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Russian Iranian strains raise spectre of US-Israeli-Russian deal on Syria

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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With Israel set to host an unprecedented meeting of the national security advisors of the United States, Russia and Israel, this week’s efforts by German foreign minister Heiko Maas and Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe to mediate between the US and Iran could prove to be a sideshow.

The meeting of the national security advisors, against the backdrop of Syrian and Russian forces pummelling the northern region of Idlib, the last major stronghold of Syrian rebels, takes on added significance with strains emerging in relations between Moscow and Tehran.

Hundreds have been killed and thousands displaced in the latest attacks that have not shied away from targeting hospitals and residential areas.

In what may be marching orders for his national security advisor, John Bolton, US President Donald J. Trump tweeted last week: “Hearing word that Russia, Syria and, to a lesser extent, Iran, are bombing the hell out of Idlib Province in Syria, and indiscriminately killing many innocent civilians. The World is watching this butchery. What is the purpose, what will it get you? STOP!”

While few expect the advisors’ meeting this month in Jerusalem to produce immediate results, US and Israeli officials hope that it could prepare the ground for a deal that would further weaken Russian ties to Iran and reduce, if not terminate Iran’s presence in Syria.

Among multiple scenarios being bounced around, some analysts believe that a possible deal could involve Russia pushing Iran out of Syria, a key US and Israeli demand, in exchange for the lifting of at least some American and European sanctions against Russia and US acceptance of the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

Israeli prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu rejected a similar Russian proposal last November.

“The fact that the Russians see value in these conversations, that they’re willing to do it publicly, I think is in and of itself quite significant. And so we are hopeful that they’re coming to the meeting with some fresh proposals that will allow us to make progress,” said a senior Trump administration official.

The officials suggest that a recent Russian refusal to sell Iran its most advanced S-400 missile defense system because that could fuel regional tensions and tacit Russian acquiescence to Israeli military strikes against Iranian and Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah targets in Syria opens the door to a potential deal.

Iran has denied wanting to acquire the Russian system while Russia has officially demanded that Israel halt its attacks and respect Syrian sovereignty.

Mr. Bolton’s discussions with Israeli national security advisor Meir Ben-Shabbat and Nikolay Patrushev, head of Russia’s security council, could not come at worse moment for Iran as it struggles to dampen the effect of harsh US sanctions following the Trump administration’s withdrawal last year from the 2015 international agreement that curbed the Islamic republic’s nuclear program.

Analysts Udi Dekel and Carmit Valensi argued in a report published last month by the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) that despite public statements to the contrary, Russia like Israel, rejects a withdrawal of US forces from Syria.

After initially announcing in February a complete pullback, Mr. Trump agreed to keep several hundred US troops in the country.

Mr. Dekel and Ms. Valensi said that a US withdrawal would strengthen Iran and force Russia to allow Iran to take control of oil fields in the east of the country.

Writing in Haaretz, columnist Zvi Bar’el suggested that Russia and Iran differ over the endgame in Syria. “Russia has no intention of simply returning Syria to Assad’s control,” Mr. Bar’el said. He added that Russia sees Syria as a base to forge closer ties to the Gulf and Egypt.

Iran, by contrast, hopes to capitalize on its massive investment in Syria to maintain its influence in Lebanon, counter Saudi regional ambitions and grant it access to the Mediterranean.

Scores were killed in clashes between pro-Iranian militias and Russian forces in Aleppo and Deir az-Zor in April. Russian forces last month reportedly removed Shiite militias from areas close to the international airports of Aleppo and Damascus.

Ibrahim Al-Badawi, a Syrian columnist identified with Mr. Al-Assad’s regime, reported that Russian and Syrian security forces had arrested pro-Iranian Syrian activists.

Mr. Al-Badawi said further that a recent reshuffle of the upper echelons of the Syrian state security apparatus had been designed to weaken the position of Maher al-Assad, the president’s brother and commander of his Republican Guard as well as the army’s elite Fourth Armoured Division. Maher al-Assad is believed to be close to Iran.

Russia and Iran are “each…striving to strengthen its influence in the Syrian security apparatuses and in the militias fighting on the ground, while weakening the other side’s influence and presence… The [once-]concealed disagreements among Syria’s allies are now out in the open. It is no longer a secret that Russia, in response to a clear demand from the Gulf, aspires to weaken Iran’s influence,” Mr. Al-Badawi wrote.

A possible litmus test of the potential of the talks between the national security advisors may be whether Russia accedes to an Israeli request not to give Syria full control of the S-300 anti-missile system, the equivalent of the US Patriot batteries, that Moscow has already sold and delivered.

Israeli officials have warned their Russian counterparts that once fully controlled by Syrian forces, the S-300 would be a legitimate target.

Israel and Russia agreed four years ago to coordinate military actions over Syria in order to avoid accidentally trading fire.

Israel, however, last year rejected a Russian offer to ensure that Iranian forces would not move within 100 kilometres of the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel during the 1967 Middle East war and recently recognized as Israeli territory by the United States. Accepting the Russian offer would have amounted to tacit acceptance of an Iranian presence in Syria.

Mr. Dekel and Ms. Valensi noted in their report that Israeli forces had reduced the number of attacks on Iranian targets in Syria in a bid to improve chances of exploiting Russian-Iranian strains.

“There is a window of opportunity that allows Israel to try…with Russia and the United States…to formulate and achieve shared interests that it has with the two superpowers, most importantly increasing stability in Syria and instituting governmental reforms in Syria, along with reducing Iranian influence there,” Mr. Dekel and Ms. Valensi said.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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Middle East

Could Turkish aggression boost peace in Syria?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Turkey and the Kurds: What goes around comes around

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Turkey, like much of the Middle East, is discovering that what goes around comes around.

Not only because President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appears to have miscalculated the fallout of what may prove to be a foolhardy intervention in Syria and neglected alternative options that could have strengthened Turkey’s position without sparking the ire of much of the international community.

But also because what could prove to be a strategic error is rooted in a policy of decades of denial of Kurdish identity and suppression of Kurdish cultural and political rights that was more likely than not to fuel conflict rather than encourage societal cohesion.

The policy midwifed the birth in the 1970s to militant groups like the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), which only dropped its demand for Kurdish independence in recent years.

The group that has waged a low intensity insurgency that has cost tens of thousands of lives has been declared a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union.

Turkish refusal to acknowledge the rights of the Kurds, who are believed to account for up to 20 percent of the country’s population traces its roots to the carving of modern Turkey out of the ruins of the Ottoman empire by its visionary founder, Mustafa Kemal, widely known as Ataturk, Father of the Turks.

It is entrenched in Mr. Kemal’s declaration in a speech in 1923 to celebrate Turkish independence of “how happy is the one who calls himself a Turk,” an effort to forge a national identity for country that was an ethnic mosaic.

The phrase was incorporated half a century later in Turkey’s student oath and ultimately removed from it in 2013 at a time of peace talks between Turkey and the PKK by then prime minister, now president Erdogan.

It took the influx of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Kurds in the late 1980s and early 1990s as well as the 1991 declaration by the United States, Britain and France of a no-fly zone in northern Iraq that enabled the emergence of an autonomous Iraqi Kurdish region to spark debate in Turkey about the Kurdish question and prompt the government to refer to Kurds as Kurds rather than mountain Turks.

Ironically, Turkey’s enduring refusal to acknowledge Kurdish rights and its long neglect of development of the pre-dominantly Kurdish southeast of the country fuelled demands for greater rights rather than majority support for Kurdish secession largely despite the emergence of the PKK

Most Turkish Kurds, who could rise to the highest offices in the land s long as they identified as Turks rather than Kurds, resembled Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, whose options were more limited even if they endorsed the notion of a Jewish state.

Nonetheless, both minorities favoured an independent state for their brethren on the other side of the border but did not want to surrender the opportunities that either Turkey or Israel offered them.

The existence for close to three decades of a Kurdish regional government in northern Iraq and a 2017 referendum in which an overwhelming majority voted for Iraqi Kurdish independence, bitterly rejected and ultimately nullified by Iraqi, Turkish and Iranian opposition, did little to fundamentally change Turkish Kurdish attitudes.

If the referendum briefly soured Turkish-Iraqi Kurdish relations, it failed to undermine the basic understanding underlying a relationship that could have guided Turkey’s approach towards the Kurds in Syria even if dealing with Iraqi Kurds may have been easier because, unlike Turkish Kurds, they had not engaged in political violence against Turkey.

The notion that there was no alternative to the Turkish intervention in Syria is further countered by the fact that Turkish PKK negotiations that started in 2012 led a year later to a ceasefire and a boosting of efforts to secure a peaceful resolution.

The talks prompted imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan to publish a letter endorsing the ceasefire, the disarmament and withdrawal from Turkey of PKK fighters, and a call for an end to the insurgency. Mr. Ocalan predicted that 2013 would be the year in which the Turkish Kurdish issues would be resolved peacefully.

The PKK’s military leader, Cemil Bayik, told the BBC three years later that “we don’t want to separate from Turkey and set up a state. We want to live within the borders of Turkey on our own land freely.”

The talks broke down in 2015 against the backdrop of the Syrian war and the rise as a US ally of the United States in the fight against the Islamic State of the PKK’s Syrian affiliate, the People’s Protection Units (YPG).

Bitterly opposed to the US-YPG alliance, Turkey demanded that the PKK halt its resumption of attacks on Turkish targets and disarm prior to further negotiations.

Turkey responded to the breakdown and resumption of violence with a brutal crackdown in the southeast of the country and on the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).

Nonetheless, in a statement issued from prison earlier this year that envisioned an understanding between Turkey and Syrian Kurdish forces believed to be aligned with the PKK, Mr. Ocalan declared that “we believe, with regard to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the problems in Syria should be resolved within the framework of the unity of Syria, based on constitutional guarantees and local democratic perspectives. In this regard, it should be sensitive to Turkey’s concerns.”

Turkey’s emergence as one of Iraqi Kurdistan’s foremost investors and trading partners in exchange for Iraqi Kurdish acquiescence in Turkish countering the PKK’s presence in the region could have provided inspiration for a US-sponsored safe zone in northern Syria that Washington and Ankara had contemplated.

The Turkish-Iraqi Kurdish understanding enabled Turkey  to allow an armed Iraqi Kurdish force to transit Turkish territory in 2014 to help prevent the Islamic State from conquering the Syrian city of Kobani.

A safe zone would have helped “realign the relationship between Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and its Syrian offshoot… The safe-zone arrangements… envision(ed) drawing down the YPG presence along the border—a good starting point for reining in the PKK, improving U.S. ties with Ankara, and avoiding a potentially destructive Turkish intervention in Syria,” Turkey scholar Sonar Cagaptay suggested in August.

The opportunity that could have created the beginnings of a sustainable solution that would have benefitted Turkey as well as the Kurds fell by the wayside with Mr. Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from northern Syria.

In many ways, Mr. Erdogan’s decision to opt for a military solution fits the mould of a critical mass of world leaders who look at the world through a civilizational prism and often view national borders in relative terms.

Russian leader Vladimir Putin pointed the way with his 2008 intervention in Georgia and the annexation in 2014 of Crimea as well as Russia’s stirring of pro-Russian insurgencies in two regions of Ukraine.

Mr. Erdogan appears to believe that if Mr. Putin can pull it off, so can he.

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What will Middle East gain from US’ “retreat”?

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Throughout the year, American commentators have been sounding alarm over the weakening of the US positions in the Middle East. Optimists say Washington has intentionally been “cutting down on its commitments”. According to pessimists, America is quickly losing credibility amid an acute crisis of trust in its relations with its closest allies. Some of these allies are even working to harmonize relationships with Washington’s geopolitical rivals, or are looking for common ground to strike with those who are officially deemed “US enemies”.

Experts say the policy of the Trump administration in the Middle East should be more consistent, both in conceptual and personnel terms. This policy should be devoid of any sudden or drastic moves which could only undermine trust between the United States and the Gulf countries, Yasmine Farouk of the Carnegie Foundation said in February. Over the past six months, there have appeared sufficient grounds to believe that Iran “is gripped by fear and experiences a sense of despair in the confrontation with the United States.” However, the White House’s current policy on Tehran, which is lacking clear vision and trustworthy strategy, is sowing more and more seeds of distrust between America and its Sunni allies. This schism is the very “fundamental geostrategic success” that Iran has “sought to achieve over the past 40 years.” Now, Tehran sees more and more “opportunities and advantages” for itself, wrote Kenneth Pollack, an expert with Foreign Policy, at the end of September.

From 1991 to 2010 the United States enjoyed “incontestable supremacy in the Middle East. Even on the eve of the “Arab Spring”, most states in the region depended on America for help and “understanding” in many vital issues. However, the results of the Middle East policy of recent years are disappointing, Dennis Ross and Dana Stroul from the Washington Institute for Middle Eastern Policy say. The recent moves taken by the Trump administration, starting from the US withdrawal from the “nuclear deal” in May last year, which aimed at forcing Iran to make concessions, have “fallen through.” The attempt to reduce Iran’s activities in the region to zero by tightening sanctions, which, according to the White House, were to deprive Tehran of resources to pursue a full-fledged foreign policy, “did not work to effect.” If President Trump had actually managed to “isolate” anyone in the region, then it is not Iran, but the United States. Experts believe that the ambitious statements that have been made by Washington on a daily basis were not supported by convincing action, political or military. The White House’s flagrant reluctance to defend its allies deepens the gap between America and its partners in the Gulf Region. In addition, the policy of ill-thought sanctions led to the alienation of the European allies as well, without whom pressure on Tehran makes no sense.

Donald Trump strongly disagrees with such criticism, emphasizing that his foreign policy is based on “pragmatism” and “objective interests”. Concerning the Middle East, these words can be understood in at least two different ways. On the one hand, the current US administration believes that “cooperation” implies, first of all, the promotion of the “monetization” of the alliance, which was unequivocally announced in the Trump National Security Strategy in December 2017. Allies and partners are required to “contribute” by allocating more funds for the purchase of American weapons.

On the other hand, domestic oil production in the US has increased significantly in recent years, primarily due to the introduction of shale oil extraction technologies. As a result, America is rapidly turning “into a major competitor” of oil and gas suppliers from the Middle East. The presence in Washington’s regional policy of many Cold War – era features, including the dominance of ideology and the division of countries into “friends” and “foes,” may also have a new, extremely unpleasant interpretation for the Persian Gulf states. What is meant is Washington’s attempts to breathe new life into maintaining (or formal strengthening – despite the apparent setbacks, for example, of the concept of “Arab NATO”), a political architecture in which the region is divided into warring blocs. Given the situation, the deeper the region plunges into the chaos of destabilization, the easier it will be for the United States to deprive Saudi Arabia of its current status as the “regulator” of the global oil market.

Meanwhile, the Middle East’s geopolitical landscape is becoming ever more polycentric as more and more countries of the region demonstrate their intention to “stand for their interests”. In this context, the Trump administration’s obsession with the “Iranian threat” is causing ever more bewilderment among some Arab allies, as Tehran, for its part, has put forward and supported initiatives to alleviate regional tensions. According to IRNA, on September 23, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announced proposals “to ensure the safety of navigation in the region” and promote interstate cooperation in the Persian Gulf. The project, known as the “Hormuz Peace Initiative”,  encompasses “both security and economic issues.” “All countries of the Persian Gulf are invited to participate in a new format of regional dialogue,” –  the Iranian president said.  On October 1, Iranian Parliamentary Speaker Ali Larijani welcomed a statement made the day before by Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, that he was ready to start a dialogue between the two countries.

Six months ago, Riyadh, as well as Bahrain, unconditionally supported the US line for a tough confrontation with Iran. However, serious doubts were voiced by  leaders of Egypt, Jordan and Qatar. Kuwait, Qatar and Oman even came up in favor of diplomatic methods of resolving disagreements with Iran. In recent months, this policy has also been backed by the UAE. However, on September 14, a number of Saudi Arabia’s major oil infrastructure facilities came under a massive attack by drones and cruise missiles. Saudi Arabia and the US “have no doubts” that Iran is behind the attack. A lot will be clarified after the results of an inquiry by the international commission are made public: the publication of evidence that proves Tehran’s direct involvement in the attack could become a casus belli for the Saudis.

In this case, America’s Arab allies will be waiting for the White House’s reaction, which puts the Trump administration “in a pretty difficult position”. Whether part of the leadership in Riyadh is ready to go all-in and strike at Iran on their own, in the hope that the United States will not be able to stay away in case of a new war in the Gulf, will become a relevant issue again. However, Saudi Arabia has demonstrated a “weakness of its army” in Yemen. And the blow against the Saudi oil refining facilities, whoever was behind it, has raised the question of the effectiveness of American means of control of regional airspace, as well as the combat readiness of the air defense system based on American technology. The absence of a clear and decisive reaction from Trump can ruin the authority of the United States, both in the Gulf countries and in the entire Middle East Region. In addition, this may have a negative effect on American voters. Meanwhile, “… America cannot and does not want to wage a war against Iran”.

Russia’s position is aimed at resolving disagreements and potential conflicts in the Middle East through negotiation with the participation of all parties involved. In a recent interview with International Affairs Chief Editor Armen Oganesyan, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov expressed hope that “the crisis involving Iran will be settled without a new outbreak of conflict”. According to Ryabkov, Moscow believes in the triumph of common sense in the region,  which is being torn by several conflicts. In early October, in response to questions from the Valdai Discussion Club, the head of Russian diplomacy Sergey Lavrov  dwelled on Russia’s vision of the challenges facing the region. “Undoubtedly, security must be ensured in the Persian Gulf, but Iran has proposals that are not directed against anyone, they are not exclusive, they invite all countries to join forces.”

Russia, in turn, has come up with a proposal to begin a comprehensive and constructive dialogue on the concept of a Collective Security Treaty for the Persian Gulf with the prospect of its expansion to the entire Middle East. Addressing the participants in the Valdai Forum on October 3, President Vladimir Putin recalled how Moscow “together with partners of the Astana format” had brought together the interested countries in the region and the international community to launch a political settlement in Syria. The negotiations were joined by the United States. President Putin paid tribute to “President Trump’s courage and ability to take extraordinary steps”. The crisis involving the Korean Peninsula dissolved very quickly, he said, once the US administration moved from head-on confrontation to dialogue. The Syrian settlement  “may become a kind of model for resolving regional crises. And in the vast majority of cases, it will be the diplomatic mechanisms that will come handy. The use of force is an extreme measure, a forced exception,” –  President Putin emphasized. Moscow advocates convergence of efforts to address common threats. The latest initiative, which is based on this principle, is the idea of creating an organization “for security and cooperation, which, in addition to the Gulf countries, could comprise Russia, China, the USA, the EU, India and other countries concerned as observers”.

According to optimistic-minded American observers, the US leadership’s demonstration of restraint and caution on the use of force can have positive consequences – it could prompt countries of the Middle East to seek diplomatic solutions . But is Washington ready and able to “seize on the chance” and join international efforts to launch an extensive dialogue of all regional countries concerned? Up to now,  the Trump administration has demonstrated the potential to weaken, or even completely destroy,  multilateral institutions and formats, rather than create or support them. In the end, it is the “credo” of unilateralism that is behind the US doctrinal documents and foreign policy practice.

The Middle East faces a long and difficult search for solutions if it wants to successfully address many internal problems, which, in most cases, are knotty, to say the least. The process of overcoming the consequences of the “crises of the decade” will take years. Considering this, the Middle Eastern states will have to play an ever greater role in resolving regional problems. Contributing to this  will be the weakening of the former hegemon, which has been increasingly hinging on the use of force in recent years.  Russia’s return to the Middle East for securing a balance of strength will make it possible to avoid the detrimental consequences of underestimating the international dimension of threats coming from a number of regional conflicts. In addition, it will encourage a departure from the counterproductive policy of forming artificial “division lines”. 

From our partner International Affairs

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