Worlds Apart

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Yesterday was Valentine’s Day, the day of romance. Not on the international scene. The two important international meetings held on that very day reflected two worlds apart: the anti-Iran Warsaw meeting in effect “led and co-chaired by the US and Israel” and the Astana format meeting in Sochi. Neither gathering was able to reflect unity among its participants. German and French foreign ministers and EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini did not attend the former and differences remained in the latter.

President Trump did not go the Warsaw, but his representatives did their best to project his worldview. In his defiant 24-minute address to the “Ministerial to Promote a Future of Peace and Security in the Middle East,” Vice President Pence mentioned him 20 times.

On Iran sanctions, Mr Pence referred to UAE’s cancellation of its imports of Iranian condensate and Bahrain’s efforts to stop Iran’s illicit maritime activities in the region as examples to follow. Then he said:

“But sadly, some of our leading European partners have not been near as cooperative…

“Just two weeks ago, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom announced the creation of a special financing mechanism designed to oversee a mirror-image transaction that would replace sanctionable international payments between EU businesses and Iran.

“They call this scheme a ‘Special Purpose Vehicle’. We call it an effort to break American sanctions against Iran’s murderous revolutionary regime.  It’s an ill-advised step that will only strengthen Iran, weaken the EU, and create still more distance between Europe and the United States…” (1)

In an interview with Fox News, Secretary Pompeo again referred to the JCPOA as a horrible deal. On Europe’s reluctance to comply with US sanctions on Iran he said, “… we’ve urged them too not to disrupt the sanctions regime that’s out there. They’ve now come up with this thing called the SPV. I’m very hopeful that it’ll be what they say it is and no more…”

The UAE and Bahrain have been among Washington’s allies for decades. Nonetheless, putting Germany, France and the UK in the same basket with them, threatening a widening gap between the US and Europe and referring to the SPV in derogatory language boggles the mind and leads to more questions regarding the future of the Atlantic alliance. How the EU would deal with the divisions in its own ranks is another story.

The Warsaw meeting ended with a “Co-chairs’ Statement on the Ministerial to Promote a Future of Peace and Security in the Middle East” which announced the establishment of international working groups that will drive momentum toward concrete solutions in different areas. Although more than 60 nations attended the meeting, they don’t all see eye to eye with Washington either on Iran or Middle East peace. And, some will see it as a new version of President Bush’s much-criticized “Greater Middle East Initiative” launched in 2004. In brief, the Warsaw meeting was a worrisome declaration of intent on the part of Washington and it remains to be seen whether its concrete proposals to counter Iran’s “malign activities across the region” will be fully embraced by its regional partners.

In Warsaw, Prime Minister Netanyahu met one-on-one with Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi. Oman is indeed the first Arab country Mr Netanyahu has officially visited outside those with whom Israel has peace treaties. But Oman which has a tradition of engaging in discreet diplomacy for regional solutions to regional problems seeks friendly relations with all regional players including Iran.

As for the Sochi meeting on Syria, President Putin’s remarks during the joint press conference with presidents Rouhani and Erdogan was a clear summing-up of the challenges facing the Astana format. He said:

“Our diplomats in coordination with the Syrian parties and the UN did a very good job forming the composition of the Constitutional Committee. It is important that the committee begins its work as soon as possible.

“We also need to agree on how to provide for the final de-escalation in Idlib. We are managing the ceasefire in the province, but that does not mean we have to accept the presence of terrorist groups in Idlib. This is why I suggest examining practical steps that Russia, Turkey and Iran might take together to eradicate the terrorist stronghold completely. 

“We also need to discuss how the situation might develop in northeastern Syria considering the well-known statements made by US officials about the possible withdrawal of US troops from there. Last month President Erdogan and I discussed this issue in Moscow and agreed that security problems in northeastern Syria, as well as other parts of the country, must be addressed solely on the basis of full respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the republic.” (2)

In brief, Russia wishes to shift focus from the battlefield to political transition and attaches great importance to the work to be undertaken by the constitutional committee. However, battlefield challenges remain, particularly in Idlib.

As for Turkey’s security concerns in northern Syria, Ankara and Washington are still discussing the idea of a safe-zone in northern Syria. Ankara sees this as a way of keeping the PYD/YPG at a distance from the border. For Washington, this is a way of protecting its local allies. Presidents Putin and Rouhani advise Turkey to take this up directly with Damascus in the context of existing Turkish-Syrian bilateral agreements on combatting terrorism. And, this appears to be where Turkey is heading. But after being projected as the archenemy by Ankara for years, the Assad regime is more than likely to strongly reject any Turkish military presence on its territory.

The question is also where Washington is heading.

General Joseph Votel, Commander of the US Central Command told the CNN in an interview today that leaving Syria would not have been his military advice to the President.

“When I say, ‘we have defeated them,’ I want to ensure that means they do not have the capability to a plot or direct attacks against the US or our allies,” Votel said. “They still have this very powerful ideology, so they can inspire.”

I was delighted to see that the General highlighted the ideological challenge.  This precisely why the region needs not an anti-Iran front but an ideological coalition to fight ISIS. But this requires a broad vision.

Sadly, Turkey’s foreign and security policy has become a function of its entrapment in northern Syria.

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(1) https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/remarks-vice-president-pence-warsaw-ministerial-working-luncheon-warsaw-poland/

(2) http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/59830

Ali Tuygan, Ambassador (Ret’d) and former Undersecretary of the Turkish Foreign Ministry. The article is also published on his blog: https://diplomaticopinion.com/2019/02/15/worlds-apart/