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US plays Monopoly, Russia plays chess

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Americans see individual pieces of geopolitical real estate in isolation, like hotels on the Monopoly board, while the Russians look at the interaction of all their spheres of interest around the globe.

Syria is of no real strategic interest to Russia, nor to anyone else for that matter. It is a broken wreck of a country, with an irreparably damaged economy, without the energy, water, or food to maintain long-term economic viability. The multiethnic melange left in place by British and French cartographers after the First World War has broken down irreparably into a war of mutual extermination, whose only result can be depopulation or partition on the Yugoslav model.

Syria only has importance in so far as its crisis threatens to spill over into surrounding territories which have more strategic importance. As a Petri dish for jihadist movements, it threatens to become the training ground for a new generation of terrorists, serving the same role that Afghanistan did during the 1990s and 2000s.

As a testing ground for the use of weapons of mass destruction, it provides a diplomatic laboratory to gauge the response of world powers to atrocious actions with comparatively little risk to the participants. It is an incubator of national movements, in which, for example, the newfound freedom of action for the country’s 2 million Kurds constitutes a means of destabilizing Turkey and other countries with substantial Kurdish minorities. Most important, as the cockpit of confessional war between Sunnis and Shi’ite, Syria may become the springboard for a larger conflict engulfing Iraq and possibly other states in the region.

I do not know what Putin wants in Syria. I do not believe that at this point Russia’s president knows what he wants in Syria, either. A strong chess player engaging an inferior opponent will create complications without an immediate strategic objective, in order to provoke blunders from the other side and take opportunistic advantage. There are many things that Putin wants. But he wants one big thing above all, namely, the restoration of Russia’s great power status. Russia’s leading diplomatic role in Syria opens several options to further this goal.

As the world’s largest energy producer, Russia wants to enhance its leverage over Western Europe for which it is the principle energy supplier. It wants to influence the marketing of natural gas produced by Israel and other countries in the Eastern Mediterranean. It wants to make other energy producers in the region dependent on its good graces for the security of their energy exports. It wants to enhance its role as a supplier of military equipment, challenging the American F-35 and F-22 with the new Sukhoi T-50 stealth fighter among other things. It wants a free hand in dealing with terrorism among its Muslim minority in the Caucasus. And it wants to maintain influence in its so-called near abroad in Central Asia.

American commentators reacted with surprise and in some cases dismay to Russia’s emergence as the arbiter of the Syria crisis. In fact, Russia’s emerging role in the region was already evident when the chief of Saudi intelligence, Prince Bandar, flew to Moscow during the first week of August to meet with Putin. The Russians and Saudis announced that they would collaborate to stabilize the new military government in Egypt, in direct opposition to the Obama administration. In effect Russia offered to sell Egypt any weapons that the United States declined to sell, while Saudi Arabia offered to pay for them.

That was a diplomatic revolution without clear precedent. It is not only that the Russians have returned to Egypt 40 years after they were expelled in the context of the real world war; they have done so in tactical alliance with Saudi Arabia, historically Russia’s nemesis in the region.

Saudi Arabia has an urgent interest in stabilizing Egypt, and in suppressing the Muslim Brotherhood, which the Saudi monarchy nightly views as a risk to its legitimacy. Saudi support for the Egyptian military against the Brotherhood is not surprising; what is most surprising is that the Saudi’s felt to involve Russia.

Although there are a number of obvious reasons for the Saudi’s and Russians to collaborate, for example controlling the jihadists in the Syrian opposition, we do not yet understand the full implications of their rapprochement. The Saudis leaked news that they had offered to buy $15 billion worth of Russian weapons in return for Russian help with Assad. Rumors of this kind should not be read at face value. They might be misdirection – but misdirection towards what?

Putin’s chessboard encompasses the globe. It includes such things as the security of energy exports from the Persian Gulf; the transmission of oil and gas through Central Asia; the market for Russian arms exports; energy negotiations now underway between Russia and China; the vulnerability of Europe’s energy supplies; and the internal stability of countries on or near Russia’s borders, including Turkey, Iraq and Iran.

For American analysts, most of this chessboard might as well be on the dark side of the moon. We see only what the Russians permit us to see. For example, Moscow first promised to provide Syria with the S-300 air defense system and then withdrew its offer. Saudi Arabia in early August let it be known that it was prepared to buy $15 billion of Russian weapons in return for considerations in Syria. A negotiation of some kind is underway, but we have no idea what kind of carrots and sticks might be involved.

What we may surmise is that Russia now has much greater capacity to influence events in the Middle East, including the security of energy resources, that it has at any time since the Yom Kippur War of 1973. For the time being, it is in Russia’s interest to keep its interlocutory guessing, and to enhance its future strategic options. Russia in effect has placed the burden of uncertainty on the rest of the world, especially upon major economies dependent on Persian Gulf energy exports.

President Obama evidently considers this arrangement beneficial to his own agenda. The president has no interest whatever in enhancing America’s strategic position in the world; his intent may be to diminish it, as Norman Podhoretz charged in the Wall Street Journal last week, and I argued five years ago. Obama is focused on his domestic agenda.

From that standpoint, handing over responsibility for the Syrian mess is a riskless exercise. American popular revulsion over foreign military intervention is so intense that the voters will welcome any measure that reduces American responsibility for foreign problems. Although the elite of the Democratic Party are liberal internationalists, Obama’s voting support has scant interest in Syria.

Public commentary on foreign policy is an exercise in frustration under the circumstances. Because America is a democracy, and substantial commitment of resources requires at least some degree of consensus, diplomacy was exceptionally transparent so long as America dominated the field. Think tanks, academia and the media served as a sounding board for any significant initiatives, so that important decisions were taken at least in part in the view of the public. That is no longer the case on Vladimir Putin’s chessboard. Russia will pursue a set of strategic trade-offs, but we in the West will not know what they are until well after the fact, if ever.

Further dimensions of complexity will arise from the eventual response of other prospective players, in particular China, but also including Japan. The self-shrinkage of America’s strategic position eliminates the constraint for Russia to choose a particular option. On the contrary, Russia can accumulate positional advantages to employ for particular strategic objectives at its leisure. And Putin will sit silent on his side of the chessboard and let the clock run against his opponent.

Putin may think that he is pre-empting a similar strategy on the part of the West. Fyodor Lukanov wrote on the AI Monitor website last March:

From Russian leadership’s point of view, the Iraq War now looks like the beginning of the accelerated destruction of regional and global stability, undermining the last principles of sustainable world order. Everything that’s happened since – including flirting with Islamists during the Arab Spring, US policies in Libya and its current policies in Syria – serve as evidence of strategic insanity that has taken over the last remaining superpower.

Russia’s persistence on the Syrian issue is the product of this perception. The issue is not sympathy for Syria’s dictator, nor commercial interests, nor naval bases in Tartus. Moscow is certain that if continued crushing of secular authoritarian regimes is allowed because America and the West support “democracy”, it will lead to such destabilization that will overwhelm all, including Russia. It’s therefore necessary for Russia to resist, especially as the West and the United States themselves experience increasing doubts.

Russians typically assume that Americans think the way they do, gauging every move by the way it affects the overall position on the board. The notion that incompetence rather than conspiracy explains the vast majority of American actions is foreign to Russian thinking. Whatever the Russian leader thinks, though, he will keep to himself.

After 12 years of writing on foreign policy in this space, I have nothing more to say. The Obama administration has handed the strategic initiative to countries whose policy-making proceeds behind a wall of opacity. Robert Frost’s words come to mind:

As for the evil tidings
Belshazzar’s overthrow
Why hurry to tell Belshazzar
What he soon enough will know?

Or – as in Robin Williams’ old nightclub impression of then president Jimmy Carter addressing the nation on the eve of World War III: “That’s all, good night, you’re on your own.”

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Middle East

Will Oman Succeed In What The UN And US Envoys Failed In Yemen?

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Since taking office on January 20, US President Joe Biden has made a priority for Yemen and appointed Tim Linderking as the US special envoy to Yemen to seek an end of the war that has been going on for more than six years, which made Yemen live “the worst humanitarian crisis in the world”, as described by the United Nations.

Nearly four months after his appointment as a special envoy to Yemen, and after several visits to the region, and several meetings through Omani coordination with representatives of the Houthi movement in Muscat, Linderking returned to the United States empty-handed, announcing that the Houthis are responsible for the failure of the ceasefire to take hold in Yemen. The US State Department said “While there are numerous problematic actors inside of Yemen, the Houthis bear major responsibility for refusing to engage meaningfully on a ceasefire and to take steps to resolve a nearly seven-year conflict that has brought unimaginable suffering to the Yemeni people”.

Two days only after the US State Department statement, which blamed the Houthis for the failure of the peace process in Yemen, an Omani delegation from the Royal Office arrives in Sana’a. What are the goals behind their visit to Sana’a, and will the Omani efforts be crowned with success?

Houthi spokesman Muhammad Abdul Salam said that “the visit of a delegation from the Omani Royal Office to Sanaa is to discuss the situation in Yemen, arrange the humanitarian situation, and advancing the peace process”. However, observers considered that the delegation carried an American message to the Houthi leader as a last attempt to pressure the Houthis to accept a ceasefire, and to continue the peace efforts being made to end the war and achieve peace, especially after the failure of all intensive efforts in the past days by the United Nations and the United States of America to reach a ceasefire as a minimum requirement for peace.

Oman was the only country in the Gulf Cooperation Council that decided not to participate in what was called “Operation Decisive Storm”, led by Saudi Arabia following its consistent policy of non-interference. Due to its positive role since the beginning of the crisis and its standing at the same distance from all the conflicting local and regional parties in Yemen, it has become the only qualified and trusted party by all the conflicting parties, who view it as a neutral side that has no interest in further fighting and fragmentation.

On the local level, Oman enjoys the respect and trust of the Houthis, who have embraced them and their negotiators for years and provided them with a political platform and a point of contact with the international parties concerned with solving the Yemeni problem, as well as embracing other political parties loyal to the legitimate government, especially those who had a different position to the Saudi-Emirati agenda during the last period.

At the regional level, Oman maintains strong historical relations with the Iran, and it is a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council, and this feature enables it to bring the views between the two sides closer to reach a ceasefire and ending the Yemeni crisis that has raved the region for several years as a proxy war between the regional rivalries Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Oman now possesses the trust and respect of all local, regional and international parties, who resorted to it recently and they are all pushing to reach a ceasefire and ending the crisis, after they have reached a conviction that it is useless. So the Omani delegation’s public visit to Sana’a has great connotations and an important indication of the determination of all parties to reach breakthrough in the Yemeni crisis.

The international community, led by the United States, is now looking forward to stop the war in Yemen. Saudi Arabia also is looking for an end to the war that cost the kingdom a lot and it is already presented an initiative to end the Yemeni crisis, as well as Iran’s preoccupation with its nuclear program and lifting of sanctions.

Likewise, the conflicting local parties reached a firm conviction that military resolution is futile, especially after the Houthis’ failed attempt for several months to control Marib Governorate the rich of oil and gas and the last strongholds of the government in the north, which would have changed the balance of power in the region as a whole.

Despite the ambiguity that is still surrounding the results of the Omani delegation’s visit to Sana’a so far, there is great optimism to reach a cease-fire and alleviate the humanitarian crisis and other measures that pave the way for entering into the political track to solve the Yemeni crisis.

The situation in Yemen is very complicated and the final solution is still far away, but reaching a ceasefire and the start of negotiations may be a sign of hope and a point of light in the dark tunnel of Yemenis who have suffered for years from the curse of this war and its devastating effects.

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Saudi Arabia steps up effort to replace UAE and Qatar as go-to regional hub

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Saudi Arabia has stepped up efforts to outflank the United Arab Emirates and Qatar as the Gulf’s commercial, cultural, and/or geostrategic hub.

The kingdom has recently expanded its challenge to the smaller Gulf states by seeking to position Saudi Arabia as the region’s foremost sport destination once Qatar has had its moment in the sun with the 2022 World Cup as well as secure a stake in the management of regional ports and terminals dominated so far by the UAE and to a lesser extent Qatar.

Saudi Arabia kicked off its effort to cement its position as the region’s behemoth with an announcement in February that it would cease doing business by 2024 with international companies whose regional headquarters were not based in the kingdom. 

With the UAE ranking 16 on the World Bank’s 2020 Ease of Doing Business Index as opposed to Saudi Arabia at number 62, freewheeling Dubai has long been international business’s preferred regional headquarters.

The Saudi move “clearly targets the UAE” and “challenges the status of Dubai,” said a UAE-based banker.

A latecomer to the port control game which is dominated by Dubai’s DP World that operates 82 marine and inland terminals in more than 40 countries, including Djibouti, Somaliland, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey and Cyprus, the kingdom’s expansion into port and terminal management appears to be less driven by geostrategic considerations.

Instead, Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea Gateway Terminal (RSGT), backed by the Public Investment Fund (PIF), the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund, said it was targeting ports that would service vital Saudi imports such as those related to food security.

PIF and China’s Cosco Shipping Ports each bought a 20 per cent stake in RSGT in January.

The Chinese investment fits into China’s larger Belt and Road-strategy that involves the acquisition regionally of stakes in ports and terminals in Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Oman, and Djibouti, where China has a military base.

RSGT Chief Executive Officer Jens Floe said the company planned to invest in at least three international ports in the next five years. He said each investment would be up to US$500 million.

“We have a focus on ports in Sudan and Egypt. They weren’t picked for that reason, but they happen to be significant countries for Saudi Arabia’s food security strategy,” Mr. Floe said.

Saudi Arabia’s increased focus on sports, including a potential bid for the hosting of the 2030 World Cup serves multiple goals: It offers Saudi youth who account for more than half of the kingdom’s population a leisure and entertainment opportunity, it boosts Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman’s burgeoning development of a leisure and entertainment industry, potentially allows Saudi Arabia to polish its image tarnished by human rights abuse, including the 2018 killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and challenges Qatar’s position as the face of Middle Eastern sports.

A recent report by Grant Liberty, a London-based human rights group that focuses on Saudi Arabia and China, estimated that the kingdom has so far invested in US$1.5 billion in the hosting of multiple sporting events, including the final matches of Italy and Spain’s top soccer leagues; Formula One; boxing, wrestling and snooker matches; and golf tournaments. Qatar is so far the Middle East’s leader in the hosting of sporting events followed by the UAE.

Grant Liberty said that further bids for sporting events worth US$800 million had failed. This did not include an unsuccessful US$600 million offer to replace Qatar’s beIN tv sports network as the Middle Eastern broadcaster of European soccer body UEFA’s Champions League.

Saudi Arabia reportedly continues to ban beIN from broadcasting in the kingdom despite the lifting in January of 3.5 year-long Saudi-UAE-led diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar.

Prince Mohammed’s Vision 2030 plan to diversify and streamline the Saudi economy and ween it off dependency on oil exports “has set the creation of professional sports and a sports industry as one of its goals… The kingdom is proud to host and support various athletic and sporting events which not only introduce Saudis to new sports and renowned international athletes but also showcase the kingdom’s landmarks and the welcoming nature of its people to the world,” said Fahad Nazer, spokesperson for the Saudi Arabian embassy in Washington.

The increased focus on sports comes as the kingdom appears to be backing away from its intention to reduce the centrality of energy exports for its economy.

Energy minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, Prince Mohammed’s brother, recently ridiculed an International Energy Agency (IEA) report that “there is no need for investment in new fossil fuel supply” as “the sequel of the La La Land movie.” The minister went on to ask, “Why should I take (the report) seriously?”

Putting its money where its mouth is, Saudi Arabia intends to increase its oil production capacity from 12 million to more than 13 million barrels a day on the assumption that global efforts to replace fossil fuel with cleaner energy sources will spark sharp reductions in US and Russian production.

The kingdom’s operating assumption is that demand in Asia for fossil fuels will continue to rise even if it drops in the West. Other Gulf producers, including the UAE and Qatar, are following a similar strategy.

“Saudi Arabia is no longer an oil country, it’s an energy-producing country … a very competitive energy country. We are low cost in producing oil, low cost in producing gas, and low cost in producing renewables and will definitely be the least-cost producer of hydrogen,” Prince Abdulaziz said.

He appeared to be suggesting that the kingdom’s doubling down on oil was part of strategy that aims to ensure that Saudi Arabia is a player in all conventional and non-conventional aspects of energy. By implication, Prince Abdulaziz was saying that diversification was likely to broaden the kingdom’s energy offering rather than significantly reduce its dependence on energy exports.

“Sports, entertainment, tourism and mining alongside other industries envisioned in Vision 2030 are valuable expansions of the Saudi economy that serve multiple economic and non-economic purposes,” “ said a Saudi analyst. “It’s becoming evident, however, that energy is likely to remain the real name of the game.”

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Iranians Will Boycott Iran Election Farce

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Iran and elections have not been two synonymous terms. A regime whose constitution is based on absolute rule of someone who is considered to be God’s representative on earth, highest religious authority, morality guide, absolute ruler, and in one word Big Brother (or Vali Faqih), would hardly qualify for a democracy or a place where free or fair elections are held. But when you are God’s rep on earth you are free to invent your own meanings for words such as democracy, elections, justice, and human rights. It comes with the title. And everyone knows the fallacy of “presidential elections” in Iran. Most of all, the Iranian public know it as they have come to call for an almost unanimous boycott of the sham elections.

The boycott movement in Iran is widespread, encompassing almost all social and political strata of Iranian society, even some factions of the regime who have now decided it is time to jump ship. Most notably, remnants of what was euphemistically called the Reformist camp in Iran, have now decided to stay away from the phony polls. Even “hardline” former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad realizes the extent of the regime’s woes and has promised that he will not be voting after being duly disqualified again from participating by supreme leader’s Guardian Council.

So after 42 years of launching a reformist-hardliner charade to play on the West’s naivety, Khamenei’s regime is now forced to present its one and true face to the world: Ebrahim Raisi, son of the Khomeinist ideology, prosecutor, interrogator, torturer, death commission judge, perpetrator of the 1988 massacre of political prisoners, chief inquisitionist, and favorite of Ali Khamenei.

What is historic and different about this presidential “election” in Iran is precisely what is not different about it. It took the world 42 years to cajole Iran’s medieval regime to step into modernity, change its behavior, embrace universal human rights and democratic governance, and treat its people and its neighbors with respect. What is shocking is that this whole process is now back at square one with Ebrahim Raisi, a proven mass murderer who boasts of his murder spree in 1988, potentially being appointed as president.

With Iran’s regime pushing the envelope in launching proxy wars on the United States in Iraq, on Saudi Arabia in Yemen, and on Israel in Gaza and Lebanon, and with a horrendous human rights record that is increasingly getting worse domestically, what is the international community, especially the West, going to do? What is Norway’s role in dealing with this crisis and simmering crises to come out of this situation?

Europe has for decades based its foreign policy on international cooperation and the peaceful settlement of disputes, and the promotion of human rights and democratic principles. The International community must take the lead in bringing Ebrahim Raisi to an international court to account for the massacre he so boastfully participated in 1988 and all his other crimes he has committed to this day.

There are many Iranian refugees who have escaped the hell that the mullahs have created in their beautiful homeland and who yearn to one day remake Iran in the image of a democratic country that honors human rights. These members of the millions-strong Iranian Diaspora overwhelmingly support the boycott of the sham election in Iran, and support ordinary Iranians who today post on social media platforms videos of the Mothers of Aban (mothers of protesters killed by regime security forces during the November 2019 uprising) saying, “Our vote is for this regime’s overthrow.” Finally, after 42 years, the forbidden word of overthrow is ubiquitous on Iranian streets with slogans adorning walls calling for a new era and the fall of this regime.

Europe should stand with the Iranian Resistance and people to call for democracy and human rights in Iran and it should lead calls for accountability for all regime leaders, including Ebrahim Raisi, and an end to a culture of impunity for Iran’s criminal rulers.

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