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Press review: Iraq, Russia to deepen ties and Syrian opposition, Damascus eye direct talks

Top stories in the Russian press on Tuesday, October 24


Nezavisimaya Gazeta: Baghdad returning to cooperation with Russia

Moscow will host a meeting of the Russian-Iraqi intergovernmental commission on Tuesday. The parties are expected to discuss the energy projects in Kirkuk whose implementation came into question after the province was put under the control of the central government in Baghdad, Nezavisimaya Gazeta writes. For one, Russia’s Rosneft oil company had reached an agreement with Erbil on several projects, including the construction of a gas pipeline in the autonomous region, according to media reports. The Russian energy giant, Gazprom, was likewise eying joint energy projects with Erbil. Now Russia will have to conduct negotiations on these deals with Baghdad rather than Erbil.

While the political aspects of bilateral relations took center stage at a meeting between Russian and Iraqi top diplomats, Sergey Lavrov and Ibrahim al-Jaafari on Monday, economic issues will be discussed at an upcoming meeting of the intergovernmental commission, Maxim Suchkov, an expert of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), told the paper. "The focus of the meeting with Lavrov was Kurdistan and the political aspects of Russia’s interaction with the Kurds, while oil and energy cooperation issues will be negotiated by Dmitry Rogozin (who happens to be co-Chairman of the Russian-Iraqi intergovernmental commission)," the expert noted.

The Iraqi problem also topped the agenda of talks with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Riyadh where he took part in the first meeting of the Saudi Arabia-Iraq Coordination Committee.

Experts note, however, that the talks with Iraq held by Moscow and Washington are not a sufficient sign of some kind of rivalry between the two major international players. "The intensification of all contacts stems from the latest events, namely, the independence referendum and the offensive against the disputed regions launched by Baghdad and pro-Iranian units," Anton Mardasov, Head of the Department of Middle Eastern Conflicts at the Moscow-based Institute for Innovative Development, told Nezavisimaya Gazeta. "Given these circumstances, when Russia’s energy projects stipulated operations in Kirkuk, one could see some element of rivalry, though it is not very obvious."


Izvestia: Syrian opposition mulling unification, direct talks with Damascus

Members of the Syrian opposition (the Moscow, Cairo and Riyadh groups) intend to meet in the capital of Saudi Arabia before the end of October. They are expected to make a decision on forming a single delegation at the talks with Assad’s delegation in Geneva, some sources in the external Syrian opposition backed by Western countries told Izvestia.

"The Riyadh group has held preliminary consultations. The second meeting with members of the Moscow and Cairo group is set to be held by the end of this month, during which the parties are expected to decide on their representatives joining our delegation," one of the sources explained. He noted that after that it would be possible to raise the issue of establishing direct dialogue with Damascus.

Leader of the Moscow Group Qadri Jamil informed the paper that he supports the initiative to form a single delegation and join the talks without mediators. Nevertheless, the external opposition’s approach towards the issue is far from constructive now, he added. "The fact is that they want to consolidate other platforms under their authority. We need equitable dialogue to create a single delegation," he noted.

Damascus would only welcome the unification of the opposition and a shift to direct dialogue, member of the Syrian parliament from the ruling Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party Jamal Rabia told Izvestia.

"We have traditionally insisted on forming a single opposition delegation and holding talks without mediators. The presence of the Moscow, Cairo and Riyadh groups in Geneva just makes the dialogue more difficult," the lawmaker noted.

Meanwhile, only the Astana process has made any real contribution to settling the conflict, engaging both official Damascus and the armed opposition, according to Stanislav Tarasov, Director of the Middle East-Caucasus Research Center.

"There is the opposition fighting on the battlefield. It has every chance of taking part in Syria’s future political processes. There is also the opposition represented in Geneva. It lives abroad and is bankrolled by foreign sponsors. Its prospects are rather vague," the expert noted.


Kommersant: Egyptian bank enters Russian market

One of Egypt’s largest banks, Misr, is beginning work in Russia despite the turbulence in the banking sector, Kommersant writes. It is the first foreign bank to enter the Russian market over the past three years, following the Agricultural Bank of China, whose subsidiary has been present in Russia since September 2014.

Misr plans to focus on supporting interstate contracts between Russia and Egypt, a source in the bank said. The biggest Russian project in Egypt is the construction of four blocks of the country’s first nuclear power plant worth $25 bln with the use of a Russian government loan, the paper notes.

It is quite possible that Misr will register its full-fledged subsidiary in Russia in two years’ time. "The bank has been accredited as a representative office until mid-September 2019. Six months before the end of this period, a decision will be made about the format of its further existence as a full-fledged lending institution," the source said.

In the event that one of its subsidiaries opens in Russia, Misr will only be able to occupy a narrow niche of foreign trade operations, the paper quotes Alexey Buzdalin, Deputy Director General of the Interfax Center for Economic Analysis, as saying. "We see foreign banks, mostly Western ones, leaving Russia, on the contrary. This is partially due to sanctions and to some extent - to the stagnation of the Russian banking sector and the introduction of new requirements in the context of Basel 3 in Europe," he explained. "The Egyptian bank, can occupy that niche in Russia, if it has potential clients, but it will be small." The expert added though that, if the situation in the Russian economy changes, the bank will be able to grow rapidly being present in the country.


Izvestia: Europe gears up for Nord Stream-2

Despite attempts made by the European Commission to deter the construction of the Nord Stream-2 pipeline, European gas operators have already begun gearing up to expand their own gas transportation capacities. Natural gas will be delivered to consumers in continental Europe via the new European Gas Pipeline Link (EUGAL). Its construction will kick off in mid-2018 and will finish by the end of 2019, that is, by the time of the launch of Nord Stream-2, the press service of the pipeline’s operator, Gascade, informed Izvestia.

EUGAL with a capacity of 48 bln cubic meters will act as a counterpart of the existing OPAL gas pipeline (with a capacity of 36 bln cubic meters), which transports Russian gas from Nord Stream-1 to consumers in Central and Western Europe. According to Gascade, the cost of the pipeline will vary from one to three billion euros.

The company’s spokesman noted that the project is fully based on the wishes of the future potential market participants, namely, Poland, Russia, the Czech Republic and the Netherlands.

Russia’s energy giant Gazprom has shown interest in the project. In addition to that, some European gas operators, such as Fluxys, Gasunie and ONTRAS have signed an agreement on joining the project.

The very fact that the project will get some new shareholders shows that European businesses are certain that Nord Stream 2 will be implemented, according to Stanislav Mitrakhovich, an expert at the National Energy Security Fund.

"Besides, they see that the possibility of deterring the project by the European Commission is becoming less and less feasible. The European Commission cannot get new powers without the authorization of the Council of the European Union, which, by the way, has already concluded that it is difficult to hinder the implementation of the project," he noted.


Vedomosti: Russia could reduce its military presence in Syria

Given the unfolding events, apparently the Kurds, backed by the US, have allegedly cut a deal with some tribes that swore allegiance to the Islamic State (IS, terror group, outlawed in Russia) to consequently ensure the capture of a number of areas with oil fields on the eastern bank of the Euphrates without heavy fighting, Vedomosti quotes Yuri Lyamin who authored several publications on the war in Syria and Iraq as saying.

Syrian troops are unable to move with the same speed, as they have to overcome the militants’ fierce resistance, especially since their bulk forces are located on the western bank, the expert noted.

The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which are made up predominantly of Kurdish units, announced on Monday that they had gained control over the large Omar oil field on the eastern bank of Euphrates.

As for the further course of the fighting, there is every likelihood that Syrian troops’ efforts will be concentrated on the area around the city of Abu Kamal, on the Syrian-Iraqi border. Meanwhile, the Iraqi army is going to resume an offensive against Al Qaim located along in the same area along the Iraqi side of the border. In that case, after the end of the fighting, virtually all major Syrian and Iraqi cities will be recaptured from IS militants, Lyamin explained.

Apparently, the Syrian army did not allocate the relevant forces to capture oil fields, says Viktor Murakhovsky, Editor of the Arsenal Otechestva (Arsenal of the Fatherland) magazine. Nevertheless, Iraqi troops are gearing up for an offensive in this area, which means the operation to recapture almost the entire territory of Syria from the Islamic State can be completed before the end of this year, he noted.

According to Murakhovsky, after that Russia could announce cutbacks in its military grouping in Syria. He added that military advisers and special operation forces whose responsibility is, in particular, to guard the advisers are unlikely to be withdrawn from Syria. Military police units and drones needed to control the de-escalation zones and air defense forces are likely to remain in Syria in the near future. That’s why a symbolic reduction of the air group is a possible option, the expert concluded.


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