The battle for the Syrian city of Aleppo is in its final stages as government troops and allied militias dislodge the rebels from the final neighbourhoodsRead More
Following a large degree of controversy, Russian airstrikes from an airbase in Iran have been brought to a halt, one week after the deployment was first revealed.Read More
Nearly a decade after initially signing a contract with Russia, Iran has finally begun to take delivery of the S-300 air-defense system.Read More
The war in Yemen has been going on for just over a year, today, a major breakthrough in the peace process occurred.Read More
The UK has supplied Saudi Arabia with billions in arms.Read More
The relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia has been deteriorating for several years now, but has reached crisis point over the first weeks of 2016.Read More
By Thomas Baron
As Russia increases its level of commitment on the ground in Syria, there are increased concerns that any meaningful change in the political situation is slipping away. Washington has, over the course of the civil war, reduced its own red lines and failed to act to support a meaningful uprising that could be deemed legitimate by the international order, and there are increased concerns over what direction the conflict will take and what the end will look like.
Ultimately, what is ideal for the Syrian groups on the ground is an all out victory in their favour while for the regional and international powers it is for a friendly government to be installed or maintained. The high levels of death and destruction such a victory entails in the short term has made them highly unpopular is recent decades amongst the international community (although there are arguments that such victories are more stable and ideal in the mid to long term) and most participants now insist that the conflict should end at the negotiating table.
A negotiated settlement is favoured outright by the United States and their Western allies for various reasons. The first of these is that such a settlement justifies international norms which state that democratic, inclusive negotiations are the key to successful governance as well as an effective moral and ethical resolution. A second, more practical reason is that it is increasingly clear that only through a negotiated settlement may the United States start building meaningful influence in a future Syria government that could benefit its global vision.
Occupying an essential position on the geopolitical map, Syria has been firmly seated in the anti-American bloc of nations since the Ba’ath party seized power in 1963. In spite of CIA attempts to cultivate an opposition movement to seize the country, particularly throughout the 1950s as part of anti-communist operations, US influence failed to gain hold and, in the years before the Arab Spring, the United States had little-to-no known influence over potential opposition groups on the ground.
With the rise of the Arab Spring and the fall of regimes across the region, many saw the conflict in Syria as a chance to topple the Assad/Ba’ath regimes once and for all, installing a government that was democratic in values, open to international norms on trade, and less hostile to its neighbours.
Attempts to bolster rebel forces who emerged as opposition groups armed as protection against increased government aggression failed and it has been increasingly obvious that the US lacks the ability or willingness to wield their power adequately to influence the dynamics of the conflict on the ground to the point where an all-out rebel victory could be won.
Evidence that Russia’s aerial campaign is focused not on ISIS – as Moscow claims – but rather at Arab rebels that pose a threat to the Assad regime is growing. Targeting these groups helps lessen the pressure on areas under Assad’s control and helps him and his allies expand this control across the cities of the northeast of the country.
This strategy has the added advantage of eroding non-ISIS, Arab rebels and limiting the groups available for support on the ground by regional and international players. By doing so, it is hoped, the conflict will slowly move away from the complex network of actors on the grounds towards a two-way fight between the Assad bloc and ISIS, realising the held rhetorical line that Assad is the last bulwark against terrorism. Doing so would make a negotiated settlement impossible as non-ISIS rebel groups hold no points to negotiate and nothing to offer at the table.
Other states traditionally allied with the United States – mainly the Gulf States and Turkey – have been able to build some influence with material support to groups who the United States has traditionally been deemed too ‘Islamist’ to support. These states may not share Washington’s willingness to negotiate a settlement with Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime, however, and it may be up to international powers to convince these states that such a diplomatic solutions are in their best interests.
A key for America’s strategy will be ensuring that fighting groups favourable to the United States can maintain a place on the battlefield in order to ensure a seat at any future table can be easily occupied and that their concerns will be taken seriously. Without control of places of geopolitical that will be essential to the future states, such groups would be marginalized in the future negotiations.
Such an outcome will be much easier to achieve than an all-out victory. The Obama administration has, since Russia began its aerial campaign, loosened its demands that Arab rebel groups meet certain criteria to be considered for US support and have ended failed training programmes for the elusive moderate rebels. Its new focus will be on forcing a stalemate on the ground, creating a situation in which all-out victory will be elusive to all players and advances on the battlefield near impossible for Assad’s forces, although it is unclear how far they are willing to go to achieve this aim.
If this paralysis can be achieved and if the parties in the conflict can be persuaded that this is the case, it will lead the way to divert the conflict of the battlefield towards the negotiating table. If victory is still seen as a possibility through war – or if parties believe advances can be made that will strengthen their position in negotiations – then negotiations will be elusive and the possibility of meaningful compromise weak.
In Syria it is important to note that for the United States, the fear of loosing strategic headway is slim. If they can nudge the Syria conflict to a negotiated settlement that would include groups open to Western and Gulf influence, this may be a victory in itself. An Assad victory would simply be a return to the norm in the levels of control they have over the territory of Syria and the cost of his removal as well as the risk of who his replacement may be, are too great for the US.
A return to normal, however, would signal to America’s allies a step-away from the region and an unwillingness to act as a security guarantor. Some fear that this will embolden the revolutionary bloc of states, leading Iran and Russia to further increase support for actors who will destabilize the regional and world order. Such a move could force America’s allies to look to self-defence and self-determination to tackle the expanding threat and may do so in a manner more disruptive, with itchier fingers on the trigger, that could lead to a greater level of conflict with more devastating results.
To be successful in this policy, the United States will need to relay the support of its regional allies to ensure that both they and their partners on the ground respect any negotiated settlements that can be forged. Similarly, it will need to ensure that Russia, as the biggest power involved, will respect the agreements, bringing the Assad regime, Iran, and Hezbollah to the table. Whether or not this can be achieved may be largely down to the diplomatic abilities of Obama and Kerry to make the negotiated settlement appear the best option.
Those For and Against the Deal
Those who are against the Iran Deal’s approval, primarily Republicans along with a few Democrats, place significant concern on many components of the Deal and have said they will vote against it - or pass a “disapproval resolution” - in the hope that President Obama will be forced to re-negotiate with Iran. This camp primarily takes issue with the lack of “anytime, anywhere” inspections for Iran’s nuclear facilities, the fact that approval process for inspections may take longer than 24 days, and the releasing of sanctions and frozen funds in areas that don’t pertain to nuclear power.
Adam Turner, General Counsel and Director of Legislative Affairs for the Endowment to Middle East Truth, said that the U.S. had given up too much and tied their hands in the process - leaving only violent options on the table if Iran does not comply with the deal.
He said that between that and all other sanction releases, the US taken away its ‘Peaceful Sticks.’ If the US does have to do something, it'll will be forced into war. The US can’t put more sanctions because that violates the treaty, and if new sanctions were implemented on terrorists, Iran will walk away. This only leaves the US with the ability to go to war.
Turner also believes that along with putting the United States in a weak position, that the deal also puts the entirety of the Middle Eastern region at risk.
“What’s likely to happen is we would see significant increases in Mid East nuclear development that would essentially escalate to an arms race. [...] Iran is supporting rebels, and with increased funding because of this deal and more power with nukes, places like Saudi Arabia will have to start developing,” Turner said.
"With this deal, [the US is] saying that’s OK, that there’s an alternative way to go forward for them - essentially giving them unfair treatment and giving them positive reinforcement for their misbehavior.”
Those who support the JCPOA say that the deal is a good one, for it effectively blocks Iran from building a nuclear weapon through limits on: their uranium and plutonium production rendering Iran unable to produce a nuclear weapon for an entire year, removing 2/3rds of the centrifuges from the Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant for 10 years, banning them from using the Fordow Site for nuclear purposes, and consistent and comprehensive monitoring from the International Atomic Energy Agency and P5+1 countries (China, France, Russia, UK, US, Germany).
The consequences of not passing the deal are steep, with some saying that it would severely alter the world’s geopolitical landscape and U.S. clout over the region.
“The consequences of Congress stopping the deal would be harsh for the United States and chaotic for international order,” said Cornelius Adebahr, of The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in an op-ed.
This camp, however, is not claiming the deal to be a fix-all to the maladies that plague the Mid East region. They say that above all else, the deal is a stepping stone to further change in Iran and the wider region.
“The honest answer is that it will take many years to determine the impact of the Iranian nuclear deal on the Middle East. [...] It’s telling that Iran’s private sector and civil society is most excited about this deal and the Revolutionary Guards appear most concerned about it,” said Karim Sadjadpour, Senior Associate at the Carnegie Institute’s Middle East Program, in an op-ed.
Voting Counts: The Whip Lists of Congress
In the past weeks, Congressmen from across the political spectrum have been slowly coming public of where they stand on the Iran Deal and how they will vote. The politicos of Washington have been keeping a close tally, and think tanks have been busy consulting lawmakers on the details of the deal.
One vote is all it takes for the JCPOA to be passed, delayed, or vetoed. The Iran Deal vote will not strictly be along party lines (Senator Chuck Schumer, for example, is a Democrat who has announced that he is against the deal), but the Republican majority in both the House of Representatives and the Senate has made it safe to assume that a “disapproval resolution” for the Deal will be passed in the September 17th vote (if enough votes are accrued to avoid a filibuster - also something likely to happen) and will be sent to President Obama’s desk for a likely veto.
Once the President vetoes the disapproval resolution, it will be sent back to both houses of Congress. From there - the House and Senate needs two-thirds of their respective chambers in order to override Obama’s veto of their disapproval resolution, and probably forcing the President and the State Department to return to the negotiating table with Iran. If the President gets 34 Senators to support the deal, Congress will not be able to override his veto.
Of the 435 current members of the House of Representatives, only 188 have made their specific sentiments about the Deal known to the public. As for the rest of the votes, we can only conjecture. All 100 members of the Senate have made their opinion on the Deal public, so we have a clearer picture of the vote in that chamber. At time of publishing, only 3 more Senators were needed to block a veto override and to prevent those against the Iran Deal from obtaining two-thirds of the chamber. At the House, 44 Democrats would have to vote in favor of a veto override along with the Republicans, who hold the majority, in order to meet the two-thirds.
Here are the current vote counts - or “Whip Lists” - are below:
Think tanks and lobbyist groups in DC, who have been calling Congressional offices and making trips up to Capitol Hill, have been attempting to woo lawmakers to vote for/against the Deal at “winnable” offices - but even with this, the results of the vote to override Obama’s likely veto are very uncertain.
“The ideal path would be to get enough Democrats to kill the Deal, and to have the President renegotiate,” said Turner. “As for the vote, [the think tank] probably knows as much as you do. [...] It’s definitely going to be an interesting few months.”
Around 3000 troops just landed in Aden largely under the world media’s radar
Over the last week, the entire momentum of the war in Yemen has shifted. While previously pro-government forces and the so-called Popular Resistance were trapped within the port city of Aden, now they are pushing the Houthis back in all directions. First they managed to secure the port facilities, then the entire residential region of the city, and then finally the Aden International Airport.
Many have reported these advances as being led by pro-Government fighters, however this is only half the story. What is actually occurring is far more remarkable, and strangely almost absent from the media headlines.
Last week, and over the weekend, ships arrived at the Port of Aden and began offloading armoured vehicles. This started as small columns of vehicles, which could have conceivable been ‘delivered’ to the pro-government fighters, however has now ballooned into something completely different. Hundreds of vehicles including main battle tanks, APCs, AFVs and self propelled artillery have landed in the city, and joined the fight against the mainly Shia Houthi militias.
Given the huge numbers of vehicles involved, and it would seem that these must almost certainly be regular Emirati troops. Indeed this has been effectively confirmed by comments from coalition officials who have said that 3000 troops, made up of UAE regulars and foreign-trained Yemenis had made landfall in Aden. Effectively, an entire foreign armoured division has invaded Yemen, however it is politically convenient for the Saudi-led coalition (of which the UAE is a large partner) not to talk much about it.
With the entry of these troops into the fight, the fortunes of the pro-Government side have changed dramatically. Since recapturing Aden and its surroundings, the UAE troops supported by other militias have pushed north, attacking the strategic Al-Anad air base from several sides. After days of fighting, Houthi fighters surrendered just yesterday, leaving the pro-Government side in control of the country’s largest airbase.
Despite these victories, these 3000 troops and armour alone will probably not be enough to unseat the Houthis from the rest of Yemen. There, the Iran-backed force is deeply entrenched and has managed to inflict a steady stream of causalities on Saudi border troops despite continuous aerial bombardment.
Should the Saudi-led coalition and the UAE troops wish to attain complete regime change in Yemen’s capital Sanaa, they will need to send yet more troops to the country, with the risk that they will eventually been seen as occupying powers. An alternative prospect to this would be for the former government to set up its own state in the south of Yemen, and come to some sort of ceasefire agreement. It is likely that the events of the next few months will be instrumental in deciding which of these outcomes will eventuate.
Yesterday, forces from the Islamic State captured Ramadi, the provincial capital of Anbar province in Iraq’s west. The fall of the city had been in many ways a long time coming. There had been several abortive attempts by IS to attack the city, and with each successive attack, they pressed further into the centre of the urban area. This culminated in a final push to take Ramadi, beginning last Friday with the detonation of several SVBIEDs around Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) checkpoints in the city’s centre.