Iraq and Iran have had a dynamic relationship over the past few decades. The Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s was a period of conflict, but in recent times since the fall of the Saddam regime in 2000, the regional neighbours have shared closer ties. 2020 onwards however has been an interesting time in the history of their relations – “interesting” meaning their relations have been somewhat of a ‘mixed bag.’ This article explores whether at present Iraq is veering closer to its neighbour, or pulling apart from it.
On the one hand it seems to be courting Iran (or perhaps Iran is courting it). This can be seen in its actions in strengthening bilateral coordination with Iran – namely in the areas of defence, diplomacy, economics and politics. Notably in November 2020, the defence apparatus of the two countries explored the prospect of strengthening defence and military cooperation – also in the area of counter-terrorism. The latter issue is especially poignant in Iraq – which faces threats from a resurgent Islamic State. On the issue of diplomacy, their leaders and senior officials meet regularly. Further, they also attend each other’s state events. Notably last month, Iraq’s President Barham Saleh attended the inauguration of Iran’s new president. Iran reciprocated through its Foreign Minister being in attendance at Iraq’s special Baghdad Conference in the same month. Iraq has also been a mediatory bridge between Iran and its major regional rival, Saudi Arabia.
The latter could be a seen as Iraq taking interest in its neighbour’s diplomatic relations. However, it seems much more likely Iraq would seek to involve itself as a mediator to bolster its own international or regional reputation. In other words, using such high-profile talks to make itself look good. This is certainly not an action that would endear Iraq to Iran. Further, being that Iraq has relations with both countries, its mediator role more than likely looks to be a cover for trying to get the most out of its relations with both countries. This seems plausible, considering in November 2020 Iraq reopened its border crossing with Saudi Arabia – which had been closed since 1990. As mentioned previously, in the same month Iraq sought to strengthen its ties with Iran militarily. Further, on 4 September 2021 Iraq and Saudi Arabia met to discuss security cooperation. Together, such moves suggest Iraq is playing a game – seeking to keep both sides close, so that it can benefit from both. Being mediator is of course another step towards securing closeness and extensive diplomatic dialogue with both.
Further, diplomatically and culturally-speaking, the peoples of both Iraq and Iran share extensive ties. This is evident in the fact thousands of Iranian Arbaeen pilgrims flock each year to Iraq’s holy Shi’a sites. The latter is something the two governments have this month capitalised on, when they reached a no-visa deal for their peoples entering the other’s country. In the same religious and cultural remit, Iraqi society is very much influenced by Iran. This is evident in the Iraqi state-sanctioned Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF). The latter group is home to a number of Iraqi militias who either possess sectarian ties to, or are backed by Iran. Examples of such militias are the Khataib Hezbollah; Asaib Ahl al-Haq, and the Badr Organisation. Such groups have vast sway in the Iraqi state, whilst also acting as proxies in the region. This suggests that agents of the Iraqi state are moving towards Iran.
However, as much as the two countries have ties, there also exist times when they do not see eye-to-eye. This is evident in the way many in Iraqi civil society have blamed Iran for the ills of their country – namely its role in the violent targeting of anti-corruption activists and journalists in Iraqi society. For example, last month an Iraqi Shi’a cleric publically called out PMF militias with links to Iran for being ‘disloyal’ to Iraq. One has to wonder whether such a voice is in the minority or in the majority. I suspect such a voice is in the minority in the PMF, but in the majority amongst Average Joe Iraqi citizen. Further, in May 2021 in the city of Karbala, demonstrators who blamed Iran for its role in the death of a prominent anti-corruption and anti-sectarian journalist, set fire to the gates, entrances and trailers of the Iranian consulate in the city. Iran of course voiced strong condemnation of the attack on its consulate, and also urged neighbouring Arab countries to pursue the case under international conventions. Iran not choosing to overlook the actions of Iraqi citizens suggests the relationship between Iran is not as special as one might think. Further, the strong-willed actions of the Iraqis who attacked the consulate suggests Iraqis at least are not as mesmerised with Iran as the Iraqi state might be.
But aside from the people, at the previously mentioned Baghdad Conference, Iraq’s Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi made cryptic remarks whereby he said Iraq refuses to be used as a middle ground for conflicts – both regional and international. Further, he said his country “reject[s] Iraq being used as a springboard for any threat to any party.” It is unclear which party or parties he was referring to, but in context he could very well have been referring to Iran’s role in the country. This can be deduced from the fact Iran has a number of ongoing conflicts both regionally and internationally – with Israel, the US, and the Arab Gulf states. Additionally, it can be deduced from Iran’s Foreign Policy being predicated on influencing foreign affairs via its proxies and enablers in the region. Again, Iran already has proxies in Iraq. Assuming Iran is the subject being referred to, this would suggest Iraq by the very least is trying to distance itself somewhat from Iran.
But with no specifics given to identify who the Prime Minister was speaking of, his speech cannot definitively be used for comment on the nature of Iraq-Iran relations. Moreover, with the presence of Iran’s Foreign Minister at the Conference, it makes it unlikely Iraq would speak of its close neighbour like that. Nevertheless, it is not impossible, and could account for the reason why Iraq’s leader chose to speak cryptically. This is because it seems plausible that Iraq would only be able to speak freely and more explicitly about its concerns at such a conference if the party was not present at the time of delivery. This therefore suggests the subject of the speech was indeed present at the time: Iran’s Foreign Ministry. Again, this suggests Iraq is seeking to move away from Iran – or by the very least away from Iran’s foreign policy.
Whilst unproven, one area that seems to indicate Iraq is repelling Iran is with Iraq’s working relationship with the United States. The US has had large numbers of troops deployed in Iraq. They do so to help Iraqi security forces maintain peace and stability in the country – having spent much of the time liberating the country from Islamic State militants since 2014. Iran is not a fan of the United States, nor of its presence in Iraq and in the wider region. In fact, the United States is an arch rival of Iran, and both are currently in conflict. The United States however contributes much to Iraq’s internal security and stability – with American troops having trained and fought alongside Iraqi security forces in the fight against terrorism.
Over the past few months, Iraq has seen many attacks on its capital Baghdad as well as other areas from militants. The latter have mainly been seeking to attack the United States and its installations in the country. The US has claimed Iran and Iran backed militias are responsible for carrying out such attacks. Assuming Iran is responsible for such attacks, Iraq is clearly being destabilised by Iran’s actions. This would suggest Iraq would seek to do what it can to distance itself from Iran and its perceived actions. This could therefore explain why Iran would make a speech at the Baghdad Conference, warning against being used as a “middle ground” or “springboard” for conflict [with the United States].
One interesting areas of Iraq-Iran relations is in the energy sector. Iraq is a beneficiary of much of Iran’s petroleum and gas. In fact in October 2020, Iran’s secretary of the Iranian Union of Petrochemical, Gas and Oil Exporters revealed that 60 percent of the country’s petrol went to neighbouring Iraq. Further, Iran also sends Iraq mammoth amounts of gas. On the latter issue, Iraq has accrued $5 million in arrears. Iran has been seeking the money back from Iraq. Therefore, it was no coincidence that early this month Iran began turning off the gas. In fact, Iran reduced the amount of gas it supplies its neighbour to 8 million cubic meters per day – down from 49 million. No reason was given as to why it acted to do so, but Iraq’s debts are suspected. This suggests Iraq has somehow fallen out of favour with the Islamic Republic. However, Iran’s actions this month suggest Iraq does indeed share a special relationship with it – or rather that their relationship is still somewhat close. This is evident in Iran’s Oil Ministry’s decision to appoint a special envoy for Iraqi affairs. The latter decision suggests a special interest in Iraq on the Iranian side. It also shows a willingness to resolve the issue by diplomatic means – as opposed to more hostile or impersonal means. This in itself indicates Iraq and Iran, at least on this issue, are not repelling each other. However, one will have to see in the coming months or year if the outcome of this issue will have bearing on Iraq’s perception of and relations with its close neighbour.
In September 2021, after a seven-month trial, a Rwandan court found Paul Rusesabagina guilty of being part of a group involved in terrorist incidents and was given a 25-year prison sentence. Rusesabagina is the former manager of the Hôtel des Mille Collines in Kigali, Rwanda, and was depicted by Don Cheadle as a hero in the 2004 film ‘Hotel Rwanda’ about the country’s 1994 genocide. During the genocide, he was praised for saving over 1,200 lives. Since his arrest in August 2020, which he described as a kidnapping from Dubai by Rwandan authorities, the subject has gotten a lot of attention.
Paul Rusesabagina became well-known across the globe after ‘Hotel Rwanda’ illustrated him risking his life as the manager of a luxurious hotel in Rwanda’s capital, during the 100 days in which the Rwandan genocide occurred where over 800,000 people were killed – the majority being members of the Tutsi minority. Rusesabagina was a moderate Hutu who had a Hutu father and a Tutsi mother. He emigrated to Belgium and the United States in 1996 after becoming disenchanted with President Paul Kagame’s new Tutsi-dominated government. After the exposure as a result of the Hollywood film, Rusesabagina, who was now a Belgian citizen and US resident, emerged as a vocal critic of Kagame. He leveraged his newfound celebrity status to call attention to what he labelled as human rights violations by Kagame’s post-genocide government, a Tutsi commander who rose to power after his forces seized Kigali and brought an end to the genocide. The Rwandan president is a divisive figure who is credited with Rwanda’s progress and stability following the genocide, but who is also criticised for his intolerance of any criticism, be it domestic or international. Several cold case murders of Rwandan dissidents in several African countries have been attributed to Kigali, despite Kagame’s government’s denials.
Rusesabagina went on to head an opposition group called the Rwandan Movement for Democratic Change (MRCD). In 2018, in a YouTube video, Rusesabagina called for armed resistance, claiming that democratic processes continued to fail to bring about change in Rwanda. He said, “The time has come for us to use any means possible to bring about change in Rwanda as all political means have been tried and failed… Rwandan people can no longer stand the cruelty.” This was following Kagame’s third re-election win the year before, with 98.8 percent of the vote.
After a cunning plot to bring Rusesabagina back to Rwanda from exile in the US, he was apprehended in Kigali in August 2020. Then, Rusesabagina’s trial started in February 2021. His supporters claim he was kidnapped and forcibly taken to Rwanda. On the other hand, Rwandan authorities say he was tricked, rather than forced, into flying on a private plane. He thought the plane would take him to a meeting in Burundi but instead landed in Kigali. Yet, according to Human Rights Watch at the time, Rusesabagina’s arrest amounted to an “enforced disappearance,” which it regards as a serious breach of international law. One can see that from the very start, the trial was unfair. It all started with a kidnapping, and then Rusesabagina was held in solitary confinement for more than 250 days, in contravention of UN standards on prisoner treatment. Throughout his detention, he has been mistreated in accordance with international standards. Other individuals, whom were FLN members, were tried alongside Rusesabagina, and some testified against him.
He was indicted for supporting a militarised wing of his opposition political platform (MRCD). The armed wing, called the National Liberation Front (FLN), is responsible for the death of nine Rwandans in attacks that occurred in the country between 2018 and 2019. Prosecutors said he recruited dozens of fighters for the FLN and that Rusesabagina had “encouraged and empowered the fighters to commit those terrorist acts.” Some of the other individuals tried alongside Rusesabagina, who were FLN members, testified against him. During the trial, these FLN members testified in a contradictory and inconsistent manner about Rusesabagina’s level of involvement with the FLN and its fighters. The judge presiding over the case said, “We find Rusesabagina’s role in creating FLN, his provision of funds and purchasing for them secure phones to use, all constitute the crime of committing terrorism. We therefore find him culpable of the crime of terrorism.” However, Rusesabagina has denied responsibility for violence perpetrated by the MRCD’s FLN. He claimed he never ordered for people to be targeted or killed, although he did admit to sending money to the FLN.
Rusesabagina pulled out of the trial shortly after it began in March of this year, claiming that he was not being given a fair trial, which he was promised, and that he was not allowed proper access to his lawyers. Victoire Ingabire, an opposition leader in Rwanda with a similar story to Rusesabagina, and who spent six years in prison for terror charges, said the Rusesabagina verdict was never in doubt. She said, “In a country where freedom is limited, all power is in the hands of the executive … How could a judge dare to take a decision incompatible with the wishes of the president?”
This case has undoubtably sparked worldwide criticism. His backers and supporters have hailed the trial as an example of Kagame’s ruthlessness in dealing with political opponents. The Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), which is in power in Rwanda, has continued to target people it considers a threat. The court decision was evidently intended to send a message to the opposition. This appears to be a ‘show trial’ with the goal of stifling dissent and ensuring that anyone criticising or questioning Kagame is simply not permitted to do so. Yet, Kagame has denied conducting a ‘show trial,’ claiming that Rusesabagina was put on trial not because of his prominence, but because of the lives lost as a result of “his actions.” Kagame also said, “He is here being tried for that. Nothing to do with the film. Nothing to do with celebrity status.” Ultimately, Rusesabagina was sentenced to 25 years in prison for “being a member of a terror group and participating in terror activities.” The option for pursuing a life sentence against Rusesabagina was scrapped as this is his first offence but given Rusesabagina’s age and bad health condition (a cancer survivor), the 25-year sentence looks more like a death sentence.
Lastly, this case is also important as while there are a number of high-profile dissidents and critics of President Paul Kagame in exile, the country has never been able to bring any of them back and prosecute them for terrorism. So, this case sends the message that those in the diaspora who criticise Kagame should also be aware that the Rwandan authorities can track them down wherever they are.
The massive, Russo-Belarusian Zapad 2021 operational-strategic war games have ended. Zapad happens every four years and always rehearses the same scenario. A supposedly imaginary western coalition (aka NATO) is working with ‘terrorist’ elements to unseat the power in Belarus and take over parts of the country. The joint forces of the Union State, Russia and Belarus, must repel the invasion, defeat the enemy head-on and sustain a possibly longer-term regional war with a nuclear component towards the end. The live-fire elements of the Zapad-21 military exercises took place between 10-16 September across 14 training zones in Belarus and Russia. Western countries were not invited to observe the drills, nonetheless it featured hundreds of troops from “friendly” states like India and Kazakhstan, among others.
The Zapad drills have always been about rehearsing operational-strategic warfighting at the regional level against NATO, with a particular focus on force mobility, joint operations across army branches, and high-level Command and Control (C2).
Based on an outline of Russian major exercises in terms of mission, quantity of forces, readiness and C2, it is clear that Russia’s warfighting potential has increased in the past decade. Therefore we are able to draw at least two main conclusions.
First, Russia’s ambition for warfighting potential as mirrored in exercises has always been to carry out strategic-level warfighting operations against a peer adversary. That corresponds to a potential to fight at least a regional war with conventional forces.
Secondly, in the early 2010s, the available warfighting potential for Russian commanders was low. The level of participating forces, some tens of thousands, did not match the C2 scope of the exercises. That available potential in terms of forces corresponded more closely to the level of local war. Not anymore. The trend since 2014 is force participation in the hundreds of thousands, which arguably reflects the strategic-level ambition for warfighting potential much better.
Also on a further assessment it is important to note that with Belarus’ foreign policy options severely constrained with the West, Zapad-21 re-enshrined the military importance of the Union State and the increased military integration, if not the ‘merger’, between Russia and Belarus. In September, both countries signed yet another strategic partnership that opens the way to greater military-technical cooperation and arms sales. Russia will not have a permanent base in Belarus after all, but the debate has now shifted. In March, Russia announced the creation of three joint training centers, one of which will open in Grodno in Belarus.
Moreover, is it particularly relevant to underline that the proposed scenario of this year’s exercises was an initial act of aggression from a coalition of states vaguely resembling NATO territory, against which the Union State of Russia and Belarus had to defend. And ultimately repel by organizing a counter-offensive through a regional combat grouping of forces. The goal of the exercise is to show the ability of the Russian armed forces to move fast and well in a Western strategic direction. And while the Western Military District is the main actor in Zapad, it was also supported by troops from the Central Military District, reservists, and security forces such as Rosgvardia and the FSB.
Ultimately, Zapad signals to NATO and its allies that pre-emptive ‘enemy’ operations will be met with decisive Russian force, which therefore raises the cost of deterrence. Geopolitical propaganda aside, the Kremlin reportedly behaved this time and avoided the global positioning system (GPS) jamming and other provocative behaviours from four years ago. The glimmer of hope is that Russia might be more willing to avoid miscalculation and tactical errors with NATO and its allies.
Colombia-Venezuelan Border Still Faces Increased Tensions as Rival Armed Groups Broke a Years-long TruceSeptember 21, 2021 in Uncategorized
President Iván Duque’s administration has launched a series of controversial military measures as part of its “Peace with Legality” policy, including a March airstrike on a rebel camp that killed two children, and the deployment of special forces in July to some of the country’s deadliest conflict zones. Criminal groups in Catatumbo recently attacked the presidential helicopter with small-arms fire as it passed overhead; planted mines in a landing strip where COVID-19 vaccines were to be delivered; and are accused of masterminding a car bombing at an army base in the regional capital, and Venezuelan migration hub, of Cúcuta that wounded 36 people.
Four years later, these foreigners from the National Liberation Army, or ELN, function as both a local government and a major employer in this town in the north-western state of Zulia, according to the educator and 14 other residents. All spoke on condition of anonymity and asked that their community not be named because they feared retaliation.
The guerrillas pay villagers, including children, to staff narcotics operations, extortion rackets and wildcat gold mines in both countries. Colombian security officials say the criminal proceeds are financing the guerrillas’ long-running insurrection against the Colombian government. The group’s recruiting has intensified over the past year as the coronavirus pandemic has deepened misery in Venezuela, where the economy was already reeling from years of hyperinflation and shortages. When the armed Colombians first arrived, they were flanked by local Socialist Party community leaders and proclaimed they were there to bring security with the blessing of President Nicolas Maduro.
But their brand of law and order quickly morphed into tyranny. The Colombians forbade residents from sharing information about the group’s activities, set a strict 6 p.m. curfew, outlawed firearms and controlled who entered the town
The Colombian government has long claimed Venezuela’s leadership grants safe harbour to anti-government Colombian rebels, and that Caracas allows cocaine to move through its territory for a cut of the profits. Maduro has denied the drug-trafficking accusations but expressed sympathy for the rebels’ leftist ideology and openly welcomed some guerrilla leaders.
Venezuela’s Information Ministry did not respond to requests for comment about the guerrilla group’s activities in the country. Pablo Beltran, the ELN’s second in command, denied the group is involved in cocaine production, drug trafficking or other illicit activities, or that it recruits Venezuelans to work in such operations. He reported that the group does charge fees to criminal drug groups entering territory it controls in Colombia where coca is cultivated.
They are mainly ELN guerrillas and former fighters from another rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. These combatants reject the landmark 2016 peace deal reached between the FARC and the Colombian government. The FARC dissident groups could not be reached for comment. More than 1,000 members of the ELN alone are operating in Venezuela. The rebels have filled gaps in Venezuela’s crumbling institutions, handing out food and medicine, even approving infrastructure projects in some areas. The guerrillas steadily consolidate power over the past five years, expanding their illicit business activities while largely assuming the role of law enforcement.
Since the FARC disarmed and joined the government as part of the peace deal, other groups have moved into territory it formerly controlled, including in Catatumbo. While crime rates in urban centres such as Medellín and the capital, Bogotá, have fallen dramatically in recent years, violence in the countryside has risen. Mass killings soared in 2020 to levels not seen since the height of the civil war in 2012. As of 31 August, there had been 68 mass killings recorded so far in 2021 – heavily concentrated in the rural areas that were promised investment and infrastructure under the peace accord.
A total of 310 activists, social leaders, human rights defenders, and local political candidates were killed in 2020, compared to 210 in 2017 and 152 in 2016, according to Indepaz, a non-profit that monitors the peace process. Again, the vast majority of these killings occurred in rural areas. In Cauca, a different conflict zone in central Colombia, only five activists were killed the year the peace accord was announced. By 2019, that number was 72. Venezuelans, meanwhile, have been caught up in clashes between the Colombian and Venezuelan security forces and the rival armed groups – some of which use Venezuela as a safe haven. In May, some 5,000 Venezuelans became displaced and crossed into Colombia after Venezuelan forces attacked a FARC dissident group.
Thirty years later, the two countries continue to work together towards this same goal, but cocaine has been getting cheaper in the United States, coca fields keep expanding, violence continues to worsen, and, despite the militarisation, the Colombian state has no more real presence in places like Catatumbo than it did before the peace agreement in 2016.
In the past month, tensions have continued to grow between China and the Quad members over disputes such as Taiwan, Senkaku Islands, and growing alliances. There are concerns as to whether the disputes and continuous advances in military force in the region could lead to a potential conflict between China and the Quad members in the near future. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD and also known as QUAD), is a strategic dialogue formed in 2007 between the United States, India, Japan and Australia, which is maintained by talks between member countries.
This week Japan drew a red line around an island chain also claimed by China, pushing back at Beijing’s increasingly aggressive military posture, and setting the stage for a potential showdown between the region’s two biggest powers. The set of islands are called the Senkaku islands, and they have long been fought for by the two big powers. This week Japanese Defence Minister Nobuo Kishi said he Senkaku Islands, known as the Diaoyu Islands in China, are unquestionably Japanese territory and would be defended as such, with Tokyo matching anyChinese threat to the islands ship for ship, and beyond if necessary. With that being said, Japan has expanded it’smilitary and defence forces in the region. The nation has added fighter jets, converted warships to aircraft carriers and has been building new submarines and missiles. Yet the countries defence forces are miniature compared to the Chinese increased military spending. On the other hand, Japan has its allies in the other Quad members, who have also claimed to rebuff China.
However, China is not backing down and is continuing to claim the region with more ships and by establishing new laws that give its coast guard expanded powers. According to Japanese authorities, Chinese Coast Guard vessels have ventured into Japanese territorial waters, or within 12 nautical miles of Japanese land, a total of 88 times between January 1 and the end of August 2021. Arguably, China is using its large and expanse military force and presence in the region to demonstrate authority, which could have worked. Yet, Japan and the Quad members aren’t backing away anymore. In fact, on the 8th of September a US destroyer sailed near the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, days after China imposed new maritime identification rules that include the disputed body of water. On September 1, China instituted a new rule that requires many ships to identify their names, call signs, current positions, next ports of call and estimated times of arrival with Chinese authorities upon entering the country’s territorial waters. When the USS Benfold passed near the Spratly Islands without abiding by the new rule, China accused the US of “illegally” entering its waters, claiming it had driven away the ship. US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin has repeatedly said that China is the pacing challenge for the US military, as the Pentagon shifts from fighting the wars of the Middle East to meeting the threat of China’s growing assertiveness in the Pacific. Austin’s first international trip as secretary was to Southeast Asia, where he and Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with their counterparts. In late July, Austin said that China’s “claim to the vast majority of the South China Sea has no basis in international law.” Arguably, the new growing active forces from both the Quad members and Chinaare a cause for concern. If the nations don’t come together and draw a peaceful conclusion over the waters andislands, then potential conflicts are inevitable in the near future. Yet, at the moment it seems neither side are willing to back down, especially as this week a new security alliance was formed between the US, UK and Australia in order to strengthen stability in the Indo-Pacific region as China expands its military might and influence. “This initiative is about making sure that each of us has the most modern capabilities we need to manoeuvre and defend against rapidly evolving threats,” the president said.
In addition to the conflict over the control of the Senkaku Islands, China and the Quad members are also arguing about Taiwan. Beijing continues to view Taiwan as an inseparable part of its territory even though the Chinese Communist Party never governed it. China has been stepping up its military pressure on Taiwan. In June, it sent over two dozen warplanes near the island, prompting Taiwan to alert its air defences. Chinese leader Xi Jinping says Taiwan must be brought under Beijing’s control and has not ruled out the use of force in making that happen. However, the Quad members have also said they are prepared to use force if China continues to actively claimTaiwan. Japan and Taiwan are actively linked, due to 90% of Japans imported energy coming from the seas surrounding the area. The island is the nation’s energy lifeline. Hence why the nation needs to protect the island from the control of Beijing.
Overall, tensions are continuing to increase with both sides actively growing their military presence and force in the region. Both sides need to create a peaceful conclusion or an inevitable war will occur in this region in the near future. Arguably with both sides not likely to back down and the increase in military force and alliances from both sides suggests they both see a conflict soon.
However, this will be like no war before because this time both sides have WOMD. Hence why peaceful and diplomatic conditions and arrangements should try to be made first in order for chaos to not occur in the region.