoted Iranian SCO membership in late May.

Zohidi Nizomiddin, Tajikistan’s ambassador to Iran, told a news conference in Tehran “that Iran to become a major member is among plans of the Shanghai Organization and if other countries are ready to accept Iran, Tajikistan will also be ready.” Tajikistan opposed Iranian membership in the past, accusing Iran of supporting Islamist rebels in the country.

Mr. Nizomiddin’s comments have since been supported by reports in Russian media. “There is a general disposition for this, there is no doubt about it,” said Bakhtiyor Khakimov, Russia’s ambassador at large for SCO affairs.

Russian analyst Adlan Margoev noted that “the SCO is a platform for discussing regional problems. Iran is also a state in the region, for which it is important to discuss these problems and seek solutions together.”

The Tajik and Russian backing of Iranian membership raises tantalizing questions about potential differences within the SCO towards dealing with the Taliban. Iran and Tajikistan, in contrast to Russia and China that have praised the Taliban’s conduct since the fall of Kabul, have adopted a harder, more critical attitude.

Nonetheless, Russia has in recent weeks held joint military drills with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan near the Tajik-Afghan border. Russia further promised to bolster Tajikistan by supplying weapons and providing training.

Tajikistan is believed to support Tajik rebels in the Panjshir Valley in northern Afghanistan that last week lost a potentially initial first round of fighting against the Taliban. It remains unclear whether the rebels will be able to regroup. Tajiks account for approximately one-quarter of the Afghan population. As the

Tajik President Emomali Rahmon recently awarded posthumously Tajikistan’s third-highest award to two ethnic Afghan Tajiks, Ahmed Shah Massoud, the legendary father of current Tajik rebel leader Ahmad Massoud, and former president Burhanuddin Rabbani, for their contribution to ending a devastating civil war in the 1990s in the Central Asian country.

Tajikistan and Iran agreed in April to create a joint military defence committee that would enhance security cooperation and counter-terrorism collaboration.

Iran recently changed its tone regarding Afghanistan after the Taliban failed to include a Hazara Shiite in their newly appointed caretaker government. Hazaras, who account for 20 per cent of the Afghan population, have reason to fear Taliban repression despite the group’s protection last month of Shiite celebrations of Ashura, the commemoration of the Prophet Moses’ parting of the sea.

Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, took the Taliban to task for  “ignoring the need for inclusive government, foreign intervention and the use of military means instead of dialogue to meet the demands of ethnic groups and social groups that are the main concerns of the friends of the Afghan people.” Mr. Shamkhani was referring to alleged Pakistani support for the Taliban in the battle for Panjshir.

Supporters of Iranian membership may figure that affairs in Afghanistan will have been sorted out by the time the application procedure has run its course with Afghanistan well on its way towards reconstruction. That may prove to be correct. By the same token, however, so could the opposite with an Afghanistan that is wracked by internal conflict and incapable of controlling militants operating from its soil.

The SCO may in either case want Iran to be in its tent to ensure that all of Afghanistan’s neighbours, as well as regional powers Russia and India, are seated at one table. Mr Margoev, the analyst, argued that “just like other countries in the region – (we should) sit at the same table with Iran and not call it a guest from outside.”

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