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The reform challenge: What Oman (and others) might learn from Egypt

Sultan Haitham bin Tariq Al Said inherited an economy in trouble when he succeeded杭州夜生活论坛 Sultan Qaboos in January 2020. Oman’s gross domestic product had contracted by 0.8% in 2019, burdened by a bloated bureaucracy, massive debt and deficits, and low oil prices. And then COVID-19 hit.

Oman has been praised for its handling of the pandemic. And despite COVID-19, Haitham has mostly stuck to a challenging reform program that was just getting started under his predecessor. There have been forced retirements in the civil service, marking a shift to a leaner, younger and more technocratic government. A value added tax has been introduced. The government established two new agencies, the Oman Investment Authority, to improve management of public assets, and Energy Development of Oman, to manage and finance investments in energy. Sebastian Castelier has the story here from August 2020.

While Oman’s economy contracted by a sharp 6.4% in 2020, the contraction was less severe than anticipated. This year the economy is expecting modest growth of 1.8%, according to the International M杭州夜生活论坛onetary Fund, and next year it’s on track for a robust 7.4%, the highest IMF projection for the region.

The gain comes with pain. A dramatic program of government downsizing and austerity during the pandemic have triggered popular backlash. As Castelier reports this week, “hundreds of job seekers” protested in major cities across Oman last month in response to high youth unemployment and perceived corruption.

“The protests,” Castelier continues, “met with a heavy presence of security forces and arrests of demonstrators, prompted a swift policy reaction from Sultan Haitham, who acceded to the throne in early 2020. The ruler announced on May 25 that 32,000 full and part-time government jobs would be created.”

The job creation program may be a necessary short-term fix given the dislocations caused by the reform programs to stave off unrest, and to strengthen the safety net strained by COVID-19. The question is whether Oman can stick to a demanding austerity and杭州夜生活论坛 diversification program as it weathers the post-COVID recovery.

And that brings us to Egypt.

IMF again praises Egypt’s “resilience”

While Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was busy engineering a cease-fire in the Israel-Hamas conflict, the IMF lauded his country’s “strong performance and commitment” to “maintaining macroeconomic stability during the pandemic while protecting necessary social and health spending and implementing key structural reforms.” That balance is what Oman is seeking, too.

“Egypt’s economy has shown resilience, with the impact of the COVID-19 crisis mitigated by the authorities’ swift, and balanced policy response,” the report added, noting that “all structural benchmarks were met including further advancing reforms related to fiscal transparency and governance, social protection, and improvement in the business environment, while continuing efforts directed towards reducing debt vulnerabilities and creating more budget space for priority spending.”

Egypt’s economy was alone in the region — and one of the few in the world, along with China — which actually grew during the pandemic by 2.8% in 2020/21, with a projected growth of 5.2% in 2021/22, according to the IMF. This is especially surprising given Egypt’s reliance on “contact” industries such as tourism, as we wrote here in April.

The IMF of course noted uncertainties associated with the lingering pandemic and the need to for Cairo to stay on course, but the report is yet another sign that Sisi has turned around a precarious economy in about five years. His discipline, coupled with an awareness of the social costs of reform, could prove a model for other countries in transition, like Oman.

Egypt also expanding economic ties … including with China

Egypt also has benefited from expanded regional and international trade and economic ties. Muhammed Magdy reports on how Egypt is deepening economic ties with Iraq by building bridges in Mosul. Cairo has promised $500 million in reconstruction aid to Gaza, where it expects to gain as well, as our correspondent reports here. Last month Egypt leveraged its quota with the IMF to help Sudan pay off some of its outstanding debt, as Rasha Mahmoud reports, a sign of Cairo’s deepening economic, political and security ties with Khartoum.

Ahmed Gomaa writes here about how Egypt also is increasing cooperation with China, including in the education and satellite fields, and George Mikhail reports here on Cairo turning to Beijing for advice on water management, given the prospect of a disruption in water from the Nile River because of the dispute with Ethiopia, over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.

As a small economy, Oman’s economic future is also linked to regional engagement, including and especially through the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). The GCC is potentially poised to benefit from even further trade and integration, now that Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain (as well as Egypt, which is not a GCC member) have buried the hatchet with Qatar, with the conclusion of the Al-Ula Declaration in January.

Karen Young wrote here in March about how COVID-19 has accelerated trends in tax policy, labor market regulation and immigration policy among GCC states, in addition to opportunities offered by the Abraham Accords signed by the UAE and Bahrain with Israel.

During its 40 years, the GCC has successfully established a customs union and common market and enabled Gulf citizens to travel without restrictions, as Castelier wrote here, but there could be further advantages in collective action in addressing a possible post-oil future, and emphasizing renewable and nuclear energy, and in dealing with China, as Sabena Siddiqui writes here and here.

Where Egypt differs: Complexity and size

Egypt’s status as the biggest population country in North Africa, and its linchpin role in many diplomatic matters, makes it different from smaller countries like Oman, of course.

In addition to the potential water supply disruption over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which we report on here, Egypt is also seeking to recover from crises over the Suez Canal and the country’s domestic rail networks.

Egypt signed an agreement last month with the African Development Bank for $177 million to improve its railway system, as Hagar Hosny reports. Over four weeks beginning in late March, there were five train wrecks that killed 43 people and injured 319. Egypt’s rail system is the oldest in Africa and in urgent need of repair.

It didn’t help that the train crashes occurred around the time that navigation in the Suez Canal was blocked when the Ever Given cargo ship ran aground on a narrow passageway of the Suez Canal. It took six days for the passage to be cleared and was a front-page story around the world.

Mohammad Hanafi reports, however, that canal revenues were $553.6 million in April — the most ever. Egypt reportedly now has massive locomotives and dredgers ready for any future crisis.

Lessons learned?

Egypt’s economic transition may not be a one-size-fits-all template for the region’s fragile economies, but there are clearly some takeaways for countries such as Oman, which despite last month’s protests, seems on a positive trajectory.

IMF-sanctioned reform packages almost always include a degree of austerity to reduce bloated bureaucracies and budgets, increase transparency, and allow the usually undersized private sectors to create jobs — all while not completely undermining the social safety net.

This has been Egypt’s path for five years, with results. Oman is also on a similar path.

The people, understandably, want relief from economic mismanagement sooner rather than later, but progress, when it comes, takes years. Reform and austerity programs are rarely popular with the street, and results don’t come fast, and they don’t come without some hardship and dislocations.

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Apathy shadows Iran vote but that doesn’t mean change won’t follow

ranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah杭州夜生活论坛 Ali Khamenei this week attempted to rally a generally apathetic electorate to turn out for Friday’s presidential election.

“The people’s support of the system must be shown to the enemy,” he declared, as polls signal that only about 40% of the Iranian electorate will vote. The final tally is expected to be well below the 73% turnout in the 2017 election, and may be the lowest ever (as we report here).

Iranians’ apathy is fed by the persistent malaise in the economy in recent years, due in large measure to the US sanctions imposed after Pre杭州夜生活论坛sident Donald Trump pulled out of the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2018, suspending the terms of a deal that was meant to end Iran’s nuclear weapons program. On top of that, many people sense that the fix is in regarding the outcome of the elections under Iran’s theocracy.

The conventional wisdom is that Iran’s hard-line chief justice, Ebrahim Raisi, is all but assured victory. The latest polls have him getting 64% of the vote, although some Reformists (which, unlike the conservatives, have been unable to agree on a candidate) are trying to make a late rally around Abdolnaser Hemmati, a former central bank governor and ambassador to China, who is polling this week at only 4.2%.

The lost element of surprise?

Iran’s elections have never been “free and fair” by any Western democratic standard, with all candidates vetted well in advance by the Guardian Council, an instrument of Khamenei’s influence and control.

Nonetheless, Iran’s presidential elections have delivered surprises in the past.

In 1997, Reformist Mohammad Khatami defeated the heavily favored speak杭州夜生活论坛r of Parliament, Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri, in a world-class upset. Turnout was 80% and most of the vote went for Khatami. There was hope at the time that the revolution, approaching 20 years, would shed its ideological rigidity.

And then the moment, slowly and disappointingly, passed.

As Fouad Ajami wrote in 2010, “Those expecting a quick deliverance for the people of Iran never fully took in the power of the regime and its instruments of repression.”

Khatami served two terms, but his reform agenda was boxed in by the state and undermined, in part, by his own unwillingness to push harder for reform when the people had his back.

In 2005, Iran’s presidential elections brought another surprise. Former hard-line Tehran Mayor and populist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won a runoff with former president and longtime revolutionary and regime insider Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Nearly two-thirds of Iranian voters turned out in the first round, 59% in the second.

Ahmadinejad was a populist, but he knew where the power in Iran resides — with Khamenei. Ahmadinejad crushed a popular uprising in the summer of 2009, in a way foreshadowing state reactions in the region to what became known as the Arab Spring less than two years later.

Ahmadinejad also was a proponent of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, whose power and influence increased on his watch. His outsider populism, sometimes bizarre political style and anti-corruption diatribes came to unsettle the establishment. He outraged the West with his Holocaust denials and seemingly casual threats to destroy Israel. This year the Guardians disqualified him from running.

Rouhani and the reformers went down with the JCPOA

Ahmadinejad’s successor, two-term President Hassan Rouhani, considered the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or Iran nuclear deal杭州夜生活论坛, his signature achievement. It was, arguably, the Islamic Republic’s greatest foreign policy accomplishment to date, resetting Iran’s relationship with the West and proving popular with Iranians. The Iran nuclear deal is why Rouhani sailed to reelection in 2017.

Trump’s abrupt withdrawal from the deal was a death blow to the Reformists who supported Rouhani, who was blamed for the resulting economic calamity. The US withdrawal gave vindication to the hard-linerswho had said the West could not be trusted. The conservatives, or Principlists as they are known in the Iranian context, took the overwhelming majority of parliament seats in the 2020 elections and set the stage for Friday’s anticipated landslide.

Will Iran’s economy surprise?

The economy will be the top issue in the election for Iranians, who want relief from high inflation and a decline in purchasing power, writes Bijan Khajepour.

Most of what the candidates have said about the economy, however, is little more than campaign sloganeering and “populist promises such as increasing the amount of the monthly handout that the majority of Iranians receive from the government,” writes Khajehpour.

“The majority of the country’s economic deficiencies are a direct consequence of a political structure that impedes technocratic approaches and paves the way for politicized economic and trade decisions,” Khajehpour explains, “while the country’s resources are subject to ongoing bargaining processes between interest groups.”

Nonetheless, maybe the biggest surprise for Iran, as we wrote here in April, is that despite US economic sanctions, a year of low oil prices and a disastrous response to COVID-19, Iran’s economy grew 1.5% in 2020 and is projected to expand by 2.5% this year, according to the International Monetary Fund, and would be boosted even further by high oil prices, currently at over $70 per barrel.

The US National Intelligence Council Global Trends report assesses that Iran “is b杭州夜生活论坛etter positioned demographically and has some economic and technological advantages, which may help it mitigate popular discontent.”

Don’t rule out a return to the JCPOA

The key to any economic turnaround depends on a return to the JCPOA, Khajehpour concludes, something Trump’s successor, Joe Biden, plainly is trying to negotiate.

Despite his hard-line pedigree, Raisi has signaled in his few comments on foreign policy that he does not rule out a return to the nuclear deal. In the third and final presidential debate Saturday, Raisi said, “Let’s make it clear. We would definitely abide by the JCPOA in the format that was approved with nine clauses by the Supreme Leader [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei], as it a contract and a commitment that governments must abide by,” as our Tehran correspondent reports.

Addressing his opponents, Raisi said, “You cannot implement the JCPOA. The JCPOA must be implemented by a powerful government. Foreign power is an extension of internal power.”

“Raisi seemed to be saying he could implement the nuclear deal better than the Rouhani administration. If this were to happen, a significant portion of the internally organized opposition and sabotage of the agreement could fade away,” our correspondent explains. “Raisi may have been telling the West not to worry about him assuming the presidency because he would abide by the commitments of the Rouhani administration.”

An overdue goodwill gesture

In the United States, a change of presidents usually includes a slew of pardons. It may look to Rouhani to consider the same approach.

“US officials say they’ve engaged in indirect discussions — independently of the nuclear deal talks in Vienna — with Iran over unjustly detained US citizens, including Siamak and Baquer Namazi,” who have been imprisoned since 2015, all on Rouhani’s watch, Elizabeth Hagedorn reports, “The White House says their release is a top priority, but Babak Namazi worries his brother, Siamak, and father, Baquer, could once again be left behind.”

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Israel’s foreign minister continues anti-ICC campaign in Russia

raeli Foreign Minister Gabi A杭州夜生活论坛shkenazi met March 17 with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov, who welcomed the level of coordination between the countries on international and regional issues, particularly the confidential dialogue channel established in recent years between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Ashkenazi said, “I have a feeling we have an understanding on the level of the heads of states. My prime minister, your president. I think it’s the fourth or fifth time that we are meeting or talking, and I am fully committed to further enhancing this relationship. It does not mean that here and there we don’t have different view perspectives, but I can sincerely say that we have a transparent, honest, professional discussion, as friends should have.’’

Ashkenazi thanked Lavrov for Russia’s assistance on humanitarian issues, mentioning Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers without offerin杭州夜生活论坛g any details. The Syrian media reported last month that Russia has been searching Syrian cemeteries for the remains of two IDF soldiers missing since 1982.

Before the joint session, Ashkenazi laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown So杭州夜生活论坛ldier in Moscow, where Russia commemorates Red Army soldiers who fought in World War II. It was a moving event for Ashkenazi as an Israeli, Jew and former IDF soldier. ‘’We remember the central role of the Russian army in World War II and their liberation of extermination camps throughout Europe, and we will remain eternally grateful for this,’’ Ashkenazi tweeted afterward.

Ashkenazi’s visit celebrates 30 years of restored Israel-Russian diplomatic relations, with a list of events that will take place in both countries throughout the year. The visit also is taking place against the backdrop of Israel’s March 23 elections and while the country’s leadership is engaged in diplomatic campaigns against the Iranian nuclear threat and the move by the International Criminal Court (ICC) to open an investigation of possible Israeli war crimes.

Ashkenazi arrived in the Russian capital only two days after a visit there by the head of Hezbollah’s parliamentary bloc in Lebanon, Mohammad Raad, who also met with Lavrov. The Iranian file is probably the most difficult topic between Russia and Israel, who do not see eye to eye on a possible new deal with Tehran.

Ashkenazi has personally engaged in the campaign against the ICC probe beginning of February, when the court ruled it has jurisdiction over Israeli actions in Palestinian territories. Since then, and more so since the March 3 announcement by outgoing ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda that the court was opening an investigation, Ashkenazi has been calling and meeting counterparts in states considered friendly to Israel, such as Germany, Austria and Hungary. Israeli President Reuven Rivlin is currently in Austria in the framework of a three-day trip to Europe also focusing on this issue.

Other issues on the Russian-Israeli agenda March 17 in Moscow were Iran’s presence in Syria and the Russian coronavirus vaccine Sputnik V.

According to Syrian state news agency SANA, Israeli jets allegedly hit targets in Syria the night of March 16 after a shipment of arms reportedly arrived at Damascus International Airport earlier in the day. Israeli analysts, who say Israel has been generally careful not to hit targets that could compromise the Russian presence in Syria, estimated that the timing of the reported airstrikes had no relation with the meeting with Lavrov and were not carried out to send any sort of message to the Russians.

Also, Russia has been pressuring Israel to re

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Russia launches air campaign against Islamic State in Syrian desert

Syria — During the second week of March, Russian warplanes intensified杭州夜生活论坛 airstrikes targeting the Islamic State (IS) in eastern Syria.

There are several goals behind the Russian airstrikes. Chief among them is securing the roads in the Badia region (the Syrian desert), limiting IS operations and military capabilities and curbing the spread of the organization in the Badia, which extends over Raqqa, Hama, Homs, Deir Ez-Zor and Aleppo provinces.

The Syrian regime forces and their allied militias have failed to achieve their goals during their ground operations against IS in recent months.

In order to intensify air operations against IS in the desert, the Russian forces have beefed up their presence in two air bases belonging to the Syrian regime in the Badia in the eastern countryside of Homs 杭州夜生活论坛in order to use these bases as a launching pad for the aircraft striking IS positions and sites in the area.

A journalist and activist in the eastern countryside of Hama told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “The ground military operations waged by the regime forces against IS in the Syrian Badia have failed to weaken the organization, as its militants are still roaming the region while attacking roads and launching almost daily attacks against the regime’s sites and oil and phosphate fields.”

“This IS activity shows that the organization is still maintaining a large part of its military and human capabilities, and it is following developed offensive tactics to deplete its opponents and minimize its losses,” he added.

The intense Russian air campaign against IS marks the beginning of a new phase of confrontations in the Badia. There are questions as to whether this campaign will help the ground forces fighting IS and whether it can limit IS movement and operations all the while weakening IS military and human capabilities. Questions also arise about Russia’s benefit from this air campaign.

Mustafa Bakour, a defected Syrian military officer and military analyst who lives杭州夜生活论坛 in Syria’s northwestern province of Idlib, told Al-Monitor, “IS members have gained great experience when it comes to hiding and moving in the Badia, which has a rugged nature full of hills and natural hideouts, and this is what made it easy for them to carry out operations against the regime and its allies, during which hundreds were killed. The intense Russian air campaign against IS primarily aims at minimizing the human losses suffered by the regime and the militias supporting it.”

“Due to the state of attrition that these forces are experiencing, Russia has resorted to its air force in the hopes of [supporting] the drained ground forces. The aircraft possesses a massive destructive power, but it cannot control the land. Ground forces are subsequently indispensable to impose control on the ground following airstrikes. This is what Russia successfully did during the regime’s war against the Free Syrian Army in Idlib. However, I do not think that this will work out in the Badia, which extends over a large area and where IS has several hideouts. The organization also adopts a guerrilla tactic and relies on attacking its targets and subsequently withdrawing and hiding,” Bakour said.

Abbas Sharifeh, a researcher at the Jusoor Center for Studies based in Istanbul, tol杭州夜生活论坛 Al-Monitor, “The ground military campaign that the regime forces launched with the support of Russian forces against IS cells in the Badia has failed for many reasons. IS’ strategy is based on rapid raiding, ambushing and destabilizing [the enemy] to avoid turning into an easy prey. I do not think that the Russian air force alone is capable of eliminating the organization. It may, however, temporarily weaken it and limit its operations, but these could resume once airstrikes are halted.”

Airstrikes are a costly military action. Countries resort to them either in cases of extreme necessity or when there are potential gains justifying them. And since most of the Russian raids have recently focused on a wide area of the Badia, the question arises as to what Russia is counting on and whether there are real gains to cover the costs of these raids.

An independent political economy researcher, Yahya al-Sayed Omar, told Al-Monitor, “There are many reasons that make Syria’s Badia very important economically. It is located in the middle of Syria, and it includes the roads linking the east and the west of the country. Also, the regime is seeking to activate the trade line with Iraq, hence the need to fully secure this road.”

Al-Watan paper, which is close to the regime, reported in a March 7 report on the volume of trade between Syrian and Lebanon and between Syria and Iraq via the Abu Kamal border crossing. The director of the Abu Kamal crossing, Assem Iskandar, told Al-Watan that around 25 trucks carrying local goods cross into Iraq on average daily.

According to sources quoted by the paper in January, the total revenues of the Abu Kamal crossing in 2020 reached about 800 million Syrian pounds (about $276,000).

Omar said, “Russia has seized several vital facilities in Syria, some of which are located in the Badia, such as the Shaer oil field, the Hayyan gas plant and the Khunayfis mining area, and any IS attack on these facilities will disrupt operations and cause Russia to lose its investments.”

He said, “Russia is trying to take control of the Syrian oil sector. Those in the know on the locations of the Syrian oil fields know full well that some important fields are located in the areas where Russia is launching airstrikes. The Wadi al-Ubaid field, located between the provinces of Deir Ez-Zor and Raqqa, is one of the important fields and the presence of IS in its surroundings makes it very risky to invest in this field. Russian raids also targeted Jabal al-Bishri in western Deir ez-Zor, knowing that this mountain is the main stronghold of IS remnants hiding in the many caves it contains. Jabal al-Bishri is rich in natural resources, as it has sand and marble quarries, asphalt and salt mines, and it is also believed to contain shale oil mines.”

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What’s next for Russia’s relations with Hezbollah?

delegation from Lebanese Hezbollah, led by the head of the movement’s parliamentary 杭州夜生活论坛bloc, Mohammad Raad, arrived in Moscow on March 14 for a four-day visit that came on the eve of the 10-year anniversary of the start of the Syrian war. On March 15, the delegation, which included Hezbollah’s foreign relations chief Ammar Al-Moussawi and his aide Ahmad Mhanna, was received by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. The delegation also had separate talks with Mikhail Bogdanov, a Russian deputy foreign minister and the special presidential representative on the Middle East.

By a strange coincidence, the Hezbollah delegation’s visit to Russia occurred almost simultaneously with the visit of Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, who arrived in Moscow on March 17. Moreover, Hezbollah’s talks with Lavrov were held the same day杭州夜生活论坛 that two Russian deputy foreign ministers — Oleg Syromolotov and Sergey Ryabkov — met with the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s deputy director general for strategic affairs, Joshua Zarka. Syromolotov, a former chief of the FSB Counterintelligence Service who rose to the rank of army general, oversees measures against terrorism. So this string of meetings looks like more than just a coincidence and makes for a rather awkward situation.

Any official contacts between Moscow and Hezbollah have the potential for causing an uproar. The problem is not just the status of the movement, which many countries, including Israel, consider to be terrorists. It is also the nature of Hezbollah’s relations with the Russian diplomats, security officials and intelligence services. One can recall the scandal that broke out in December when the Russian ambassador in Israel, Anatoly Viktorov, blamed Israel for destabilizing the situation in the Middle East to an even greater extent than Tehran. Viktorov also tried to vindicate the Tehran-allied Shiite military-political organizations, most notably Hezbollah. Once a rival force that kidnapped and murdered Soviet diplomats, Hezbollah has turned into the Kremlin’s ally in “fighti杭州夜生活论坛ng terrorism.” Moscow took steps to smooth out the situation around Viktorov’s comments. Yet such rhetoric — not the first such statements on Hezbollah coming from Russian diplomats — is not explained solely by the discretion of a particular ambassador but by the specifics of Russia’s presence in Lebanon and by Beirut’s role in circumventing sanctions against Damascus.

The last few years saw Moscow performing a delicate balancing act. On the one hand, it has sought to deny Hezbollah’s participation in drug trafficking; at the same time the Russian military was conducting joint missions with Hezbollah militias. A case in point is the takeover of East Aleppo, where Russian special forces and Hezbollah fighters acted together. Indeed, Russian forces were allowed to disguise themselves as Hezbollah fighters for some operations. Hezbollah units, in turn, were granted permission to raise the Russian flag for cover from Israeli airstrikes. Still, the Russians did not raise particular objections to Israeli’s airstrikes against mobile targets. Moscow also feels obliged to monitor the arms traffic from Syria to Lebanon and to constrain Hezbollah’s actions both in the Damascus airport area and in the southwestern provinces.

Hezbollah’s visit March 15 is only the movement’s second official trip to Moscow. The first came in October 2011. Both delegations included Raad, a close ally of Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah. Given the time lag between the two trips, it is only logical to compare the incentives for the movement’s visits to Russia, especially considering that there was no lack of contacts between Moscow and Hezbollah representatives on Lebanon’s soil in the intervening period.

While the first Hezbollah delegation arrived upon the invitation of the Russian p杭州夜生活论坛arliament, the talks were shrouded in secrecy. That clandestinity was understandable as Hezbollah was trying to gauge Russia’s positions on two key points. The first was the extent to which Moscow accepted Shiite “red lines” on cooperation with the Netherlands-based Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which sought to investigate the 2005 assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri. Second — and perhaps most important — Hezbollah sought to gauge the level of Moscow’s backing for the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Russia’s motives at the time were unclear, especially given Moscow’s abstention on the UN Security Council vote on the Libya dossier. In 2011 Russia claimed it had no interests in Syria, while its experts pondered over the possibility of a bloodless coup in the country against Assad. According to some rumors, even Hezbollah did not have a united opinion on the extent of the support it should lend Assad, with critics concentrated in the movement’s political wing.

This time around, Hezbollah’s trip was more open to the public eye. Raad described his 40-minute talks with Lavrov as “open and frank.” Perhaps that description is indeed true, although there are opinions to the contrary (and not just among Russian observers).

Journalists cite two particular reasons that warranted the Hezbollah representatives’ visit to Russia. One issue relates to the French plan for overcoming the political crisis in Lebanon. Lavrov publicly supported the initiative. In his talks with Hezbollah, the Russian foreign minister also emphasised the importance of creating a new government headed by Saad Hariri that would help the country resolve its systemic crisis. Keeping in mind the recent visit to Moscow of Amal Abou Zeid, an adviser to president Michel Aoun, the journalists argue that Moscow’s real aim was to persuade Hezbollah, Aoun and his son-in-law Gebran Bassil to stop sabotaging the state-building process in Lebanon that is now under way.

The other problem concerns the Syrian war. Moscow is growing tired of the conflict. Yet its plan for attaining peace presupposes that Iran and Hezbollah would somehow freeze their activity in the region.

Ostensibly, those arguments are appealing and logical. Yet they also oversimply the situation somewhat. First of all, it indeed looks like Russian sought to postpone Hezbollah’s visit to Moscow because of Lavrov’s trip to the Middle East, Thus, the timing of the meeting with Hezbollah is not linked to the talks with Hariri. Second, Russia has its own stake in Lebanon. Moscow seeks to grow its clout both via soft-power tools and via deploying politico-economic projects implemented by the companies Rosneft and Novatek. Yet, as is usually the case with Russia, all those projects have a goal of consolidating Moscow’s position against the backdrop of weakened competition, not much more. Third, Moscow would probably prefer to side against the French plan for Lebanon, while continuing to brief the media against French President Emmanuel Macron’s initiatives. But Moscow likely prefers not to publicly criticize any constructive offers given the rapidly deteriorating situation in Lebanon and the problems this creates for the Syrian currency. Fourth, Russia is probably trying to legitimize Assad’s regime through raising the prospect of a decline in the Iranian presence in Syria, even though both Tehran and Hezbollah realize they are firmly established in the country.

It is obvious that the current state of relations between Lebanon and Russia requires that players coordinate their positions, especially in the runup to the elections in Syria and intensifying yet groundless rumors that predict the return to the Syrian scenario of the military council headed by Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlass, who switched to backing the Syrian opposition in 2012. Russia also has yet to give a response to Lebanon’s request for 200,000 doses of the Sputnik V vaccine.

However, the key issues uniting Russia, Iran and Hezbollah are the political impasse in Lebanon and the future of the Assad regime. Assad has managed to survive, but he cannot gain control over oil and agricultural resources in the east of the country and solve the problem of economic self-sufficiency. Both these conundrums are hard to resolve without serious compromises. And those come at a higher cost than intervening in a foreign war.

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Russian foreign minister’s visit aimed at challenging US influence in Gulf

ssian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s visit to the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabi杭州夜生活论坛a and Qatar on March 9-11 took place against the backdrop of uncertainty among these states about their future relations with the new US administration, which is rethinking many of President Donald Trump’s approaches to Middle East affairs. Amid this context, Moscow is seeking to remind the leading Arab monarchies of its readiness to fill the possible “void” that could arise if their ties with Washington stagnate, both in the security sphere and in the military-technical and military-political spheres.

On the other hand, Moscow demonstrated — especially to Saudi Arabia and the UAE — its adherence to the course of taking into account their interests in the region and focusing on promoting joint ec杭州夜生活论坛onomic programs. Russia also made it clear that the basis of its partnership with Ankara, the main regional rival of Abu Dhabi and Riyadh, is not common geopolitical interests, but above all mutual benefit. Such interaction will last as long as the parties can receive dividends from it. Thus Russia will also consider any forms of strengthening ties with the UAE and Saudi Arabia, which could compete with Russian-Turkish projects in importance.

This is probably why Lavrov’s visit to Saudi Arabia coincided with the televised broadcast (with the participation of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan) of the opening of the Akkuyu nuclear power plant March 10, built by Russian specialists in Turkey. Russia is offering the Gulf countries the chance to develop their own nuclear energy with the help of the Russian monopoly Rosatom, as Ankara has already done. In addition, Moscow, which has delivered its S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems to Turke杭州夜生活论坛y, has also repeatedly made it clear to Saudi Arabia and the UAE that if they are interested it is ready to sell these systems to them.

At the same time, while Lavrov’s visit to Saudi Arabia was generally without incident and was largely a matter of “protocol,” the visit by the head of the Russian Foreign Ministry to Abu Dhabi can be viewed as a landmark event — primarily relating to the Syrian track of Russian foreign policy.

In particular, following talks with Lavrov, UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan said he advocates the gradual return of the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad to the Arab League. He did note, however, that this will also require efforts both from the Syrian side and from the members of the Arab League. Most importantly, the UAE foreign minister disagreed with the American approach to Damascus. He called the Caesar Act and sanctions against Damascus “a big obstacle”杭州夜生活论坛 coordination and cooperation with Syria, which the UAE would like to develop. The UAE has already restored diplomatic ties with Syria.

Such statements from the UAE have confirmed the importance of Abu Dhabi as a key partner of Moscow in the Middle East. We should probably expect further steps by Russia and the Emirates to overcome or bypass the sanctions against Syria. Russia would like to attract Emirati funding to restore the destroyed Syrian economy and the country’s infrastructure.

In particular, Russia and the UAE could use the “Kurdish factor” in Syria to create “offshore” zones. We are talking about northeastern Syria, which is under the control of the Kurdish-Arab Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Abu Dhabi has fairly close ties with these formations, as does Russia, which acts as a mediator in the negotiations between the Kurds and the Assad regime. This is not to mention that Russian and Syrian troops (along with American ones) are also stationed in areas under the auspices of the SDF on the basis of the Sochi memorandum. At the same time, some cities (such as Qamishli) are under the mixed control of government forces and Kurds. This creates an opportunity for the creation of “gray zones” in these areas where Emirati companies could operate without falling under the Caesar Act, and their funds and services could also be used in Damascus.

Another such “zone” could be southern Syria, where the forces of the “reconciled opposition” are still operating; part of this became part of the pro-Russian Syrian 5th Corps. Many opposition fighters from these regions also have ties to the UAE, which supported them during the conflict and helped reach reconciliation agreements with the Russian military and the Assad regime. Therefore, the creation of a special zone in southern Syria, from which it would be possible to oust the pro-Iranian formations and where the main role would remain with the reconciled opposition, would be in the interests of Israel’s security, and thus would not provoke opposition from the United States regarding the placement of UAE investments there.

In general, Lavrov’s visit to the UAE confirmed that the two countries have similar assessments of the situation in the Middle East. Apart from Syria, the positions of Moscow and Abu Dhabi are also close in the Libyan case. Here it is enough to mention the increasingly frequent reports of the UAE possibly financing Russian private military companies in Libya. Russia also perceives the UAE as an important element in countering radical Islamism and terrorism in the region. Therefore, the expansion of the military presence of the armed forces of the Emirates and the creation of a network of UAE military bases in the countries of the region is positively perceived by the Russian side.

At the same time, the results of Lavrov’s talks in Qatar also deserve close attention. Here, Russian diplomacy has shown its ability to “sit on several chairs” and after the breakthrough statements of the UAE on Syria, it has found something to offer to the main competitors of the Emirates for influence in the region — namely Qatar and Turkey.

For example, a regular trilateral meeting of the foreign ministers of Russia, Turkey and Qatar took place in Doha, at which it was decided to give these contacts a regular character and create another “triple” format for the Syrian settlement of these states. Although the Syrian “troika” of Moscow-Ankara-Doha will act only at the level of heads of foreign affairs agencies, and not heads of state as occurs with the Astana 1″trio” of Moscow-Ankara-Tehran, there is still a wide area here to fill such interaction with practical content.

According to Lavrov, trilateral consultations between Russia, Qatar and Turkey on a Syrian settlement do not replace work in the Astana format, but rather supplement it.

“This format (Russia-Qatar-Turkey) has existed for over a year. Our representatives met at least three times to exchange views on how to help resolve the Syrian crisis in accordance with [UN Security Council] Resolution 2254. And, of course, it does not in any way replace the Astana format, it complements it,” Lavrov said during his visit.

Perhaps the most promising area of ​​work of this “troika” could be providing assistance to Syrian refugees, which was also the focus of the talks. Specifically, it would be in Turkey’s interests to attract Qatari funds to build infrastructure for Syrian internally displaced persons in Idlib, Afrin and in the zone of Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring. It would also allow some of the Syrian refugees in Turkey itself to be returned to these territories. At the same time, Moscow — although it declares the need to return all of Syria to the Damascus government as soon as possible — does not really object to supporting Syrian internally displaced persons in opposition-held regions. In response, the Russian side would like part of the funds to be redirected to areas controlled by the Syrian regime, so that conditions there could be created for the return of Syrian refugees, primarily from Lebanon and Jordan.

In addition, the creation of such a format is also a certain signal to Tehran, whose participation in the “Astana troika” has become an empty formality.

Also during Lavrov’s visit to Doha, attention was paid to the development of Qatari-Russian economic ties. Qatar is a significant investor in the Russian economy. It is important for Russia that the investments of the Qatari sovereign fund are directed not only to the oil production sector (Rosneft corporation), but also to transport, logistics (Pulkovo airport in St. Petersburg), agriculture and retail chains, etc. Moscow is interested in building up such cooperation.

Yet the Syrian agenda still prevails in Russian officials’ meetings with representatives of the monarchies of the Persian Gulf. Without the “Syrian case” of common interests, Moscow and the Gulf capitals would have much less in common. Russian diplomacy thus needs to continue its efforts to eventually free its Middle East agenda from the “shackles” of the Syrian campaign; otherwise the importance of Russia as a regional player will decline. Moreover, under such conditions, there can be no question of trying to compete with the United States for influence in the region.

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The Takeaway: Israel: Deja vu, all over again

nce again, for the fourth time in two years, an Israeli election produced no clear winner 杭州夜生活论坛and the prospect of yet another vote. In the March 23 elections, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s bloc received 59 seats, two short of a majority, and few seats seem up for grabs at this point, except for the five seats of Arab Joint List defector Mansour Abbas’ Raam party (see below).

Odds of stability: “Slim to None.” Netanyahu could gain a majority if he could peel off some of the defectors from the other right-wing parties allied against him. Or Netanyahu could lose out if the center-left parties opposed to Bibi could win over the seven seats held by Naftali Bennett’s Yamina Party. Ben Caspit puts these odds as “slim to none.” Also in the “slim to none” category is an arrangement with Abbas. Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc won’t be buying a deal with any Arab party. Caspit says Bibi’s flirtation with the Arab vote has led to a funeral, rather than wedding, for Netanyahu. Abbas, for his part, could end up being a broker.

Gang of Four: If there is chance for Bibi to lose power, it will depend on the rival “Gang of Four” pulling together: Yisrael Beitenu leader Avigdor Liberman, New Hope leader Gideon Saar and Bennett on the right, and Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid on the center-left. Caspit, who notes that the four “would each give up a kidney” if Netanyahu willingly stepped aside, doesn’t see this outcome as likely, but doesn’t rule it out either.

More of the same: Israeli President Reuven Rivlin will soon ask whoever gathers the m杭州夜生活论坛ost votes to form the next government. That is likely to be Netanyahu, but you never know. Rivlin could also call for an emergency coalition government like last time, but the last effort flopped, and would require another deal with Netanyahu. Mazal Mualem writes that assuming the final vote tallies (expected March 31) stay on track, a divided transition government with Blue and White leader Benny Gantz (who overcame a kind of political near-death experience to win eight seats) “will continue to run the country for the next few months as Israel plunges into another election round.”

Read our coverage here from Ben Caspit, Mazal Mualem and Rina Bassist.

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Israeli election results
Five quick takes from Russia, Egypt, Turkey, the Gulf and Israel’s ‘cave of horror’

  1. Hezbollah officials make rare Russia trip

Anton Mardasov looks at what a group of Hezbollah officials were doing in Russia last week. The visit — the Lebanese militant group’s first since 2011 — probably saw a discussion over the French road map for resolving Beirut’s political deadlock, as well a杭州夜生活论坛s Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian civil war.

The delegation’s visit nearly overlapped with Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi’s arrival in Moscow — a “rather awkward situation,” Mardasov writes, seeing as Israel views the Iran-backed Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.

  1. Inside Egypt’s all-female village

The residents of Egypt’s al-Samaha village have one thing in common — they’re all women. Al-Monitor’s correspondent takes us inside the government-run, women-only village in Upper Egypt that’s become a refuge for divorcees, widows and victims of domestic violence in the conservative country.

  1. Turkey’s market tumble

Diego Cupolo breaks down how President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s abrupt sacking of Turkey’s central bank governor, Naci Agbal, caused financial markets to plummet and the Turkish lira to crash Monday.

Plus, Cupolo has more on what to expect from Agbal’s replacement, Sahap Kavcioglu. In a nutshell: Think short-term objectives, like stimulating rapid growth and possibly selling Turkey’s foreign exchange reserves, rather than the type of long-term stabilization measures pursued by his predecessor.

  1. Pandemic spending in the Gulf

The oil-rich Gulf states have racked up record debt bailing out their economies during the pandemic. Sebastian Castelier looks at how the six Gulf Cooperation Council members used the billions they borrowed and finds much of the funds have gone back into the pockets of civil servants. “The strategy keeps the existing social safety net afloat, but raises the question of economic leakages,” Castelier writes.

  1. Dead Sea Scrolls found in “Cave of Horror”

For the first time in more than six decades, archaeologists have uncovered new Dead Sea Scrolls fragments stashed away in the West Bank’s Cave of Horror, where a group of Jewish refugees hid during their failed revolt against the Romans in the 2nd century. The Israeli excavation team also discovered a partially mummified child, a cache of Jewish coins and a 10,500-year-old woven basket.

One cool thing: Do deep fakes of the dead violate Islamic law?
Maybe cool, maybe a little creepy, or both. The Israeli-made “My Heritage” app has rolled out a new feature that allows users to animate still photographs of their dead relatives. The eerie use of deepfake technology has raised questions in Egypt over whether the animations violate Sharia law, says Rasha Mahmoud.

What we’re reading: Did Iran and Hezbollah meddle in US elections?
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei likely authorized “a covert influence campaign” to undercut President Donald Trump’s reelection chances, according to a newly released US intelligence assessment. The report also identified the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah among the foreign actors that took steps to meddle in the 2020 election. Read the report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence here.

ICYMI: Amberin Zaman at the National Press Club
Al Monitor’s Amberin Zaman examined the state of US-Turkey relations in an interview with the National Press Club. “I’ve never seen in all my years of reporting, the kind of hostility that Turkey currently faces across the board on the Hill and in the administration,” she said. Plus, Zaman recounts her own personal experience with Turkey’s press crackdown.

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US cooling could help Russia boost ties with Saudi Arabia

ussian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov paid a visit to Saudi Arabia earlier this month a杭州夜生活论坛s part of his tour of the Gulf countries. Lavrov was received by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on March 10 and met with his Saudi counterpart Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud. Unlike the top Russian diplomat’s meetings in Abu Dhabi and Doha, no major statements came out of his stop in Riyadh, nor were any important initiatives adopted. Yet the importance of this trip should not be underestimated.

Russia is probing sentiments in Saudi Arabia to help Moscow draw conclu杭州夜生活论坛sions about steps toward rapprochement with the kingdom against the backdrop of a possible cooling iation has grown about a potential weakening of ties between Riyadh and Washington after US intelligence declassified a report Feb. 25 assessing that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was involved in the assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Earlier in February, the White House had said President Joe Biden would conduct diplomacy through Saudi King Salman bin Abdulazizi rather than the crown prince, in contrast to former President Donald Trump. “We’ve made clear from the beginning that we are goinSaudi Arabia,” White House spokesperson Jen Psaki told reporters.

This shift, along with Washington’s decision to lift sanctions the Trump administration had imposed on the Houthis in Yemen, suggests that the Biden administration may not bode well for Saudi Arabia and its rulers.

The State Department has issued a number of statements on how relations with Riyadh will develop since the declassification of the report. Intate Department spokesperson Ned Price spoke about visa restrictions on 76 Saudi individuals — part of the so-called “Khashoggi ban” — and said that human r杭州夜生活论坛abuses such as jailing women’s rights activists “undermine our ties.” While Price stressed the US-Saudi relationship is important, he said “Saudi actions will determine” what the two countries can achieve together going forward.

It looks like bin Salman will have to abandon the Rapid Reaction Force — sanctioned by the United States for its involvement in Khashoggi’s murder — as it has functioned to date. It is also likely that the Saudi leadership will need to punish higher ranking officials for their role in the killing. However, doing so does not guarantee Riyadh won’t face US calls for liberalization of the political system. Restrictions on the supply of US weapons to the Saudi military also cannot be ruled out.

Thus Moscow believes Saudi Arabia will take steps to diversify its external relations. It is possible that it will try to intensify contacts with Russia to compensate for costs arising from the stagnation of relations between Riyadh and Washington. Russia is already demonstrating its readiness to meet Saudi Arabia halfway.

Diplomacy between Moscow and Riyadh has already intensified. In addition to Lavrov’s visit to Riyadh, the Russian president’s special envoy to Syria, Alexander Lavrentyev, paid his own visit to the kingdom a day earlier. During these negotiations, the Russian side spoke in favor of increasing the role of the kingdom in resolving the Syrian crisis. In doing so, Moscow is promoting the regional role of Saudi Arabia, which is competing with Turkey for influence in the Middle East and has ceded influence in Syria to Ankara.

Russia may be useful for Saudi Arabia as a mediator in the Yemeni conflict. Moscow has been able to maintain contacts with all parties to the Yemeni conflict — with the Houthis, with supporters of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and with the Southern Transitional Council — and will be in demand if a peaceful dialogue can be restored. Moscow’s line in Yemeni affairs could, in a sense, balance the course of Washington, which is also likely to be more active in resolving the Yemeni crisis. The involvement of Russia in this process would create wider room for maneuvering for Saudi Arabia, since Riyadh fears that the United States does not recognize the security concerns the Saudis give as justification for the war in Yemen.

Moscow will try to revive its initiative from two years ago involving the formation of region and possibly in the Middle East as a whole. It was supposed to work out a certain scheme of interaction of regional players, marketed as a Middle East version of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Russia’s initiative could help regulate relations between the monarchies of the Gulf and Iran. Although this plan has little chance of ever being implemented, Russia’s consultations with both Saudi Arabia and Iran could play a role in normalizing relations between Riyadh and Tehran and reaffirm Moscow’s importance as an important arbiter for the states of the Middle East.

Russia also expects that the cooling of US-Saudi military ties will mean new contracts for Moscow to supply weapons to Saudi Arabia.

In the fall of 2017, following King Salman’s visit to Moscow, several documents were signed documents included a memorandum on the purchase and localization of production of TOS-1A Solntsepyok flamethrower systems, Kornet-EM anti-tank missile systems and AGS-30 grenade launchers. Most of these agreements have been implemented. Nevertheless, Moscow failed to promote high-tech and expensive weapons such as the S-400 anti-aircraft missile system, aircraft or armored vehicles on the Saudi market.

The types of weapons that Riyadh would like to acquire — Iskander operational-tactical missiles, for example — Moscow cannot supply to the Gulf states because of agreements with Israel. However, in the future these restrictions may be revised. Saudi Arabia’s difficulties in accessing American military equipment may open up new opportunities for Russia r example T-90MSK tanks, Mi-17/171Sh helicopters and Tor-M2 and Buk-M3 short- and medium-range anti-aircraft missile systems.

Moscow would also like to increase general trade between the two states, bringing the trade volumfar, that volume barely exceeds $1.5 billion, though some progress has been observed in this direction. In 2020, Russia bega Saudi Arabia. The kingdom was already one of the largest importers of Russian barley.

Also, Russia and Saudi Arabia are looking to strengthed “do not note any reasons that could undermine the interest in theiraccording to Lavrov, speaking at a joint press conference in Riyadh following talks with his Saudi counterpart. 

“We have confirmed today our focus on strengthening out this stage, we do not see any events that, if implemented, will undermine the interest in our mutual cooperation. This is an objective reality and it has a long-term, stable character, in my opinion,” he added.

Despite efforts to find areas where Russia could play a greater role in the event of cooling Saudi-American relations, Moscow realizes it won’t be able to replace Washington as a strategic partner for Riyadh anytime soon. Nevertheless, Russia is ready to take advantage of the current situation to gradually boost Russian-Saudi ties and strengthen its tactical positions, with an eye to their gradual transformation into strategic o

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Russian FM’s visit to Egypt helps counter Erdogan’s regional moves

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met with his Egyptian counterpart Sameh杭州夜生活论坛 Shoukry and President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi during a visit to Cairo April 12, where talks focused on bilateral ties and regional conflicts — including Egypt and Sudan’s dispute with Ethiopia over the mega-dam Addis Ababa is constructing on the Nile. Lavrov also held talks with General Intelligence Service chief Abbas Kamel.

Lavrov’s visit to Egypt came shortly after April 10 talks between tanbul, which took place against the background of the aggravation of the situation in eastern Ukraine. Because of this, the top Russian diplomat’s arrival in Cairo was viewed as a kind of retaliatory move by Moscow in response to Ukrainian-Turkish杭州夜生活论坛 contacts. For Turkey, Egypt is one of the main rivals for influence in the Middle East, and diplomatic relations between the two states have been tense since they broke relations in 2013 following the ouster of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi. 

Moscow is concerned about Turkish-Ukrainian military and technical cooperation generally, and specifically the prospects of Turkey supplying the Bayraktar drone to Kiev. This topic was also touched upon during the visit of the head of the Russian Foreign Ministry to Egypt.

“I will tell you straightaway that we urge all responsible countries that we communicate with — and Turkey is one of them — that we strongly recommend they analyze the situation and the Kiev regime’s relentless belligerent statements, and we also warn them against encouraging these militaristic aspirations,” Lavrov said during a press conference with Shoukry in Cairo.

Nevertheless, Russia itself has been actively providing Egypt with modern weapons, which Cairo was ready to use against Ankara and its Libyan allies. Egypt and Turkey were close to a direct armed clash w杭州夜生活论坛hen Egypt bega the Libyan border, demanding an end to the attack on Sirte and Jufra in June 2020.

In the summer of 2020, reports emerged that Russian Su-35 fighter jets were just going into service in Egypt, representing the first batch of an Egyptian-Russian arms deal. In the same period, Moscow and Cairo signed a contract for the supplr the Egyptian army. The agreement provides for the transfer of technology and the organization of joint production of these combat vehicles in Egypt. Thus, Egypt will become a manufacturer of two types of tanks at once — the Russian T-90 and the American Abrams, which have been assembled in Egypt for a long time. In addition, under the 2015 contract, Egypt received from Russia 52 MiG-29M / M2 fighters and 46 Ka-52 attack helicopters. Also included in the sale to boost Egyptian air defenses are the Russian anti-aircraft missile systems S-300VM, Buk-M1-2, Tor-M1E and other types of weapons and military equipment.

The annual Russian-Egyptian military maneuvers — which include the participation of airborne troops, the air force, the air defense and the navy — took place most recently in November. The naval exercises were held in the Black Sea and included the Egyptian frigate Alexandria F911 (Oliver Hazard Perry-c杭州夜生活论坛lass), the corvette El Fateh 971 (Gowind-class) and missile boat M. Fahmy 686 (Ezzat class). Such war games are certainly not well received by Ankara.

Also, against the background of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s visit to Istanbul and Lavrov’s to Cairo, two more events happened that gave rise to a lot of speculation, namely the termination of regular flights between Russia and Turkey and Russian statements about the resumption “in the very near future” of direct flights from Russia to Egyptian resorts on the Red Sea coast. These flights, popular with Russian tourists, were halted in 2015 after the Islamic State downed a Russian plane, leaving 224 dead, over the Sinai.

On the eve of his visit to Egypt, Lavrov said in an interview with the Egyptian newspape expect that charter flights from Russia to Sharm el-Sheikh and Hurghada will be resumed as early as in the immediate future.” The minister added, “For Egypt, the influx of foreign tourists into the country is an important source of budget replenishment.”

Lavrov’s talks with the head of the Egyptian General Intelligence Service during the visit also speaks to the seriousness of Mo杭州夜生活论坛scow’s intentions to resume air traffic with Egypt. The Russian side is primarily concerned with ensuring the safety of flights.

Thus, one may get the impression that Russia is purposefully supporting the tourism industry of Turkey’s main competitor, Egypt, while conversely refusing to provide tourist flows of its citizens to Turkey as a response to Turkish-Ukrainian contacts. Nevertheless, the official reason Moscow released for the cancellation of flights to Turkey was the difficult situation of COVID-19 in the country, and this looks increasingly more convincing. Daily infection rates in Turarly fivefold since March. Moreover, air traffic between Russia and Tanzania was also terminated, which had no ties whatsoever with Ukraine and was a major state with which Russia maintained air traffic in the interest of Russian tourists. The situation in Egypt is much more favorable; on April 13, Egypt registered about 800 new daily cases of COVID-19lmost 60,000 in Turkey.

Two other major political issues that were discussed during Lavrov’s visit to Egypt also affect Turkish interests to one degree or another. These are Libya and Syria.

In Libya, Russia and Egypt have established close interaction. Moscow and Cairo’s positions on the Libyan conflict are largely similar. Both countries have gradually distanced themselves from the military leader Khalifa Hifter, placing more emphasis on the chairman of the House of Representatives, Aguila Saleh. At the current stage, Russia and Egypt support the head of the presidential council of Libya, Muhammad Yunus Menfi, and the head of the government of national unity, Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, but they are also actively working with representatives of western Libya, trying to lure some of them over to their side and remove them from Turkish influence.

On Syria, Egypt and Russia also developed an understanding, which was confirmed at Lavrov’s talks in Cairo. It should be noted that the so-called “Cairo platform” of the Syrian opposition, whose activities are overseen by Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, is perceived by many pro-Turkish Syrian oppositionists — along with the “Moscow platform” — as President Bashar al-Assad’s “Trojan horse” in the Syrian opposition structures.

In addition to military-technical cooperation and tourism, Moscow is also developing the Egyptian energy market. The largest Russian energy project in Egypt is the construction of the El-Dabaa nuclear power plant in northwestern Egypt on the Mediterranean coast (in the Matruh region) by Rosatom. The project involves the construction of a nuclear power plant with a total installed capacity of 4,800 megawatts, consisting of four VVER-1200 reactors. The commissioning of the first unit is scheduled for 2026. The construction of all four units of the plant is planned to be completed by 2028-2029.

The Russian joint-stock company Rosneft participates in the project to develop the Zohr gas field on the Egyptian shelf of the Mediterranean Sea. Rosneft’s share in marketable production is 17%. The Russian companies LUKOIL and Zarubezhneft are also involved in the production of Egyptian oil.

Tth a total area of ​​525 hectares (2 square miles) and located in the city of Port Said, is set to be home to the offices of Russian companies and branches of Russian enterprises. This zone will likely become a strategic Russian infrastructure project in Egypt. This venture, launched in 2018, is underway.

One other area of cooperation between the two is the supply of Russian grain to Egypt. Cairo is one of the largest importers of Russian wheat.

Lavrov’s visit to Cairo once again confirmed that Russian-Egyptian ties continue to develop and so far cannot even be impeded by the threat of American sanctions over military-technical cooperation. On the one hand, Egypt competes with Turkey as Moscow’s leading partner in the Middle East both in the economic and political spheres. On the other hand, the history of relations between Moscow and Cairo shows that such an “idyll” can disappear in an instant, as happened in the 1970s under Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, when one day the country turned from an ally of the Soviet Union into an opponent of Moscow and partner of the United States. This is not forgotten in today’s Russia.

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Taliban, Assad continue to unite Russia, Iran

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov paid a working visit to Tehran on April 13, where杭州夜生活论坛 he held talks with his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif. The Russian foreign minister was also received by the President Hassan Rouhani and parliament Speaker Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf.

The key issue on the agenda of the meetings was the prospect of the return of Washington and Tehran to the Iran nuclear deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

Russia’s position on the JCPOA presupposes, first of all, the separation of nuclear issues from other topics, such as Iranian expansion in the region or Tehran’s missile program. Otherwise, the possibility of reaching a compromise is greatly reduced. A number of US lawmakers have advocated including these issues in the deal before a US reentry. Moscow also advocates a “synchronized approach” whereby Washington and Tehran must synchronize their concess杭州夜生活论坛ions: The United States unfreezes Iranian assets and lifts sanctions, while Iran gradually returns to the terms of the deal.

“As you know, the path to preserving the deal lies solely through its consistent implementation by all parties involved in strict compliance with UN Security Council Resolution 2231. We hope that the JCPOA will be preserved, and Washington will finally return to full implementation of this Security Council resolution. This, in turn, will create preconditions for compliance with all requirements of the nuclear deal with Iran,” Lavrov said at a press conference following the talks in Tehran.

Zarif said, “Iran has no problem returning to the JCPOA,” but added that this will only happen if the previously imposed restrictions are lifted by the United States. “The Americans will not be able to get concessions through the sanctions. They should stop even thinking about it,” said the top Iranian diplomat.

At the same time, Russian and Iranian diplomats agreed that the European Union’s plans to impose new sanctions against Iran constitute “sabotage” of the path to return to the JCPOA. On April 12, the EU extended sanctions imposed on Iran for human rights violations and also expanded the sanctions list, adding eight Iranian individuals and three companies. The Russia杭州夜生活论坛n minister called these actions unacceptable and expressed hope that the EU would not allow the breakdown of the Vienna talks with Iran.

The Russian initiative to ensure security in the Persian Gulf zone was also discussed in Tehran. Lavrov made it clear to the Iranian side that Russia and Iran could work together on this project instead of coming up with individual plans. In this context, Lavrov noted that the Russian initiative is in many ways similar to the Hormuz Peace Initiative proposed by Tehran.

The talks also touched upon the topic of Afghanistan, which is becoming more and more relevant given the US plans to withdraw its troops from the country by Sept. 11. Moscow and Tehran understand that in the event of a US withdrawal, they will most likely be forced to engage much deeper in the Afghan problem and prevent the conflict from escalating. At the same time, the positions of the Russian Federation and Iran on Afghanistan coincide in many respects. This applies, for example, to contacts with the Afghan Taliban movement. Moscow and Tehran would like to turn that movement into a legal actor in the Afghan settlement process and pursue their interests in this Central Asian country through the group.

Russia and Iran have been in contact with the Taliban for several years. At the same time, officials in Moscow and Tehran have repeatedly stated that their relationship with the Taliban does not include providing political or military support to this terrorist group. Yet the Americans accuse both Russia and Iran of supplying the Taliban with weapons. A New York Times investigation published last year outlined how Russia built the ch杭州夜生活论坛nnel to supply arms and military equipment to the Taliban. On the whole, one should expect further coordination of the efforts of Moscow and Tehran in the Afghan direction, including in terms of their interaction with the Taliban movement.

During Lavrov’s contacts with the Iranians, the Syrian issue also was a prominent topic of discussion.

On Syria, there is still mutual understanding between Iran and Russia and both states are ready to continue to support the regime in Damascus, as well as continue to work within the framework of the so-called Astana Troika. The latter refers to Moscow, Ankara and Tehran, who began talks in the Kazakh capital in 2017 aimed at making progress on a political solution to the war. Yet if we move away from official statements, the relationship between Moscow and Tehran on the Syrian track can be characterized as a division of spheres of influence and competencies. There are disputed regions where competition between Russia and Iran continues, for example in Deraa and Quneitra in the southwest. There, the Russian military is trying to prevent an excessive presence of pro-Iranian groups on the borders with Israel by preserving the forces of the so-called “reconciled opposition” (opposition groups that have reached reconciliation agreements with Damascus), including operating under the flag of the pro-Russian 5th Corps of the Syrian army.

In a similar way, the situation is developing in the eastern city of Deir ez-Zor, which is increasingly becoming the target of attacks by Israeli jets due to the entrenched pro-Iranian formations in this region. Russia here is also trying to draw “red lines” in front of the Iranians, not allowing their control to expand to new areas while trying to work with local Arab tribes and the pro-Damascus National Defense Forces to this end. In particular, Russia is going to deploy a new military facility in Deir ez-Zo杭州夜生活论坛r to strengthen support for the 5th Corps and the National Defense Forces operating autonomously from Damascus and Iran, while at the same time trying to expand the composition of the National Defense Forces in Hasakah at the expense of local tribes.

Thus, Moscow likely understands the “toxicity” of the Iranian presence in Syria and adequately assess the threats that also come to Russian servicemen who may accidentally find themselves under American or Israeli strikes aimed at Iranian structures in the war-torn country. Nevertheless, Russia’s influence on Damascus is not enough to minimize Iran’s role in Syrian affairs. The Assad regime is a fairly independent player, which skillfully uses both Moscow and Tehran to preserve itself. But in general, and especially in terms of the economy, Iran’s positions in Syria are much stronger than Russia’s. Iran’s financial investments in the country are many times higher than Russian ones, and Tehran intends to at least partially compensate for them and therefore is trying to stake out the most profitable sectors of the Syrian economy, where access for Russian companies is difficult.

The topic of military-technical cooperation between Iran and Russia was not a priority at the current stage of the negotiations. At the same time, it should be noted that consultations on possible deliveries of Russian arms to Iran continue against the background of the lifting of arms sanctions on Tehran, and there are certain disagreements between the Russian Federation and Iran in this regard. For example, Iran would like to buy from Russia modern offensive weapons which are in acute shortage, such as Su-35 or Su-30 combat aircraft, or the latest types of air defense systems such as the S-400. At the same time, Russia is trying to avoid a negative reaction from Israel or the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf and is ready to offer Iran only new batches of Tor, Buk or Pantsir anti-aircraft missile systems and armored vehicles.

Lavrov and his Iranian partners also touched on the topic of COVID-19. Here Russia and Iran have established effective cooperation: Tehran has already received more than 500,000 doses of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine.

“We thank Russia for its help in providing Iran with vaccines. We hope that soon the production of Sputnik V will begin in the Islamic Republic,” Zarif said.