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Body count hits 68 since migrant boat sinking off Tunisia

BEIRUT,AMMAN: The Syrian regime’s assault in the northwest has been met with a painful opposition counterpunch that underlines Turkish resolve to keep the area out of his hands and shows why he will struggle to take back more of Syria by force. More than two months of Russian-backed operations in and around Idlib province have yielded…

Body count hits 68 since migrant boat sinking off Tunisia

BEIRUT,AMMAN: The Syrian regime’s assault in the northwest has been met with a painful opposition counterpunch that underlines Turkish resolve to keep the area out of his hands and shows why he will struggle to take back more of Syria by force.

More than two months of Russian-backed operations in and around Idlib province have yielded little or nothing for Bashar Assad’s side. It marks a rare case of a military campaign that has not gone his way since Russia intervened in 2015.

While resisting regime attacks, the insurgents have managed to carve out small advances of their own, drawing on ample stocks of guided antitank missiles that opposition and diplomatic sources say have been supplied by Turkey.

“They’re even targeting personnel with these missiles … it means they are comfortably supplied,” an opposition source said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was discussing opposition military capabilities. Turkey’s Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment on reports that Ankara has stepped supplies of arms to opposition fighters.

With Turkey committed to the opposition, the battle for the northwest stands in stark contrast to a campaign in the southwest a year ago, when Western and Arab states stood by as Assad and his Russian- and Iranian-backed allies took the area.

Despite Russian backing in the latest fighting, questions have arisen over whether Assad and his allies are entirely on the same page when it comes to the northwest, where Turkey has deployed forces in agreement with Russia and Iran.

Moscow has appeared keen to preserve its ties with Ankara even as its air force bombs in support of Assad: Turkey says Russia has intervened to stop attacks on Turkish forces from Syrian regime-held territory.

And this time there has been no sign of a major role for Iranian backed Shiite forces that have helped Assad to victories in parts of Syria that are of greater interest to Iran, including territory near Iraq, Lebanon and Israel.

The capture of the southwest a year ago remains Assad’s last big gain. The prospects of further advances have been obstructed not only by Turkish interests in the northwest but also the presence of US forces in the east and northeast.

American troops are still supporting Kurdish-led fighters following a reversal of President Donald Trump’s decision last December to pull them all out.

After more than eight years of war, this leaves Syria carved up into areas of US, Russian, Turkish and Iranian influence that seem unlikely to be stitched back together any time soon.

“We could see the front lines harden and remain like that for some time, where either the appetite or capability to fight through them is not there on the part of the regime or its allies,” said a Western diplomat speaking anonymously in order to offer a candid assessment.

‘Bone-breaking battle’

The Idlib area is dominated by Tahrir Al-Sham, formerly known as the Nusra Front. Proscribed as a terrorist group by the UN Security Council, the group has set aside past conflict with Turkish backed opposition to defend the northwest.

Col. Mustafa Bakour, a commander in the Jaish Al-Izza fighter group, said coordination among opposition was a major factor in foiling regime attacks.

“I expect the battles to continue for a time because it has become a bone-breaking battle,” he said in written answers to questions from Reuters.

The regime campaign of airstrikes and barrel bombing that began in late April was followed by the capture of around 20 villages. This led to an opposition counterattack in early June that seized ground the regime has been unable to recover.

The Syrian regime has described its operations as a response to militant violations of cease-fire agreements.

Russia says action was needed to stop attacks from being launched from Idlib, including drone strikes on its nearby air base. President Vladimir Putin said in April a full-scale operation in Idlib was impractical for now.

Though the regime has not declared the goals of the campaign, opposition sources believe it was to capture two highways that pass through opposition-held territory.

Some 300,000 people fleeing bombardment have moved toward the Turkish border since April, prompting the UN to warn that Idlib was on the brink of a “humanitarian nightmare.”

For Ankara, the Syrian opposition’s last major state sponsor, preventing another major influx of Syrian refugees is of paramount importance: Turkey already hosts 3.6 million of them.

While accusing the Syrian regime of targeting civilians and its military observation posts in the Idlib area, Turkey has stopped short of blaming Russia, instead saying it would continue to cooperate with Moscow over the northwest.

The Turkish Foreign Ministry, in a written response to questions from Reuters, also said “necessary messages have been sent to Russian officials to end the attacks on our observation points and civilians” in the Idlib area.

Hundreds of civilians have been killed, as have many fighters on both sides, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Observatory Director Rami Abdulrahman described the operation as “a failure on all levels” for Russia and Damascus.

A Russian private military contractor who was based near Idlib province told Reuters that opposition fighters there are far more professional and motivated than their adversary. Pro-regime forces cannot win the battle for Idlib unless Moscow helps them on the ground, he said.

A second Western diplomat said the regime had suffered heavy casualties for minimal gains, which was “deeply embarrassing.” “Turkey is trying to tell them ‘you cannot take this militarily. You have to negotiate’,” the diplomat said.

A regional source close to Damascus described the escalation since April as a limited confrontation, saying Russia’s ties with Turkey were the main brake on any full-scale assault to take the entire northwest.

“Of course the regime has the desire to recover Idlib by force, but … without the Russians it can’t, because there are many militants and the Russians are completely committed to the Turks,” the source said. “It is expected that the situation in Idlib will stay as it is for a long time.”

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SALT conference: Saudi Arabia, UAE ‘promoting US engagement’ in the Middle East

ABU DHABI: The transformations taking place in Saudi Arabia and the model adopted by the UAE will be crucial to moving US-Arab relations forward. This was one of the many insights offered by Norman T. Roule, chief executive officer at Pharos Strategic Consulting LLC, a GCC- and Iran-focused company, during a panel discussion at the…

SALT conference: Saudi Arabia, UAE ‘promoting US engagement’ in the Middle East

ABU DHABI: The transformations taking place in Saudi Arabia and the model adopted by the UAE will be crucial to moving US-Arab relations forward.

This was one of the many insights offered by Norman T. Roule, chief executive officer at Pharos Strategic Consulting LLC, a GCC- and Iran-focused company, during a panel discussion at the first SALT Conference in Abu Dhabi.

He said what Saudi Arabia is doing, and given what the UAE has done so well, will promote engagement between entrepreneurs and academics, adding that the people who actually move societies “are more efficient, in many ways, than governments.”

Roule was one of three speakers in the discussion on the “Future of US-Arab relations”, moderated by Editor-in-chief of Arab News Faisal J. Abbas. The other two were Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, and Dania Koleilat, affiliated scholar at the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs.

“Governments will deal with the big, heavy, perhaps unsolvable issues, but I have great hopes for this region,” Roule said, referring to the Gulf countries.

“There has never been so much education. (It is) a young region aspiring beyond sectarianism, corruption and the old ways of thinking – and we should be part of that evolution.”

According to him, entrepreneurs will be the future of engagement between the US and the Middle East. To this end, he suggested, bringing more Americans to the Middle East – something the three-day SALT Conference has done – will prove vital.

Roule said “there has never been so much people-to-people engagement between the US and the region as we have today.” Additionally, there is social media, which “ties together the US and the region in a way that has not happened before.”

In the context of Saudi-US relations, Roule said there has been a shift in US public opinion due to Jamal Khashoggi’s murder. At the same time, he said, “former or current policymakers say,‘We have a strategic relationship with Saudi Arabia.’ But they will never explain what that means, or where we should take it.”

Roule thinks Saudi Arabia has an enormous role to play in such areas as moderating Islam worldwide, enhancing the role of women throughout the region, improving the economies of the Middle East, including Jordan and Israel, as well as rebuilding broken states, including Libya and Yemen.

“America needs to be behind that,” Roule said. “It’s unfortunate that policymakers don’t spend a lot of time talking about where we should go with the Kingdom, but I agree that the Kingdom doesn’t have a great reputation right now in the election.”

Nevertheless, he said he has seen US policymakers make requests to the Saudi leadership to support a number of regional initiatives.

Left to right: Faisal J. Abbas, Dania Koleilat Khatib, Richard Haass and Norman T. Roule discuss the relationship between the Middle East and the US at the first SALT conference in Abu Dhabi. (AN photo by Huda Bashatah)

Overall the Iraq war and the Afghan conflict were “anomalies” in how America has handled the Middle East since 1945. “And in many ways, America’s position in the Middle East is generally to try to avoid another conflict, to try to empower our allies to defend themselves, and to work to resolve regional problems,” he said.

Fluctuating Middle East oil prices are still felt in such places as Ohio, Roule noted, but added: “There is fatigue in the US over endless peace process efforts that seem to go nowhere, endless wars in the Middle East, which consume budgets, armies, calendars and reputations and which never seem to end for anybody. There’s not a lot of interest in doing that.”

In a similar vein, Dr. Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, one of Washington’s most influential foreign-policy think tanks, said that when the Cold War ended 30 years ago, nobody would have predicted that such a large percentage of American foreign policy would be consumed in the Middle East, beginning with the Gulf War, which was “thrust” on the US by “Saddam (Hussein’s) aggression”.

“But then we ultimately had what I would call wars of choice, in places like Iraq in 2003, and some other issues that we’re dealing with now,” he said.

“There’s a general sense that the Middle East absorbed too high a percentage of America’s national security resources. Our energy interests in the Middle East and our direct interests are down.”

Haass said there is disillusionment among Americans who think that the return on investment of the resources the US devoted to the Middle East has not been particularly good. “We have a domestic society that is more divided,” he said, “and, internationally, there are several big developments, one of which is the rise of US-Chinese competition.”

He said what is emerging for many as the defining feature of US foreign policy is a much worse relationship with Russia, a much less certain Europe, problems in Asia, including China’s rise and North Korea’s nuclear weapons, and global issues such as climate change.

“The Middle East has to compete with other regions of the world, other relationships and other challenges at the global level,” Haass said. “So it’s not surprising that there’s a dialing down, or a re-evaluation, of how much we are involved in the region and how we are involved.”

This regional “dialing down” by the US was called out by Koleilat, particularly in the context of the ongoing protests in Iraq and Lebanon. She said “the two countries have reached a boiling point” as an opinion poll shows strong majorities supporting a separation of politics and religion.

As a Lebanese who specializes in US-Arab relations, Koleilat spoke of a personal feeling of betrayal over the US administration’s position.

“Lebanese people have realized that sectarianism has led to clientelism, which has led to corruption, which in turn, had led to state failure,” she said. “Today, we have gone from 30 to 50 percent of Lebanese below the poverty level and the state is unable to provide services.”

Although she said the US could not be expected to engage with protesters, it could still put pressure on the Lebanese government to reform and change, adding that such pressure could include withholding of support unless such reforms were implemented.

“The demands of the Lebanese people are very clear,” she said. “We want a non-political government of technocrats.”

According to Koleilat, the US is less interested in the Middle East these days because of three factors, one of which is American isolationism.

“It started after the Iraq war. People in the US want to disengage from the region,” she said.

“The second factor you have to look at is Trump’s way of conducting foreign policy in a transactional manner, so you don’t see engagement for the long haul.”

The third factor is the strategic value of oil, she said. “I don’t see the doctrine where the US would say it is ready to use military force to keep the security of the Gulf,” she said.

“So, if you take these three factors into consideration, there is less American interest and less engagement, and this (approach) will continue in the future.”

For his part, Haass cited Iran as a case where the present US administration has succeeded in exerting tremendous pressure – more than what analysts had predicted was possible – through unilateral sanctions.

The question is to what end, he said.

“Sanctions are a means, they’re a foreign policy instrument,” he said. “The question then is what our definition of success and our goal are here.”

Haass said it is unlikely the government in Tehran can be brought down as the system has proved resilient for four decades now. Rather, the US needs to signal to Iran and have a conversation about its requirements in the realms of nuclear technology and missiles, as well as regional and local issues, in order to have a degree of sanctions removed.

“That, to me is what we used to call diplomacy,” Haass said. “The question is whether there is a place for diplomacy.

The answer is “potentially yes. If not, the danger is we drift towards war because Iran has shown it is simply not going to absorb economic pressure or warfare from us. We need to have a diplomatic initiative.” 

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Iran’s threat to destroy Tel Aviv from Lebanon condemned

SALT conference: Saudi Arabia, UAE ‘promoting US engagement’ in the Middle East ABU DHABI: The transformations taking place in Saudi Arabia and the model adopted by the UAE will be crucial to moving US-Arab relations forward. This was one of the many insights offered by Norman T. Roule, chief executive officer at Pharos Strategic Consulting…

Iran’s threat to destroy Tel Aviv from Lebanon condemned

SALT conference: Saudi Arabia, UAE ‘promoting US engagement’ in the Middle East

ABU DHABI: The transformations taking place in Saudi Arabia and the model adopted by the UAE will be crucial to moving US-Arab relations forward.

This was one of the many insights offered by Norman T. Roule, chief executive officer at Pharos Strategic Consulting LLC, a GCC- and Iran-focused company, during a panel discussion at the first SALT Conference in Abu Dhabi.

He said what Saudi Arabia is doing, and given what the UAE has done so well, will promote engagement between entrepreneurs and academics, adding that the people who actually move societies “are more efficient, in many ways, than governments.”

Roule was one of three speakers in the discussion on the “Future of US-Arab relations”, moderated by Editor-in-chief of Arab News Faisal J. Abbas. The other two were Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, and Dania Koleilat, affiliated scholar at the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs.

“Governments will deal with the big, heavy, perhaps unsolvable issues, but I have great hopes for this region,” Roule said, referring to the Gulf countries.

“There has never been so much education. (It is) a young region aspiring beyond sectarianism, corruption and the old ways of thinking – and we should be part of that evolution.”

According to him, entrepreneurs will be the future of engagement between the US and the Middle East. To this end, he suggested, bringing more Americans to the Middle East – something the three-day SALT Conference has done – will prove vital.

Roule said “there has never been so much people-to-people engagement between the US and the region as we have today.” Additionally, there is social media, which “ties together the US and the region in a way that has not happened before.”

In the context of Saudi-US relations, Roule said there has been a shift in US public opinion due to Jamal Khashoggi’s murder. At the same time, he said, “former or current policymakers say,‘We have a strategic relationship with Saudi Arabia.’ But they will never explain what that means, or where we should take it.”

Roule thinks Saudi Arabia has an enormous role to play in such areas as moderating Islam worldwide, enhancing the role of women throughout the region, improving the economies of the Middle East, including Jordan and Israel, as well as rebuilding broken states, including Libya and Yemen.

“America needs to be behind that,” Roule said. “It’s unfortunate that policymakers don’t spend a lot of time talking about where we should go with the Kingdom, but I agree that the Kingdom doesn’t have a great reputation right now in the election.”

Nevertheless, he said he has seen US policymakers make requests to the Saudi leadership to support a number of regional initiatives.

Left to right: Faisal J. Abbas, Dania Koleilat Khatib, Richard Haass and Norman T. Roule discuss the relationship between the Middle East and the US at the first SALT conference in Abu Dhabi. (AN photo by Huda Bashatah)

Overall the Iraq war and the Afghan conflict were “anomalies” in how America has handled the Middle East since 1945. “And in many ways, America’s position in the Middle East is generally to try to avoid another conflict, to try to empower our allies to defend themselves, and to work to resolve regional problems,” he said.

Fluctuating Middle East oil prices are still felt in such places as Ohio, Roule noted, but added: “There is fatigue in the US over endless peace process efforts that seem to go nowhere, endless wars in the Middle East, which consume budgets, armies, calendars and reputations and which never seem to end for anybody. There’s not a lot of interest in doing that.”

In a similar vein, Dr. Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, one of Washington’s most influential foreign-policy think tanks, said that when the Cold War ended 30 years ago, nobody would have predicted that such a large percentage of American foreign policy would be consumed in the Middle East, beginning with the Gulf War, which was “thrust” on the US by “Saddam (Hussein’s) aggression”.

“But then we ultimately had what I would call wars of choice, in places like Iraq in 2003, and some other issues that we’re dealing with now,” he said.

“There’s a general sense that the Middle East absorbed too high a percentage of America’s national security resources. Our energy interests in the Middle East and our direct interests are down.”

Haass said there is disillusionment among Americans who think that the return on investment of the resources the US devoted to the Middle East has not been particularly good. “We have a domestic society that is more divided,” he said, “and, internationally, there are several big developments, one of which is the rise of US-Chinese competition.”

He said what is emerging for many as the defining feature of US foreign policy is a much worse relationship with Russia, a much less certain Europe, problems in Asia, including China’s rise and North Korea’s nuclear weapons, and global issues such as climate change.

“The Middle East has to compete with other regions of the world, other relationships and other challenges at the global level,” Haass said. “So it’s not surprising that there’s a dialing down, or a re-evaluation, of how much we are involved in the region and how we are involved.”

This regional “dialing down” by the US was called out by Koleilat, particularly in the context of the ongoing protests in Iraq and Lebanon. She said “the two countries have reached a boiling point” as an opinion poll shows strong majorities supporting a separation of politics and religion.

As a Lebanese who specializes in US-Arab relations, Koleilat spoke of a personal feeling of betrayal over the US administration’s position.

“Lebanese people have realized that sectarianism has led to clientelism, which has led to corruption, which in turn, had led to state failure,” she said. “Today, we have gone from 30 to 50 percent of Lebanese below the poverty level and the state is unable to provide services.”

Although she said the US could not be expected to engage with protesters, it could still put pressure on the Lebanese government to reform and change, adding that such pressure could include withholding of support unless such reforms were implemented.

“The demands of the Lebanese people are very clear,” she said. “We want a non-political government of technocrats.”

According to Koleilat, the US is less interested in the Middle East these days because of three factors, one of which is American isolationism.

“It started after the Iraq war. People in the US want to disengage from the region,” she said.

“The second factor you have to look at is Trump’s way of conducting foreign policy in a transactional manner, so you don’t see engagement for the long haul.”

The third factor is the strategic value of oil, she said. “I don’t see the doctrine where the US would say it is ready to use military force to keep the security of the Gulf,” she said.

“So, if you take these three factors into consideration, there is less American interest and less engagement, and this (approach) will continue in the future.”

For his part, Haass cited Iran as a case where the present US administration has succeeded in exerting tremendous pressure – more than what analysts had predicted was possible – through unilateral sanctions.

The question is to what end, he said.

“Sanctions are a means, they’re a foreign policy instrument,” he said. “The question then is what our definition of success and our goal are here.”

Haass said it is unlikely the government in Tehran can be brought down as the system has proved resilient for four decades now. Rather, the US needs to signal to Iran and have a conversation about its requirements in the realms of nuclear technology and missiles, as well as regional and local issues, in order to have a degree of sanctions removed.

“That, to me is what we used to call diplomacy,” Haass said. “The question is whether there is a place for diplomacy.

The answer is “potentially yes. If not, the danger is we drift towards war because Iran has shown it is simply not going to absorb economic pressure or warfare from us. We need to have a diplomatic initiative.” 

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Middle East News

Dick Cheney: Upcoming decade bleak if US adopts ‘disengagement’ policy

DUBAI: Dick Cheney, one of the most influential vice presidents in US history, has warned that “American disengagement” from the Middle East would only benefit Iran and Russia. The 78-year-old politician’s warning came during a speech at the Arab Strategy Forum (ASF) in Dubai, an annual event in which the world’s leading decision-makers address global challenges…

Dick Cheney: Upcoming decade bleak if US adopts ‘disengagement’ policy

DUBAI: Dick Cheney, one of the most influential vice presidents in US history, has warned that “American disengagement” from the Middle East would only benefit Iran and Russia.

The 78-year-old politician’s warning came during a speech at the Arab Strategy Forum (ASF) in Dubai, an annual event in which the world’s leading decision-makers address global challenges and opportunities in “a precise, balanced and politically scientific manner.”

Cheney’s remarks could be seen as indirect criticism of US President Donald Trump’s pledges to pull forces out of northern Syria.

Addressing conference delegates, he cited the withdrawal of US troops from Syria and the 2015 lifting of sanctions against Iran during Barack Obama’s presidency, as events that amplified instability in the region.

“Our allies were left abandoned, and no one wants to feel that way again,” said Cheney, who was chief executive of Halliburton between 1995 and 2000 and held high posts in several Republican administrations.

The former VP’s remarks came during the forum’s concluding session titled, “The global order 2030: The Unites States and China,” which was attended by Dubai’s ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum.

Joined by Li Zhaoxing, a former Chinese foreign minister, in a candid panel discussion, Cheney offered his views on the world order in the next decade within the context of Iran’s regional ascendancy, China’s rise and Russian ambitions in the Middle East.

“I am not here to speak on behalf of the US government, or to speak to it,” Cheney said, adding that his talking points reflected concerns he suspected everyone shared.

“For decades, there’s been a consensus of America’s influence in the world and how to use it,” he said, citing instances where US disengagement had caused the political situation in the Middle East to implode.

“Humanity has benefited from America’s protectionism of the world and its relationship with its allies in the region.”

According to him, the upcoming decade would be bleak should the US adopt a disengagement policy, with the pressures most felt by supporters and partners in the Middle East.

Turning to the role that the US and China would play in the global status quo by 2030, Cheney said there were still concerns over China’s reputation.

“We had hoped that there would be a political evolution in China, but that hasn’t happened yet,” he added.

Li said: “China will never learn from a world superpower and will never try to be hegemonic,” citing as examples China’s strong relations with the UAE and the wider Arab world, and the impact of the Belt and Road Initiative (a global development strategy) on Chinese foreign policy.

“History is the best teacher, but the US has forgotten its own history. You don’t keep your promises,” added Li, directing his statement at Cheney.

Cheney said that since the end of the Cold War, the US had expected that its policy toward China would have had a beneficial effect on its behavior and helped to deepen bilateral relations.

“It was disappointing to see that these expectations were not borne out – China has only grown richer, the regime has become more oppressive, and instead of evolving, it became more assertive,” he said.

In a separate ASF meeting at the Ritz-Carlton, Dubai International Financial Center, Karim Sadjadpour, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think tank, discussed Iran’s policies in a session titled, “The race for relevance and influence in the region: GCC, Iran, Turkey and Russia.”

Sadjadpour said he expected in the next 10 years to see the arrival of “an Iranian Putin” with a military background as the country’s next leader.

“After 40 years of a clerical regime and a military autocracy, there is now a rise of Persian nationalism. This is a shift from the sheer revolution ideology,” he said.

Sadjadpour said there had been an evolution of “Shiite Arab” identity during the past two decades, with the focus more on religion than nationality.

Under the circumstances, he noted that Sunni Arab powers had an important role to play in welcoming Shiite Arabs into their fold “and luring them away from Iran.”

The analyst added that the future of the Arab world could not be explored and forecast without considering a growing mental health crisis. “Today, hundreds of millions of people in the region suffer from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), and the effects of this will be with us for decades to come, resulting in issues like radicalism.”

He said there was a need for training thousands of counselors in the field of mental health in order to reach out to those whose lives had been robbed by extreme violence and conflicts.

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