US-Iran tensions rise ahead of anniversary of deal pullout

On the eve of renewed sanctions by Washington, Iranian protesters demonstate outside the former US embassy in the Iranian capital Tehran on Nov. 4, 2018. (File/AFP)
Updated 07 May 2019

US-Iran tensions rise ahead of anniversary of deal pullout

  • Iran official said the US is using a burnt-out psychological warfare strategy
  • Iranian media said the US carriers arrived weeks ago in the Mediterranean

DUBAI: A sudden White House announcement that a US aircraft carrier and a bomber wing would be deployed in the Arabian Gulf to counter Iran comes just days ahead of the anniversary of President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw America from Tehran’s nuclear deal.

The bomber task force will likely include four bombers along with personnel to fly and maintain the aircraft, US officials told Reuters on Tuesday.
The officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said they would likely be B-52 aircraft and had not yet departed for the Middle East.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is said to be planning a speech Wednesday on the anniversary to discuss the next steps Tehran will take in confronting the US Officials in the Islamic Republic previously warned that Iran might increase its uranium enrichment, potentially pulling away from a deal it has sought to salvage for months.
The military has almost always had an aircraft carrier in the Arabian Gulf as part of its sprawling military presence in the strategic region, but had begun to scale back its presence as the air campaign against the Daesh group in Iraq and Syria wound down.
Sunday night’s statement from national security adviser John Bolton said the USS Abraham Lincoln, other ships in the carrier’s strike group and a bomber wing would deploy to the Mideast. Bolton blamed “a number of troubling and escalatory indications and warnings,” without elaborating.
“The United States is not seeking war with the Iranian regime, but we are fully prepared to respond to any attack, whether by proxy, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or regular Iranian forces,” Bolton said.
In Iran, the semi-official ISNA news agency on Monday quoted an anonymous official as saying that Rouhani planned a broadcast address Wednesday and may discuss the “counteractions” Tehran will take over America’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal. It said Iranian officials have informed their European counterparts — with whom Iran has been trying to salvage the agreement — of the planned speech.
“Partial and total reduction of some of Iran’s commitments and resumption of some nuclear activities which were ceased following (the deal) are the first step,” ISNA said. Iranian state television and the semi-official Fars news agency similarly suggested an Iranian response loomed.
A spokesman for Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Keivan Khosravi, also dismissed Bolton’s comments as “psychological warfare.”
Iran’s hard-line Javad newspaper, associated with the Revolutionary Guard, said Wednesday would “ignite the matchstick for burning the deal.” It suggested in its Tuesday edition that Iran may install advanced centrifuges at its Natanz facility and begin enrichment at its Fordo facility, activities prohibited under the nuclear deal.
The United Nations’ nuclear watchdog says Iran has continued to comply with the terms of the 2015 nuclear deal, which saw it limit its enrichment of uranium in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. But American sanctions have wreaked havoc on Iran’s already-anemic economy, while promised help from European partners in the deal haven’t alleviated the pain.
The US last week stopped issuing waivers for countries importing Iranian crude oil, a crucial source of cash for Iran’s government.
It’s unclear what specific threat American officials perceive coming from Iran. A US official, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters, said American troops at land and sea could be targeted.
The USS Abraham Lincoln had been in the Mediterranean Sea conducting operations alongside the USS John C. Stennis, another aircraft carrier that has twice been in the Arabian Gulf in recent months.
However, American military officials have stopped the near-continuous presence of aircraft carriers in the Arabian Gulf, a pattern set following the 1991 Gulf War. American air bases spanning the region can scramble fighter jets and drones, lessening the necessity of an aircraft carrier as US officials also worry about China and Russia.
Already in the Arabian Gulf is a group of US Navy warships led by the USS Kearsarge, an amphibious assault ship carrying troops from the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit. The Kearsarge also carries AV-8B Harrier fighter jets, MH-60 helicopters and MV-22 Osprey airplanes.
Across the wider 5th Fleet, there were 17 warships deployed, according to the most-recent count by the US Naval Institute, which tracks deployments around the world.
The Bahrain-based 5th Fleet declined to comment on the White House announcement when reached by the AP on Monday.
It also remains unclear what bomber wing would be deployed to the region. Typically, the Al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar, home to the forward headquarters of the US military’s Central Command, hosts such bomber deployments.
In late March, the Air Force acknowledged a rare gap in bomber cover in the Mideast after a squadron of B-1 Lancers left Al-Udeid to return to Texas. B-52 bombers also had been deployed to the area to keep up attacks on the Daesh group, the first time the aging aircraft had deployed to the region in 25 years.
Officials at Al-Udeid, which also hosts the F-35 fighter jet, declined to answer questions from the AP.
The Trump administration, which abruptly announced in December that it was pulling out of Syria, still maintains 2,000 US troops in the northern part of the war-torn country. Officials suggest they serve as a check on Iranian ambitions and help ensure that Daesh fighters do not regroup. No significant US forces have so far withdrawn from Syria.
Trump has also said he has no plans to withdraw the 5,200 troops stationed in Iraq as part of a security agreement to advise, assist and support the country’s troops in the fight against Daesh. Earlier this year, Trump angered Iraqi politicians and Iranian-backed factions by saying troops should stay there to keep an eye on neighboring Iran.


Scramble for Syria after US withdrawal

Updated 6 min 59 sec ago

Scramble for Syria after US withdrawal

  • Turkey considers the SDF and YPG to be terrorists allied with the PKK, who have been involved in a bloody campaign for autonomy against Turkish states for decades

ANKARA: As Ankara pressed on with its offensive in northeastern Syria amid international criticism, Washington announced some 1,000 soldiers were withdrawn from the zone.

With the US departure, the attention turns to how the regional actors, especially Turkey and Syria, will operate in their zones of influence in the war-torn country where the possible escape of Daesh fighters from prisons could result in more chaos.

Some experts claim that with the US decision to withdraw its forces, the territorial claim of northeastern Syria by the Kurdish YPG militia and its political wing, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), has finished.

Turkey considers the SDF and YPG to be terrorists allied with the PKK, who have been involved in a bloody campaign for autonomy against Turkish states for decades. The PKK is listed as a terror group by Turkey, the EU and the US.

But, whether some 50,000 YPG fighters will be integrated into the Syrian Army or will try to maintain their autonomy is still a matter of concern.

Mazloum Abdi, commander-in-chief of the SDF, recently wrote for Foreign Policy that the Kurds are finally ready to partner with Assad and Putin.

Yury Barmin, an analyst at the Russian International Affairs Council, said: “Damascus and the SDF struck a deal at the Russian base in Hmeymim to let the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) enter the Kurdish-controlled area in the northeast and deploy at the Syrian-Turkish border. The SAA is set to take control over Manbij, Kobane and Qamishli.”

However, Barmin told Arab News that a deal between Damascus and the SDF would greatly contribute to a buffer zone that Turkish President Recep Yayyip Erdogan intends to create in northern Syria, allowing Kurds to take some areas along the border without directly antagonizing Ankara. This policy, Barmin added, would be unacceptable to Moscow.

“There are now lots of moving targets and the goal of the Syrian Army — whether it will take some strategic cities or control the whole border along Turkey — is unclear for now. As Russian President Vladimir Putin is on his official visit to Saudi Arabia, his decision for Syria will be clearer when he returns home,” he said.

HIGHLIGHT

Some experts claim that with the US decision to withdraw its forces, the territorial claim of northeastern Syria by the Kurdish YPG militia and its political wing, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), has finished.

Barmin also noted that Russia let Erdogan operate the Adana agreement to a certain extent, under which Turkey has the right to conduct cross-border operations.

“But now, Russia would like to show Turkey its own red lines in the region,” he said.

However, Navvar Saban, a military analyst at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies in Istanbul, said that the Syrian regime is not capable of striking a deal without being backed by Russians, and that Moscow would not want to lose its relationship with Ankara.

“Russians always talk about the Adana agreement. We are now talking about a renewal and reactivation of the agreement with new specifications to allow Turkey to go deeper into Syrian territories. In this way, the Russians will have a bigger chance to allow the Syrian regime and Turkey to communicate. It is something that will open the diplomatic channels,” Saban said.

Meanwhile, US President Donald Trump tweeted: “Big sanctions on Turkey coming! Do people really think we should go to war with NATO Member Turkey? Never ending wars will end!”

Joe Macaron, a resident fellow at the Arab Center in Washington, said that if the US is completely out of the way, Russia and Turkey will have to either agree or contest each other to take over the US territorial control in northeast Syria. He added that this might be the most crucial race in the coming weeks.

Concerning the diplomatic channels between Damascus and Ankara, Macaron thinks that the channels were and will remain open between Moscow and Ankara since they have common interests beyond Syria.

“If Turkey had no other option, it might have to settle for controlling a few border towns, but this means Erdogan can no longer effectively implement his plan to return Syrian refugees, most notably without funding from the international community. Ankara is more likely to succeed in striking such a deal with Moscow than with Washington,” Macaron told Arab News.

Many experts agree that the Syrian chessboard will be determined predominantly by Russian moves.

“Assad has no say in what will happen next, Russia is the decision maker and there is little the Syrian regime can do unless Iran forcefully intervenes to impact the Russian-Turkish dynamics in the northeast,” Macaron said.