Since July 25 last, Assad’s Syrian Arab Army has hammered the Israeli front of the Golan Heights with its artillery, often logistically supported by Russia. The goal is obviously to prompt a response by the Jewish State and make it wage a war directly against Syria. A pointless suicide for Israel, a return to the old and useless lines of the Cold War in the Middle East.
This would also mean starting to put pressure on the Southern front, precisely towards the Golan Heights, both by the Hezbollah, now retreated towards the border between the Lebanon, Syria and Israel, and by the Iranian Armed Forces and their “volunteers”. The direction for everybody would be towards the Israeli Northern border, while Russia would clearly support this joint operation against Israel.
For Russia the war in Syria has been the great catalyst for its new hegemonic alliance in the Middle East, not a new position towards the Jewish State, still seen as a US “prong” in the region.
Certainly, for everybody the core of the issue lies in Prime Minister Netanyahu’s statement that the Golan Heights will anyway be excluded from any future negotiations on Syria.
Nevertheless, with specific reference to the Golan Heights issue, Russia wants to remain the point of reference for Egypt, Iran and many other “non-aligned” countries, which fear too strong a link between Russia and Israel.
Russia will favour Israel only to such a point as not to create new tensions with its “non-aligned countries’ front”.
However what do the major global and regional powers really want after the end of hostilities in Syria?
The United States mainly want to define a “Kurdish corridor” from Iskenderun to Orumieh and, southwards, from Mosul almost up to Georgia’s borders.
It would be an area where the NATO troops would be stationed permanently, with or without Turkey’s participation.
The area around Israel, up to the North and beyond, the Golan Heights, including part of the territory in the Damascus Province, would then be the area directly or indirectly controlled by the Jewish State, the United States and, again, by NATO.
Even after President Erdogan’s countercoup, Turkey cannot but accept the “Kurdish corridor”, though not at the expense of the Turkish Southern border. Without this acceptance, Turkey would remain without the US support, which is the only one available in the West and the only one capable of avoiding Turkey being subjected to the Russian hegemony in the region.
Not to mention the Turkish support to the Jabhat al Nusra Front – the Syrian group of Al Qaeda, which has recently split off from the “parent” organization in the Aleppo region – as well as to ISIS and the Turkmen jihad.
It is the instrument to wage an undeclared war against Russia and Syria, that Ankara would soon put again in place if the “Kurdish corridor” were not controlled by the NATO forces.
Nevertheless, following Syria’s fragmentation into zones of influence, nothing prevents the Atlantic Alliance from deciding to divide Turkey itself in an Anatolian component and a coastal one. There are NATO plans regarding this option, which must not be ruled out at all.
Furthermore, many analysts underline the strong support enjoyed by the jihadists among the soldiers in the “new” Turkish army emerging from the coup purges.
If the current Israeli strategy succeeds, the country could defend the Golan Heights along its sides, as well as divert, towards the Bekaa Valley, the Sunni jihadists directed against Hezbollah and finally better control the deployment of Bashar al-Assad’s forces along the Syrian border with Israel.
Moreover Iran’s primary aim in the region is to keep as intact as possible the Assads’ Syrian Alawite State, which is the necessary rampart against the Sunni Turkey and the inevitable protection against a Sunni jihad’s penetration of its Western borders.
What can Russia want after the end of operations in Syria?
Let us analyse the Russian strategic opportunities.
Either Russia wants a small Syria, which mainly defends the Russian ports on the Mediterranean, or it wants a slightly larger Syria with Damascus, Homs, Aleppo and Hama, big enough to act as a bulwark vis-à-vis Turkey and cover Iran, but insufficient to defend itself on its own.
Or Russia might also wish to return to the pre-2011 Greater Syria, but this would entail a huge Russian military and strategic effort, which probably does not correspond to its primary strategic objective.
This goal is to isolate the NATO Alliance in the Mediterranean and prevent its significant presence on the ground.
We may even think that Russia would accept the “line” adopted at the “Geneva-3” Conference, with a Greater Syria without Bashar al-Assad, but always with a strong Alawite presence designed to guarantee Russia’s Mediterranean interests.
For the time being, however, the real danger for Israel does not come from ISIS-Daesh, which has no points of contact with the Jewish State, but from the Hezbollah, which can already become a serious threat in the Golan Heights and is also an indispensable terrestrial asset for Russia, which mostly operates only from the sky and mainly strike the positions of the anti-Assad “insurgency”.
If Syria remains strong and within its current borders, it will become the Iranian strategic prong against Saudi Arabia and the State of Israel, and Russia will be in a position to do little to stop this new geopolitical configuration.
The interests binding Russia to Iran are much stronger and stable than those which have so far linked Russia to Israel.
For Russia, Iran is the necessary line of continuity with the whole Central Asia and the point of energy cooperation with China, as well as the strategic bulwark against insurgencies southwards and eastwards in the Greater Middle East.
Conversely, for Moscow, Israel is an economic partner, a factor of stability in the region and a future natural gas producer, but also a limit to the Russian project of reuniting all the anti-jihadist expectations and aspirations opposed to the Saudi hegemony, seen as the point of strength of the US presence in the region.
Russia wishes an Eastern Mediterranean freed from the NATO presence, from the North to the South, and does not yet view Israel as a fully independent strategic actor, autonomous from the United States.
Moscow wants to “see” the actual distance between Israel and the United States – just to use the poker jargon.
Hence currently Israel has two geopolitical options: a tacit alliance with Saudi Arabia and Turkey, under the US aegis, thus closing the window of opportunity for a strategic partnership with Russia.
Or an agreement with Russia for a smaller Syria without Bashar al-Assad, by ensuring the Russian strategic interests in the Mediterranean and Turkey.
Today, however, everything passes through Aleppo, largely reconquered by Assad and the Russian forces.
If the city is regained permanently by the Iranian-Russian-Syrian coalition, Turkey – also after its recent rapprochement with Russia – will no longer have the logistical and strategic possibility to support the anti-Assad forces – an opportunity passing precisely through Aleppo. It will also lose its leverage southwards, towards the “Kurdish corridor”.
Furthermore Turkey has already sent troops to Iraq, claiming part of the territory of that State which has now collapsed, while currently Turkey cannot afford a confrontation with Iran for Syria, let alone strong tensions with Russia, which supplies to Turkey 55% of its gas requirements, still under embargo.
Hence if Turkey can reach an agreement with Russia and also with Israel for its anti-Assad presence in Syria, without fearing a full-blown war between Russia and NATO, the New Syria could shrink to a strip of land between Turkey and Iran, guaranteed by Russia and strongly conditioned by Israel on its Southern front.
And Israel could expand its security zone in the Golan Heights, thus leading to Syrian reactions vis-à-vis Russia and triggering off the massive arrival of war material for an operation from the North against Israel. This is exactly what Russia wants to avoid.
The Golan Heights are the symbol of the “non-aligned” countries and Russia cannot forget this too easily.
Hence the whole Syrian system is an equation, with too many unknown factors to be solved, that Israel is right in putting aside, in view of the solution to the Kurdish and Syrian tensions.
Battling for the Future: Arab Protests 2.0
Momentous developments across Arab North and East Africa suggest the long-drawn-out process of political transition in the region as well as the greater Middle East is still in its infancy.
So does popular discontent in Syria despite eight years of devastating civil war and Egypt notwithstanding a 2013 military coup that rolled back the advances of protests in 2011 that toppled Hosni Mubarak and brought one of the country’s most repressive regimes to power.
What developments across northern Africa and the Middle East demonstrate is that the drivers of the 2011 popular revolts that swept the region and forced the leaders of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen to resign not only still exist but constitute black swans that can upset the apple cart at any moment.
The developments also suggest that the regional struggle between forces of change and ancien regimes and militaries backed by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia is far from decided.
If anything, protesters in Algeria and Sudan have learnt at least one lesson from the failed 2011 results: don’t trust militaries even if they seemingly align themselves with demonstrators and don’t surrender the street until protesters’ demands have been fully met.
Distrust of the military has prompted an increasing number of Sudanese protesters to question whether chanting “the people and the army are one” is still appropriate. Slogans such as “freedom, freedom” and “revolution, revolution” alongside calls on the military to protect the protesters have become more frequent.
The protests in Algeria and Sudan have entered a critical phase in which protesters and militaries worried that they could be held accountable for decades of economic mismanagement, corruption and repression are tapping in the dark.
With protesters emboldened by their initial successes in forcing leaders to resign, both the demonstrators and the militaries, including officers with close ties to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, are internally divided about how to proceed.
Moreover, neither side has any real experience in managing the crossroads at which they find themselves while it is dawning on the militaries that their tired playbooks are not producing results.
In a telling sign, Sudan’s interim leader Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman Burhan praised his country’s “special relationship” with Saudi Arabia and the UAE as he met this week with a Saudi-Emirati delegation at the military compound in Khartoum, a focal point of the protests.
Saudi Arabia has expressed support for the protests in what many suspect is part of an effort to ensure that Sudan does not become a symbol of the power of popular sovereignty and its ability to defeat autocracy.
The ultimate outcome of the dramatic developments in Algeria and Sudan and how the parties manoeuvre is likely to have far-reaching consequences in a region pockmarked by powder kegs ready to explode.
Mounting anger as fuel shortages caused by Western sanctions against Syria and Iran bring life to a halt in major Syrian cities have sparked rare and widespread public criticism of president Bashar al-Assad’s government.
The anger is fuelled by reports that government officials cut in line at petrol stations to fill up their tanks and buy rationed cooking gas and take more than is allowed.
Syria is Here, an anonymous Facebook page that reports on economics in government-controlled areas took officials to task after state-run television showed oil minister Suleiman al-Abbas touring petrol stations that showed no signs of shortage.
“Is it so difficult to be transparent and forward? Would that undermine anyone’s prestige? We are a country facing sanctions and boycotted. The public knows and is aware,” the Facebook page charged.
The manager of Hashtag Syria, another Facebook page, was arrested when the site demanded that the oil ministry respond to reports of anticipated price hikes with comments rather than threats. The site charged that the ministry was punishing the manager “instead of dealing with the real problem.”
Said Syrian journalist Danny Makki: “It (Syria) is a pressure cooker.”
Similarly, authorities in Egypt, despite blocking its website, have been unable to stop an online petition against proposed constitutional amendments that could extend the rule of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi until 2034 from attracting more than 320,000 signatures as of this writing.
The petition, entitled Batel or Void, is, according to Netblocks, a group that maps web freedom, one of an estimated 34,000 websites blocked by Egyptian internet service providers in a bid to stymie opposition to the amendments.
Mr. El-Sisi is a reminder of how far Arab militaries and their Gulf backers are potentially willing to go in defense of their vested interests and willingness to oppose popular sovereignty.
Libyan renegade Field Marshall Khalifa Belqasim Haftar is another, Mr. Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) is attacking the capital Tripoli, the seat of the United Nations recognized Libyan government that he and his Emirati, Saudi, and Egyptian backers accuse of being dominated by Islamist terrorists.
The three Arab states’ military and financial support of Mr. Haftar is but the tip of the iceberg. Mr. Haftar has modelled his control of much of Libya on Mr. El-Sisi’s example of a military that not only dominates politics but also the economy.
As a result, the LNA is engaged in businesses ranging from waste management, metal scrap and waste export, and agricultural mega projects to the registration of migrant labour workers and control of ports, airports and other infrastructure. The LNA is also eyeing a role in the reconstruction of Benghazi and other war-devastated or underdeveloped regions.
What for now makes 2019 different from 2011 is that both sides of the divide realize that success depends on commitment to be in it for the long haul. Protesters, moreover, understand that trust in military assertions of support for the people can be self-defeating. They further grasp that they are up against a regional counterrevolution that has no scruples.
All of that gives today’s protesters a leg up on their 2011 counterparts. The jury is out on whether that will prove sufficient to succeed where protesters eight years ago failed.
As Marsha Lazareva languishes in jail, foreign businesses will “think twice” before investing in Kuwait
IF THERE IS one thing to glean from the case of Marsha Lazareva, it’s that foreign businesses must now think very carefully before investing in Kuwait.
For more than a year, Lazareva, who has a five-year-old son and is one of Russia’s most successful female investors in the Gulf, has been held in the Soulabaiya prison by Kuwaiti authorities. Those authorities claim she ‘stole’ half a billion dollars, a claim she strenuously denies.
Human rights groups and prominent officials, including the former FBI director, Louis Freeh, and Jim Nicholson, former Chairman of the Republican Party and former US Ambassador to the Vatican, have called for her release and expressed concerns about the apparent absence of due process in a country where Lazareva has worked for over 13 years. Both Freeh and Nicholson visited Kuwait in recent weeks with Neil Bush, son of the late President George H. W. Bush. Bush has said Lazareva’s incarceration ‘threatens to darken relations between the U.S. and Kuwait, two countries that have enjoyed a long and prosperous relationship.’
Russian officials have been equally concerned. Vladimir Platonov, the President of the Moscow Chamber of Commerce and Industry, confirmed that a single witness gave testimony in Kuwaiti court, and only for the prosecution. ‘I myself worked in prosecution for more than eight years, and I cannot imagine any judge signing off on an indictment like this,’ he said. ‘One fact of particular note is that Maria was given 1,800 pages of untranslated documents in Arabic.’
Serious questions surrounding the safety and future viability of investing in Kuwait are now being raised. Through The Port Fund, a private investment company managed by KGL Investment, Lazareva has contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to local infrastructure and economic development projects during her time in the country. Until 2017, when a Dubai bank froze $496 million without cause, she had worked largely unobstructed.
But as things stand, more foreign investment is unlikely to be forthcoming. Jim Nicholson has said that the ‘imprisonment and harassment’ of Lazareva ‘threatens’ U.S. support. adding that the ‘willingness of the U.S. to do business with Kuwait’ is based on ‘its record as a nation that respects human rights and the rule of law’. Mark Williams, the investment director of The Port Fund and a colleague of Lazareva’s, has called on international investors to ‘think twice before doing business in this country’.
These comments will surely concern the Kuwaiti government, who said last year that FDI was ‘very crucial’ to the success of its Kuwait Vision 2035 road map. In September 2018, the FTreported that the government planned to reverse its traditional position as an investor in order to diversify its economy, carrying out a series of reforms designed to facilitate foreign investment and assist investors.
But despite these changes, which have propelled Kuwait to 96th—higher than the Middle East average—in the World Bank’s ‘Ease of Doing Business’ report, investors may be unwilling to take the risk so long as Lazareva remains in jail. Lazareva’s lawyers have accused Kuwait of violating international law by breaching a long-standing bilateral investment treaty with Russia. Lord Carlile of Berriew, QC has brought the case to the attention of the British public and the EU, writing in The Times that ‘there is no evidential basis to justify any claim of dishonesty, corruption or any other criminal wrong’. He added: ’Anyone thinking of doing business in Kuwait should read on with mounting concern.’
What’s worth remembering is that Kuwait is an important, long-standing ally of the UK, and a country generally seen as stable and fair. It is equally a major non-NATO ally of the United States, where there are more than 5,000 international students of Kuwaiti origin in higher education. But these relationships, and the investment to which they have historically led, have been cast into doubt. And it now seems certain that relations will continue to sour so long as Marsha Lazareva languishes in Soulabaiya.
Economic reform in the Gulf: Who benefits, really?
For Gulf leaders, long-overdue economic reforms were never going to be easy.
Leaders like the crown princes of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Mohammed bin Salman and Mohammed bin Zayed, quickly discovered that copying China’s model of economic growth while tightening political control was easier said than done. They realised that rewriting social contracts funded by oil wealth was more difficult because Gulf Arabs had far more to lose than the average Chinese. The Gulf states’ social contracts had worked in ways China’s welfare programmes had not. The Gulf’s rentier state’s bargain—surrender of political and social rights for cradle-to-grave welfare—had produced a win-win situation for the longest time.
Moreover, Gulf leaders, struggling with mounting criticism of the Saudi-UAE-led war in Yemen and the fall-out of the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, also lacked the political and economic clout that allowed China to largely silence or marginalise critics of its crackdown on Turkic Muslims in the troubled northwestern province of Xinjiang.
The absence of a welfare-based social contract in China allowed the government to power economic growth, lift millions out of poverty, and provide public goods without forcing ordinary citizens to suffer pain. As a result, China was able to push through with economic reforms without having to worry that reduced welfare benefits would spark a public backlash and potentially threaten the regime.
Three years into Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 blueprint for diversification of the economy, Saudi businesses and consumers complain that they are feeling the pinch of utility price hikes and a recently introduced five per cent value-added tax with little confidence that the government will stay the course to ensure promised long-term benefit.
The government’s commitment to cutting costs has been further called into question by annual handouts worth billions of dollars since the announcement of the reforms and rewriting of the social contract to cushion the impact of rising costs and quash criticism.
In contrast to China, investment in the Gulf, whether it is domestic or foreign, comes from financial, technology and other services sector, the arms industry or governments. It is focused on services, infrastructure or enhancing the state’s capacities rather than on manufacturing, industrial development and the nurturing of private sector.
With the exception of national oil companies, some state-run airlines and petrochemical companies, the bulk of Gulf investment is portfolios managed by sovereign wealth funds, trophies or investment designed to enhance a country’s prestige and soft power.
By contrast, Asian economies such as China and India have used investment fight poverty, foster a substantial middle class, and create an industrial base. To be sure, with small populations, Gulf states are more likely to ensure sustainability in services and oil and gas derivatives rather than in manufacturing and industry.
China’s $1 trillion Belt and Road initiative may be the Asian exception that would come closest to some of the Gulf’s soft-power investments. Yet, the BRI, designed to alleviate domestic overcapacity by state-owned firms that are not beholden to shareholders’ short-term demands and/or geo-political gain, contributes to China’s domestic growth.
Asian nations have been able to manage investors’ expectations in an environment of relative political stability. By contrast, Saudi Arabia damaged confidence in its ability to diversify its oil-based economy when after repeated delays it suspended plans to list five per cent of its national oil company, Saudi Arabian Oil Company, or Aramco, in what would have been the world’s largest initial public offering.
To be sure, China is no less autocratic than the Gulf states, while Hindu nationalism in India fits a global trend towards civilisationalism, populism and illiberal democracy. What differentiates much of Asia from the Gulf and accounts for its economic success are policies that ensure a relatively stable environment. These policies are focused on social and economic enhancement rather than primarily on regime survival. That may be Asia’s lesson for Gulf rulers.
Author’s note: first published in Firstpost
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