Posts Tagged ‘Mediterranean’

Why Saudi Arabia and Iran are bitter rivals

November 18, 2017
  • 18 November 2017
Iran's Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (L) and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman
Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (L) and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. REUTERS/EPA

Saudi Arabia and Iran are at loggerheads. They have long been rivals, but it’s all recently got a lot more tense. Here’s why.

How come Saudi Arabia and Iran don’t get along?

Saudi Arabia and Iran – two powerful neighbours – are locked in a fierce struggle for regional dominance.

The decades-old feud between them is exacerbated by religious differences. They each follow one of the two main sects in Islam – Iran is largely Shia Muslim, while Saudi Arabia sees itself as the leading Sunni Muslim power.

Map showing Sunni distribution in Middle East

This religious schism is reflected in the wider map of the Middle East, where other countries have Sunni or Shia majorities, some of whom look towards Iran or Saudi Arabia for support or guidance.

Historically Saudi Arabia, a monarchy and home to the birthplace of Islam, saw itself as the leader of the Muslim world. However this was challenged in 1979 by the Islamic revolution in Iran which created a new type of state in the region – a kind of theocracy – that had an explicit goal of exporting this model beyond its own borders.

Map showing Shia distribution in Middle East

In the past 15 years in particular, the differences between Saudi Arabia and Iran have been sharpened by a series of events.

The 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq overthrew Saddam Hussein, a Sunni Arab who had been a major Iranian adversary. This removed a crucial military counter-weight to Iranian influence in Iraq, which has been rising since then.

Graphic

Fast-forward to 2011 and uprisings across the Arab world caused political instability throughout the region. Iran and Saudi Arabia exploited these upheavals to expand their influence, notably in Syria, Bahrain and Yemen, further heightening mutual suspicions.

Iran’s critics say it is intent on establishing itself or its proxies across the region, and achieve control of a land corridor stretching from Iran to the Mediterranean.

How have things suddenly got worse?

The strategic rivalry is heating up because Iran is in many ways winning the regional struggle.

In Syria, Iranian (and Russian) support for President Bashar al-Assad has largely routed rebel group groups backed by Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia is trying desperately to contain rising Iranian influence and the militaristic adventurism of the kingdom’s young and impulsive Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – the country’s de facto ruler – is exacerbating regional tensions.

Five things about Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman

He is waging a war against rebels in Saudi Arabia’s southern neighbour, Yemen, in part to stem perceived Iranian influence there, but after nearly three years this is proving a costly gamble.

Meanwhile in Lebanon, many observers believe the Saudis put pressure on the prime minister to resign in order to destabilise a country where Iran’s ally, Shia militia group Hezbollah, leads a politically powerful bloc and controls a huge, heavily armed fighting force.

There are also external forces at play. Saudi Arabia has been emboldened by support from the Trump administration while Israel, which sees Iran as a mortal threat, is in a sense “backing” the Saudi effort to contain Iran.

Abdul Fattah al-Sisi (left), Salman bin Adbulaziz (centre) and Donald Trump put their hands on an illuminated globe, Riyadh (21/05/17)

The Jewish state is fearful of the encroachment of pro-Iranian fighters in Syria ever closer to its border. EPA photo

Israel and Saudi Arabia were the two countries most resolutely opposed to the 2015 international agreement limiting Iran’s nuclear programme, insisting that it did not go far enough to roll back any chance of Iran obtaining the bomb.

Who are their regional allies?

Broadly speaking the strategic map of the Middle East reflects the Shia-Sunni divide.

Map showing who supports whom

In the pro-Saudi camp are the other major Sunni actors in the Gulf – the UAE, Kuwait and Bahrain, as well as Egypt and Jordan.

In the Iranian camp is Syria’s government, which has been strongly backed by Iran, and where pro-Iranian Shia militia groups, including the Lebanon-based Hezbollah, have played a prominent role in fighting predominantly Sunni rebel groups.

The Shia-dominated Iraqi government is also a close ally of Iran, though paradoxically it also retains a close relationship with Washington on whom it has depended for help in the struggle against so-called Islamic State.

How is the Saudi-Iranian rivalry being played out?

This is in many ways a regional equivalent of the Cold War, which pitted the US against the Soviet Union in a tense military standoff for many years.

Iran and Saudi Arabia are not directly fighting but they are engaged in a variety of proxy wars around the region.

Syria is an obvious example while in Yemen Saudi Arabia has accused Iran of supplying ballistic missiles fired at Saudi territory by the Shia Houthi rebel movement – an incident which heightened the war of words between the two countries.

Houthi rebels in Sanaa (file photo)
Yemen is one of a number of battlegrounds fuelling Iranian-Saudi tensions. Reuters photo

But having become bogged down in Yemen and essentially defeated in Syria, Saudi Arabia seems to have its eye on Lebanon as the next proxy battlefield.

Lebanon risks being tipped into Syria-like chaos but few analysts see Saudi interests prevailing there.

Conflict in Lebanon could so easily draw in Israel in opposition to Hezbollah and this could lead to a third Israel-Lebanon war far more devastating than any of the previous encounters.

Some cynics wonder if the Saudi crown prince’s game plan is to trigger a war between Israel and Hezbollah and deliver a heavy blow to the group this way!

Are we heading towards a direct war between Saudi Arabia and Iran?

So far Tehran and Riyadh have fought via proxies. Neither is really geared up for a direct war with the other but one successful rocket attack on the Saudi capital from Yemen could upset the apple cart.

Will Saudi Arabia go to war with Iran?

One obvious area where they could come into direct conflict is in the waters of the Gulf, where they face each other across a maritime border.

But here too fighting could risk a much broader conflict. For the US and other Western powers, freedom of navigation in the Gulf is essential and any conflict that sought to block the waterway – vital for international shipping and oil transportation – could easily draw in US naval and air forces.

Graphic showing military balance between Saudi Arabia and Iran

For a long time the US and its allies have seen Iran as a destabilising force in the Middle East. The Saudi leadership increasingly sees Iran as an existential threat and the crown prince seems willing to take whatever action he sees necessary, wherever he deems it necessary, to confront Tehran’s rising influence.

The danger is that Saudi Arabia’s new activism is fast making it a further source of volatility in the region.

http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-42008809

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African Union calls for ‘slave market’ probe

November 18, 2017

(From L) Rwanda’s president Paul Kagame, Senegal’s president Macky Sall, Mali’s president Ibrahima Boubacar Keita and president of the Commission of African Union (AU) Moussa Faki Mahamat attend the opening of the 4th Summit on Peace and Security on November 13, 2017 in Dakar. (AFP)

DAKAR: The African Union (AU) on Friday called for Libyan authorities to investigate “slave markets” of black Africans operating in the conflict-torn nation, following the release of shocking images showing the sale of young men.

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The demand follows the release of CNN footage of a live auction in Libya where black youths are presented to North African buyers as potential farmhands and sold off for as little as $400.
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Guinean President Alpha Conde, who is also chairman of the AU, demanded an inquiry and prosecutions relating to what he termed a “despicable trade… from another era.”
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Meanwhile, Senegal’s government commenting on Facebook, expressed “outrage at the sale of Sub-Saharan African migrants on Libyan soil,” which constituted a “blight on the conscience of humanity.”
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African migrants from nations including Guinea and Senegal but also Mali, Niger, Nigeria and The Gambia make the dangerous crossing through the Sahara to Libya with hopes of making it over the Mediterranean Sea to Italy.
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But testimony collected by AFP in recent years has revealed a litany of rights abuses at the hands of gangmasters, human traffickers and the Libyan security forces, while many end up stuck in the unstable North African nation for years.
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More than 8,800 stranded migrants have been returned home this year, according to the International Organization for Migration, which is also amassing evidence of slavery.
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Conde further appealed for the Libyan authorities to “reassess migrants’ detention conditions” following revelations over squalid jails and detention centers that await migrants who are caught trying to reach the coast.
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“These modern slavery practices must end and the African Union will use all the tools at its disposal,” Conde added.
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Libya has opened an investigation into the practice, CNN reported Friday, and pledged to return those taken as slaves to their country of origin.
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France Seeks Funding at UN Monday For African Sahel Anti-Terror Military Force

October 30, 2017

AFP

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© Pascal Guyot, AFP | Malian soldiers patrol with French soldiers involved in the regional anti-insurgent Operation Barkhane in March 2016 in Timbamogoye.

Text by NEWS WIRES

Latest update : 2017-10-30

France is facing a tough diplomatic battle to convince the United States to lend UN support to a counter-terrorism force for Africa’s Sahel region, where insurgents have killed UN peacekeepers and US soldiers.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian will lead a UN Security Council meeting on Monday that will look at ways of shoring up the G5 Sahel force set up by Burkina FasoChadMaliMauritania and Niger.

France wants donors to step up, but is also looking to the United Nations to offer logistic and financial support to the joint force — which is set to begin operations in the coming days.

The United States however is adamant that while it is ready to provide bilateral funding, there should be no UN support for the force.

“The US is committed to supporting the African-led and owned G5 Joint Force through bilateral security assistance, but we do not support UN funding, logistics, or authorization for the force,” said a spokesperson for the US mission.

“Our position on further UN involvement with respect to the G5 Sahel joint force is unchanged.”

The vast Sahel region has turned into a hotbed of violent extremism and lawlessness since chaos engulfed Libya in 2011, the Islamist takeover of northern Mali in 2012 and the rise of Boko Haram in northern Nigeria.

>> Video: Meet the French troops hunting jihadists in Sahel

Earlier this month, militants linked to the Islamic State ambushed and killed four US soldiers on a reconnaissance patrol with Nigerien soldiers near the Niger-Mali border.

The UN peacekeeping mission in Mali has lost 17 peacekeepers in attacks this year, one of the highest tolls from current peace operations.

Four options

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has come out in favor of multilateral backing, writing in a recent report that the establishment of the G5 force “represents an opportunity that cannot be missed.”

Guterres has laid out four options for UN support, from setting up a UN office for the Sahel to sharing resources from the large UN mission in Mali.

In response, US Ambassador Nikki Haley wrote to Guterres this month to reaffirm the US “no” to UN involvement, officials said. The United States is the UN’s biggest financial contributor.

ANALYSIS: FRANCE’S MACRON IN MALI TO BOOST REGIONAL ANTI-TERRORISM FORCE

The battle over UN backing for the Sahel force is shaping up as Haley is pushing for cost-saving measures after successfully negotiating a $600-million cut to the peacekeeping budget this year.

After leading a Security Council visit to the Sahel last week, French Ambassador Francois Delattre said most countries on the council want the United Nations to help.

“The key question now is not about the relevance of the G5 Sahel force, nor the need to support it, but it is about the best way to convey this support,” said Delattre.

A “mix of both multilateral and bilateral support” is needed, he said.

A long list of gaps

The price tag for the G5 force’s first year of operations is estimated at 423 million euros ($491 million), even though French officials say the budget can be brought down closer to 250 million euros.

So far, only 108 million euros have been raised, including 50 million euros from the five countries themselves. A donor conference will be held in Brussels on December 16.

“UN logistical support could make a big difference,” said Paul Williams, an expert on peacekeeping at George Washington University.

“To become fully operational, the force needs to fill a long list of logistical and equipment gaps,” he said — from funding for its headquarters to intelligence-sharing and medical evacuation capacities.

Williams said US reservations were not just about cost, but also about the mission’s operations, which Washington sees as ill-defined.

The G5 is “a relatively blunt military instrument for tackling the security challenges in this region, which stem from a combination of bad governance, underdevelopment and environmental change,” he explained.

“At best it might limit the damage done by some of the criminal networks and insurgents, but even then, its gains will not be sustainable without adequate funding.”

(AFP)

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France, U.N. Want Sahel Army To Fight Terrorism But U.S. Not Eager To Pay

October 30, 2017

Plan for 5-nation force in the Sahel strongly backed by France and Italy but funding resisted by Trump administration

Malian and French soldiers patrol during anti-insurgent operations in Tin Hama, Mali, 19 October.
 Malian and French soldiers patrol during anti-insurgent operations in Tin Hama, Mali, 19 October. Photograph: Benoit Tessier/Reuters

Unprecedented plans to combat human trafficking and terrorism across the Sahel and into Libya will face a major credibility test on Monday when the UN decides whether to back a new proposed five-nation joint security force across the region.

The 5,000-strong army costing $400m in the first year is designed to end growing insecurity, a driving force of migration, and combat endemic people-smuggling that has since 2014 seen 30,000 killed in the Sahara and an estimated 10,000 drowned in the central Mediterranean.

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The joint G5 force, due to be fully operational next spring and working across five Sahel states, has the strong backing of France and Italy, but is suffering a massive shortfall in funds, doubts about its mandate and claims that the Sahel region needs better coordinated development aid, and fewer security responses, to combat migration.

The Trump administration, opposed to multilateral initiatives, has so far refused to let the UN back the G5 Sahel force with cash. The force commanders claim they need €423m in its first year, but so far only €108m has been raised, almost half from the EU. The British say they support the force in principle, but have offered no funds as yet.

Western diplomats hope the US will provide substantial bilateral funding for the operation, even if they refuse to channel their contribution multilaterally through the UN.

France, with the support of the UN secretary general, António Guterres, and regional African leaders, has been pouring diplomatic resources into persuading a sceptical Trump administration that the UN should financially back the force.

In an attempt to persuade the Americans, Guterres warned in a report to the security council this month that the “region is now trapped in a vicious cycle in which poor political and security governance, combined with chronic poverty and the effects of climate change, has contributed to the spread of insecurity”.

Read the rest:

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/oct/30/new-400m-army-to-fight-human-traffickers-and-terrorists-faces-un-moment-of-truth

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Russia Uses Its Oil Giant, Rosneft, as a Foreign Policy Tool

October 30, 2017
President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, right, met with President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela at the Kremlin this month. Credit Pool photo by Yuri Kadobnov

Russia is increasingly wielding oil as a geopolitical tool, spreading its influence around the world and challenging the interests of the United States.

But Moscow risks running into trouble, as it lends money and makes deals in turbulent economies and shaky political climates.

The strategy faces a crucial test this week in Venezuela, a Russian ally that must come up with a billion dollars to avert defaults on its debts.

Russia has been making a flurry of loans and deals all centered on the Venezuelan oil business, money that could make the difference between the government’s collapse and its survival. In return, Moscow is getting a strategic advantage in Washington’s backyard.

President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela was all smiles this month on a visit to Moscow seeking fresh financial backing, thanking Vladimir V. Putin “for your support, both political and diplomatic.”

Moscow, through the state oil giant Rosneft, is trying to build influence in places where the United States has stumbled or power is up for grabs. Its efforts are also driven out of necessity, as American and European sanctions have forced Rosneft to find new partners and investments elsewhere.

The Rosneft logo at a gas station in the southern Russian city of Stavropol. Moscow is using Rosneft to try to build influence in places where the United States has stumbled or power is up for grabs.  Credit Eduard Korniyenko/Reuters

The company, which Russia has long relied on to finance its government and social programs, has been pushing deeply into politically sensitive countries like Cuba, China, Egypt and Vietnam, as well as tumultuous places where American interests are at stake.

Rosneft is looking for deals around the eastern Mediterranean and Africa, areas of tactical importance beyond the energy picture. It is wielding economic and political sway in northern Iraq, by making big oil and natural-gas deals in Kurdish territory. And it is angling to bid for control of Iranian oil fields as tensions between Tehran and Washington escalate.

Rosneft is “trying to create opportunities that can be extremely valuable in geopolitical ways,” said Amy Myers Jaffe, an energy security expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. “They really give the Russian government unbelievable leverage on questions of importance to the United States.”

The new push by Rosneft follows a clampdown on Russia.

Rosneft, which is 50 percent owned by the Russian state, is led by Igor I. Sechin, a former deputy prime minister and a close Putin ally. After the Russian invasion of Crimea three years ago, the United States and Europe hit Mr. Sechin with sanctions.

Read the rest: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/29/business/energy-environment/russia-venezula-oil-rosneft.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=first-column-region&region=top-news&WT.nav=top-news

The U.S. is on a collision course with Iran in the Middle East

October 27, 2017

By  Liz Sly
October 26, 2017
The Washington Post

 President Trump’s assertive new strategy toward Iran is already colliding with the reality of Tehran’s vastly expanded influence in the Middle East as a result of the Islamic State war.

The launch of the strategy signaled an important shift in U.S. Middle East policy away from an ­almost exclusive focus on fighting the Islamic State to an effort that also pushes back against years of Iranian expansion in the region.

But the strategy offers no specifics for how to confront Iran’s pervasive presence on the ground in Iraq, Syria and beyond, raising questions about how easy it will be to push back against Iranian influence without triggering new conflicts.

The difficulty of changing tack on what has amounted in recent years to a tacit alliance with Iran in Iraq for the purpose of fighting the Islamic State was evident this week in a sharp ­rebuke by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s call for ­Iranian-backed Iraqi militias to “go home.”

The militias are “part of the Iraqi institutions,” Abadi responded in a statement. “The Hashd al-Shaabi should be encouraged because they are the hope of the country and the region,” he said, referring to the coalition of militias known as the Popular Mobilization Forces.

One of Iraq’s most powerful militia leaders went further, saying in a tweet that it is the Americans who should go home.

“Your armed forces have to prepare from this point immediately and without any delay to leave our homeland Iraq after the end of the excuse of the ISIS presence,” said Qais al-Khazali, who heads the Iran-backed Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia and was imprisoned for two years by U.S. forces for his role in organizing an attack that killed five U.S. soldiers in 2006. ISIS is another name for the Islamic State.

The rising tensions risk a return to the era of proxy wars that prevailed in the middle of the last decade, when Iranian-backed militias blew up American troops and U.S. and Iranian allies kidnapped one another’s operatives on the streets of Baghdad — or even in the 1980s, when Americans were driven out of Beirut by suicide bombings and the kidnapping of dozens of Western hostages by a group allied to the Iranian-backed Hezbollah movement.

The tensions also risk complicating the final stages of the war against the Islamic State, which has now been mostly confined to a desert stretch of highly strategic territory spanning the border between Syria and Iraq.

In the three years since the United States intervened in both countries to roll back the Islamic State, Iran has dispatched tens of thousands of allied militia fighters to the battlefield, asserting its presence in vast swaths of territory not previously regarded as within Iran’s traditional orbit of influence.

Iranian-backed Shiite militias have fanned out into the Sunni and Christian areas of northern and western Iraq that were freed from Islamic State control — often with the help of U.S. airstrikes. Now these forces are aiding efforts by the Iraqi government to reclaim territory that has been controlled by U.S.-allied Kurds since as long ago as 1991. Alongside the Iraqi army, the militias are moving toward the small Kurdish-controlled border crossing of Fishkhabour, through which the U.S. military sends its military support to Kurds engaged in the fight against the Islamic State in Syria. A change in control of the crossing could jeopardize the ability to supply U.S. troops and allies for the fight in Syria, where they are competing with Iran and its allies for control of the last significant pocket of territory controlled by the militants.

Iran has already asserted itself as a major player in Syria by supplying, arming and training the tens of thousands of militia fighters that have proved instrumental in securing President Bashar al-Assad’s hold on power.

Alongside Assad’s army, they are now in a race with the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces to capture the last stretch of Islamic State territory in eastern Syria. There they hope to link up with their Iraqi allies to secure a land bridge between Tehran and their Lebanese ally Hezbollah in Beirut, securing an arc of continuous Iranian influence that stretches to the Mediterranean.

Tillerson on Thursday disputed suggestions that Syria has fallen under Iranian influence, telling reporters in Geneva that Russia is responsible for most of the government’s gains. “I do not see Syria as a triumph for Iran. I see Iran as a hanger-on. Iran has not particularly been successful in liberating areas,” he said.

In all of their maneuvers, the militias are operating with the blessing of the sovereign governments, making it hard to discern where Iran’s agency begins and the governments’ ends.

The relationships are, how­ever, part of a deliberate strategy by Iran to wield influence through local proxies that operate in cooperation with governments, said Mohammed Obeid, a Beirut-based political analyst who is close to Hezbollah. Much in the way that the Iranian-backed Hezbollah has woven itself into the fabric of the Lebanese state, Iran’s allies in Syria and Iraq are establishing themselves as vital but parallel components of the national security forces, he said.

“The Iranians were smart, and they still are smart. They wanted to export their revolution. But they found that they don’t need to overthrow the governments in the region,” Obeid said. “They can create political and military groups alongside these governments, and Hezbollah is the prime example. Hezbollah is now part of the government, part of parliament, and it is a strong military force on the ground. Which no other force in the world can destroy.

“They are succeeding in what they wanted to do, which was to spread their influence throughout the region.”

Iran’s frequent boasts about the influence it commands are questioned by many analysts. The Hashd al-Shaabi in Iraq are not monolithic and include some groups answerable to the government and to the moderate Shiite clergy, said Maria Fantappie of the International Crisis Group. The Islamic State war has also helped legitimize Abadi, and Iraqis themselves are fiercely ­nationalistic, she said.

In Lebanon, Hezbollah has to balance the interests of its Sunni and Christian partners in government. In Syria, Iran has to contend with a population that contains few adherents of the branch of Shiite Islam represented by the Iranian leadership, giving it no natural constituency in the country.

Tehran is nonetheless in a strong position to push back against any U.S. efforts to curb its reach, said Jennifer Cafarella of the Institute for the Study of War.

“The bottom line is that the U.S. strategy against ISIS empowered Iran in the region by accepting Iran as a de facto partner in the fight against ISIS. And American leverage has been decreasing proportionate to the territory taken away from ISIS,” she said.

Iran may feel it has secured enough regional clout to decide against risking its gains by confronting the United States, Cafarella added. But should Tehran feel threatened by the Trump administration’s hostile rhetoric, it has plenty of tools at its disposal to resist, she said.

They include the loyalty of the same militia groups that hounded U.S. troops with lethally effective roadside bombs and mortar bombardments in the years immediately before the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 and took Western hostages at different times in both Iraq and Lebanon.

“If somebody does that to you, you have to retaliate or leave. If you retaliate, you’ve got an escalation ladder and you have to go in and fight. And if you leave, you put yourself in a worse situation,” said Faysal Itani of the Washington-based Atlantic Council.

The U.S. military maintains about 5,200 troops in Iraq, according to Abadi, and 500 Special Operations troops in Syria, according to the Pentagon. They are heavily outnumbered by the militias and would be vulnerable to a revival of the Shiite insurgency that was responsible for a majority of U.S. casualties in the final years of the Iraq War.

Any attempt to challenge Iran in Iraq and Syria “will have a very negative effect on the existence of American forces in the region,” said Obeid. “They are surrounded by Iranians. This is a big question the Americans are going to have to face.”

For now, U.S. officials seem to be pinning their hopes on a new round of sanctions against Hezbollah in Lebanon and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, which commands Tehran’s network of allied militias.

But sanctions alone won’t dent Iran’s geographical reach, and the Trump administration appears to have no appetite for a full-scale confrontation, Itani said.

Whether such a confrontation would work in America’s favor is also in doubt, said Nicholas Heras of the Center for a New American Security. Leaders in both Iraq and Syria are aware that Iran will remain its neighbor throughout any shifts in U.S. policy.

“No amount of strategizing and boots on the ground short of an invasion is going to push back against Iran’s ability to shape events in Baghdad and all of Iraq,” he said. “And short of the U.S. Army marching on Damascus, Iran will not be ripped from Syria or Lebanon.”

Karen DeYoung in Washington and Tamer El-Ghobashy in Baghdad contributed to this report.

Read more

https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/the-us-is-on-a-collision-course-with-iran-in-the-middle-east/2017/10/26/904c38d8-b03c-11e7-9b93-b97043e57a22_story.html?utm_term=.9524e5e4b6a1

A Russian Ghost Submarine, Its U.S. Pursuers and a Deadly New Cold War

October 20, 2017

A resurgence in Russian submarine technology has reignited an undersea rivalry that played out in a cat-and-mouse sea hunt across the Mediterranean

Animation: George Downs/The Wall Street Journal

 

The Krasnodar, a Russian attack submarine, left the coast of Libya in late May, headed east across the Mediterranean, then slipped undersea, quiet as a mouse. Then, it fired a volley of cruise missiles into Syria.

In the days that followed, the diesel-electric sub was pursued by the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush, its five accompanying warships, MH-60R Seahawk helicopters and P-8 Poseidon anti-sub jets flying out of Italy.

In the days that followed, the diesel-electric sub was pursued by the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush, its five accompanying warships, MH-60R Seahawk helicopters and P-8 Poseidon anti-sub jets flying out of Italy.

The U.S. and its allies had set out to track the Krasnodar as it moved to its new home in the Black Sea. The missile attack upended what had been a routine voyage, and prompted one of the first U.S. efforts to track a Russian sub during combat since the Cold War. Over the next weeks, the sub at points eluded detection in a sea hunt that tested the readiness of Western allies for a new era in naval warfare.

Russia’s Krasnodar submarine.Photo: Russian Look/ZUMA PRESS

An unexpected resurgence in Russian submarine development, which deteriorated after the breakup of the Soviet Union, has reignited the undersea rivalry of the Cold War, when both sides deployed fleets of attack subs to hunt for rival submarines carrying nuclear-armed ballistic missiles.

When underwater, enemy submarines are heard, not seen—and Russia brags that its new subs are the world’s quietest. The Krasnodar is wrapped in echo-absorbing skin to evade sonar; its propulsion system is mounted on noise-cutting dampers; rechargeable batteries drive it in near silence, leaving little for sub hunters to hear. “The Black Hole,” U.S. allies call it.

“As you improve the quieting of the submarines and their capability to move that much more stealthily through the water, it makes it that much harder to find,” said U.S. Navy Capt. Benjamin Nicholson, of Destroyer Squadron 22, who oversees surface and undersea warfare for the USS Bush strike group. “Not impossible, just more difficult.”

Russia’s support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has given Russian President Vladimir Putin opportunities to test the cruise missiles aboard the new subs over the past two years, raising the stakes for the U.S. and its allies.

The USS George H.W. Bush aircraft carrier on July 22 in the Mediterranean Sea.Photo: Daniel Gaither/Planet Pix/ZUMA PRESS

Top officials of North Atlantic Treaty Organization say the alliance must consider new investments in submarines and sub-hunting technology. The findings of a study this year from the Center for a New American Security, a Washington-based think tank, grabbed the attention of senior NATO leaders: The U.S. and its allies weren’t prepared for an undersea conflict with Russia.

“We still remain dominant in the undersea world,” said Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Europe. “But we too must focus on modernizing the equipment we have and improving our skills.”

The U.S. Navy, which for years trained its sub-hunting teams through naval exercises and computer simulations, is again tracking Russian submarines in the Baltic, North Atlantic and Mediterranean seas. The challenge extends beyond Russia, which has sold subs to China, India and elsewhere.

“Nothing gets you better than doing it for real,” Capt. Nicholson said. “Steel sharpens steel.”

This account was based on interviews with officials from the U.S. Navy, NATO and crew members aboard the USS Bush, as well as Russian government announcements.

The U.S. Navy is engaged in a technology-fueled game of hide and seek, hunting for stealthy Russian submarines like the Krasnodar, a.k.a. “The Black Hole.” Video/Image: George Downs/WSJ.

Lookout duty

On May 6, after a last volley of cruise-missile tests conducted in the Baltic Sea, the Russian defense ministry said the Krasnodar was to join the country’s Black Sea fleet in Sevastopol, Ukraine, via the Mediterranean. American allies already knew.

The sub, traveling on the ocean surface, was accompanied by a Russian tug boat. The U.S. and its NATO allies had hashed out a plan to follow the sub using maritime-patrol aircraft and surface ships.

“Even if you are tracking a transiting submarine that is not trying to hide, it takes coordination and effort,” said Capt. Bill Ellis, the commodore of Task Force 67, the U.S. sub-hunting planes in Europe.

NATO’s maritime force, led by a Dutch frigate, took first lookout duty. The Dutch sent NH-90 helicopter to snap a photo of the sub in the North Sea and posted it on Twitter. Surveillance of the Krasnodar then turned to the U.K.’s HMS Somerset on May 5, about the time the sub entered the North Sea by the Dutch coast.

The Krasnodar passed through the English Channel and continued past France and Spain, where a Spanish patrol boat took up the escort.

When the submarine reached Gibraltar, a U.S. Navy cruiser monitored the sub’s entry into the Mediterranean Sea on May 13. U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon aircraft, flying out of the Sigonella air base in Italy, also took up watch.

“We want to see where it goes,” Capt. Ellis said. “At any time a submarine could submerge and start to be hidden, so we want to follow.”

As the Krasnodar headed east, Russia’s defense ministry notified international airlines that it would be conducting drills off the coast of Libya. U.S. officials and defense analysts said the drills were part of a sales pitch to potential buyers, including Egypt, that would show off the submarine’s cruise missiles.

A more dramatic and unexpected display came a few days later. Russia’s defense ministry announced on May 29 that the sub’s cruise missiles had struck Islamic State targets and killed militants near Syria’s city of Palmyra. Suddenly, a routine tracking mission turned much more serious.

Russia released images of what officials said was the Krasnodar submarine launching cruise missiles at Islamic State targets near Palmyra, Syria, as well as images of missile strikes.Photo: Russian Defence Ministry Press Office/TASS/ZUMA Press

With both U.S. and Russian forces crossing paths in Syria, each pursuing distinct and sometimes conflicting agendas, the battlefield has grown more complicated. The Russians have given only limited warnings of their strikes to the U.S.-led coalition. That has required the U.S. and its allies to keep a close eye on Russian submarines hiding in the Mediterranean.

Nuclear-armed submarines are the cornerstone of the U.S. and U.K.’s strategic deterrent. For the U.S., these subs make up one leg of the so-called triad of nuclear forces—serving, essentially, as a retaliatory strike force.

Smaller attack submarines like the Krasnodar, armed with conventional torpedoes and cruise missiles, can pose a more tangible threat to U.S. aircraft carriers, which are the Navy’s most important weapon to project American power around the world.

On June 5, the USS Bush, a $6.2 billion carrier, and its warships, passed through the Suez Canal into the Mediterranean. Its mission was to support U.S.-backed Syrian rebels and attack Islamic State positions.

A sailor on the bridge of the USS George H.W. Bush aircraft carrier on June 21 while at sea on the Mediterranean. Photo: Bram Janssen/Associated Press

Amid rising tensions between U.S. and Russian military forces in Syria—and with the Krasnodar trying to evade Western surveillance—the job of the USS Bush now also included tracking the sub and learning more about its so-called pattern of life: its tactics, techniques and battle rhythms.

By then, the Krasnodar had slipped beneath the waves and begun the game of hide and seek. Sailors and aviators with little real-world experience in anti-sub warfare began a crash course.

“It is an indication of the changing dynamic in the world that a skill set, maybe we didn’t spend a lot of time on in the last 15 years, is coming back,” said Capt. Jim McCall, commander of the air wing on the USS Bush.

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USS George H.W. Bush

Into the deep

The Krasnodar was designed to operate close to shore, invisible to opposing forces and able to strike missile targets 1,600 miles away. The coastal waters of the Mediterranean south of Cyprus, which put it within range of Syria, provided plenty of places to hide.

Finding a submarine that is operating on batteries underwater is very difficult. How many hours or days the Krasnodar’s batteries can operate before recharging is a secret neither Russian officials who know, nor the U.S. Navy, which may have a good idea, will talk about.

Generated by AI2DynInsetPhoto: Sources: news reports; U.S.S. George H.W. Bush crew

Western naval analysts say the sub most likely must use its diesel engines to recharge batteries every couple of days. When the diesel engines are running, they say, the sub can be more easily found.

The Krasnodar wasn’t likely to challenge an aircraft carrier. But the U.S. Navy was taking no chances. “One small submarine has the ability to threaten a large capital asset like an aircraft carrier,” said Capt. Ellis, the P-8 task force commander.

For many days in June, a squadron of MH-60R Seahawk helicopters lifted off from the deck of the USS Bush and its accompanying destroyers in the eastern Mediterranean. Some used radar for signs of the Krasnodar on the water’s surface. Others lowered sonar beacons to varying ocean depths.

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MH-60RSeahawk helicopter

“When you find what you are looking for in an ocean of nothingness, then it feels really good,” said Naval Aircrewman First Class Scott Fetterhoff, who manned radar gear aboard a Seahawk helicopter. U.S. Navy radar, used on ships, helicopters and jets, can detect objects as small as a periscope.

Cmdr. Edward Fossati, the commander of Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron 70, the Bush Strike Group’s sub-hunting helicopters, said Russian subs have gotten quieter but the cat-and-mouse game remained about even with advances in tracking: “We are much better at it than we were 20 years ago.”

That includes narrowing down where to look. The USS Bush had on board three Navy anti-sub oceanographers to help track the vessel.

Submarines look for ways to hamper sonar equipment by exploiting undersea terrain and subsurface ocean currents and eddies. Differences in water temperature and density can bend sound waves, making it difficult to pinpoint the source of a sound.

U.S. Navy computer systems analyze the ocean environment and make predictions about how sound will travel in a given patch of ocean. Using the sub’s last known position and expected destination, the oceanographers use the data to mark potential hiding places and determine where search teams should focus.

“It is a constant foot race,” said U.S. Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer. “And, as I say, ‘Game on.’ ”

On June 18, a Syrian Sukhoi jet fighter threatened U.S.-backed rebels advancing toward Raqqa, the Islamic State’s de facto capital. Fighter planes from the USS Bush warned away the Sukhoi. When the Syrian pilot ignored flares and radio calls, Lt. Cmdr. Michael Tremel shot down the Sukhoi. Moscow threatened to shoot down U.S. planes in western Syria.

Five days later, the submerged Krasnodar fired another salvo of cruise missiles. Russian officials said they hit an Islamic State ammunition depot.

“They were flexing their muscles,” said Rear Adm. Kenneth Whitesell, commander of the USS Bush strike group. U.S. officials wouldn’t say how long the Krasnodar remained hidden underwater, but Adm. Whitesell said the launch was watched by a French frigate and U.S. Navy aerial surveillance.

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P-8 U.S. Navy submarine hunter

Flight-tracking companies don’t log military flights, but amateur plane watchers examining transponder data often catch clues. On July 2, with the USS Bush in a five-day port call in Haifa, Israel, a P-8 flew toward the Syrian coast, apparently searching the seas, according to amateur plane watchers.

On July 20, the flight-tracking data showed two P-8s flying south of Cyprus, close to six hours apart. The first plane was observed on flight-tracking sites making tight circles over the Mediterranean south of Cyprus, a flight pattern typical of a plane homing in on a submarine.

Capt. Ellis wouldn’t say if his P-8s had the Krasnodar in their sights.

F/A-18E Super Hornet jets of U.S. Navy strike fighter squadron VFA-31 and Northrop Grumman E-2C Hawkeye planes of Carrier Airborne Early Warning Squadron 126 on the USS George H.W. Bush on July 3..Photo: ronen zvulun / pool/European Pressphoto Agency

Tables turn

After the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, Moscow curtailed undersea operations. In 2000, the nuclear-powered Kursk sank with 118 sailors, a naval tragedy emblematic of the decline.

Russia’s military modernization program, announced in 2011, poured new money into its submarine program, allowing Russian engineers to begin moving ahead with newer, quieter designs.

When the Krasnodar was completed in 2015 at the St. Petersburg’s Admiralty Shipyards, Russia boasted it could elude the West’s most advanced sonar. NATO planners worry subs could cut trans-Atlantic communication cables or keep U.S. ships from reaching Europe in a crisis, as Nazi subs did in World War II.

“If you want to transport a lot of stuff, you have to do that by ship,” said NATO’s submarine commander, Rear Adm. Andrew Lennon. “And those ships are vulnerable to undersea threats.”

NATO’s military leaders have recommended reviving the Cold War-era Atlantic Command, dedicated to protecting sea lanes, alliance officials said, a proposal that defense ministers are expected to approve.

U.S. officials have said they believe that Moscow’s support of the Assad regime is partly for access to a strategic port in the eastern Mediterranean to resupply and rearm warships. The Syrian port of Tartus is expanding to include a Russian submarine maintenance facility, according to Turkish officials.

On July 30, the Krasnodar surfaced in the Mediterranean. The Krasnodar’s port call in Tartus, coinciding with Navy Day, a celebration of Russia’s maritime forces, marked the end of its hide-and-seek maneuvers with the USS Bush. On Aug. 9, the Krasnodar arrived in Crimea to join the Black Sea fleet, Russian officials said. Its mission appeared a success: Moscow showed it could continue unfettered strikes in Syria with its growing undersea fleet.

The Krasnodar, Russia’s diesel-electric attack submarine, at its new home port in Crimea. Photo: Pavlishak Alexei/TASS/ZUMA PRESS

By then, the Bush carrier strike group had left the eastern Mediterranean for the coast of Scotland, where the U.S. and British navies, along with a Norwegian frigate, were conducting a joint exercise called Saxon Warrior. U.K. sailors boarded the USS Bush and heard lessons from the Krasnodar hunt.

Days before the exercise, Capt. Nicholson predicted another Russian sub would be nearby. “We are in the Russians’ backyard,” he said. “Prudence dictates we are ready for whatever or whomever might come out to watch.

A senior U.S. official later said a Russian sub had indeed shadowed the exercise, which ended Aug. 10. NATO officials wouldn’t comment.

A new nuclear-powered class of Russian submarines even more sophisticated than the Krasnodar, called the Yasen, are designed to destroy aircraft carriers. They are built with low-magnetic steel to better evade detection and can dive deeper than larger U.S. submarines

At the time of the U.S.-U.K. exercise, Russia said its only Yasen sub officially in operation, the Severodvinsk, was in the Barents Sea. But a second, more advanced Yasen sub, the Kazan, was undergoing sea trials.

Crew members at the launching of the Kazan, one of a new class of nuclear-power Russian submarines. Photo: Ryumin Alexander/TASS/ZUMA PRESS

Russian, NATO, and U.S. officials won’t say whether the Kazan was shadowing the U.S.-U.K. exercise in the North Atlantic.

On Aug. 17, a U.S. P-8, flying from a Norwegian base, conducted three days of operations, according to amateur aviation trackers. Canadian air force patrol planes also flew out of Scotland. On Aug. 26, French planes joined.

Allied officials said some of the flights were searching the waters for a Russian submarine. The USS Bush, however, was out of the hunt. On Aug. 21, she returned to port in Norfolk, Va.

Write to Julian E. Barnes at julian.barnes@wsj.com

https://www.wsj.com/articles/a-russian-ghost-submarine-its-u-s-pursuers-and-a-deadly-new-cold-war-1508509841

Tunisian Navy Rescues 78 Migrants Off Coast

September 22, 2017

TUNIS — Tunisia’s navy rescued 78 migrants including two girls after their vessel en route to Europe took on water off the coast of Chebba and was stranded for three days, the defense ministry said on Friday.

Human traffickers increasingly use Tunisia as a launch pad for migrants heading for Europe after Libya’s coastguard aided by armed groups tightened its controls.

“Naval forces rescued 78 illegal Tunisian migrants 70 kilometers east of the coast of Chebba on board a boat that was damaged and leaking water,” the ministry said in statement, adding that nobody died in the incident.

Tunisia has been praised for its democratic progress after a 2011 uprising against autocrat Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali but successive governments have failed to create jobs for young people, some of whom head to Europe to seek work.

(Reporting By Tarek Amara; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg)

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Asylum seekers in Europe left waiting, says study — Even after they live through Mediterranean journey

September 21, 2017

By the start of this year, more than half of Europe’s asylum-seeker arrivals over a two-year period had yet to be processed, a study shows. For many, the pace hinged on which nation was handling their applications.

Griechenland Lesbos Ankunft von Flüchtlingen an der Küste (DW/Diego Cupolo)

The Washington-based Pew Research Center said that permits to stay – at least temporarily – had been granted to some 40 percent of the 2.2 million who had arrived in 2015 and 2016.

By the begining of 2017, 52 percent of those who entered in the previous two years were still waiting for decisions. Only three percent had been ejected from the European country in which they had applied for protection.

Afghanistan abgeschobene Asylbewerber kehren zurück (Getty Images/AFP/W. Kohsar)An Afghan deported from Germany arriving in Kabul

Wednesday’s look at past data, based on information from the EU’s statistical agency (Eurostat) and sourced from all 28 EU members plus Switzerland and Norway, found that Germany had been relatively quick in processing applications.

Germany’s adjudication period for applicants from war-torn Syria was about three months. Belgium managed waiting times of only one month. By contrast the average Syrian waiting time in Norway had been more than a year.

Among the 650,000 Syrians who arrived in Europe over the period, only 130,000 had not received decisions by late 2016.

Longest wait for Albanians

Across the EU-plus group as a whole, Germany and Sweden had processed about half of their arrivals. The applicants who were left waiting the longest overall were Albanians.

The variations meant that asylum seekers’ prospects “largely” depended on where their applications were submitted, said Pew, intimating that Europe was far from fulfilling equal protection under UN conventions.

Also left waiting for a long time were applicants from Afghanistan and Iraq, despite conflicts in both those countries.

By late 2016, 77 percent of Afghans were waiting for first-time or final decisions on appeal; likewise 66 percent from Iraq and 77 percent from Iran.

Also left waiting were people from Kosovo (77 percent), Serbia (74 percent) Russia (72 percent), Pakistan (67 percent), Somalia (56 percent) and Nigeria (55 percent).

Half arrived in Germany

Of the 2.2 million, Germany received 1,090,000 applicants over the two years, Pew concluded. By late 2016, 49 percent of its intake was waiting for decisions.

Other nations with better than average decision rates were Sweden, Belgium, the Netherlands and Italy, Pew said.

Hungary, whose government remains anti-immigrant, had the worst rate, with 94 percent of its 70,000 applicants still awaiting asylum rulings by late 2016.

Serbien Kelebija Fotoreportage Diego Cupolo an ungarischer Grenze (DW/D. Cupolo)Languishing on the Serbian-Hungarian border in 2016

ipj/rc (AP, KNA)

http://www.dw.com/en/asylum-seekers-in-europe-left-waiting-says-study/a-40613486

Some 100 Migrants Missing After Shipwreck Off Libya’s Coast

September 21, 2017

CAIRO — The Libyan coast guard says some 100 migrants are missing after a shipwreck off the country’s west coast.

Spokesman Ayoub Gassim told The Associated Press on Thursday that the damaged vessel was found the day before, some 20 kilometers (12 miles) offshore from the western coastal city of Zuwara. The migrant boat had set out earlier from the nearby city of Sabratha, bound for Europe.

Gassim says the vessel was carrying some 130 migrants, mostly Africans, of whom around 30 were rescued.

Libya has become one of the main migrant transit points to Europe as traffickers have exploited the chaos following the 2011 uprising. The European Union has given tens of millions of euros to Libyan authorities to try to curb the flow of migrants.

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