US President Joe Biden did some damage control on his own behalf over comments he made over the weekend suggesting Russian President Vladimir Putin should be removed from power. Biden said today that he stood by the statement, yet it was a personal expression of his outrage and not an official change in US policy. “I was expressing the moral outrage I felt toward this man,” Biden told reporters today, effectively rejecting suggestions he misspoke. Right, Joe. 😊 Administration officials have been trying to put out fires created by the comments. Secretary of State Antony Blinken reaffirmed the United States does not “have a strategy of regime change in Russia or anywhere else, for that matter.”
The Group of Seven (G7) member nations have rejected Russia’s demand to pay for natural gas exports in rubles. G7 energy ministers and secretaries met via videoconference and affirmed that doing so would be a breach of existing contracts. Last week, Vladimir Putin announced that ‘unfriendly’ nations will now be required to pay for natural gas in Russian currency. Putin’s announcement raised gas prices even higher amid worries this could be a precursor to a shutdown of pipelines providing natural gas supplies to many European nations.
The next round of Ukraine-Russia peace talks will take place in Istanbul on 29 March, 2022. The Turkish government will be the host.
There have been conflicting reports on which side controlled Irpin, a town located north of Kiev. Initial reports of Ukrainian forces liberating the town made the rounds through much of Monday. In his nightly address President Volodymyr Zelenskiy clarified the situation. “The occupiers are pushed away from Irpin, However, it is too early to talk about security in this part of our region.” Translation: Russian forces have retreated from Irpin, but a counterattack is expected within the next 12 hours or so.
As the US drawdown from Afghanistan speeds up, with 90% already complete according to CENTCOM, the Taliban continues to push Afghan government forces out of many districts. At the same time, Taliban representatives continue to negotiate with government representatives in Doha, Qatar. The languid pace of the peace talks underway provides a striking contrast to the war raging back home, along with a sliver of insight to the Taliban’s present strategy. As the talks go on, Taliban forces are making gains back home. The Doha Peace Process now gives the Taliban cover as it gobbles up additional districts controlled by Afghan government forces. When Kabul protests the increasingly aggressive Taliban military offensives currently taking place, the Taliban representatives in Doha can correctly state that their presence there represents a sincere effort to bring the fighting to a close. The question is, how many nations in the region and around the world are going to buy that argument? And in the process, provide the Taliban with a sheath of legitimacy it could not have dreamed of obtaining one year ago.
The deterioration of the situation on the ground is raising questions about the Biden Administration’s plan (or lack thereof, as the case may very well be) for the Afghan withdrawal. The administration has been insistent upon all US forces being removed from Afghanistan by 11 September, 2021, not coincidentally the twentieth anniversary of the event that initially brought US forces to Afghanistan. It seems that the pullout will be completed earlier than September, raising the possibility of the Taliban having complete control of the country by the end of the summer. This would be a foreign policy disaster for the administration and have a detrimental effect on US efforts in other parts of the world.
Images of helicopters evacuating the last Americans from the embassy rooftop in Saigon as the city fell in 1975 have been branded into the US foreign policy psyche. Now, as two US aircraft carriers move into position to support the evacuation from Afghanistan, those ghosts from the past are slipping back into the national conscience. The prospect of a similar exit from Kabul in the coming months is now quite real and the Biden administration has to take steps now to make certain to does not become reality.
Over the last twenty-four hours, the Gaza strip and southern Israel have been transformed into free-fire zones. Even with Egyptian-brokered ceasefire talks between the two sides underway, the volatile situation spilled over once more. A barrage of Hamas rockets and mortars was fired against Israel from positions in Gaza, prompting a wave of Israeli airstrikes against military targets in Palestinian territory. The majority of the projectiles fired by Hamas were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome system, but not all. Some did manage to make it through, causing injuries to at least 11 Israeli citizens. According to Palestinian government sources, three people were killed in the Israeli air attacks.
Some analysts believe Hamas is ratcheting up the attacks in order to show its strength during the negotiations. While possible, this strategy runs a serious risk of sparking a full-blown conflict with Israel, even if neither side wants that. Another prospect is that the order to initiate the latest rocket attacks came directly from Tehran. It is well known that the Iranian government has tremendous influence with Hamas. With the regime under increasing pressure from US economic sanctions snapping back into place, Iranian leadership might surmise that instigating a flareup of hostilities between Hamas and Israel will give it some needed breathing room. The timing of events certainly supports this possibility. Coincidences are rare in the world of Middle Eastern geopolitics.
Israeli citizens have been wounded in the attacks, opening a door to the possibility of further escalation. Public pressure on the Israeli government for further military action against Hamas could rise, contradicting the government’s desire to stabilize the situation. Protecting its citizens is the main priority for the Israeli government though. If the Hamas rocket attacks continue, and the number of Israeli casualties rises, this conflict could escalate dangerously. If that occurs, likelihood of a major conflict breaking out increases ten-fold.
In the aftermath of the Russian intervention on behalf of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and his government, Moscow has taken an active role in diplomatic efforts to bring the conflict to an end. As time went on following the introduction of Russian military forces, the fortunes of war turned irreversibly in Syria’s favor. Despite temporary setbacks, and a US military response to al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons earlier this year it is safe to assume that when the shooting finally ends in Syria, al-Assad will remain in power. The Syrian conflict is winding down, but without a formal diplomatic compromise involving all parties. This is where the problems begin.
The Syrian Conflict is ripe with players, both combatant and non-combatant. A final compromise cannot come about until all of them have an opportunity to carve a piece of the cake off for themselves. Unfortunately, the sheer number of parties involved assures that the mad dash for a piece of the cake will inevitably dissolve into a fight for the last morsel. The peace process promises to be every bit as difficult and bitter as the conflict itself.
Nevertheless, Russia is making a push to begin a fresh round of peace talks later this month in Sochi or possibly on the Russian military base in Latakia, Syria. The conference is being called the “Syrian Congress on National Dialogue” and is expected to discuss reconciliation, political reform and other issues that will be of utmost importance in post-war Syria. The newly proposed Syrian constitution will also be discussed. Anti-Assad rebels and other members of the Syrian Opposition are among the invitees, as are the Kurds. The inclusion of the Kurds has been surprising to many in the region. In all previous UN sponsored peace talks there hasn’t been a visible Kurdish involvement.
Turkey and Iran endorsed the Russian plan yesterday. The Syrian National Council, the primary Western-supported opposition group has denounced the effort as an attempt by Moscow to perform an end run around UN-supported peace talks in Geneva. To be fair, UN peace talks have accomplished little, however Russia’s motives are highly suspect. It is no secret that Moscow wants to redraw Syria, and the region in way that is supports Russia’s overall geopolitical goals.
The UN-sponsored Yemen peace talks in Switzerland are in danger of breaking down due to disputes over issues between the warring parties. The talks are hoped to lay the foundation for a permanent ceasefire and peaceful transition of political power, however, at this point they do not appear to be moving in a positive direction.
The key item of dispute is the release of several Yemeni government officials currently being held as prisoners by the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. The Houthis rejected the demand on Wednesday night, stating that the officials will be released following the implementation of a permanent ceasefire. Since then, direct talks between the two sides have been suspended.
Another issue bogging down talks is frailty of the temporary ceasefire, which was put in place in the days leading up to the talks. Clashes have broken out and today the fighting escalated as forces loyal to Saudi-backed President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi captured a Houthi military base in the city of Marib following two days of sustained fighting. Saudi and other coalition aircraft were also in action against rebel targets in north Yemen.
The conflict in Yemen has not received much attention from the media in recent months as the conflict in Syria has taken center stage in the Middle East. This does not minimize the significance of the situation, however. The stakes are astronomically high for Saudi Arabia, which is supporting the government of President Hadi, and for Iran, which is backing the Houthi rebels. Saudi Arabia and Iran are grappling to determine which one will be the dominant power in the Middle East. At the moment, whichever nation-state comes out on top in Yemen will have a nearly insurmountable advantage when the next round of the confrontation begins in the future.