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.
China and the Middle East: Heading into Choppy Waters
China could be entering choppy Middle Eastern waters. Multiple crises and conflicts will likely shape its relations with the region’s major powers, including Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Turkey.
The laundry list of pitfalls for China includes the fallout of the Ukraine war, strained US relations with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Turkish opposition to Finnish and Swedish NATO membership, the threat of a renewed Turkish anti-Kurdish incursion into northern Syria, and the fate of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the 2015 international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program.
Drowning out the noise, one thing that becomes evident is that neither the Gulf states nor Turkey have any intention of fundamentally altering their security relationships with the United States, even if the dynamics in the cases of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Turkey are very different.
Saudi Arabia recognizes that there is no alternative to the US security umbrella, whatever doubts the kingdom may have about the United States’ commitment to its security. With next month’s visit to Saudi Arabia by President Joe Biden, the question is not how US-Saudi differences will be papered over but at what price and who will pay the bill.
Meanwhile, China has made clear that it is not willing and not yet able to replace the United States. It has also made clear that for China to engage in regional security, Middle Eastern states would first have to get a grip on their disputes so that conflicts don’t spin out of control. Moves to lower the tensions between Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt by focusing on economics are a step in that direction. Still, they remain fragile, with no issue that sparked the differences being resolved.
A potential failure of negotiations in Vienna to revive the Iran nuclear deal could upset the apple cart. It would likely push Israel, the UAE, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia to tighten their security cooperation but could threaten rapprochement with Turkey. It could also heighten tensions in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and Iraq, where Iran supports a variety of political actors and militias. None of this is good news for China, which like other major players in the Middle East, prefers to remain focused on economics.
The dynamics with Turkey and Iran are of a different order. China may gleefully watch Turkish obstruction in NATO, but as much as Turkey seeks to forge an independent path, it does not want to break its umbilical cord with the West anchored in its membership in NATO.
NATO needs Turkey even if its center of gravity, for now, has moved to Eastern Europe. By the same token, Turkey needs NATO, even if it is in a better position to defend itself than the Gulf states are. Ultimately, horse-trading will resolve NATO’s most immediate problems because of Turkish objections to Swedish and Finnish NATO membership.
Turkey’s threatened anti-Kurdish incursion into northern Syria would constitute an escalation that no party, including China, wants. Not because it underwrites Turkish opposition to Swedish and Finnish NATO membership but because with Syrian Kurds seeking support from the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, Turkish and Iranian-backed forces could find themselves on opposite sides.
Finally, Iran. Despite the hot air over Iran’s 25-year US$400 million deal with China, relations between Tehran and Beijing are unlikely to fully blossom as long as Iran is subject to US sanctions. A failure to revive the nuclear agreement guarantees that sanctions will remain. China has made clear that it is willing to push the envelope in violating or circumventing sanctions but not to the degree that would make Iran one more major friction point in the already fraught US-China relationship.
In a world in which bifurcation has been accelerated by the Ukraine war and the Middle East threatened by potentially heightened tensions in the absence of a nuclear agreement, Gulf states may find that increasingly the principle of ‘you are with us or against us’ becomes the norm. The Gulf states hedged their bets in the initial months of the Ukraine war, but their ability to do so may be coming to an end.
Already Saudi Arabia and the UAE are starting to concede on the issue of oil production, while Qatar is engaging with Europe on gas. Bifurcation would not rupture relations with China but would likely restrain technological cooperation and contain Gulf hedging strategies, including notions of granting China military facilities.
Over and beyond the immediate geopolitical and security issues, there are multiple other potentially problematic issues and powder kegs.
A prominent Saudi-owned newspaper, Asharq Al-Awsat, recently took issue with an increasingly aggressive tone in Chinese diplomacy. “China isn’t doing itself any favours … Chinese officials seem determined to undermine their own case for global leadership … Somehow Chinese officials don’t seem to recognize that their belligerence is just as off-putting…as Western paternalism is,” the newspaper said in an editorial.
China’s balancing act, particularly between Saud Arabia and Iran, could become more fraught. A failure to revive the nuclear agreement will complicate already difficult Saudi Iranian talks aimed at dialling down tensions. It could also fuel a nuclear, missiles, and drone arms race accelerated by a more aggressive US-backed Israeli strategy in confronting Iran by striking at targets in the Islamic republic rather than with US backing in, for example, Syria.
While Chinese willingness to sell arms may get a boost, China could find that both Saudi Arabia and Iran become more demanding in their expectations from Beijing, particularly if tensions escalate.
A joker in the pack is China’s repression of Turkic Muslims in its north-western province of Xinjiang. A majority of the Muslim world has looked the other way, with a few, like Saudi Arabia, openly endorsing the crackdown.
The interest in doing so goes beyond Muslim-majority states not wanting to risk their relations with a China that responds harshly and aggressively to public criticism. Moreover, the crackdown in Xinjiang and Muslim acquiescence legitimises a shared opposition to any political expression of Islam.
The problem for Muslim-majority states, particularly those in the Middle East, is that the era in which the United States and others could get away with the application of double standards and apparent hypocrisy in adhering to values may be drawing to a close.
China and, for that matter, Russia is happy to benefit from the global South’s reluctance to join condemnation of the invasion of Ukraine and sanctions against Russia because the West refuses to apply the principle universally, for example, in the case of Israel or multiple infractions of international and human rights law elsewhere.
However, China and Middle Eastern states sit in similar glasshouses. Irrespective of how one judges recent controversial statements made by spokespeople of India’s ruling BJP party regarding the Prophet Mohammed and Muslim worship, criticism by Muslim states rings hollow as long as they do not also stand up to the repression of Muslims in Xinjiang.
For some in the Middle East, a reckoning could come sooner and later.
Turkey is one state where the issue of the Uighurs in China is not simply a far-from-my-bed show. Uighurs play into domestic politics in a country home to the largest Uighur exile community that has long supported the rights of its Turkic brethren in China and still boasts strong strands of pan-Turkism.
These are all elements that could come to the fore when Turkey goes to the polls next year as it celebrates the 100th anniversary of the birth of the Turkish republic.
The question is not whether China will encounter choppy waters in the Middle East but when and where.
Author’s note: This article is based on the author’s remarks at the 4th Roundtable on China in West Asia – Stepping into a Vacuum? organised by the Ananta Aspen Center on 14 June 2022 and was first published by the Middle East Institute in Washington DC.
Recognising Israel: Any Asian volunteers?
The question for Saudi Arabia and Pakistan is not whether either country will recognise Israel but when and who will go first.
For the past two years, Saudi Arabia was believed to want a Muslim state in Asia, home to the world’s three most populous Muslim majority countries, to recognise Israel first. Asian recognition would give the kingdom, home to Islam’s two holiest cities, Mecca and Medina, a welcome fig leaf.
Numbers, as expressed by population size, were one reason. Compared to Saudi Arabia’s 35 million people, Pakistan has a population of 221 million, Indonesia 274 million, and Bangladesh 165 million.
That was one reason Saudi Arabia preferred an Asian state to take the lead in following the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan, who recognised Israel in the least two years.
Likely more important was the expectation that potential mass protest against a move toward Israel was more likely to erupt in Asia, where the margin for expressing dissent is greater than in much of the Middle East. Such protests, it was thought, would distract attention from the Custodian of the Holy Cities taking similar steps.
Saudi Arabia has signaled for some time that it would like to formalize its expanding informal relations with Israel but needs a cover to do so. The kingdom has emphasized this in recent weeks as it sought Israeli acquiescence in the transfer by Egypt to Saudi Arabia of sovereignty over two islands at the top of the Red Sea and prepared for a possible visit by US President Joe Biden.
The visit is designed to improve relations strained since Mr. Biden came to office over Saudi doubts about US security commitments, US demands that the kingdom increase oil production in a bid to reduce prices and limit Russian energy exports, Saudi acquisition of Chinese missiles, and the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
In advance of a visit, Saudi Arabia has not rejected a US proposal for a regional Middle Eastern air defence system that would include the kingdom and Israel.
Mujtahid, an anonymous tweeter who has repeatedly provided insights into the secretive workings of the House of Saud in recent years, reported that Saudi Arabia and Israel had created a “situation room” on the 14th floor of an Istanbul office building to advance the establishment of diplomatic relations. He said Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s close aide, Saud al-Qahtani, headed the Saudi side.
Despite rampant speculation, Mr. Bin Salman is unlikely to see Mr. Biden’s visit as a capstone for recognition of Israel. More likely, he will continue to insist on a fig leaf in the form of progress in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or a major Asian Muslim-majority state going next.
Much of the attention focused in the almost two years since the UAE-led quartet forged relations with Israel focused on Indonesia. Not only because Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim majority state and its foremost Muslim democracy but also because it is home to the world’s most moderate mass Muslim civil society movement, Nahdlatul Ulama.
Heads of Nahdlatul Ulama have visited Israel and met Israeli leaders multiple times in the past two decades, even though Indonesia and Israel have no diplomatic relations. The movement also has close ties to various American Jewish groups.
Similarly, the absence of formal relations between Israel and Indonesia has not prevented Israeli diplomats, scholars, and journalists from maintaining contact with Indonesian counterparts and travelling to the archipelago nation or Indonesian pilgrims from touring the Jewish state. Nevertheless, Indonesia has rebuffed both the Trump and the Biden administration’s requests to move towards recognition.
Indonesia’s refusal may not come as a surprise. However, suggestions that Pakistan, despite its close ties to Saudi Arabia, may strike a deal with Israel come out of left field. Religious ultra-conservatism is woven into the fabric of society and at least some state institutions. Moreover, anti-Semitism is rampant in Pakistan.
Nonetheless, a recent visit to Israel by a delegation of Pakistani activists seeking to promote people-to-people contacts has sparked anger and debate in Pakistan. The group, which met with Israeli President Isaac Herzog, included American and British Pakistanis, prominent Pakistani journalist Ahmed Qureshi, and Fischel BenKhald, a Pakistani Jew.
“Without at least an overt nudge from powerful quarters, no Pakistani journalist could make this public trip to Israel and return safely, reflecting how attitudes pertaining to Israel have evolved in the world’s only Muslim nuclear power,” said London-based Pakistani journalist Hamza Azhar Salam.
That did not stop Pakistani state television from firing Mr. Qureishi.
“The good news is, we today have the first, robust and rich nationwide debate in Pakistan on establishing diplomatic ties with Israel. This is hug,” Mr. Qureishi said.
Many Pakistanis, led by ousted prime minister Imran Khan, saw the visit to Israel as part of an effort by Pakistan’s powerful military to forge closer ties to the Jewish state – a move Mr. Khan appears to have considered when he was in office.
His aide, Zulfi Bukhari, reportedly visited Israel for a meeting with then head of the Mossad, Yossi Cohen. Mr. Bukhari has denied travelling to Israel.
The visit by the Pakistani activists came two years after two Pakistani academics called in an op-ed in Israel’s Haaretz newspaper for Pakistani-Israeli cooperation in resolving the South Asian state’s water stress and upgrading its agriculture sector.
Similarly, Pakistani political analyst Saad Hafiz recently argued that Pakistan’s recognition of Israel would earn it the support of the Biden administration and the Israeli lobby in Washington for continued International Monetary Fund (IMF) aid for his country’s battered economy. Mr. Hafiz also reiterated that Pakistan could benefit from Israeli water conservation technology.
“The US leadership, Congress, and the powerful pro-Israel lobby could support the resumption of financial assistance to Pakistan as an incentive if it agrees to normalize ties with Israel, “ Mr. Saad said.
Pakistanis and Israeli have links in other ways. For example, many Pakistanis offer their services on Fiverr, an Israeli marketplace for freelance professionals.
Degrees of Saudi cooperation with Israel and Pakistani feelers contrasted starkly with legislation passed in the last two weeks by the Iraqi parliament criminalizing contact with Israel and by the Houthi government in Yemen that outlawed contact not only with Israel but also with Jews.
Pakistan is unlikely to follow Iraq or the Houthis. Even so, “it is unlikely that Pakistan’s fragile coalition government has the credibility and time to take the politically risky decision to open dialogue with Israel, especially with (Imran) Khan snipping at its heels,” Mr. Saad said. “Yet, bold decisions are needed for Pakistan to compete in a changing world.”
The West Gives Ukraine What It Denied to Libya
Since the start of the Ukrainian conflict more than 6 million refugees have left Ukraine in search of a better life in Europe. Most of them faced no considerable problems in crossing the border and eventually find what they were looking for thanks to the lenient approach taken by the government of European nations. Welcoming Ukrainians with open arms comes in sharp contrast with the experience of refugees from Africa or Middle East, who also run from chaos and war. What is the reason behind this discrimination? Is it the double standards of the West or simply a disastrous concatenation of circumstances?
The downfall of longtime Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi in 2011 caused an exodus of around 2 million Libyans. Most of them migrated to Tunisia and only 300,000 chose to try their luck in EU, predominantly Italy and Malta. Unlike the Ukrainians, Arabs did not receive such a warm welcome. On the contrary UN allocated more than $700 million to deter Libyans from crossing the Mediterranean. The funds went on costal guard training and improvement of border control. In practice this means seizing vessels with refugees in the open sea and sending the people who paid smugglers exorbitant amounts of money back to poverty and suffering. The West is acting as if it’s trying to avoid Africans and Arabs like a plague while 6 million Ukrainians were accepted with ease and even given special treatment in certain countries like Poland.
Instead of taking in the Libyan refugees the EU could have committed to rebuild infrastructure and improve the living standards in Libya. At one point in time it seemed that this strategy would be implemented: according to Financial Tracking Service from 2011 until 2022 Tripoli received $1.2 billion worth of aid. It is quite a large number, which rounds up to $109 million per year. However, it’s not sufficient from a stand point of a country. For example in 2021 Egypt has dedicated around $3 billion for low-income housing while having 27.9% poverty rate. At the same time Libya has 53% poverty rate, which means $109 million per year could probably provide housing for less than 0.2% of those in need. As for Ukraine, FTS recorded $1.8 billion in foreign aid since 24 February 2022 – more than Libya received in 11 years.
It is not only about the refugees and funding but about the causes and solutions of the crisis. In Libya thousands of innocent lives were taken, thousands of homes and crucial infrastructure objects annihilated in the wake of the military operation conducted by NATO with no one brought to responsibility. Now, the news about war crimes and casualties in Ukraine can be heard in any part of the globe. Evidently when military force is used to establish “democracy” far away from the homeland, lost Arab lives is an acceptable sacrifice in a white man’s eyes.
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