Category Archives: Middle East and North Africa Region

US-Iran escalation and its implications for the South Caucasus

Photo by Azerbaijani Presidency/Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Photo by Azerbaijani Presidency/Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Over the past several weeks geopolitical experts have been talking a lot about what the surprise U.S. drone attack on Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) – Quds Force, on Jan. 3 means for the Middle East and relations between the major powers. What has received considerably less attention, however, is what Soleimani’s killing means for the South Caucasus, a region whose small size belies its strategic importance.

Located at the crossroads of Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, the South Caucasus is a major energy supplier and an increasingly important arena for competition between regional powers, like Turkey and Iran, and great powers, like the U.S. and Russia.

Washington believed that taking out Soleimani would restore the leverage it had lost to Iran and Russia’s growing role in the region. Although U.S. sanctions have hurt Iran’s economy, sparking anti-government demonstrations, Russia, China, much of Europe, and even many American political leaders have railed against the Soleimani strike. Continue reading

Russia’s Growing Role in Yemen

The civil war in Yemen that erupted in 2014 rapidly became a proxy fight, with the Saudi-led military coalition squaring off against the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, who have seized control of much of the western part of the country, including many of the major population centers. As a result, Yemen’s civil war has generated long-term geopolitical turmoil that extends well beyond the Gulf, drawing regional and global powers into the conflict. Russia in particular is playing a growing role of late, and as the war drags on with no end in sight, it continues to expand its footprint in the country. As it has in Syria, Russia seems to be outmaneuvering the West in Yemen.

Moscow maintains close contact with all sides of the conflict and has offered its assistance in working toward a resolution, even as it pursues its own military, commercial, and maritime interests. Russia’s growing involvement in Yemen was partially prompted by the failure of the U.S, France, the U.K, and the Saudi-led coalition to resolve the conflict, and Moscow has assumed a greater role as a mediator between the Houthi separatists and the internationally recognized Hadi government. In January 2018, Abdulmalik al-Mekhlafi, Yemen’s foreign minister, went to Moscow to meet with Sergey Lavrov, his Russian counterpart. The Russian government has also previously hosted informal discussions with Yemeni political factions backed by both Saudi Arabia and Iran, including a Houthi delegation to Moscow in February 2015. Continue reading

Can Erdogan’s Former Key Allies Challenge Turkey’s Ruling AK Party?

After a decade in power, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s opposition and former allies have begun to believe that he is vulnerable. Turkey’s worsening economic situation and losses in the most recent municipal elections in major metropolitan areas have fomented deep discontent among the ruling party’s elite and former key allies of Erdogan. Will he hold on? 

Former Turkish Prime Minister (PM) Ahmet Davutoglu gave a surprise three-hour interview on July 18 on the popular “BiDeBunuIzle” radio program broadcast by “Voice of Russia”—a subsidiary of the Russian media network Sputnik, the state-owned radio station which broadcasts in different languages. Shortly after the interview, however, journalists were told not to broadcast it, as the former PM’s answers had included harsh criticism of the ruling AK Party (Justice and Development Party) and President Erdogan. Though the interview was broadcast via journalist Yavuz Oghan’s personal YouTube account, the Russian outlet canceled the Turkish show. Continue reading

Shi’a Iran and Sunni Muslim Brotherhood: Unlikely Alliance No More

Supporters of President Morsi in Cairo in 2013. A member of the Muslim Brotherhood

Supporters of President Morsi in Cairo in 2013. A member of the Muslim Brotherhood

The US government’s announcement to designate the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood a foreign terrorist organization (FTO) weeks after it labeled the elite Iranian Revolutionary Guards an FTO is raising major geopolitical concerns and reinforcing the alliance between the two. It is also playing into the hands of the autocratic regimes of the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt.

A decision by US President Trump to designate the Muslim Brotherhood, a popular and moderate Islamist organization, as a “terrorist organization” would result in sanctions being imposed on those who are linked with the group. While the Muslim Brotherhood itself does not meet the legal definition of a terrorist group, such a critical decision could have negative repercussions in several allied countries where the Brotherhood has huge support and political power. The Trump administration said on April 30 that the US government is working to designate Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood movement as a foreign “terrorist” organization. In an unusual move, the President apparently consulted with his national security team before making a final decision, according to the statement issued by the White House. Continue reading

Lavrov’s Gulf trip highlights Russia’s growing regional role

Photo by Alexander Shcherbak/TASS via Getty Images

Photo by Alexander Shcherbak/TASS via Getty Images

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made a four-day trip to the Gulf in early March, stopping in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) as part of a broader effort to boost Moscow’s ties with the region. Although the Gulf monarchies are traditionally considered some of the U.S’s closest allies, relations between Russia and the Gulf have improved in recent years and there is potential for further cooperation going forward.

Russia’s interests in the Gulf are multifaceted, but key areas include energy, military affairs (especially arms sales), and investment, as well as regional conflicts, most prominently Syria. During his official meetings, Foreign Minister Lavrov focused on economic cooperation, in particular Gulf investment in Russia, and negotiations over further coordination on Syria. Russian-Gulf commercial ties are especially relevant at the moment as Moscow is set to host several events next month, including the fifth ministerial session of the Russian-Arab Cooperation Forum, Arabia-EXPO 2019, and a meeting of the Russian-Arab Business Council. Part of Lavrov’s mission was to invite the Gulf countries to attend, and he no doubts made a major effort to persuade them to send high-level delegations. As yet, however, the Gulf monarchies have not shown a willingness to take part. Continue reading

Will the Syrian Kurds strike a deal with Moscow?

Photo Credit: Anadolu Agency

Photo Credit: Anadolu Agency

President Donald Trump’s announcement at the end of 2018 that he would withdraw U.S. troops from Syria came as a surprise to all parties involved, sparking particular concern among America’s Syrian Kurdish allies. The move followed President Trump’s declaration of victory over ISIS after a four-year military campaign fighting alongside Syrian Kurdish forces. This sudden and unexpected decision has been widely criticized not only by allies but also those inside the White House, with many analysts arguing that the U.S. withdrawal will expose the Syrian Kurds to an attack by Turkey.

The news caught the Pentagon and local Syrian allies off-guard and ultimately led to the resignation of several senior U.S. officials, including Jim Mattis, the defense secretary, and Brett McGurk, the president’s special envoy to the coalition to defeat ISIS. According to McGurk’s resignation letter, the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops would be dangerous and lead to a risk of resurgence among the remnants of ISIS in Syria. Continue reading

How is Russia likely to respond to US strikes in Syria?

Russia has long been threatening the US with “serious consequences” to its missile strikes against the Syrian regime over the alleged chemical attack in the rebel-held town of Douma.

Speaking after the US air raid on Saturday, Anatoly Antonov, the Russian ambassador to Washington, reiterated that “such actions will not be left without consequences”. However, Lawrence Korb, former US assistant secretary of defence, told Al Jazeera that Russia’s reaction would most probably be limited to the public condemnation since the Pentagon did not target the Russian military positions. Continue reading

Five things to know about the US-led strikes in Syria

The United States and allies have responded to the Syrian government’s alleged use of chemical weapons against the rebel-held town of Douma with missile strikes. US President Donald Trump announced he ordered airstrikes in Syria “on targets associated with the chemical weapons capabilities”, in collaboration with the UK and France.

The strikes mark the second time Trump ordered attacks against Syria to punish Assad’s government. Russia, an ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, pledged to retaliate for what it described as a “fabricated” chemical gas attack. Continue reading

What is Russia’s end game in Afrin?

Turkey launched its air and ground operation against Kurdish fighters in the Syrian enclave of Afrin on Saturday, with Moscow turning a blind eye on the military offensive.

Russian forces were withdrawn from the area just before the operation began and Turkish jets were allowed to use the Afrin airspace, controlled by the Syrian government and Russia.

The development comes at a time when relations between Turkey and Russia have been gradually getting closer in the context of the Syria conflict, whereas tensions have been rising between Ankara and Washington, which backs the Kurdish fighters in northern Syria. Continue reading

Will the ‘Troika format’ of Astana talks bring peace to Syria?

Share on Twitter Share via Email Print this page Middle East Astana Talks on Syria to Continue Despite Setbacks By Daniel Schearf February 18, 2017 07:26 PM Participants of Syria peace talks attend a meeting in Astana, Kazakhstan, Feb. 16, 2017. Participants of Syria peace talks attend a meeting in Astana, Kazakhstan, Feb. 16, 2017.

Participants of Syria peace talks attend a meeting in Astana, Kazakhstan February 16, 2017. REUTERS/Mukhtor Kholdorbekov – RTSYZEI

On January 23, the next phase of peace talks started in the capital of Kazakhstan, Astana. Syria’s government and opposition forces are to meet in Kazakh capital Astana for the first time since the fall of Aleppo. Negotiations between the Syrian government delegation and rebel fighters, sponsored by Russia and Turkey – who have been backing different sides of the conflict – are expected to last three days.

One of the most significant points of the talks is that this time Syrian opposition is represented mainly by the militant groups, which fight in Syria, not just by secular, and political forces. Nevertheless, uncertainty prevails over all aspects of the talks – from the attendant list to the agenda of the meeting. The guarantors of the Astana talks – Turkey, Iran, and Russia are seemingly making efforts to show the effectiveness of the “Troika” format over Syrian talks. The governments of Russia, Turkey, and Iran are set to send officials from their ministers of defense and foreign affairs. The ministers are not expected to attend what is expected to be an essentially technocratic gathering. Continue reading