Russia ‘should intervene’ between Israel and Iran-backed militias in Syria

A man gestures as smoke rises after an airstrike in the besieged town of Douma in eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria. (Reuters)
Updated 08 February 2018

Russia ‘should intervene’ between Israel and Iran-backed militias in Syria

AMMAN: Russia should intervene to prevent Syria’s war escalating into a new phase that sets Israel and militias allied with Iran “on a collision course”.

The call was made by the International Crisis Group in a report published Thursday that warned that an even broader war could be one miscalculation away.

The animosity between Iran and Israel has increasingly translated into violence on Syria’s complex battlefield with Israel targeting Iranian efforts to establish a permanent presence in Syria.

The report, “Israel, Hizbollah and Iran: Preventing a New War in Syria”, says Russia, one of the Bashar Al Assad’s most important supporters “is the only power in Syria in a position to broker a new understanding that reduces the risk of a larger confrontation.”

A “new phase in Syria’s war has set Israel and militias allied with Iran on a collision course,” the report says.

Having seized back territory in south-west Syria last month, Assad forces and their Iranian backed allies might soon reclaim much of the area up to Israel’s disputed border, the Brussels based group said.

“The fear of Iran-backed militias digging in close to Israel’s borders is decreasing Israel's willingness to remain a bystander. An uptick in Israeli airstrikes on arms convoys and other targets in Syria suggests incremental escalation is already occurring.”

Ofer Zalzberg, a senior analyst with Crisis Group, told Arab News that Iran seems intent on establishing a permanent military presence in Syria.

“Syria of course is a neighbor of Israel and this development could affect the next war dramatically.”

Israel has attacked arms production facilities near Damascus three times.

“The first two of the three sites were said to be Iranian, said Zalzberg. The third one, attacked on Wednesday, is “said to have been producing chemical weapons.”

Zalzberg told Arab News that a political solution is needed.

“We don't share the view that Iran has to leave Syria all together. We suggest Iran stays politically and economically involved in Syria but that it should not have a permanent military presence.”

The Crisis Group analyst suggested that Russia brokers a deal within which Israel will acquiesce to Iran’s influence in Damascus and will come to terms with the Syrian state’s symbolic return to south-western Syria, where the first protests of the 2011 uprising began.

But the Russians are finding it increasingly hard to balance between Iran and Israel, Zalzberg said.

The report said the tensions with Israel are particularly precarious because the “rules of the game” will probably be worked out through attack and response, risking a wider war.

Russia should be particularly invested in mediating between Israel and Iran because a conflict between them risks undermining Russia’s policy achievements in Syria, including strengthening the position of Assad.

On Wednesday, Syrian air defense systems intercepted an Israeli air attack on a military position near Damascus, the Syria military said.

“This morning, Israeli warplanes fired several missiles from Lebanese airspace on one of our military positions in the Damascus countryside,” said an army statement. “Our air defense systems blocked them and destroyed most of them.”

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least some Israeli missiles hit military targets near Damascus.

“Syria’s air defense system blocked some of the missiles, but others hit ammunition depots near Jamraya,” Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said.

Israel has carried out dozens of airstrikes on the Syrian armed forces and their allies since the civil war broke out there in 2011.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited the occupied Golan Heights on Tuesday with his security cabinet and top Israeli army officials.

“We seek peace but are prepared for any scenario and I wouldn’t suggest to anyone that they test us,” Netanyahu said during the visit.

Kurds split on next Iraqi president and throw government formation into further turmoil

Updated 26 September 2018

Kurds split on next Iraqi president and throw government formation into further turmoil

  • The failure of the Kurds to agree on a single candidate will threaten the stability of the Kurdish region
  • A close ally of KDP leader Massoud Barzani has been backed as a presidential nomination

BAGHDAD: Iraq’s main Kurdish political forces have failed to agree on a candidate for the post of president, highlighting the depth of the rift  between them and redrawing their map of influence in Baghdad, negotiators told Arab News.

Electing the president is the second step in the process of forming a government. According to the political power sharing agreement adopted by Iraqi political parties since the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, the post is allocated to the Kurds.

By the end of Monday, the last day for nominations, more than 30 candidates, including a woman, had declared their nominations for the post but the absence of consensus between the Kurdish parties on a single candidate, meant the vote was delayed until Thursday.

The president in the Iraqi constitution does not have wide executive powers, but could play a pivotal role in resolving disputes between Baghdad and Erbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region, and between the Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish powers in Baghdad. 

The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the largest Kurdish parties in Iraq control more than 50 seats in parliament. The two parties have shared the federal posts allocated to the Kurds for the last 15 years. Voting for the PUK’s presidential candidate had become a tradition, but the insistence of the KDP to compete for the post this time has confused Iraq’s parties and forced them to renegotiate.

“It is time to get this position back to the larger Kurdish bloc,” Irdlan Noor Al-Deen, a KDP leader and MP said. “We are insisting to compete for the post ... and we will not discuss the option of stepping down.”

The failure of the Kurds to agree on a single candidate will threaten the stability of the Kurdish region and deepen the disagreement between the two Kurdish parties that arose in October last year when Kurdish forces associated with the PUK refused to fight Iraqi security forces after they launched a campaign to regain central government control over the disputed areas between Baghdad and Erbil. The offensive was in response to the independence  referendum held a month earlier.

The two parties are squaring up in elections scheduled for next week for the Kurdistan Regional Government.

Azad Warti, a PUK leader, said that if the political “fire” from the KDP continued after the elections “we will review our relationship with them.”

“There are a lot of joints areas between us ... and continuing with this approach means that we may not continue with them in the same front,” he said.

Last week, the PUK’s leadership nominated the Kurdish veteran politician Barham Salih, while the KDP nominated Fuad Hussein, the head of the Kurdistan Regional Presidency Office and personal secretary of Massoud Barzani, the most prominent Kurdish leader and former president of the Kurdish region.

It is not clear why Barzani, who headed the KDP, suddenly insisted on the presidential candidacy. Some observers see this step as an attempt to seek revenge against the Kurdish and Shiite forces that rejected the independence referendum and supported Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi when he imposed a series of financial and administrative sanctions on Kurdistan.

“Barzani is looking to get revenge from the leaders of the PUK because he believes that they let him down in his battle with Baghdad when he held the referendum,” Abdulwahid Tuama, a political analyst told Arab News.

“Also, getting the post for the KDP candidate will reinforce the divisions between the PUK and its Kurdish allies in Baghdad, and this will provide the KDP with a great opportunity to be the touchstone in the ongoing negotiations to form a government in Baghdad.”

The major Shiite blocs, which initially declared their support for Barham Salih, have now said they do not mind if the KDP takes over the president, but stipulated the replacement of the party's official candidate.

“Fouad Hussein was rejected by all Shiite political forces. We told Barzani that we have no objection to voting for his candidate, but he has to nominate someone else,” A key Shiite negotiator told Arab News.

“Hussein is the private secretary of Barzani and if he is elected as president of Iraq, it means that the president will be Barzani’s secretary.

“This is an insult to the country and to all, and we will never accept it.”

Iran and the United States have been the most prominent international players in Iraq since 2003. Both are deeply involved in the ongoing negotiations between Kurdish, Shiite and Sunni parties. 

Brett McGurk, the US envoy to Iraq and Syria, has played a key role in naming Barham Salih as a candidate for the PUK, while Gen. Qassim Sulaimani, the commander of Iran’s Quds Force, flew to Erbil on Sunday evening to meet Barzani and “persuade him to abandon his stubbornness and accept a compromise that excludes both candidates (Salih and Hussein),” two Shiite negotiators told Arab News. 

“Sulaimani went last night to Erbil to smooth the tension and try to find a solution that would be accepted by all the related parties,” a key Shiite negotiator told Arab News.

“He will suggest to provide a new candidate who should be accepted by all Kurdish, Shiite and Sunni parties. 

The negotiator said parliament may vote to reelect Fuad Massum, the outgoing Iraqi president, as he is accepted by all.