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Syria is Iran’s Stalingrad

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The growing infusion of Iranian-backed Lebanese and Iraqi Shiite fighters into the Syrian civil war is causing some veteran pundits to panic. Vali Nasr, dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, warns that “Iran is beating the U.S. in Syria.”

Former Bush administration deputy national security adviser Elliot Abrams sees “a humiliating defeat of the United States at the hands of Iran.”

Nothing could be further from the truth. Setting aside the matter of how Washington can be losing a war it is not fighting, the claim that Iran is winning is dead wrong. The Islamic Republic’s headlong intervention in Syria is akin to Nazi Germany’s surge of military forces into the Battle of Stalingrad in the fall of 1942 – an operationally competent, strategic blunder of epic proportions.

To be sure, the influx of thousands of foreign (mostly non-Iranian) Shiite fighters into Syria in recent months has enabled pro-regime forces to regain some ground in the Damascus suburbs and a belt of territory linking the capital to Homs and the coast. The town of Qusayr, critical to both rebel and regime supply lines into Lebanon, fell on June 5.

That’s a shame, but the Iranian surge won’t prevent the overwhelmingly Sunni Arab rebels from eventually prevailing on the battlefield. Sunni Arabs have a 5-to-1 demographic edge over the minority Alawites who comprise most uniformed and paramilitary pro-regime combatants, and a 2-to-1 advantage over all of Syria’s ethno-sectarian minorities combined. The rebels are strongly supported by the overwhelming majority of Arabs and Muslims worldwide who are Sunnis, and their four principal sponsors – Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Jordan – have a GDP well over twice that of Iran. Russia continues to do business with the regime, but it won’t intervene decisively enough to change the math.

Like the vaunted German Wehrmacht in the Stalingrad kessel, Iran’s expeditionary forces have been thrown into a tactical military environment for which they are woefully unprepared. Although Hezbollah wrote the book on guerrilla warfare against conventional militaries, it has little experience fighting battle-hardened insurgents on unfamiliar terrain – and it shows. At least 141 Hezbollah fighters were killed in the span of just one month fighting in the battle for Qusayr, many of them elite commandos who cannot easily be replaced.

Iran’s mobilization of Lebanese and Iraqi Shiites to fight for their distant theological cousins in Syria is unlikely to keep pace with such losses, or with the increased influx of foreign Sunni Islamists sure to come in reaction to it. In the wake of Nasrallah’s May 25 declaration to his Shiite followers that the Syrian war is “our battle,” the Qatar-based spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, issued a fatwa calling on all Muslims with military training to fight in Syria (something he never did with respect to Israel) and characterizing the conflict as a worldwide struggle between “100 million Shiites” and “1.7 billion [Sunni] Muslims.”

Of course, divisions among both the rebels and their external sponsors have greatly slowed the march to Damascus. Because Syrian President Bashar Assad’s ultimate defeat is a foregone conclusion, all of the major players (the United States included) are focused more on bolstering their equity within the eventually-to-be-victorious rebel camp than on hastening its advance. But the eventual aggregation and coordination of sufficient rebel manpower and resources to decisively defeat pro-regime forces (first in Damascus, later in the rest of Syria) is inevitable so long as none of the players bow out or switch sides.

Iran’s only hope of avoiding this path is to make the humanitarian cost of a decisive rebel military victory so horrific that the international community will step in and force the rebels to accept a Lebanon-style “no victor, no vanquished” political compromise. This would leave pro-regime forces intact and well poised to subvert the post-war transition, much as Hezbollah’s militia survived and thrived following the end of Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war.

But this scenario necessitates a rebel leadership willing to accept, and united enough to enforce, a ceasefire that leaves pro-regime forces in control of large swathes of the country during the transition process. With Jabhat al-Nusra and other militant jihadist groups in Syria continuing to grow in strength, neither condition will obtain for the foreseeable future.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei could have cut his losses early on by allowing the Assad regime to die a natural death and building bridges with its successor. Such an accommodation would have greatly impaired Iran’s ability to transport heavy weapons to Hezbollah, but its Lebanese proxy would still have remained Israel’s deadliest security threat for years to come. Hamas, which effectively severed its alliance with Tehran as a result of the Syria conflict, would probably have kept at least one foot in the Iranian axis. Khamenei likely declined to take this path for the same reason that Hitler refused to disengage from a no-win military confrontation in Stalingrad – a deeply metaphysical confidence in ultimate victory.

This delusion will cost him a great deal more than Syria. Even before the surge, Iran’s massive infusions of cash into Syria (12.6 billion dollars, according to one estimate) and stepped up training of pro-Assad forces had greatly inflamed animosity toward the Islamic Republic and its proxies throughout the Arab-Islamic world. After years of successfully mobilizing Arabs against Israel (as recently as 2008, polling still showed Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah to be the Arab world’s most popular public figure), Tehran has managed to incite even greater hostility to itself in a fraction of the time. A recent survey by James Zogby shows that Iran’s favorability ratings have fallen to an all-time low in majority Sunni countries (dropping from 85 percent to 15 percent in Saudi Arabia between 2006 and 2012, for example). Syria, he writes, has become the “nail in the coffin” of Iran’s standing in the region. The inflamed sectarianism wrought by Iran, according to a detailed study by Geneive Abdo of the Brookings Institution, is likely to supersede the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “as the central mobilizing factor for Arab political life.”

In addition to sabotaging its regional hegemonic ambitions, intervention in Syria may also have dire domestic political consequences for the Islamic Republic. The regime’s involvement in a chronic sectarian conflict is sure to steadily alienate its own restive Sunni minority, while the strain on its sanctions-riddled economy will only get worse. Most importantly, the ignominious collapse of its claim to pan-Islamic leadership erodes one of the main pillars of its legitimacy in the eyes of Shiites. There are no silver linings.

While Abrams insists that the United States should be working to “deter” Iran “from sending more fighters to help save Assad,” he’s got it all wrong. The Obama administration should copy the late Soviet General Georgy Zhukov and focus not on combating the foolhardy Iranian surge, but on exploiting the strategic and political flanks left exposed by it.

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UAE and the Golden Visa Strategy

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Countries like UK, US, Canada and Australia have remained preferred destinations for South Asian professionals and students — especially from India  — not because of the employment opportunities available in these countries, but also the fact that they provide residency and citizenship. One of the reasons why the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in spite of having numerous advantages – proximity to South Asia, a large South Asian expat population and reasonable quality of life – lost out for very  long to the West was its visa system, whereby there was no concept of ‘residency’ or citizenship for expats . Apart from this, there was no substantial grace period for professionals who lost jobs and the focus of the Gulf state for long was on attracting businessmen, or individuals investing in real estate, and not professionals or researchers per se.

In recent years, UAE has focused on reducing it dependence upon oil and creating a new economic model for the future for which it would be important to attract talent from different parts of the world. While UAE had introduced changes to its visa system by introducing long term visas – such as the Golden Visa – before the covid19 pandemic, it has introduced some further changes/relaxations in order to attract not just entrepreneurs willing to invest, but also individuals who have excelled in R&D, the arts and even philanthropy.

Some important changes to the long-term UAE Visas came into effect on October 3, 2022. These include some significant revisions to the Golden Visa Residency Program (10 year residency), Green Visa and the introduction of new categories such as the ‘job exploration visa’. The Golden Visa and Green Visa are important, because they remove the requirement of a local sponsor for businesses. Amongst the latest revisions are a provision whereby the holder of the Golden Residency/Green  visa can sponsor family members, and what is significant is that while earlier the Golden visa would be invalid if the holder stayed outside the UAE for a period of 6 months or more, now a holder of the Golden Visa can stay outside the UAE for an indefinite period. Another important change is that the Green Visa which was earlier 2 years has now been extended to 5 years. Interestingly, freelancers who meet certain criterion are eligible for the Golden Residency Visa and Green Visa.

Through the Golden Visa and Green Visa, UAE is trying to attract not just entrepreneurs, but individuals with specific skills such as scientists and researchers, and students, which clearly shows UAE’s objective of not just viewing immigration from the prism of investment into real estate or businesses. What is also interesting is that unlike earlier, UAE provides a grace period – of six months – after the expiration of the Green visa. Another interesting category is the ‘job exploration visa’ where by graduates from the top 500 universities of the world can visit UAE to explore job opportunities (those wanting to avail of this visa can apply for three durations – 60 days, 90 days and 120 days).

While in recent years, UAE has emerged as a favored destination for High Networth individuals (HNWI’s) from different parts of the world including India (especially after the second wave of Covid19). In 2022, UAE is predicted to draw a net inflow of 4,000 HNWI’s. With the changing geopolitical uncertainty arising after the Ukraine-Russia war, UAE is likely to attract even more expats.

The Golden Visa has made UAE an attractive destination not just for HNWI’s but also talented professionals and even students. It would be pertinent to point out, that over the past few decades, there has been a trend of many South Asians from the West relocating to the UAE, due to its geographical location but also the fact that it is home to top Multinational Corporations MNC’s and is also emerging as an important educational hub (home to a number of western campuses). South Asians account for over half of the total expat population, and this also makes it an attractive destination for individuals of South Asian origin.

 The new visa rules could be a decisive push towards being a first choice for not just those seeking employment, but also students. Here it would also be pertinent to point out, that it is not just the west but even countries like Singapore — which are an attractive destination for Indian professionals — could lose out as a result of the recent revisions to the visa system.

In conclusion, countries like Australia and Canada which have emerged as alternative choices to UK and US for students from South Asia – especially India – and have of late been trying to tighten immigration can no longer take things for granted at least in the long run if the UAE is able to successfully deal with the new visa system.

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Saudi crown prince shifts into high gear on multiple fronts

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Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is simultaneously speed dating and playing on multiple diplomatic, religious, and economic chessboards.

The latest feather in his crown, his appointment as prime minister, aims to ensure that he can continue to do so with as little collateral damage as possible.

The appointment shields him from legal proceedings in the United States, France, and potentially elsewhere, including the International Criminal Court in the Hague, in which plaintiffs assert that Mr. Bin Salman was responsible for the 2018 killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

As a head of government, Mr. Bin Salman enjoys sovereign immunity, a status he could not claim as heir-apparent.

While the legal manoeuvre is certain to succeed, it is unlikely to significantly improve his image tarnished by the killing and his domestic crackdown on dissent that in recent weeks produced outlandish sentences to decades in prison for little more than a tweet.

Reputational issues have not stopped Mr. Bin Salman from shifting into high gear as he pushes ahead with efforts to diversify Saudi Arabia’s oil-dependent economy; replace regional competitors like the United Arab Emirates and Qatar as the center of gravity at the intersection of Asia, Africa, and Europe; demonstrate his diplomatic clout and relevance beyond oil to the international community; and position himself and the kingdom as the beacon of a moderate, albeit an autocratic, form of Islam.

Mr. Bin Salman’s multi-pronged dash has produced mixed results.

In his latest foray onto the international stage, Mr. Bin Salman sought to display his diplomatic skills and relevance to the international community by securing the release by Russia of ten foreign nationals captured while fighting for Ukraine. The foreigners’ release was part of a Ukrainian-Russian prisoner swap negotiated by Turkey.

Although Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan al Saud rejected as “very cynical” assertions that Mr. Bin Salman was seeking to shore up his image by associating himself with the swap, it seems likely that Russian President Vladimir Putin was happy to give him a helping hand.

In a similar vein, people close to Mr. Bin Salman see mileage in asserting that the crown prince’s lifting of a ban on women’s driving and enhancement of women’s rights and professional opportunities is what inspired women-led protests in Iran that have entered their third week as well as Iran’s recent relaxing of its prohibition on women attending men’s soccer matches.

Ali Shihabi, an analyst who often echoes official Saudi thinking, claimed in a tweet that “Saudi reforms for women have had a big impact on the world of Islam. As the previous upholder of ultra orthodoxy #MBS’s dramatic changes have sent a powerful signal that has undermined Uber conservatives across the region like the Mullahs in Iran.” Mr. Shihabi was referring to Mr. Bin Salman by his initials.

The nationwide protests were sparked by the death of a young woman while in the custody of Iran’s morality police. The police had arrested 22-year-old Mahsa Amini for what authorities described as sporting an “improper” hijab.

By contrast, Mr. Bin Salman’s economic diversification efforts appear to be producing more unambiguous results. For example, the Saudi industry and mineral resources ministry issued over 500 industrial licenses in the first six months of this year, primarily in the food, steel, and chemicals sectors.

The ministry reported that the number of factories that commenced operations doubled, from 303 to 721. Buoyed by massive oil export revenues, Mr. Bin Salman hopes to brand a ‘Made in Saudi’ label as part of his non-oil export drive.

Even so, foreign investment in manufacturing has been slow to take off, particularly in Mr. Bin Salman’s, at times, futuristic mega projects like his US$500 billion city of Neom on the Red Sea. New Jersey-based Lucid Group broke the mold when it announced in February that it would build its first overseas electrical vehicle production facility in the kingdom.

More controversial are plans for a beach in Neom scheduled to open next year that envision a wine bar, a separate cocktail bar, and a bar for “champagne and desserts” in a country that bans alcohol.

The plans seem out of sync with religious sentiment among a significant segment of Gulf youth if a recent opinion poll is to be believed,

Forty-one per cent of young Gulf Arabs, including Saudis, said religion was the most important element of their identity, with nationality, family and/or tribe, Arab heritage, and gender lagging far behind.

More than half of those surveyed, 56 per cent, said their country’s legal system should be based on the Shariah or Islamic law. Seventy per cent expressed concern about the loss of traditional values and culture.

In contrast to economics, the going in turning the kingdom into a sports and esports hub has been rougher.

In his latest move, Mr. Bin Salman launched a US$38 billion “National Gaming and Esports Strategy” to make Saudi Arabia an esports leader by 2030. The budget includes US$13 billion for the acquisition of “a leading game publisher.” The kingdom has already invested in Capcom, Nexon, Nintendo, ESL Gaming, SNK, and Embracer Group.

In addition, Saudi music entertainment company MDLBEAST saw a business opportunity in the 2022 Qatar World Cup that would also help project the once secretive kingdom as a forward-looking modern state. MDLBEAST has invited  56 top international and regional performers to entertain soccer fans on a custom-built stage in Doha during the 28 days of the tournament.

On an even grander scale, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, two of the world’s more notorious human rights violators, together with Greece, are considering bidding to host the 2030 World Cup –a move that sounds like an invitation to a perfect public relations fiasco, if Qatar’s experience is an indicator.

The potential bid did not stop soccer icon Cristiano Ronaldo from dashing initial Saudi hopes to attract a superstar to the kingdom’s top football league when he turned down a US$258 million offer to play for Al Hilal, one of Saudi Arabia’s top clubs.

Similarly, Saudi Arabia’s endeavour to bankroll Liv Golf, a challenger to PGA Tour, the organizer of North America’s main professional men’s golf tournaments, has turned into a public relations fiasco amid allegations that the kingdom was seeking to launder its reputation.

A refusal by major broadcasters to secure the rights to air the League’s tours exemplifies its problems.

Religion has proven to be the arena in which Saudi Arabia may have scored its most prominent public relations fete.

The Muslim World League, Mr. Bin Salman’s primary vehicle to garner religious soft power and propagate an autocratic version of Islam that is socially liberal but demands absolute obedience to the ruler, achieved a public relations coup when it forged an unlikely alliance with Nahdlatul Ulama. Nahdlatul Ulama.

Nahdlatul Ulama is arguably the world’s only mass movement propagating a genuinely moderate and pluralistic form of Islam.

Moreover, as the world’s largest Muslim civil society movement in the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country and democracy, Nahdlatul Ulama’s words and actions have an impact.

As a result, the League counted its blessings when Nahdlatul Ulama’ recognised it as a non-governmental organization rather than a de facto extension of Mr. Bin Salman’s rule.

The recognition opens doors for the League, which has so far traded on Saudi Arabia’s custodianship of Mecca and Medina, Islam’s two holiest cities; lofty statements and conferences that produced little, if any, real change; and funding of emergency and development aid in various parts of the world.

It allowed Nahdlatul Ulama to invite the League, a major promoter of Saudi ultra-conservatism before Mr. Bin Salman’s rise, to co-organize the newly established Religion 20 (R20), a summit of religious leaders under the auspices of the Group of 20 that brings together the world’s largest economies.

The first R20 summit, scheduled for early November in Bali, is part of the run-up to the meeting of G20 leaders later that month hosted by Indonesia, the group’s chairman for the year. The R20, the G20’s latest official engagement group, aims to “position religion as a source of solutions rather than problems across the globe.”

The limits of Saudi tolerance were evident last month when authorities arrested a pilgrim to Mecca for dedicating his pilgrimage to Britain’s Queen Elizabeth, a non-Muslim who had just died.

Nahdlatul’s outreach to the League is part of a bold and risky strategy. However, Nahdlatul Ulama believes that engagement creates an opportunity to persuade the League to embrace a more genuine and holistic vision of moderate Islam rather than one that is self-serving.

That may be a long shot, but it also may be a way of launching Saudi Arabia on a path that would help it repair its badly tarnished image. That is if Mr. Bin Salman pairs genuine religious moderation and pluralism with a rollback of domestic repression and greater political pluralism. So far, that appears to be one thing the crown prince is unwilling to consider.

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Iraq and the ‘Blind Gordian Knot’

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After its occupation by the United States in 2003, Iraq fell into the double trap of the United States and Iran and became an insoluble problem. Similar to the legendary ‘Gordian’ knot, which Gordias, the king of Phrygia, tied so tightly that it was said that no one could untie it; Until ‘Alexander the Great’ came and cut it in half with one stroke of the sword and the knot was opened.

The trap that America set for Iraq was the constitution that it drafted for this country after the occupation. In this constitution, America removed Iraq’s Arab identity and imposed a two-thirds majority to elect the president, paving the way for the use of a ‘suspended one-third’.

At the same time, he set the conditions for amending this article and all the articles of the first chapter of the constitution so difficult that it was practically impossible to amend it. This constitution divided the power between Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds, as a result of which, the Iraqi society was subject to chaos and fragmentation, and the army that was created based on it collapsed in front of ISIS in Mosul. Now let’s skip the destructive role that Nouri al-Maliki had as the prime minister in this story.

But the trap that the Islamic Republic of Iran set for Iraq was that it formed armed groups affiliated with the Quds Force and gave them legitimacy under the umbrella of ‘The Popular Mobilization Forces, which resulted in the monopoly of power in the hands of the Shiites.

So far, all efforts to free Iraq from this double trap have failed. The popular revolution of 2019 in Baghdad, Karbala, and other southern cities did not reach anywhere with its anti-Iranian slogans, nor did the government of Mustafa al-Kazemi solve the problem with its patriotic government project, nor did the recent efforts of the Sadr movement under the leadership of prominent cleric Moqtada Sadr bear fruit.

The Sadr movement, which won the majority in the elections, tried to form a national majority government in an agreement with the coalition of the Sunni ruling party and the Kurdistan Democratic Party, but the coordination framework was dependent on Iran, using the one-third weapon, defeated the efforts of the Sadr movement.

In Iraq, there is no ‘Alexander the Great’ who will rise up and open the blind Gordian knot with one stroke of the sword and save Iraq from the crisis. No random event occurs. Now, the land between the two rivers is caught in deep-rooted and growing corruption and has lost its way among various Arab, Iranian, Eastern, and Western trends. Even Moqtada’s plan for the formation of a national government, which was put forward recently with the slogan ‘Neither East, nor West”, is also facing many difficulties and obstacles.

Of course, expecting the formation of a democratic system with the management of armed sectarian parties that advance politics based on religious fatwas and the force of destructive war missiles and drones is a futile thing, and talking about a national government in which power is in the hands of religious parties affiliated with the neighboring religious government is gossip and superstition.

Apart from that, according to the current laws of Iraq, the main power is in the hands of the Prime Minister and the Council of Ministers, and the powers of the President are limited and few, as a result, Shiite parties and organizations, especially their larger organizations, get more privileges, and the main power is exclusive to the Shiite community.

In addition, the organization that will be called the largest and the majority based on the political Ijtihad of the Supreme Court of Iraq will actually be the same organization that the Islamic Republic of Iran creates within the Iraqi parliament, not the organization that will receive the most votes in the elections. As we saw in the last parliamentary elections, the Sadr movement won the majority of votes and tried to form a majority government in an agreement with the Sunni ruling coalition and the Kurdistan Democratic Party, but the groups affiliated with the Islamic Republic of Iran stood against it under the name of the coordination framework. And they made his efforts fruitless.

It is for this reason that it has been almost a year since the Iraqi parliamentary elections were held, but the parliament has so far been unable to form a government and elect a new president.

Of course, this is the nature of totalitarian systems. Although the Iraqi system is a democratic system according to the constitution, in reality, the ruling system in Iraq is a totalitarian system. Just like the ruling systems in the Soviet Union and China, where power rotates among the leaders of the Communist Party; Both the rulers were members of the Communist Party, and the political opponents were imprisoned or executed. Because in Iraq, all the pillars of political power are in the hands of the Shiites; Both the factions that are actually in power are the Shiites, and the factions that lead political struggles and protests as opponents are Shia parties. Even the revolution of 2019 was actually a revolution of the new generation of Shiites who had risen against the influence of Iran and America and their supporters.

The fact is that with this situation, Iraq will never be able to free itself from the American-Iranian double trap and untie the blind Gordian knot. Rather, it can only do so when all the Iraqi national and patriotic parties and groups come together under the umbrella of a democratic, national, independent, non-sectarian coalition that is not dependent on foreign countries, and form a strong national government that, while being independent, is in touch with the outside world and establish good relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran, Arab countries, and Eastern and Western countries.

The bottom line is, when the minds that have produced destructive thoughts cannot produce liberating thoughts, Iraq needs those thinkers and new political figures who will establish a correct, solid, and independent political system in Iraq. The current situation is rooted in the incorrect political structure, the foundation of which was laid in 2003. But it is a pity that only a clear understanding of the crisis is not enough to solve it.

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