Russia ‘winning Caucasus power struggle’

Russia ‘winning Caucasus power struggle’
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, is welcomed by Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev, center, in Baku, Azerbaijan, Thursday, Dec. 10, 2020. (AP)
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Updated 02 February 2021

Russia ‘winning Caucasus power struggle’

Russia ‘winning Caucasus power struggle’
  • Joint center might be a repeat of previous cooperation models between Ankara and the Kremlin

ANKARA: The launch of a joint Turkish-Russian center to observe the cease-fire in Nagorno-Karabakh has raised questions in Turkey and among the international community regarding its effects on the Caucasus power struggle.

The joint center began operating on Jan. 30 and is tasked with supervising the cease-fire that was reached between Armenia and Azerbaijan last November following six weeks of intense fighting.
About 120 military personnel from Turkey and Russia, without unified command, will be deployed to the village of Qiyamedinli in Azerbaijan’s Aghjabadi district.
Drones will be used for the monitoring mission.
Aydin Sezer, an Ankara-based expert on Russian politics, said that opening a monitoring center outside the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh does not mean that Turkey will have political leverage in the region.
“It is a ridiculous move just for domestic consumption. Ankara unintentionally gave Kremlin a new space to maneuver within Azeri territories. Turkey is not included in the official decision-making process under the ceasefire deal,” he told Arab News.
He added that it is imperative that Ankara normalizes relations with Armenia in order to be an active player in Southern Caucasus geopolitics.
“Turkish rulers might take some steps in this direction to please the new Biden administration in Turkey,” he said.
However, other experts have said that the joint center might be a repeat of previous cooperation models between Ankara and the Kremlin, with the same challenges and difficulties attached.
“Even though it seems that the Turkish-Russian joint monitoring center will not be playing a central role in Nagorno-Karabakh, it nevertheless symbolizes the fact that Russia has finally accepted Turkey as a regional partner for the resolution of conflicts in the Caucasus,” Emre Ersen, an expert on Turkey-Russia relations from Marmara University, told Arab News.
“For many years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moscow had been very reluctant to welcome a more active Turkish role in the region,” he added.
However, Ersen said Russian political leverage in the Caucasus has risen considerably following the cease-fire agreement, which was demonstrated in the latest meeting between Russian president Vladimir Putin, his Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliyev and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan in Moscow.

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The joint center began operating on Jan. 30 and is tasked with supervising the cease-fire that was reached between Armenia and Azerbaijan last November following six weeks of intense fighting.

“The fact that the Turkish leaders were not present in that meeting could be viewed as a sign of Russia’s determination to maintain its status as the sole actor setting the rules of the game in the Caucasus,” he said.
But Ersen added that Turkey and Russia might also be attempting to implement their regional dialogue model in the Caucasus after launching similar mechanisms in Syria and Libya, which were aimed at limiting the role of the West in regional issues.
Ankara has long criticized OECD’s Minsk Group, led by Russia, the US and France, for failing to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict through decades of mediation.
Rauf Mammadov, resident scholar at the Middle East Institute, said that the launch of the joint center is a “limited success” for Turkey.
“Despite Moscow’s resistance, Ankara managed to establish a military presence in the region. Although the joint center is located outside Nagorno-Karabakh, Ankara has laid the ground for a more assertive future role in the geography by co-opting its historic rival Moscow,” he told Arab News.
Mammadov added that the joint center is a compromise by Russia in the face of Turkey’s persistence to gain a more active role in the post-war settlement of the region.
“By partnering with Ankara in the region, Moscow acknowledges the former’s growing influence in the South Caucasus, especially in Azerbaijan. But at the same time, by locating the center outside Nagorno-Karabakh, the Kremlin is preserving its exclusive role as a leading judge of the warring sides’ issues within Nagorno-Karabakh,” he said.
Rumors are circulating surrounding Ankara’s readiness to normalize relations with Armenia and its willingness to open border crossings. The only barrier before the border closure — for nearly three decades — was the Armenian occupation of seven Azeri regions adjacent to Nagorno-Karabakh, an issue that was resolved in the Russia-brokered ceasefire.
Mammadov, as with Sezer, said that it is crucial that Turkey normalizes relations with Armenia in order to achieve a more prominent role in the region.
“Both countries may benefit from active diplomatic and economic ties, which would subsequently decrease Armenia’s dependence on Russia,” he said.
In 2009, the then-Turkish president Abdullah Gul and his Armenian counterpart Serzh Sarkisian initiated so-called “soccer diplomacy,” by visiting matches played between their national teams, which resulted in historic protocols to re-establish diplomatic ties.
However, the novel move aimed at opening a new chapter in bilateral relations soon backfired following intense opposition among Turkish and Armenian nationalists.
Neil Hauer, an expert on Caucasus conflicts, said that Turkey has only made limited progress in its goals, since the new cease-fire monitoring center is unrelated to the tripartite agreement and provides no stipulations for Ankara to be involved in future negotiations.
“In this way, Turkey has made some progress in their regional goals — they now at least have a joint base with Russia for monitoring the cease-fire — but in the most fundamental way, they are no closer to being included in the negotiations over Karabakh and its status,” he told Arab News.
But for Russia, he added, the joint center is “certainly an achievement.”
Hauer said: “Turkey could always have opened a base in Azerbaijan by means of a bilateral agreement between Ankara and Baku, but Russia now has a military presence on both sides of the line of contact — both on the Karabakh Armenian side and on the Azeri side.
“This gives Russia even greater control over the conflict than the already dominating position they had following the entrance of 2,000 peacekeepers into Karabakh.
“The main outcome of this is that Russia now rules this conflict more than ever before.”


Arab League chief calls for strategic partnership with UN to end region’s wars

Arab League chief calls for strategic partnership with UN to end region’s wars
Updated 20 April 2021

Arab League chief calls for strategic partnership with UN to end region’s wars

Arab League chief calls for strategic partnership with UN to end region’s wars
  • Security Council met to consider ways in which cooperation with organizations in Middle east might be enhanced to maintain global peace and security
  • Members reminded that groups closest to conflict zones are best positioned to understand disputes and help to prevent or resolve them

League of Arab States Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit on Monday called on the Security Council and other UN bodies to establish a strategic working partnership with the league and its member states.
The aim, he said, would be to lay the foundations for “security, stability and sustainable development in the Arab region, based on a genuine understanding of the problems facing the region, and on the primary responsibility of the UN in maintaining international peace and security.”
His call came during a high-level Security Council meeting on Monday that highlighted the importance of UN cooperation with regional and subregional organizations as part of efforts to maintain global peace and security, and considered how this might be enhanced.
The meeting was convened by Nguyen Xuan Phuc, the president of Vietnam, which holds the presidency of the Security Council this month, to discuss ways of fostering confidence building and dialogue in conflict prevention and resolution.
In a statement issued after the meeting, the presidency noted that the council’s primary responsibility under its charter is to safeguard international peace and security. It added that “regional and subregional organizations are well positioned to understand the root causes of armed conflicts owing to their knowledge of the region, which can be a benefit for their efforts to influence the prevention or resolution of these conflicts. (They are also) well positioned in promoting confidence, trust and dialogue among concerned parties within their respective regions.” It also pointed out that regional organizations play a vital role in post-conflict reconstruction and sustainable development.
The statement reaffirmed a commitment to the peaceful settlement of disputes. It called on council members to utilize the potential of regional and subregional organizations by “encouraging countries in the region to resolve differences peacefully through dialogue, reconciliation, consultation, negotiation, good offices, mediation and judicial settlement of disputes (and) by the promotion of confidence-building measures and political dialogue through full engagement with concerned parties.”
Since taking office in 2016, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has made such cooperation a key priority. Since 1945, he told council members, cooperation has grown significantly to now encompass “preventive diplomacy, mediation, counterterrorism, preventing violent extremism, peacekeeping, peacebuilding, promoting human rights, advancing the Women, Peace and Security agenda, combating climate change and, since last year, the response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
He highlighted the establishment of a civilian-led transitional government in Sudan, in which women and young people play vital roles, as an example of effective cooperation — between the UN and the African Union (AU) and Ethiopia — to facilitate negotiations between rival parties. This type of collaboration led to signing of the Juba Peace Agreement in October 2020, he added.
Guterres also underscored the importance of the cooperation between the UN, the AU, the League of Arab States and the EU (the Libya Quartet) to support the “Libyan-led, Libyan-owned dialogue process and transition.” Working together in this way continues to support the implementation of the ceasefire and the promotion of national reconciliation, he added.
Meanwhile, Aboul Gheit said that the COVID-19 pandemic represents an additional problem for an Arab region already burdened by “wars, armed conflicts, refugees, internally displaced persons and other structural challenges affecting the security and stability of many of its countries.”
He urged council members to maximize international solidarity in the efforts to deal with the repercussions of the pandemic and all its human, economic and social costs. It is essential, he said, to end the fighting that is tearing apart the societal fabric of countries in conflict.
Highlighting the war in Syria and the “unprecedented external and regional interventions in this important Arab country,” Aboul Gheit warned that “the chances of extricating Syria from this terrifying spiral of conflict will continue to erode with the passage of time, and that the cost of rebuilding what the war has destroyed will increase day by day, and that the risks of unrest spreading to neighboring countries will remain unless a radical and integrated political settlement is reached.”
Aboul Gheit also spoke about Yemen, where the world’s worst man-made humanitarian crisis continues to unfold “due to the intransigence of the Houthi group and its rejection of all settlement attempts made over the past years, the latest of which is the Saudi initiative supported by the Arab world, and as a result of regional interventions that made Yemen a platform to threaten the security of its neighbors in the Gulf (and) energy and sea routes in the region.”
He also called for “more joint efforts to accompany the Libyan brothers in this march (toward national elections in December), through our coordinated work with the UN mission and also through the Quartet.”


Defiant Lebanese judge faces crunch meeting on Tuesday

Defiant Lebanese judge faces crunch meeting on Tuesday
An opponent of Judge Ghada Aoun grabs the weapon of a soldier, after he hit the protester with it, during a sit-in outside the Justice Palace in Beirut, Lebanon, Monday, April 19, 2021. (AP)
Updated 20 April 2021

Defiant Lebanese judge faces crunch meeting on Tuesday

Defiant Lebanese judge faces crunch meeting on Tuesday
  • She staged two raids on a currency exchange earlier this month in defiance of the decision from Public Prosecutor Judge Ghassan Oweidat to dismiss her

BEIRUT: A Lebanese judge who defied a decision dismissing her from an investigation into possible currency export breaches has been summoned for a meeting on Tuesday with the country’s Supreme Judicial Council.
Judge Ghada Aoun, who was referred to the Judicial Inspection Authority because of more than 20 complaints against her, can be deemed incompetent by the vote of five council members and five authority members.
Aoun had been investigating the Mecattaf money exchange company and Societe Generale Bank for allegedly withdrawing US dollars from the market and shipping the funds abroad.
She staged two raids on a currency exchange earlier this month in defiance of the decision from Public Prosecutor Judge Ghassan Oweidat to dismiss her.
In one of the raids she was accompanied by supporters of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), the political party led by the president’s son-in-law MP Gebran Bassil.
In the event that Aoun agrees during Tuesday’s meeting to comply with Oweidat’s decision, she will be dismissed from matters related to important financial crimes but will remain in her position as an appellate public prosecutor in Mount Lebanon.Two protests were held outside the Beirut Justice Palace on Monday.
One was by Aoun’s supporters from the FPM. The other was by supporters of Oweidat from the Future Movement, the political party led by Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri.
The rival protests turned into a clash, with people shoving and beating each other, and one person was wounded.
The army and riot police intervened to separate the protesters and end their sit-ins.
According to one judge, there was a judicial hierarchy that must be respected: “Judge Oweidat requested the dismissal of a judge who is his subordinate, so how could she not comply?”
Aoun, who has become controversial in her handling of judicial files, has become a matter of public and political debate.
Some support the judge in her conduct to expose the corruption of authority, while others consider her to be a tool for the FPM through which it chooses which issues to attack its opponents with.
The Future parliamentary bloc said that what happened with Aoun reflected “contempt for the constitutional institutions and the incitement of some judges to usurp powers” that were not theirs.
Attorney Imad Al-Saba, who is the central coordinator of the lawyers’ sector in the Future Movement, said the party rejected the politicization of the judiciary. “It is our duty to restore the judiciary’s credibility and prestige,” he added.
Systemic corruption in Lebanon has angered the public, with people taking to the streets to protest and saying that graft has devastated the country’s economy.   
The former president of the Constitutional Council, Issam Sleiman, said that what Oweidat did was against the law. “We are in an unacceptable state of chaos. The judiciary is asleep, several public prosecution offices have not done anything in any of the corruption files, and no corrupt person has been arrested or held accountable. The plundering of public money will not be exposed except through a forensic audit.”
President Michel Aoun has insisted on a financial audit into the accounts of the Banque du Liban. But his opponents are demanding the audit include all state institutions, especially the Ministry of Energy, which is run by ministers affiliated with the FPM.


GCC official and Swedish envoy discuss developments in Yemen

GCC official and Swedish envoy discuss developments in Yemen
Updated 20 April 2021

GCC official and Swedish envoy discuss developments in Yemen

GCC official and Swedish envoy discuss developments in Yemen
  • They discussed the GCC’s efforts to support a political solution to the crisis

RIYADH: Abdul Aziz Hamad Aluwaisheg, the assistant secretary general for political affairs and negotiations at the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), has met with Sweden’s envoy to Yemen Peter Semneby in the Saudi capital, Riyadh on Monday.
During the meeting, they discussed the latest developments in Yemen, and reviewed the GCC’s efforts to support a political solution to the crisis, according to the three references represented by the Gulf Initiative and its implementation mechanism, the outcomes of the comprehensive national dialogue, and UN Security Council Resolution 2216.
They also discussed the peace initiative that was announced by Saudi Arabia in March to end the war in Yemen, implement a comprehensive cease-fire, and begin consultations between the Yemeni parties to reach a political solution to the Yemeni crisis under the auspices of the UN.
Semneby briefed the GCC official on Sweden’s political and humanitarian efforts in following up with the Yemeni issue, and said he praised cooperation with the bloc in this regard.


Russian army says killed 'up to 200 militants' in Syria bombing

 Russian army says killed 'up to 200 militants' in Syria bombing
Updated 19 April 2021

Russian army says killed 'up to 200 militants' in Syria bombing

 Russian army says killed 'up to 200 militants' in Syria bombing

MOSCOW: Russia's defence ministry said Monday that it had killed "up to 200 fighters" in Syria during an air strike on a "terrorist" base northeast of Palmyra.
"After confirming data through multiple channels on the location of terrorist facilities, Russian Aerospace Forces aircraft carried out airstrikes," the ministry said in a statement, adding that they "eliminated two hideouts" and "up to 200 militants".


Syria’s upcoming presidential election stirs bitterness, disappointment in refugees

Syria’s upcoming presidential election stirs bitterness, disappointment in refugees
Updated 19 April 2021

Syria’s upcoming presidential election stirs bitterness, disappointment in refugees

Syria’s upcoming presidential election stirs bitterness, disappointment in refugees
  • News that Syria’s embassies had opened for voter registration was met with disappointment by refugees in Lebanon
  • Syrian refugees in Lebanon have been distributed in the Bekaa Valley and on the country’s northern borders since arriving in Lebanon

BEIRUT: Syrian refugees in Lebanon have expressed bitterness and disappointment ahead of elections that are expected to keep President Bashar Assad in office.

The Syrian Parliament has set May 26 as the date for the poll.

Assad won in 2014 with more than 88 percent of the Syrian vote. He has not officially announced his candidacy to run in next month’s election.

News that Syria’s embassies had opened for voter registration was met with disappointment by refugees in Lebanon, who also expressed their frustration with the international community.

Abu Ahmad Souaiba, speaking on behalf of the Voice of Syrian Refugees in Lebanon, said the revolution was launched to “achieve freedom and dignity.”

“Our disappointment today is great because of the failure to implement (UN) Security Council resolutions, which call for power transition not the re-election of Bashar Assad one more time,” he told Arab News.

Syrian refugees in Lebanon have been distributed in the Bekaa Valley and on the country’s northern borders since arriving in Lebanon, with the majority of those who took part in the revolution against Assad concentrated in the Arsal area.

“There are three segments of Syrians in Lebanon,” said Souaiba. “One segment includes families who have been living in Lebanon since before the revolution and those who are not affiliated with the opposition. The second includes the opposition, and these migrated to Lebanon in 2013 and 2014 because of the barrels of death (barrel bombs). The third includes those who are neither with the opposition nor with the regime, and those (people) came to Lebanon because of the economic crisis and are concerned about obtaining their livelihood and the sustenance of their families.”

According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the number of registered Syrian refugees in Lebanon decreased to 865,500 by the end of Dec. 2020.

Lebanon called on the UNHCR to suspend new registrations at the beginning of 2015. 

About 55,000 have returned to Syria in recent years as part of repatriation efforts by Lebanese General Security and as part of a reconciliation program sponsored by Hezbollah in some Syrian towns.

Rumors are circulating that Hezbollah has set up committees to fill out census forms with the number of Syrian refugees present in certain areas ahead of taking them to voting stations on polling day.

Talk of a Hezbollah census has coincided with information that the Ministry of Interior is waiting for UNHCR data in order to prepare a mechanism for calculating the number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

The ministry has been assigned this task in coordination with the Ministry of Social Affairs, Lebanese General Security and the UNHCR.

Arab News contacted UNHCR spokesperson Lisa Abu Khaled, but she refused to comment and only said there was “currently no refugee census.”

Souaiba believed there was no need to recount the refugees because, around six weeks ago, a census was carried out by NGOs under the supervision of Lebanese military intelligence for refugees in camps and settlements, specifically in the Arsal area which is open to the land connecting Lebanese and Syrian territories.

He also said there was news from inside Syria of hunger, even in Damascus, and painted a bleak picture of people’s desperation to escape.

“There is no fuel and no electricity,” he added. “A woman who fled to Lebanon with her children told me that her husband was arrested by Syrian authorities and his fate is still unknown. She is almost dying of starvation with her children. She preferred to flee to Lebanon with her children and borrowed $100 to pay the smuggler. She thought that in Lebanon she would receive some food, and this is better than hunger in Syria.”

A UNHCR study estimated that 89 percent of Syrian refugee families were living below the extreme poverty line in Lebanon in 2020, compared to 55 percent in 2019.