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Abu Mazen and the Politics of Paranoia: the Creation of a Palestinian Leadership

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The researchers Robins and Post have advanced the theory of political paranoia to deepen our understanding of the psycho-politics of personality. They outline seven elements of a paranoia syndrome. It is characterized by: a) suspiciousness; b) centrality; c) grandiosity; d) hostility; e) fear of loss of autonomy; f) projection; and e) delusional thinking.

All these can be attributed to political leaders, especially patrimonial ones, whose operational code is conservative and closed. This syndrome, very much typifies and explains Abu Mazen personality and his political behavior, as well as his approach towards the circles of activists that he operates in and interacts with: the inner circle (Palestinian), the regional (inter-Arab), the policy towards Israel.

Suspiciousness. The paranoid leader’s personality, according to Robins and Post is typified by suspiciousness of others, both relatives and strangers, and by pervasive distrust and lack of cooperation. He suspects that others are exploiting, deceiving, and conspiring against him. He is preoccupied with doubts about others’ friendship or loyalty, and he is reluctant to confide in others. To the paranoiac, things are never what they seem. He does not permit himself to be distracted by innocent facts, and searches for hidden meanings according to pre-existing ideas and conclusions reached in advance, that support his conspiratorial thesis. Events do not simply occur, they are deliberately caused. There is no room for ambiguity, and the classifications made are black and white, good/bad, friend/enemy, and have no balance among them.

Abu Mazen is chronically suspicious towards everyone, his loyalists and allies in his close environment, and enemies in distant environments. He does not rely on anyone. His paranoia is in everything and have to do even with his personal security. His decisions have always been in accord with his own judgment, while he has often changed them without warning. Like Arafat Abu Mazen is very sensitive to his place in the Palestinian history, and identifies himself as an important part of the Palestinian revolution. Therefore he will never compromise with Israel and will not allow any freedom of action to his assistants or to those who negotiate in his name.

In fact, he prevents the growth of an alternate leadership or the possibility of revolt against himself, or even a blow at his authority. He deeply believes in conspiracies, in attempts to liquidate him, hence, his tendency to create myths about him being a possible victim of his enemies’ schemes. This situation leads him to act through crisis management. He is at his best in times of crisis. Energetic and eager for battle, his face wears a smile from ear to ear, as he has great love for situations of heroism.

Centrality. The paranoid leader’s world is populated by all sorts of enemies, of whom he perceives himself to be the focus of attention. All their actions and remarks are taken as directed against himself. He is totally sure that he is the object of great interest on the part of everyone around him. At the same time, he constantly surveys his surroundings, carefully watching how he is being watched. These beliefs and behaviors lead to a dynamic sequence of close relations, intense feelings of persecution, and vindictive retaliatory rage in the paranoid leader.

Violently angry, the paranoid leader defends himself by posing as the victim of outside enemies. Being extremely sensitive to criticism, his interpersonal relationships are disturbed. The world of politics is the best source for enemies of the paranoid leader. This is the “warfare personality” which exhibits extreme traits of focusing on demonic enemies and conspiracies, and on how to defeat them. The profound feelings of persecution lead to attempts to put the blame on outside enemies in order to overcome one’s sense of inferiority, insecurity, and unlovability. He is busy with himself, so self-centered and arrogant that he shows very little concern for the needs and feelings of others. Indeed, he is not at all bothered by the wretched situation of his people, socially, economically, or educationally. He does not care about their well-being.

Abu Mazen’s style has an exceptionally centralized character which is typical of a Byzantine court as well as of patrimonial leadership. He does not grant any authority to anyone, and decides everything himself, down to the smallest details. The structure of his government is personal, hierarchical, rigid, and closed in, despite its not being alienated. He brings up subjects for discussion only as a formal gesture, without any operational meaning. And he always has the last word.

Everyone must report to him, and in very detailed form. On the other hand, he does not convey current information, nor does he share it with others, except very selectively. No one has decision-making authority, even over the smallest details, unless he has received Abu Mazen’s authorization. This is a central part of his capacity to control different environments. Patrimonial rule does not make possible creation of an institutionalized opposition. Formally, the centralized framework does not make possible any qualitative change. The opposition is always viewed as a disruptive factor “in this stage of political development.”

Abu Mazen’s leadership style is extremely centralized. He is the exclusive source of authority and makes all the decisions on all matters, through hierarchical management. This may be described as “information management to obtain control,” as he is sure that no one will dare oppose him. He controls all the information, and this control is part of his power over his people, and over all the Palestinian organizations. Together with his complete control over the finances, makes him irreplaceable and invincible.

He is one-dimensional personality. He does not spend leisure time, nor personal friends, and he is addicted chiefly to the communications media. Being a workaholic, the Palestinian case occupies his time all day long. He knows how to be affable and is the perfect host, according to the Arab tradition, but he also knows how to hurt and insult. He has a gifted ability to impress people in personal meetings, and to win hearts as the victim of the situation.

On the other hand, he is impatient and exemplifies this in his agenda. He shouts at his advisors and screams at those close to him, and at the same time, weeps over his bitter fate of not being understood. He expresses his sorrow and apologies for hurting his advisors, and then repeats what he has done. Above all, he an actor of skill, who acts out of “calculated spontaneity”. Abu Mazen is a craftsman who controls his reactions, as they are part of his exceptional theatricality. This reflects the need for personal recognition of his honor, his lack of affection and sympathy, his obsessive need for recognition and esteem.

Abu Mazen rules the whole financial structure, and everything is done through his decisions. By that he confirms the old saying: He who controls the money holds the power. He purchases everyone, enemies and friends alike, enabling them to have a life of corruption so that they will not intervene in his activities. The PLO is the greatest and richest terrorist organization in history. Its capital is estimated in billions of dollars. Its sources of money are: “protection” funds paid by Arab oil states; pan-Arab and international monetary aid. All these funds are under his control and expenditure.

The huge amount of money the Palestinians get is by no means the greatest sinful act in the record of human beings. To make it very short:

According to the United Nations data, there are more than one billion people around the world that earn less than two dollars a day. You will not find even one Palestinian among them.

According to the United Nations data, at least 25 percent of world population, that is almost two billion, are in severe shortage of water to drink, and the drink water the highly risk their health, to the brink of death. You will not find even one Palestinian among them.

According to the United Nations data, 35 percent of world population have no toilets and other basic hygienic means at home, and they do it outdoor or in the field. Very few if any can be found among the Palestinians.

Most of the third world countries in Africa, Asia, and South America, including some Arab states, would have been extremely happy and satisfied to have the Palestinian standard of living, Gross National Product and monthly income.

Only in the Philippines, there are, according to the UN data, four million children, almost the size of all the Palestinian people that live in horrible inhuman conditions, in hunger and misery, with terrifying health conditions that is a disgrace to any human being. Yet, the Palestinians continue to get billions of dollars every year and huge assistance from the donating states.

Above all, the Palestinians are the only gifted among world population to have a monthly economic parcel of existence. The UN gives to 4.25 million Palestinians a monthly assistance of food products, the only ones on a regular basis from 1950 to the end of history. That is why they continue with the victimology strategy, to get more and more, at the expense of those billion of people in the world that really need it.    

One has to personally visit and investigate the real situation of the Palestinians in the PA territories and in Gaza, and then to go to most of African, Asian and South American states to make the comparison. He will be embarrassed, astonished, bewildered, and at the same time with the highest guilt and shame of the injustices done by world hypocrisy and evildoing injustices. Yet, the international money donations continue to flow heavily. This is a shame, a huge black hollow on the conscience of humanity.

Grandiosity. The paranoid leader is notorious for his arrogant grandiosity through which he boasts of his feats and triumphs. The paranoid leader relies on the primitive psychological defenses of denial and distortion. They are his tools for looking at the world. Through them, he assumes great importance. The grandiosity acts as a shield for a fragile ego, highly sensitive and insecure. The result of his unbearable shame is outside rage and aggressiveness. He knows the real and only truth, and this leads to a high likelihood of exaggeration and falsification.

Abu Mazen identifies himself with the Palestinian revolution, being busy with national symbols. From his viewpoint, the world must understand the situation of the Palestinians, and must compensate and support them without asking questions and really investigating their real situation. He is very sensitive about his honor and takes pains to ensure that he is treated as a world esteemed leader.

He does not accept dictates made in public, even at a high price, since he feels that it means that someone is trying to humiliate him. Personal gestures influence his mood to gain honor and recognition. He is capable of breaking the rules of the game if he feels that he is not getting due respect. He always reacts very angrily and goes on the attack if he is not treated as President of Palestine, though he is the chairman of the Palestinian Authority.

Abu Mazen is an absolute liar who believes in his own words, and presents false data as solid facts. He makes frequent use of exaggerate detached from reality declarations, and utilizes all the features of the Arabic language: overemphasis (Tawqid), through repeating words and sentences; verbal exaggeration (Mubalaghah); and boasting of deeds and successes (Mufakharah). Being a professional liar, Abu Mazen has declared that the map of Greater Israel is inscribed on the Israeli 10 agora coin, and turned it into a symbol as if the Israeli scheme was already being discussed in a concrete way.

He is capable of lying without blinking his eye, without outward or inward signs, and without changing the line of his emotions. Very often he slides into megalomania and the mythical self-image. Above all, he is anti-Semite, a holocaust denier, an extremist that will never give up any part of the entire territory of Palestine, “from the sea to the River,” in fact including Jordan.  

Even if his deceitful accusations are groundless and ridiculous, Abu Mazen uses them without any problem, persistently. He has a dramatic talent which he makes frequent use of, in speech and in body language, in code terms and in allusions. He is an actor who suits his style and messages to fit his target audience. In meetings with the Israeli and international publics, he appears as a sensitive moderate man, capable of accepting a “logical political arrangements,” who pleads to reach diplomatic arrangements.

At the same time, he refuses to accept any proposal, even those that give him almost all the 1967 borders. See his extreme stand in Camp David II, with Barak and Arafat; his refusal to accept Israeli proposal in January 2001 (made to Arafat) and his refusal of Olmart proposal in 2009 and to the Israeli Minister, Zipi Livni, in 2012.

In hundreds of blunt declarations he utterly said that he will never recognize Israel as a Jewish state. He also refuses to accept the American proposal of Jewish and Palestinian states living together side by side. In his declarations he refers to this as “the Two States Solution,” meaning a Palestinian state and a none-Jewish state, “a state of all its citizens,” or “a secular states,” as the Jews have no national ingredients and they do not deserve a state.

Abu Mazen is against full-fledge terrorism, like a national Intifada. But this not on a moral or political basis, but because he believes that a full-fledge Intifada unites the Israeli people, make him stronger in resistance, and mainly because it threatens the Palestinian case in the world and alienates it from world public opinion.    

Hostility. The paranoid exhibits a highly hostile attitude towards the world. He is belligerent and irritable, humorless and extremely sensitive in an ever-growing need for love. The hostile paranoiac – suffused with suspicion and distrust – is ready for rejection, and he perceives it as a way of life. Thus, he is never disappointed. He is chronically angry, and senses hostility all around. He reacts viciously, savagely, to any perceived threat, and does not forgive insults, psychological wounds, or slights. He reacts by quick, cruel counterattacks. Above all, he is a loner, a solitary leader, who creates escalating social conflicts. He very accurately detects any hostility towards him, but is oblivious to his own role in creating and promoting it. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy which provokes hostility. The men around him, even his most loyal aides, must behave as if always walking on eggs, and absorb his rage.

Arab conspiracy thinking has a powerful value. Its aim is to remove responsibility from the Arab person or group by believing that one is the victim of a conspiracy. Arab-Islamic culture aims to explain why the Arab or the Arabs are in a specific situation in the political, social, or economic fields. The Arabs are not to blame for their plight, but only outside factors. They externalize the guilt. They are always right. Furthermore, their reaction is aggressive and totalistic, as we can see in the Return to Islam phenomenon, especially in its new, more murderous form exemplified by Bin Laden’s movement.

Arab-Islamic political culture is a fertile field for political paranoia. The Middle East is bound to conspiracy thinking. It starts with a psychological process uncommon and unrecognized in Western culture, externalizing guilt. In Jewish and Christian culture, one takes responsibility and internalizes guilt. In contrast, the opposite is true in Arab-Islamic culture. The main question is: “Do I have a problem? You are guilty!” There is no tolerance for the rights and justice of the other. There is no conscience and no guilt or remorse. They are always right.

The need for enemies has socio-biological and psychological roots. In the Middle East, enemies are those outside Islam, and the politico-cultural adversaries of the Arabs. To the paranoiac, enemies are chosen because they have assumed roles, acquired traits, and displayed behavior that the paranoiac wishes to describe as fitting enemies. The Jews/Israelis fit the pattern of accusation perfectly, not only because of their historic role in the Diaspora and as a “protected people” (Dhimmi) in Islam, but because of Arab self-interest, both symbolic and material.

Fear of Loss of Autonomy. The paranoid leader is always prepared for an emergency, and in a state of readiness to flee. He is a man on the run, constantly worried about attempts by outside superior forces to impose their will on him. This is why he manifests exaggerated independence. At the same time, he puts himself in danger, precisely because of the fear of losing control. Subordinating and accommodating oneself to the will of others is necessary in political life. But the paranoiac cannot tolerate and accept compromise, and he finds himself in constant conflict with both real and imaginary situations and adversaries.

One of the first decisions Arafat made on his political road, and Abu Mazen continues his track, was that his organization would preserve its full independence of action. It would not be subject to the patronage of any Arab state, in order to ensure that it would act on behalf of Palestinian interests alone. He has zealously preserved this principle to this day. Nevertheless, knowing that the activities of his organization depended on the aid, support, and backing of Arab states, he made use of all possible manipulations and provocations, in order to drag them into war with Israel.

Abu Mazen, like Arafat, sought to bring about the deep involvement and active intervention of the Arab states in “the Solution to the Palestine Question”, however, without imposing patronage on the Palestinians. They are committed to independent action in conformity with their interests. From Arafat’s vantage point, and Abu Mazen follows, “independence of decision” (Istiqlal al-Qarar) is one of the three central strategies of the Palestinians. This is the right way from which there must be no retreat. This means that they need to make decisions independently, without dependence on alien interests. They must be the masters of their fate.

This is on the political level. On the personal level Abu Mazen absolutely refuses to accept domination by others. He is very sensitive to his independence, and does not tolerate any challenge to his status. He has partners on his way, but he is very sensitive to any criticism of himself. In this sense, Abu Mazen created a link and full integration between the ego, the personal, and the Palestinian collectivity.

The sense of betrayal enables Abu Mazen not only on account of the externalizing Arab culture, to lay the guilt on Israel for all the wrongs that the Palestinians have carried out, as well as for the harsh terrorist attacks against Israel itself. In his mind, this is a legitimate response of the weak, being the victim. The dehumanization of Israel and the Jews as such, are central in Abu Mazen’s worldview.

Projection. Projection is an aberration of the normal state of shame. The paranoiac externalizes his painful feelings to his environment, thereby transforming intolerable internal threats into more manageable external threats. This is the result of presuming that internal changes or states are due to external causes. At the same time, the purpose of projection is to be a device by which the paranoid leader externalizes threatening internal states to his surroundings. The personality style is characterized by hypersensitivity, loneliness, and aggressiveness. The paranoid leader does not withdraw from the world. Rather, he is concerned with the hidden motives of others lying behind appearances.

Abu Mazen has a powerful need to dominate his surroundings up to the smallest details, and to direct events. He is characterized as possessing low emotional stability, and this explains his deep emotional need to demonstrate superiority, a profound aspiration to earn the admiration and respect of others, but at the very same time, profound suspicion towards them. He is constantly in competition, constantly aspiring to win and prove his superiority to others. His speeches rampant with contradictions. He uses ambiguity both inwardly and outwardly, both in Arabic and in English, towards the Israeli “peace camp” and towards hostile factors opposed to him.

He is ready to sacrifice many others of his own people for the sake of achieving the goal, without any emotion or regret. He never did any soul searching or expressed regret or had any doubts about the price. He sees this as an advantage, presenting the Palestinian distress to the world. The sacrifice in lives is the most successful means of attaining the goal, and the Palestinian victims mandate resoluteness in the struggle. From his vantage point, the end justifies the means. For that reason he has never been concerned about the social-economic-employment-health situation of the Palestinians. With all the billions of dollars that he has received, not one refugee family has been rehabilitated from their refugee state.

Abu Mazen is addicted to the communications media, and brilliantly uses them as a tool of manipulation. The exaggerations, the lies, the total distortions are tools central in importance in the media’s openness to him. Even when he appears ridiculous, he succeeds in transmitting his messages. These skills show in his unique negotiations management. The bargaining is in the spirit of an Oriental bazaar, by which only the cunning wins. In all discussions he displays impressive dramatic ability, though his suspicion is obsessive. Whenever he has come to negotiations, it has been difficult for him to believe assurances, and he has brought the talks to a dead end.

Delusional Thinking. The paranoiac holds strong, false beliefs about his surrounding reality that represent the crystallized expression of projective thinking. Of all the paranoid delusions, those of persecution and grandiosity, in particular, form part of his political world. The paranoiac expects to be treated in a special way, and when he thinks he is not receiving his due, he reacts with hurt, anger, and vindictive rage. Delusion leads to the distortion of actual events and of rational beliefs. At the same time, the paranoid leader expects to receive special treatment, as a manifestation of his narcissistic pathology. This means he cannot trust anyone, nor confide in anyone. Indeed, intimate personal friendship is a luxury that he cannot afford. On the other hand, delusional thinking may be politically helpful, since political failures confirm his suspicions while political success seems to confirm his grandiosity.

Abu Mazen’s behavior is impulsive, with a strong inclination to outbursts of rage that are difficult to anticipate, while his moods change quickly and often. He was and remains unpredictable in his reactions. He reacts impulsively and sharply out of proportion to any criticism. This is the reason why it is not clear how he will react to proposals for a settlement or accord. At the same time he has an astonishing ability to impress and win over people in personal meetings. He leads people to empathize with him, to feel sympathetic, to see him as a vulnerable man deserving protection and defense.

Summing up: he who really believes that Abu Mazen is a reliable partner for peace negotiations – think again. He is the embodiment of stubbornness, like Arafat, with other means. He does not recognize Israel and he is not willing to reach a territorial compromise with Israel. Unfortunately, the international support he gets and the huge benevolent monetary donations the Palestinians get makes him more stubborn. That is why, paradoxically, the first step to bring the Palestinians to the negotiation table and to have an endurable solid peace is that the international donations will be cut off, and the Palestinian leadership will be opposed by harsh options. Continuation of the current circumstances is a guaranteed formula to conflicts and violence, never to peace.      

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Middle East

Russia and Syria: Nuances in Allied Relations

Aleksandr Aksenenok

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The foreign policy strategy of any state includes a certain set of means and ways to ensure the practical achievement of its goals. Searching for allies or temporary partners that will help serve a specific purpose has always been an essential part of this strategy. In the past, the belief was that this was primarily the concern of “smaller” states interested in forging an alliance with a strong patron. However, the sharp imbalance that has emerged in international relations in the decades since the collapse of the USSR has shown that large states that are engaged in global politics are just as interested in building various types of alliances and partnership as “smaller” states. Sometimes even more so. Recent diplomatic practice has demonstrated that keeping such relations on an even keel demands that the parties delicately balance their understanding of the limits to their mutual concessions and constantly check that they are “on the same page.” The latter is done to preserve confidence in rapidly changing circumstances that are often beyond their control and, most importantly, to ensure they do not present each other with an impossible choice, which is something that happened between the United States and Turkey within NATO, and quite recently in the Union State of Russia and Belarus.

Metamorphoses of U.S. politics from Clinton to Trump demonstrate how the benefits from allied relations may transform into a tarnished image. Having failed to adapt to a world in which it has lost its global dominance, the United States under Obama and particularly under Trump chose to neglect traditional diplomacy, which involves finding ways to align the possibly diverging interests of allies. In regard to Europe, this policy was encapsulated in the withdrawal from multilateral trade partnership agreements, the use of NATO to exert pressure on allies, the introduction of sanctions, and the employment of other methods of gaining unilateral economic and political advantages.

The Middle East is even more indicative in this respect. Within a very short period of time, U.S. foreign policy in the region has oscillated between extremes. America’s allies in the Gulf were alarmed when Obama, looking to be “on the right side of history,” rapidly withdrew support for Mubarak when the protests in Egypt broke out (in February 2011) and when the United States effectively gave in to Iran in the struggle for influence in Iraq. Trump’s demonstrative turn towards Saudi Arabia, coupled with the U.S. withdrawal from the multilateral agreement on the Iranian nuclear programme and the subsequent policy of applying “maximum pressure” on Iran, negatively affected U.S.–EU relations, caused a split in the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf and failed to allay their concerns regarding the reliability of the United States as an ally. Finally, the concessions to Israel, which no U.S. President had dared make before (no matter how their Middle East policies zigged and zagged), added new wrinkles to the issue. As a result, the Trump administration approaches the 2020 presidential elections with an unprecedented burden of problems in its relations with its North Atlantic allies, in an almost complete isolation owing to its illegal actions in the UN Security Council concerning the lifting of the Iranian sanctions, and having generally lost its moral and political prestige.

In the same period of time following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia had failed to fit into the architecture of pan-European security and was faced with a choice: given NATO’s territorial expansion and the ineffectiveness of such collective mechanisms as the CIS and OSCE, what policy should it pursue moving forward? Does Russia see its future self as an independent centre of power with a free hand? Or does it want to be an influential actor within new alliances and integration unions? The answers to these questions are more or less clear today.

Russia is steering its own course in relations with the West, acting in its own interests, yet not shutting the door on an equal dialogue designed to search for points of contact on the most conflict-ridden problems. At the same time, Russia has made efforts to build a sub-system of inter-country alliances to counterbalance the NATO–EU pairing. These efforts have led to multilateral diplomacy guided by the principle of “going as far the other party is prepared to go.” These efforts have resulted in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in the military–political arena, the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) alliance in the geopolitical arena, and the Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEC) and the Customs Union in the trade and economic arena. Compared with western alliances that entail transferring part of one’s sovereignty to supra-national bodies, members of these unions are more free in their commitments, although they share Russia’s stance on the key issues of global politics.

Following a brief hiatus in the 1990s, Russia returned to the Middle East, no longer shackled by ideological clichés. The very paradigm of Russian–Arab relations had changed. They were no longer characterized by unilaterality and were developing over a wide spectrum. Pride of place was given to such foreign political landmarks as the achievement of national security in the face of new threats emanating from the chronic instability in the region, the support for Russian businesses, and the measures to counteract external intervention aimed at regime change for the sake of political expediency (in extreme cases, this would be done by force, but mostly it would be done by establishing networks based on coinciding interests). These were the landmarks that Russia used to guide itself post-2011, when the Middle East entered a protracted era of reconstruction. This pragmatic approach was largely responsible for preserving business partnership relations with Egypt, Iraq and Algeria, all of which experienced regime changes, as well as for building coherent relations with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, where existing differences on conflict settlement do not get in the way of bilateral cooperation in trade and economy and coordinating policies on the global energy markets.

Russia gains certain benefits from its ability to maintain business partnership ties with all the regional and non-regional actors in the Middle Eastern conflicts, including Turkey, the Kurds, Hezbollah, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the Palestinian authorities in Ramallah and Gaza. At the same time, it is clear that this situation and, in particular, the widespread concept of Moscow as an “impartial mediator” or “honest broker,” is with increasing frequency being used for unseemly purposes, such as shifting the responsibility for the actions or inactions of other parties in the region or outside it onto Moscow. In today’s new multi-layered conflicts, no single actor is capable of holding all the settlement threads in its hands.

Russia and Syria: Questions of War and Peace

Russia and Syria have gradually become allies since the civil war broke out in the Middle East state in 2011. The leaders of both countries have said as much, and it is taken as a given in the West and the other countries in the region.

At the same time, the complicated entanglements of relations both in and around Syria have prompted certain questions from our colleagues and institutional partners in the Damascus Center for Research and Studies. Most of them are quite logical and do indeed need to be discussed at the expert level to begin with.

Russia and Syria have a long history of cooperation in many areas, and the countries were particularly close during the presidency of Hafez al-Assad, the outstanding statesman who enjoyed worldwide respect. A Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation was signed back then, but it was more of a framework document that did not impose any specific international legal commitments on either party. These were relations of trust that withstood the test of the war with Israel in 1973 in the Golan Heights and the Civil War in Lebanon (1975–1989), where Syrian troops fought and Soviet military advisors participated indirectly. There were also disagreements on the situation in the Palestinian movement and the attitude to Yasser Arafat personally. Yet these differences were resolved through regular trust-based dialogue at the highest level and through close military-political consultations.

In the 1990s and the early 2000s when Russia, burdened by its domestic problems, “withdrew” from the Middle East, Russia–Syria relations were in decline. After being elected president, Bashar al-Assad steered a course for Europe, for Jacques Chirac’s France in particular, viewing it as a centre for containing the United States, which had accused Syria of supporting the Iraqi resistance to the American occupation [1]. Bashar Al-Assad’s first visit to Russia took place in 2005. The agreements achieved at the highest level covered a wide range of issues in military-technical and economic cooperation in the context of Syria fully settling its debt, and they gave a new impetus to developing bilateral relations in the changing geopolitical circumstances.

In 2011, the civil conflict in Syria transformed into an armed confrontation. Since then, Russia–Syria cooperation has been dominated by its military component. Russia directly intervened in the conflict at the request of President Bashar al-Assad, a fact that was accounted for by the intergovernmental agreements between the two countries, which, unlike the largely for-show agreements concluded with a number of Arab states in the past, set out specific commitments for both parties. The relations were thus given a new quality. All efforts were channelled into repelling the terrorist threat and saving Syria’s statehood. In the run-up to the decisive intervention of the Russian Aerospace Forces, most military experts around the world agreed that the “terrorist international” had made it as far as the suburbs of Damascus, and that regime change was imminent, even though Iranian units and Lebanese Hezbollah were fighting in Syria.

Five years later, the military and administrative infrastructure of Islamic State has been destroyed, the armed opposition is weakened, and the remaining pockets of resistance no longer posit a real threat to the al-Assad regime [2].

Back then, the objectives were clear and, naturally, there were no questions as to what the Syrian people expected from Russia. Why did Moscow and Damascus experience an upsurge of information attacks along the lines of “who needs whom more”? What are the reasons for the “uncertainties” and “doubts” that Syrian political analysts ponder in a friendly manner, wondering whether or not Russia intends “to give up on Syria and leave the regime to deal with the increasing pressure” from the United States? What changes have happened now that the active phase of the conflict has ceased?

The official statements from the Russian side leave no doubts as to its principled stance. Keeping air force and naval bases in the Mediterranean is a strategic move, meaning that Russia does not have any “withdrawal scenarios.” According to the Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation, materiel support for the Syrian operation does not exceed the funds budgeted for defence. It is flexible and generally tends to shrink as military action deescalates.

Legitimizing “entry” is another matter entirely, both from the point of view of legal documents concluded between Russia and Syria and on a broad international scale. And it is something that does not depend on Russia alone. Fundamentally, it should be in the interests of Damascus itself. That is, the two countries are effectively doomed to find a balance of power in the long term, both in a war that cannot last indefinitely, and during the post-war period. Our point here is clear: using political realism as a stepping stone, Russia and Syria need to properly balance common strategic goals and search for optimal ways to deal with possible tactical differences.

A Hierarchy of Priorities

It is noteworthy that, in his analytical article, my esteemed colleague Aqeel Mahfoud describes the current situation in Syria as a war with “no end in sight” and asks Russia such questions as: What is the “middle ground” between “‘high costs’ and ‘low returns’ … between ‘retreating’ from Syria and ‘continuing’ the course?” It is thus clear that certain “misunderstandings” have emerged, and in order to properly analyse the prospects, we need to jointly access the essence of the point in time we arrived at after five years of allied cooperation.

Our general assessments are essentially the same. The challenges and threats that Syria currently faces are economic, a destructive effect of the sanctions, and the U.S. “Caesar Act” in particular, with the coronavirus pandemic making the situation worse. The reality is that there are virtually no prerequisites for implementing major post-war reconstruction projects in Syria. Most Syrians are fighting for survival in the face of growing prices, food, power and fuel shortages and a destroyed living infrastructure. The Syrian government is mobilizing its limited financial resources to mitigate the socioeconomic consequences for the regime, focusing on supporting business activities and preserving the system of subsidies. At the same time, it is quite clear that resolving the problem of the economy’s uninterrupted functioning cannot be solved without urgent outside assistance. It is also obvious, however, that, unlike in the case of Lebanon, the sources of such assistance for Syria are very few.

The Russian government, in turn, is doing everything possible to provide real aid to the people of Syria (urgent deliveries of grain, pharmaceuticals and equipment in the form of grants or through contracts; reconstructing civil infrastructure facilities, communication lines; providing humanitarian aid, etc.). The government is encouraging Russian businesses to cooperate with Syrian companies more actively through public-private partnerships and by granting them most favoured nation status. It should be said, though, that the method of “giving commands” has little effect in the Russian economy compared with Soviet times. Russia expects the Syrian government to take further steps to set up both central and local governance systems that would ensure corruption is dealt with, offer preferences to foreign investors, make sure that laws are obeyed and that the “military economy” would give way to normal trade and economic relations as speedily as possible. President Bashar al-Assad’s address to the members of the newly formed government can be seen as a major step in this direction.

It should be noted in this connection that the article published by the Damascus Center for Research and Studies focuses on Russia, and most questions are addressed to Moscow as if it holds some kind of a “magic key” to resolving all the problems. At the same time, practical advice and friendly criticism are perceived as “pressure” and “interference.” As for the negative dynamics, what is Damascus’ attitude to the fact that after the active military phase was over, little changed aside from the strengthening of “psychological pressure” and tightening of the “economic noose” on Syria? And regarding the positive dynamics, what conclusions should the Syrians themselves draw concerning the balance of power and political steps that should be taken? These important aspects slid under the radar of our Syrian colleagues. We would like to understand what is meant by the phrase “returning to the ‘requirements’ of UN Security Council Resolution No. 2254 […] would bring us back to March 2011.”

Russia’s position on the issue of the Syrian settlement, President Vladimir Putin has said on numerous occasions, proceeds from the premise that a military solution is impossible. At the talks held with Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Syria Geir Pedersen in Moscow on September 3 (which took place only a few days after the session of the Constitutional Committee’s Drafting Commission in Geneva), Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation Sergey Lavrov confirmed that Russia supports Pedersen’s efforts to help the Syrian people come to an agreement themselves on constitutional reform in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 2254 as a sovereign state and one of the guarantors of the Astana process. This stance has been approved by the “Astana Troika,” it is known to the Syrian leadership and does not prompt open objections.

Some Russian political analysts that are in the know expect Syria, and probably President Bashar al-Assad himself, to spearhead some major initiatives that will jumpstart the Geneva process – not as a return to the 2011 status quo, but as a means of restoring Syria’s territorial integrity and bolstering the country’s statehood on the inclusive foundation of national accord. A flexible approach on the part of Damascus and a better understanding of its intentions would certainly help Russia, giving it more solid ground in its contacts with western and Arab partners. In the current reality, Syria can hardly be “rehabilitated” economically without coordinated international efforts. This is the kind of convergence of interests that would make it possible to bring together external aid and progress in the intra-Syrian dialogue into a single stabilization package.

Another important set of issues raised by our Damascus partners pertains to Russia being “an ally for Syria, Israel, Iran and Turkey” in the continuing conflict and to what the nature of Russia–U.S. contacts is.

It is no secret that the foreign political services of both countries have always maintained a working exchange of current information. This is particularly true of the current situation. My many years of experience in the diplomatic service (in Syria among other states) allow me to state confidently that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation regularly informs the Syrian leadership about its talks with its western and regional partners on issues that concern Syria. If there is any “uncertainty” within the Syrian public or the Syrian expert community about this fact, it might rather be explained by Russia being excessively guarded about sensitive information that concerns its relations with its allies, or by Russian media’s inability to demonstrate any kind of subtlety when it comes to foreign political steps in this area and properly explain Russia’s intentions to the world at large. Incidentally, Syria itself is far more guarded and “secretive” in its media coverage of its relations with Russia – and this coverage is often, quite frankly, far more tendentious.

Most Russian experts view Russia–Syria relations on the matters of war and peace as a relationship of “twins” connected by “kindred threads.” Their western colleagues share this point of view, indicating that the United States and Europe no longer tie compliance with UN Security Council Resolution 2254 with Assad’s “removal.” Instead, they adopted the concept of constitutional reform and democratic elections under the UN’s supervision. It is natural for allies in protracted and convoluted conflicts to have some misunderstandings. Aqeel Mahfoud notes that “the Syrian people understand […] that Russia does not approach the issue from a Syrian perspective.” The main thing is that if strategic “constants” are in place, which is undoubtedly the case, then periodical tactical differences should be resolved in a timely manner, on the basis on openness and trust.

At the level of government and opposition forces, the Syrian people should take into account the fact that Russia has its own global interests that do not always coincide with those of the Middle East. Russia–Syria relations cannot be equated with relations with influential regional actors, which are based on different considerations. But one thing brings them together: a common history, coinciding interests in regions outside Syria and mutually beneficial cooperation, including in the military area. It is thus wrong to posit an “either/or” question.

On the other hand, a realist assessment of the situation “on the ground” reveals that the existence of particular situational arrangements with Israel and Turkey is something that benefits Syria itself. Let us take, for example, agreements on southern Syria, in which Israel unofficially participated. It was these agreements that allowed Syria to regain control of its southern provinces, provided that it complied with the terms that did not breach its sovereign rights. Russian officials did not hide the fact that it meant withdrawing Iranian and pro-Iranian military units from the 80-kilometre security zone and using national reconciliation principles to form local authorities. Russia is entitled to expect Syria to comply with these conditions.

Or let us take the agreements reached between the presidents of Russia and Turkey on March 4, 2020, concerning Idlib and which were achieved as part of the implementation of the de-escalation zone agreement developed by the “Astana Troika” with Syria’s participation. This development makes it possible to avoid the worst-case scenario, which would not have been in the interests of Syria, Russia and Turkey. In no way does it change the attitude towards the Idlib problem as part of the principled approach to restoring Syria’s territorial integrity and the joint fight against terrorism.

As for U.S.–Syria relations, Russia is pursuing a realistic policy here aimed at preventing incidents that could result in an armed clash, and at the same time is searching for opportunities to interact in those areas where the interests of Russia and the United States may coincide without detriment to the “strategic constants” of Russia’s relations with its Syrian ally. Recently, tensions in northeast Syria, where the U.S. military presence is concentrated, have increased noticeably, which makes further developments less predictable. Consequently, the parties focus specifically on the “de-conflicting channel” and simultaneously draw “red lines” that should not be overstepped. Politically, Russia endeavours to promote understanding between Damascus and the Kurds on their constitutional status, which increases the chances of restoring Syria’s territorial integrity as part of the post-conflict settlement.

Memories of the Future

They say that “it is difficult to make predictions, particularly about the future.” The issues outlined by our Syrian partners for the “strategic dialogue” are so broad that it is impossible to cover everything. In conclusion, I would like to make a few brief remarks.

The Syrian people are known to hold different views of the country’s situation and of Russia’s role in Syria’s affairs. Part of civil society is currently outside Syria, and they are by no means terrorists or Russophobes. Consequently, as it supports Bashar al-Assad, Russia emphasizes an intra-Syrian agreement on a model of Syria’s future state that would ensure the country against bloody civil wars. Clearly, there can be no return to 2011, and the Syrian people themselves should decide how to reform their state and society. During the protracted wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Balkans, the United States was engaged in social engineering and state-building, but these tasks proved too much for them. Russia also had its own regrettable experience in Afghanistan, since every war has its own logic that sooner or later outweighs politics.

As the summer 2021 presidential elections approach, a feeling of hopelessness and anxious expectation is engulfing the international community and Syrians of various political persuasions. Numerous scenarios, largely pessimistic, are being developed – as far as the “Balkanization” of Syria or even a clash between the United States and Russia or between Russia and Turkey on Syrian soil.

There is thus only one thing we can say: if compromise solutions are found, the settlement of the Syrian conflict could serve as a precedent for the global community and a key to undoing other conflict knots. Alternatively, if the right conclusions are not drawn from the lessons of 2011, Syrian settlement may turn into a time bomb for Syria’s sustainable domestic development.

 [1]Kleib, Sami. The Destruction of Syria or the Departure of Assad? Moscow: Biblos Konsulting Publ., 2018. pp. 66–70.

 [2]Islamic State (IS) is a terrorist organization banned in Russia.

From our partner RIAC

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Iran- Turkey Partnership: A New Front in Libya

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There is strategic consensus among political elites currently ruling the Islamic Republic of Iran and Turkey states. Despite of few turmoil, both states want to retain cordial relations that can lead towards the support of each other’s national sovereignty and stability.

Eight years after the fall of Muammar Qaddafi, Libya continues to struggle to end its violent conflict and build state institutions. External actors have exacerbated Libya’s problems by funneling money and weapons to proxies that have put personal interests above Libyan people. Libya myriad armed militias led by general Haftar really hold and sway nominally backing two centers of political power in the east and west with parallel institutions. General Haftar is backed by NATO member states of France, Russia, Egypt, UAE and Saudi and on the other hand, Tripoli administration, the international recognized government, known as the government of national accord under the leadership of prime Minister fayaz AL Sarah is being backed by the United Nations, Turkey, Qatar and now Iran. The collaboration of Iran and Turkey in Libya is going to mark another hallmark in the historical relationships of two neighbor power.

From past to present, Iran and turkey have seen multiple strains in their relations. The history of relations between turkey and Iran can be dated back to the sixteenth century, when two competing imperial systems, the ottoman and the safavids, consolidated their rule ship over respective countries. Turkey and Iran were both imperial centers, and the modern states established in these two countries are considered to the successors to the ottoman and the safavid imperial rule that had dominated most parts of western Asia for centuries.

As the nearby an imperial system, territorial and political conflicts prevailed over the ottoman-safavid relations against interval periods of peace. The emergence of west oriented nation states in turkey and Iran in 1920, under the leadership of Kemal Turk and Raza Pehlevi facilitated further cooperation between two states.

By in the late 1970, when the Pehlevi monarchy was overthrown by the Islamic revolution, it was difficult to discern containing patterns of accord signed between political elites of both states. Parallel to the turkey’s “New” Middle East foreign policy started in the early 2000s, turkey – Iran relations have undergone through unprecedented periods of rapprochement. Ideological and security issues that dominated the relations between two neighbors have been gradually replaced by the pragmatic considerations on each side. Increasing volume of economic interaction, security and diplomatic cooperation on a number of issues and fulfillment of energy demand by turkey were the highlighted initiatives of that era. Ankara domestic exemption level of oil and gas had increased. To overcome this issue, turkey signed $23 billion agreement of worth oil for next 25 years. Overall, trade level between Iran and turkey increased by many time comparable to the past decade. The amount of trade increased from $1.2 billion to $4.3 billions between 2001 and 2010 and reached $10 billions in 2015.

The spread of Arab spring provided an other opportunity to both Iran and turkey to exploit the emerging New order in middle east. Both states attempted to launch their ideologies in the Arab states. Iran wanted to spread Muslim revolution although turkey wanted to spread democratic values to exert more influence in the Middle East.

Turkey’s role in the Iranian nuclear dossier has been often portrayed as that “facilitator “and bridge builder between Islamic Republic of Iran and the western camps of negotiations. Turkey has basically no interests in the Iran nuclear weapons but being a critical of international sanctions, turkey has always stressed the need of political solution of Iranian nuclear crisis. They don’t want to enter into the nuclear race with the Iran but support them to acquire nuclear weapons but for peaceful energy purposes under the guidance of NPT and IAEA.

Geographical proximity has always forced turkey to cooperate with Iran economically despite of divergence in political and ideological outlook. Common membership in regional organizations, however, provided a pragmatic bond of cooperation on issues of regional and neighbor countries. All the same, Turkey and Iran relations have been undergoing a deteriorating in the walk Syrian Civil War. Turkey supports the anti elements of president Bashar Al Assad’s who is the true state ally of Iran in the Middle East and provide safe path to support the Hezbollah in the Lebanon. Kurdish issue has also engaged the turkey who suspects of Syria and Iran of backing the Kurdistan worker party.

The Libya, a state situated in the north Africa region has become a new playing field for power and resource hunger states. After the overthrown of Qaddafi regime, multiple groups started to claim the legitimacy in the state. The authorities in the east led by the General Khalifa Haftar controls the most part of the state as it is claimed by his representatives since April 2020, he has been striving to control the capital. He has been supported by the Russia, Egypt, NATO member France, United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia while Tripoli government recognized by the United nations is backed by the Turkey, Qatar and now Islamic Republic of Iran. The entry of Saudi and other anti Iran allies has invited the Islamic Republic of Iran to sway and evaluate its involvement in this crisis.

Iran has announced his support for the Turkish-backed Libyan government of national accord based in Tripoli. Javed zarif visited Istanbul and during a press conference and stated“We seek to have a political solution to the Libyan crisis and end the Civil War. We support the legitimate government and we have common views with the Turkish side on way to end the crisis in Libya and Yemen.”

Moreover, Gvusoglu,The Foreign minister of turkey reiterated Turkey’s opposition to US sanctions on Iran. He further added “Iran’s stability and peace is important for us”

Sarya ansar, the Shia backed Iraqi militia, also operating in the Syria has entered the Libya to support Turkey. Security and defense cooperation agreements have been signed between Turkey and Iran and following the information of International revolution guard coast an affiliated ship has delivered the weapons to the militias in Libya.

Most of Libya’s vast territories and oil resources are much desired by the resource scarce Turkey. Further, Turkey under the leadership of President Erdogan wants to regain its old status and territories of ottoman empire. The formation of new Islamic block is being predicted which would be comprises of Turkey, Malaysia, Qatar, Pakistan Tunisia and Libya. Moreover, Turkey is striving to put more pressure on the Europe to award her a membership of European Union. The strategic position in the Persian Gulf, strait of harmuz and Ankara controls of the Bosporus strait are sole basis for energy cooperation between two neighbor powers. The support of Iran militias would provide strength to the Turkey in Libyan and will force the anti government elements to bow down head in front of government of national accord.

On the other hand, Iran has found an opportunity to spread Islamic revolution in sunni dominated state. It would help Iran to reorient the relations with Turkey. From the statements of foreign minister of Turkey, it is evident that they want more positive relations with Iran. Iran is the state who have second largest oil and gas reserves in Middle East. Turkey can provide a platform to raise the sanctions issues to Europe and United States of America. The ongoing conflicts in Syria and Kurdistan issues could be resolved by taking joint actions of both states and through this way stable political and economical relations would be achieved. The identical stance on Israel issue would strengthen the relations in positive way. Despite of political differences, both states have defended the stronger Bilateral cooperation

To cut the long story short, Iran-Turkey relations have seen ups and down phases in the history but they are much significant for each other’s stability in the region to fight with common enemy. No doubt that Turkey wants to achieve its high ambitions in the Middle as well as in North Africa to be a main player but right now, Iran needs more economic strength and Turkey could provide her this opportunity. This cooperation can facilitate the shattered economy of Iran in broader perspective. Libya is a new front providing the opportunity to both states to come more close.

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Controversial Israeli soccer club may be litmus test for UAE soft power ploy

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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An Emirati offer to invest in Israel’s most controversial soccer club could serve as a figurative litmus test of hopes that Arab recognition of the Jewish state may persuade it to be more empathetic towards Palestinian national aspirations.

It was not immediately clear whether the offer was to acquire or co-invest in Beitar Jerusalem, notorious for its links to the ruling Likud party and the Israeli far-right as well as racist anti-Arab, anti-Muslim sentiments among an influential segment of its fan base.

Israeli sources suggested that the offer was made by a businessman with close ties to the Abu Dhabi United Group for Development and Investment (ADUG).

ADUG, owned by UAE deputy prime minister Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, a half-brother of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, has a majority stake in Football City Group that controls soccer clubs on four continents, including Manchester City FC.

Israeli media reports said that the offer was made to club owner Moshe Hogeg.

Mr. Hogeg has been struggling to confront La Familia, a militant hard right fan group that has stopped Beitar from hiring Israeli Palestinian players, denounced the contracting of Muslims, and regularly chants ‘Death to Arabs’ and ‘Death to Muslims’ during matches.

Mr. Hogeg last year faced down La Familia who demanded that a new hire, Ali Mohamed, change his Muslim name, even though he is a Nigerian Christian.

UAE officials have argued that establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel stopped the government of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu from annexing parts of the West Bank, occupied since Israel conquered it in the 1967 Middle East war.

Mr. Netanyahu said he had suspended, not cancelled his annexation plans.

A UAE stake in Beitar would take the Gulf state’s soft power ploy to an arena that is both the Likud’s heartland as well as football that evokes deep-seated passion in a soccer-crazy country.

Founded during the period of the British mandate in Palestine to create the ‘New Jew’ who would be able to build and defend the Jewish state, Beitar initially drew many of its players and fans from Irgun, an extreme nationalist, para-military Jewish underground group.

Among the club’s fans were throughout the years right-wing Israeli leaders. Today, they include Mr. Netanyahu and multiple members of his government.

In interviews with Israeli media, the Emirati businessmen hinted at the soft power aspect of the UAE initiative.

“Fanaticism is rooted in ignorance and fear of the other. If there is a spirit of tolerance, we can create  an atmosphere of pure friendship between us and others. Sports is an international language graced with the ability to promote tolerance and peace between nations and people,” Israeli tv channel Sports 5 quoted him as saying.

The businessman made no explicit reference to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but his remarks appeared to refer to it.

Emiratis appear to hope that a UAE stake in Beitar will boost the club’s more moderate fans, weaken its more militant fan base, and help shape a public opinion that is more willing to compromise with the Palestinians.

They count on fans like Yitzhak Megamadov who told Al-Monitor in response to the UAE bid: “I tell our fans to open their hearts and minds and receive them with open arms. They are our cousins. They want real peace and solidarity. We have gotten used to knowing about Palestinian Arabs through terrorist attacks and war. … We need to educate ourselves and change our perspectives.”

It’s an approach that worked when Sheikh Mansour bought Manchester City in 2008 in what critics described as a reputation laundering operation. The English club’s fans embraced its new cash-flush owners, rejecting human rights activists’ concerns about the UAE’s regular abuse of human rights.

Winning over fans is likely to prove a lot easier than changing Israeli policies, something  more powerful players like the United States and Europe have unsuccessfully tried.

The Knesset, Israel’s parliament, voted down an amendment that would have added equality for minorities to a controversial law defining Israel’s Jewish character just days after Israel signed agreements establishing diplomatic relations with the UAE and Bahrain at the White House.

In other words, there is little reason to believe that the businessman and the UAE together with Bahrain can achieve what others did not.

Fact of the matter is that the carrot of recognition has not helped solve the Palestinian problem or fundamentally change Israeli policy in the 18 years since Saudi Arabia first unveiled an Arab peace plan that offered recognition in exchange for land.

Neither did the earlier peace treaties between Israel, Egypt, and Jordan, two states that, unlike the UAE and Bahrain, had and still have a direct stake in the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Nor did it stop US President Donald J. Trump from accepting the legitimacy of annexation of occupied Palestinian land. Mr. Trump has endorsed Israeli annexation of East Jerusalem as well as the Golan Heights, captured from Syria in 1967.

What an Emirati stake or acquisition in Beitar will do is enhance Israeli empathy for the UAE.

Without a tangible political fallout beneficial to Palestinians, It will also reinforce critics’ assertion that the UAE is using the Palestinian issue as a fig leaf for a move that serves Emirati issues with no Palestinian dividend.

The Emiratis may find that time does not work in their favour. They appear to be playing a long game on an unstable board that could prove incapable of sustaining it.

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