Connect with us

Middle East

Russia and Iran in Syria

Published

on

The world media is abuzz with news about the presidential elections in the United States, the fighting in and around Nagorno-Karabakh and the upcoming second wave of the COVID-19 epidemic. That being said, the situation in Syria remains very much in the focus of attention of analysts and political scientists.

Recently, against the backcloth of the developments in Syria, media outlets have increasingly been discussing issues pertaining to relations between Russia and the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI).

It is no secret that Iran was the first country to join the civil war in Syria that erupted in 2011. It was Tehran that provided emergency assistance to President Bashar Assad, preventing his overthrow by the opposition forces. What happened next did not unfold in a way Tehran expected though.

By the summer of 2014, The Islamic State terrorist organization (aka IS, ISIS, Daesh – all banned in Russia) had taken control of the eastern part of the country, announcing the creation of a caliphate in parts of Syria and Iraq with its capital in Raqqa.

In 2015, the Syrian government forces, the military contingent of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), led by General Qasem Soleimani, the Lebanese Hezbollah, as well as the pro-Iranian multinational Shiite formations suffered a series of serious setbacks putting in question the very existence of President Assad’s regime

Trying to save the situation, General Soleimani pays two visits to Moscow in late July and early August 2015, to discuss the situation in Syria.

Shortly after, Russia receives an official request for assistance from Damascus, and on September 30, the Russian Aerospace Forces launch military operations against ISIS terrorists, and ultimately crush the terrorist groups in Syria and preserve the country’s sovereign status.

In view of the anti-terrorist forces’ successes in Syria, Russian President Vladimir Putin said it was now time to withdraw all foreign armed forces from Syria.

“We believe that after the Syrian armed forces’ significant victories in the fight against terrorism, and with the start of a more active phase of the political process there, foreign armed forces will be withdrawn from the territory of the Syrian Arab Republic,” President Putin said when meeting with Bashar Assad in Sochi on May 17, 2018.

Putin’s statement caused a mixed reaction in Tehran, with Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif stating that Iranian forces were in Syria with the official permission of the authorities, and hinted that Tehran was not going to leave the Syrian territory, adding that it was too important for Iran geopolitically.

Russia views Syria as a multinational, multi-confessional, and at the same time a secular state, which maintains friendly relations with Moscow and respects its interests both in that country and in the Middle East as a whole (including the Russian air force base in Khmeimim and the naval station in Tartus.) Equally important for Russia is the fact that Syria has normal relations with its neighbors, primarily Israel and Turkey. With the destruction of the Islamic State organization, Moscow believes that the formation of a “new Syria” can only be ensured by peaceful means through activating the constitutional process that would involve all interested parties, including those opposed to Bashar Assad, whose continued stay in power is not something Russia will necessarily insist on in the future. 

Meanwhile, with the work of the Syrian Constitutional Committee facing serious hurdles due to the deep divisions among its members, President Assad remains the only symbol of Syrian statehood. Moscow is fully aware of this and despite various views about Bashar Assad’s political future, is making every effort possible to strengthen Syria’s sovereign status. Armed forces subordinate to a legitimate leadership are a very important factor of sovereignty and statehood, and in this sense Russia has done a lot for Syria and its future.

During the five years of its presence in Syria, Russia has been working hard to reorganize, modernize and equip the Syrian army, improving its professional level, restoring the chain of command and combat readiness. Russia also helped with the formation, training and equipment of the 4th and 5th corps of the Syrian army, helped reorganize the “Power of the Tigers” elite unit, which scored numerous victories over the terrorists. This means that by reviving the armed forces subordinate exclusively to the Syrian state, Russia strengthened not the regime of Bashar Assad, but the Syrian statehood.

Iran, for its part, sees Syria as an outpost in its strategic struggle against Israel and “misguided Muslim regimes that have sold themselves out to world Zionism and American imperialism.” Tehran has made huge human and material sacrifices to erect this “fortress,” losing during its the nine-year participation in the Syrian war thousands of its fighters, including 11 generals. In addition, since 2011, Tehran has reportedly spent between $5 billion and $20 billion annually in assistance to Damascus.

Iran is paying such a high price in Syria for a reason, however, since it views the Arab country as a “golden link” – a term proposed by Ali Akbar Velayati, the foreign policy adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader – in a Shiite chain stretching from Iran westward across Iraq, Syria and Lebanon to the Mediterranean Sea. This chain is also called the “Shiite belt” or “axis of resistance” (apparently to the United States and Israel). As Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, Commander of the Aerospace Forces of the IRGC, explained very frankly, “all members of the ‘Axis of Resistance’ are united, and we must join together to withdraw the American forces from the region and destroy the Zionist regime … Iran stretches from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean and from Ansar Allah in Yemen to Hezbollah in Lebanon.”

For Iran, the loss of Syria would mean a rupture of this “axis of resistance,” the loss of land routes to Lebanon and to its creation, Hezbollah, it would mean the loss of control over the Syrian-Israeli border, a serious loss of  credibility among Shiite groups in the Middle East, and, in general, a weakening of Tehran’s positions in the region.

Tehran intensified its activity in Syria following the destruction of the main terrorist forces, working on several tracks.

First, Iran has deployed in Syria the elite units of the Quds Special Forces, which are part of the IRGC and are fighting on the ground. Their officers also act as commanders of Shiite groups , as well as instructors and advisers to pro-Iranian armed formations subordinate to Damascus.

The Iranian-controlled Lebanese Hezbollah is the largest and most combat-ready of the Shiite organizations, boasting significant resources, including its own army, financial structures, and a large network of representative offices in the region. Hezbollah is one of the most powerful actors in the Syrian conflict.

In Syria, the Iranians are establishing their military bases in the most strategic areas and building warehouses with weapons, ammunition and material and technical means.

The IRGC is setting up all kinds of staging posts and warehouses for Hezbollah, which accumulate and store weapons and ammunition, including for further transportation to Lebanon. This is often done close to Russian military installations in order to secure against military strikes by Israel, which is also active in the region against Iranian military units, primarily  Hezbollah. Tehran knows that the Israelis will not launch missile and airstrikes on Russian servicemen and thus ensures the security of its facilities.

In its efforts to rebuild the Syrian armed forces, Iran, unlike Russia, is creating parallel non-state military structures not directly subordinate to Damascus, but answering to “pro-Iranian” Syrians or directly to IRGC officers. The Iranians are also trying to establish closest possible contacts with the Syrian army by offering the services of their commanders. The 4th Division is exactly one such formation.

Secondly, Iran is exercising a large-scale economic expansion in Syria, with its representatives actively buying real estate, various industrial enterprises (even those damaged by war), and land.

Deals are made either for Iranians or Syrians, representing Tehran’s interests in Syria – primarily Shiites and, to a lesser extent, Alawites. For example, in the capital Damascus, one can see a lot of advertisements and shop signs in Persian (Farsi). Iran is most actively expanding its presence in many of Syria’s economic sectors.

Thirdly, this is certainly an ideological expansion. The Iranians are actively promoting Shia principles among the Syrian population. Converting Sunnis to Shiites may not be easy, but in principle, it is possible. Before the events of 2010-2011, Syria was not a very religious country. Therefore, Syrians without any clear religious affiliation are the primary objects of Shiite proselytizing. Moreover, the Iranians are actively handing out various economic and financial privileges to many Syrian demographics, above all Alawites and Shiites, in the form of humanitarian aid, and carry out large-scale propaganda and PR work, and with good results too.

The Iranians enjoy strong positions in the highest echelons of the country’s military-political establishment, including members of President Assad’s inner circle and his security services. A prominent role here is played by Assad’s younger brother, Maher, a pro-Iranian politician, who commands many in Syria’s security forces.

As for Turkey, Sunni Arab countries, the United States and Israel, they are all wary of Tehran’s policy towards Syria.

Iran and its satellites see Israel as their main adversary in the region. For Russia, Israel is a reliable partner with the two countries having shared views on many aspects of the Syrian problem. So, shortly before the start of the Russian aerial campaign in Syria (September 30, 2015), Russia and Israel set up a special coordination center to ensure interaction between their militaries in this region.

Russia and Israel maintain close political and economic ties, including permanent contacts at the very top, interaction in the war on terror, in the field of security and intelligence, in the military-technical sphere and in space exploration. In 2019, Russia’s trade with the Jewish State stood at $2.25 billion, while with Iran – only $ 1.59 billion. Incidentally, Israel has a population of just 9.1 million, compared to 83.1 million in Iran.

Humanitarian ties between Russians and Israelis are also developing fast. And with good reason too, since there are around one million Jews currently living in Russia, while in Israel, Russian-speakers (immigrants from the former Soviet Union), according to various estimates, account for between 15 percent to 25 percent of the country’s 9.1-million-strong  population.  The countries also have a visa-free regime.

For several years now, Israeli warplanes have been striking Iranian and Hezbollah installations in Syria about once a week. When this happens, Russian air defenses do not fire at Israeli combat aircraft because Moscow wants to avoid an escalation of the conflict.

Russia is contributing heavily to the reduction of tensions between Israel on the one side and Iran and its satellites on the other. In September, Lebanese Hezbollah units were said to be leaving Syria in what observers said was the result of tacit agreements between Moscow, Tehran, Damascus and Ankara. There were objective reasons – mainly the tense political situation in Lebanon – that necessitated Hezbollah’s pullout from Syria, of course, but there is no denying Russia’s positive role in this.

Moscow also negotiated with Damascus and Tehran the withdrawal of pro-Iranian militias and armed units from southern Syria from the border with Israel and their replacement with pro-Russian units. In practice, this never happened though.

The Iranians and their supporters regard their presence in southern Syria near the Israeli border as a strategic asset in their standoff with the Jewish State since the Syrian-Israeli border is a very important psychological barrier in the Iranian-Israeli confrontation.

Even though there is no serious confrontation between Moscow and Tehran in Syria, of course, the past few years have seen occasional clashes between pro-Russian and pro-Iranian security forces there. However, this certainly can’t lead to a direct regional confrontation between Russia and Iran.

Many factors of Iran’s presence in Syria raise a lot of questions. This is clearly demonstrated by the interview that the former head of the Russian Reconciliation Center (2016), retired Lieutenant General Sergei Chvarkov, gave to RIA Novosti.

“In August 2018, Damascus and Tehran signed an agreement on military cooperation, which provides for Iran’s assistance in rebuilding the Syrian defense industry and the country’s infrastructure,” Sergei Chvarkov pointed out. “When implemented, the agreement can, on the one hand, strengthen the Iranians’ positions in Syria and further Assad regime’s dependence on Tehran. On the other hand, Iranian financing of Shiite groups and attempts to spread Shiism in originally Sunni territories can stoke up tensions with the Sunnis and Kurds inside Syria. Any further large-scale Iranian penetration into Syria will create a number of serious obstacles to the advancement of reforms and the development of the political process in Syria, and complicate relations with Israel, the United States, Turkey and the Sunni Arab countries. This will complicate the task of finding alternative foreign sources for rebuilding the country, since the efforts by Iran and Russia will clearly not be enough.”

Here we will interrupt General Chvarkov and recall the words of President Assad, who said that the restoration of the infrastructure of the Syrian Arab Republic would cost around $400 billion, which, according to his estimates, will take from 10 to 15 years.  Experts put the cost of rebuilding the country at $1.2 trillion.  A colossal amount of money that will prove hard to line up even by joint efforts of many countries.

“And the lack of funds will prevent achieving any visible success in restoring the country’s infrastructure, moving forward the political process, bringing back the refugees and reforming the army and special services,” General Chvarkov continues. “Moreover, the expansion of Iran’s influence in Syria will rule out the lifting of the US-imposed sanctions and prevent the supply of modern technologies and equipment needed to restore the economy and virtually all other spheres of state activity in Syria.”

Talking about the future, experts on Syria and Iran argue that Tehran is unlikely to exit Syria anytime soon. As General Chvarkov emphasized, “the fact that Iran has come to Syria to stay is evidenced by the treaties that have recently been signed between Syria and Iran.

Well, Iran could possibly withdraw from Syria in case of a serious deterioration in the socio-economic situation back home. Tehran could  indeed pull out some of its units – primarily Shiite ones, but in any case, Iran’s political, military, economic and ideological influence in Syria will not go anywhere.

From our partner International Affairs

Senior research assistant at RAS Institute of Oriental Studies, candidate of historical sciences

Continue Reading
Comments

Middle East

Politics by Other Means: A Case Study of the 1991 Gulf War

Published

on

War has been around since the dawn of man and is spawned by innate human characteristics. Often, when efforts at resolving conflicts fail diplomatically (be it at the nation or international level), war is what follows and seemingly the only other option. As Clausewitz, the famed Prussian military commander and military theorist, once said, “War is not merely a political act, but also a real political instrument, a continuation of political commerce” and, despite the horror and destruction of war, war is necessary for the conduct of foreign policy. War and physical combat allows for resolutions that cannot come about from any other way, once all legitimate foreign policy tactics have been exhausted. With the U.S. there are an abundant amount of examples showing how direct military conflict has solved a foreign policy problem. The 1991 Gulf War is a prime example.

               The Gulf War began in August of 1990, when Iraqi tanks rolled over the Iraqi-Kuwait border, claiming vast oil reserves and annexing the country. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had just come out of the Iran-Iraq War, an almost eight-year, prolonged war of attrition which ended with, “an estimated quarter of a million dead…over 60,000 Iraqis [as] prisoners of war…[and] had run up a debt of over $80 billion…[with] the collapse of world prices meant that Iraq’s oil revenues in 1988 amounted to $11 billion, less than half its 1980 revenue”. Not only this, but Iraq had been fighting what was essentially a civil war in Iraqi Kurdistan, which involved the use of chemical weapons against civilians. The hundred year plus dispute between Iraq and Kuwait about sections of the border with essential waterways leading to the Gulf, the economic hardships and falling price of oil, the U.S. severing ties with the Middle Eastern nation due to war crimes and crimes against humanity, and the fear of decreasing power and influence in the region, and the desire to attain the funding for nuclear weapons programs were all central factors in Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.

               International outcry was swift and critical of Saddam’s actions. This was largely due to the fact that Iraq was now closer to Saudi Arabia and the threat of him and Iraq controlling a substantial portion of the world’s oil reserves was very real. Richard Kohn, a professor of military history at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, discussed this with NPR, stating, “The stakes in 1990 and ’91 were really rather enormous. Had Saddam Hussein gotten control of the Saudi oil fields, he would have had the world economy by the throat. That was immediately recognized by capitals around the world”. Immediately following the invasion, on August 03, the United Nations Security Council demanded that Iraq withdraw from the country and, when Iraq did not abide by this demand, the UN “imposed a worldwide ban on trade with Iraq (The Iraqi government responded by formally annexing Kuwait on August 8)”. The U.S. too engaged and tried to push the Iraqis out of Kuwait by placing U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia, utilizing this military presence as a deterrent.

Despite such action by the most powerful international foreign policy and diplomatic body in the globe, and diplomatic action on the part of the U.S. and other foreign nations, war still occurred in January of 1991, which eventually pushed Saddam out of Kuwait via aerial and naval bombardment and, by February, had armor and infantry troops rolling towards Baghdad. The question that remains is, was the war necessary to solving the situation in Iraq and did such military action further international foreign policy goals of the United States?

               War was the only other option that the United States could take when dealing with Saddam. The United Nations, the Arab League, and the United States had all vitriolically and openly opposed Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait. When Iraq tried to open diplomatic channels to resolve the crisis (while not complying with the UN’s order and keeping troops in Kuwait), the U.S. requested that the Iraqis comply with the decree and pull out of Kuwait, following Margaret Thatcher and Britain’s line of thought that concessions to a dictator would strengthen the Iraqi influence and desire for more power.

               While the fact that the United States did not try to pursue a diplomatic avenue with Iraq in this matter is certainly an interesting method, it is also understandable. Giving in to Iraq’s desires and granting them concessions when they had flagrantly disregarded international law and violated the sovereignty of a fellow nation state (in addition to committing horrendous crimes against their own population), capitulating to the Iraqi government would have been a mistake. It would have solidified their power and their influence within the region and would have seemingly legitimized their standpoint.

               Not only would negotiating on such terms have legitimized their view and stance, but it effectively would have been negotiating with a terrorist. The former Deputy Chief of Mission for the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad from 1989 to 1991, Joseph C. Wilson, (who would later play a key role in the Plame Affair during the Iraq War), discussed how, “several hundred hostages were held by Saddam, 150 Americans as well as another 70 in our care to keep them out of Iraqi hands…There is no doubt that our personnel and our families were at risk, in considerable danger in fact,”. Hussein’s motivation for holding these Americans and others of varying nationalities (notably British) was most probably to utilize them as a deterrent to an attack from the West. Engaging in capitulation and trying to negotiate with someone who was essentially a terrorist (utilizing terror and violence, or the threat of such action, to attain a political goal) was not something that the United States nor the United Kingdom was willing to do under any circumstances.

               The United States, in this instance, was dealing with a terrorist and a dictator, a megalomaniac who was determined to reclaim what he believed was rightfully Iraqi territory and gain access to further wealth through illegal means. The potential of his army in securing what were important and essential global financial centers in the Middle East was serious and it is possible he was planning to invade Saudi Arabia at some point. Saad al-Bazzaz, the former head of both the Iraqi News Agency and the Iraqi Radio and Television Establishment in addition to being an aide to Saddam, alleged in 1996 that, “the Iraqi leader ordered the elite Republican Guard to be ready to launch an offensive…nine days after the invasion of Kuwait…The invasion plans called for four divisions, or 120,000 troops, to thrust into the desert to capture oil fields more than 180 miles away”. The fact that Iraqi troops also, in January of 1991, after the initial aerial bombardment, captured the small, Saudi Arabian coastal city of Khafji, lends credence to the idea that Saddam may have been planning something larger. al-Bazzaz also alleged that Saddam again began planning an invasion of Saudi Arabia while the Battle of Khafji was ongoing, but resorted to defense when it was apparent he would lose Kuwait.

               Upon the conclusion of the Gulf War, what did the U.S. gain? One of the most significant achievements in the aftermath of the conflict was that the United States was able to create a coalition of military forces (including those from Middle Eastern nations like Syria and Egypt) to side with other nations (former colonizers like France and the United Kingdom) who are often opposed to their conduct of foreign policy or have fraught relationships. As well, the State Department’s Office of the Historian notes, “Although Russia did not commit troops, it joined the United States in condemning Iraq, its long-time client state”. The Office goes on to describe how Secretary of State Baker and his staff went about gathering allies and were instrumental in assisting in diplomatic and coordination efforts for the eventual air and ground campaign. The U.S. gained improved relationships that bonded by the pursuit of an enemy and the removal of a foreign power from a sovereign nation and were further solidified in the UN’s policing of Iraqi airspace and nuclear deproliferation programs.

               Often, wars can be prevented and all out avoided through the use of diplomacy and foreign policy. The Vietnam War, the 1898 Spanish-American War, and the Chaco War of the 1930’s between Bolivia and Paraguay are prime examples of when diplomacy should have been utilized to the fullest effect and in which foreign policy officials and avenues for conflict resolution were not fully considered or utilized. However, in this instance, war was the only viable option for removing Saddam from Kuwait and returning the country to its rightful citizens. Negotiating or trying to work with the Iraqi government on the terms they had decided (meaning working with them in a foreign territory they have illegally acquired) would have given their actions an aura of legitimacy and possibly emboldened Saddam to further push the boundaries of international law. By giving Saddam an ultimatum and proceeding with physical combat and engaging in a war, war with Iraq was the correct decision when considering the person and government being dealt with.

Continue Reading

Middle East

Middle Eastern interventionism galore: Neither US nor Chinese policies alleviate

Published

on

A recent analysis of Middle Eastern states’ interventionist policies suggests that misguided big power approaches have fueled a vicious cycle of interference and instability over the last decade.

Those approaches are abetted, if not encouraged by US and Chinese strategies that are similar, if not essentially the same, just labelled differently. The United States has long opted for regime stability in the Middle East rather than political reform, an approach China adopts under the mum of non-interference in the internal affairs of others.

As a result, both the United States and China de facto signal autocrats that they will not be held accountable for their actions. This week’s US response and Chinese silence about the suspension of democracy in Tunisia illustrates the point.

The policies of the two powers diverge, however, on one key approach: The US, unlike China, frequently identifies one or more regimes, most notably Iran, as a threat to regional security. In doing so, US policy is often shaped by the narrow lens of a frequently demonized ‘enemy’ or hostile power.

The problem with that approach is that it encourages policies that are based on a distorted picture of reality. The Obama administration’s negotiation of a 2015 international nuclear agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program proved that amending those policies constitutes a gargantuan task, albeit one that is gaining traction with more critical trends emerging in both the Democratic Party and among Evangelists.

The recent study, ‘No Clean Hands: The Interventions of Middle Eastern Powers, 2010-2020,’ published by the Washington-based Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, suggests by implication that China has at the vey least allowed instability to fester in the Middle East that is fueled as much by destabilizing Iranian interventions as by similar actions of various US allies.

The study was authored by researcher Matthew Petti and Trita Parsi, the Institute’s  co-founder and executive vice president and founder and former president of the National Iranian American Council.

To be sure China may not have been able to influence all interventionist decisions, including the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, but potentially could have at times tempered the interventionist inklings of regional players with a more assertive approach rather than remaining aloof and focusing exclusively on economic opportunity.

China demonstrated its willingness and ability to ensure that regional players dance to its tune when it made certain that Middle Eastern and Muslim-majority countries refrained from criticizing Beijing’s brutal attempt to alter the ethnic and religious identity of its Turkic Muslim population in the north-western province of Xinjiang.

Taking Syria as an example, Li Shaoxian, a former vice president at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, articulated China’s approach in 2016 as Chinese President Xi Jinping paid his first visit to the Middle East. “China doesn’t really care who takes the presidency…in the future—as long as that person could stabilize and develop the country, we would agree,” Mr. Li said.

To be fair, the Quincy Institute study focuses on the interventionist policies of Middle Eastern states and recommendations for US policy rather than on China even if the report by implication has consequences for China too.

A key conclusion of the study is that the fallacy of US policy was not only to continue to attempt to batter Iran into submission despite evidence that pressure was not persuading the Islamic republic to buckle under.

It was also a failure to acknowledge that Middle Eastern instability was fueled by interventionist policies of not just one state, Iran, but of six states, five of which are US allies: Israel, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates. The US allies, with the exception of Turkey and to a lesser degree Qatar, are perceived as supporters of the regional status quo.

On the other hand, the United States and its allies have long held that Iran’s use of militant proxies in Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen; its intervention in Syria and support of Hamas, the Islamist group that controls the Gaza Strip; and its armament policies, including its nuclear and ballistic missiles programs, destabilize the Middle East and pose the greatest threat to regional security.

They assert that Iran continues to want to export its revolution. It is an argument that is supported by Iran’s own rhetoric and need to maintain a revolutionary façade.

Middle East scholar Danny Postel challenges the argument in a second paper published this month by the University of Denver’s Center for Middle East Studies that seems to bolster the Quincy Institute’s analysis.

“The view of Iran as a ‘revolutionary’ state has been dead for quite some time yet somehow stumbles along and blinds us to what is actually happening on the ground in the Middle East. A brief look at the role Iran has played over the last decade in three countries — Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria — reveals a very different picture: not one of a revolutionary but rather of a counter-revolutionary force,” Mr. Postel argues.

The scholar noted that Hezbollah, the powerful Iranian-backed militia in Lebanon, and pro-Iranian armed groups in Iraq responded in similar ways to mass anti-government protests in 2019 and 2020 in Lebanese and Iraqi cities that transcended sectarian divisions and identified the Iran-aligned factions with widespread corruption that was dragging their countries down.

They attacked the protesters in an attempt to salvage a failed system that served their purpose and suppress what amounted to popular uprisings.

Do they really think that we would hand over a state, an economy, one that we have built over 15 years? That they can just casually come and take it? Impossible! This is a state that was built with blood,” said an Iraqi official with links to the pro-Iranian militias. A Hezbollah official speaking about Lebanon probably could not have said it better.

Iranian support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s brutal suppression of a popular revolt is no less counter-revolutionary and illustrative of the length to which Iran is willing to go to protect its interests.

“Indeed, for all the talk of Iran’s ‘disruptive’ role in the region, what the cases of Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon reveal is instead an Islamic Republic hell-bent on keeping entrenched political establishments and ruling classes in power while helping them quell popular movements for social justice, democratic rights, and human dignity,” Mr. Postel concludes.

“The idea that Iran is a revolutionary power while Saudi Arabia is a counter-revolutionary power in the region is a stale binary. Both the Islamic Republic and the Saudi Kingdom play counter-revolutionary roles in the Middle East. They are competing counter-revolutionary powers, each pursuing its counter-revolutionary agenda in its respective sphere of influence within the region,” Mr. Postel goes on to say.

Counterterrorism expert Matthew Levitt appeared to contradict Mr. Postel in a paper published this week that asserted that Hezbollah remained a revolutionary pro-Iranian force in its regional posture beyond Lebanon.

“Hezbollah’s regional adventurism is most pronounced in its expeditionary forces deployed in Syria and elsewhere in the region, but no less important are the group’s advanced training regimen for other Shi’a militias aligned with Iran, its expansive illicit financing activities across the region, and its procurement, intelligence, cyber, and disinformation activities,” Mr. Levitt said.

Mr. Postel’s analysis in various ways bolsters the Quincy Institute report’s observation that tactics employed by Iran are not uniquely Iranian but have been adopted at various times by all interventionist players in the Middle East.

The Quincy Institute study suggests further that a significant number of instances in the last decade in which Middle Eastern states projected military power beyond their borders involved Turkey, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar on battlefields that were as much related to competition for regional influence among US allies or the countering of popular movements as they were to rivalry with Iran.

“Iran is highly interventionist, but not an outlier. The other major powers in the region are often as interventionist as the Islamic Republic – and at times even more so. Indeed, the UAE and Turkey have surpassed in recent years,” the report said.

The report’s publication coincided with the indictment of billionaire Thomas  J. Barrack, a one-time advisor and close associate of former US President Donald J. Trump, on charges of operating as an unregistered foreign agent in the United States for the UAE, widely seen as another case and form of intervention by a Middle Eastern state.

By implication, the study raises the question whether compartmentalizing security issues like the nuclear question and framing them exclusively in terms of the concerns of the West and its Middle Eastern allies rather than discussing them in relation to diverging security concerns of all regional players, including Iran, will lead to a sustainable regional security architecture.

There is little indication that thinking in Washington is paying heed to the Quincy Institute study or Mr. Postel’s analysis even though their publication came at an inflection point in negotiations with Iran suspended until President-elect Ebrahim Raisi takes office in mid-August.

That was evident in a proposal put forward this month by former US Middle East peace negotiator Dennis Ross on how to respond to Iran’s refusal to discuss its ballistic missiles program and support of armed proxies  as well as Mr. Al-Assad as part of the nuclear negotiation. Mr. Ross suggested that the United States sell to Israel the GBU-57 Massive Ordnance Penetrator, a 30,000-pound mountain-buster capable of destroying hardened underground nuclear facilities.

Members of Congress last year offered legislation that would authorize the sale as a way to maintain Israel’s military edge as the United States moves to reward the UAE for its establishment of diplomatic reltions with Israel by selling it top-of-the-line F-35 fighter jets.

The administration is expected to move ahead with the sale of the jets after putting it on hold for review when Joe Biden took office In January.

The Quincy Institute and Mr. Postel’s calls for a paradigm shift in thinking about the Middle East and/or Iran take on added significance in the light of debates about the sustainability of the Iranian clerical regime.

Contrary to suggestions that the regime is teetering on the brink of collapse as the result of sanctions and domestic discontent, most recently evidenced in this month’s protests sparked by water shortages, widely respected Iran expert Karim Sadjadpour argues that the Iranian regime could have a shelf life of at least another generation.

Mr. Sadjadpour draws a comparison to the Soviet Union. “Post-Soviet Russia… didn’t transition from the Soviet Union to a democratic Russia, but it essentially became a new form of authoritarianism which took Communism and replaced it with grievance driven Russia nationalism—led by someone from the ancient regime and a product of the KGB, Vladimir Putin,” Mr. Sadjadpour argues.

“Likewise, if I had to make a prediction in Iran, I think that the next prominent leader is less likely to be an aging cleric—like an Ayatollah Khamenei or Ibrahim Raisi—and more likely to be someone who is a product of either the Revolutionary Guards or Iran’s intelligence services. Instead of espousing Shiite nationalism, they will substitute that with Iranian nationalism—or Persian nationalism,” he goes on to say.

An Iranian nationalist regime potentially could contribute to regional stability. It would likely remove the threats of Iranian meddling in the domestic affairs of various Arab countries by empowering Shiite Muslim groups as well as support for political Islam. Iranian nationalism would turn aid to groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon militias in Iraq, and the Houthis in Yemen into a liability rather than an asset.

Mr. Sadjadpour’s prognosis coupled with the Quincy Institute report suggests that the Biden administration has an opportunity to reframe its Middle East policy in the long-term interests of the United States as well as the region and the international community.

The nuclear talks are one potential entry point to what would amount to the equivalent of turning a supertanker around in the Suez Canal – a gradual process at best rather than an overnight change. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan may be another.

Concern in Beijing, Moscow, and Tehran about the fallout of the withdrawal suggests that stabilizing the greater Middle East in ways that conflicts can be sustainably managed if not resolved creates grounds for China, Russia and the United States to cooperate on what should be a common interest: securing the free flow of oil and gas as well as trade.

China, Russia, and Iran may be bracing themselves for worst case scenarios as the Taliban advance militarily, but the potential for some form of big power cooperation remains.

China scholars Haiyun Ma and I-wei Jennifer Chang note that in the case of Afghanistan “despite the Taliban’s advancement on the ground and its call for Chinese investment, the current military situation and the political process have not yet manifested a power vacuum created by the US retreat, which makes Chinese entry and gains…largely symbolic in nature.”

Continue Reading

Middle East

The Russian bear in Lebanon

Published

on

It turned out that the Biden-Putin summit on May 16 has established a wider effect than anyone would expect.

It exceeded by far political analysis, especially in Lebanon. The summit almost coincided with the Russian economic delegation’s visit to Beirut on the 18th of the same month and the announcement of its study results to initiate investments projects in Lebanon.

The results revealed the Russian delegation’s future plans in rebuilding the oil refineries in Zahrani and Tripoli and rehabilitating the latter’s port. Regardless of the projects, the Russian companies intend to deal with, if they are approved and encouraged by good signs changes can be relied upon. It means that Lebanon has taken an important leap in its economic policies by gradually moving towards the East.

Naturally, Lebanon’s orientation towards the East “if it happens” will not be absolute and definitive, but rather principled and partial. This is an important matter by itself. It is marked as a qualitative leap that may minimize the private companies’ monopolization of energy imports, which will be directly reflected, firstly, in electricity production in Lebanon, and secondly in facilitating the provision of petroleum products in Lebanon. Such projects became a necessity, in particular, after the collapse of the Lebanese lira against the American dollar.    

Logically, changing the reality of the production of electricity will reveal immediate results. It will be reflected in the change in the rehabilitation of the economic infrastructure fields in Lebanon. It will also positively reflect in other vital areas, such as determining the prices of food commodities, which became outrageously high. 

Accordingly, one of the most important reasons for the obscene rise in food prices is related to the high costs of transportation in the last month alone. It is almost above the purchasing power of the Lebanese. For example, the prices of vegetables and fruits, a non-imported commodity, which is not supervised by government support, remained within reasonable prices; however, once the diesel prices started rising, it directly affected the prices of the seasonal vegetables and fruits.

In addition, there are unseen accomplishments that will go with the entry of Russian companies, which is creating new job opportunities in Lebanon. Lately, it was reported that unemployment in Lebanon will reach 41.4% this year. It is a huge rate, which the Lebanese media, in general, use to provoke people against the current resigned government. However, it neglects to shed the light on the importance of the Russian investment in creating new job opportunities, which will affect all social groups, whether they were transporters, building workers, porters, cleaners, or university graduates.

The companies coming to Lebanon are directly supported by the Russian state. However, they are private companies, a fact that has its advantages. They are familiarized with dealing with other Western international companies. Russian companies have previously coordinated with French and Italian companies in Lebanon, through contracts concluded for the extraction of gas in Lebanese fields and in other fields outside Lebanon. Russian- European coordination process is also recognized in rebuilding Beirut’s harbor. A German company will rebuild the docks, while the French will rebuild the containers or depots, and the Russian companies will rebuild the wheat silos.

It seems that the process is closely related to the future of Lebanon and the future of the Chinese project, the New Silk Road, [One Road, and One Belt]. However, it is not clear yet whether the Russian companies will be investing in Tripoli’s refinery and in regenerating and expanding its port or it will be invested by the Chinese companies. If this achievement is accomplished, then Tripoli will restore its navigating glorious history. Tripoli was one of the most important ports on the Mediterranean. Additionally, there is a need for the Russian and the Chinese to expand on the warm shores of the Mediterranean Sea.

Secondly, the project will boost Tripoli and its surroundings from the current low economic situation to a prosperous economic one, if the real intentions are there. The results in Tripoli will be read as soon as the projects set foot in the city. Of course, this will establish another Sino-Russian victory in the world of economy and trade, if not in politics as well.

The entry of the Russians and the Chinese into the Lebanese field of commerce has international implications. It will come within international and global agreements or understanding. Nevertheless, it is a sign that the Americans are actually losing their grip on Lebanon. This entry will stop the imposition of a limited number of European-oriented Lebanese monopolizing companies, which have dominated the major Lebanese trade of oil and its products. Dominance is protected with the “illusion” of meaningless international resolution. It is true that the Americans are still maneuvering in several places; however, this is evident to the arbitrariness of decisions making in the U.S. today. It is the confusion resulting from ramifications of the “Sword of Jerusalem” operation in Palestine; it seems that they do not have a clear plan towards policies in the region, other than supporting “Israel”.

If the above is put into action, and the Russian companies start working within a guarantee agreement with the Lebanese state. This means a set of important issues on the international and regional levels. And it also means that the Americans would certainly prefer the Russians to any Chinese or Iranian economic direct cooperation in Lebanon.

Firstly, it is clear that in their meeting Mr. Biden and Mr. Putin reached a kind of consent to activate stability in the region. Two years ago, the Americans had a different plan. According to an established source, the Americans actually intended to strike internal stability in Lebanon and ignite another civil war round, before finalizing stability in Syria. This assertion tunes with David Hale’s, an American envoy to Lebanon, a declaration about the American anger over the $10 billion spent in Lebanon to change the political reality and overthrow Hezbollah from the government. Consequently, the American project is behind us now. Russia and China need to invest in the stability of Lebanon, in order to secure their investments in the process of rebuilding Syria.

Secondly, the Lebanese state guarantee, which the Russians require, is directly related to the lack of confidence in the Lebanese banking policies, which have lost their powers as a guarantor for investments after the role they played since November 17, 2019 till today. It proved the inefficiency of the financial policies of the Lebanese banks, which was based on the principle of usury since the nineties of the last century. In addition, a state guarantee will enable the Russian companies to surpass the American sanctions. 
The state guarantee increases the value and importance of the Lebanese state as an entity in the region, and this can be understood from Macron’s statements after the explosion of Beirut port last August when he said that Lebanon’s role in the region as we know it must change. 

Thirdly, if we consider the history of international unions in the world, including the European Union, the (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council and others, they started as economic alliances before they end as political alliances. Therefore, at this historical stage and in order to work on the economic recovery of Lebanon, which needs more investments instead of falling under the burden of more debts. Lebanon needs to head East towards economic unity with Syria. In cooperating with two superpowers, Lebanon and Syria can form an economic bloc on the Mediterranean shores, a bloc that can get Lebanon out of the vortex of Western absurdity and expand its alliances and horizons to be a real economic and cultural forum where the East and the West can meet.

From our partner Tehran Times

Continue Reading

Publications

Latest

Trending