The conflict and resulting destruction in Syria has been going on since 2011 and no foreseeable end is in sight.
Over a quarter million deaths have occurred and half of the entire population has been displaced, with millions of refugees travelling to other countries, from regional neighbors to various European countries, driven asunder by ISIS. Various state actors have their own personal agendas and each posits a solution unique to its own interests. Is there a way out of this quagmire and how feasible is it to implement it?
The United States and Western Europe have no desirable options in combatting ISIS, nor for that matter do they have a comprehensive plan outside of an adherence to a parochial binary platform in which a thriving democracy must somehow be implemented and all the undesirable factions removed. Not only is this at best problematic, it is not working. The United States insists that the only solution is to remove Assad from power, that his continued presence makes it difficult, if not impossible to end the civil war. Washington has made their position on Assad clear with President Obama reiterating policy by recently stating, “Let’s remember how this started, Assad reacted to peaceful protest by escalating repression and killing and in turn created the environment for the current strife.” Assad’s violent reaction against a democratic movement, one of the ideological cornerstones of American core values and a lynchpin in directing American foreign policy, further eroded what little legitimacy he had with Washington thus necessitating his removal in their eyes.
The insistence by the White House that Assad needs to be removed from power in order to facilitate the destruction of ISIS is short-sighted at best and realistically counter-productive. The air campaign led by the Americans has done very little to stop the ISIS advance within Syria. Current gains within Syria in the last few weeks show this to be the case. Since ISIS captured Palmyra in central Syria this summer they have progressed in their advance on Damascus. Recently they captured the town of al-Qaratayn which now extends their reach considerably and places their forces within 30 kilometers of the M5, the arterial highway that links Damascus with those other parts of Syria still under government control. In the case of Palmyra, they captured it fairly easily because of the Americans refusal to engage ISIS with a single munition because the area was defended by government forces. American reluctance was surely increased by their recognition that Palmyra was a place in the past associated with severe repression by the Assad regime, its notorious prison there was the site for hundreds of executions of political dissidents and accounts of brutal torture still echo within the Syrian community that surrounds the region. That fact aside, witness American involvement in defending the Kurdish city of Kobani, in which at least one thousand air strikes were conducted to defend the city, helping the Kurds to eradicate ISIS forces that were besieging the city at the time.
While there is continued American reluctance to assist the forces of Assad in any way, the following scenario is realistically possible. If ISIS is able to sever the M5 or even control a stretch of the highway it will most certainly cut off the only arterial connection that Damascus has in logistically supporting the other areas in Syria that it currently controls. If this happens it will most likely lead to the collapse of the regime. The impending collapse of the Assad government will remove the primary combatant against ISIS who will then seize Damascus. ISIS, whose efficiency at wholesale destruction resembles that of a plague of locusts, will waste no time in eradicating whole swaths of the population they identify as government supporters, apostates and other categorical definitions deemed incompatible with ISIS ideology. Up to 20 million people presently live in government controlled areas and the collapse of the government would lead to a refugee crisis that will dwarf the current one underway in Europe, with potentially up to five million more people fleeing across the Syrian border.
For months the U.S. has focused on the training of a moderate force which can counter ISIS gains or at least impede further progress by the barbaric organization. This is simply wishful thinking. Recently it was announced by Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, Christine Wormuth, that there are only four or five fighters left from the first group of 54 Syrian fighters that had been trained by the U.S. as part of a $500 million program to combat ISIS with only one hundred lined up for additional training. Half a billion dollars and the immediate result is less than half a dozen fighters. After reports of U.S. trained rebels defecting and turning over their U.S. supplied equipment to hostile factions such as al- Qaeda, the Pentagon suspended the program to train and equip Syrian opposition forces in September of this year.
While there are certain parallels with the American intervention in Iraq in the past decade, the difference with Syria is that the stakes are higher, not only for regional players but on the worldwide stage as well. Weapons of mass destruction (primarily those of a chemical composition such as sarin) will be the most coveted spoils of the collapsed state. A recent French intelligence report concluded that Syria most likely possessed more than one thousand tons of various chemical agents that could be, or were already, militarized for use. International consensus is that Syria has employed the use of chemical weapons on its enemies and also that captured stockpiles have been utilized by ISIS as well in counter-strikes. The fact that the dispersal range for chemical weapons invariably harms more of the civilian population that its military target is irrelevant to both sides. If Syria falls, it will be up to those states which have the means to destroy or eradicate the chemical stockpiles, a procedure that is both at times unreliable as well as fraught with danger. The only semblance of order comes from the hated Assad regime, but order it is nonetheless and the prospects for its internal collapse leading to a bloody and protracted civil war involving a myriad of players are great.
But what would happen if Assad was ousted by force, either through direct intervention by the Coalition forces formed against him or by succumbing to ISIS and other rebel factions? There will be a security vacuum. We have seen this before in other failed states, both as a result of outside intervention and in those with internal collapse.
If Assad is ousted a plethora of scenarios are possible, none of them appealing save some isolated regional imbalances of power that will favor one state over the other. The possibilities are as follows. The collapse of the regime will result in a Syria that is overrun by extremists. Even if the extremists left behind along with ISIS (such as the al-Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham) end up in conflict with one another, the fact remains that ideologically they share the same goals; the various factions will eventually merge, either through combat or through assimilation and ISIS will be in a better position to exert its will. The most likely scenario is a protracted civil war reminiscent of the one experienced by Lebanon’s sectarian conflict in the 1980’s which lasted well over a decade and involved multiple actors both politically, ideologically, and religiously motivated. Such a protracted conflict could produce hundreds of thousands of casualties. The inherent danger in this potential scenario, however, is much greater here than it was in Lebanon. Because the civil war in Syria is divided among Sunni-Shiite lines (along with other manifested hostilities to minority classifications such as Christians, Kurds, etc.), the possibility of the conflict spreading to other neighboring countries (Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and possibly even Turkey) with the same sectarian demographic is certainly worryingly possible. The consequences of such an inter-regional conflagration could be catastrophic to both the U.S. and Europe’s long term strategic and economic interests and would lead to massive regional instability.
The possibility of such a scenario does have a potential silver lining in that it would make Iran more susceptible to American demands because of the distinct possibility of the erosion of the Hezbollah-Syria-Iran axis if Assad falls. However, the United States so far have refused to recognize this possibility and insists on negotiating on issues that simply are more important to them than they are to Iran (the much maligned nuclear deal for example). As Iran and its various proxies groan under the mounting casualties and loss of equipment, Washington could use these setbacks as leverage to keep Iran somewhat more compliant during future negotiations.
There is one regional actor, however, whose fortune could improve if said scenario develops; Israel will lose no sleep if Hezbollah is weakened significantly, certainly possible if Assad falls and Iran loses its key political and geographical intermediary between them and Lebanon. Hezbollah has already lost hundreds of fighters in its attempt to bolster the Baathist regime, and has refocused strenuous efforts to prevent penetration into Lebanon from ISIS and other rebel forces such as the al-Nusra Front, which have penetrated into Lebanon on several occasions.
Israel is in a unique position in that there are indeed a few scenarios that may be advantageous in regards to their own security. Although current thinking within Israeli leadership is that the devil you know is better than the one you don’t, based on the assumption that they know Assad realizes the limits to imposed aggression against the Israeli state while ISIS doesn’t, the possibility exists that a collapse of Syria will bring about a more stable security on their Northern border with Lebanon. Syrian collapse, coupled with weakening Iranian support, will inevitably result in a weakened Hezbollah. Compounding the problem is that Hezbollah is already engaged with ISIS and other numerous rebel factions and has suffered hundreds of casualties. The concern that ISIS would further encroach into Lebanon is not held as being realistically probable because of the current Israeli belief that the present international coalition against ISIS would increase substantially if such a takeover was even possible. Indeed, it is one of the few instances in which the major Sunni powers in the Middle East, Russia, and the United States would be united in stopping further ISIS encroachment. Furthermore, those areas in which Syria has an active role in encouraging international condemnation of Israel, primarily the return of the Golan Heights, would effectively cease. Most likely this would result in Israel’s permanent claim to the Golan Heights going widely unchallenged in light of a fractured and collapsing Syrian state.
It could even be rationally argued that an ISIS presence within Lebanon would be easier for the Israelis to deal with that Hezbollah, which has the backing and logistical support provided by both Syria and Iran and whose actions are primarily decided upon by Tehran. Key differences also include the regional aspirations of ISIS as opposed to Iran’s sweeping objective to incorporate Hezbollah into their goal in becoming a major actor within the Middle East. This isn’t to say that Israel would prefer ISIS, whose irrational actions, cruelty, and opposition to adhere to even the slightest diplomatic protocol, make them difficult to predict and as a result very dangerous. One thing is for certain – ISIS doesn’t have the extensive capabilities that Hezbollah is afforded as a result of being backed by moderately strong state (Iran).
The Russian argument that Assad should stay in power for the time being is fast becoming the only valid argument in play. Russian entry into the conflict changes the dynamics of the current crisis considerably. Russia and Syria have had a bilateral relationship dating back to a non-aggression pact signed in April of 1950. With the advent of the Cold War, the ties between the two countries deepened both economically and militarily in reaction to the various wars and conflicts that erupted across the region over the last several decades, to the point that the Syrian port of Tartus was Russia’s only Mediterranean naval base until the widening civil war resulted in Russia evacuating its naval personnel from the region. The United States has been using Syrian air space to lead a campaign of air strikes against ISIS, and an increased Russian presence raises the prospect of the Cold War superpower foes encountering each other on the battlefield – something that neither side relishes for obvious reasons.
The Kremlin has made no secret of its disdain in removing “legitimate institutions” via the imposition of democratic reform backed by American support. Putin, who in his recent U.N. address cited Iraq and Libya as prime examples of the dangers of forced democratization, stated that, “Rather than bringing about reforms, an aggressive foreign interference has resulted in a flagrant destruction of national institutions and the lifestyle itself. Instead of the triumph of democracy and progress, we got violence, poverty, and a social disaster.” Addressing “those who’ve caused the situation,” specifically those in the West who tried to export democracy through “revolutions,” Putin said he’s temped to ask, “Do you realize now what you’ve done?” To Putin the power vacuum created in several countries of the Middle East and North Africa has led to anarchy with growing numbers of extremists eager to radicalize areas outside of their borders including those countries where they originated from.
There are no “rational actors” in this conflict, and none that could even remotely be considered as providing reasonable expectations in participating in peace negotiations should Assad fall. In addition, the Kremlin has steadfastly maintained that at least Assad is more predictable than non-state actors, especially considering the fact that most of the rebel factions (those relevant outside of ISIS) don’t have a reasonable hierarchy in which one spokesman can represent and control the multi-tentacled factions.
Putin has ulterior motives as well, motives that he believes (with some merit) are a distinct possibility, that the jihadists fighting in Syria would inevitably spread their militant ideology to the soft underbelly of Russia, from the predominantly Muslim regions under direct Russian control to the secular but overwhelmingly Muslim republics. Russia has long had problems with Islamic insurgencies, dating back centuries, and the Kremlin is keen on removing any possibility of incubation via returning jihadists. This is especially true with the increasing number of Chechnyans who are fighting with ISIS and have made no secret of their desire to attack Russia and “liberate” Chechnya and the Caucasus from Russian influence. Omar al-Shishani, Isis’ Chechen military commander, has repeatedly stated that Russia is their next target. The Kremlin is also acutely aware that the majority of ISIS fighters from non-Middle East countries are from Russia. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Oleg Syromolotov announced recently that over 2000 Russians are currently fighting with the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL/IS) terrorist group. Calling the figures “alarming,” Syromolotov added that they are constantly monitoring growing calls by ISIS leaders to carry their jihad to the Northern Caucasus and in Central Asia.
Russian’s sudden demonstrative action in getting directly involved in Syria will have the intended effect of giving them even greater leverage within the Middle East, something that has not been attainable for the Kremlin since Egypt abandoned them for the Americans in the late seventies. In the eyes of those in the Middle East, the Russian desire to actively engage the crisis in a way that the Americans are not willing to do has increased their presence substantially. Since taking on a larger role, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Jordan’s King Abdullah II, and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi have all met with Putin. In essence, Middle East leaders are detecting America’s regional decline and Moscow’s rise – and are planning accordingly.
While both Washington and Moscow have repeatedly stated that their primary enemy is ISIS, Russia steadfastly supports Assad, while the Americans state that his continued (though diminished) rule is untenable and makes the current situation worse. Oddly enough, both the United States and Russia have the same goal in mind, changing the balance of power on the ground, they just happen to be backing different sides. As both sides continue to pour in material and support (complete with corresponding air campaigns), there is a chance that the combatants will grow exhausted and some sort of compromise acceptable to both sides will occur. But before that point is reached, hundreds of thousands will have to die, as neither side is willing to entertain any idea of stopping the fighting short of their respective goals.
Meanwhile the slaughter continues.
A New Era in US-Jordan Relations
King Abdullah of Jordan is the first Arab leader who met American President Joe Biden at the White House. The visit has reaffirmed the strong and long-standing Jordan-US strategic partnership and reinvigorated the bilateral engagement for working together on security issues, and economic development on the basis of shared values and priorities. The King’s visit to Washington reaffirmed Jordan’s value as a reliable ally who plays a critical role for stability in a highly volatile region.
Jordan’s value is multi-dimensional and ranges from bilateral military cooperation, intelligence sharing and joint global counterterrorism operations including as a member of the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS and the Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve to deployment of almost three thousand (3,000) American troops to Jordan as part of the ongoing campaign to combat regional terrorism. The US has expanded military footprint to Jordan after Washington’s decision to withdraw forces from Syria and reduce military presence in the Turkish airbase of Incirlik. In addition, the kingdom’s geopolitical position in the heart of the Middle East provides a viable alternative for logistical support to the American military taking into consideration the US decision to withdraw from Afghanistan and close three bases in Qatar. Notably, the remaining supplies from the three Qatari bases along with the Support Mission have been transferred to Jordan and have become part of the Area Support Group-Jordan that operates as the Base Operations Support Integrator to back contingency operations and military-to-military engagements within the US Army Central Command’s area of responsibility.
Jordan’s value also stems from its critical role in addressing the overwhelming humanitarian needs created by the conflicts in Syria and Iraq as well as in hosting almost two million registered Palestinian refugees.
Support of Two-state Solution
The fact that Jordan remains at peace with Israel and is a key interlocutor with the Palestinians adds to the kingdom’s reliability to mediate and advance initiatives that support the two-state solution. This presupposes the resetting of Jordan-Israel relations. Washington is well-placed to offer its good offices and help restore trust between the two neighboring countries. The twenty-seventh year Jordan-Israel peace treaty shows not only the possibilities for coordination and co-existence but also the ceilings to peace with Israel in the absence of a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A “cold peace” and quiet, limited cooperation are currently the maximum possibilities vis-a-vis a “warm peace” that will unlock Jordan-Israel cooperation and potential.
It is nevertheless noteworthy that the last five years have been discerned by the previous American administration’s lack of appreciation of the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Trump peace proposal, known as “the Vision”, not only undermined the long-established aim of a two-state solution but also reinforced discussions over alternatives including a one state outcome to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; different measures of annexation, such as Israeli annexation of Area C in the West Bank; “exotic options” such as a federation in which Israel and Palestine share certain aspects of sovereignty; potential unilateral Israeli initiatives with most prevailing a Jordanian model, in which Jordan takes control of the West Bank and Palestinians are given Jordanian citizenship; and, reinforcement of the notion that “Jordan is “Palestine””.
Practically, Jordan can serve as honest broker in any future Israeli-Palestinian peace process, but as the late King Hussein stated in an interview with The New York Times in 1991 “Jordan should not be, cannot be, will not be a substitute for the Palestinians themselves as the major aggrieved party on the Arab side in a process that leads to peace”. The cited statement is fully embraced by Jordan’s current leadership.
Acknowledgment of Jordan’s Custodianship
The public acknowledgement by the American President of the kingdom’s special role as custodian of the Muslim holy places in Jerusalem is translated into a vote of confidence and a commendation for Jordan’s efficient safeguarding of religious sites for decades. As known, Amman pays the salaries of more than one thousand (1,000) employees of the Jerusalem Waqf Department and its custodianship role is carried out on behalf of all Islamic nations. The kingdom holds the exclusive authority of the Jordanian-appointed council, the Waqf, over the Temple Mount/ Haram Al Sharif and has spent over 1 billion dollars since 1924 for the administration and renovation of Al Aqsa mosque.
Jordan has admittedly served at multiple occasions as credible intermediary for Israel and the Palestinians to suspend tensions in the old city of Jerusalem, particularly at the Temple Mount/Haram Al-Sharif and pursues a successful administration of religious funded schools favoring moderate religious education and religious tourism. Jordanian moderation has guaranteed co-existence of the three monotheistic religions in Jerusalem at a time when on the contrary, counties like Turkey funnel millions of dollars in charity projects in Jerusalem promoting the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Overall, Jordan’s custodianship has proved to be successful in maintaining delicate arrangements for the benefit of all religions and parties involved.
American Loan Guarantees
The King’s discussions with the American President also centered on the economic challenges exacerbated by the effect of the pandemic and the enhancement of bilateral economic cooperation. Admittedly, Jordan showed strong leadership and governance with early actions that reduced the coronavirus pandemic pressure on the kingdom’s health system. The Jordanian government imposed a nationwide lockdown and severe social distancing measures at a much earlier stage of the pandemic than other Middle East countries.
Jordan withstood the pandemic’s impact with minimal loss of life but with a significant cost to its economy. As of June 2020, most restrictions on economic activity were lifted turning Jordan into one of the first Arab countries to reopen. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has contracted in 2020 by 3.5 percent after growing 2 percent in 2019 due to losses in state revenues because of fewer remittances and a weakened tourism market.
To cope with the direct negative effects of the pandemic on its state budget, the Kingdom received $396 million from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The amount of finance has specifically helped address the country’s balance of payments needs and allowed for higher spending on healthcare, and assistance to households and companies most affected by the pandemic. Despite that the IMF provided in March 2020 another multi-year $1.3 billion loan package to Jordan, the pandemic has caused a $1.5 billion shortfall in its balance of payments.
This complex economic reality along with Jordan’s moderation in the Arab world justify continued robust annual American economic assistance to the kingdom in the form of budgetary support (cash transfer), USAID programs in Jordan, and loan guarantees. US cash assistance should increase in the coming years taking into consideration that it is directed to refugee support and to segments of the economy that are mostly affected by the pandemic like foreign debt payments and fuel import costs. Overall, a pledge should be made for Jordan in American congress for the authorization of moreUS sovereign loan guarantees that will help the kingdom weather the pandemic’s adverse medium-to-long-term effects on its economy. US sovereign loan guarantees will allow Jordan to issue debt securities that are fully guaranteed by the American government in capital markets, effectively subsidizing the cost for the Jordanian government to access financing.
It is also noticeable that in a genuine effort to help the kingdom contain the pandemic and safeguard public health, the American administration proceeded with the delivery of over 500 thousand covid-19 vaccines to Jordan highlighting American commitment to international vaccination programs including that of the kingdom.
US-Jordan Defense Partnership
The strategic US-Jordan defense relationship was reflected in the discussions that were conducted between the Jordanian King and the American President. American support for the modernization of Jordan’s F-16 fighter jets has been at the forefront of the agenda with the aim of achieving greater interoperability and effectiveness for the Jordanian Armed Forces. The American President recognized Jordan’s contribution to the successful international campaign to defeat ISIS and honored as an example of heroism the memory of captain Muath al-Kasasbeh who was executed in 2015 by the terrorist organization’s militants.
Jordan has suffered avowedly from terrorism throughout the years and works collectively at regional and international levels to eliminate all its forms. The kingdom lost two prime ministers, Haza’a Al-Majali and Wasfi Al-Tal, as victims of terrorism and experienced a series of terrorist attacks like the simultaneous suicide bombings against three hotels in Amman in November 2005 that led to the loss of life of American, Israeli, Palestinian, and Jordanian nationals.
In effect, Jordan is the third-largest recipient of annual American foreign aid globally, after Afghanistan and Israel. A Memorandum of Understanding on American foreign assistance to Jordan commits the United States to providing $1.275 billion per year over a five-year period for a total of $6.375 billion (FY2018-FY2022). Renegotiations on the next such agreement for FY2023-FY2027 is estimated that will aim at increasing the American commitment to Jordan, a key ally in the fight against international terrorism whose military should be in position to procure and maintain conventional weapons systems.
On the whole, Jordan is a steadfast security partner of the United States in the Middle East whose moderation and pragmatism helped the kingdom weather regional and world challenges. As 2021 and past years have showed, Jordan’s position as a bridge between the Levant and the Persian Gulf provides it a unique geopolitical standing, in a way that nowadays Amman is granted with a significant security, diplomatic and humanitarian role that signals a new era in US-Jordan relations.
Chinese FM Wraps Up his Visit to Egypt
Wang Yi, the Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister, visited Egypt on July 18, 2021, in El Alamein City, northwest Egypt. The Chinese Foreign Minister is the first foreign official to visit this strategic city.
Wang Yi met with his Egyptian counterpart, Sameh Shoukry, during his visit to Egypt, and they discussed bilateral relations between the two countries. This year marks the 65th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Egypt and China. Egypt is the first Arab country to establish diplomatic relations with China and the first African country to do so. In the Arab world, the Islamic world, Africa, and developing countries, Egypt has long been one of China’s most important strategic partners. At the international level, the two countries mutually support one another. The meeting between Egypt’s Foreign Minister and China’s Foreign Minister focused on three main issues: the Covid-19 vaccine, the One Belt One Road Initiative, and international and regional issues such as Palestine and Syria
Both Egypt and China have a long history of cooperation and friendship. Before the outbreak of the Covid-19, the two countries’ relations were based on economic and trade cooperation, with China being Egypt’s first trading partner for the eighth year in a row since 2013, and the volume of trade exchange between the two countries exceeding $14.5 billion in 2020. However, as the outbreak Covid-19, cooperation between the two countries expanded to include medical cooperation. Egypt and China worked together to combat the virus. Egypt sent medical supplies to China, and China sent medical supplies and Chinese vaccine to Egypt. In addition, in December 2020, the two sides signed a cooperation agreement on COVID-19 Vaccine Production and China dispatched technical teams to Egypt to assist in the vaccine’s local manufacture. As a result, Egypt is considered Africa’s first vaccine manufacturer.
One Belt One Road Initiative
Egypt is an important strategic partner in building the Belt and Road Initiative. According to CGTN, the Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah al- Sisi, stated that:” Egypt supports the Belt and Road Initiative(BRI).” He added that Egypt is ready to strengthen cooperation with China in the fields of economy, trade, industry, science and technology, and expand human exchanges within the framework of the “Belt and Road Initiative.” One Belt and One Road Initiative is one of the most important initiatives of the twenty-first century, announced by President Xi Jinping during official visits to Indonesia and Kazakhstan in 2013. Egypt was one of the first countries to participate in this initiative. In 2014, Egyptian President al-Sisi expressed in an interview that China’s One Belt and One Road Initiative was an “opportunity” for cooperation between China and Egypt. Egypt was willing to participate in it actively.
International and Regional Issues
Regarding the international and regional issues, the two sides exchanged views and coordinated positions on some issues as Palestine, Syria issues. It’s worth mentioning that Wang Yi paid a visit to Syria the day before his trip to Egypt, marking him the first Chinese official to visit Syria since the country’s civil war began. China supports the Syrian sovereignty and rejects foreign interference in Syria, and also rejects the regime change. The Egyptian Minister Sameh Shoukry also discussed with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi the GERD issue. According to Sky News, Shoukry explained Egypt and Sudan’s positions as two downstream countries, the importance of preserving the interests of all parties and not jeopardizing the downstream countries’ water security, and the importance of engaging in intensified negotiations under the auspices of the African Union presidency. The two sides signed an agreement on the Egyptian-Sino Intergovernmental Cooperation Committee at the end of their meeting.
Greater Middle East may force China to project military power sooner rather than later
China may have no short-term interest in contributing to guaranteeing security in parts of a swath of land stretching from Central Asia to the East coast of Africa, but that does not prevent the People’s Republic from preparing for a time when it may wish to build on long-standing political and military relationships in various parts of the world to project power and maintain an economic advantage.
Determined to exploit the principle of allegedly win-win relationships that are underwritten by economics, trade, and investment as the solution to problems, China has so far delayed if not avoided bilateral or unilateral political and military engagement in conflicts beyond its borders.
The question is how long it can continue to do so.
China took a first baby step towards greater power projection with the creation in 2017 of its first overseas military base in the East African state of Djibouti, a rent-a-base nation that hosts multiple military facilities for among others the United States, France, and Japan and potentially Saudi Arabia. The base signals the importance China attributes to regions like the Gulf and the Horn of Africa.
A recent article in a Chinese military publication sheds further light on Chinese preparations for a day when it may have to project military might in different parts of the world. The article laid out Chinese thinking about the virtues of offering Middle Eastern, Asian, and African militaries and political elites training and educational opportunities.
“Students who can study in China are mostly local military and political elites or descendants of notable families. After they have studied and returned to their country, they have a high probability of becoming the top military and political leaders of the local country. This is very beneficial for China to expand its overseas influence and corresponding armaments exports,” the publication, Military Express, said.
The publication asserted that Chinese military academies were more attractive than their Western counterparts that impose “political conditions,” a reference to students having to hail from countries aligned with the West.
“Chinese military academy does a better job in this regard. There are no political conditions attached here. Foreign military students here learn Chinese strategies and tactics and learn to operate Chinese weaponry by themselves,” the publication said.
The publication failed to mention that China unlike Western producers also refrains from attaching political conditions to its arms sales like adherence to human rights.
Recent months have not been necessarily kind to Chinese aspirations of remaining aloof to conflict beyond its borders, suggesting that reality on the ground could complicate China’s strategic calculations.
The US withdrawal from Afghanistan threatens to put an ultra-conservative religious regime in power on the border with Xinjiang, the north-western province where China is attempting to brutally Sinicize Turkic ethnic and religious identity.
Recent Taliban military advances have already bolstered ultra-conservative religious sentiment in neighbouring Pakistan that celebrates the group as heroes whose success enhances the chances for austere religious rule in the world’s second-most populous Muslim-majority state.
“Our jihadis will be emboldened. They will say that ‘if America can be beaten, what is the Pakistan army to stand in our way?’” said a senior Pakistani official.
Nine Chinese nationals were killed last week in an explosion on a bus transporting Chinese workers to the construction site of a dam in the northern mountains of Pakistan, a region more prone to attacks by religious militants than Baloch nationalists, who operate from the province of Balochistan and are responsible for the bulk of attacks on Chinese targets in the South Asian nation.
It was the highest loss of life of Chinese citizens in recent years in Pakistan, the largest recipient of Chinese Belt and Road-related infrastructure and energy investments. China’s sees Pakistan as a key to the economic development of Xinjiang and part of its effort to Sinicize the region.
Indicating Chinese concern, China last month advised its citizens to leave Afghanistan and last week evacuated 210 Chinese nationals on a chartered flight. China last week delayed the signing of a framework agreement on industrial cooperation that would have accelerated implementation of projects that are part of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
Complicating Chinese calculations is the fact that both Russia and Turkey are maneuvering for different reasons to strengthen Turkic identity in the Caucasus that potentially would be more sympathetic to the plight of the Uighurs and other Turkic Muslims.
Turkey moreover may see Afghanistan as another stepping stone towards recreating a Turkic world. Turkey has reportedly asked Azerbaijan, whom Ankara supported in last year’s Caucasus war against Armenia, to contribute forces to a Turkish contingent that would remain in Afghanistan after the US and NATO withdrawal to secure Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport.
Turkish influence among Afghanistan’s Turkic minorities has been bolstered by the operation of Turkish schools, an increased number of Turkish scholarships, training of Afghan military and police personnel, the popularity of Turkish movies and television series, and efforts to mediate an end to conflict in the country.
The Taliban have rejected the continuation of a Turkish military presence that for the past six years was part of the NATO-led Resolute Support Mission. The Taliban insisted that Turkish soldiers were “occupiers in Afghanistan” who should leave with NATO and US forces even if they were also representatives of a “great Islamic nation.”
In anticipation of a threatening development in Afghanistan, China quietly established a small military post in 2019 in the highlands of Tajikistan, a stone’s throw from where Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor meets Xinjiang.
More recently, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Ji advised his interlocutors during a visit last week to Central Asia that going forward Chinese private military companies would play a greater role in securing Belt and Road-related strategic infrastructure projects.
Some analysts suggested that the Chinese companies would also be employed to train Central Asian militaries – a domain that was until now largely a Russian preserve.
In a similar vein, France’s withdrawal of its forces from West Africa steps up pressure on China to defend its overseas nationals and interests. Three Chinese construction workers were among five foreigners kidnapped by gunmen this weekend in southern Mali. No group has so far claimed responsibility for the kidnapping.
All of this leaves aside the question of how long China will feel that it can rely on the US defence umbrella in the Gulf to secure the flow of energy and much of its trade against the backdrop of a reconfigured US regional commitment and increasingly strained relations between Washington and Beijing.
It also does not consider China’s ability to manage expectations of the People’s Republic’s willingness to engage, in some cases not only politically or militarily, but also economically.
That was evident during Mr. Wang’s most recent visit to the region, and particularly Syria, which for much of its civil war was home to Uighur jihadists who distinguished themselves in battle.
It was Mr. Wang’s second visit to the Middle East and North Africa in four months. Furthermore, Mr. Wang last week discussed Afghanistan and Gulf security with his Saudi counterpart on the sideline of a regional cooperation meeting in Uzbekistan.
Syrian officials have for domestic and foreign policy reasons long touted China as the imaginary white knight that would come to the rescue in the reconstruction of the war-ravaged country.
“China is far less interested in Syria than Syria is in China… Syria has never been a priority in China’s economy-driven approach to the Middle East,” noted scholars Andrea Ghiselli and Mohammed Al-Sudairi.
The scholars cautioned however that “the significant potential impact of narratives created by local actors in the context of international politics,” a reference to Syria’s projection of China as its saviour, cannot be ignored.
Implicit in the scholars’ conclusion is the notion that Chinese policy may in future increasingly be shaped as much by decision-making in Beijing as developments on the ground in a world in which powers compete to secure their interest and place in a new world order.
Ultimately, the fundamental question underlying all these push factors is, according to Financial Times columnist Gideon Rahman, whether China has not only the capability and aspiration to become a superpower but also the will.
“If China is unwilling or unable to achieve a global military presence that rivals that of the US, it may have to find a new way of being a superpower – or give up on the ambition,” Mr. Rahman argues.
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