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Saudi – Iranian future: 3 games – 3 scenarios

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There is no need to argue on Saudi Arabia and Iran as the two biggest regional powers in the Gulf, the rising tension between the two countries who are engaged in proxy wars in Syria, Yemen, Iraq and somehow Bahrein had installed a climate of Cold War.2.

How did we get there?

Saudi Arabia existed since 1932 as a Sunni country and the birthplace of Islam. Its history of creation is so unique, mesmerizing and fascinating.

Iran, has a glorious past, with various empires that conquered the Arab-Islamic world at certain period of time.

While the Shah was in power, Iran’s relations with the Arab Gulf States were normalized, Iran’s navy used to act as the policeman of the gulf. The situation has changed when the Iranian Islamic revolution occurred in 1979, with consequences on both countries and on their relationships. Iran’s Ayatollah wanted to export their respective model and undermine Saudi Arabia that Iranian officials see as corrupt and unworthy due to its relation with the United States and the West. The Shia country is also supporting Shia communities in the Gulf which is seen as a direct threat to Saudi Arabia.

Not only the leaders of the Iranian revolution see Saudi Arabia as a corrupt country, but they also see them as treacherous and disloyal. The reason behind is more than a Shia-Sunni rivalry; it is important to contextualize the order before the Islamic revolution; an oil embargo was occurring in the world where Iran’s leaders wanted to stop selling oil to Western powers. They called upon Saudi Arabia to do the same in retaliation toward countries who helped Israel in the « Yom Kippur War », but Saudi Arabia didn’t stop selling its oil, and decided to increase the price of the barrel to destabilize the economy of the Western countries that helped Israel, without disturbing their strategic alliance with the United States.

Today, the relationship between the two countries is delayed.

The succession of events from 2011 where Iran wants to seize the opportunity of a possible vacuum of power during the Arab Spring, by supporting the Shia protests that erupted in Bahrein and the idea of a Shia Islamic republic, has proved the ability of Saudi Arabia and the GCC to sends its troops into Bahrain. Was it a symbolic gesture, or a warning for Tehran?

Then it cames to Yemen, Iraq and Syria, where today Saudi Arabia and Iran are engaged in a proxy war. The Iranian Nuclear deal with the P5+1, the uncontrolled situation in Yemen, the Hajj crush where Iran claimed more than 400 dead citizens, The execution of 27 Sunnis by the Iranians, the execution of Nimr al Nimr (a Shia Sheikh) by the Saudis, the attack of the Saudi Embassy in Tehran, then the cuts of the diplomatic ties between the two countries, and the intensification of the rivalry.

What is for the future to expect?

3 games

3 scenarios

Accommodation game

In this scenario, Saudi Arabia and Iran will have to sit in the table of negotiation and find a com-promise. But how can two rival countries negotiate? common interest if there is any or a mutual threat?

Iran and Saudi Arabia are both rich countries, with large access to natural resources, big territories and their economic model is based on oil. If there is no common interest between the two powerful states in the region, the creation of ISIS constitute a threat to both governments. Iran doesn’t want a powerful Sunni group in Iraq and Syria and ISIS is threatening the Gulf monarchy. However, Tehran and Riyadh seems to have no intention to lower the temperature and talk again for a potential solution toward the defeat of « Daesh », and the rivalry between them is distracting attention from the war against ISIS. If a mutual threat is not enough to push for negotiations what can be the other solution?

As a consequence of the Iranian deal, the Saudis seem to be fed up with the shock therapy that the United States is exerting in the region at a point that they refused a seat in the Security Council. Saudi Arabia is today looking for new partnership with different countries, the latest highest meet-ing of the GCC has proved the lack of confidence of the Saudis regarding their alliance with the United States. With the intensification of tensions between Riyadh and Tehran, the Americans show no will to interfere and defend the interest of their historical ally, and Saudi Arabia is being exacerbated by the Washington-Tehran reconciliation.

Recently Saudi Arabia’s King Salman met the Chinese President in Riyadh where they signed a memorandum of understanding on the construction of a high-temperature gas-cooled reactor that can help the growing energy demand for electricity and water desalination in the Monarchy. This will also evolve the beginning of a nuclear program in Saudi Arabia. Actually, Since 2006, The monarchy was projecting to construct and promote a peaceful nuclear capacity program within the GCC, and in 2007 the six Gulf States studied with the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) the feasibility for a regional nuclear power, with the assistance of France. Saudi Arabia started singing many international agreements for a nuclear cooperation with different countries as France, Argentina, South Korea, China.

Recently, in June 2015, Russia and Saudi Arabia signed an agreement for cooperation in the field of nuclear energy including the design, construction, operation of nuclear power, education and training and other aspects related nuclear reactors. Now, what if Saudi’s decide to weaponize the use of nuclear? It will have subsequent effects in the region and will lead to an arms escalation of WMD.

Nevertheless, if this situation is unwanted, it can bring back stability in the region, the history has proved it.

During the cold war, the Soviet Union and the United States were expending their ballistic missiles, the Cuban missile crises and the threat of a nuclear war between the two blocs that can destroy Russia and the United States and may be the world, had generated the need for negotiations to find a compromise. Khrushchev was going to dismantle the offensive weapons in Cuba and in exchange the U.S made a public declaration that it would never invade Cuba without a direct provocation, but it also said it would dismantle its missiles from Turkey and Italy. The outcome of the negotiations between the two blocs resulted in the establishment of a hotline between the Kremlin and Pentagon and the beginning of the « detente » period.

The struggle of power in the region between Saudi Arabia and Iran is already leading to an arms escalation, and it might be possible for both countries to start a weaponization of nuclear facilities, it doesn’t matter who will start first, as long as the other will follow. Pakistan never wanted a nuclear bomb until India got one. Achieving parity with a rival country would lead to sit in the table of negotiation and the achievement of a compromise. Iran can promise not to get involved in Yemen and in Bahrain while Saudi Arabia would pull-out its intervention in the Syrian conflict, and Iran would join the war against ISIS.

Destruction game

The year 1979 marked the Islamic revolution in Iran, the Iranian theoretical or « spiritual » leader was aiming at exporting the Shia-Islam brand to Shiites minorities within the Middle East, this constitute a threat for the powerful Sunni-Monarchy, as it can undermine the existing equilibrium in the region. The Iranian clerics were urging the Shiites communities of the gulf States to rebel against their rulers, and demonstrations started in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain and Iraq.

A year later, Iraq attacked Iran, and the two countries engaged in a war that was serving the interests of Iraq, and the Gulf countries, more precisely Saudi Arabia; despite the support by western countries, this war undermining the West’s interests in terms of oil flows disruption. Saudi Arabia with Kuwait were financing Iraq, and the United States was indirectly supporting the Iraqi government by cutting off Iran’s supplies. The Iranian revolution, followed by the war installed a climate of increasing rivalry between the powerful Shia and Sunni countries. With the recent uprising of the Arab Spring, the situation intensified.

Since the conflict in Syria and Yemen seems to offer no political solution, a climate of cold war is installed in the region between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

The 3rd round of the Geneva peace talks about Syria, included the participation of delegates from the Saudi-backed opposition, the delegates from the Syrian government, the High Negotiations Committee and other opposition figures to discuss a possible ceasefire, relate of prisoners, humanitarian aid deliveries and the threat posed by ISIS. The problem is that neither the opposition nor the actual Bashar’s government wants to negotiate with each others, and neither Saudi Arabia and Iran are willing to bury the hatchet in Syria.

With the Iranian nuclear deal, the reconciliation between Iran and the west and the failure of finding a solution in Syria and Yemen, the tensions between the two powerful nations in the regions are reaching their peak. One should not forget that the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand was sufficient to cause the first World War; and today a small incident in the region can have large consequences. Both nations are exacerbated from each others, we can imagine a small event going wrong in Syria or Yemen leading to a direct war between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

A war in the region can erupt at any moment, it is certainly the least preferable scenario, but the most likely to happen if the tensions between the two regional powers are not softened. A direct conflict between the two influent States would undermines the west interests, the oil prices, and the economy of the world and will shift a regional war to a Third Word War.

In one side, the United States with the European powers would back Saudi Arabia and the other Arab Golf States; on the other side Russia would back Iran and Syria militarily and financially. Who will be the winner? We can’t tell, but a War is very expensive for both countries and for their allies, especially for Russia that is now suffering economically from its intervention in Syria. What is certain is that a Third World War can leave the economy, culture and politics of Iran and Saudi Arabia completely destroyed, and would change the actual « World Order ».

Conversion

Since the Arab Spring, Iran started increasing its military presence in the Middle East. In Iraq, it has sent its soldiers to fight alongside the Iraqi Army, in Syria the Iranians are financially supporting the Assad’s government, Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen are backed by Iran. Can Iran’s rising power destabilize the region stability and create a conversion of power?

As my professor Anis Bajrektarevic well summarized on the Gulf and its surrounding intellectual scenery: “as it solely bridges the two key Euro-Asian energy plateaus: the Gulf and Caspian. This gives Iran an absolutely pivotal geopolitical and geo-economic posture over the larger region – an opportunity but also an exposure! …Nearly all US governments since the unexpected 1979 Shah’s fall, … have formally advocated a regime change in Teheran. On the international oil market, Iran has no room for maneuver, neither on price nor on quotas. Within OPEC, Iran is frequently silenced by a cordial Saudi-led, GCC voting”. Therefore, only now, the United Nations sanctions against Iran are formally lifted, which reconnected Iran to the global economy. The European embargo on Iranian oil is to come to an end and the Iranian banks will re-establish connections with the European banking system and private companies would be able to operate with no fear of a western sanction.

Nowadays, Iran is representing a diverse emerging market in the fields of manufacturing, retail and energy.

The public sphere was demonizing Iran for decades, but with the Rouhani government Iran is converting to a charming country. Jawed Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, gives the image of an open country for negotiations, that is looking for long term solution and for stability in the region and in the world, but also a country that is trying to improve the economical and political situation of its young citizens.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia is suffering from a huge deficit in its public financing for the first time. With the crash of the crude prices, the deficit in the resource-rich Monarchy is more than 20% of the GDP that is according to Saudi Arabia’s finance minister around $120bn. To balance the budget, the kingdom needs an oil price of 100$ a barrel, its decision to keep the production high caused the plunge of the oil prices.

The decision of OPEC with the influence of Saudi Arabia to keep the production high, is going to burden the U.S shale oil and put the U.S gas industry under pressure, which can undermine the relationship between the two allies in the region.

The emergence of a prosperous Iran at the international level could serve as a pattern in the region, and shift the attention from the petrodollar monarchy to the « charming » country not far from it. While today Iran is improving its image in the public opinion, changing from the « devil » to « the sexy lady », Saudi Arabia’s model of « Wahhabism » is more and more connected to Islamic extremism and is blamed of causing terrorism.

Iran can use its new charisma plus its energy resources to attract the west, improve the situation in the country, offer a stability in Iraq and Syria and fill all the gaps where Saudi Arabia has failed.

The two regional powers are playing a poker game… Will the winner take it all?

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Middle East

Erdogan’s Calamitous Authoritarianism

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Turkey’s President Erdogan is becoming ever more dangerous as he continues to ravage his own country and destabilize scores of states in the Middle East, the Balkans, and North Africa, while cozying up to the West’s foremost advisories. Sadly, there seems to be no appetite for most EU member states to challenge Erdogan and put him on notice that he can no longer pursue his authoritarianism at home and his adventurous meddling abroad with impunity.

To understand the severity of Erdogan’s actions and ambitions and their dire implications, it suffices to quote Ahmet Davutoglu, formerly one of Erdogan’s closest associates who served as Minister of Foreign Affairs and subsequently Prime Minister. Following his forced resignation in May 2016 he stated “I will sustain my faithful relationship with our president until my last breath. No one has ever heard — and will ever hear — a single word against our president come from my mouth.”

Yet on October 12, Davutoglu declared “Erdogan left his friends who struggled and fought with him in exchange for the symbols of ancient Turkey, and he is trying to hold us back now…. You yourself [Erdogan] are the calamity. The biggest calamity that befell this people is the regime that turned the country into a disastrous family business.”

The stunning departure of Davutoglu from his earlier statement shows how desperate conditions have become, and echoed how far and how dangerously Erdogan has gone. Erdogan has inflicted a great calamity on his own people, and his blind ambition outside Turkey is destabilizing many countries while dangerously undermining Turkey’s and its Western allies’ national security and strategic interests.

A brief synopsis of Erdogan’s criminal domestic practices and his foreign misadventures tell the whole story.

Domestically, he incarcerated tens of thousands of innocent citizens on bogus charges, including hundreds of journalists. Meanwhile he is pressuring the courts to send people to prison for insulting him, as no one can even express their thoughts about this ruthlessness. Internationally, Erdogan ordered Turkish intelligence operatives to kill or smuggle back to the country Turkish citizens affiliated with the Gülen movement.

He regularly cracks down on Turkey’s Kurdish minority, preventing them from living a normal life in accordance with their culture, language, and traditions, even though they have been and continue to be loyal Turkish citizens. There is no solution to the conflict except political, as former Foreign Minister Ali Babacan adamantly stated on October 20: “… a solution [to the Kurdish issue] will be political and we will defend democracy persistently.”

Erdogan refuses to accept the law of the sea convention that gives countries, including Cyprus, the right to an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) for energy exploration, while threatening the use of force against Greece, another NATO member no less. He openly sent a research ship to the region for oil and gas deposits, which EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell called “extremely worrying.”

He invaded Syria with Trump’s blessing to prevent the Syrian Kurds from establishing autonomous rule, under the pretext of fighting the PKK and the YPG (the Syrian Kurdish militia that fought side-by-side the US, and whom Erdogan falsely accuses of being a terrorist group).

He is sending weapons to the Sunni in northern Lebanon while setting up a branch of the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA) in the country—a practice Erdogan has used often to gain a broader foothold in countries where it has an interest.

While the Turkish economy is in tatters, he is investing hundreds of millions of dollars in the Balkans, flooding countries with Turkish imams to spread his Islamic gospel and to ensure their place in his neo-Ottoman orbit. Criticizing Erdogan’s economic leadership, Babacan put it succinctly when he said this month that “It is not possible in Turkey for the economic or financial system to continue, or political legitimacy hold up.”

Erdogan is corrupt to the bone. He conveniently appointed his son-in-law as Finance Minister, which allows him to hoard tens of millions of dollars, as Davutoglu slyly pointed out: “The only accusation against me…is the transfer of land to an educational institution over which I have no personal rights and which I cannot leave to my daughter, my son, my son-in-law or my daughter-in-law.”

Erdogan is backing Azerbaijan in its dispute with Armenia (backed by Iran) over the breakaway territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is inhabited by ethnic Armenians and has been the subject of dispute for over 30 years.

He is exploiting Libya’s civil strife by providing the Government of National Accord (GNA) with drones and military equipment to help Tripoli gain the upper hand in its battle against Khalifa Haftar’s forces. Former Foreign Minister Yasar Yakis said in February 2020 that “The unclear Turkish foreign policy by Erdogan may put Turkey in grave danger due to this expansion towards Libya.”

He is meddling in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in an effort to prevent them from settling their dispute unless Israel meets Palestinian demands. He granted several Hamas officials Turkish citizenship to spite Israel, even though Hamas openly calls for Israel’s destruction.

He betrayed NATO by buying the Russian-made S-400 air defense system, which seriously compromises the alliance’s technology and intelligence.

He is destabilizing many countries, including Somalia, Qatar, Libya, and Syria, by dispatching military forces and hardware while violating the air space of other countries like Iraq, Cyprus, and Greece. Yakis said Turkey is engaging in a “highly daring bet where the risks of failure are enormous.”

Erdogan supports extremist Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, and an assortment of jihadists, including ISIS, knowing full well that these groups are sworn enemies of the West—yet he uses them as a tool to promote his wicked Islamic agenda.

He regularly blackmails EU members, threatening to flood Europe with Syria refugees unless they support his foreign escapades such as his invasion of Syria, and provide him with billions in financial aid to cope with the Syrian refugees.

The question is how much more evidence does the EU need to act? A close look at Erdogan’s conduct clearly illuminates his ultimate ambition to restore much of the Ottoman Empire’s influence over the countries that were once under its control.

Erdogan is dangerous. He has cited Hitler as an example of an effective executive presidential system, and may seek to acquire nuclear weapons. It’s time for the EU to wake up and take Erdogan’s long-term agenda seriously, and take severe punitive measures to arrest his potentially calamitous behavior. Sadly, the EU has convinced itself that from a geostrategic perspective Turkey is critically important, which Erdogan is masterfully exploiting.

The EU must be prepared take a stand against Erdogan, with or without the US. Let’s hope, though, that Joe Biden will be the next president and together with the EU warn Erdogan that his days of authoritarianism and foreign adventurism are over.

The views expressed are those of the author.

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Middle East

Syrian Refugees Have Become A Tool Of Duplicitous Politics

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Syrian refugees in Rukban camp

Since the beginning of the conflict in Syria the issue of Syrian refugees and internally displace has been the subject of countless articles and reports with international humanitarian organizations and countries involved in the Syrian conflict shifting responsibility for the plight of migrants.

The most notorious example of human suffering put against political games is the Rukban refugee camp located in eastern Syria inside the 55-km zone around Al-Tanf base controlled by the U.S. and its proxies.

According to official information, more than 50,000 people, mostly women and children, currently live in the camp. This is a huge number comparable to the population of a small town. The Syrian government, aware of the plight of people in Rukban, has repeatedly urged Washington to open a humanitarian corridor so that everyone can safely return home. However, all such proposals were ignored by the American side. U.S. also refuse to provide the camp with first aid items. Neighbouring Jordan is inactive, too, despite Rukban being the largest of dozens other temporary detention centres in Syria, where people eke out a meager existence.

At the same time, the problem is not only refugee camps. Syria has been at war for a decade. The country’s economy has suffered greatly over this period, and many cities have been practically grazed to the ground. Moreover, the global coronavirus epidemic didn’t spare Syria and drained the already weakened economy even more. However, Damascus’ attempts of post-war reconstruction and economic recovery were undermined by multiple packages of severe sanctions imposed by the U.S. At the same time, U.S.-based human rights monitors and humanitarian organizations continue to weep over the Syrian citizens’ misery.

The situation is the same for those refugees who stay in camps abroad, especially in countries bordering on Syria, particularly Jordan and Turkey. Ankara has been using Syrian citizens as a leverage against the European states in pursuit of political benefits for a long time. No one pays attention to the lives of people who are used as a change coin in big politics. This is equally true for Rukban where refugees are held in inhuman conditions and not allowed to return to their homeland. In those rare exceptions that they are able to leave, refugees have to pay large sums of money that most of those living in camp are not able to come by.

It’s hard to predict how long the Syrian conflict will go on and when – or if – the American military will leave the Al-Tanf base. One thing can be said for sure: the kind of criminal inaction and disregard for humanitarian catastrophe witnessed in refugee camps is a humiliating failure of modern diplomacy and an unforgivable mistake for the international community. People shouldn’t be a tool in the games of politicians.

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Is Syria Ready For Second Wave Of COVID-19?

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©UNICEF/Delil Souleiman

Despite a relative calm that has been holding on the front lines of the Syrian conflict since the beginning of the year, Syria had to face other equally – if not more – serious challenges. The spread of COVID-19 virus in the wake of a general economic collapse and a health care system battered by nine years of war threatened Syria with a death toll as a high as that of resumed military confrontation. However, the actual scale of the infection rate turned out to be less than it was expected considering the circumstances.

Although Syria did not have much in resources to mobilize, unlike some other countries that were slow to enforce restrictions or ignored them altogether, the Syrian authorities did not waste time to introduce basic measures that, as it became obvious in hindsight, proved to be the most effective. A quarantine was instituted in the areas controlled by the government, all transportation between the provinces was suspended, schools and universities were temporarily closed and face masks were made obligatory in public spaces.

As a result, official data puts the number of people infected with COVID-19 in the government areas at modest 4,457 while 192 people died of the infection. In turn, the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria announced that 1,998 people contracted the virus. The data on the infection rate in the opposition-controlled areas in Idlib and Aleppo is incomplete, but the latest number is 1,072. Compared to the neighboring Turkey with  9,000 of deaths of COVID-19, Syria seems to be doing relatively well.

Tackling the virus put the already embattled health care system under enormous strain. Syrian doctors are dealing with an acute shortage of medicines and equipment, and even hospital beds are in short supply. Over 60 medical workers who treated COVID-19 patients died.

The situation is worsened even further by the economic hardships, not least due to the sanctions imposed on Syria by the U.S. and the European states. Syrian hospitals are unable to procure modern equipment necessary for adequate treatment of COVID-19, most importantly test kits and ventilators.

The economic collapse exposed and aggravated many vulnerabilities that could have been easily treated under more favorable circumstances. A grim, yet fitting example: long queues in front of bakeries selling bread at subsidised prices, that put people under the risk of catching the virus. Many Syrians are simply unable to avoid risking their health in these queues, as an average income is no longer enough to provide for a family.

Moreover, despite a nation-wide information campaign conducted with the goal of spreading awareness about means of protections against COVID-19 like social distancing and mask-wearing, for many Syrians the disease is still stigmatized, and those who contracted it are often too ashamed to go to a hospital or even confess to their friends. As consequence, a substantial number of cases goes unreported.

With the second wave of COVID-19 in sight, it is of utmost importance that the work of health care professionals is supported, not subverted by the citizens. Otherwise Syria – and the world – may pay too high a price.

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