On May 8, 2018, President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), better known as the Iran nuclear deal, and imposed tough unilateral sanctions on Tehran. Exactly a year later, this move looks dangerously fraught with unpredictable and potentially catastrophic consequences for the Middle East.
Britain, France and Germany, as participants and co-sponsors of the JCPOA, strongly criticized Trump’s anti-Iranian policy and, with Russian and Chinese support, they established, registered and set in motion, albeit in a test mode, the Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX) – a special-purpose vehicle (SPV) to facilitate non-dollar trade with Iran.
Tehran took its time hoping for European support. However, on April 22, 2019, Trump ended waivers that Washington had earlier granted China, India, South Korea, Turkey, Italy, the United Arab Emirates, Japan and Taiwan that allowed these countries to import Iranian oil. A complete ban on the purchase of Iranian crude came into force on May 2, 2019. The United States’ ultimate goal is to stop all Iranian crude exports. Whether this is actually possible is not clear. What is clear, however, is that the US is ramping up economic pressure on Tehran.
Meanwhile, Europe will hardly be able to resist Washington’s sanctions against Iran, which are almost as hard-hitting as the ones that were in effect between 2012 and 2016 when the Iranian economy was going through hard times. Still, the EU’s foreign affairs commissioner Federica Mogherini recently went on record saying that “we will continue to support [JCPOA] as much as we can with all our instruments and all our political will.”
Just how much will the EU really has to resist US pressure is a big question though.
Iran found itself in a real fix with President Hassan Rouhani saying that the situation the country is in today is no different from what it experienced during the 1980-1988 war with Iraq.
“During the war, we had no problems with our banks, oil sales, imports and exports. There were only sanctions for the purchase of arms,” he noted.
Hassan Rouhani emphasized the US sanctions’ strong impact on the country, and called for a concerted effort by all to minimize their effect.
“The enemies’ sanctions against our banking sector also affect our oil, petrochemicals, steel and agricultural exports, impair the work of Iranian seaports, shipyards and sea carriers. Our shipping companies have been blacklisted by the US Treasury,” Rouhani added.
He said that Iran would not bow to US pressure and will be looking for a way out of this situation.
What can Iran do?
First, it could exit the nuclear deal. Not immediately, like the US did, but gradually, refusing to fulfill the specific terms of the accord. Iran is already doing this now.
On May 8, President Rouhani announced that Iran would no longer observe two key commitments under the JCPOA accord, namely to sell to Russia and the US uranium enriched to 3.76 percent at volumes exceeding the storage allowed in Iran (over 300 kilograms). By the time the JCPOA was signed in 2015, the Islamic Republic had accumulated 10,357 kilos of such low-grade uranium, and 410.4 kilos of uranium enriched to 20 percent. To date, Iran has destroyed its entire stock of 20-percent-enriched uranium and has shipped surplus low-enriched uranium (LEU) to Russia and the United States. According to the JCPOA, Tehran was allowed to enrich limited quantities of uranium for scientific purposes and sell any enriched uranium above the 300-kilogram limit on international markets in return for natural uranium. Now Iran will start stocking up on low-enriched uranium again.
Neither will Tehran consider itself committed to the caps agreed under the deal on the mandatory sale of excess heavy water used in the production of military-grade plutonium. Iran has a working facility to produce heavy water, which is not covered by the JCPOA. However, it can store no more than 130 tons of heavy water. Tehran has already exported 32 tons to the US and 38 tons to Russia. Now it will start storing heavy water again.
President Rouhani gave the other signatories to the 2015 nuclear deal 60 days to make good on their promises to protect Iran’s oil and banking sectors. The Iranian move is certainly not directed at Washington but, rather, at Brussels in order to make it more actively and effectively resist US sanctions or see Iran resume higher levels of uranium enrichment, potentially all the way to bomb-making capability.
He added that if the EU fails to address Iran’s concerns, Tehran will suspend the implementation of two more commitments under the JCPOA.
If its demands are not met, Tehran will no longer be bound by its commitment to enrich uranium up to 3.76 percent. Ali-Akbar Salehi, director of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, said in January that the country had already taken the necessary steps to resume enrichment in larger volumes and with a higher level of enrichment.
Tehran will also reject help from the 5+1 group of initiators of the JCPOA (Russia, US, Britain, France, China and Germany) in the reconstruction of the heavy water reactor in the city of Arak.
The R-1 heavy water reactor was designed to produce up to 10 kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium a year, which is enough to build two plutonium nuclear weapons. The terms of the JCPOA accord require redesigning the reactor in such a way as to make it incapable of producing weapons-grade plutonium. To oversee the process, they set up a working group of representatives of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, the Atomic Energy Authority of China and the US Department of Energy. In 2017, a UK representative moved in to fill the void left by the departing US representative. According to an official Iranian report issued in April 2018, the country had already completed a “conceptual reconstruction of the reactor.” Still, the reconstruction process is slow and can easily be reversed. At least for now.
If, however, the EU comes across, then, according to Hassan Rouhani, Iran will honor its commitments under the JCPOA deal. “If [the five JCPOA co-signatories] could protect our main interests in oil and banking sectors, we will go back to square one [and will resume our commitments],” Rouhani said.
The question is whether the European Union can fully activate INSTEX and ensure continued oil exports and imports. Many people doubt this.
According to analysts, by demanding that Europeans “bring down to zero” their purchases of Iranian oil, the United States threatened to slap sanctions on European companies paying for Iranian oil. Shortly afterwards, almost all European banks refused to finance Iranian crude imports. The EU thus inadvertently joined the US sanctions, even though it continued to stick to the terms of the JCPA accord.
At the same time, European companies were all too happy to go ahead with the implementation of the part of the agreement that had not yet been banned, selling unauthorized goods to Iran. Tehran then complained that the deal allowed Europeans to make money inside Iran while preventing Iranians from selling their oil in the EU – a violation of the fundamental provision of the nuclear accord.
Tehran’s threat to walk out of the 2015 nuclear deal is sending a clear signal to the dithering Europeans to resume Iranian oil imports or see Tehran restarting nuclear production.
However, preoccupied by more pressing problems, the Europeans have other things to worry about. Moreover, no one is looking for a showdown with the EU’s main ally, the United States. According to Russian Oriental affairs expert Nikolai Kozhanov, Europeans consider the issue of circumventing US sanctions as an important part of their search for a mechanism of counter-sanctions in similar situations with more important economic partners, such as China or Russia.
Therefore, Iran is likely to press ahead with suspending its obligations under the JCPOA, which include the activation and acceleration of R&D in the field of improving centrifuges and building more of them in the future. Tehran could also hold up the implementation of the Protocol Additional to the Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA. Signed in 2003, the Protocol gives the UN nuclear watchdog greater access to Iran’s nuclear facilities and provides for surprise inspections. Iran has not yet ratified this document, even though it fulfilled its requirements until 2006 and has done so since 2016.
Of course, Iran will go about additional suspensions very carefully (if it will at all), mindful of their possible consequences, because it would hate to see Europe turning its back on it and siding with Washington, adding its own sanctions to the American ones, thus essentially making them international.
Ever since the US’ exit from the JCPOA, Iran has issued a flurry of serious warnings that it might end its participation in the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and the IAEA. On April 28, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif went on record saying that Tehran was mulling an exit from the NPT as a response to US sanctions. He added that Tehran “has many options” of response. “Exit from the NPT is one such option,” Zarif noted.
This was only a rhetorical threat, however, meant to prod the European Union towards closer cooperation with Iran as a means of countering US sanctions. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that Iran would withdraw either from the NPT or the IAEA, because this could make it an absolute outcast and the butt of scathing criticism worldwide.
Second, to demonstrate strength and willingness to resist and safeguard the country’s interests. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei never tires of emphasizing the need for a tough policy of “resistance,” based on:
- an active and effective search for ways to circumvent crippling economic sanctions;
- strengthening the armed forces with an emphasis on the development of a missile program;
- active promotion of Iranian interests in the region.
The “resistance” policy is primarily built around the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which brings together the country’s military, intelligence, police, political, ideological, as well as financial and economic structures. The IRGC is actually an all-embracing mega holding, led directly by the Supreme Leader and members of his inner circle. The Revolutionary Guards, who have proved highly efficient in countering sanctions, modernizing the armed forces and promoting Iranian activities in the region, are all Tehran actually needs to implement a strict “resistance” policy.
With the situation developing as it is, Ayatollah Khamenei’s recent decision to replace the IRGC commander, General Mohammed Ali Jafari, who led the Corps for more than 11 years, with Brigadier General Hossein Salami looks pretty natural. The IRGC’s former deputy commander, General Salami is ideologically closer to Khamenei and is known for his radical statements. Ayatollah Khamenei also replaced about 60 officers both in the IRGC central office and local administrations with relatively young, ambitious, ideologically tested and competent officers. They are tasked with turning the IRGC into an indispensable and all-embracing institution that dominates the entire gamut of Iranian life: from ensuring internal and external security all the way to economic activity and cyberwarfare.
According to Mehdi Khalaji, a researcher at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Ayatollah Khamenei is strengthening the IRGC, which he sees as the cornerstone of the country’s triad of advanced missile technology, a nuclear program and asymmetric military capabilities to ensure reliable defense against any potential aggression by anyone.
Tehran’s decision to strengthen the IRGC was certainly prompted by President Trump’s statement on April 8, which branded the Corps as a “foreign terrorist organization.” Until recently, President Rouhani sought to keep the IRGC in check and limit its impact on many aspects of the country’s life. In fact, Trump’s recent statement played right into the hands of diehard radicals within the IRGC and in Iran as a whole.
Iran’s Supreme National Security Council responded to President Trump’s statement by putting on the list of terrorist organizations the United States Central Command (CENTCOM), whose area of responsibility includes the Middle East and Central Asia. Simultaneously, the General Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces said that the Iranian military was ready to use any means at its disposal against US troops in the region who are now likewise designated by Tehran as terrorists. This is putting Americans in peril all across the Middle East region, primarily in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and in the Persian Gulf – wherever Iranian and US military might cross their paths.
Washington’s latest anti-Iranian move seriously exacerbated the already very strained relations between the two countries.
Third. To ramp up anti-American propaganda and warlike rhetoric in order to demonstrate Iran’s strength to the United States and its readiness to defend its interests even with the use of military force.
Increasingly frustrated with the situation around the JCPOA and doubting the EU’s ability to resist the US pressure on Iran, Tehran has been rolling back its participation in the nuclear deal, which is dangerously fraught with a new nuclear crisis and heightened tensions with the United States.
Meanwhile, an escalation is already happening. The United States is sending a battery of Patriot air defense missiles and an amphibious warship, USS Arlington, to CENTCOM’s operational responsibility zone. The Arlington will join a naval strike carrier group led by the world’s largest warship, the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln (5,680 crew, 90 combat aircraft and helicopters on board) and a tactical group of B-52 strategic bombers.
Moreover, an updated plan that has just been presented by the Acting US Secretary of Defense, Patrick Shanahan, envisions the dispatch of up to 120,000 troops to the Middle East if Iran steps up the development of nuclear weapons, or attacks the US military. However, the plan does not provide for a ground operation against Iran, which would require a lot more troops.
Iran has promised serious response to any use of force by the United States, with the IRGC commander, Brigadier General Hossein Salami, warning that “if America takes a step against us, then we will strike a blow to the head.” He believes, however, that the United States will not risk using its aircraft carriers against Iran, and added that since Iran’s defense capabilities are adequate and sufficient, US aircraft carriers are quite vulnerable.
Military experts know better of course, but when it comes to politics, chances of resolving the current crisis between Iran and the United States look pretty slim. In fact, the conflict may be beneficial to both President Trump and the IRGC.
Trump could use the standoff as a chance to show the opposition Democrats how tough he is with Iran, which is equally loathed by his supporters and many of his opponents alike.
Meanwhile, a US military buildup close to the Iranian borders would play right into the hands of local hardliners who have always been up in arms against any negotiations concerning the Iranian nuclear program and the nuclear deal itself.
With the situation favoring the opponents of President Rouhani, the IRGC is ruling out any possibility of negotiations with the US. The head of the IRGC’s political bureau, Yadolla Javani, said that “there will be no negotiations with the Americans,” in a remark that could also be aimed at politicians inside Iran who would like to maintain a dialogue with the US no matter what.
Still, according to unconfirmed reports, the Iranians are negotiating behind closed doors with American representatives in Oman, which is a traditional meeting place for both.
The IRGC needs tensions running high because this is turning it into the country’s foremost institution.
What is also clear is a dangerous psychological war now raging between Washington and Tehran. Just where things may go from now is hard to tell, but it still looks like the sides will not come to blows after all. The Iranian-American brinkmanship with concentrations of troops and military hardware in the region is fraught with unpredictable accidents that can force the parties to go overboard. Hopefully, things will not go beyond bellicose rhetoric.
“There will be no war, the Iranian people have chosen the path of resistance to America, and this resistance will force it to retreat,” Ayatollah Khamenei said, emphasizing, however, that this resistance is not military in nature. Neither side wants a military showdown.
Tehran and Washington realize full well that if the situation comes down to a military flare-up, then this, regardless of the real scale of the fighting, would spell disaster for the entire Middle East with equally dire consequences for the rest of the world.
First published in our partner International Affairs
The Case For Israel- Book Review
The Case For Israel by Alan Dershowitz, John Wiley & Sons, Inc.2003
In his book, ‘The Case For Israel’, Professor Alan Dershowitz, sets out a “proactive defence for Israel” (p.1) and he does so in a manner that addresses the core and more fundamental premise that, Israel and its citizens have the right to exist in peace and security. With this focus, Professor Alan, sets out the narrative in the form of 32 key accusations against the state of Israel, which he then sets out to answer/defend. Interpreting facts and drawing conclusions as only a lawyer can, Alan does not hesitate to draw parallels with American Colonists seeking separation from the state of England, when he refers to the Israeli Declaration of Independence. Having worked on this book from the year of 1967, with the first publication in 2003, the defence is unarguably exhaustive and honed with great skill and there is no dearth of historical references being used to state his case. All this assumes even greater importance when one acknowledges the growing Anti-Semitic sentiments in present day Europe and even the United States of America(Leff). Truly and unfortunately, not much seems to have changed since the inception of this book in 1967 and now, as far as the need to justify the existence of the state of Israel is concerned.
It may be said that the chief strength of this book lies in the fact that it rejects extremist claims of both sides, i.e. the Palestinians and the Israelis, just as the Peel Commission did in 1937 and most of the world does today. Professor Dershowitz in a sense carries forward the premise as acknowledged by the UN (and the Peel Commission) that both the Palestinians and the Jews had valid but irreconcilable claims with partition being the most realistic solution given the “two intense nationalisms” (p.65).
In order to buttress his advocacy for a two state solution (which to him is the premise of the book), he points to the emergence of several Islamic states through a process of partition. Consequently, Alan Dershowitz, repeatedly drives home the point that, the Palestinians repeatedly rejected the Two State Solution, with not just Yasser Arafat’s’ contrarian’ (p.72) comments to Arab leaders at Stockholm after the Oslo Declaration(U.S Govt Office of the Historian) but also the failed Clinton driven initiative at Camp David (2001)where Yasser Arafat walked away without even making a counter proposal given his rejection of the proposed plan. Undeniably, as cited by Alan Dershowitz, and voiced by Prince Bandar, in his interview to the New Yorker Magazine, when he said (off the record)that Arafat’s refusal was “a tragic mistake- a crime really”(Walsh). Arafat’s refusal and consequent escalation in terror attacks even though ultimately engineered to win Palestinians world sympathy, were none the less, acts of terror.
In Alan’s words the world including the UN seemed to reward Palestinians for their acts of terror. According to AD, Israel on the other hand has repeatedly been subjected to double standards when it comes to judging its response to acts of terror at the hands of Palestinians. He is utterly convincing in this regard when he points out that while Israeli soldiers are governed by a rigid code of conduct, Palestinians, eschew any such binding and routinely employing children, young adults and even women for committing acts of terror.
It would do us well to understand at this point that in the background of Alan’s defence for the state of Israel, is the recurring theme that the Jews of the First Aliyah of 1882 had legitimately and continuously bought land (mostly un arable) from absentee landlords (Arabs), often at exorbitant prices. In addition, AD also posits the premise that the problem of Arab refugees is a deliberate act emanating from actions of Arab Rulers and a factor perpetuated by the Palestinians as they kept demanding that the 4 million Palestinians should be allowed to return to from where they fled. Clearly, in the not so distant past there was an exchange of population which took place when 850,000 ‘Arab Jews’ living in Arab countries landed up becoming refugees while correspondingly, the 1948 war waged by Arab rulers against Israel saw Arabs migrate outwards from what is now Israel. What is pertinent in this regard is the fact that the ‘Arab Jews’ were attempted to be absorbed by present day Israel, the Arab leaders were not interested in absorbing these Arab refugees, choosing to mostly let them fester in camps instead of integrating them in to their more homogenous population.
In a sense, as pointed by AD, Arabs are more interested in denying the right of existence to Israel than they are in the formation of the State of Palestine. In fact, the words of Bey Abdul-Hati, a prominent Palestinian leader as addressed to the Peel Commission in 1937 “There is no such country ……Palestine is a term Zionists invented ……” (p.7), underscore the fact that Palestinians, historically, always, wanted to be a part of Syria. If this had not been so, and if nothing else, the most generous terms of settlement as offered by Barak in 2001as a part of the Clinton initiative. would have settled matters once and for all. A corollary to this is Alan’s admission that even Israel faltered when it did not implement the Alon Plan(ATLANTA JEWISH TIMES) which would have given the population centres of the West Bank to the Arabs, while retaining some unpopulated strategic areas.
A possible criticism of this book certainly lies in the fact that, Professor Alan has unilaterally chosen the (possible) accusations and his defence is one without adjudication of any sort. Hence, in such a situation, it is the reader who must sit in judgment and decide for himself/herself as to the merits and the validity of the evidence presented on behalf of the defendant- The State of Israel. Again, given the fact that Palestinians choose not to acknowledge or care for historical facts, we should not ‘crucify’ Israel even when historical and other facts (as cited in the book) speak in its favour. Given that we live in a less than perfect world, this “Jew Among Nations” (p.222), needs to be given its due as the only democracy and least theocratic state in the Middle East and should be judged by a yardstick that is not too different from the one used for its comparable ‘peer’ nations like, France England, USA and Canada when it comes to issues like morality and ethics. What better proof can there be, of democracy in Israel, given Joint Arab List’s splendid performance in the recent Israeli elections.
Russia and Syria: Nuances in Allied Relations
The foreign policy strategy of any state includes a certain set of means and ways to ensure the practical achievement of its goals. Searching for allies or temporary partners that will help serve a specific purpose has always been an essential part of this strategy. In the past, the belief was that this was primarily the concern of “smaller” states interested in forging an alliance with a strong patron. However, the sharp imbalance that has emerged in international relations in the decades since the collapse of the USSR has shown that large states that are engaged in global politics are just as interested in building various types of alliances and partnership as “smaller” states. Sometimes even more so. Recent diplomatic practice has demonstrated that keeping such relations on an even keel demands that the parties delicately balance their understanding of the limits to their mutual concessions and constantly check that they are “on the same page.” The latter is done to preserve confidence in rapidly changing circumstances that are often beyond their control and, most importantly, to ensure they do not present each other with an impossible choice, which is something that happened between the United States and Turkey within NATO, and quite recently in the Union State of Russia and Belarus.
Metamorphoses of U.S. politics from Clinton to Trump demonstrate how the benefits from allied relations may transform into a tarnished image. Having failed to adapt to a world in which it has lost its global dominance, the United States under Obama and particularly under Trump chose to neglect traditional diplomacy, which involves finding ways to align the possibly diverging interests of allies. In regard to Europe, this policy was encapsulated in the withdrawal from multilateral trade partnership agreements, the use of NATO to exert pressure on allies, the introduction of sanctions, and the employment of other methods of gaining unilateral economic and political advantages.
The Middle East is even more indicative in this respect. Within a very short period of time, U.S. foreign policy in the region has oscillated between extremes. America’s allies in the Gulf were alarmed when Obama, looking to be “on the right side of history,” rapidly withdrew support for Mubarak when the protests in Egypt broke out (in February 2011) and when the United States effectively gave in to Iran in the struggle for influence in Iraq. Trump’s demonstrative turn towards Saudi Arabia, coupled with the U.S. withdrawal from the multilateral agreement on the Iranian nuclear programme and the subsequent policy of applying “maximum pressure” on Iran, negatively affected U.S.–EU relations, caused a split in the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf and failed to allay their concerns regarding the reliability of the United States as an ally. Finally, the concessions to Israel, which no U.S. President had dared make before (no matter how their Middle East policies zigged and zagged), added new wrinkles to the issue. As a result, the Trump administration approaches the 2020 presidential elections with an unprecedented burden of problems in its relations with its North Atlantic allies, in an almost complete isolation owing to its illegal actions in the UN Security Council concerning the lifting of the Iranian sanctions, and having generally lost its moral and political prestige.
In the same period of time following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia had failed to fit into the architecture of pan-European security and was faced with a choice: given NATO’s territorial expansion and the ineffectiveness of such collective mechanisms as the CIS and OSCE, what policy should it pursue moving forward? Does Russia see its future self as an independent centre of power with a free hand? Or does it want to be an influential actor within new alliances and integration unions? The answers to these questions are more or less clear today.
Russia is steering its own course in relations with the West, acting in its own interests, yet not shutting the door on an equal dialogue designed to search for points of contact on the most conflict-ridden problems. At the same time, Russia has made efforts to build a sub-system of inter-country alliances to counterbalance the NATO–EU pairing. These efforts have led to multilateral diplomacy guided by the principle of “going as far the other party is prepared to go.” These efforts have resulted in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in the military–political arena, the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) alliance in the geopolitical arena, and the Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEC) and the Customs Union in the trade and economic arena. Compared with western alliances that entail transferring part of one’s sovereignty to supra-national bodies, members of these unions are more free in their commitments, although they share Russia’s stance on the key issues of global politics.
Following a brief hiatus in the 1990s, Russia returned to the Middle East, no longer shackled by ideological clichés. The very paradigm of Russian–Arab relations had changed. They were no longer characterized by unilaterality and were developing over a wide spectrum. Pride of place was given to such foreign political landmarks as the achievement of national security in the face of new threats emanating from the chronic instability in the region, the support for Russian businesses, and the measures to counteract external intervention aimed at regime change for the sake of political expediency (in extreme cases, this would be done by force, but mostly it would be done by establishing networks based on coinciding interests). These were the landmarks that Russia used to guide itself post-2011, when the Middle East entered a protracted era of reconstruction. This pragmatic approach was largely responsible for preserving business partnership relations with Egypt, Iraq and Algeria, all of which experienced regime changes, as well as for building coherent relations with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, where existing differences on conflict settlement do not get in the way of bilateral cooperation in trade and economy and coordinating policies on the global energy markets.
Russia gains certain benefits from its ability to maintain business partnership ties with all the regional and non-regional actors in the Middle Eastern conflicts, including Turkey, the Kurds, Hezbollah, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the Palestinian authorities in Ramallah and Gaza. At the same time, it is clear that this situation and, in particular, the widespread concept of Moscow as an “impartial mediator” or “honest broker,” is with increasing frequency being used for unseemly purposes, such as shifting the responsibility for the actions or inactions of other parties in the region or outside it onto Moscow. In today’s new multi-layered conflicts, no single actor is capable of holding all the settlement threads in its hands.
Russia and Syria: Questions of War and Peace
Russia and Syria have gradually become allies since the civil war broke out in the Middle East state in 2011. The leaders of both countries have said as much, and it is taken as a given in the West and the other countries in the region.
At the same time, the complicated entanglements of relations both in and around Syria have prompted certain questions from our colleagues and institutional partners in the Damascus Center for Research and Studies. Most of them are quite logical and do indeed need to be discussed at the expert level to begin with.
Russia and Syria have a long history of cooperation in many areas, and the countries were particularly close during the presidency of Hafez al-Assad, the outstanding statesman who enjoyed worldwide respect. A Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation was signed back then, but it was more of a framework document that did not impose any specific international legal commitments on either party. These were relations of trust that withstood the test of the war with Israel in 1973 in the Golan Heights and the Civil War in Lebanon (1975–1989), where Syrian troops fought and Soviet military advisors participated indirectly. There were also disagreements on the situation in the Palestinian movement and the attitude to Yasser Arafat personally. Yet these differences were resolved through regular trust-based dialogue at the highest level and through close military-political consultations.
In the 1990s and the early 2000s when Russia, burdened by its domestic problems, “withdrew” from the Middle East, Russia–Syria relations were in decline. After being elected president, Bashar al-Assad steered a course for Europe, for Jacques Chirac’s France in particular, viewing it as a centre for containing the United States, which had accused Syria of supporting the Iraqi resistance to the American occupation . Bashar Al-Assad’s first visit to Russia took place in 2005. The agreements achieved at the highest level covered a wide range of issues in military-technical and economic cooperation in the context of Syria fully settling its debt, and they gave a new impetus to developing bilateral relations in the changing geopolitical circumstances.
In 2011, the civil conflict in Syria transformed into an armed confrontation. Since then, Russia–Syria cooperation has been dominated by its military component. Russia directly intervened in the conflict at the request of President Bashar al-Assad, a fact that was accounted for by the intergovernmental agreements between the two countries, which, unlike the largely for-show agreements concluded with a number of Arab states in the past, set out specific commitments for both parties. The relations were thus given a new quality. All efforts were channelled into repelling the terrorist threat and saving Syria’s statehood. In the run-up to the decisive intervention of the Russian Aerospace Forces, most military experts around the world agreed that the “terrorist international” had made it as far as the suburbs of Damascus, and that regime change was imminent, even though Iranian units and Lebanese Hezbollah were fighting in Syria.
Five years later, the military and administrative infrastructure of Islamic State has been destroyed, the armed opposition is weakened, and the remaining pockets of resistance no longer posit a real threat to the al-Assad regime .
Back then, the objectives were clear and, naturally, there were no questions as to what the Syrian people expected from Russia. Why did Moscow and Damascus experience an upsurge of information attacks along the lines of “who needs whom more”? What are the reasons for the “uncertainties” and “doubts” that Syrian political analysts ponder in a friendly manner, wondering whether or not Russia intends “to give up on Syria and leave the regime to deal with the increasing pressure” from the United States? What changes have happened now that the active phase of the conflict has ceased?
The official statements from the Russian side leave no doubts as to its principled stance. Keeping air force and naval bases in the Mediterranean is a strategic move, meaning that Russia does not have any “withdrawal scenarios.” According to the Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation, materiel support for the Syrian operation does not exceed the funds budgeted for defence. It is flexible and generally tends to shrink as military action deescalates.
Legitimizing “entry” is another matter entirely, both from the point of view of legal documents concluded between Russia and Syria and on a broad international scale. And it is something that does not depend on Russia alone. Fundamentally, it should be in the interests of Damascus itself. That is, the two countries are effectively doomed to find a balance of power in the long term, both in a war that cannot last indefinitely, and during the post-war period. Our point here is clear: using political realism as a stepping stone, Russia and Syria need to properly balance common strategic goals and search for optimal ways to deal with possible tactical differences.
A Hierarchy of Priorities
It is noteworthy that, in his analytical article, my esteemed colleague Aqeel Mahfoud describes the current situation in Syria as a war with “no end in sight” and asks Russia such questions as: What is the “middle ground” between “‘high costs’ and ‘low returns’ … between ‘retreating’ from Syria and ‘continuing’ the course?” It is thus clear that certain “misunderstandings” have emerged, and in order to properly analyse the prospects, we need to jointly access the essence of the point in time we arrived at after five years of allied cooperation.
Our general assessments are essentially the same. The challenges and threats that Syria currently faces are economic, a destructive effect of the sanctions, and the U.S. “Caesar Act” in particular, with the coronavirus pandemic making the situation worse. The reality is that there are virtually no prerequisites for implementing major post-war reconstruction projects in Syria. Most Syrians are fighting for survival in the face of growing prices, food, power and fuel shortages and a destroyed living infrastructure. The Syrian government is mobilizing its limited financial resources to mitigate the socioeconomic consequences for the regime, focusing on supporting business activities and preserving the system of subsidies. At the same time, it is quite clear that resolving the problem of the economy’s uninterrupted functioning cannot be solved without urgent outside assistance. It is also obvious, however, that, unlike in the case of Lebanon, the sources of such assistance for Syria are very few.
The Russian government, in turn, is doing everything possible to provide real aid to the people of Syria (urgent deliveries of grain, pharmaceuticals and equipment in the form of grants or through contracts; reconstructing civil infrastructure facilities, communication lines; providing humanitarian aid, etc.). The government is encouraging Russian businesses to cooperate with Syrian companies more actively through public-private partnerships and by granting them most favoured nation status. It should be said, though, that the method of “giving commands” has little effect in the Russian economy compared with Soviet times. Russia expects the Syrian government to take further steps to set up both central and local governance systems that would ensure corruption is dealt with, offer preferences to foreign investors, make sure that laws are obeyed and that the “military economy” would give way to normal trade and economic relations as speedily as possible. President Bashar al-Assad’s address to the members of the newly formed government can be seen as a major step in this direction.
It should be noted in this connection that the article published by the Damascus Center for Research and Studies focuses on Russia, and most questions are addressed to Moscow as if it holds some kind of a “magic key” to resolving all the problems. At the same time, practical advice and friendly criticism are perceived as “pressure” and “interference.” As for the negative dynamics, what is Damascus’ attitude to the fact that after the active military phase was over, little changed aside from the strengthening of “psychological pressure” and tightening of the “economic noose” on Syria? And regarding the positive dynamics, what conclusions should the Syrians themselves draw concerning the balance of power and political steps that should be taken? These important aspects slid under the radar of our Syrian colleagues. We would like to understand what is meant by the phrase “returning to the ‘requirements’ of UN Security Council Resolution No. 2254 […] would bring us back to March 2011.”
Russia’s position on the issue of the Syrian settlement, President Vladimir Putin has said on numerous occasions, proceeds from the premise that a military solution is impossible. At the talks held with Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Syria Geir Pedersen in Moscow on September 3 (which took place only a few days after the session of the Constitutional Committee’s Drafting Commission in Geneva), Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation Sergey Lavrov confirmed that Russia supports Pedersen’s efforts to help the Syrian people come to an agreement themselves on constitutional reform in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 2254 as a sovereign state and one of the guarantors of the Astana process. This stance has been approved by the “Astana Troika,” it is known to the Syrian leadership and does not prompt open objections.
Some Russian political analysts that are in the know expect Syria, and probably President Bashar al-Assad himself, to spearhead some major initiatives that will jumpstart the Geneva process – not as a return to the 2011 status quo, but as a means of restoring Syria’s territorial integrity and bolstering the country’s statehood on the inclusive foundation of national accord. A flexible approach on the part of Damascus and a better understanding of its intentions would certainly help Russia, giving it more solid ground in its contacts with western and Arab partners. In the current reality, Syria can hardly be “rehabilitated” economically without coordinated international efforts. This is the kind of convergence of interests that would make it possible to bring together external aid and progress in the intra-Syrian dialogue into a single stabilization package.
Another important set of issues raised by our Damascus partners pertains to Russia being “an ally for Syria, Israel, Iran and Turkey” in the continuing conflict and to what the nature of Russia–U.S. contacts is.
It is no secret that the foreign political services of both countries have always maintained a working exchange of current information. This is particularly true of the current situation. My many years of experience in the diplomatic service (in Syria among other states) allow me to state confidently that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation regularly informs the Syrian leadership about its talks with its western and regional partners on issues that concern Syria. If there is any “uncertainty” within the Syrian public or the Syrian expert community about this fact, it might rather be explained by Russia being excessively guarded about sensitive information that concerns its relations with its allies, or by Russian media’s inability to demonstrate any kind of subtlety when it comes to foreign political steps in this area and properly explain Russia’s intentions to the world at large. Incidentally, Syria itself is far more guarded and “secretive” in its media coverage of its relations with Russia – and this coverage is often, quite frankly, far more tendentious.
Most Russian experts view Russia–Syria relations on the matters of war and peace as a relationship of “twins” connected by “kindred threads.” Their western colleagues share this point of view, indicating that the United States and Europe no longer tie compliance with UN Security Council Resolution 2254 with Assad’s “removal.” Instead, they adopted the concept of constitutional reform and democratic elections under the UN’s supervision. It is natural for allies in protracted and convoluted conflicts to have some misunderstandings. Aqeel Mahfoud notes that “the Syrian people understand […] that Russia does not approach the issue from a Syrian perspective.” The main thing is that if strategic “constants” are in place, which is undoubtedly the case, then periodical tactical differences should be resolved in a timely manner, on the basis on openness and trust.
At the level of government and opposition forces, the Syrian people should take into account the fact that Russia has its own global interests that do not always coincide with those of the Middle East. Russia–Syria relations cannot be equated with relations with influential regional actors, which are based on different considerations. But one thing brings them together: a common history, coinciding interests in regions outside Syria and mutually beneficial cooperation, including in the military area. It is thus wrong to posit an “either/or” question.
On the other hand, a realist assessment of the situation “on the ground” reveals that the existence of particular situational arrangements with Israel and Turkey is something that benefits Syria itself. Let us take, for example, agreements on southern Syria, in which Israel unofficially participated. It was these agreements that allowed Syria to regain control of its southern provinces, provided that it complied with the terms that did not breach its sovereign rights. Russian officials did not hide the fact that it meant withdrawing Iranian and pro-Iranian military units from the 80-kilometre security zone and using national reconciliation principles to form local authorities. Russia is entitled to expect Syria to comply with these conditions.
Or let us take the agreements reached between the presidents of Russia and Turkey on March 4, 2020, concerning Idlib and which were achieved as part of the implementation of the de-escalation zone agreement developed by the “Astana Troika” with Syria’s participation. This development makes it possible to avoid the worst-case scenario, which would not have been in the interests of Syria, Russia and Turkey. In no way does it change the attitude towards the Idlib problem as part of the principled approach to restoring Syria’s territorial integrity and the joint fight against terrorism.
As for U.S.–Syria relations, Russia is pursuing a realistic policy here aimed at preventing incidents that could result in an armed clash, and at the same time is searching for opportunities to interact in those areas where the interests of Russia and the United States may coincide without detriment to the “strategic constants” of Russia’s relations with its Syrian ally. Recently, tensions in northeast Syria, where the U.S. military presence is concentrated, have increased noticeably, which makes further developments less predictable. Consequently, the parties focus specifically on the “de-conflicting channel” and simultaneously draw “red lines” that should not be overstepped. Politically, Russia endeavours to promote understanding between Damascus and the Kurds on their constitutional status, which increases the chances of restoring Syria’s territorial integrity as part of the post-conflict settlement.
Memories of the Future
They say that “it is difficult to make predictions, particularly about the future.” The issues outlined by our Syrian partners for the “strategic dialogue” are so broad that it is impossible to cover everything. In conclusion, I would like to make a few brief remarks.
The Syrian people are known to hold different views of the country’s situation and of Russia’s role in Syria’s affairs. Part of civil society is currently outside Syria, and they are by no means terrorists or Russophobes. Consequently, as it supports Bashar al-Assad, Russia emphasizes an intra-Syrian agreement on a model of Syria’s future state that would ensure the country against bloody civil wars. Clearly, there can be no return to 2011, and the Syrian people themselves should decide how to reform their state and society. During the protracted wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Balkans, the United States was engaged in social engineering and state-building, but these tasks proved too much for them. Russia also had its own regrettable experience in Afghanistan, since every war has its own logic that sooner or later outweighs politics.
As the summer 2021 presidential elections approach, a feeling of hopelessness and anxious expectation is engulfing the international community and Syrians of various political persuasions. Numerous scenarios, largely pessimistic, are being developed – as far as the “Balkanization” of Syria or even a clash between the United States and Russia or between Russia and Turkey on Syrian soil.
There is thus only one thing we can say: if compromise solutions are found, the settlement of the Syrian conflict could serve as a precedent for the global community and a key to undoing other conflict knots. Alternatively, if the right conclusions are not drawn from the lessons of 2011, Syrian settlement may turn into a time bomb for Syria’s sustainable domestic development.
Kleib, Sami. The Destruction of Syria or the Departure of Assad? Moscow: Biblos Konsulting Publ., 2018. pp. 66–70.
Islamic State (IS) is a terrorist organization banned in Russia.
From our partner RIAC
Iran- Turkey Partnership: A New Front in Libya
There is strategic consensus among political elites currently ruling the Islamic Republic of Iran and Turkey states. Despite of few turmoil, both states want to retain cordial relations that can lead towards the support of each other’s national sovereignty and stability.
Eight years after the fall of Muammar Qaddafi, Libya continues to struggle to end its violent conflict and build state institutions. External actors have exacerbated Libya’s problems by funneling money and weapons to proxies that have put personal interests above Libyan people. Libya myriad armed militias led by general Haftar really hold and sway nominally backing two centers of political power in the east and west with parallel institutions. General Haftar is backed by NATO member states of France, Russia, Egypt, UAE and Saudi and on the other hand, Tripoli administration, the international recognized government, known as the government of national accord under the leadership of prime Minister fayaz AL Sarah is being backed by the United Nations, Turkey, Qatar and now Iran. The collaboration of Iran and Turkey in Libya is going to mark another hallmark in the historical relationships of two neighbor power.
From past to present, Iran and turkey have seen multiple strains in their relations. The history of relations between turkey and Iran can be dated back to the sixteenth century, when two competing imperial systems, the ottoman and the safavids, consolidated their rule ship over respective countries. Turkey and Iran were both imperial centers, and the modern states established in these two countries are considered to the successors to the ottoman and the safavid imperial rule that had dominated most parts of western Asia for centuries.
As the nearby an imperial system, territorial and political conflicts prevailed over the ottoman-safavid relations against interval periods of peace. The emergence of west oriented nation states in turkey and Iran in 1920, under the leadership of Kemal Turk and Raza Pehlevi facilitated further cooperation between two states.
By in the late 1970, when the Pehlevi monarchy was overthrown by the Islamic revolution, it was difficult to discern containing patterns of accord signed between political elites of both states. Parallel to the turkey’s “New” Middle East foreign policy started in the early 2000s, turkey – Iran relations have undergone through unprecedented periods of rapprochement. Ideological and security issues that dominated the relations between two neighbors have been gradually replaced by the pragmatic considerations on each side. Increasing volume of economic interaction, security and diplomatic cooperation on a number of issues and fulfillment of energy demand by turkey were the highlighted initiatives of that era. Ankara domestic exemption level of oil and gas had increased. To overcome this issue, turkey signed $23 billion agreement of worth oil for next 25 years. Overall, trade level between Iran and turkey increased by many time comparable to the past decade. The amount of trade increased from $1.2 billion to $4.3 billions between 2001 and 2010 and reached $10 billions in 2015.
The spread of Arab spring provided an other opportunity to both Iran and turkey to exploit the emerging New order in middle east. Both states attempted to launch their ideologies in the Arab states. Iran wanted to spread Muslim revolution although turkey wanted to spread democratic values to exert more influence in the Middle East.
Turkey’s role in the Iranian nuclear dossier has been often portrayed as that “facilitator “and bridge builder between Islamic Republic of Iran and the western camps of negotiations. Turkey has basically no interests in the Iran nuclear weapons but being a critical of international sanctions, turkey has always stressed the need of political solution of Iranian nuclear crisis. They don’t want to enter into the nuclear race with the Iran but support them to acquire nuclear weapons but for peaceful energy purposes under the guidance of NPT and IAEA.
Geographical proximity has always forced turkey to cooperate with Iran economically despite of divergence in political and ideological outlook. Common membership in regional organizations, however, provided a pragmatic bond of cooperation on issues of regional and neighbor countries. All the same, Turkey and Iran relations have been undergoing a deteriorating in the walk Syrian Civil War. Turkey supports the anti elements of president Bashar Al Assad’s who is the true state ally of Iran in the Middle East and provide safe path to support the Hezbollah in the Lebanon. Kurdish issue has also engaged the turkey who suspects of Syria and Iran of backing the Kurdistan worker party.
The Libya, a state situated in the north Africa region has become a new playing field for power and resource hunger states. After the overthrown of Qaddafi regime, multiple groups started to claim the legitimacy in the state. The authorities in the east led by the General Khalifa Haftar controls the most part of the state as it is claimed by his representatives since April 2020, he has been striving to control the capital. He has been supported by the Russia, Egypt, NATO member France, United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia while Tripoli government recognized by the United nations is backed by the Turkey, Qatar and now Islamic Republic of Iran. The entry of Saudi and other anti Iran allies has invited the Islamic Republic of Iran to sway and evaluate its involvement in this crisis.
Iran has announced his support for the Turkish-backed Libyan government of national accord based in Tripoli. Javed zarif visited Istanbul and during a press conference and stated“We seek to have a political solution to the Libyan crisis and end the Civil War. We support the legitimate government and we have common views with the Turkish side on way to end the crisis in Libya and Yemen.”
Moreover, Gvusoglu,The Foreign minister of turkey reiterated Turkey’s opposition to US sanctions on Iran. He further added “Iran’s stability and peace is important for us”
Sarya ansar, the Shia backed Iraqi militia, also operating in the Syria has entered the Libya to support Turkey. Security and defense cooperation agreements have been signed between Turkey and Iran and following the information of International revolution guard coast an affiliated ship has delivered the weapons to the militias in Libya.
Most of Libya’s vast territories and oil resources are much desired by the resource scarce Turkey. Further, Turkey under the leadership of President Erdogan wants to regain its old status and territories of ottoman empire. The formation of new Islamic block is being predicted which would be comprises of Turkey, Malaysia, Qatar, Pakistan Tunisia and Libya. Moreover, Turkey is striving to put more pressure on the Europe to award her a membership of European Union. The strategic position in the Persian Gulf, strait of harmuz and Ankara controls of the Bosporus strait are sole basis for energy cooperation between two neighbor powers. The support of Iran militias would provide strength to the Turkey in Libyan and will force the anti government elements to bow down head in front of government of national accord.
On the other hand, Iran has found an opportunity to spread Islamic revolution in sunni dominated state. It would help Iran to reorient the relations with Turkey. From the statements of foreign minister of Turkey, it is evident that they want more positive relations with Iran. Iran is the state who have second largest oil and gas reserves in Middle East. Turkey can provide a platform to raise the sanctions issues to Europe and United States of America. The ongoing conflicts in Syria and Kurdistan issues could be resolved by taking joint actions of both states and through this way stable political and economical relations would be achieved. The identical stance on Israel issue would strengthen the relations in positive way. Despite of political differences, both states have defended the stronger Bilateral cooperation
To cut the long story short, Iran-Turkey relations have seen ups and down phases in the history but they are much significant for each other’s stability in the region to fight with common enemy. No doubt that Turkey wants to achieve its high ambitions in the Middle as well as in North Africa to be a main player but right now, Iran needs more economic strength and Turkey could provide her this opportunity. This cooperation can facilitate the shattered economy of Iran in broader perspective. Libya is a new front providing the opportunity to both states to come more close.
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