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The shifting paradigm of U.S. external dominance in the Syria killings

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Someone could well ask why the Western powers, especially the United States (U.S.), have such vested interests in the Middle East and, indeed, Syria as it bleeds everyday while the world does nothing.

The U.S. today is fairly self-sufficient in meeting its energy needs, so energy consolidation is not a compelling reason for its perennial engagement in Middle Eastern affairs. Perhaps, Goodarzi‘s book Syria and Iran, Diplomatic Alliance and Power Politics in the Middle East (2006) has some aspects of the answer.

Goodarzi argues that the Middle East’s attraction to the superpowers and their constant interference is intricately bound up with the region’s huge oil reserves and its geopolitical significance, as it really stands at the crossroads between Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Indian subcontinent. And in my view the U.S. as one of the superpowers cannot thrust its weight and penetrate the crossroads solely through political rhetoric, but through force projection or the preservation of American military hegemony, evidenced through half of a million U.S. troops, spies, contractors on some 737 military bases in 130 countries (Johnson, 2006).

Why then did U.S. President Barack Obama back off from his well-publicized military option against Syria? Is his failure to exercise the military option not contradictory to a U.S. policy of global preservation of American military hegemony? Obama won the Presidency in 2008 on a platform that he would be the President of peace and not war. He ended the Iraq war by withdrawing most of the troops, and is about to do the same with Afghanistan, except that he wants a long-term security pact that is not easily forthcoming due to Afghan’s President Hamid Karzai’s reluctance to acquiesce. And even now with the uneasy relationship between the U.S. and Iran, Obama argued for diplomacy as a first resort in talks aimed at dismantling that country’s atomic activities.

And in reversing his position on air strikes against Syria to pursue soft diplomacy, willingly or not, Obama gained Russian President Putin‘s support to pressure Bashar al Assad to remove chemical weapons from Syria. More recently, Obama had a hand in the United Nations’ (U.N.) initiation of peace talks in Geneva between the Syrian Government and the opposition forces. Nothing came out of the first round, with the second round in progress. But if these talks continue to fail, what would Obama’s next move be, given the tradition of the U.S. military hegemony? Refer to Obama’s observations in 2012 at the U.S. Holocaust Museum where he said that the U.S. cannot use the military to address every injustice globally, but should resort in the first place to the use of diplomacy, economic, and other methods to save lives (http://www.voanews.com/content/white-house-defends-obama-on-syria-after-mccain-criticism/1850311.html). The point of this paper is that the U.S. Administration cannot continue to march into other people’s countries and dictate how they should carry on their affairs.

In restraining U.S. military interventions globally compared to other U.S. administrations, Obama has attracted many swipes from U.S. conservative politicians and commentators because for them he has abandoned the spirit and cause of the Beveridge, Truman, and Eisenhower doctrines which advocate for U.S. dominance of other nations, that is, promoting imperialism. Obama being wedded more to cultural diplomacy than to military engagements and imperialism pushes him closer to the label of an implementer of an ‘anti-American foreign policy’ in the eyes of many conservative U.S. lawmakers.

And as some U.S. policy makers, unmindful of their passion for imperialism, haggle on the possibility of military adventurism in Syria, the tragedy in that unfortunate country rages on, where about 130,000 persons were killed in Syria since 2011 (Syrian Observatory for Human Rights – http://syriahr.net/en/). Within the context of mass killings in Syria, U.S. lawmakers may do themselves some good in trying to understand the cultural complexities of Syria and the importance of alliances in the Middle East, specifically relating to the historic alliance between Syria and Iran. In fact, there were 33 different alliances between 1955 and 1979 in the Middle East (Walt, 1990). Before any Western power, including the U.S., starts to railroad Syria with ground and air troops and drones, it should develop a sense of what Syria is as a nation; something that ought to be done each time America angles toward military adventurism in the name of peace, freedom, and democracy in any country.
Only in 2012, one year after the bloodshed began, did Syria’s President Bashar Al-Assad concede that Syria is in a state of war. Not surprisingly, the state of war has now become perennial. This state of war is a battle between the Bashar al-Assad and the rebels from diverse groups in Syria, and the possibility of a civil war is not improbable. Before making any definitive conclusion on the expectation of some impending civil war, note that Syria has the following diverse religious groups (VOA, December 20, 2012): Sunni Islam (74%); Christians (10-11%); Alawite Islam (9-10%); Druze (3%); Ismaili Islam (1%); Ithna’ashari/Twelver Shi’ite Islam (< 1%). Sectarianism is on the rise while simultaneously there is now a vociferous call for Bashar’s removal from office and the institution of significant political reforms.

Over the last 47 years, Syria has experienced Ba ‘thist dictatorial rule that commenced with the February 1966 coup perpetrated by the minority Alawite Arab Nationalist Ba ‘th party of which Hafiz al-Assad was associated. The minority Alawite party constituting only about one-eighth of Syria’s population remains in political control over a country predominantly Sunnis.  Bashar al-Assad’s father Hafiz al-Assad removed his Alawite partner Salah Jadid in November 1970, to initiate the dominance of the Assads.

Harris (2007) claimed that Hafiz al-Assad made Syria a regional power at great cost to the Syrians through political desertification, personal fiefdoms for his friends, and an economically-deprived economy; and that also bred inter-religious group resentment. Phillips (2012) provided further insights into the roots of the current uprising, and Hafiz sustained his political power through constructing social and economic inequalities to promote his strategy of divide and rule. For instance, on his accession in 1970, Hafiz had the support of a large cross-section of Sunni Arabs largely working class and peasants who were about 65% of the population as well as the non-Sunni Arab community such as Christians, Druze, and Alawites. He sustained this coalition support base through jobs and subsidies for the poor by expanding state institutions. But he fiercely excluded the Turkish Kurds and the Sunni Arab elite who were part of the governance structure in previous administrations. Bashar al-Assad inherited his father’s legacy in 2000 with the hope of bettering it, but instead has not performed as a political leader for his country, graduating from rigidity to adventurism (Harris, 2007).
While economic and social conditions did not change much from his father’s era, Bashar al-Assad cemented greater inequalities among the diverse religious groups, ensuring that the favored minority Alawhite group become the largest benefactors of economic gains. According to the World Development Indicators of the World Bank (http://data.worldbank.org/country/syrian-arab-republic), some economic and demographic features in Syria in the year 2010, the year prior to the current conflict, were: Population: 21,532,647 million; GDP in current US dollars: $59,147,033,452; GDP annual growth: 3.2%; GDP per capita in current US dollars: $2,747; life expectancy at birth: 75 years.

 Phillips argued that the ills brought on Syria were related to Bashar’s reversal of his father’s socialist policies. In my view not genuine socialist policies, but ‘convenient’ policies that both father and son used  to sustain their regime. Consequences of this turnaround include the creation of a liberalized economy, a reduction of subsidies to the poor, increased unemployment, and reduced incomes for those in the state bureaucracy. But those within the corridors of power, mainly Alawites, became enriched more so than in the Hafiz era. And Bashar made no effort at striking a balance between the established Alawite elite and enhancing the declining status of the Sunni Arabs. The upshot was the Sunnis’ inevitable resentment against the corrupt Alawite elite. Indeed, any Western power including the U.S. contemplating an engagement with Syria must also factor the historic Syria-Iran connection. And for about 35 years now, the U.S./Iran relationship has been uneasy.
References:
Goodarzi, J., 2006. Syria and Iran, Diplomatic Alliance and Power Politics in the Middle East. London, U.K.: Tauris Academic Studies.

Harris, W.W., 2007. Review Article: Syria, British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, 34:2, 215-220,
DOI: 10.1080/13530190701427941

Johnson, C., 2006. Nemesis, The Last days of the American Republic. New York: Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company.

Phillips, C., 2012. Syria’s Torment, Survival: Global Politics and
Strategy, 54:4, 67-82, DOI: 10.1080/00396338.2012.709389

VOA, December 20, 2012.

Walt, S.M., 1990. The Origins of Alliance. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

http://syriahr.net/en/ (Accessed on February 13, 2014).

http://data.worldbank.org/country/syrian-arab-republic (Accessed February 13, 2014).

http://www.voanews.com/content/white-house-defends-obama-on-syria-after-mccain-criticism/1850311.html. (Accessed February 13, 2014).

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Evolving Japan-UAE ties

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Mohamed bin Zayed with Japan's Abe. Image Credit: WAM

Japan and the UAE share a unique relationship with each other. Japan recognised the UAE as an independent state in 1971 and opened its Embassy in the UAE in 1974 and on the other hand, UAE opened its embassy in Japan in 1973. Both nations share strong bilateral economic relations, dating back to 1961 when the first shipment of the crude oil was exported from Umm Al-Sharif offshore field in Abu Dhabi to Japan. Japan is known to be the world’s fourth-largest importer of oil. In 2017, it was the second-largest export market, behind China, for Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar. The UAE became the top destination in the Middle East region for Japan’s exports, valued at $7.18 billion in 2019, taking economic bilateral relations to a great level. However, on 19 July 2020, UAE spacecraft rocketed into blue skies from a Japanese launch centre at the start of a seven-month journey to Mars on the Arab’s world’s first interplanetary mission. This mission gave a boost to its strategic relations as well as space cooperation.

Understanding their bilateral relations

The longstanding cordial relationship between the UAE and Japan has been honored for decades. In 2013, PM Shinzo Abe visited the UAE and both nations jointly announced the statement on the strengthening of the Comprehensive Partnership between Japan and the UAE towards stability and prosperity. The relations between both countries have mostly focused on the economy and trade ever since they established their diplomatic relations. Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces H.H. Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan visited Japan as an official guest in February 2014 to follow up the Joint Statement issued during the Prime Minister’s visit to the UAE in May 2013.

In 2016, the number of Japanese citizens living in the UAE totalled 4,000, while hundreds of Emirati citizens are in Japan for education and investment purposes.

According to the Japan External Trade Organisation (JETRO), In 2017, Japan imported Dh57.3 billion worth of oil from the UAE.

In 2018, the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership Initiative (CSPI) was signed between the two countries when Abe visited the UAE. With the signing of the CSPI, the relationship between Japan and the UAE entered a new era of strategic partnership for the future and joint cooperation strategy between the institutions of the two countries. They also agreed to increase trade in areas which included renewable energy, advanced robots, artificial intelligence and health care. Ensuring cordial energy ties are critical under the CSPI. In 2018, Japan also acquired an oil concession in Abu Dhabi for the coming 40 years which proved that Japan is an important strategic energy partner in the UAE.

The leadership of the UAE has been keen on strengthening ties with Japan in areas like education, scientific research and industry. It aims to seek its ties with Japan to new levels as Japan possesses advanced technology which would serve the sustainable and comprehensive development goals in the UAE. Cooperation is very strong in the education field. The first Japanese school was inaugurated in the UAE in 2009 and began teaching the Arabic language, Islamic education and social studies to the students of the Emirates along with the Japanese curriculum. Furthermore, around 100 students from the Emirates are studying in Japanese universities for bachelors, masters and even PhD degrees.

In 2019, an attempt of initiating to teach Japanese as a second foreign language in some UAE high schools was discussed among both countries. Akihiko Nakajima, new Japanese ambassador to the UAE affirmed that ‘both nations are currently giving importance to educational cooperation’. The friendly ties were further strengthened in recent times when Sheikh Hazza Bin Zayed Al-Nahyen, Deputy Chairman of Abu Dhabi Executive Council and Dr Sultan Ahmad Al-Jaber, Minister of State and Special Envoy to Japan, attended the enthronement ceremony of the Japanese Emperor Naruhito in 2019. They wished that Japan shall achieve a brighter and more prosperous future during the ‘Reiwa Era’.

Japan and the UAE have been closely cooperating in space sciences. In October 2018, ‘KhalifaSat’ was launched into outer space from the Tanegashima Space Centre in Japan aboard an H-IIA rocket. In January 2020, Shinzo Abe made an official visit to the UAE and other Gulf countries to further bolster the strong ties which have been evolving on multiple fronts like trade, energy, technology, space and education. “UAE-Japan relations are historic and based on trust, cooperation, respect and mutual interests,” Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed said. Abe and Sheikh Mohammad also witnessed the signing of an Energy Cooperation Agreement between supreme Petroleum Council, represented by Adnoc (Abu Dhabi National Oil Company), and Japan’s agency for natural resources and energy.

Space Cooperation

The lift-off of the Mars orbiter named Amal or Hope probe on 19th July 2020, from a Japanese launch centre is to be followed soon by China and the United States. Amal blasted off from the Tanegashima space centre aboard a Mitsubishi heavy industries H-IIA rocket. This has given a major boost to space cooperation between Japan and the UAE. Amal is set to reach Mars by February 2021, which will mark the year the UAE celebrates 50 years since the country’s formation. It points out that the launching of Amal was well planned in line with the celebration of 50 years of the country’s formation. “The UAE is now a member of the club and we will learn more and we will engage more and we’ll continue developing our space exploration program,” UAE Space Agency chief Mohammed Al Ahbabi told a joint online news conference from Tanegashima. The Amal statecraft costs $200 million and it is about the size of a small car, carries three instruments to study the upper atmosphere and monitor climate change. Japan’s services of such launches are known well for accuracy and on-time record. However, the providers are working to cut costs to be more competitive internationally. Japan also has its own Mars mission planned in 2024, where it aims to send spacecraft to the Martian moon Phobos to collect samples to bring back to Earth in 2029.

The objective of the UAE’S mission is to provide a comprehensive image of the weather dynamics and fundamentally, building a human settlement on Mars within the next 100 days. Omran Sharaf, the mission’s project manager said, “What is unique about this mission is that for the first time the scientific community around the world will have a holistic view of the Martian atmosphere at different times of the day at different seasons. Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation has said that ‘Hope Probe’ exemplifies the distinctive strategic partnership between the UAE and Japan.

It is the first time that the UAE attempted to send a deep space mission, that of a mission to Mars. It clearly sends a strong message to the Arab youth that if the UAE is able to reach Mars in less than 50 years, then they certainly can do much more. Emiratis also believed that it represented a step forward for the Arab world and for scientists.

However, energy remains a key priority in the ongoing relations between the two countries which may contribute significantly to energy development and economic diversification in the UAE and Japan. Through space and strategic cooperation, the two countries are looking to expand and deepen the fields of cooperation. A successful mission to Mars will indeed be a major step for the oil-dependent economy seeking a great future in space. The launch of the hope probe demonstrates that effective space cooperation is a driving force for strengthening their bilateral ties. Hope is expected to begin transmitting information back to earth by September 2021.

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Middle East

China-Iran Deal and its implication for the region

Ashish Dangwal

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From the past few years, the increasing partnership between China and Iran has raised major concerns among many countries. Sinking economy and the recent COVID crisis pushed Iran into the corner and China timely manifested itself as a perfect partner for Iran. The diplomatic ties between these two countries were established in 1971 and over the years China’s demand for energy and Iran’s isolation from the international community brings them together. The recent investment and security pact covered almost every sector from Telecom, banking, ports, railways and dozens of other projects. Though the secret details of the pact were leaked but soon rejected by Iranian officials.

In 2016, Xi Jinping made a state visit to Iran and then laid the structure of this deal. Soon after in 2019, China announced its plan to invest $ 400 billion. Iran’s economy is suffering greatly because of the U.S.A sanctions and needs a lifeline to revive their domestic market. Where one side, most of the companies from different nations pulled out their businesses from Iran, On the other hand, Chinese investment can play a significant role in Iran’s survival. This partnership between these two nations directly challenges U.S.A efforts to cut off Iran from the international market arena. China’s ever-growing aspirations to increase its involvement in the Middle East perfectly sync with the geostrategic location of Tehran. However, Iran’s ambition to become a regional power needs huge investment in its domestic market. That’s where both countries see themselves as an emerging partner. 

China-Iran Economic Relationship

As a growing economy, China dependence on Iran’s oil is quite reasonable. Though this relationship is not just based on the energy, but even on the many different aspects. After 2016, China and Iran were agreed to increase their trading relations to $600 billion in the upcoming 10 years. The agreement was concordant with One Belt, One Road framework. A total of 17 agreements were signed, including one which relates to the Iran nuclear programme. The Chinese will help connect Tehran with Mashhad via their high-speed rail technology.  After the sanctions levied by the USA and other western countrieson Iran, its dependence on China increased in recent years. The trading relationship is not only limit to purchase of crude oil but even China’s involvement inIran’s upstream and downstream production processes through major investments.From 2005, both countries signed seven upstream production agreement with each other. All these agreements involve the state-owned Chinese companies, which shows the significant presence of China in Iran.

China-Iran-Syria Nexus

In December 2019, Syrian president while giving an interview to a Chinese media expressed his willingness to join the BRI project and projected Syria as a perfect partner for the Chinese investment. Syria suffered a lot because of the decades of war and wanted to start the reconstruction activities in their country. Iran and China identified themselves as the ally of Syria and they even wanted to make a strategic nexus between these countries. For the reconstruction process, China is helping Syria from Port of Tripoli by setting up it as a logistic base for the reconstruction process. China wanted to link this port with Syria’s “Four sea strategy” and connect the BRI project to the eastern Mediterranean area. This whole economic bloc could challenge the American hegemony in the region. Iran and Syria are already strategic allies in this region and by adding China in this situation, it would promote the autocratic rule in the region to counter America.

The implication for the Region

Trump administration’s ‘maximum pressure’ policy towards Iran pushed many countries like India and Japan to cut off the trading ties with Tehran. This was seen as the major diplomatic blunder made by the U.S.A because of the one very simple reason that these countries could play a major role to find the middle ground for the talks between Iran and the west.As claimed by the reports, China will increase its partnership to build the ports too, getting a port in the Persian Gulf will provide the major boost to Chinese strategic plans. If China successfully expands its presence in Iran then it will lead to the major conflict between the U.S.A and China. Though China has already invested heavily on the Gwadar port, it will not hesitate to gain an upper hand in the Persian Gulf. From where Beijing can keep its eye on U.S.A movements in the region. India’s investment progress in Iran was slow and that’s the reason recently Iran started the railway track construction work on its own.

The growing instability in the region will further escalate, as the partnership will grow between these countries. China’s ambitions to expand its BRI projects and Syria’s “Four seas strategy” can become a foundation for future projects in the whole region. Syrian President Bashar Assad has promoted this four seas strategy since 2009 that would transform the Damascus into a major trading hub. Syria wanted to form an economic space between Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria that will shape a new bloc of nations in the region. This plan includes the four seas of the region from the Mediterranean, Caspian, Black Sea, and the Persian Gulf, which makes easy for these nations from investment to transportation. 

The expanding partnership will lead to the architecture of a security structure between these three countries and will directly undermine the U.S.A presence in the region. The gradual consolidation of powers based on Anti-American and Anti-west sentiments can even form a proper security alliance where the inclusion of Turkey would be a possible scenario shortly. All these countries kind of having the same political regime one way or another, so for them it will be a great strategy to stop America’s presence from their domestic issues. If U.S.A wants to stop China’s involvement in the region, it needs to involve its key Asian partner, so that there will be some major power players in the region to maintain stability. 

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Middle East

Are The U.S. And Its Partners Losing The Grip On Syria’s North East?

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The oil-rich province of Deir Ezzor located in Eastern Syria has witnessed another escalation between the local Arab populace and the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Unexpectedly for the SDF and the U.S. military, the protesters have established control over a number of towns, and it seems they are willing to go further.

Sources close to the SDF initially reported that the protesters limited their demands by requesting a solution to a number of minor issues, but soon enough it became evident that it was not the case and the issue – and a major one – was the presence of SDF in the area. The demonstrators were quick to turn from chanting slogans to taking control of towns: in a single day they captured all of Shuhayl, Al-Hawayej, Diban and forced the SDF members to leave before blocking the roads.

The protests were sparked by a series of assassinations of influential leaders of Al-Aqidat and Al-Baqara tribes. Three Deir Ezzor sheikhs were killed in less than a week: Sheikh Suleiman Khalaf al-Kassar from Al-Aqidat was shot in Busayra village July 30. The next day Sheikh Suleiman Al-Weis who belonged to Al-Baqara was shot in the head by two gunmen on a motorcycle in Al-Dahla. Finally, Sheikh Muttshar al-Hamoud al-Hifl was shot in the outskirts of Al-Hawayej on Sunday, August 2. His relative Sheikh Ibrahim al-Hifl was also wounded in the incident but survived.

In a peculiar coincidence, a few weeks before the assassinations the tribal leaders were invited to a meeting with the SDF Commander Mazloum Abdi with the U.S. servicemen also present. The agenda reportedly included co-operation between the tribes and the SDF. It was reported that at least one of the victims, Muttshar al-Hifti, declined to participate and to engage with the Americans.

An insight into the details of these meetings can be gained through the reports about an oil deal allegedly struck by the SDF and a little known American oil developer Delta Crescent LLC. Delta Crescent was granted exclusive rights for production, refinement and export of the oil from Deir Ezzor fields potentially bringing the participants annual profit of hundreds of millions dollars, according to statements made by U.S. officials. The deal was met with harsh response from the Syrian government who labeled it a “deal between thieves”.

According to sources on the ground, the implication is that those who fell victim to the assassinations shared this view and opposed the deal. Their removal, however, has clearly failed to deliver the results intended by the masterminds behind their deaths, yet another time when the Kurds were thrown to the wolves by the U.S. who is accustomed to making their allies bear the consequences of the reckless pursuit of the American interests.

Meanwhile the SDF started to amass forces in the vicinity of the areas shaken by the unrest. The reinforcements sent from Al-Shadadi, Al-Sousa and Baghuz are gathering at the US military base near Al-Omar oil field. Moreover, two US Apache attack helicopters were spotted patrolling the area. These developments combined with lack of report on any negotiations between the protesters and the SDF leadership paint a grim picture, indicating that the SDF likely intends to use force to disperse the protests.

It is not the first time the SDF resorts to the use of force when faced with the discontent of the local populace in north-eastern Syria, although this approach had never brought the desired result. All areas affected by the protests have been subjected to dozens of raids of the SDF and the US special forces. Reports on these operations unfailingly mentioned arrests of ISIS terrorists. They failed to mention, however, what the Pentagon files under the category of “collateral damage” – deaths of civilians killed in the result of the actions of the US military and their allies.

The upheaval in Deir Ezzor is yet another evidence that the SDF, initially an independent movement, has degraded to a tool or a lever of American influence in Syria, and now finds itself fighting consequences instead of locating the root cause of the unrest – widespread corruption among the officials of the Kurdish administration and dramatic deterioration of the living conditions.

The regional turbulence created by Washington’s constantly shifting stance – or rather a lack of stance – on Syria has grown so strong it finally turned against the American interests. The latest escalation in Deir Ezzor should be considered nothing but a byproduct of this ill-designed policy and, perhaps, marks a beginning of the end of the US and SDF hegemony in Syria’s North East.

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