November 11, 2017

The Middle East and North Africa. Analytical Review 10/2017

Oleksiy Volovych

The Military-Political Situation in October 2017

 

In October, the situation in the Middle East region remained difficult, and in some countries it was tense and unstable. The larger-scale and major-profile events took place in Syria, Iraq, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran. At this, those events were characterized by active intervention of external forces. In Syria, the cities of Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor were liberated from ISIS fighters. If things continue this way, by the end of 2017 the resistance of the ISIS formations will be completely suppressed. There is an intensification of rivalry and weakening of the interaction between the military contingents of Russia and the United States in Syria. In Iraq, government forces pushed out the Kurdish “Peshmerga” militants from the province of Kirkuk, and in Erbil, President of the Iraqi Kurdistan Massoud Barzani resigned on October 29. The Turkish troops entered the Syrian province of Idlib on October 9, waging hostilities against the militants of the “Jabhat al-Nusra” pro-Saudi group and preparing for a military operation against the neighboring Kurdish canton of Afrin. In early October, King of Saudi Arabia Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud paid a “historical visit” to Moscow. On October 13, US President Donald Trump declared the main provisions of his administration's new strategy for Iran and the international agreement on its nuclear program.

The Middle East and North Africa

SYRIA

In October, fighting continued in the provinces of Damascus, Aleppo, Deraa, al-Quneitra and as-Suwayda. The Armed Forces of the SAR are expanding the foothold on the eastern coast of the Euphrates. According to Damascus, less than 5 % of Syria's territory is held by extremists. At this, significant terrorist forces from Iraq are arriving in Syria. However, in October, ISIS fighters repeatedly returned to their control those settlements from which they were previously pushed out by government troops. An example is al-Qaryatayn in the province of Homs, which several times had changed hands.

Syria map

Liberation of Raqqa. On October 14, all Syrian ISIS fighters in the city of Raqqa grounded arms to the “Forces of Democratic Syria” (FDS) under the agreement reached earlier. Foreign ISIS fighters demanded a corridor to be provided for their exit, but the Command of the Western Coalition said it would not allow that. On October 15, the formations of the FDS with the support of the US Special Forces began the final stage of the operation to liberate the city from the rest of the jihadists, and on 20 October, the FDS announced the complete liberation of the city. It has been reported that the power in Raqqa will be transferred to the civilian administration, and the order will be maintained by police forces and FDS units. The FDS leadership has stated that the future of the province of Raqqa would be determined by its inhabitants within the framework of “decentralized, federative and democratic Syria”.

Destroyed city of RaqqaRegarding the liberation of Raqqa from ISIS fighters, the Syrian Foreign Ministry sent a message to the UN Security Council stating that the United States “misleads the international community about its intentions towards Syria and grossly violates its sovereignty”. The message also states that Raqqa can only be considered liberated when the Syrian Army enters it. However, in our opinion, it is unlikely that Americans and Kurds will make such a gift to B. Assad's regime as letting the government troops to Raqqa. It was not for this end that they liberated it.

October 17, in Raqqa, negotiations were held on the restoration of the destroyed city with the participation of US Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS, Brett McGurk, and Saudi Gulf Affairs Minister Thamer al-Sabhan. It should be noted that the Syrian government's representatives did not take part in those talks, which indirectly indicates the behind-the-scenes agreements between the United States, the Russian Federation, the TR and the FDS in order to divide the territory of Syria into zones of external influence and enclaves with broad autonomy. However, none of the parties is interested in de jure dividing Syria into quasi-states, but each of them claims to oil and gas fields, as well as to establish its influence in the west and north of Syria, in the provinces of Idlib, Deir ez-Zor and Raqqa.

After the liberation of Raqqa, the US Special Forces and FDS units launched an offensive on Abu Kamal, the last major terrorist stronghold in Syria, located on the Syrian-Iraqi border at about 118 km south-east of Deir ez-Zor. At the same time, Syrian troops, with the support of the RF VKS are also moving in the direction of Abu Kamal. Taking this city would allow to control the transport arteries between Syria and Iraq. At the moment, it's still unclear which troops will first rush into Abu Kamal — the government's forces supported by Russia's VKS or the pro-Western armed groups of the Syrian opposition with the support of the US Special Forces. The race to get there first continues.

Government troops in Deir ez-ZorLiberation of Deir ez-Zor. October 14, government troops completed an operation to liberate al-Mayadin (south-east of Deir ez-Zor) from ISIS fighters. Russian military were noticed in tactical formations of the Syrian troops. On October 14, aircrafts of the Syrian Air Force for the first time in the past three years began again to use the air base in the suburbs of Deir ez-Zor. This air base was also started to be used by Russian combat helicopters. According to the Syrian SANA agency, Syrian government troops and their allies by the end of October had established full control over Deir ez-Zor. This has been also reported by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. However, according to many experts, the liberation of Deir ez-Zor will not lead to complete destruction of ISIS in Syria. Most likely, ISIS fighters will go underground and continue terrorist attacks on Syrian territories inhabited by Sunnis.

The RF VKS' Activity. September 30 marked the second anniversary of the start of the RF Air Forces (VKS) activity in Syria. According to the Russian Internet Journal “Military and Political Analysis”, during this time, Russian planes have conducted 30,650 combat missions in Syria, having launched 92 thousand air strikes on 96.8 thousand objects of the terrorists' infrastructure and logistics. According to the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation, as of September 2017, 86 % of Russia's VKS military personnel have received combat experience in Syria, including 75 % of crews of long-range aviation, 79 % of tactical aviation, 88 % of military transport aviation and 89 % of Army aviation. During these two years, in Syria, Russia has lost four aircrafts and five helicopters and more than 40 servicemen were killed there. Within that period, Russian sappers have demined 5295 hectares of the territory, having destroyed 60,384 explosive devices. Russia's military analyst A. Areshev points out that, despite the “successes” of the Russian military contingent in Syria, lately Russian media and social networks have been noticed sharply critical assessments of the results and prospects of Russia's presence in Syria. According to the Levada Center's polls, the Russian population's support for the RF military contingent mission in Syria has declined by two thirds within the last months as compared to the end of 2016.

Syrian National Dialogue Congress. On Moscow's initiative, Syrian National Dialogue Congress (SNDC) is scheduled to take place in Sochi on the 18th of November, 2017. On October 31, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation published a list of 33 political organizations invited to participate in the SNDC. The list of invited members includes the ruling Arab Socialist Ba'ath Party, as well as representatives of the political and civil society and leaders of Arab tribes both, loyal and opposed to the Syrian regime. Minister of Foreign Affairs of the RF S. Lavrov believes that the SNCD “aims at expanding the circle of Syrian parties at the expense of representatives of tribes, ethnic and confessional groups living on the territory of the country”. According to the representative of “pro-Moscow” group of Syrian opposition Qadri Jamil, the aim of the Congress is not to replace the negotiations in Geneva, but to facilitate their conduct. The success or failure of the Congress will depend on the presence or absence of representatives of Syrian Sunnis and Kurds in his work. While Damascus welcomes the SNDC, the Syrian opposition doubts the feasibility of its holding. The National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, High Negotiations Committee (the “Riyadh Group”), “Southern Front” and the delegation of the armed opposition of Syria, which participated in the talks in Astana, have refused to participate in it. Turkey considers unacceptable Russia's invitation to the Syrian Kurds of the Democratic Union Party. After the talks with Turkey, Russia has supposedly decided to postpone the SNDC.

7th round of international negotiations on Syria in AstanaNegotiations in Astana. On October 30–31, the seventh round of international negotiations on Syria took place in Astana, with the participation of the guarantors of the armistice in Syria — the RF, the TR and the IRI, the delegations of the Government of Syria and the Syrian armed opposition, and observers from the United States, Jordan and the UN. The negotiations focused on issues of ceasefire, confidence-building measures, prisoner exchange and humanitarian demining. However, the final documents on these issues have not been approved. At the sidelines of the Astana talks, its participants discussed the idea of the convening of a Syrian National Dialogue Congress, which, according to the Turkish Anadolu agency, did not find support among the representatives of the armed opposition demanding B. Assad's resignation. In fact, discussions in Astana between the representatives of the Russian Federation, the TR and the IRI about the zones of de-escalation in the province of Idlib ended without result. Ankara does not want to let Russian and Iranian observers to certain points on the border of that province, and also objects to the strengthening of Syrian government forces in this and other areas in northern Syria. The eighth round of the Astana talks will take place in late December, 2017.

The RF and the USA in Syria: rivalry and interaction. In the current unparalleled tension in US-Russian relations, normal interaction between Russia and the United States in Syria is impossible by default. Interacting parties may only have to avoid a direct military clash between American and Russian troops in Syria. In his speech on October 19 in Sochi at the final session of the Valday Discussion Club, President V. Putin made many tough statements regarding Washington. Here are just a few: “The United States is the source of an unprecedented anti-Russian campaign”; “In case of any pressure from the United States there will be our country's mirror response”; “Moscow will develop new weapon systems if Washington does the same thing”; “The aggressive policy of the States in recent years is more and more like unfair competition — the uncovered advancement of its own commercial interests”.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei LavrovOn October 23, in an unison with V. Putin, at the joint press conference with Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov drew attention to “some strange things that are happening in the activities of the pro-American Coalition in Syria”. In particular, S. Lavrov pointed out that there were cases of mass exit of ISIS fighters from Raqqa at the very moment when the Coalition with the support of the USA, began the siege of the city. S. Lavrov was also amazed by “the USA's new course providing for creation of some local councils in the territory of sovereign Syria”. The Russian Defense Ministry has accused the US Armed Forces of cooperating directly with ISIS militants in eastern Syria, arguing that US Special Forces provide unhindered support of the FDC units passing through the ISIS combat positions. At this, the FDS units, without encountering any resistance, keep advancing along the left bank of the Euphrates River towards the city of Deir ez-Zor. On the other hand, some military experts (John Blaxland) believe that “the Russian Federation and Bashar Assad under its control are trying to negotiate with the terrorists about their withdrawal into a certain area, where their presence would obstruct the advance of the United States and its allies south of Deir ez-Zor”.

US National Security Advisor Herbert McMasterMeanwhile, the American consulting Soufan Group claims that Russia is the first among the countries supplying fighters for the terrorist organization “Islamic State” — 3417 citizens of the Russian Federation. The second is Saudi Arabia — 3224 militants, the third is Jordan — 3 thousand. On October 19, US National Security Advisor Herbert McMaster stated that Russia and Iran, supporting Damascus, contribute to the internecine war in Syria. American analysts point out that none of de-escalation zones that were determined on September 14–15 at the sixth round of Astana talks, is functioning. As an example of the ineffectiveness of such zones, they point out the recent offensive by “Jabhat al-Nusra” in the province of Idlib.

According to Russia's analyst Yu. Shcheglovin, Washington is using all possible means of pressure on the Syrian armed opposition under its control in order to draw Moscow into a long-running partisan conflict in order to force it to start negotiations with the Americans on the future of Syria on the United States' terms. The Russian analyst believes that “the USA's getting involved in Syria and Iraq to the full was caused by Russia and Iran's military success in Syria”. According to him, until the arrival in Syria of the RF VKS (in October 2015), Americans allegedly did not fight with the ISIS, “inflicting infrequent air strikes on insignificant targets that did not stop the ISIS' military operations in Iraq and Syria”. But Yu. Shcheglovin, for some reason, “forgets” that the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS in Syria and Iraq was created in August 2014, and its aircrafts, by the end of December 2015, had launched 3,149 air strikes on ISIS objects in Syria and 6,147 air strikes in Iraq. Those were not “infrequent air strikes”. Other Russian analysts say Washington is deliberately delaying the settlement of the conflict in Syria, trying to exhaust the military and financial resources of the Russian Federation in order to make it give up supporting B. Assad.

Russian mass media are full of headlines of articles of a confrontational nature: “The USA is ready to war with Russia in Syria”; “The West really plans an open confrontation with our troops in Syria”; “The USA will close the airspace of Syria to Russia”. Russian officials' statements keep emphasizing that Russian troops are legally deployed in Syria (at the invitation of the Syrian authorities), while US troops have no legal basis for staying on the territory of that country.

Bashar al-AssadIt appears that after the defeat of ISIS in Syria, the new goal of the International Coalition and allied insurgent forces, will be the removal of Bashar al-Assad's regime. In this case, an escalation of the conflict between the US and Russia in the territory of Syria can’t be avoided. The United States would hardly allow the spread of B. Assad's power into the territory controlled by the US Special Forces and their Syrian allies, which in turn conceals, if not a threat of direct clash between the USA and the RF, then at least further aggravation of relations between them. Although we should not rule out that due to certain compromise agreements between Russia and the United States, Moscow may “surrender” B. Assad.

 

IRAQ

The fiasco of Kurdish independence in Iraq. On the night of October 16, units of the Iraqi government army, federal police and armed formations of the Shiite militia “Al-Hashd al-Sha'bi” began an operation to capture the province of Kirkuk and some other areas of northern Iraq. Those territories were under the control of Kurdish “Peshmerga” forces, led by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), whose leader was the deceased on October 3, 2017, former Iraqi President (2005–2014) Jalal Talabani. Under the agreement with Baghdad, the “Peshmerga” units began to withdraw from their positions, opening the way for the federal forces. As a result, on October 16, the government forces returned under their full control the city of Kirkuk — the administrative center of the Kirkuk province. About 60–100 thousand Kurds who lived in Kirkuk, have been reported to have left the city. On October 17, Iraqi forces and Shiite units occupied a number of settlements in the Kirkuk province, as well as in the neighboring provinces of Nineveh, Salah-ad-Din and Diyala, which were left by the “Peshmerga” formations with little or no resistance. Thus, the federal government of Iraq has established full control over the oil and gas infrastructure in the Kirkuk province. In general, Iraqi government forces stepped in on the line taken by the Kurdish “Peshmerga” formations on October 16, 2016, when operation to liberate Mosul from ISIS fighters has began. The Kurdish “Peshmerga” command accused the leadership of the PUK of betrayal and cooperation with Baghdad.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-AbadiOn October 17, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said that the referendum on independence held in Iraqi Kurdistan on September 25 was “a milestone” and urged the Kurdish leadership to “engage in a dialogue on a constitutional basis”. Some experts believe that the successful operation to restore the government's troops' control over Kirkuk has raised the rating of H. al-Abadi, who, after the liberation of Mosul, is perceived by most Iraqis as the winner over the ISIS, and after Kirkuk's return — as a guarantor of the country's territorial integrity. The actions of the Iraqi federal government to restore Baghdad's control over Kirkuk received full international support. The United States and the European Union called on Baghdad to enter the dialogue with Erbil and reduce the confrontation in the disputed territories. As a result of the attack of the Iraqi army and the Shiite militia “Al-Hashd al-Sha'bi”, Kurds lost 30 % of the territory controlled by them at the time of the referendum on independence and more than 175,000 Kurds left their homes.

While in Baghdad with an unannounced visit (October 23, 2017), US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson spoke on “the need to withdraw the Shiite militia from Kirkuk,” which provoked indignation in the Iraqi government. In particular, the Iraqi Prime Minister, H. al-Abadi, said that “this issue is not within the competence of Washington” According to him, “the fighters of the national militia “Al-Hashd al-Sha'bi” are Iraqi citizens who defend their country and the Iraqi people and are subject to Iraqi leadership, so no one has the right to interfere in Iraq and decide what the Iraqi should do”.

Massoud BarzaniOctober 25, the Kurdish leadership announced its readiness to freeze the results of the referendum on independence and begin a dialogue with Baghdad on the basis of the Iraqi constitution. October 29, in his address to the people, Massoud Barzani announced his decision to resign from the post of President of the Iraqi Kurdistan, which he had been serving since 2005. Hinting on the Talabani and PUK clans, he called the surrender of Kirkuk to the Iraqi troops a “betrayal”, which “demoralized the Peshmerga fighters and the Kurdish nation”, and also disrupted the government's plans to implement the results of the referendum on the independence of the Iraqi Kurdistan. M. Barzani also said that the United States remained indifferent and inactive when Iraqi Shiite militias attacked Kurdish positions with American weapons. According to him, the surrender of Kirkuk was initiated by “one of the groupings within Kurdistan”, and assured that Kurds “sooner or later will achieve their goal — their own state”.

On October 29, supporters of M. Barzani tried to break into the building of the Kurdish Parliament in Erbil to deal with MPs who had accused their leader of insolvency. As a result, a shootout took place in the walls of the Parliament. After a lengthy and stormy debate, the Iraqi Kurdistan Parliament passed a decision to dismiss M. Barzani's government and transfer its powers to “relevant organizations and institutions in the region”. Representatives of different political forces differently see M. Barzani's activity as of president of the Iraqi Kurdistan for the past 12 years. Thus, head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party's parliamentary faction Omed Khoshnaw, said that ex-president M. Barzani “is above any formal posts and will remain on guard of the interests of the Kurdish people, regardless of his position or post”. Leader of the Kurdistan Islamic Union Othman Karwani stated that “the era of Barzani's illegal rule has ended, he and his protagonists turned down all the undertakings and did their best to split and weaken the Kurdish people and spoil its relations with its neighbors”. Prior to the election of a new head of the Kurdish autonomy, scheduled for July 2018, the supreme powers will be with Speaker of the Kurdish Parliament Yusuf Sadiq.

Meanwhile, in the Kurdish Parliament, centrifugal processes continue. Former member of the PUK Barham Salih announced the creation of a new “Coalition for Democracy and Justice”. He called for a coalition government to investigate the “Peshmerga”’s withdrawal from Kirkuk. The “Gorran” Movement called on all forces that are opposed to the former regime to take part in the formation of the government of “national salvation”.

 

TURKEY

Turkish Defense Minister Nurettin CanikliTurkey's Policy on the Syrian Direction. According to analysts, it is now important for Ankara to minimize the Kurds' influence in northern Syria. October 10, Turkish Defense Minister Nurettin Canikli said that Turkish troops would be present in northern Syria as long as there is threat to Turkey's national security. The first clash between jihadists and Turkish troops took place on October 8 at the border of the province of Idlib, a large part of which is under the control of the irreconcilable opposition, mostly “Jabhat al-Nusra” and allied opposition groups. On October 9, in agreement with Russia and Iran, the Turkish troops entered the province of Idlib in order to formally create a zone of de-escalation there. They began to set up fortified checkpoints, and by October 22 they had created 8 field fortified bases. According to some experts, the province is witnessing a process of the struggle for dominance between Turkey and Saudi Arabia which supports “Jabhat al-Nusra” group. In this rivalry between the TR and KSA, Ankara is supported by Moscow, and this is very painfully perceived in Riyadh. On October 17, in the province of Idlib, militants from the “Tahrir al-Sham” group left the Taftanaz air base without a fight, which was immediately occupied by Turkish troops. Apparently, Ankara, together with the pro-Turkish groups, is preparing an operation against the Kurds in the region. Damascus demands from Ankara to immediately withdraw its troops from the province of Idlib.

According to some reports, members of the Turkish National Intelligence Organization (MIT) have completed the creation of a police force from Syrians and Turkomans (loyal to Turkey) who have to take some areas on the Syrian-Turkish border, as well as around the periphery of Idlib to establish a “sanitary border” against the Syrian Kurds. Besides, Ankara, using the formation of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), is trying to subjugate different groups of the Syrian opposition in Idlib. These groups' loyalty to Turkey is mainly achieved through their being supplied through a single distribution center in Ankara. All this is happening against the background of the escalation of the confrontation between the KSA and Turkey for dominating in the northwestern Syria. At this, the main objectives of Turkey's upcoming military operation are the cleansing of the province of Idlib from the militants of the pro-Saudi “Jabhat al-Nusra”. According to some analysts, after the elimination of “Jabhat al-Nusra”, there will be a sharp weakening of the Saudi influence in Syria, which in turn can ease the process of peaceful settlement of the Syrian conflict.

Start of new military operation by Turkish troops in the Syrian province of IdlibThe start of new military operation by Turkish troops in the province of Idlib with the support of Russian military aviation is a concern in Washington. And the biggest concern in this regard is the fact that Turkish troops in Syria are much more actively cooperating with Russian troops than with their ally in NATO — the USA. However, in our opinion, this was to be expected after the United States refused to engage the Turkish troops and the Syrian opposition groups under their control in capturing city of Raqqa and, instead, relied on cooperation with the Syrian Kurds, which naturally caused unconcealed indignation in Ankara.

American analysts believe that the main reasons for the start of the new military operation of Turkish troops in the province of Idlib are as follows: firstly, establishment of Turkish military dominance in the province in order to preserve Turkey's influence in the the northwestern Syria; secondly, the rapid strengthening of the “Jabhat al-Nusra”, which has absorbed a significant part of the pro-Turkish groups of the Syrian opposition in Idlib; thirdly, establishment of Turkish control over the Idlib is an important condition for the start of a military operation against the neighboring Kurdish canton of Afrin. At the same time, US military analysts believe that a new Turkish operation in Idlib will not be easy for Ankara, as Turkish troops are likely to face strong resistance from the pro-Saudi Islamists, especially if Russian aircrafts do not participate in the operation. But if the Russian aviation does help the Turkish troops to establish control over Idlib, striking at the positions of the “Jabhat al-Nusra” group, then this will undoubtedly cause Riyadh's resentment and will virtually “nullify” all the beneficial to Moscow agreements with Saudi Arabia, achieved within the framework of King Salman's “historical visit” to Moscow in early October 2017.

 

SAUDI ARABIA

King of Saudi Arabia Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud in MoscowKing Salman's Official Visit to Moscow. October 4–7, King of Saudi Arabia Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud paid an official visit to Moscow. This was the Saudi monarch's first visit to Russia in the history of relations between the two countries. Together with the King, about 200 officials and 85 executives of major Saudi companies came to Moscow. As a result of the negotiations, 12 bilateral documents were signed, including 5 agreements, 3 programs, 3 memorandums and one roadmap for space exploration, nuclear energy, military-technical, scientific-technical, energy engineering, transport, agricultural, information and communication technologies cooperation, as well as the sphere of culture.

After the Russian-Saudi talks, Russian Foreign Minister S. Lavrov said that Riyadh positively evaluated Russia's efforts to resolve the Syrian crisis, while Moscow supports the Saudi side's efforts to unite the Syrian opposition before the next round of talks in Geneva. However, in our opinion, despite Moscow's entourage, the achievement of this goal is rather doubtful, since Riyadh will try to unite different groups of the Syrian opposition on the principles absolutely unacceptable for Moscow, Damascus and Tehran, namely: withdrawal of Iranian troops from Syria (in this, the KSA's position coincides with that of Israel); B. Assad's unconditional resignation; making amendments to the future constitution of Syria in order to restrict the status of “secular state”. In our view, Saudi Arabia's creation of a single Syrian opposition is as ephemeral as some of its other projects, such as the Islamic military coalition consisting of 41 Islamic states, or creation of the Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology in Riyadh.

According to some sources, King Salman tried to agree with V. Putin on some kind of easing the pressure on “Jabhat al-Nusra” in Syria, but apparently he did not succeed. The problem is the Moscow's and Riyadh's relations with Iran, because for Russia, Iran is a strategic partner, while for Saudi Arabia it is a strategic opponent. Riyadh wants to exclude Tehran's participation in the settlement of the situation in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, and also hopes for Russia's 's certain distancing from Iran. However, without a doubt, Moscow will not do this, and, moreover, it benefits from cooperation with both opponents, and it is ready to supply both with armaments, in particular, the S-400 “Triumph”. As a result of the negotiations, a contract was signed between Rosoboronexport and the Saudi Military Industries Corporation on licensed production in the KSA of Kalashnikov AK-103 and various cartridges for it. However, according to head of the Center for the Near and Middle East of the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, V. Fitin, the prospects of Russia's military-technical cooperation with the KSA should not be taken too seriously “due to the USA's strong presence in the Saudi arms market and the full compatibility of the defence system of the Kingdom with American standards”. On the other hand, the scale of economic ties between the KSA and the United States is above the comparison of the Kingdom's ties with the Russian Federation. In particular, this was demonstrated during the US President D. Trump's visit to Riyadh in May 2017 within the framework of which documents were signed worth 350 billion US dollars. Compared to these huge volumes of the American-Saudi military-technical cooperation, the volume of agreements between the KSA and Russia worth several billion US dollars looks very modest. The shocking contrast is also the KSA's trade turnover with the USA and the Russian Federation. For example, while in 2016 the trade turnover between Russia and Saudi Arabia amounted to 491.6 million US dollars, in 2015 the trade turnover between the USA and KSA amounted to 41.7 billion US dollars, that is, more than 80 times larger. Even the trade turnover between Ukraine and KSA in 2016 (732.3 million US dollars) was higher than that between Russia and the KSA. To add insult to injury, the so-called horizontal ties between the Saudis and the Russians within the framework of cultural, educational and tourist exchanges are at a rather low level. While as for now about 50 thousand students from the KSA are studying in the USA, in Russia their number is a few hundred. All in all, 18,000 students are studying in Russia from all over Africa and the Middle East.

Traditionally, Saudis accompany their political demands with declarations of intent to participate in large-scale investment projects, but they seldom go beyond the declarations, since Moscow, as a rule, cannot or does not want to meet Riyadh's demands. For example, on 22 July, 2016, while in Brussels, Foreign Minister of Saudi Arabia Adel al-Jubeir promised to provide Russia's domination in the Middle East in exchange for the “surrender” of Syrian President B. Assad. But for this, the Kremlin may demand a very large political-economic fee that Saudi cannot, or Washington “advises” not to do.

Moscow's diplomatic balancing between the two conflicting largest Middle Eastern countries — the KSA and IRI is a rather difficult task. Russia's rapprochement with one of these countries may cause the other's dissatisfaction and counteraction. On October 11, under Moscow's policy of balancing between Riyadh and Tehran, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister and Special Representative of the Russian President in the Middle East, M. Bogdanov unveiled a new diplomatic initiative of the Russian Federation on mediation between the KSA and IRI. However, in our opinion, under the current circumstances, it is unlikely that such an initiative is feasible.

The oil and gas industry represents a common interest and the sphere of cooperation between Russia and the KSA, both of which are sitting on a hydrocarbon needle. The two countries are cooperating within the framework of the “OPEC-plus” agreements to reduce global oil production concluded in May 2017 and extended until March 2018. Saudi Arabia intends to reduce oil export by 560 thousand barrels per day, which will allow maintaining oil prices in the world market at the current level of 55–60 dollars per barrel. In the first half of 2017, Russia also reduced the daily volume of oil production within 300 thousand barrels. According to Russian Energy Minister A. Novak, the implementation of this agreement has contributed to an increase in oil prices by about a third since the beginning of 2016, resulting in the Russian budget receiving an additional of about 1 trillion rubles. It was reported that Saudi Arabia was ready to invest into Russian projects up to 10 billion US dollars through the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF), which has so far invested more than 1 billion US dollars into Russian companies in the field of petrochemicals, energy and infrastructure.

 

IRAN

US President D. Trump announces a “New Strategy” on IranThe USA's New Strategy on Iran. On October 13, US President D. Trump announced the main provisions of his administration's new strategy on Iran and the international agreement on its nuclear program, reached in July 2015. The United States' new strategy on Iran is aimed at “neutralizing the destabilizing influence of the Iranian government and constraining its aggression, particularly its support for terrorism”. To this end, the United States intends to “revitalize its traditional alliances and regional partnerships as bulwarks against Iranian subversion and restore a more stable balance of power in the region”. In particular, the United States intends to counter the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Besides, Washington will counteract the threat posed by Iranian ballistic missiles to the United States and its allies, as well as “will deny Iran all paths to nuclear weapon”.

D. Trump has authorized his administration, along with the Congress, to work out the possibility of correction of “flaws” in the agreement on Iran's nuclear program (Joint Comprehensive Action Plan, JCAP). Washington cannot unilaterally break the JCAP because it is a collective agreement, while other signatories (four permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany) are not about to do so. However, D. Trump retains the right not to comply with certain terms of the agreement, although the US Congress regularly submits documents to D. Trump to sign that Iran is fulfilling its obligations under the JCAP. D. Trump has signed such documents twice, but refused to do so for the third time, thereby passing the decision making on the issue of the withdrawal from the JCAP to the Congress, which in this case must within 60 days consider the termination of the USA's participation in the JCAP.

The fact that D. Trump did not decide to terminate the JCAP but passed over the right to resolve this issue to the Congress is considered a compromise: on the one hand, he clearly explained his negative attitude to this agreement, but on the other hand — he did not denounce it. In our view, the Congress may make certain amendments to the JCAP without withdrawing from it. This will be the USA's one-sided position, which in general will not affect the effectiveness of the JCAP, as other six signatories do not share the position of D. Trump's administration. The nuclear deal with Iran was the result of a 10-year collective effort by seven countries, the UN and the EU, so no one wants these efforts to have been in vain.

October 20, following the summit in Brussels, the EU leaders expressed their commitment to the JCAP on Iran's nuclear program. Moreover, President of France E. Macron even suggested extending the cooperation with Iran, “engaging Tehran in a dialogue over other strategic global issues”. High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy F. Mogherini also supports the JCAP. On October 22, US President D. Trump said Washington does not need the EU's support to strengthen sanctions against Iran and that Europeans may “continue to profit” from the trade with Iran. Ukraine is also interested in profiteering from the trade with Iran.

Note:

In 2016, compared to 2015, exports from Ukraine to Iran increased by 32 %, while imports from Iran increased by 30 %. The trade turnover between Ukraine and Iran in 2016 amounted to 745 million US dollars. It is expected that by the end of 2017 Ukraine will have sold Iran agricultural products alone worth up to 1 billion US dollars. For seven months of 2017, Iran ranked 8th among the importers of Ukrainian agricultural products. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said there are good opportunities for closer trade cooperation between Iranian and Ukrainian companies in many spheres, including higher education, scientific and technical cooperation, energy, power plants, renewable energy sources, agriculture, cultural programs and tourism.

According to the IAEA Director General Yu. Amano, Iran fulfills its commitments under the JCAP. Experts emphasize: allies of the USA in the Asia-Pacific region have also advocated the JCAP. EU countries, Japan, South Korea and China are interested in developing trade and economic ties with Iran, and they are completely disadvantaged by D. Trump's administration's new anti-Iranian campaign, aimed at denouncing of the JCAP and imposing new sanctions against Iran. Only Israel, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt and Bahrain have supported the United States' new strategy on Iran. US Secretary of State R. Tillerson has stated that Washington intends to continue working with its partners and Iran within the JCAP.

Iranian President Hassan RouhaniIranian President Hassan Rouhani has stated that the JCAP is not subject to revision. At this, IRI will continue cooperation with the IAEA. However, Tehran may consider an option of the exit from the JCAP if the United States tries to resume sanctions against Iran, the easing of which was provided by the 2015 agreement. Iran's 's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said on October 18 that his country would not walk out of the nuclear deal if other parties to the agreement comply with its terms.

On October 26, the House of Representatives of the US Congress voted overwhelmingly the bill on new sanctions against Iran through Tehran's development of ballistic missiles. After that the bill should be approved by the US Senate, and then it will be signed by US President D. Trump. It is noted that the law on new sanctions against Iran does not violate the terms of the JCAP. In response to this, on October 29, President H. Rouhani stated that Iran would continue to produce ballistic missiles for its defense and does not consider it a violation of international agreements. H. Rouhani also criticized D. Trump's refusal to officially confirm that Tehran is complying with the JCAP and called on the IAEA to publish a report that would once again confirm the “peaceful nature of Iran's nuclear program”.