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-US and the Iran nuclear deal
Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian met with Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi on Friday, January 14, 2022 in the city of Wuxi, in China’s Jiangsu province. Both of them discussed a gamut of issues pertaining to the Iran-China relationship, as well as the security situation in the Middle East.
A summary of the meeting published by the Chinese Foreign Ministry underscored the point, that Foreign Ministers of Iran and China agreed on the need for strengthening bilateral cooperation in a number of areas under the umbrella of the 25 year Agreement known as ‘Comprehensive Cooperation between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the People’s Republic of China’. This agreement had been signed between both countries in March 2021 during the Presidency of Hassan Rouhani, but the Iranian Foreign Minister announced the launch of the agreement on January 14, 2022.
During the meeting between Wang Yi and Hossein Amir Abdollahian there was a realization of the fact, that cooperation between both countries needed to be enhanced not only in areas like energy and infrastructure (the focus of the 25 year comprehensive cooperation was on infrastructure and energy), but also in other spheres like education, people to people contacts, medicine and agriculture. Iran also praised the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and said that it firmly supported the One China policy.
The timing of this visit is interesting, Iran is in talks with other signatories (including China) to the JCPOA/Iran nuclear deal 2015 for the revival of the 2015 agreement. While Iran has asked for removal of economic sanctions which were imposed by the US after it withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018, the US has said that time is running out, and it is important for Iran to return to full compliance to the 2015 agreement. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in an interview said:
‘Iran is getting closer and closer to the point where they could produce on very, very short order enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon’
The US Secretary of State also indicated, that if the negotiations were not successful, then US would explore other options along with other allies.
During the course of the meeting on January 14, 2022 Wang Yi is supposed to have told his Chinese counterpart, that while China supported negotiations for the revival of the Iran nuclear deal 2015, the onus for revival was on the US since it had withdrawn in 2018.
The visit of the Iranian Foreign Minister to China was also significant, because Foreign Ministers of four Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries – Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain — and Secretary General of GCC, Nayef Falah Mubarak Al-Hajraf were in China from January 10-14, 2022 with the aim of expanding bilateral ties – especially with regard to energy cooperation and trade. According to many analysts, the visit of GCC officials to China was driven not just by economic factors, but also the growing proximity between Iran and Beijing.
In conclusion, China is important for Iran from an economic perspective. Iran has repeatedly stated, that if US does not remove the economic sanctions it had imposed in 2018, it will focus on strengthening economic links with China (significantly, China has been purchasing oil from Iran over the past three years in spite of the sanctions imposed by the US. The Ebrahim Raisi administration has repeatedly referred to an ‘Asia centric’ policy which prioritises ties with China.
Beijing is seeking to enhance its clout in the Middle East as US ties with certain members of the GCC, especially UAE and Saudi Arabia have witnessed a clear downward spiral in recent months (US has been uncomfortable with the use of China’s 5G technology by UAE and the growing security linkages between Beijing and Saudi Arabia). One of the major economic reasons for the GCC gravitating towards China is Washington’s thrust on reducing its dependence upon GCC for fulfilling its oil needs. Beijing can utilize its good ties with Iran and GCC and play a role in improving links between both.
The geopolitical landscape of the Middle East is likely to become more complex, and while there is not an iota of doubt, that the US influence in the Middle East is likely to remain intact, China is fast catching up.
Egypt vis-à-vis the UAE: Who is Driving Whom?
“Being a big fish in a small pond is better than being a little fish in a large pond” is a maxim that aptly summarizes Egyptian regional foreign policy over the past few decades. However, the blow dealt to the Egyptian State in the course of the 2011 uprising continues to distort its domestic and regional politics and it has also prompted the United Arab Emirates to become heavily engaged in Middle East politics, resulting in the waning of Egypt’s dominant role in the region!
The United Arab Emirates is truly an aspirational, entrepreneurial nation! In fact, the word “entrepreneurship” could have been invented to define the flourishing city of Dubai. The UAE has often declared that as a small nation, it needs to establish alliances to pursue its regional political agenda while Egypt is universally recognized for its regional leadership, has one of the best regional military forces, and has always charmed the Arab world with its soft power. Nonetheless, collaboration between the two nations would not necessarily give rise to an entrepreneurial supremacy force!
Egypt and the UAE share a common enemy: political Islamists. Yet each nation has its own distinct dynamic and the size of the political Islamist element in each of the two countries is different. The UAE is a politically stable nation and an economic pioneer with a small population – a combination of factors that naturally immunize the nation against the spread of political Islamists across the region. In contrast, Egypt’s economic difficulties, overpopulation, intensifying political repression, along with its high illiteracy rate, constitute an accumulation of elements that serves to intensify the magnitude of the secreted, deep-rooted, Egyptian political Islamists.
The alliance formed between the two nations following the inauguration of Egypt’s President Al Sisi was based on UAE money and Egyptian power. It supported and helped expand the domestic political power of a number of unsubstantiated Arab politicians, such as Libya’s General Khalifa Haftar, Tunisia’s President Kais Saied and the Chairman of Sudan’s Transitional Sovereignty Council, Lieutenant-General Abdel-Fattah Al-Burhan. The common denominator among these politicians is that they are all fundamentally opposed to political Islamists.
Although distancing political Islamists from ruling their nations may constitute a temporary success, it certainly is not enough to strengthen the power of the alliance’s affiliates. The absence of true democracy, intensified repression by Arab rulers and the natural evolution of Arab citizens towards freedom will, for better or for worse, lead to the re-emergence of political Islamists. Meanwhile, Emirati wealth will always attract Arab hustlers ready to offer illusory political promises to cash in the money.
The UAE has generously injected substantial amounts of money into the Egyptian economy and consequently the Egyptian State has exclusively privileged Emirati enterprises with numerous business opportunities, yet the UAE has not helped Egypt with the most critical regional threat it is confronting: the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Meanwhile, Egyptian President Abdel Fatah El Sisi’s exaggerated fascination with UAE modernization has prompted him to duplicate many Emirati projects – building the tallest tower in Africa is one example.
The UAE’s regional foreign policy that hinges upon exploiting its wealth to confront the political Islamist threat is neither comprehensible nor viable. The Emirates, in essence, doesn’t have the capacity to be a regional political player, even given the overriding of Egypt’s waning power. Meanwhile, Al Sisi has been working to depoliticize Egypt completely, perceiving Egypt as an encumbrance rather than a resource-rich nation – a policy that has resulted in narrowing Egypt’s economic and political aspirations, limiting them to the constant seeking of financial aid from wealthy neighbors.
The regional mediating role that Egypt used to play prior to the Arab uprising has been taken over by European nations such France, Germany and Italy, in addition of course to the essential and ongoing role of the United States. Profound bureaucracy and rampant corruption will always keep Egypt from becoming a second UAE! Irrespective of which nation is in the driver’s seat, this partnership has proven to be unsuccessful. Egypt is definitely better off withdrawing from the alliance, even at the expense of forgoing Emirati financial support.
Kurdish Education in Turkey: A Joint Responsibility
Turkish elites often see Kurds as posing a mortal threat to their homeland’s territorial integrity. Kurdish elites often harbor pan-Kurdish dreams of their own.
Modern Turkish nationalism based its identity on statist secularism practiced by Muslims who are Turks. The secularist paradigm of a “Turkish Nation” struggled hard with accommodating Christians (Armenians, Greeks, Assyrians) and Kurdish-speaking Muslims. Kurdish coreligionists were expected to become Turks, i.e., to abandon their cultural heritage for the “greater good” of a homogenous Turkish nation.
This cultural-identity conundrum led to a century-long violent conflict, but also to genuine efforts by many Kurds and Turks to reach a common vision that would accommodate both Turkey’s territorial integrity and Kurdish cultural rights.
The rise to power of Erdogan’s Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2002 appeared to imply a watershed, bringing about a measure of cultural liberalization toward the Kurds. More Islam seemed at first to signal less nationalistic chauvinism.
IMPACT-se, a think tank focusing on peace and tolerance in school education, pointed out in “Two Languages One Country,” a 2019 report that showed liberal elements being introduced in the Turkish curriculum by the AKP government. These “included the introduction of a Kurdish language elective program, the teaching of evolution, expressions of cultural openness, and displays of tolerance toward minorities.”
And while no open debate was permitted, IMPACT-se noted “a slight improvement over past textbooks in recognizing the Kurds, although they are still generally ignored.” Yet, the name “Kurd” is no longer obliterated from the curriculum. Kurdish-language textbooks were authored as part of a wider Turkish-Kurdish rapprochement.
In June 2012, the Turkish government announced for the first time, that a Kurdish elective language course entitled: “Living Languages and Dialects” (Yaşayan Diller ve Lehçeler), would be offered as an elective language for Grades 5–7 for two hours per week.
IMPACT-se studied these textbooks (published in 2014 and 2015 in Kurmanji and Zazaki) in its report and found that the elective Kurdish-language program strengthens Kurdish culture and identity, while assuming a pan-Kurdish worldview devoid of hate against Turks. Included are Kurdish-historic places in Turkey, Iran and Iraq (but not Syria). The textbooks cover issues such as the Kurdish diaspora in Europe, the Kurdish national holiday of Newroz, with the underlying revolutionary message of uprising against tyranny. Children’s names are exclusively Kurdish. Turks and Turkey are not represented in the elective Kurdish books (but are obviously present across the rest of the curriculum).
The latter is a surprising and counter-intuitive finding. Textbooks published by Turkey’s Ministry of Education focus solely on the Kurdish side, with pan-Kurdish messaging, and no Turkish context. There could be several explanations for this, but the fact remains that Turkish-Kurdish relations are still not present in Turkey’s Kurdish language program.
The overall conclusion of IMPACT-se has been that this program is pioneering and generally excellent. There are some problems, however. One problem is that the elective program is minimalistic and does not meet Kurdish cultural needs. However, the program ignores the Turkish-Kurdish dilemma, hence projecting an inverted mirror image of the Turkish curriculum at large, which ignores the Kurdish question. There is no peace education in either curriculum. Therefore, IMPACT-se recommended enhancing the Kurdish-language program, while adding a healthy dose of pertinent peace education to the curriculum’s Turkish and Kurdish textbooks.
Sadly, the last few years have also seen broader moves by the Turkish government to quash Kurdish cultural and educational freedoms. The armed conflict between separatist groups and the Turkish military resumed in 2015, followed by the 2016 detention of high-ranking officials of the peaceful pro-minority People’s Democratic Party (HDP). By 2020, 59 out of 65 elected Kurdish mayors on the HDP ticket in previous years had been forced out or arrested by security forces.
Simultaneously, elective programs such as Kurdish have been neglected and largely replaced by religious “elective” courses, which are often mandatory. Specifically, elective Kurdish courses are being clamped down or de facto erased in certain schools (despite being originally offered in 28 cities and with an expected enrollment as high as 160,000).
And then there is the question of full education in Kurdish. Article 42 of the Turkish Constitution bans the “teaching of any language other than Turkish as a mother tongue to Turkish citizens at any institution of education.” And yet, Turkish authorities looked the other way between 2013 and 2016, as five fully Kurdish elementary private schools were opened in the southeastern provinces of Diyarbakır, Şırnak and Hakkari. The last of these schools, Ferzad Kemanger in Diyarbakır, was closed on October 9, 2016. Apparently these schools conveyed pan-Kurdish messaging (Ferzad Kemanger was an Iranian-Kurdish elementary school teacher. He was wrongly accused of being a terrorist and executed by Tehran in 2010).
There can be no Kurdish heritage without Kurdish languages, making the current situation untenable. Kurdish education should become a priority again.
But this is not enough. A common Turkish-Kurdish vision should be developed. Educationally, a serious effort should be directed toward educating both Turks and Kurds about the other’s identity, culture, shared history, commonalties, conflicts and interactions.
Two ethnicities sharing one homeland in a volatile region pose a great challenge for both. A careful educational plan can lay the groundwork for peace and prosperity. Kurdish education in Turkey should be considered a joint responsibility leading to a common vision.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect an official position of IMPACT-se.
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