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The end of the honeymoon between Iran and Russia in Syria

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Although many years have passed since the end of the Cold War, world powers are competing for hegemony and gaining allies in the Middle East. Perhaps the turning point is the Arab Spring (2011), which has shifted the balance of power in the region between global and regional powers, and then created new rules and actors. Meanwhile, Iran and Russia, as important regional and global actors, sought to reconsider their Middle East policy and find new partners. Now that about 10 years have passed since the Arab crisis, the presence of these actors in Syria continues. But the current situation in the Syrian crisis has created differences between Iran and Russia, which shows that we are seeing changes in some of the policies of these two countries. Now the question is whether Iran and Russia are still cooperating or whether the era of competition and their distance from each other has begun. A question that could be related to Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif’s visit to Russia and Turkey last week. The trip coincided with the implementation of the so-called “Caesar” US sanctions against Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria. However, in addition to putting pressure on the Syrian government, Caesar’s sanctions appear to be putting pressure on the regime’s two main supporters, Iran and Russia, and increasing the cost of the two countries’ presence in Syria.

Cooperation between Iran and Russia in Syria

The start of serious cooperation between Iran and Russia in Syria dates back to 2015, when the Syrian army’s defeat in the Syrian civil war and the fall of Bashar al-Assad seemed likely, in such circumstances, Iran asked Russia for help. Russia’s serious involvement in the Syrian war began in 2015, after the visit of Qassem Soleimani, the former commander of the Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guards. At the same time, Iran called on Russia to intervene in the Syrian crisis to maintain Bashar al-Assad’s power. Russia’s military intervention in Syria is in fact part of Moscow’s attempt to return to the global geopolitical chessboard as a major power (and an attempt to forge multilateral alliances and a balance between most of the region’s powers); these characteristics are essentially based on pragmatism and political realism. On the other hand, Iran’s presence in Syria was initially accompanied by advisory assistance and then the presence of ground forces to support the Syrian government. These forces included Iranian-backed military forces and paramilitary groups. But the defeat of Assad’s forces required extensive airstrike’s by Russian troops. Russia’s serious presence in Syria began in late September 2015, prompting Russia to work to eliminate threats, such as the American hegemony, separatism, and extremist Islamism. In this regard, Vladimir Putin has embarked on a path of multifaceted diplomacy. Russia has launched a new phase of cooperation with Iran and Syrian forces with airstrike’s against Assad’s opponents in Syria. The attacks coincided with the rise of ISIS forces in Syria. The ground support of Iran and militias from the Syrian army, as well as the air support of the Russian military, led to the successive defeats of Assad’s opponents and the consolidation of his power, Under these circumstances, Iran and Russia were moving in almost the same direction due to common interests, so much so that Russian air forces used the Nojeh air base in Hamadan for their operations in Syria.

Russia’s Disputes with Iran in Syria

Despite good new Iran-Russia relations in the Middle East, Iran remain dependent on Russia’s security support against the perceived threat of regime change by the United States. Given factors such as nuclear development and the strengthening of the military, relations between the two countries are crucial for the future of the Middle East. However, it can be said that the existence of some ideological affinities is a good understanding of the context and depends on the conditions rather than participation in a joint political project or a common strategic plan. They both reject Western policies of promoting regime change and using human rights issues to advance geopolitical goals. This theoretical convergence applies especially in the Syrian case, where both countries reject the prospect of the emergence of a new regime that the Russians fear is pro-Western and the Iranians fear pro-Saudi. Thus, the two countries present themselves as supporters of the status quo and declare that the only advantage of their opponents is to destabilize Syria.

One of the issues of contention between Iran and Russia in Syria is the differing views of Tehran and Moscow on Israel’s security concerns over Iran’s continued presence in Syria. Israel has repeatedly stated that it will not allow Iran to continue its military presence in Syria; Israeli warplanes have repeatedly bombed positions of Iranian forces and their allied militias in Syria; On the other hand, Russia has not used these systems to defend the positions of Iranian forces, while it has advanced anti-aircraft systems in Syria. At this point, their divergence over Israel – Iran sees Israel as its main rival in the region, while Russia has had diplomatic relations with the Jewish state – is not a major factor in their participation. Russia, while even saying that Iran will go to Syria at the invitation of the Syrian government and will leave Syria only with the opinion of Damascus, has called for the full withdrawal of foreign troops from Syria.

“Shiaization” in Syria has also been a source of discord / divergence between Moscow and Tehran. Russia prefers a Sunni return and Iran prefers Shia transfer / export. However, Iran’s sectarian interests are not the most important determinant of its relations with Russia. Their mutual participation as a whole stems from competition between the United States and Russia, as well as tensions between Iran and the United States. Iran is in favor of an alliance with the Lebanese political party, Hezbollah, and Shiite militias, which are mainly made up of Pakistani, Afghan and Iraqi fighters. Russia, on the other hand, wants to maintain Syria’s state institutions and does not support the Shiiteization of some of these military groups, such as Hezbollah and some Shiite militias. Russia seems to have no interest in being a smaller ally of the United States in the war against ISIS, nor does it have any interest in diplomatic efforts to end the civil war in Syria.

Conclusion

The question now is what kind of game Russia is playing with Iran; Cooperation with Iran or competition. Putin is seeking to maintain Russia’s economic and military interests in Syria, so Putin and Assad seem to be preventing Iran from continuing to be present in Syria. The reality is that Assad is more inclined to cooperate more with Moscow. Putin and Assad will set aside, Iran for their own interests and for Netanyahu and Trump; In fact, the Israeli attacks on Iranian positions in Syria and near the Israeli border in the Golan Heights with Russian green lights. The Russian military shut down its S-300 air defense system during Israeli attacks on Iranian positions in Syria, and if the system had worked properly, Israel would not have been able to carry out air strikes on Syrian territory easily. On the one hand, Iran has spent a lot of money in Syria, and these costs cannot be reimbursed; on the other hand, despite US sanctions and maximum US pressure on Iran, Iran cannot spend much in Syria. With the gradual movement of the Syrian civil war to an end, Iran’s continued presence in the country in the long run has also created sensitivities on the part of the Western world and the Gulf states. It seems that the US-Israel-Russia is seeking to form a secret alliance to determine Syria’s future, and it is unlikely that the Syrian government will be reluctant to continue Iran’s presence and influence in the country in the long run, Meanwhile, Syria is more inclined to continue Russia’s presence. Finally, it remains to be seen whether Russia’s military presence in Syria will lead Iran out of Syria, and whether Russia’s cooperation with the United States and Israel will expand.

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Russia Foreign Minister’s Gulf tour: A bellwether of US-Saudi relations

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As Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov embarks on a four-day visit to the Gulf, Middle Eastern leaders are either struggling to get a grip on Joe Biden’s recalibration of US policy in the region or signalling their refusal to adapt to the president’s approach.

Mr. Lavrov’s visit to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar comes a week after the United States released an intelligence report that pointed fingers at Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for allegedly ordering the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Earlier, the United States halted the sale of weapons to the kingdom that could be deployed in its six-year-long devastating offensive in Yemen.

Even though he is not stopping in Istanbul and Jerusalem, Mr. Lavrov is travelling in the region as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is still waiting for a phone call from Mr. Biden and Israel is suggesting that it may not engage with US efforts to revive the 2015 international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program and could act on its own more aggressively to counter the Islamic republic’s nuclear ambitions.

Mr. Lavrov is certain to want to capitalize on Mr. Biden’s rattling of Middle Eastern cages amid perceptions that recalibration of relations with Saudi Arabia and delayed phone calls suggest that the United States is downgrading the Middle East’s importance in its global strategy, reducing its security commitments, and potentially considering a withdrawal.

There is little doubt that the United States wants a restructuring of its commitments through greater burden-sharing and regional cooperation but is unlikely to abandon the Middle East altogether.

The question is whether Mr. Biden’s rattling of cages constitutes simply signalling US intentions or a deliberate attempt to let problematic allies and partners stew in uncertainty in a bid to increase the administration’s leverage. 

Potentially the longer-term strategy may be an unintended yet beneficial consequence of the administration’s conviction that addressing domestic emergencies such as the pandemic and economic crisis as well as repairing relations with America’s traditional allies in Europe and Asia is a pre-requisite for restoring US influence and leverage that was damaged by former President Donald J. Trump.

If so, Mr. Lavrov may unwittingly be doing the Biden administration a favour by attempting to exploit perceived daylight between the United States and its allies to push a Russian plan for a restructured security architecture.

That plan envisions a Middle Eastern security conference modelled on the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and a regional non-aggression pact that would be guaranteed by the United States, China, Russia, and India.

In doing so, Mr. Lavrov would be preparing the ground for debate about a concept that has been discussed in different forms at various points by US officials, in which a United States that credibly is getting its house in order would retain its dominant position as the military backbone of a new security architecture.

It would also drive home the point that neither Russia nor China are willing or capable of replacing the United States and that Middle Eastern countries are likely to benefit most from an architecture that allows them to diversify their relationships and potentially play one against the other.

It is early days, but so far, Saudi Arabia has insisted “that the partnership between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United States of America is a robust and enduring partnership” even though it rejected in the same statement the US intelligence report as” negative, false and unacceptable.”

For now, Saudi Arabia appears determined to counter strong winds in the White House as well as Congress rather than rush to Moscow and Beijing in a realignment of its geopolitical and security relationships.

To do so, the kingdom, in the run-up to the release of the report, has broadened its public relations and lobbying campaign to focus beyond Washington’s Beltway politics on America’s heartland where fewer people are likely to follow the grim reality of the war in Yemen, a country that the Saudi-led bombing campaign has turned into world’s worst humanitarian crisis or the gruesome details of Mr. Khashoggi’s killing.

The campaign appears designed to create grassroots empathy for Saudi Arabia across the United States that would filter back from constituents to members of Congress.

“We recognize that Americans outside Washington are interested in developments in Saudi Arabia and many, including the business community, academic institutions and various civil society groups, are keen on maintaining long-standing relations with the kingdom or cultivating new ones,” said Fahad Nazer, a spokesman for the Saudi embassy in Washington.

Filings show that companies lobbying on behalf of Saudi Arabia reported that half of their  2,000 lobbying contacts in the last year were with individuals and groups outside of Washington.

Working with local and regional companies outside the US capital, including Larson Shannahan Slifka Group (LS2 Group) in Iowa and its subcontractors in Maine, Georgia, North Carolina and other states, Saudi lobbyists contacted local chambers of commerce, media, women’s groups, and faith communities among which synagogues.

The lobbyists distributed materials touting the benefits to women in sports and other sectors accrued from Prince Mohammed’s social reforms in a country that banned women from driving as recently as three years ago.

The Saudi focus is unlikely to deter Mr. Lavrov from peddling Russian military hardware during his tour of the Gulf, including the S-400 anti-missile defence system that Saudi Arabia expressed interest in long before the US election that swept Mr. Biden into the White House.

The kingdom has so far not taken its interest any further. Whether it does so during this week’s visit by Mr. Lavrov will serve as a bellwether of whether Saudi Arabia will turn towards Russia and China in a significant way.

So far US analysts appear to be unconcerned.

Said former US intelligence official Paul Pillar, a frequent commentator on Middle East affairs: “The attractiveness of doing business with the United States will remain without the coddling, as is true of Saudi choices regarding arms purchases, given that their defences have been built largely around US hardware.”

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Papal visit to Iraq: Breaking historic ground pockmarked by religious and political minefields

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Copyright © Dicastero per la Comunicazione - Vatican Media

When Pope Francis sets foot in Iraq on Friday, he will be breaking historic ground while manoeuvring religious and political minefields. So will his foremost religious counterpart, Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali al-Husayni al-Sistani, one of the Shia Muslim world’s foremost scholars and leaders.

The three-day visit contrasts starkly with past papal trips to the Middle East that included Turkey, Egypt, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates and Azerbaijan, states that, unlike neighbouring Iran, are more accustomed to inter-faith interactions because of their Sunni Muslim history and colonial experience or in the case of Shia-majority Azerbaijan a modern history of secular and communist rule.

Unlike in Azerbaijan, Pope Francis is venturing in Iraq into a Shia-majority country that has been wracked by sectarian violence in which neighbouring Iran wields significant religious and political influence and that is home to religious scholars that compete with their counterparts in the Islamic republic. As a result, Iraqi Shiite clerics often walk a tightrope.

Scheduled to last 40 minutes, Ayatollah Al-Sistani’s meeting with the pope, a high point of the visit, constitutes a double-edged sword for a 90-year-old religious leader born in Iran who has a complex relationship with the Islamic republic.

Ayatollah Al-Sistani has long opposed Iran’s system of direct rule by clerics. As a result, he has eschewed executive and political authority while playing a key role in reconciling Iraqi Shiites and Sunnis, promoting inter-tribal and ethnic peace, and facilitating the drafting and ratification of a post-US invasion constitution.

Ayatollah Al-Sistani’s influence, however, has been evident at key junctures in recent Iraqi history. Responding to an edict by the ayatollah, Iraqis flocked to the polls in 2005 despite the risk of jihadist attacks. Large numbers enlisted in 2017 to fight the Islamic State after Ayatollah Al-Sistani rallied the country. The government of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi resigned in 2019, four days after Ayatollah Al-Sistani expressed support for protesters demanding sweeping reforms.

To avoid controversy, Ayatollah Al-Sistani is likely to downplay the very aspects of a meeting with the pope that political and religious interlocutors of the head of the Catholic church usually bask in: the ability to leverage the encounter to enhance their legitimacy and position themselves as moderate and tolerant peacemakers.

With state-controlled media in Iran largely refraining from mentioning the visit and Iranian Spiritual Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei claiming the mantle of leadership of the Muslim world, Ayatollah Al-Sisi is likely to avoid projecting the encounter as a recognition by the pope that he is Shiite Islam’s chief interlocutor or that the holy Iraqi city of Najaf, rather than Iran’s Qom, is the unrivalled capital of Shiite learning.

Sources close to Ayatollah Al-Sistani, who rarely receives foreign dignitaries, have described his encounter on Saturday with the pope as a “private meeting.”

“Khamenei will not like it,” said Mehdi Khalaji, an Islamic scholar who studied in Qom and is a senior fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Critics are likely to note that Ayatollah Al-Sistani was meeting the pope but had failed to receive in December Iranian Chief Justice Ebrahim Raisi, who is touted as a potential presidential candidate in elections scheduled for June and/or successor to Ayatollah Khamenei.

Mr. Khalaji noted that Iran has long downplayed Ayatollah Al-Sistani’s significance that is boosted by the fact that he maintains a major presence not only in Najaf but also in Qom where he has a seminary, a library, and a clerical staff.

Shiite scholars suggest that is one reason why Pope Francis and Ayatollah Al-Sistani are unlikely to issue a Shiite-Christian equivalent of the Declaration of Human Fraternity that was signed in Abu Dhabi two years ago by the pontiff and Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, the Cairo-based historic cathedral of Islamic learning.

“Al-Sistani does not want to provoke Khamenei. There is no theological basis to do so. Muslims cannot be brothers of Christians. Mainstream Islamic theological schools see modern Christianity as inauthentic. They view Jesus as the divine prophet, not as the incarnation of God and his son. In short, for official Islam, today’s Christianity is nothing short of heresy,” Mr. Khalaji said, referring to schools of thought predominant in Iran. “Sunnis are a little bit more flexible,” he added.

Mr. Khalaji noted further that Shiite religious seminaries have no intellectual tradition of debate about inter-faith dialogue nor do any of the offices of religious leaders have departments concerned with interacting with other faith groups. “The whole discourse is absent in Shia Islam,” Mr. Khalaji said.

That has not stopped Ayatollah Al-Sistani from maintaining discreet contacts with the Vatican over the years.

In a bid to popularize the concept of inter-faith dialogue, Pope Francis is scheduled to hold a multi-religious prayer meeting in Ur, the presumed birthplace of Abraham, revered as the father of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

By the same token, Pope Francis, concerned about the plight of Christians in the Middle East and particularly Iraq that has seen the diverse minority shrink from 1.2 million before the 2003 US invasion to at most 300,000 today, will want to build on the Shiite leader’s past calls for protection of the minority faith group from attacks by militants and condemnation of “heinous crimes” committed against them.

The pope hopes that a reiteration by Ayatollah Al-Sistani of his empathy for the plight of Christians would go a long way in reducing pressure on the community from Iranian-backed militias that has stopped many from returning to homes they abandoned as they fled areas conquered by the Islamic State.

The pope’s visit, little more than a month after a bomb blast in Baghdad killed 32 people and days after rockets hit an airbase housing US troops, has sparked hope among some Iraqis that it will steer the country away from further violence.

That hope was boosted by a pledge by Saraya Awliyat Al-Dam (Custodians of the Blood), the pro-Iranian group believed to have attacked the airbase, to suspend its operations during the pope’ visit “as a sign of respect for Imam Al-Sistani.”

Said Middle East scholar Hayder al-Khoei: “There will be no signing of a document, but both (Pope Francis and Ayatollah Al-Sistani) are advocates of interfaith dialogue and condemn violence committed in the name of religion. The meeting will undoubtedly strengthen the voices and organizations who still believe in dialogue.”

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Iraq Opens Hands to the Pope Francis’ Historic Visit

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Copyright © Dicastero per la Comunicazione - Vatican Media

The world looks forward to Pope Francis’ historic visit to Iraq which is considered the first papal trip represented by the Roman Catholic Church to the cradle of civilization, Mesopotamia, despite spreading the second wave of COVID-19 and the security situation in Iraq. This expected visit has an important impact on highlighting the challenges and disasters of humiliation, the sectarian war and displacing people, Yazidis persecution, and fleeing the Christian minorities that faced Iraq during all these past years after the US invasion occurred in 2003.

The three-day-visit is considered as the message of peace after years of war and violence, referring that the Pope’s visit is as a pilgrim to the cradle of civilization. The papal visit includes Baghdad, Erbil, Mosul- Qaraqosh, and Ur city. The trip comes after 18 months as the pandemic restricts his movement, and it is the first visit to the Middle East when he visited the U.A.E in February 2019 where he met and celebrated in front of 180,000 people at the Zayed Sports City stadium in Abu Dhabi.

The papal visit was intended to occur twenty years ago when St. John Paul II tried to visit Mesopotamia during Saddam’s regime, but the endeavors failed to complete that proposed trip. “The people of Iraq are waiting for us. The people waited for St. John Paul II who was not permitted to go. We cannot disappoint them twice”, said the Pope.

In a video message addressed by the Pope to the people of Iraq, he expressed his happiness and longing to meet the people who suffered from war, scourges, and death during all these years. “I long to meet you, to look at your faces and to visit your blessed ancient land and the cradle of civilization,” the Pope said.

It is expected that the purpose of the Pope’s visit is to preserve the rest of the Christians in Iraq. According to the estimation of the charity aid of the Church in Need, the numbers of Christians have decreased from 1.4 million to under 250,000 since the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, especially in the cities of northern Iraq. Many Christians were killed and fled from 2014 to 2017 due to the Islamic State occupation and due to their atrocities, persecution, and violence against the Christian areas. The Pope yearns for meeting the dwindling Christian communities in Mosul, Qaraqosh, and Nineveh plains where these regions had suffered from the atrocities of ISIS in 2014 and people had been compelled to flee.

The world is waiting for the most significant historic meeting between the 90-year-old Shia Muslim cleric, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and the 84-year-old Pope Francis in the Shiite shrine city of Najaf. The expected meeting is seen as a real chance to enhance the bonds of fraternity between the Muslims and Christians and to lighten the impact of the islamophobia concept that swept Europe and America due to the terrorism actions that happened in Europe. This expected meeting that will be by Saturday signifies a historic moment when the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani meets Pope Francis, illustrating the fraternal bonds to make people live in peace and tranquility.

Back in February 2019, the Pontiff Francis and Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Cairo’s al-Azhar mosque and the most prestigious leader in Sunni Islam, agreed and signed the declaration of fraternity, affirming peace among all nations. The two parties in this document adhere to fight extremism in every place in the world. If the Pontiff and the Grand Ayatollah sign a document like the declaration of fraternity, this will give Najaf’s Marjiya a very great impact, and this move will be seen as the first step to decrease the religious tensions and fill the gap of the clash of civilization. This document, if it is enacted, will have a great impact to make peace prevailing and encouraging Muslims and Christians to live in peaceful coexistence.

Ur, which is the oldest city in the world, is to be visited by the pontiff. It is considered the biblical birthplace of Ibraham, the common prophet to the Christians, Muslims, and Judaism and the father of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It is expected that there will be prayers in Ziggurat where this place is one of UNESCO world heritage sites. This visit to this historic site will help the landmark to polarize people from Iraq and outside to visit it after years of negligence and ignorance attention to its importance and the vital role that can help Iraq to increase the public income.

The papal visit has many different messages to the people of Iraq. Firstly, the expected meeting with the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani reflects the fraternal and human stances, and this meeting underlines the important role played by the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani after the US-led-invasion in 2003. Secondly, his visit to Ur to pray there is a message of the peaceful coexistence between Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, trying to point out that all these three religions emerged from one source. Thirdly, the Pope endeavors to be with the Christians who suffer from the past events of persecution, humiliation, and atrocities. His presence among them is a message of tranquility, serenity, peace, and contentment to live in Iraq with the Muslims and to abandon fighting against others. Finally, the Pope’s visit to Iraq pays the world’s attention to the religious importance of Iraq and the significant role that can be played by Iraq.

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