This is a joint investigation with the German news magazine Der Spiegel.
A TOP-SECRET U.S. intelligence document obtained by The Interceptconfirms that the sprawling U.S. military base in Ramstein, Germany serves as the high-tech heart of America’s drone program. Ramstein is the site of a satellite relay station that enables drone operators in the American Southwest to communicate with their remote aircraft in Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan and other targeted countries. The top-secret slide deck, dated July 2012, provides the most detailed blueprint seen to date of the technical architecture used to conduct strikes with Predator and Reaper drones.
Amid fierce European criticism of America’s targeted killing program, U.S. and German government officials have long downplayed Ramstein’s role in lethal U.S. drone operations and have issued carefully phrased evasions when confronted with direct questions about the base. But the slides show that the facilities at Ramstein perform an essential function in lethal drone strikes conducted by the CIA and the U.S. military in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Africa.
The slides were provided by a source with knowledge of the U.S. government’s drone program who declined to be identified because of fears of retribution. According to the source, Ramstein’s importance to the U.S. drone war is difficult to overstate. “Ramstein carries the signal to tell the drone what to do and it returns the display of what the drone sees. Without Ramstein, drones could not function, at least not as they do now,” the source said.
The new evidence places German Chancellor Angela Merkel in an awkward position given Germany’s close diplomatic alliance with the United States. The German government has granted the U.S. the right to use the property, but only under the condition that the Americans do nothing there that violates German law.
The U.S. government maintains that its drone strikes against al Qaeda and its “associated forces” are legal, even outside of declared war zones. But German legal officials have suggested that such operations are only justifiable in actual war zones. Moreover, Germany has the right to prosecute “criminal offenses against international law … even when the offense was committed abroad and bears no relation to Germany,” according to Germany’s Code of Crimes against International Law, which passed in 2002.
This means that American personnel stationed at Ramstein could, in theory, be vulnerable to German prosecution if they provide drone pilots with data used in attacks.
While the German government has been reluctant to pursue such prosecutions, it may come under increasing pressure to do so. “It is simply murder,” says Björn Schiffbauer of the Institute for International Law at the University of Cologne. Legal experts interviewed by Der Spiegel claimed that U.S. personnel could be charged as war criminals by German prosecutors.
A top-secret slide confirms the central role Germany plays in the U.S. drone war.
RAMSTEIN IS ONE of the largest U.S. military bases outside the United States, hosting more than 16,000 military and civilian personnel. The relay center at Ramstein, which was completed in late 2013, sits in the middle of a massive forest and is adjacent to a baseball diamond used by students at the Ramstein American High School. The large compound, made of reinforced concrete and masonry walls and enclosed in a horseshoe of trees, has a sloped metal roof. Inside this building, air force squadrons can coordinate the signals necessary for a variety of drone surveillance and strike missions. On two sides of the building are six massive golf ball-like fixtures known as satellite relay pads.
In a 2010 budget request for the Ramstein satellite station, the U.S. Air Force asserted that without the Germany-based facility, the drone program could face “significant degradation of operational capability” that could “have a serious impact on ongoing and future missions.” Predator and Reaper drones, as well as Global Hawk aircraft, would “use this site to conduct operations” in Africa and the Middle East, according to the request. It stated bluntly that without the use of Ramstein, drone “weapon strikes cannot be supported.”
“Because of multi-theater-wide operations, the respective SATCOM Relay Station must be located at Ramstein Air Base to provide most current information to the war-fighting commander at any time demanded,” according to the request. The relay station, according to that document, would also be used to support the operations of a secretive black ops Air Force program known as “Big Safari.”
The classified slide deck maps out an intricate spider web of facilities across the U.S. and the globe: from drone command centers on desert military bases in the U.S. to Ramstein to outposts in Afghanistan, Djibouti, Qatar and Bahrain and back to NSA facilities in Washington and Georgia. What is clear is that most paths within America’s drone maze run through Ramstein.
Creech Air Force Base in Nevada is central to multiple prongs of the U.S. drone war. Personnel stationed at the facility are responsible for drone operations in Afghanistan — which has been on the receiving end of more drone strikes than any country in the world — and Pakistan, where the CIA has conducted a covert air war for the last decade. The agency’s campaign has killed thousands of people, including hundreds of civilians. Some drone missions are operated from other locations, such as Fort Gordon in Georgia and Cannon Air Force Base in Clovis, New Mexico.
The pilots at Creech and other ground control stations send their commands to the drones they operate via transatlantic fiber optic cables to Germany, where the Ramstein uplink bounces the signal to a satellite that connects to drones over Yemen, Somalia and other target countries. Ramstein is ideally situated as a satellite relay station to minimize the lag time between the commands of the pilots and their reception by the aircraft, called latency. Too much latency — which would be caused by additional satellite relays — would make swift maneuvers impossible. Video images from a drone could not be delivered to the U.S. in near real time. Without the speed and precise control an installation like Ramstein allows, pilots would practically be flying blind.
A diagram in the secret document shows how the process works. Ramstein’s satellite uplink station is used to route communications between the pilots and aircraft deployed in a variety of countries. Video from the drones is routed back through Ramstein and then relayed to a variety of U.S. intelligence and military facilities around the U.S. and the globe. Another diagram shows how pilots at Creech connect to Ramstein and then to the Predator Primary Satellite Link, which facilitates direct control of the drone wherever it is operating.
All of this — location, combined with the need to securely house the large quantities of equipment, buildings and personnel necessary to operate the satellite uplink — has made Ramstein one of the most viable sites available to the U.S. to serve this critical function in the drone war.
When the prominent German daily newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung and the German public television broadcaster ARD published an expose on Ramstein in May 2013 and alleged that the base was being used to facilitate drone strikes, it created a massive controversy in Germany. The report spurred parliamentary investigations and calls for the U.S. to explain exactly what it was doing at the base. In response, the German and U.S. governments mischaracterized the reporting and the German government claimed it had no hard evidence of Ramstein’s role in lethal strikes.
A month later, in a June 2013 speech in Berlin, President Obama addressed the issue of Ramstein’s role in the drone war. He did not mention that the satellite relay facility at Ramstein enables U.S. drone strikes. Instead, he denied a claim that the journalists had not made: “We do not use Germany as a launching point for unmanned drones … as part of our counterterrorism activities,” Obama said.
President Barack Obama and Chancellor Angela Merkel (Chris Hyde/Getty Images)
In response to questions for this article, Pentagon spokesman Maj. James Brindle echoed the precise language of previous government statements. “We maintain robust civilian and military cooperation with Germany and manage all base activities in accordance with the agreements made between the United States and German governments,” he said. “The Air and Space Operations Center at Ramstein Air Base conducts operational level planning, monitoring and assessment of assigned airpower missions throughout Europe and Africa, but does not directly fly or control any manned or remotely piloted aircraft.”
The German government has issued similar statements, saying no drone pilots are based at Ramstein and no drones are launched from the base. “The U.S. government has confirmed that such armed and remote aircrafts are not flown or controlled from U.S. bases in Germany,” government spokesperson Steffen Seibert said last year. In 2013, members of the Bundestag, the German parliament, submitted written questions to their federal government. “To the knowledge of the Federal Government, is it true that U.S. drone attacks in Africa could not be carried out without a special satellite relay station for unmanned flying objects in Ramstein?” the lawmakers asked.
“The Federal Government has no reliable information in this regard,” read the official reply. Pressed further on the satellite facility and its purpose, the government replied: “The Federal Government has no information regarding the installation of the satellite system or when it started operating.”
Internal German government communications provided to The Intercept byDer Spiegel show how some German officials tried and failed to get the government to confront the U.S. about what connection facilities in Germany had to drone strikes. According to a June 2013 document, a senior Foreign Office official, Emily Haber, advocated demanding a clear answer from Washington about the role U.S. facilities in Germany played in drone strikes. Haber was overruled: “The Federal Chancellery and the Defense Ministry would prefer to ‘sit out’ the pressure from parliament and the public,” the response read. The unofficial German-U.S. agreement appears to amount to a “don’t ask, don’t tell” understanding.
While most, if not all, of the official statements by both governments may be technically true, it is also true that without the base, it would be very difficult for the United States to sustain the current drone war. The slide deck contains an array of arrows showing the complex system used to operate drones across the world. In the end, all arrows point to Ramstein. “Everything relies on Ramstein and Creech as central hubs for communication” in both armed and unarmed drone operations, says the source. Aside from the possibility of using an undisclosed satellite uplink station, the only drone operations that would not rely on Ramstein in these regions would be those conducted via aircraft that have a line of sight to a ground control station.
HUMAN RIGHTS GROUPS in Germany, as well as opposition politicians, have long suspected that Ramstein has played a direct role in the U.S. drone war. They have called on the German government to stop allowing the armed U.S. drone program to operate from German soil.
Lt. Gen. David Deptula, the former director of the Combined Air Operations Center, accused such critics of the drone program of being influenced by “misinformation that’s provided by terrorist organizations that these things are being effective against.”
Deptula oversaw the implementation of the U.S. armed drone program starting in 2001. In an interview with The Intercept, he defended the use of drones. “Operations conducted by remotely piloted aircraft really are the most accurate and precise means of applying force,” Deptula says. “Why would the Germans want to shut down operations that effectively provide information to increase situational awareness of a community of nations that are trying to combat terrorism?”
Kat Craig, the legal director at Reprieve, an international human rights organization that represents victims of drone strikes in Yemen and elsewhere, said the notion that critics of the drone program are being manipulated by propaganda from terrorist organizations “would be laughable, were it not so offensive towards civilian victims of drone strikes.”
A new report from The Open Society Foundations, published this month, studied nine U.S. drone strikes in Yemen and found that 26 civilians were killed, including several children and a pregnant woman.
“It has become all too clear that, too often, those carrying out the strikes simply do not know who they are hitting,” Craig said. “This misguided campaign has been allowed free rein because it has been kept hidden from public scrutiny.”
Yemenis gather around a burned car after it was torched by a drone strike on January 26, 2015. Among the dead was a teenage boy. (AFP/Getty Images)
WHILE THE GERMAN government has so far managed to dodge questions on Ramstein’s role in drone strikes, the country’s judicial system may not have that option.
Two related cases have been winding their way through the German legal system. In 2010, a German citizen was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Pakistan. Two years later, a federal prosecutor opened a preliminary investigation “to examine whether Bünyamin Erdogan’s violent death qualified as a war crime under Germany’s international criminal code.”
The case was later dropped after investigators determined that at the time he was killed by a missile fired from a drone, Erdogan was not considered a civilian protected under international law. Rather, they asserted that he had been a “member of an organized, armed group that participated as a party in an armed conflict.” Pakistan, according to German interpretations of international law, is considered a war zone in cases involving known militants in certain areas.
German courts haven’t established whether other targeted countries, such as Yemen and Somalia, qualify as war zones. Last October, a Yemeni man whose relatives were killed in a 2012 U.S. drone strike filed a lawsuit against the German government. Faisal bin Ali Jaber said his brother-in-law, a well-respected moderate imam known for his anti-al Qaeda sermons, and his nephew were killed in a strike.
Jaber claimed the strike would not have been possible without the use of the satellite relay facility at Ramstein. “Were it not for the help of Germany and Ramstein, men like my brother-in-law and nephew might still be alive today. It is quite simple: without Germany, U.S. drones would not fly,” Jabersaid at the time. “I am here to ask that the German people and Parliament be told the full extent of what is happening in their country, and that the German government stop Ramstein being used to help the U.S.’s illegal and devastating drone war in my country.” A member of Jaber’s legal team accused Germany of “hiding behind status-of-forces agreements,” saying the government should “admit its responsibility for civilian deaths caused by U.S. drone warfare.”
In response to the suit, the German defense ministry submitted a reply on behalf of the government, which is named as the defendant in the case. “The defendant denies, by claiming ignorance, that the satellite-relay-station in use on the air base transfers field data of unmanned aerial vehicles from Yemen to the U.S. or to other unmanned aerial vehicles and that the air base is a fundamental hub for the data transfer necessary to operate unmanned aerial vehicles in Yemen,” read the January 20 filing. As for the suit’s demand that Germany prevent the relay station at Ramstein from facilitating drone strikes, the German government stated that it could not be expected to act “as a ‘global public prosecutor’ towards other sovereign states and punish alleged infringements outside of their own sovereign territory.”
However, some legal scholars in Germany aren’t satisfied with that response. They argue that if U.S. personnel based at Ramstein are involved in what the government considers an extra-judicial killing in a non-declared war zone, they would not be entitled to immunity — at least not on German soil. The NATO Status of Forces Agreement explicitly grants German authorities the right to investigate members of the U.S. military suspected of having committed a crime.
To date, German prosecutors have shown little interest in pursuing such action. The German government position boils down to this: We have asked the U.S. if they are violating any agreements or laws and the Americans have said no. Case closed.
“What happens between the U.S., Ramstein and the drones is a division of labor in different locations,” says Wolfgang Kaleck, the head of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, one of the organizations bringing the Yemen suit against the German government. “The German government doesn’t ask tough questions because they obviously don’t want to know what really happens.”
GERMANY HAS FIGURED prominently in the American drone war from the very beginning.
In 2000, the U.S. Air Force launched an initiative to explore arming drones, the same year that the CIA — contemplating the assassination of Osama bin Laden — began using unarmed Predators to try to track the high-value target.
It was through this surveillance project that a scientist working with the CIA and the U.S. military devised a prototype for what would become the system for operating drones from half a world away that endures to this day.
Originally called “split operations,” the method involved drone pilots operating from Ramstein, while the actual aircraft would fly out of an airfield in Afghanistan’s neighbor Uzbekistan. From there, the drones could record live video over a complex near Kandahar where bin Laden was suspected of residing. “They chose Ramstein because that was the most convenient place where they could be on a very secure location and still reach a satellite that had a footprint that covered Afghanistan,” says Richard Whittle, author of the book Predator: The Secret Origins of the Drone Revolution. “And that worked.”
The successful development of the split operations was welcomed by those within the U.S. intelligence community who were pushing for authorities to assassinate bin Laden — it would make their mission easier to accomplish.
But plans to assassinate bin Laden with a Hellfire missile launched from a drone piloted from Ramstein hit a snag. “A Defense Department lawyer raised the issue that you couldn’t pull the trigger from German soil under the U.S. Status of Forces Agreement without telling the German government you were going to do it and getting their permission,” says Whittle. Fearing that the German government of Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder would reject the proposal or that the existence of the facility and the plot to kill bin Laden would leak, the CIA went back to the drawing board. “You have to remember at that time, the whole idea of assassinating Osama bin Laden had a different feel to it than it did later after 9/11,” Whittle told The Intercept. “He was barely known among the general public. The whole idea of the CIA running a targeted killing was entirely different and there was a lot of hesitation.”
The CIA considered moving the ground control station to a ship in the ocean or to another European location. But all of those scenarios would come with risks and technical complications. In the end, the CIA decided to position pilots at a ground control station within CIA headquarters in Langley and then use fiber optic underwater cables to facilitate lightning fast communications between pilots in the U.S. and the drones they would control. The cable to Germany would be the artery connecting the pilots to the planes that would hunt bin Laden and other terror suspects. It would run from the U.S. to Ramstein, which would house a powerful satellite uplink that could hit satellites in Afghanistan. But the key was that the actual commands to deploy drones as weapons would be issued from American not German soil, thus freeing the U.S. from the obligation to get the Germans’ approval for the mission. The system was called “remote split operations.”
Soon after taking office in 2009, President Obama authorized an expansion of the drone war, including opening new fronts in Somalia and Yemen. But the U.S. military discovered a gap in its satellite coverage. So, in early 2009, after “an urgent call from the Pentagon’s Joint staff,” a commercial satellite provider, Intelsat, shifted its Galaxy-26 satellite from the U.S. to orbit over the Indian Ocean. This repositioning of the Galaxy-26, which could be reached by U.S. drone operators by using the relay station at Ramstein, facilitated the rapid expansion of the U.S. drone program.
Former drone sensor operator Brandon Bryant, who conducted operations in Yemen, Afghanistan and Iraq, said that without Ramstein, the U.S. would either need to find another base in the area, with the ability to hit satellites in the Middle East and Africa, or place U.S. personnel much closer to the areas they are targeting. “Instead of being able to be [inside the U.S.] with their operations, they would have to do more line-of-sight stuff, more direct deployments, more people going over there rather than [operating] in the states,” Bryant, who has become an outspoken critic of the drone program, told The Intercept. The U.S. is “doing shady stuff behind the scenes like using satellite and information technologies that, if able to continue being used, are going to just continue to perpetuate the drone war,” he charged.
“Ramstein is the focal point for drone communications,” says Dan Gettinger, co-director of the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College. “If the communications infrastructure didn’t exist, the drone would be just a remote control plane, a toy basically.” It is “more important to the drone operations than the weapons a drone carries.”
The top-secret slides show how embedded Ramstein has become in the drone war. They describe in detail the system by which a geolocating device affixed to the drone feeds back to a satellite and down to the station at Ramstein. The GILGAMESH platform, which The Intercept first reported on in February of 2014, utilizes a device placed on the bottom of the drone. It operates as a fake cell phone tower, forcing individual mobile phones of targeted individuals to connect to it so that their location can be pinpointed and used in “find, fix and finish” missions.
The slides show that GILGAMESH operations ran out of several sites, including Djibouti, a base from which the U.S. has launched drone aircraft into Somalia and Yemen. The slides also describe how drones are equipped with a collection platform, “AIRHANDLER,” which relays data back to ground control stations via Ramstein.
Construction on the Satellite Relay Facility at Ramstein. (Image: Josh Begley)
RAMSTEIN IS NOT the only crucial U.S. military installation in Germany. The U.S. has a separate key facility an hour away, in Wiesbaden, Germany, called the European Technical Center (ETC). According to a previously reported classified document provided by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, the ETC “is NSA’s primary communications hub in that part of the world, providing communications connectivity, SIGINT collection, and data-flow services to NSAers, warfighters and foreign partners in Europe, Africa and the Middle East.”
In the top-secret drone architecture slide deck obtained by The Intercept, the ETC is shown as having satellite links to Bagram air base in Afghanistan as well as a fiber optic connection to the NSA’s counterterrorism facilities in Georgia, where many GILGAMESH operators supporting drone operations are based.
As the U.S. expands the global reach of its drones, Ramstein is poised to play a crucial role in new war frontiers. Last June, the Air Force awarded a contract to a major satellite provider that boasts that it “leverages our global satellite fleet to provide communications capability” for drones. The contract will support the operations of the Germany-based U.S. Africa Command. “Work will be performed at Ramstein Air Base, Germany and the western portion of Africa,” the contract announcement states.
In 2011, the Air Force requested $15 million to build a center similar to the Ramstein satellite facility at a U.S. military base in Sigonella, Italy. As of November 2014, according to a U.S. military contracting document, the project was still in a pre-solicitation stage and construction had not been completed. The Air Force’s request for funding of the station underlined the centrality of Ramstein to all current drone operations. It asserted that the proposed Italy site would “act as a back-up system to the Ramstein site to avoid single point of failure.”
If there is one reason above all others that helps explain the many situations of armed conflict, political violence and state collapse across the Arab world, it must be that tens of millions of hopeless young men are wandering through their own societies like ghosts, unable to enjoy either satisfying employment or meaningful citizenship. The supply of young men, some as young as 14, who are eager to join armed groups, criminal cults and extremist militias is staggering, as we have witnessed in Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Sudan,Libya and pockets of other countries across the region.
Among the main reasons for this sad reality is that since the 1970s when police state-minded families took control of many of our governments, our Arab societies for the most part have failed to establish a productive relationship between the education systems and the labor markets. Millions of primary and secondary school-age youth have never entered a school, and millions more are in danger of dropping out. They create the pool of tens of millions of angry, fearful and mostly hopeless young Arabs who are easy recruits for the radical and criminal movements – and also the corrupt governance systems – that are the biggest threats to our countries these days. These are homegrown threats, not invaders and colonizers from abroad.
A new report released this week by UNICEF and UNESCO provides solid analysis of the magnitude and causes of this problem of “out of school children” (OOSC). It shows that more than 21 million children and young adolescents across the Arab world are either out of school or at risk of dropping out. What makes this more troubling is that the number of OOSC had decreased by 40 percent over the past decade, but now the fortunes of our youngest citizens have started to decline. This is due to a combination of reasons, including poverty, gender and other discrimination, poor quality learning, social attitudes, early marriage, a lack of female teachers and conflict.
We know very well what will be the dark fate of the 12.3 million children and young adolescents in our region who are out of school, the over 6 million who are at risk of dropping out, and the 3 million children who have stopped going to school in Syria and Iraq. The overwhelming majority of these over 21 million boys and girls will likely experience a life of poverty, vulnerability, marginalization, poor health, degradation and pain, which is a sure recipe for permanent instability and violence.
The report’s most frightening finding, in my view, is that young adolescents drop out of school mainly because of poor education standards and low-quality school environments. The report does not go into this issue in detail. However, I learned about how badly Arab children perform even when they do attend school, when a few months ago I researched a presentation I made at an American university on the relationship between education and the Arab uprisings.
Available data from worldwide tests that measure the numeracy and literacy abilities of students in primary and secondary school show that about half of all school children in the Arab world actually are not learning. Let me repeat that to confirm that this is not a printing error: About half of all school children in the Arab world actually are not learning.
A powerful report issued last year by the Brookings Institution – titled “Arab Youth: Missing Educational Foundations for a Productive Life?” – analyzed available global testing data from 13 Arab countries. It concluded: “We estimate, based on the average scores for literacy and numeracy for the 13 countries for which we have data, that 56 percent of primary students and 48 percent of lower secondary school students are not learning.”
These are average figures. The results for some countries are beyond belief, including from some of the wealthy oil-producing states. The percentages of primary school students who did not meet basic learning levels (average of numeracy and literacy) in 2011 was around 90 percent in Yemen, 77 percent in Morocco, 69 percent in Kuwait and 63 percent in Tunisia. The best performers, with 30-40 percent of non-learning students, were Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia, though in wealthy Qatar, for example, over 53 percent of children at the lower secondary level were not learning.
These are not just early warning signs that our societies must take seriously to stop the hemorrhaging of our human talent and potential. They are wildly flashing red lights telling us to stop building one-way highways to hell for tens of millions of our children who are denied the most important opportunity of their lives: to develop their maximum intellectual and creative potential so that they can participate as full citizens in building stable and satisfying societies. If this does not happen, these tens of millions of uneducated young Arabs will prove to be our own homemade weapons of our own mass destruction.
Analysis: The deal will mean Iran is a year away from developing nuclear weapons for as long as it lasts and offer relief from punishing sanctions.
This article is the first of a three-part series based on a lecture presented at the opening of a roundtable conference entitled "The Iranian Nuclear Agreement and Regional and International Implications" organised by the Arab Centre for Research and Policy Studies.
The deal and its historical context
We may consider the framework agreement concluded between Iran and the major powers (the five plus one - P5+1) to be the culmination of a process of historical regional and international transformation.
Internationally, the US has come to see clearly the limits of its empire, in terms of its ability to deploy forces and fight simultaneous wars in different parts of the world, and in terms of the effectiveness of military force in implementing what was designated, under the neo-conservatives, as the global defence of freedom - or what was designated in Iraq as "nation-building" in what was mockery of history soon followed by the irony of history.
Regionally, a lot of blood has been spilled along the Nile, the Tigris, and the Euphrates.
Since the time of Baker-Hamilton's Iraq Study group (ISG) and the appointment of Robert Gates as the US Defence Secretary during George W. Bush's second term in the White House, and throughout Barack Obama's second term, we have witnessed an internal reassessment carried out by the US political and security establishment.
This is in parallel with calls by liberal currents warning against the consequences of military interventions and their implications for the American people, currents that Barack Obama himself represents at this stage. The US administration is currently taking steps to end the siege on Myanmar (Burma) and Cuba, in addition the negotiations that could lead to lifting the sanctions on Iran. Clearly, there is a particular US approach in this regard then.
This transformation coincided with the rise of Russia from the ruins of the Soviet Union, as a strong nation-state promoting itself as the protector of the global nation-state-based order. Russia abandoned all ideologies and values in its foreign policy, regardless of the nature of these values, and could now only promote pure interest-based pragmatism disguised as the non-ideology championing the nation-state and sovereignty.
This manifested itself as an alliance of dictatorships against foreign intervention and against internal elements of instability, be these the result of democratic or terrorist movements. Both were seen as being the same thing for the Russian "neo-Westphalianists" and their principle of "subjects follow the sovereignty of their dictators" along the lines of the adage of "subjects follow the religion of their kings".
Regionally, a lot of blood has been spilled along the Nile, the Tigris, and the Euphrates. We spoke in the past about the unique nature of the rise of the Arab peoples as a power on the historical stage, demanding freedom, dignity, and democratic systems in a period where the US is opposed to exporting democracy and refrains from supporting those who demand it. These events exposed the brittleness of the Arab states, especially in those cases where states are little more than a thin crust for a social clique closely interconnected with the structure of the political regimes.
What concerns us now, in the context of regional transformations, is the Iranian expansion under US sanctions. Iran had recovered from the eight year war with Iraq, and went on the offensive through an intersection of objective interests with the US in Afghanistan in 2001 and in Iraq in 2003 (an intersection that has facilitated collusion). Iran exploited the predicament the US quickly found itself in after the occupation of Iraq, because of its failure to handle the complex political and social landscape of Iraq and crush the Iraqi resistance.
Expansion through sectarian influence
Iran consolidated its influence in neighbouring Arab nations by means of sectarian parties and through the rebuilding of the army and the security services, taking advantage of the sins of the US and its allies when they disbanded the Iraqi army and destroyed the entire state apparatus of the former regime. Iran entered Iraq through the doors opened by the occupation, the power vacuum and the sectarian incitement against the former regime.
In the context of its westward expansion, Iran took advantage of the animus the Arab peoples have for Israel, and infiltrated the Arab public opinion thanks to the vacuum left behind by the Arab regimes' abandonment of the Palestinian and Lebanese resistance. These Arab regimes focused instead on what they called the strategy of peace, beginning with the Camp David Accords and not ending with the Oslo Accords, the Wadi Arab Accords, and the Arab peace initiative that supplanted the Arab-Israeli conflict.
With the revolutionary rise of the Arab peoples in 2011,Iran did not side with the aspirations of the people, and instead exploited the fragility of the Arab states to further expand its influence.
The main problem here, for any Arab committed to the Arab identity, be he or she left wing, right wing, democratic, authoritarian, revolutionary, or conservative, is that Iran wagers on the weakness of the Arab regimes to forge bonds of direct loyalty with segments in Arab societies, and attempts to put together an alliance of minorities.
For any believer in Pan-Arabism, regardless of his or her ideology or religious beliefs, these actions help fragment not only the nation, but even local communities. This is something that Arab fragility cannot justify. No Arab in the past justified for the colonial powers their wager on the concerns of the minorities of all kinds and privileges, even when the Arab countries and societies had been in a worse condition.
On the other hand, the Arab countries that fear Iranian expansion is unable to put forward a project for a regional state or for cooperation among existing nation states to counter the Iranian project, not only externally, but also at the level of the cohesion of their societies and peoples. Such a project would combine development and citizens' rights, to pull the rug from under the feet of Iran's propaganda, and promote a principled position on the Palestinian question as an Arab issue rather than a burden that should be gotten rid of.
Iranian domestic politics
In Iran itself, the Iranian revolution met the same fate as many other revolutions. Oppositions emerged and established themselves from within the revolution itself, including a realist-pragmatic opposition, and fundamentalist-revolutionary oppositions holding on to what they perceive as the purity of the revolution in its beginnings. Some want to overcome that purity and move on to a new historical phase, while others combine different elements from all these oppositions.
Often, reducing these various contradictions into a struggle between hardliners and reformists leads to oversimplification and inaccuracy.
Iran demands sanctions be lifted as soon as the agreement is signed, but the US says sanctions will be lifted after it verifies Iran's compliance.
What is more important, in our view, are the existing contradictions in Iran between the religious state and the globally unique sectarian regime in Iran and the secularism in Iranian society, especially in the cities; the contradiction between politicians and the clergy; and the contradiction between the ruling elite in general and the aspiration of urban middle-class youths, despite the complex structure of the regime and its ability to link broad segments of the people to itself based on their interests through hybrid popular-governmental organisations such as the Basij and the religious establishment.
As Iran sought to get the sanctions lifted, deal with internal economic challenges, find its place in the global economy and political order, and reach a framework agreement, Iran had to pledge to dismantle 13,000 centrifuges and operate only 5,060 centrifuges out of the remaining 19,000 for ten years. In total, Iran accepted to reduce uranium enrichment levels at its reactors to below 3.67 percent, and agreed to place its nuclear activities under strict international inspection regimes. Practically speaking, Iran ceded its sovereignty in all matters relating to its nuclear activities.
All this will ensure Iran is at least always one year away from manufacturing a nuclear weapon for the period of the agreement. The US promises itself that inspection and monitoring of the Iranian nuclear programme for 15 years will enable the US to control what will happen after that period as well. Iran will change as a result of this. More importantly, there is no alternative to negotiations and an agreement, and all these conclusions will be sealed if the final agreement is signed on June 30.
Iran demands that international and US sanctions imposed on it be lifted immediately after the agreement is signed. However, the US says the sanctions will be lifted after it verifies Iran has honoured the agreement, without explaining the mechanisms for this. In this regard, there is nothing clear and official yet, and each side is trying to emerge as the winner in the eyes of its own public's opinion.
This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.
Comment: Any solution that does not start with the removal of Assad and his power in Syria will most certainly fail, writes Salameh Kaileh.
Discussions surrounding Syria seem to suggest that an opposition is being "tailored" that will be willing to accept the continuation of Bashar al-Assad's power.
Russia is working to arrange an opposition from "within the regime" - meaning they never were and never will be part of the opposition. Nevertheless, it is forging ahead with its plan.
This is based on the formation of a transitional government that paves way for a presidential election, in which Assad can take part in.
However, it has become obvious that all regional and international actors are now dealing with specific opposition figures, and not opposition groups or bodies.
Every regional and international player now invites a group of opposition figures to hold a meeting or conference about their vision for the solution, which in most part, does not involve the overthrow of Assad and his group.
This in return means groups such as the Syrian National Coalition and the National Coordination Committee are facing disintegration, for the sake of a solution that regional and international figures can agree upon.
Every one of these actors is selecting an opposition figure that it favours, or one that would agree to the regime remaining in power - more specifically, for Assad to remain in power.
How can the transitional committee carry out its role while the group that launched a war against its people remains in power?
To achieve this goal, the principles of the Geneva conference would need to be disregarded, or at least altered.
The Geneva conference specified the establishment of a transitional committee that enjoys full executive powers.
This would mean an end to the current regime, and stripping the president and the prime minister off their authority.
However, in an attempt to keep Assad’s position intact, there has been a lot of talk about the need for the president to be part of any negotiations tied to any final solution.
If the same president, the same apparatuses and the same people remain in power, who can guarantee any change?
How can the transitional committee carry out its role while the group that launched a war against its people remains in power?
This project aims to block the path to a solution because not removing Assad and his regime from power will keep the conflict raging.
The mass amount of civilians who have lost family members and loved ones, those whose homes have been destroyed and have had to flee their own country, will not agree to any solution that will ensure Assad and his group stays in power.
A solution cannot be achieved without the Syrian people, who have fought for change and have sacrificed their life and their limbs, being able to feel that they have achieved a 'small' victory by removing Assad and his regime.
The opposition must refuse its disintegration and must hold on to the basis of a successful solution, which is the removal of the group that controls the state, has fought against its population, destroyed the country and plundered it for decades with its authoritarian rule.
Any solution that does not start with that point in mind will most certainly fail. Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff. This is an edited translation of the original Arabic.
Analysis: Regime is benefiting from IS attacks on other rebel forces - attacks which also deflect attention from its own atrocities. But how long will that last?
The Islamic State group is making a clear bid to expand its control around the Syrian capital Damascus. But it is the regime that is gaining the most from the IS advance.
Only a few months after advancing to the area of Beir al-Qassab in the Damascus countryside, IS tried to seize control of the Yarmouk refugee camp, less than 10km away from the capital's city centre.
They also advanced into the nearby area of Qaboun, where Syrian opposition forces put up a fight, leading IS to retreat into the northern area of Teshrin. Opposition forces attacked them there on Wednesday night.
Small but growing presence
IS does not have a strong presence there. Activist Omar Abdul Salam told al-Araby al-Jadeed that two months ago, there were barely 50 IS fighters in the area, before new fighters started joining them, taking the number up to around 200.
Abdul Salam said IS lures young recruits into their training camp by offering a monthly salary of $200-300 and food rations.
But it was regime forces who achieved major military gains after fighting started in Yarmouk, especially when they pushed through the frontlines in Tadamon and the camp.
The regime seems to be benefitting long-term as IS drains the resources of opposition forces. In PR terms, media reports of the IS advance on Damascus have also played into the regime's hands.
These reports overshadow the regime's defeat in Idlib as well as its daily air raids on the city’s residential areas, and on northern, eastern and southern areas of Aleppo.
Most strikingly, all the areas into which IS has advanced by attacking opposition forces are, in fact, besieged by the regime.
This raises many questions on how IS has received logistical, financial and military support.
Opposition forces even agreed on a truce with the regime following its blockades in most of the areas IS is attempting to expand to, such as Yalda, Babila and Bayt Sahem, south of Damascus, as well as Qaboun, Barza and Teshrin, north of Damascus.
This raises many questions on how IS has received logistical, financial and military support.
IS had provoked Qaboun's opposition forces by posting videos on the Twitter account an affiliated group showing masked young men in training. The video was called "Mujahideen training camp in Qaboun".
The fight between opposition forces and IS in Qaboun may be compared to the battle in Damascus' southern suburbs, where Army of Islam (Jaish al-Islam) forces continue attempts to advance from the area of al-Zayn - which they took over in the past two days - towards al-Hajar al-Aswad, while Ajnad al-Sham forces continue to fight the IS outside the town of Yalda. Yarmouk
At the same time, the Palestinian Aknaf Bayt al-Maqdis brigades are continuing to fight IS in the northern parts of Yarmouk, supported by the opposition-affiliated brigades of Sham al-Rasoul and Ababil.
Members of the executive committee of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) told al-Araby al-Jadeed that the issue of Yarmouk would be at the top of the agenda in their meeting next Saturday, adding that the meeting would confirm the PLO’s decision not to intervene militarily in the camp in any way.
"The PLO's position has not changed. We will not intervene in armed conflicts on foreign territories anywhere", committee member Hanan Ashrawy said.
This comes as part of recent conflicting statements about Yarmouk, as PLO representative Ahmed al-Majdalani said there would be no political solution with the IS, referring to the need for a military solution to end the IS’s presence in the camp. This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.