New Age Islam Edit Bureau
3 November 2015
Where are the Syrians?
By LINDA S. HEARD
What brought down the Russian jet in Egypt?
By Dr. Theodore Karasik
Only fifty U.S. military personnel in Syria!
By Abdulrahman al-Rashed
Can the Vienna Talks bring breakthroughs in Syria?
By Raghida Dergham
Where are the Syrians?
LINDA S. HEARD
3 November 2015
Call me old — fashioned, but I can’t help feeling that when a country’s future is being discussed those directly impacted should have a place at the table, nay at the head of the table. Instead, this ancient Arab heartland is being treated like a plaything by foreign powers.
No Syrian, whether from the regime or the political opposition, was invited to take part in the meetings held in Vienna last week, which smacks of utter arrogance.
The future of these long-suffering people is being mapped out primarily by Russia, Iran and the United States with input from Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, Qatar and Lebanon that have formed rival blocs with competing blueprints.
US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov act like best buddies. They’re on a first-name basis, but the smiles belie very real differences. Lavrov is a consummate diplomat but during a press conference, staged to show unity of purpose, he was hard pushed to hide his dismay at the same-day announcement that US Special Forces will be inserted in the country to assist Kurdish fighters and “Arab groups” battling Daesh.
“I am sure that neither the United States nor Russia want (the Syrian conflict) to become a so-called proxy war,” he told reporters. Lavrov also expressed his disappointment that the White House hasn’t heeded his country’s appeals for cooperation on ridding Syria of groups both Moscow and Washington consider terrorist. The US has complained that Russia has bombed their guys, but refuse to handover coordinates.
Once again, the US is not being transparent. For one thing, who are these “moderates” under America’s protection? The suspicion is that less than savory rebel groups un-vetted by the US have been bundled together under a new name.
“Moderates” who were vetted, trained and armed by the CIA and the Pentagon “betrayed their American backers and handed their weapons to Al-Qaeda” affiliate Jabhat Al-Nusra, according to The Telegraph. Those programs were recently axed emphasizing that President Obama’s Syrian strategy has been an abject failure, one that was compounded by air-dropped US weapons falling into the hands of Daesh terrorists a year ago, as revealed by the Washington Post.
It’s a stretch to believe that a mere 50 members of the Special Forces are there to make a real difference and one can only wonder whether their presence is little more than a face-saving gesture to show the world that at last Obama means business following over a year of largely ineffective US airstrikes.
It’s all very well for the foreign ministers of those countries to agree upon a political transition beginning with an election to include all Syrians as well as those in the Diaspora, but what about the actors themselves? The idea that battle-hardened killers, particularly foreign fighters wanted in their own countries, would simply relinquish their weapons is pie in the sky; their fate must be sealed. The internationally-recognized Syrian National Council has always said it would never negotiate with a regime that has blood on its hands. And if Assad was keen to disappear into the sunset he would have done so long ago.
Here’s the 64-million-dollar question that still awaits an answer: Were the Assad regime to disappear in a puff of smoke, what would replace it — and, moreover, would a transitional government, perhaps drawn from the Syrian National Council, be able to hold sway over the Syrian military and state institutions?
Various officials say they didn’t want to spoil the party by inviting the protagonists bearing unacceptable preconditions, but if the various sides can’t be trusted to gather in the same room without engaging in verbal fisticuffs, why should anyone think they would agree to format imposed by foreign governments?
Despite hidden agendas and inconsistencies, the foreign ministers agreed that the shape of things to come must be decided by the Syrians themselves at the ballot box. Sounds good, as long as voters can cut a trail to polling stations without being bombed, shot or beheaded!
Peace requires a step-by-step plan. First, all negotiating parties should put hand-to-hand to eliminate terrorists. Second, Hezbollah fighters and Iranian Revolutionary Guard should withdraw. Third, Assad should make good on his pledge to step-aside “if his departure is the solution.” Syrians need help to resolve a four-year-long civil war that’s been leached upon by crazed medieval bloodsuckers. But Syrian representatives of all parties, faiths and sects should not be excluded from the process. They are the ones who’ve paid the price and once the battles are over, they are the only ones with the key to true peace and reconciliation.
What brought down the Russian jet in Egypt?
Dr. Theodore Karasik
2 November 2015
The tragic crash of Russian airliner Kolavia/Metrojet’s Flight 9268, an Airbus A321-200, in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula in southern Arish killing 224 people illuminates key security and economic issues. The site is spread over nearly 20 square kilometers and is the worst crash in Russian aviation history.
The fact that the jet crashed 23 minutes after takeoff, apparently on auto-pilot at 31,000 feet and rising, and dropped out of the sky in less than 30 seconds, is raising questions about what exactly happened. It seems the jet experienced a catastrophic failure. The plane blew up in the sky. No one will know the exact cause of the disaster one hundred percent until the appropriate forensics are completed and released to the public. Even then, there will likely be skeptics.
Of course, conspiracy theories and sickening calls of triumph erupted immediately. The crash occurred over the Sinai Peninsula, home to the ISIS’s Sinai Province. Social media erupted with congratulations that the Russians were taught a lesson for their intervention in Syria and the killing of Syrian Muslims by airstrikes. Some even invoked the horrible memory of Aminat Nagayeva and Satsita Dzhebirkhanova, the two “Chechen black widows” who allegedly destroyed two Russian jets mid-flight in 2004 in revenge for the killing of their husbands by Russian security forces.
Later in the day, ISIS media claimed responsibility for the downing of the jet, saying that the group “brought down” the plane. I believe that assertion is false given that Flight 9268 was way above the threshold height of 15,000 feet for a man portable air defense system (MANPADS) missile to shoot the jet down. Sinai Province is not known to be in possession of weaponry than that can shoot above 15,000 feet.
Let’s be clear: There are reportedly eight MANPADS variants in ISIS hands. While most are Soviet-era models, the Russian Federation command guided SA-24 and Chinese FN-6 have been sighted among ISIS’ arsenal over the past few years. Their batteries are likely drained and unable to be fired accurately or successfully. Other MANPADS versions –1st generation infrared and reticle scan-- on the regional black market are incapable of solid operation too. A hypothetical MANPAD attack on a commercial aircraft can only be done on take-off or landing around an airport. Local force protection measures prevent this event from occurring if there is any serious means and intent by extremists.
I also believe it is unlikely that a passenger was responsible: The flight was a charter aircraft through St. Petersburg tourist companies. Russian security for its citizens travelling is tight, although baggage can be tampered with.
Nevertheless, a number of airline companies, Lufthansa, Air France, and other airlines, are now avoiding flying over the Sinai Peninsula as a general precaution but also to avoid a conflict zone –where the Egyptian army is confronting Sinai Province on a daily basis-- until the crash cause is ascertained. This action is a now a normal procedure by the bulk of the aviation industry around the world. Meanwhile, British Airways and Ryanair are continuing their flying over the Sinai to Sharm el-Sheikh. But the move by some carriers also means that re-routing means longer flights and more fuel costs. We are already seeing the economic impact for airline companies of closed airspaces in and around Syria and parts of Iraq, for the past few years.
The quick response of Russian and Egyptian authorities to Flight 9268 is dramatic. The Russian Ministry of Emergency Situations (EMERCOM) immediately dispatched over 100 personnel of its rescue and recovery responders. EMERCOM’s rapid response outside of Russia to Egypt illustrates Moscow’s capacity and capability in the immediacy of the crisis.
Serious economic interests
Both Moscow and Cairo have serious economic interests at stake. Specifically, the Russians and the Egyptian are both interested against the catastrophe focusing on a plane diversion or a terrorist attack. The Kremlin is involved militarily and politically in Syria and with close ties between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, do not want this event to get out of control in their info-sphere. Russia is now a partner with Egypt in a number of economic arenas including the defense realm.
For Egypt, the security threat to their tourism hub can decimate the industry in Sharm el-Sheikh. Sisi, speaking to high-ranking army officers, asked them to observe a moment of silence before urging the public not to jump to conclusions. He said: “This is a complicated matter and requires advanced technologies and broad investigations that could take months.” The longer the investigation takes, the more doubt there will be about security and safety in Egypt. Cairo doesn’t want security flaws out in the public especially if there is proved to be a problem at Sharm el-Sheikh airport. Both accidents and attacks are claiming the lives of tourists to Egypt. That’s bad news for Egyptian business continuity.
Finally, Russian authorities are looking at Metrojet closely: Not only the owners of the company and their maintenance records but also background checks on employees. The airline has violated safety standards before and has been fined by Russia’s Interstate Aviation Committee. The airplane itself, 17 years old, suffered a “tail strike” more than a dozen years ago upon landing in Cairo that corrupted the fuselage. In addition, it should be pointed out that this particular aircraft type— the Airbus—is a foreign aircraft in Russia, so maintenance is expensive due to the weak ruble and thus, the company may have tried to cut costs, thereby affecting the upkeep of the airplane’s engines.
Clearly, this catastrophe will resonate for some time to come. In 2004, Flash Airlines Flight 603 took off and crashed from Sharm El-Sheikh killing 135 French nationals. The findings of the investigation were disagreed upon by the investigating countries including terrorism claims by a Yemeni group versus mechanical failure. Now, like other airliner disasters-- the two recent disasters with Malaysia Airlines come to mind-- the Metrojet disaster exposes a multitude of issues that are not only important for Russia and Egypt, but the region as well.
Dr. Theodore Karasik is a Gulf-based analyst of regional geo-political affairs. He received his Ph.D in History from UCLA in Los Angeles, California in four fields: Middle East, Russia, Caucasus, and a specialized sub-field in Cultural Anthropology focusing on tribes and clans.
Only fifty U.S. military personnel in Syria!
2 November 2015
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and similar groups have an army of more than 30,000 fighters in Syria. The Iranians say they are managing 100,000 fighters of different nationalities, while the Russians have around 3,000 troops. Washington has finally decided to send a force... of only 50 military personnel. We do not know they will be able to do, or the political meaning of sending them.
Everyone views this as an indication that Washington is not serious regarding anything it says about Syria, whether on the level of confronting ISIS, rejecting Russian expansion, or its keenness over a transition of power as part of a plan to end the civil war. It would have been better if Washington had not sent anyone, instead of only 50 military personnel.
What was expected from it was to support the Syrian national opposition with arms, intelligence and diplomacy in order to impose on ongoing negotiations the only possible solution: a Syria without Bashar al-Assad in power, and the establishment of a transitional authority that consists of figures from the current government and the opposition. Without such a plan, the war and the presence of terrorist groups will be prolonged.
Unlike the Americans, the Russians arrived in Syria with a political message that is supported by fighter jets. They are gaining unprecedented influence as a result. However, the Russians must feel now that their air force will not end the siege on the Assad regime. Assad himself is besieged in Damascus. So far, daily Russian shelling of Aleppo governorate has only resulted in displacing tens of thousands of residents to areas controlled by extremist groups.
Syria has become more dangerous than Afghanistan in terms of threatening world security, as it is the biggest nest of terrorist organizations, and is producing trained fighters and preparing them to return home to start a new journey of violence.
This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on Nov. 2, 2015.
Abdulrahman al-Rashed is the former General Manager of Al Arabiya News Channel. A veteran and internationally acclaimed journalist, he is a former editor-in-chief of the London-based leading Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, where he still regularly writes a political column. He has also served as the editor of Asharq al-Awsat’s sister publication, al-Majalla. Throughout his career, Rashed has interviewed several world leaders, with his articles garnering worldwide recognition, and he has successfully led Al Arabiya to the highly regarded, thriving and influential position it is in today.
Can the Vienna Talks bring breakthroughs in Syria?
2 November 2015
The conjunction between the efforts on Syria and Yemen is interesting, especially as the talks also coincided with Saudi Arabia for the first time agreeing to Iranian participation in an international conference on Syria. At the same time, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir has stated the war in Yemen could end “soon”, as the Houthis and pro-Ali Abdullah Saleh faction agreed to abide by Resolution 2216 and to engage in U.N.-backed talks accordingly, and after “gains” on the battlefield by the Saudi-led Arab coalition in Yemen.
Washington and Moscow must have no doubt played a role behind the scenes to contain the recent public escalation between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and to find common ground and begin confidence-building measures between the two key states.
The Syrian issue is not sufficient for Riyadh to test Iran’s intentions. Rather, the first and foremost test is in Yemen, where Iranian tentacles have reached the Saudi border via the Houthis, posing a direct threat to Saudi national security.
In the midst of mutual Saudi-Iranian escalation, there has now been a sudden breakthrough in both Syria and Yemen. This was evident from Adel al-Jubeir’s statements on Yemen during a joint press conference with UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond; and the Vienna talks that convened Friday, bringing together for the first time Iran and Saudi Arabia to discuss the Syrian crisis.
In addition to the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, the Vienna meeting included Iran, Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon, as well as EU Foreign Policy chief Federica Mogherini and European countries involved in the Syrian file, such as France.
If one goal of the Vienna meeting is to push the parties to demonstrate good intentions towards the Arab region, Yemen seems to be an easier test for Iranian intentions than Syria. Yet Lebanon could now be the best and most primed place to prove good will on the part of Iran, Saudi, Russia, the United States, Turkey, Egypt, and Europe. One way this may be achieved is by admitting that the decision to obstruct presidential elections there is a regional one, and that the time has come for an international consensus to rescue Lebanon from political vacuum.
Indeed, while Syria is the main theme of the Vienna summit, the path to political settlement there remains long and arduous. First, there is a need to build confidence among all sides concerned with Syria’s future and the future of international roles in the emerging Middle East.
What is happening now is that the United States is intensifying its war on ISIS in Iraq, and Russia its war on ISIS in Syria, in coordination between Moscow and Washington, with Turkey and Iran involved in varying degrees and with implications for Arab-Israeli relations and Egypt’s position in the regional balance of power. The old Middle East, as the directors of U.S. and French intelligence services told us, “is finished,” as Russian President Vladimir Putin warned that the Middle East has become a base for exporting terrorists.
Military and intelligence cooperation
Putin said that no country in the world can fight terrorism alone, without engaging in intelligence coordination. Putin is thus seeking military and intelligence cooperation in the war on terror in the Arab region and the Middle East. He will not seek to lead the war alone, as this could prove costly for Russia, surrounded by five Muslim-majority republics.
What Putin did not say is that he is the other face of former U.S. President George W. Bush, who once said his war in Iraq was a war on terror far from U.S. cities. Likewise, Putin wants to fight terror far from Russian cities, in Syria. But what both Bush and Putin ignored is that they contributed radically in fueling terrorism and luring it to Iraq and Syria through both their direct and proxy wars.
Both men reduced Iraq and Syria to being questions of terrorism, and barely flinched as they counted hundreds of thousands of victims in Iraq and Syria, as long as the war kept terrorism away from their countries. In truth, U.S. President Barack Obama is not that different.
Not long ago, the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan manufactured the jihadists in Afghanistan to defeat the Soviet Union and succeeded. However, this soon backfired, culminating with the terrorist attacks of 9/11 that spared none of them in way or another.
Russia’s hatred for those jihadists, who were the tool that brought down the Soviet Union, is deep seated, and today there is a good opportunity to exact revenge. Moscow is profoundly hostile to Islamism and Jihadism, and this is why Putin has stressed the need for international intelligence cooperation during his address to the meeting of heads of intelligence of Independent States in Moscow.
At the same time, during an intelligence conference in Washington this week, the head of French intelligence Bernard Bajolet declared that the Middle East as we know it is over forever. Bajolet said countries like Iraq and Syria will never regain control of their former borders. He said: “"We see that Syria is already divided on the ground, that the regime is controlling only a small part of the county, only one-third of the country which was established after WWII. The north is controlled by the Kurds,” and ISIS controls the center. "We have the same thing in Iraq" Bajolet also said, adding that "I doubt really that one can come back to the previous situation."
His counterpart CIA director John Brennan, said: "When I look at Libya, Syria, Iraq and Yemen, it's hard for me to envision a central government in those countries that's going to be able to exert control or authority over the territory that was carved out post World War II."
This is what intelligence chiefs are saying publicly. What they are doing behind closed doors is a different matter that will not come out to the light until after military operations are completed and further bloodshed occurs. Even with regard to political meetings that promise to pave the way for settlements and breakthroughs, military escalation seems to be necessary for deals to take place, as its outcome will set the pace for the negotiations.
Rumor has it that the timetable being proposed by Russia and others on Syria spans between 18 and 24 months, based on military estimates of the time required to defeat ISIS, al-Nusra Front, and other organizations Russia designates as terrorist. According to sources, this is what Russia has requested to complete the military mission, while the political solution to accompany the operations will fall within the same timetable give or take.
Assad’s departure, peacefully or otherwise
One of the issues discussed in Vienna I – and perhaps to be discussed in a Vienna II – and previous preparatory meetings in New York on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, is the re-formation of the regime in Damascus as well as the when and the how of Assad’s departure, peacefully or otherwise. Indeed, the form of the new regime will have to take into account that the majority of Syrians are Sunnis, while a reasonable settlement cannot allow a Sunni domination and the exclusion of minorities, including Alawites.
Names of strong Sunni figures are being discussed for the post of prime minister, who would have expanded powers, while the president will continue to be an Alawite, in a solution similar to the Taif Accord in Lebanon. Another idea being discussed is preparing a Sunni force in Syria and another in Iraq. Some are proposing the Free Syrian Army (FSA) as one possibility, to be trained and armed by the United States.
According to sources, Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz spoke with U.S. President Barack Obama about equipping the FSA with advanced weaponry to be this Sunni force. For one thing, the new Syrian army must not be under Alawite domination, albeit it must exclude no one either.
These delicate details may not be discussed at the ministerial meeting in Vienna. The meeting that will test Iranian and Russian intentions in Syria, as Adel al-Jubeir said, will not conclude with declarations that amount to major shifts in Russian or Iranian positions. It will be a “process”, and processes require successive meetings.
German Foreign Minister deliberately reined in expectations of a breakthrough in the Vienna talks, while his French counterpart said France and its Arab allies will go to Vienna with a request for a specific timetable and mechanism for Assad’s departure.
The problem is that the gap is wide between the Russian position, which together with Iran holds that the government of Bashar al-Assad is the legitimate government, and the Saudi and French position, which considers that Assad has lost legitimacy, along with Washington but only verbally and not in practice because of the Chemical weapons deal.
The other gap is the issue of the reference frame of the Syria talks. If the four powers, the U.S., Russia, Saudi, and Turkey, expand the circles of negotiations to include Iran, then on what basis? If the Geneva Communique, requiring the establishment of a transitional governing body with full powers, is no longer the reference frame for the talks, then what is? If the four powers stopped demanding Tehran to accept Geneva 1 before allowing it to attend the Vienna talks, then what pledge did they get in return?
Most probably, Geneva was suspended as a reference frame in practice to ensure Iran sits at the table. This is another concession to the Russian-Iranian duo on Syria, but behind it, there must be undeclared understandings or deferred gains.
To be sure, Russian-Gulf relations are growing positively. The Saudi King and the Russian leader continue talk, with the king likely to visit Moscow in the coming months.
Russian-Egyptian relations are also moving ahead, not only in defense cooperation, but also with regard to joint efforts to preserve the institutes of the Syrian state. This is while bearing in mind that Egypt is in contact with both the regime and opposition in Syria. In addition, a common denominator between Cairo and Moscow is their hatred for the Muslim Brotherhood.
Egypt’s joining of the Vienna talks alongside rival Turkey, and Saudi, Russia, the U.S., Iran, Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon, has important implications. There is a full quorum, at least in this round.
The Vienna understandings could bring a qualitatively new breakthrough in the Syrian issue. But it could end with disappointment, if one of the parties seriously misunderstands the others. What is at stake in Vienna, practically speaking, is not just Syria, but also Iraq in the context of the war on terror and regional-international arrangements. Yemen is also an important gauge of understandings or confrontations. As for Lebanon, it would present a good opportunity to prove good faith and build trust, which Saudi-Iranian, Gulf-Russian, and U.S.-Gulf relations desperately needs.
This article was first published in al-Hayat on Oct. 30, 2015 and translated by Karim Traboulsi.
Raghida Dergham is Columnist and Senior Diplomatic Correspondent for the London-based Al Hayat, the leading independent Arabic daily, since 1989. She writes a regular weekly strategic column on International Political Affairs. Dergham is also a Political Analyst for NBC, MSNBC and the Arab satellite LBC. She is a Contributing Editor for LA Times Syndicate Global Viewpoint and has contributed to: The New York Times, The Washington Post, The International Herald Tribune and Newsweek Magazine. She serves on the Board of the International Women's Media Foundation, and has served on the Advisory Council of Princeton University's Institute for Transregional Studies of the contemporary Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia. She was also a member of the Women's Foreign Policy