US and Russia ‘nearing agreement on Syria’s future’

Updated 10 November 2017
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US and Russia ‘nearing agreement on Syria’s future’

WASHINGTON: The US and Russia are nearing an agreement on Syria for how they hope to resolve the Arab country’s civil war once the Daesh group is defeated, officials said.
If clinched, the deal could have been announced by President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin after a meeting in Vietnam, US officials said. But White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Friday that they won’t hold a formal meeting due to scheduling conflicts on “both sides.”
Still, Sanders said it was possible Trump and Putin could have a less formal encounter while in Vietnam. The US has been reluctant to hold a formal meeting between the leaders unless they have a substantive agreement to announce.
The potential understanding comes as an array of forces are near a final defeat of Daesh, the extremist group that once controlled vast stretches of both Iraq and Syria. Fighting the group is no longer top priority, shifting the focus back to Syria’s intractable conflict between President Bashar Assad’s regime and the opposition — and to concerns that foreign powers such as Iran will now dominate the country’s future.
The US-Russian agreement being discussed would focus on three elements, officials said: “deconfliction” between the US and Russian militaries, reducing violence in the civil war and reinvigorating UN-led peace talks. The officials were not authorized to discuss the deliberations and requested anonymity.
The US and Russian militaries have maintained a “deconfliction” hotline for years to avoid unintended collisions and even potential confrontations as they each operate in Syria’s crowded skies. A heavy air campaign by Russia has been credited with shoring up the position of Assad, a close ally of Moscow.
With Daesh nearing defeat, the US and Russia are losing their common enemy in Syria and will remain in a proxy battle in which Russia backs Assad and the US lends at least rhetorical support to armed opposition groups fighting the government. That has increased the need for close communication between the two powers about where their forces are operating at any given time, officials said.
The agreement also seeks to build on progress in establishing “de-escalation zones” in Syria that have calmed some parts of the country. In July, when Trump held his first meeting with Putin in Germany, the US and Russia announced a deal that included Jordan and established a cease-fire in southwest Syria. The US has said that cease-fire has largely held and could be replicated elsewhere in the country.
A key US concern, shared by close ally Israel, is the presence of Iranian-backed militias in Syria that have exploited the vacuum of power. The US and Israel have been seeking ways to prevent forces loyal to Iran from establishing a permanent presence. One idea hinges on a “buffer zone” along Israel’s border with Syria.
A third element of the deal would reaffirm support for the UN effort being run out of Geneva to seek a political transition in Syria and resolve the civil war. The US and Russia have been at odds for years over whether Assad could be allowed to remain in power in a future Syrian government.
The UN talks, which have come in fits and starts without yielding significant progress, aren’t the only discussions about Syria’s future. Russia, Turkey and Iran have been brokering their own process in Astana, Kazakhstan. The US views those talks warily because of Iran’s involvement, though they’ve led to local cease-fire deals that have reduced violence, too.
“We believe that the Geneva process is the right way to go,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Thursday. “Unfortunately, it is a long way off, but we’re getting a little bit closer.”
The US-Russia deal may also seek to expand the mandate of a joint “monitoring center” established this year in Amman, Jordan, to watch for cease-fire violations and other developments on the ground. It has focused on southwest Syria, where the cease-fire is in place, but could be used to monitor broader stretches of the country.
Although Moscow has sought a formal meeting between Trump and Putin while both are in Vietnam this week, the US has not committed to such a meeting. Washington’s concern is that it would not serve US interests unless there’s progress between the countries to announce — on Syria or something else. Putin’s aides have said a meeting will likely occur Friday and that the time, place and format are being worked out between the governments.


Under crippling sanctions, Iranian leaders discuss economic ties with Iraqi president 

Updated 18 min 21 sec ago
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Under crippling sanctions, Iranian leaders discuss economic ties with Iraqi president 

  • Both countries could raise annual bilateral trade to $20 billion from the current level of $12 billion
  • Iraqi President Barham Salih arrived Saturday and met with his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani

BAGHDAD: The Iraqi president visited Iran on Saturday as Tehran seeks to shore up ties with its closest economic partners after crushing new sanctions were reimposed by the US. 

Iran is struggling to cope with the impact of two waves of sanctions this year introduced after Donald Trump pulled America out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal in May.

The second phase of sanctions earlier this month targeted the. energy sector, banks and shipping and placed Iraq in an awkward position. Baghdad relies heavily on imports from Iran  and would face punishment if it breached the restrictions. 

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The significance of the Iraqi president’s visit to Riyadh

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President Barham Salih met his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He spoke of the importance of economic relations between the two countries as Iraq rebuilds after the war against Daesh.

“We are carrying a clear and open message about the importance of social and economic relations with Iran, as we have close ties with the Iranian people,” Salih said in Tehran. “Iraq today is looking to restore its reconstruction and stability, and this requires internal and external political initiatives and requires a stable regional environment.” 

Salih also spoke about a new regional system, in which Iraq would have a pivotal role, “to overcome the current differences and focus on the bilateral interests.”

“Iraq will continue its role as an arena to meet the interests of the peoples of the region, not as a battlefield for the conflicted wills,” he said.

Iraq has been a battlegrount between the US and Iran since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. 

Since elections in May, political factions divided roughly into pro and anti Iran camps, have been locked in a bitter struggle for control of a new government.

Many in Iraq feel Iran has too heavy a hand in the country, where it controls powerful Shiite armed factions.

The two sides also discussed “the environmental problems” related to the Shatt Al-Arab waterway that divides the countries in the south, establishing joint industrial areas on the border, and the possibility of a railway link between the two countries.

They also discussed increasing trade between Iraq and Iran, setting up a joint security committees and how to help the visa process for travel between them.

Rouhani said the two countries aimed to boost trade from $12 billion to $20 billion.

“We held talks on trade in electricity, gas, petroleum products,” Rouhani said.

Iran is hoping to maintain exports to Iraq despite the latest sanctions, which took effect on Nov. 5. The country has seen its oil exports plunge and its currency lose more than half its value.

The US has granted Iraq a 45-day waiver to allow it to continue to purchase gas and electricity from Iran for use in its power stations.

Iraq has suffered extensive electricity outages this year, sparking widespread protests in the south. Iraqi officials say they need more time to find an alternative source, Reuters reported.

Salih visits Saudi Arabia on Sunday as part of a regional tour that included Jordan, the UAE and Kuwait. Relations between the Kingdom and Iraq improved in 2017 as the two countries held a series of high-level meetings.

The sanctions have increased pressure on Iraq’s new Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi. He still has not managed to get a number of key ministerial positions approved by parliament as the main rival factions jostle for influence.

Meanwhile, Iranian workers launched further industrial action as the country struggles under the weight of its economic woes.

Workers at Iran’s oldest sugar cane company went on strike on Saturday over unpaid wages, the Iranian ILNA news agency reported.

ILNA published a photo of a rally by workers from the Haft Tapeh company in Shush, south-western Iran, showing women marching with their children - one holding a sign saying: “We are hungry.”