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Melkulangara Bhadrakumar

Russia Wades into Saudi-Iran Rift

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The remark Wednesday by the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister and Presidential envoy for the Middle East Mikhail Bogdanov offering Moscow’s mediation for a rapprochement between Riyadh and Tehran comes within the week of the Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz’s talks with President Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin. Bogdanov was on a visit to Rabat and probably had the Middle East audience in view. He knew most certainly that the weekend is approaching when the US President Donald Trump is expected to outline a new containment strategy against Iran.

Bogdanov’s remark profiles Russia as a unique peacemaker in the centre stage of Middle East politics. No great power ever seriously toyed with such a tantalizing idea. But how realistic is the idea?

An essay penned by Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in the Atlantic magazine recently takes a panoramic view of the troubled relations between his country and its neighbours. The title of the essay aptly sums up its thesis – Foreign meddling has wrought a fractured Middle East. The heart of the matter is that the problematic relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia is not a ‘bilateral’ issue – nor can it be regarded as an issue of ‘reconciliation’. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia does not represent the Sunni Arab states, either. Nonetheless, Bogdanov is also right when he says that it becomes easier to resolve the burning problems of the Middle East (such as Syria, Iraq or Yemen) if Saudi Arabia and Iran could work together.
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What Afghan ‘Stalemate’ is All About

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The Associated Press has carried an exclusive report regarding the intensive, on-going political dialogue between the Afghan government and the Taliban behind the scene, the appearance of a "stalemate" notwithstanding. That such contacts have been going on was a widely known secret, but the AP report is specific regarding their high frequency and it discloses that these contacts are handled at a very high level. There is no reason to doubt the AP claim citing authoritative sources.

Thus, there are two aspects here – the timing of the "leak" and contents of the leak. The curious thing about the timing is that this "leak" has appeared just 10 days after US President Donald Trump’s speech outlining the way forward in Afghanistan. To say the very least, the leak significantly moderates the US’ newly proclaimed Afghan strategy and gives it a "human face." The comfort level in Pakistan should rise by a few notches at least.

Quite obviously, some well-informed source with access to a highly restricted "Top Secret" document has shared the info with AP. It can only be a top level Afghan source close to the leadership in Kabul or a foreign power (like the US) which has every business to know in real time what its puppet regime in Kabul is up to.
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Iran Will be Trump's Nemesis

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The White House readout of US President Donald Trump’s phone call to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Wednesday highlighted that the latter “thanked” Trump for his “strong leadership uniting the world against the North Korean menace.” Modi must be the only world leader who has given such fulsome praise to Trump for his performance vis-a-vis North Korea. And, Trump naturally felt elated.

In reality, though, it wasn’t particularly difficult for Modi to say such a strange thing, because India has no role to play in resolving the North Korea problem. What the readout betrays is Washington’s craving for endorsement by the world community for its incoherent approach to the North Korean problem. However, Modi has taken a risk here by raising new expectations in Trump’s mind. The point is, Trump is getting into a collision course with Iran.

Trump has tried to outsmart Tehran by not tearing up the Iran deal but instead undermining it systematically. But Tehran has decided to draw the ‘red line’ and challenged Trump to cross it. On Tuesday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani threatened Trump that if his administration imposes any further sanctions on Iran, Tehran will restart its nuclear programme. Period. Significantly, Rouhani issued the stark warning to Trump while addressing the Iranian Majlis...
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Israel Precipitates New Tensions in Syria

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The Israeli air attacks on Friday near Palmyra in Syria targeting what Tel Aviv claims to be a convoy ferrying weapons for Hezbollah in Lebanon – and what Damascus alleges was a calculated act directed against the positions of the government forces fighting the Islamic State active in the region – cannot be regarded as a "stand-alone" event.

On the face of it, the Israeli claim lacks credibility since Palmyra is twice removed from the Syrian-Lebanon border in terms of geographical proximity. Possibly, Syrian government has a point that the Israelis were deliberately targeting its forces. This explains why Russian Foreign Ministry called in the Israeli ambassador in Moscow on the same day and sought explanation.

Evidently, some "ground rule" as per the unwritten Russian-Israeli understanding over Syrian frontlines has been breached and Moscow took note. In previous instances when Israel attacked Hezbollah – even assassinating its top commanders fighting on Syrian frontlines – Moscow had looked away. But this time around, it promptly signaled displeasure. It stands to reason that Israel crossed some "red line."

At first, Moscow did not publicise its demarche. But then, Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Liberman flew off the handle on Sunday with a belligerent remark that Israel “will not hesitate” to destroy Syria’s air defence systems if that country ever again targeted attacking Israeli jets. It was an illogical statement insofar as Israel insists it can violate Syrian air space but Damascus has no right to defend. Liberman also held a veiled threat saying, “We do not want to clash with the Russians.”
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Trump and Putin Begin Work on US-Russia Reset

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The Russian President Vladimir Putin made the long-expected phone call to the US president-elect Donald Trump on Monday.

It stands to reason that the presidential spokesman in the Kremlin, Dmitry Peskov, one of Putin’s closest aides, travelled to New York last week ostensibly to attend a world chess event, but principally to prepare the ground for the phone conversation on Monday.

The agenda of such Russian-American conversations is usually agreed upon beforehand. The Kremlin readout (and the brief statement by Trump’s transition team in New York) gave a positive account of the phone conversation.

From available details, it was a substantive conversation, which focused on reviving the Russian-American relationship, and, most important, also took up the Syrian conflict in some detail, including “issues related to solving the crisis”.
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Turkey Prepares to Intervene in Mosul

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The battle of Mosul has been joined, finally, as Iraqi Special Forces entered the city limits earlier today from the east. (BBC) The early reports suggest that the Islamic State fighters responded with guided anti-tank missiles and small arms to block the Iraqi advance. Al Jazeera reported that the battle is “intense” and IS fighters are putting up “stiff resistance” against the approaching forces.

The IS has set the oil wells on fire to obscure their positions from possible air attacks. Nonetheless, US air strikes are continuing. Another Iraqi column from the south is still 35 kms away from Mosul city. 

To the north, Kurdish forces and Iraqi army units are approaching the city, while the Shi’ite militias are covering the western flank to cut off any escape route for the IS fighters in the direction of Syria. There is a tacit understanding that the Iran-backed Shi’ite militia known as the Popular Mobilisation Force will not enter the Sunni-dominated Mosul city.
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Turkey Harmonises With Russia, Iran on Syria

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The reported remarks Monday by Turkish Prime Minister Binaldi Yildirim regarding a 3-step road map for ending the Syrian conflict would be the latest indication that Ankara is tiptoeing toward restoring Turkish-Syrian relations at the diplomatic and political level.

Yildirim’s road map envisages future Syria to be a unitary state that has an inclusive political system with constitutional safeguards that prevent domination by any sectarian, ethnic or regional groups. Its constructive ambiguity over the core issue of the fate of President Bashar Al-Assad is absolutely delightful. It abandons the pre-condition that President Assad should step down in any transition.

Yildirim instead leaves it to the Syrian electorate’s majority will to decide on Assad’s political future. He thinks Assad may not get a popular mandate, but then, he won’t deny Assad the right to seek one, either. Now, isn’t that a leap of faith? (Hurriyet)

To be sure, with the Turkish-Russian rapprochement in hand and a new-found rapport with Iran in the air, President Recep Erdogan is preparing to address the Syrian question, which is the root cause of the instability in Turkey. See my recent articles in Asia Times Putin, Erdogan have a deal on Syria and Iran taps into Turkish-Russian reset.)
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Strategic Shift? Putin to Receive Erdogan in Hometown

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The developments in Turkey are taking a dramatic turn. All Indications are that the Turkish government is in possession of definite information that the attempted military coup was orchestrated by the United States. (Anadolu)

The Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag made an open allegation in a television interview:
The US knows that Fethullah Gülen (the cleric who lives in Pennsylvania) carried out this coup. Mr. Obama knows this just as well as he knows his own name. I am convinced that American intelligence knows it too.
Bozdag is known to be one of the closest and trusted political associates of President Recep Erdogan. The well-informed Turkish political commentator Semih Idiz wrote that “This belief (Bozdag’s allegation) goes all the way to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It implies that Washington knew what was coming and did nothing to warn Ankara. The pro-government Islamist media has even claimed that the U.S. tried to kill Erdoğan with this coup attempt.”

The government has taken into confidence Turkey’s two main opposition parties – the Kemalist party CHP (Republican Party) and the nationalist party MHP (Nationalist Movement Party). The ruling AKP (Justice & Development Party) and the CHP and MHP have set aside their political differences and have voiced support for Ankara’s demand to Washington for the extradition of the Islamist cleric Fetullah Gulen. No doubt, this grand reconciliation could have implications in the downstream for the fractured Turkish political landscape. (VOA)
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US Unleashes the Dogs of War in Afghanistan

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A statement by the Chinese Foreign Ministry on Thursday pointedly called on the ‘international community’ to respect Pakistan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. It commended Pakistan’s contribution to the war against terrorism and stressed that the Afghan reconciliation process within the framework of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group should not be jeopardised. (MFA)

The statement can be seen as a rebuke to Washington over the drone killing of the Taliban chief. It took 17 days for Beijing to break its silence.

The statement came even as a delegation of senior US officials was heading for Islamabad – Richard Olson, US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Peter Lavoy, Senior Advisor and Director for South Asian Affairs in the National Security Council, and Gen. John Nicholson, commander of the US forces in Afghanistan.

The Pakistani accounts convey the impression that the US officials heard from their leadership in Islamabad and Rawalpindi during meetings today strong denunciation of the US drone strikes on Pakistani territory and trenchant criticism about the tilt in the American policies toward India. (A full-spectrum Pakistani reaction also sails into view over Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit to the US.) Clearly, US-Pakistan relations are nosediving. (A report in the Pakistani newspaper Express Tribune, here, gives the sense of it.)
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US Asia 'Rebalance' Threatened With Meltdown

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Elections in the Philippines can be very funny. The candidates often try to connect with their electorate by taking recourse to singing and dancing. Cutting bawdy jokes and making funny faces or dressing outrageously comes very readily to politicians in their eagerness to get through to voters. There are no sacred cows on the campaign trail in the Philippines.

Yet, the front-runner who got elected Monday as the next president, Rodrigo Duterte, also known as the "Donald Trump of the Philippines," may have crossed all limits when he branded the Pope a “son of a whore,” told the American and Australian ambassadors to “shut their mouths,” recounted how he had personally killed inmates during a prison riot in Davao in 1989 where he used to be Mayor, or boasted about his mistresses and sexual prowess.

The nadir was reached when he said in the aftermath of the prison riot, that he came to know that an Australian missionary had been raped and murdered. Duterte joked, “I was mad she was raped. But she was so beautiful. I thought, ‘The Mayor should have been the first.’ ” That was when the US and Australian envoys took serious exception, whereupon Duterte raised the prospect of cutting diplomatic relations with the countries they represented.
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