Connect with us

Middle East

Idlib: The clock is ticking

Published

on

On August 1-2, the Kazakh capital Nur-Sultan was playing host to the 13th round of inter-Syrian talks, held as part of the so-called Astana format. The Russian delegation was led by President Putin’s Special Representative for the Syrian Settlement Alexander Lavrentyev, the Iranian – by the Assistant Foreign Minister Ali Asgar Haji, and Turkey was represented by the Deputy Foreign Minister Sedat Onal. Iraqi and Lebanese representatives were taking part in the meetings as observers. The negotiations focused on the situation in Idlib, discussing not so much “who is to blame” for what is happening there, as “what needs to be done.”

There are more than a dozen different armed groups currently holed up in Idlib, the largest being the National Liberation Front – an alliance of pro-Turkish groups – and the “Hayyat Tahrir al-Sham” radical group, banned in Russia. According to various reports, there are an estimated 30,000 militants, including foreigners, now active in the province.

Since the accords, which Russia and Turkey reached last year, the diehard radical groups have significantly expanded the area under their control in Idlib, a fact blamed by many on Turkey’s failure to fulfill its obligations under the 2018 agreement to separate the warring sides. Some, (including Russia), explain this by the complexity of the situation, while others – by Ankara’s reluctance to openly clamp down on Khayyat Tahrir al-Sham, even less so on its proxies. Observers often say that it is due to Idlib’s proximity to the Turkish border that the militants there are getting reinforcements, arms and money. As a result, the “de-escalation zone” has turned into a zone of a real escalation.

In the meantime, Damascus’ patience is running low, and with good reason too. The Syrian government is eager to liberate Idlib, which is the country’s last remaining radical enclave, while the radicals are trying to keep it as their only bridgehead in Syria. Regular militant attacks outside the “zone” are crushed by government forces, including by Russian airstrikes, which gives Ankara a reason to accuse Moscow of attacking “innocent civilians.”   Turkish military checkpoints have on several occasions come under fire by Syrian government forces, making Ankara see red. A few days ago, just before the meeting in Nur-Sultan, Turkey’s “semi-“or, rather, official Anatolian agency published an aptly-headlined article by the International Kazakh-Turkish University deputy rector, Cengiz Tomar. Titled “Russia’s position on Idlib is a threat to the Astana process,” the article accused Moscow of “failing to stop the attacks (by the Syrian army – AI) being launched against Idlib under the pretext of terrorists and radical groups allegedly present in the area.”

Mustafa Kemal Erdemol from the opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet thus explains why Ankara keeps clinging on to Idlib: “Turkey’s goal in Idlib is to maintain the status quo … Because as long as it remains there it can fight Kurdish units and, ultimately, create a Syria dependent on Turkey.”

In a July 11 interview with EurAsia Daily, Muset Ozugurlu, a columnist for the Gazete Duvar, said: “The first thing we need to know is whether Turkey wants to separate terrorists from moderates? Another question is whether there really are “moderates” in Idlib.” Muset Ozugurlu believes that as soon as the militants active in the province are defeated, Turkey will lose all the territories it now controls in Syria and the “last chance to be present” in the country.

During the talks in Nur-Sultan, Russia, true to its allied commitments, offered to help Turkey and the “moderates” climch a ceasefire. According to Alexander Lavrentiev, “Turkey has obligations under the Sochi memorandum. If they can’t fulfill them themselves, we can lend them a hand. Today we discussed this with the opposition representatives, telling them that if they are interested and need help in their fight against Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, then they can count on us.”

Almost simultaneously, the Syrian news agency SANA announced a ceasefire in Idlib “in keeping with the Russian-Turkish agreement signed in Sochi in September 2018.” Most of the opposition delegates backed the initiative. The chief Syrian delegate, Bashar al-Jafari, said the truce was “a test for Turkey,” which should finally prove whether it is the real guarantor of the peace process “or just plays for the opposition.”

It looks like Damascus’ offer will be hard to turn down. It also gives the “moderates” one last chance to exonerate themselves. Alexander Lavrentyev made it clear that “demarcation” with the “irreconcilables” is no longer relevant: “The question here is not about demarcation, but about prodding the moderate opposition towards liberating these territories and take them under control.” As to the radicals, they “must be destroyed, simple as that.”. The message is crystal clear. As the Syrian political scientist Ali Al-Ahmad put it, “Turkey felt that Russia really means business, so I think they will start fulfilling their Sochi obligations, because if they don’t, then this goal will be achieved through military operations.”

Before very long, however, as if to prove their inability to agree, the militants broke the ceasefire shelling the positions of the Syrian army.

It now seems that very little can possibly be done to avert a military operation in Idlib, the only question being “when.”

Apparently realizing this, the Turkish Defense Ministry announced that representatives of the US and Turkish military command would meet on August 5 to establish a “security zone” in northern Syria. Does it mean that, failing to accomplish their mission in Idlib, the Turks are now shifting their focus to the “Kurdish threat”? Or, true to their tactic, they are again telling (this time their partners in the Astana format) that they need room for maneuver and have a strategic alternative?

Let’s not jump to far-reaching conclusions though. Moscow, Ankara (and Tehran) have more than once demonstrated their ability to reach compromise solutions to difficult situations. Moreover, Turkey is a partner in the Syrian settlement process and its influence on the negotiable part of the opposition makes it valuable to Moscow. Turkey, for its part, certainly values good relations with Russia. That being said, it is still imperative to solve the problem of Idlib, and solve it quickly. Only then will it become possible to talk about building a peaceful future for Syria. By the way, Damascus has reportedly reached agreement with the UN concerning the composition of the constitutional commission.

Much will depend on the next summit of countries – guarantors of the Astana process, slated for September 11.

From our partner International Affairs

Middle East

Restart Iran Policy by Stopping Tehran’s Influence Operations

Published

on

Another US administration is trying to figure out its Iran policy. And, as always, the very regime at the core of the riddle is influencing the policy outcome. Through the years, the clerical rulers of Iran have honed the art of exploiting America’s democratic public sphere to mislead, deceive, confuse, and influence the public and government.

Yet Washington still does not have a proper taxonomy of policy antidotes when it comes to Tehran’s influence operations.

Arguments dictated by Iranian intelligence services echo in think tanks and many government agencies. These include the extremely misguided supposition that the murderous regime can be reformed or is a reliable negotiating partner for the West; or that there is no other alternative but to deal with the status quo.

How has Tehran been able to deceive some in the US into believing such nonsense? First, by relying on the policy of appeasement pursued by Western governments. And second, through its sophisticated influence operations facilitated by that policy.

Consider three recent instances.

First. Just last month, an Iranian “political scientist” was charged by the Justice Department for acting as an unregistered agent of Iran and secretly receiving money from its mission in New York. “For over a decade, Kaveh Afrasiabi pitched himself to Congress, journalists, and the American public … for the benefit of his employer, the Iranian government, by disguising propaganda as objective polic1y analysis and expertise,” the Justice Department noted.

Afrasiabi has an extensive body of published work and television appearances. In July 2020, according to the Justice Department, he linked many of his books and hundreds of articles in an email written to Iran’s Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, saying: “Without [Zarif’s] support none of this would have been possible!”

Second. Across the Atlantic, one of Zarif’s official diplomats in Europe, Assadollah Assadi, was convicted and given a 20-year prison sentence by a Belgian court on February 4 for trying to bomb an opposition rally in the outskirts of Paris in June 2018.

Court documents revealed that Assadi crisscrossed Europe as Tehran’s intelligence station chief, paying and directing many agents in at least 11 European countries.

Assadi’s terrorist plot in 2018 was foiled at the last minute. The main target was Maryam Rajavi, the President-elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI). Hundreds of Western lawmakers and former officials were also in attendance.

Third. Unable to harm its opposition through terrorism, the regime has expanded its influence operations against NCRI’s main constituent organization the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), which Tehran considers its arch nemesis.

For decades, the mullahs have misled, deceived, and confused America’s Iran policy by disseminating considerable disinformation about the democratic opposition. This has in turn resulted in bungled American responses to Tehran’s threats.

In a breaking revelation this month, a former Iranian intelligence operative wrote a letter to the UN Secretary General, outlining in glaring detail how the regime’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) recruits, pays, and controls dozens of agents across Europe to influence policy.

Forty-one-year-old Hadi Sani-Khani wrote that he was approached by intelligence agents who lured him into the Iranian embassy in Tirana, Albania (MEK’s headquarters). He said he wants to go back to Iran. On one condition, the embassy responded: Cooperate with the regime’s intelligence against the MEK. He subsequently met with the regime’s intelligence chief, Fereidoun Zandi, who coordinated a network of paid agents in Albania since 2014. The intelligence chief was later expelled by Albanian authorities along with the regime’s ambassador.

Khani was paid 500 euros per month to write and publish anti-MEK articles and also send copious amounts of similar propaganda to members of the European parliament. Dozens of websites are operated by Tehran’s intelligence, some of which are, astonishingly, undeclared sources for unsuspecting Western journalists, think tanks and government agencies when it comes to the MEK.

In many cases, reporters have met directly with the regime’s intelligence agents for their stories. In September 2018, for example, according to Khani, a reporter from German newspaper Der Spiegel traveled to Albania. Khani recalls: “We met the Der Spiegel reporter in a Café in Ramsa district in Zagozi square. Each of us then told her lies about the MEK which we had been given in preparation of the meeting. … [Later on,] she occasionally asked me questions about the MEK which I then raised with the embassy and provided her the response I received.”

Der Spiegel published the story on February 16, 2019, parts of which were copied from websites affiliated with Iran’s intelligence service. Following a lawsuit, a court in Hamburg ordered Der Spiegel to remove the defamatory segments of its article.

These same agents also met with a New York Times correspondent at the same Café, who subsequently wrote a piece against the MEK, regurgitating the very same allegations.

The mullahs’ influence operations are a serious obstacle to formulating an effective US policy toward Tehran. As long as the regime’s agents are allowed to exploit America’s public sphere, cultivate important relationships, infiltrate the media and think tanks, and influence serious policy deliberations in Washington through a flood of falsehoods, America will be at a substantial disadvantage.

Continue Reading

Middle East

China in the Middle East: Stepping up to the plate

Published

on

By defining Chinese characteristics as “seeking common ground while reserving differences,” a formula that implies conflict management rather than conflict resolution, Messrs. Sun and Wu were suggesting that China was seeking to prepare the ground for greater Chinese engagement in efforts to stabilize the Middle East, a volatile region that repeatedly threatens to spin out of control.

The scholars defined China’s goal as building an inclusive and shared regional collective security mechanism based on fairness, justice, multilateralism, comprehensive governance, and the containment of differences.

By implication, Messrs. Sun and Wu’s vision reflected a growing realization in China that it no longer can protect its mushrooming interests exclusively through economic cooperation, trade, and investment.

It also signalled an understanding that stability in the Middle East can only be achieved through an inclusive, comprehensive, and multilateral reconstructed security architecture of which China would have to be part.

Messrs. Sun and Wu’s article, published in a prominent Chine policy journal, was part of a subtle and cautious Chinese messaging that was directed towards players on all sides of the Middle East’s multiple divides.

To be clear, China, like Russia, is not seeking to replace the United States, certainly not in military terms, as a dominant force in the Middle East. Rather, it is gradually laying the groundwork to capitalize on a US desire to rejigger its regional commitments by exploiting US efforts to share the burden more broadly with its regional partners and allies.

China is further suggesting that the United States has proven to be unable to manage the Middle East’s myriad conflicts and disputes, making it a Chinese interest to help steer the region into calmer waters while retaining the US military as the backbone of whatever restructured security architecture emerges.

Implicit in the message is the assumption that the Middle East may be one part of the world in which the United States and China can simultaneously cooperate and compete; cooperate in maintaining regional security and compete on issues like technology.

That may prove to be an idealized vision. China, like the United States, is more likely to discover that getting from A to B can be torturous and that avoiding being sucked into the Middle East’s myriad conflicts is easier said than done.

China has long prided itself on its ability to maintain good relations with all sides of the divide by avoiding engagement in the crux of the Middle East’s at times existential divides.

Yet, building a sustainable security architecture that includes conflict management mechanisms, without tackling the core of those divides, is likely to prove all but impossible. The real question is at what point does China feel that the cost of non-engagement outweighs the cost of engagement?

The Middle East is nowhere close to entertaining the kind of approaches and policies required to construct an inclusive security architecture. Nevertheless, changes to US policy being adopted by the Biden administration are producing cracks in the posture of various Middle Eastern states, albeit tiny ones, that bolster the Chinese messaging.

Various belligerents, including Saudia Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Turkey, but not Iran or Israel, at least when it comes to issues like Iran and the Palestinians, have sought to lower the region’s temperature even if fundamentals have not changed.

A potential revival of the 2015 international Iran nuclear agreement could provide a monkey wrench.

There is little doubt that any US-Iranian agreement to do so would focus exclusively on nuclear issues and would not include other agenda points such as ballistic missiles and Iranian support for non-state actors in parts of the Middle East. The silver lining is that ballistic missiles and support for non-state actors are issues that Iran would likely discuss if they were embedded in a discussion about restructured regional security arrangements.

This is where China may have a significant contribution to make. Getting all parties to agree to discuss a broader, more inclusive security arrangement involves not just cajoling but also assuaging fears, including whether and to what degree Chinese relations with an Iran unfettered by US sanctions and international isolation would affect Gulf states.

To be sure, while China has much going for it in the Middle East such as its principle of non-interference in the domestic affairs of others, its affinity for autocracy, and its economic weight and emphasis on economic issues, it also needs to manage pitfalls. These include reputational issues despite its vaccine diplomacy, repression of the Uyghurs in the north-western province of Xinjiang, and discrimination against other Muslim communities.

China’s anti-Muslim policies may not be an immediate issue for much of the Muslim world, but they continuously loom as a potential grey swan.

Nevertheless, China, beyond doubt, alongside the United States can play a key role in stabilizing the Middle East. The question is whether both Beijing and Washington can and will step up to the plate.

Continue Reading

Middle East

The US doesn’t deserve a sit on the UNHRC, with its complicity in the Saudi war crimes in Yemen

Published

on

A family in the Al Dhale'e camp for people displaced by the conflict in Yemen. YPN for UNOCHA

Last week, the US State Department communicated its intention of joining the UN Human Rights Council later this year. The UN General Assembly will be voting this October on who gets to join the 47-member UN Human Rights Council. 47 members is less than a fourth of all UN member states, so only very few countries get a seat and a say.

The United States does not deserve to join the UN Human Rights Council, with its complicity in the Saudi war crimes in Yemen.

The Human Rights Council is often criticized, especially by the right in the US, for having only bad human rights actors with atrocious records as members. But the US is not an exception to the atrocious human rights record club. 

In the seemingly war-less Trump period, the US nevertheless still managed to get engaged in war and war crimes in the completely devastated Yemen, which was hit by the worst humanitarian crisis and famine over the last years, after US-backed Saudi forces basically flattened the country. Over 13mln people suffered from starvation. Media and human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch alike have pointed to US complicity in war crimes in Yemen.

Months ago, I criticized UNICEF chief Henrietta Fore for lauding the Saudis’ “humanitarian leadership” in Yemen for the price of USD 150mln. The UN blue-washing partnerships were possible after UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres removed Saudi Arabia from the UN blacklist in 2020 to make sure the rivers of cash by the Saudi humanitarian heroes kept flowing in the UN’s direction. But in October this year, it is not Antonio-it’s not a big deal-Guterres that decides who gets on the UN Human Rights Council. It’s all the UN member states. And many of them will not be impressed by the Saudi humanitarian leadership.

And even though a month ago, new US President Joe Biden announced that the US is ending its support for the Saudi offensive – and in parallel the US intell revealed the Khashoggi report which outlined the Saudi prince’s involvement in the murder of the journalist – questions still persist about the US role in the Yemeni situation from now on. 73% of all Saudi arms imports come from the US. The US State Department will simply be playing on words from now on in redefining what constitutes “offensive” support for the Saudi coalition, as the State Department Spokesperson Ned Price seemed to suggest. Any military expert knows how difficult it is to differentiate between offensive and defensive capabilities. Unless it’s really barb wire standing on your border, it’s pretty hard to make the case that something will serve for only defensive purposes. Especially if the “defense-only” capabilities are for a war-driven Saudi-led coalition. So, basically the Biden policy is the Trump policy, but much more polished. The language is more technocraticly elegant, but the essence is the same – just like many of the other decisions by the Biden Administration in its first weeks. It’s basically Trump, only the phrasing is much more polished and professionally shrewd.

This week, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken criticized Yemen’s Houthies for breaking the peace in responding to the Saudi forces, but it is safe to say that there isn’t much peace to break in Yemen, and the US has also taken care of that. So, Blinken’s statement reveals a new doze of hypocrisy – hypocrisy, which also characterizes the US’s decision to rejoin the UN Human Rights Council.

Biden’s Syria strikes that left many Biden supporters quite surprised last week also indicated that many of us who thought Biden would be a classical Democrat centrist were actually wrong. Biden has much more in common with the right now, judging by his very first policy choices – at home and foreign policy wise.

The US government will have to try a bit harder than “we are not Trump”, if it wants to convince the rest of the countries in October that it deserves a sit on the human rights table. If the Biden Administration continues the same way, it’s not going to be able to do so.

Continue Reading

Publications

Latest

Middle East4 hours ago

Restart Iran Policy by Stopping Tehran’s Influence Operations

Another US administration is trying to figure out its Iran policy. And, as always, the very regime at the core...

Development7 hours ago

Equality in engineering crucial to achieving sustainable development

Regional disparities in engineering, especially in Africa, must be addressed if the world is to realize a common future where...

EU Politics8 hours ago

Pay Transparency: Commission proposes measures to ensure equal pay for equal work

The European Commission has today presented a proposal on pay transparency to ensure that women and men in the EU...

Americas10 hours ago

Implications of Right-Wing Politics in United States

US witnessed one of the tumultuous transition of power as the republicans shook the very roots of a model democracy...

EU Politics12 hours ago

The gender dimension must be included in the COVID-19 recovery plans

MEPs, national MEPs and high-level guests discussed women’s crucial role in leading the fight against the pandemic, in an interparliamentary...

Americas14 hours ago

New US Administration Approach to Syria: How Different Could It Be?

With the new US administration in the White House, there are rather lofty expectations about a change in the American...

New Social Compact16 hours ago

Mental health alert for 332 million children linked to COVID-19 lockdown policies

The UN Children’s Fund, UNICEF, says the mental health of millions of children worldwide has been put at risk, with at least...

Trending