Category Archives: The Middle East

Turkey launches Operation Euphrates Sword: keeping Russia and the US apart

Turkish forces have built up around the Turkish-Syrian border town of Kilis in the past couple of weeks, from where Operation Euphrates Sword is currently being launched by the Turkish armed forces without any official press release. The low key operation has been billed as a mere continuation of Operation Euphrates Shield. The small Russian contingent in Afrin has withdrawn in anticipation of the Turkish advance.

The area between Al-Bab, which is held by the Free Syrian army and Turkish support troops, and Afrin – including Sheikh Isa, Tal Rifaat and Menagh, where there is an old Syrian airbase – will be the initial target of the Turkish advance. The second objective will be the area between Afrin and Idlib, which is the headquarters of Al-Nusra Front.

The Astana talks, according to the spokesman for the Turkish presidency, İbrahim Kalın, are in the process of setting up de-confliction zones in Syria. He announced that the parties to the talks (Russia, Turkey, Iran) ‘… are working on a mechanism that will probably involve Turkey and the Russians in Idlib, Russians and Iranians around Damascus and Jordanians and Americans in the Daraa area in the south.’ This particular involvement of the Americans is a proposal of the Russians and the Turks, which the US has yet to respond to (as of 07-07-2017 Trump and Putin agreed this at the G20 summit).

However, on another front, and since the consolidation of the alliance between the US and the YPG militias of the Kurdish Syrian PYD movement, Turkey is convinced that a Syrian-Kurdish state on its borders will be in the offing after the Raqqa operation is over. The massive arms supplies by the US to the YPG are being described by Gen. James Mattis as temporary, and he is described as probably being sincere on his own account. On the other hand, it is pretty clear that the American foreign policy establishment has for a long time been, and will continue to be, gunning for régime change in Turkey.

A consensus has formed in Turkey that the CIA was involved in the July 15 coup in Ankara last year with the help of the Pennsylvania-based preacher, Fethulla Gülen. The American foreign policy establishment is using its soft power to propel the narrative that Turkey is breaching human rights and sullying its democratic record in its treatment of journalists, academics, soldiers and bureaucrats suspected of links with Gülen. Turkish authorities, however, refuse to back down on their controversial methods, however, which cast a net of suspicion over a wider number of people than can stand the test of the law.

The emergency measures are, nevertheless, intended to reduce the chances of a follow-up coup, in the light of obfuscation on the part of the Americans in regard to the events of the coup, as well as clear interference on the part of Germany in Turkey’s last referendum process. Were the US and German governments keen specifically on supporting human rights and democracy in Turkey, closer cooperation with Turkey in Syria and over the Gülen affair would be a natural way forward to allay the country’s fears. Clearly, however, the two Western countries are more interested in escalating tensions over Turkey’s security embarrassments, in order to further widen the divisions within Turkey, in the continual hope that the AKP government will at some stage be overwhelmed by events.

Irrespective of whether the PYD has legitimacy among its own Kurds or not, it serves the US narrative to push the agenda of a ‘secular’  movement against the conservative AKP alliance ruling Turkey at the moment. This is especially the case since the PYD is part of the wider Kurdish KCK organisation which is fighting a guerrilla war with Turkey against the state through the PKK. Furthermore, there is no lack of funding. US ally UAE is backing the PKK against Turkey just as it funded the attempted July 15 coup.

It is clear from the recent downing of a Syrian army jet and the aggressive posturing by the White House against the Assad régime that the US is in the process of carving out an enclave in northeastern Syria from which it will seek to pursue its plans against both Turkey and Iran. These recent moves have pushed Russia to advance the de-confliction plans at Astana more quickly than expected and to allow Turkey’s plans to expand its zone of control in northern Syria to include Afrin, and Managh airbase, where some of the YPG militias are based. Turkish timing in based on the current YPG focus on the fight in Raqqa.

The Turks see this new operation as necessary to cover their backs in the coming effort to police the rebel held areas around Idlib, while the Russians do not wish to have any sizeable commitment on the ground beyond the strategic capabilities already in place at the Khmeimim airbase, which will provide air cover for the Turks. An agreement between Russia and Turkey in that zone will alleviate Russia’s difficult position by reducing the risk of outright air confrontation with the US. This is definitely in the global interest. Russia’s S-400s can easily clear the air of US fighter jets in the region, but such action would lead to a serious global escalation. Best keep the S-400s as a threat than actually use them (I think Sun Tzu said something like that).

These developments are in the interests of world peace in that they reduce the chances of conflict between Russia and the United States. Apart from the possibility of a joint US-Jordanian participation in a southern deconfliction zone, direct US influence in Syria will be limited to the area east of the Euphrates. More important is the fact that the permanence of Russian bases in the country in the Latakiyya area are no longer dependent merely on Assad’s de juro backing, but on Turkey’s de facto protection. The US is now paying a heavy geopolitical price for its double dealing with the Turks, as James Jeffrey, previous Ambassador to Ankara, predicted would happen.

Hostile takeover underway: UAE’s Mohamed bin Zayed now controls Saudi Arabia’s ruler

‘Secrets of the Arabs’ reports that with the arrival of Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) to the position of crown prince in Saudi Arabia, and thus acting king (on the basis of his father’s advanced dementia), the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ) succeeds in his second important coup in the Arab region, after his orchestration of the military coup in Egypt.

MbZ is almost completely in control of 32 year old MbS. From the very moment MbZ began to flirt with MbS, his plan had been to topple his arch-enemy Prince Mohammed bin Nayef. WikiLeaks had revealed that MbZ had called Mohammed bin Nayef’s father, at the time that Prince Nayef was interior minister and one of the most powerful people in Saudi Arabia, a “monkey”. Mohammed bin Nayef clearly stood in the way of MbZ’s ambitions. The video released of MbS kissing Mohamed bin Nayef’s head and hands as the latter appeared to accept his replacement, had in fact been filmed days before the succession was announced, and followed Mohamed bin Nayef’s house arrest within the grounds of the royal enclosure.

What most of the international press fail to grasp is that the blockade of Qatar is actually part of a planned isolation of Saudi Arabia by MbZ, who intends to direct MbS’s internal reforms sidelining the Saudi religious establishment and privatising Saudi oil assets, which MbZ wants to pick up on the cheap as part of his long held dream of splitting up Saudi Arabia. Qatar, with far stronger tribal links in Arabia than MbZ’s Nayahan family, would have most certainly stood in the way of his dream of buying up Aramco on the cheap. So, the trap was set for Trump at the Riyadh summit by the UAE, while the list of 13 demands made of Qatar (and issued by the UAE’s Anwar Gargash, rather than by Saudi FM Adel al-Jubeir) were intentionally made to be provocative, and clearly impossible for Qatar to even consider fulfilling. So, the Qatari blockade is not – as some would have it – presaging a war with Iran. It presages rather the approaching implosion of the Saudi régime.

Saudi Arabia’s isolation began with the unnecessary decision to execute Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr and the subsequent severing of relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, relations which the UAE is careful to continue maintaining.  The execution in January 2016 was intentionally provocative and raised sectarian tensions in Saudi Arabia at a time when the Kingdom was facing numerous internal challenges relating to the fall in oil prices and the need to cut government salaries as a result. The move had all the fingerprints of MbS’s aggressive approach, and must be considered in the context of the execution of 47 other (Sunni) Muslim clerics at the same time. It was clearly a warning to all MbS’s critics, and like the Yemen War happened to have an international dimension, but had a purely domestic rationale.

Meanwhile, on an old matter, it has been revealed in leaked Libyan videos of the interrogation of Saadi Ghaddafi that an old 2003 assassination plot against King Salman’s predecessor, King Abdullah, blamed by the UAE on the Qatari leadership and used by MbZ’s cohorts as one of the many excuses for  imposing the blockade on Qatar, had nothing at all to do with Qatar. In fact, the perpetrator of the plot, Mohamed Ismail, appears to have ties with the UAE and currently lives in Abu Dhabi.

 

Pakistan and the changes in the Middle East balance of power

 

In the wake of Turkish troop deployment to Qatar, Pakistan also sent troops, to the anger of Saudi Arabia with whom Pakistan has been a traditional ally. Last week in Jeddah, the Saudi King berated Pakistan Prime Minister, Nawas Sharif, over the move, but Sharif wouldn’t back down on a stance he considers to be “neutral”.

Pakistan’s circumstances are changing with a changing Asia. The massive investment China is making in Pakistan as part of the inter-Asian “One belt-one road” project, linking the Chinese north-western communications hub Urumqi with the Indian Ocean port of Gwadar in southern Pakistan, has transformed the Pakistani economic situation and given it greater financial independence.

After the imprisonment of Shakil Afridi, the doctor who guided the CIA to the place of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, where he was killed in 2011 in Abbottabad, relations with the US soured. Obama, after a while, sought to turn things around towards the end of his administration, by endorsing in 2016 a $ 1 billion aid package.Trump, however, is seeking to cancel the greater part of the package.

The move to place troops in Qatar is part of Pakistan’s strategy for better relations with Iran, and its declaration of independence from Saudi tutelage. This in the long term is seen as serving its interests in Afghanistan, where it can usefully cooperate with Iran, and in Asia more generally. The decline of Saudi Arabian influence in Central Asia, which is  accelerating since its blockade of Qatar, will ultimately impact on US influence in a region where, in the past, Saudi has been an important partner.

Grinding towards peace in the Middle East

As I wrote in February the Middle Eastern powers (Russia, Turkey, and Iran) are setting the terms for Middle Eastern peace at Astana, with the US, the effective cause of the calamities over the past thirty years, acting as an observer.

Today’s meetings between Lavrov and Tillerson will provide the formal US agreement over 4 safe zones. This is important because obviously the US have forces on the ground in Syria (N.B. the cautious US statement at the end of video ref. Iran).

Vital to all of this has been Turkey’s containment of the Syrian rebels, who have been deeply troubled (it seems like the US) by the fact that Iran is a co-guarantor. Although this led Mohamed Alloush to leave the negotiating table, he is now back, Turkey having convinced his followers that Iran’s role here is vital for the very reason that it is distrusted by them. It is a learning curve for the rebels.

The four safe zones to be established in Syria will be closed for flights by US-led coalition warplanesREAD MORE: https://on.rt.com/8arn

Posted by RT Play on Friday, 5 May 2017

Russia is picking up all the scattered chess pieces in Middle East

In true capitalist fashion Russia is multiplying the numbers of private contractors being used across the Middle East. Giving backing to ex-CIA asset renegade general Khalifa Hiftar in Libya is just one of the many loose ends left by the Obama administration Putin looks to tie up. Also backing junta leader Sisi in Egypt, and PYD Kurdish leader Salih Muslim in Northeastern for instance allows these US creations the latitude to look gift horses in the mouth, making US foreign policy in the Middle East much harder and less predictable, while reinforcing the dominance Russia has gained from its bases in Syria.

The news coming in from Libya is that the Benghazi Defense Brigade (BDB) took over the oil ports of Ras Lanuf and Es Sidr with their refineries from Hiftar’s forces in a stealth attack this last weekend on 5th March. Apparently, they have handed the ports over to the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA). The balance of power in Libya will now shift in the GNA’s favour away from the House of Representatives (HoR) ensconced in Tobruk (which had hired Hiftar to do its heavy lifting), and this will strengthen the position of beleaguered UN-approved prime minister Fayez al-Sarraj. After these events, Russia now appears to see the need to back its contractors in Libya by sending in élite special forces.

Extraordinary Saudi visit to Baghdad confirms new geopolitical realities

In my last article on the Middle East peace process, the potential success of the Astana talks was explored. The conflicting priorities between the main players – Russia, Turkey and Iran – were described, despite all the difficulties, as ultimately supportive of a new stable solution in the region. Saudi Arabia, it was clarified was silently supportive of the process, resigning itself to its withdrawal from the Syrian scene. This surprise visit by Jubeir to Baghdad, clearly heralds a new positive rather than disruptive approach to the Iraqi scene, and is a strong confirmation that the factors in favour of the Astana process are consolidating rather than dissipating. The visit will  help the Saudi-Iranian relationship (something the Russians are pushing hard), but will also encourage the Iraqi government to move on from the bunker mentality adopted by al-Maliki during his rule – a potentially very positive prospect.

This is an important development in the light of the difficulties expected after the battle for Mosul is over

The Road after Mosul

Mosul post- DAESH risks becoming the new vortex of instability in the Middle East with Iranian, U.S. and Kurdish forces vying for control of the area. It will be interesting to see how Gen. Mattis can hope shape a new strategy in his visit to Baghdad. Likely as not, the U.S. will seek to use the marginalisation of the Sunni sector to increase its profile.

So far the Iraqi government has deliberately avoided agreeing to a formula which will empower the Sunni Arabs in Mosul in the post-DAESH era and it intends to restore the regime which was in place before the DAESH takeover in 2014. Iran will use its influence with Iraqi groups, especially with the followers of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, to restore Mosul’s pre-DAESH administrative regime. This will give Iran safe land access to Syria so as to complete its Shiite Crescent design for the Middle East. However, this plan will eventually clash with the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) desire to maintain its control in the newly gained territories in Mosul’s predominantly Kurdish districts. This Iranian-inspired policy in Mosul is also contrary to the Sunni Arabs’ plan for self-rule in the province, especially with the plan of the Mutahidoun bloc of Osama al-Nujaifi.

The issue of the participation of the Hashd al-Shabi (Popular Mobilization Units or PMU) was a serious complicating factor in the preparations for the battle for Mosul. While the U.S. and non-Shiite groups wanted to exclude the PMU from the Mosul operation, Iran and Iraqi Shiite groups within the government insisted on their participation. The PMUs maintain between 60,000 and 90,000 men under arms on a rotating basis. Indeed, the concept of al-Hashd al-Shaabi was launched not by the state but by a so-called al-wajib al-kifai fatwa issued in June 2014 by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s most influential Shiite leader. The Popular Mobilization Committee was headed by Jamal Jaafar Mohammad, better known by his nom de guerre Abu Mahdi al-Mohandis, a former Badr commander. Mohandis is now the right-hand man of Qasem Soleimani, head of the Quds Force, which is highly influential in shaping Iraq’s regional future.

The reaction to U.S. involvement in the Mosul operation by forces outside the Iraqi government has already made itself felt even under Obama. As soon as al-Abadi had agreed terms with Obama, al-Maliki launched the Islah (Reform) bloc to exert pressure not just on al-Abadi, but also on Kurds, and Sunni Arabs. In addition, Iranian backed militias made numerous threats against the U.S.. Qais Khazali, the leader of Asaeb Ahlul Haq, and Muqtada Sadr, the head of Sarayah Selam militias, stated that U.S. troops in Iraq are legitimate targets for attack. Militia commanders, including Hadi al- Ameri, who is the leader of the powerful Badr group, issued many statements openly defying the views shared by al-Abadi and the U.S. on the participation of the Hashd al-Shaabi in the Mosul operation.

It is very likely that there will also be further confrontations between the central government and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) over the control of the disputed territories in the northern and eastern parts of the province. On July 30, 2016, Barzani had staked his claim: “Liberating Mosul is impossible without the Peshmerga”. He added that although the Peshmerga will take part in the operation, they would not enter the city of Mosul. It was then that he proposed that 50,000 Peshmerga would participate in the battle. Ultimately though only 10,000 Peshmerga turned up . Almost immediately (by August 25), there were acrimonious exchanges between al-Abadi and Kurdish leaders. Karim Nouri, a top commander of the Badr forces, demanded the total withdrawal of Kurds after the battle, while Shaikh Jafar, a political bureau member of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and top military commander, responded by categorically refusing to bow to this pressure.

It is expected that the Iraqi central government will emerge from the battle against DAESH victorious, thus gaining much military and political power on the ground in and around Mosul. If the past is any guide, the centralising character of this régime will determine events, with all the negative consequences that can be expected to ensue from this. The only factor that could possibly help this situation is the complex multi-level Turkish-Iranian relationship. This could bring a balance of interests between the Sunnis, Kurds and the Iraqi government. In fact, only in the context of a broad give-and-take between the two regional powers could the looming disputes over the control of Kirkuk’s oil resources be resolved without naked conflict.

However, the way the cards will fall will partly depend on whether the US (Gen Mattis) will seek to implement a palliative (strictly anti-ISIS/DAESH) or disruptive (anti-Russian) strategy. Judging from the navel-gazing going on in Washington, although the Pentagon will try to secure a ‘Sunnistan’ base for itself in the region, it will not be expansionist. Also, if the factors that are uniting regional players around the Astana process continue, despite its presence on the ground, the US will be marginalised.

Grinding towards peace in the Middle East

It’s early 2017 and there’s a chance for peace in Syria, but it’s complicated. One regional superpower and two regional powers in the Middle East – Russia, Turkey and Iran – have agreed a trilateral monitoring commission to monitor the Syrian ceasefire at Astana in Kazakhstan. The UN is in attendance, but the US absent, apart from the formality of the presence of the local US Ambassador.

Surely, this is a historic state of affairs, especially since the absence of the US isn’t the choice of the new isolationism of a Trump administration; it is outcome of the abject failure of Obama’s globalism in the face of Russian opportunism, long-term Iranian strategy, and the reaction by Turkey to its changed circumstances.

But the Middle East isn’t just Syria; another war grinds on in Yemen. However, the increasingly unwinnable nature of this conflict contributes at great cost to the Yemeni people to growing stability in the rest of the Middle East. Read full article here

A new security architecture for the northern Middle-East

Iran, Russia, and Turkey meet to shape a new peace arrangement in Syria, following the increasing absence of the Western powers from the Middle-East, as a result of their disastrous policies since the Iraq War. This has signalled, as I explained in July this year,  the trend towards the consolidation of an entirely new security architecture directed by the three major powers in the region. The Iranian sensibilities which have slowed down the evacuation of Aleppo, have been accommodated by Russia and Turkey not only from an immediate need to complete the evacuation, but also from an overall understanding that there are, despite everything, overall common interests.

The interconnected interests of the three powers effectively means that Western influences will be squeezed out of the region, despite the fact that the US is using the fight against DAESH/ISIL  to try to stay in the game. The Iranian backing of Shia militias, if they are contained and do not attempt to move into Tel A’far or into the countryside around Idlib, is increasingly seen by Turkey and Russia as a valid strategy by Iran to counter the unfortunate proclivity of Sunni jihadis to accept Western aid, which is given to them either directly or through Saudi Arabia despite the fact that they are demonised in the Western media.

The new security architecture is strengthened, not weakened, by the different approaches and occasionally sharp disagreements of the three powers over their local interests, simply because of the overall danger posed by the covert interference of Western powers. The most important example of this is Turkey’s acceptance of the Russian insistence on the permanence of the Assad régime (and Assad personally when it comes to the Iranians), which has come about because of the fact that Western intelligence agencies continue to back deep state operators in the country in order to sow terror even after their attempt to overthrow of the Turkish government failed.

Future US policy towards the region is complicated by the fact that Trump seeks an alliance with Russia while inconsistently demonising Iran and that Trump’s pro-Russian stance itself may fail to become effective as a result of the objections of the US deep state. As the Turkish government consolidates its gains after foiling the July 15 coup attempt, it is clear that rather than achieve the objective of turning Turkey into a client state that could be used to undermine and encircle Russia, the actions of the Western intelligence agencies have of late driven the two powers together. It doesn’t take much imagination to understand what the strategy of the Western intelligence-media conglomerate is, and it is precisely this Cold War mentality which increasingly cements the cooperation of the three rival powers in the northern Middle-East.

Qatar, a close ally of Turkey, has effectively underwritten the new political settlement in Syria, in view of its massive investment through Qatar Investment Authority and Glencore (in which it is majority investor) into Rosneft. It is this move in particular which encouraged Putin to stick his neck out to seek a peaceful resolution to the Syrian crisis at the planned summit in Astana, Kazakhstan. The rapprochement between Qatar and Russia will put pressure on Syrian rebels to change their attitude and accept a political settlement which includes Assad.

In fact, Russia had tried and failed to form alliances within Syrian rebels groups in the past to bolster its interests on the ground. Within the past twelve months it had resumed pursuing diplomatic efforts in this regard.