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Syria: Dark and smoky tunnel

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It appeared a light, at long last, was fast appearing in the Syrian tunnel and soon peace shall be prevailing in the war torn Arab nation with plenty of energy resources. It turned out to be yet another illusion in West Asia.

Post fragile truce

Those who thought the war being waged by top world powers, USA and Russia in Syria would end soon after the fragile truce, are not once again disappointed that war is taking a new twist with Syrian forces, backed by Russia and the rebel fighters supported by USA accelerating the war in Sunni dominated Syria after having declared a ceasefire.

The fact is USA is not keen to end wars in Syria and ending war won’t give Russia anything special. The important figures in Pentagon have condemned the US-Russian cease-fire in Syria, disallowing the military to kill more Muslims. They call for the overthrow of President Bashar al-Assad, and fro which advocated a major escalation of the US-NATO intervention in Syria—arming the Islamist opposition with anti-aircraft missiles and other weapons. They argue ending the war without archiving the main objective is bad for US invasion polices in future.

For USA, short of an agenda that includes a comprehensive agreement for Bashar al-Assad to step down and allow a transition toward a non-Islamic or so-called pluralist government, no cease-fire stands a chance in that war-torn country. Without a balance of military forces on the ground in Syria, which would compel the Assad regime and its Iranian backers to seek real compromise, a genuine political settlement is not possible. In other word, what the Neocons nuts want is a perfect regime change in Syria but to which neither Assad nor his Russian supporter Putin is agreeable. Both seek status quo.

The Neocons criticize Obama for having failed to militarily exploit the concocted “poison gas” episode of 2013 to overthrow Assad and bring the opposition to power and say the truce should be used to re-arm US-backed “revolutionary” militias fighting alongside the Al Qaeda-linked Al Nusra Front. They attacked the Obama government for lacking the appetite for a major confrontation with Russia. In fact, the issue of creating a balance of forces—especially by providing the Syrian opposition with anti-aircraft missiles capable of limiting the Syrian regime’s use of air power, its main weapon of large-scale destruction—has been the principal bone of contention on Syria within the Obama government since 2012. Their “outrage” forgets the US-backed Saudi bombing and blockade in Yemen, which has killed thousands and threatens hundreds of thousands of children with starvation.

US Neocons, including the strong Jewish contingent, are least concerned about the sectarian massacres carried out by the US-backed Islamist opposition in Syria, and the bloody record of US imperialism itself—whose wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria have still claimed a far greater toll than the Kremlin’s Syrian intervention. If anyone in the region had any illusion about the democratic and humanitarian pretexts invoked by Washington in previous wars, they have lost them completely by now.

Mischief

Unlike truce, which may mean a break from hostilities, a cessation of hostilities provides a more formal designation which falls short of a formal ceasefire signed by the warring parties. It is considered as the first essential step to resolving a conflict, notably to permit the delivery of humanitarian aid. Russian efforts and subsequent Western reactions have emerged as a tragedy in contemporary international relations. Against this backdrop, the reasons behind the crisis need to be identified and the unified role of the world community should be determined.

Unfortunately, with a series of military strikes in Syria in support of their respective parties, tensions have now flared both at home in Syria and outside, giving an impression that the Syrian ceasefire plan will succumb to failure.

The efforts towards the ‘cessation of hostility in Syria’ brokered by the USA and Russia and backed by the UN, require a unified role by the regional and global powers. Without global unity, ceasefire activities must fail. The irony is that global measures to find a peaceful solution to the problem are evident, there have been concerns over the truce violations by the great regional and global powers.

For Russia, Bashar’s government is as democratic as the Saudi government. In other words, if the Saudi government can be supported by the democratic America, the Syrian government should, in principle, also be supported by them.

The US president Obama is not at all interested in ending war in Syria or elsewhere as he is now entirely focused on an ‘exit strategy’—not an exit from the Syrian crisis or West Asia in general, though, but his own exit from office. His main worry is to help Mrs. Clinton to win the presidency to prove that his legacy saved the Democratic Party. He has dutifully promoted American militarism and US imperialism.

Obama is a clever operator who often thinks several moves ahead of his domestic, though not his foreign, adversaries. US policy paved the way for Assad’s revival, Iranian and Russian success in Syria, and the massacre of up to half a million Syrians. In 2013, Iran told Obama that if he were to strike the regime of Bashar Assad following the latter’s chemical-weapons attack, the Iranians would end the talks over their nuclear program. Obama duly canceled the strike and later reassured Iran that the USA would not touch Assad. Obama’s Syria policy serves Iran’s interests.

America’s settled policy of standing by while half a million Syrians have been killed, millions have become refugees, and large swaths of their country have been reduced to rubble is not a simple “mistake”. Rather, it is a byproduct of America’s overriding desire to clinch a nuclear deal with Iran, which was meant to allow America to permanently remove itself from a war footing with that country and to shed its old allies and entanglements in the Middle East, which might also draw us into war.

A no-fly zone would have prevented much of the carnage — and presumably virtually all of carnage rained down from the air — that has occurred. But a no-fly zone would have thwarted Iran’s ambitions. Russia’s presence in the air over Syria provided Obama with an excuse for rejecting a no-fly zone. But the White House had firmly rejected such action for years before the Russians were anywhere near Syria. It seems likely that Obama welcomed Russia’s direct intervention since it served Iran’s interests and made it much easier for Obama to defend not taking military action.

Indeed, Obama sees Russia as a partner in Syria. Initially, US line was that Russia had made a tragic mistake by becoming involved in a quagmire. Now, White House officals argue that Russia holds all the cards in Syria and that our only option is to work with the Kremlin.

With an insincere USA working for peace without seriousness, Russia and Iran hold all the cards on Syria because essentially Obama allowed them to. Obama allowed them to because he wants Iran to prevail. One might admire the elegance of Obama’s “strip tease,” if not for the demise of hundreds of thousands of Syrians and the triumph of arch-enemy in Tehran.

Syria

It’s true that Syria’s internal and external factors, including economic backwardness, unemployment, inflation and corruption springing from the dictatorship of Bashar al Asad, have been responsible for its political instability. However, the much more dangerous challenge emanates from its leaders’ failure to construct the Syrian nationhood and consolidate its statehood by binding the different religious factions such as Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds into one integrated nation. Without paying attention to its eco-historical, geopolitical and anthropological construct, extreme dictatorship was imposed which worked as a major barrier to its national consolidation. Thus, on the micro sub-systemic level, Syria became highly destabilized and disorganized, while on macro systemic level, Syria remained disintegrated and fragmented.

The ethnic Sunni Muslims form the majority of Syrian population, which has been ruled by the minority Shiites. Syrian leaders failed in the grand task of national homogenization of its people comprising of different religious and ethnic groups. More dangerous than the domestic factors is the involvement of global powers in enlivening the ongoing crisis. Global powers have historically exercised influence and domination in the Arab world through their Arab stooges. Dictatorial rulers in most Arab countries have turned out to be either pro-west or pro-Russia. The USA and its western allies extend political, economic and military assistance and cooperation to Saudi Arabia and other gulf states, in order to expand their spheres of influence as the Cold war strategy and similarly, Russia sides with Syria to combat the US policy. Thus, the countervailing strategies of the erstwhile superpowers are solely responsible for the tragic incidents developing in Syria.

USA cannot end terror wars abroad as the Neocons continue calling for the escalation of US wars in the Middle East and aggression against China and Russia. Obama introduced the Asia pivot for this purpose. However, a CSIS report on nuclear war that dismissed the destruction of India and Pakistan—that is, the slaughter of hundreds of millions of people—as economically unimportant. More organizations are being integrated and recruited to play major roles in imperialist politics. The organizations and tendencies that were in the leadership of anti-war protests earlier, especially in the late 1960s and 1970s are now shamelessly pro-war. Convergence ahs occurred among various sections of political organization- left and right, for instance to support fascism, Zionism, colonialism and imperialism – resented by US led NATO.

Peace efforts, starting from the 70th General Assembly of 2015 to the present ceasefire plan upheld by the USA and Russia with UN support, are threatened by the contrasting policies of the two great powers. According to political analysts, their countervailing strategies risk plunging the West and Russia into a crisis not seen since the Cold War. Russian efforts and subsequent Western reactions have emerged as a tragedy in contemporary international relations. Against this backdrop, the reasons behind the crisis need to be identified and the unified role of the world community should be determined.

In order to end the crisis, the international community, especially the US, the EU and Russia, need to come out of this psychology of this ‘power zeal’ while framing their policies regarding the war-torn country. Both Russia and the West should find a peaceful and diplomatic way of resolving the Syrian crisis based on mutual understanding and friendship. Any effort to use force by Russia would only tickle the sleeping tigers of the cold war era, and lead the world to the verge of total destruction.

Syrian war, if not stopped is likely to turn to a complete war, involving nuclear arsenals that may even burst into a nuclear confrontation. History has laid the giant responsibility on the United Nations to bring all regional and global powers, especially the erstwhile superpowers, to work together to resolve the issue. The UN as well the global powers need to adopt sincere, transparent and pragmatic policies in order to save the world from another global devastation. The unanimity of global powers can resolve the Syrian conflict. If the UN fails in that, it falters in its mission for which it came into existence.

The West should understand the reality of Russia’s concern to defend its naval base in Tartus and strategic base in Caspian Sea from where Russian jets flew combat missions. It’s little wonder that the erstwhile superpower Russia would be adamant to protect its military base and nuclear arsenals, and that self defense would be its bottom line.

The continuous failure of a Syrian ceasefire has brought another significant question to the limelight: whether the Syrian war will at all end in the foreseeable future or the suffocating situation in the war-run country will trigger a regional cold war or a grand global war.

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Middle East

The Absence of Riyadh in the Turbulent Afghanistan

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As the situation in Afghanistan becoming increasingly turbulent, the NATO allies led by the United States are fully focused on military withdrawal. As this has to be done within tight deadline, there have been some disagreements between the United States and the European Union. Josep Borrell, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security, publicly accused the U.S. military in Afghanistan, which was responsible for the internal security of Kabul Airport, of deliberately obstructing the EU evacuation operations.

China and Russia on the other hand, are more cautious in expressing their positions while actively involving in the Afghanistan issue. This is especially true for Russia, which after both the Taliban and the anti-Taliban National Resistance Front of Afghanistan (NRF) led by Ahmad Massoud have pleaded Russia for mediation, Moscow has now become a major player in the issue.

Compared with these major powers, Saudi Arabia, another regional power in the Middle East, appears to be quite low-key. So far, only the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Saudi Arabia has issued a diplomatic statement on the day after the Taliban settled in Kabul, stating that it hopes the Taliban can maintain the security, stability and prosperity of Afghanistan. Considering the role that Saudi Arabia has played in Afghanistan, such near silent treatment is quite intriguing.

As the Taliban were originally anti-Soviet Sunni Jihadists, they were deeply influenced by Wahhabism, and were naturally leaning towards Riyadh. During the period when the Taliban took over Afghanistan for the first time, Saudi Arabia became one of the few countries in the international community that publicly recognized the legitimacy of the Taliban regime.

Although the Taliban quickly lost its power under the impact of the anti-terror wars initiated by the George W. Bush administration, and the Saudis were pressured by Washington to criticize the Taliban on the surface, yet in reality they continuously provided financial aid to the Taliban and the Al-Qaeda organization which was in symbiotic relations with the Taliban.

However, after 2010, with the Syrian civil war and the rise of the Islamic State, the Riyadh authorities had decreased their funding for their “partners” in Afghanistan due to the increase in financial aid targets.

In June 2017, after Mohammed bin Salman became the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia and took power, Saudi Arabia’s overall foreign policy began to undergo major changes. It gradually abandoned the policy of exporting its religious ideology and switched to “religious diplomacy” that focuses on economic, trade and industrial cooperation with main economies. Under such approach, Saudi Arabia’s Afghanistan policy will inevitably undergo major adjustments.

With the reformation initiated by the Crown Prince, Saudi Arabia has drastically reduced its financial aid to the Taliban. In addition, Riyadh also further ordered the Taliban to minimize armed hostilities and put its main energy on the path of “peaceful nation-building”. This sudden reversal of the stance of Saudi Arabia means that Riyadh has greatly weakened the voices of the Taliban in the global scenes.

In recent years, the Taliban have disassociated with Saudi Arabia in rounds of Afghanistan peace talks. After Kabul was taken over by the Taliban on August 19, a senior Taliban official clearly stated that the Taliban does not accept Wahhabism, and Afghanistan has no place for Wahhabism. Although this statement means that Al-Qaeda’s religious claims will no longer be supported by the Taliban, it also indicates that the Taliban has reached the tipping point of breaking up with Riyadh.

Under such circumstance, for the Riyadh authorities under Mohammed bin Salman, the most appropriate action is probably wait-and-see as Afghanistan changes again.

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Middle East

Gulf security: It’s not all bad news

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Gulf states are in a pickle.

They fear that the emerging parameters of a reconfigured US commitment to security in the Middle East threaten to upend a more-than-a-century-old pillar of regional security and leave them with no good alternatives.

The shaky pillar is the Gulf monarchies’ reliance on a powerful external ally that, in the words of Middle East scholar Roby C. Barrett, “shares the strategic, if not dynastic, interests of the Arab States.” The ally was Britain and France in the first half of the 20th century and the United States since then.

Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan, the revered founder of the United Arab Emirates, implicitly recognised Gulf states’ need for external support when he noted in a 2001 contribution to a book that the six monarchies that form the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) “only support the GCC when it suited them.”

Going forward question marks about the reliability of the United States may be unsettling but the emerging contours of what a future US approach could look like they are not all bad news from the perspective of the region’s autocratic regimes.

The contours coupled with the uncertainty, the Gulf states’ unwillingness to integrate their defence strategies, a realisation that neither China nor Russia would step into the United States’ shoes, and a need to attract foreign investment to diversify their energy-dependent economies, is driving efforts to dial down regional tensions and strengthen regional alliances.

Israeli foreign minister Yair Lapid and Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, his UAE counterpart, are headed to Washington this week for a tripartite meeting with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. The three officials intend “to discuss accomplishments” since last year’s establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries “and other important issues,” Mr Blinken tweeted.

The Israeli foreign ministry suggested those other issues include “further opportunities to promote peace in the Middle East” as well as regional stability and security, in a guarded reference to Iran.

From the Gulf’s perspective, the good news is also that the Biden administration’s focus on China may mean that it is reconfiguring its military presence in the Middle East with the moving of some assets from the Gulf to Jordan and the withdrawal from the region of others, but is not about to pull out lock, stock and barrel.

Beyond having an interest in ensuring the free flow of trade and energy, the US’s strategic interest in a counterterrorism presence in the Gulf has increased following the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. The US now relies on an ’over the horizon’ approach for which the Middle East remains crucial.

Moreover, domestic US politics mitigate towards a continued, if perhaps reduced, military presence even if Americans are tired of foreign military adventures, despite the emergence of a Biden doctrine that de-emphasises military engagement. Moreover, the Washington foreign policy elite’s focus is now on Asia rather than the Middle East.

Various powerful lobbies and interest groups, including Jews, Israelis, Gulf states, Evangelists, and the oil and defence industries retain a stake in a continued US presence in the region. Their voices are likely to resonate louder in the run-up to crucial mid-term Congressional elections in 2022. A recent Pew Research survey concluded that the number of white Evangelicals had increased from 25 per cent of the US population in 2016 to 29 per cent in 2020.

Similarly, like Afghanistan, the fading hope for a revival of the 2015 international agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear programme, from which former President Donald J. Trump withdrew in 2018, and the risk of a major military conflagration makes a full-fledged US military withdrawal unlikely any time soon. It also increases the incentive to continue major arms sales to Gulf countries.

That’s further good news for Gulf regimes against the backdrop of an emerging US arms sales policy that the Biden administration would like to project as emphasising respect for human rights and rule of law. However, that de facto approach is unlikely to affect big-ticket prestige items like the F-35 fighter jets promised to the UAE.

Instead, the policy will probably apply to smaller weapons such as assault rifles and surveillance equipment, that police or paramilitary forces could use against protesters. Those are not the technological edge items where the United States has a definitive competitive advantage.

The big-ticket items with proper maintenance and training would allow Gulf states to support US regional operations as the UAE and Qatar did in 2011 in Libya, and, the UAE in Somalia and Afghanistan as part of peacekeeping missions.

In other words, the Gulf states can relax. The Biden administration is not embracing what some arms trade experts define as the meaning of ending endless wars such as Afghanistan.

“Ending endless war means more than troop withdrawal. It also means ending the militarized approach to foreign policy — including the transfer of deadly weapons around the world — that has undermined human rights and that few Americans believe makes the country any safer,” the experts said in a statement in April.

There is little indication that the views expressed in the statement that stroke with thinking in the progressive wing of Mr. Biden’s Democratic Party is taking root in the policymaking corridors of Washington. As long as that doesn’t happen, Gulf states have less to worry about.

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Reducing Middle East tensions potentially lessens sectarianism and opens doors for women

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Two separate developments involving improved relations between Sunni and Shiite Muslims and women’s sporting rights demonstrate major shifts in how rivalry for leadership of the Muslim world and competition to define Islam in the 21st century is playing out in a world in which Middle Eastern states can no longer depend on the United States coming to their defence.

The developments fit into a regional effort by conservative, status quo states, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt; and proponents of different forms of political Islam, Iran, Turkey, and Qatar; to manage rather than resolve their differences in a bid to ensure that they do not spin out of control. The efforts have had the greatest success with the lifting in January of a 3.5-year-long Saudi-UAE-Egyptian-led diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar.

The reconciliation moves also signal the pressure on Middle Eastern players in what amounts to a battle for the soul of Islam to change perceptions of the region as being wracked by civil wars, sectarian tensions, extremism, jihadism, and autocracy. Altering that perception is key to the successful implementation of plans to diversify oil and gas export dependent economies in the Gulf, develop resource-poor countries in the region, tackle an economic crisis in Turkey, and enable Iran to cope with crippling US sanctions.

Finally, these developments are also the harbinger of the next phase in the competition for religious soft power and leadership of the Muslim world. In a break with the past decade, lofty declarations extolling Islam’s embrace of tolerance, pluralism and respect for others’ rights that are not followed up by deeds no longer cut ice. Similarly, proponents of socially conservative expressions of political Islam need to be seen as adopting degrees of moderation that so far have been the preserve of their rivals who prefer the geopolitical status quo ante.

That next phase of the battle is being shaped not only by doubts among US allies in the Middle East about the reliability of the United States as a security guarantor, reinforced by America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. It is also being informed by a realisation that neither China nor Russia can (or will) attempt to replace the US defence umbrella in the Gulf.

The battles’ shifting playing field is further being determined by setbacks suffered by political Islam starting with the 2013 military coup that toppled Mohammed Morsi, a Muslim Brother and Egypt’s first and only democratically elected president and brutally decimated the Muslim Brotherhood. More recently, political Islamists suffered a stunning electoral defeat in Morocco and witnessed the autocratic takeover of power in Tunisia by President Kais Saied.

A just published survey of Tunisian public opinion showed 45 percent of those polled blaming Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of the Islamist Ennahada party, for the country’s crisis and 66 percent saying they had no confidence in the party.

The Middle East’s rivalries and shifting sands lend added significance to a planned visit in the coming weeks to Najaf, an Iraqi citadel of Shiite Muslim learning and home of 91-year-old Shiite religious authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, by Ahmed El-Tayeb, the grand imam of Al-Azhar, Sunni Islam’s foremost historic educational institution.

The visit takes place against the backdrop of Iraqi-mediated talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the two major centres of Islam’s two main strands, that are aimed at dialling down tensions between them that reverberate throughout the Muslim world. The talks are likely to help the two regional powers manage rather than resolve their differences.

The rivalry was long marked by Saudi-inspired, religiously-cloaked anti-Shiite rhetoric and violence in a limited number of cases and Iranian concerns about the country’s Sunni minority and its opting for a strategy centred on Shiite Muslim proxies in third countries and support for the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Implicit in Saudi and Iranian sectarianism was the perception of Shiite minorities in Saudi Arabia and other Sunni majority countries, and Sunnis in Iran and Iraq after the 2003 toppling of Saddam Hussein, as fifth wheels of the other.

Imam El-Tayeb’s visit, a signal of improvement in long-strained Egyptian-Iraqi relations, as well as a possible later meeting between the Sunni cleric, a Shiite cleric other than Ayatollah Al-Sistani who is too old and fragile to travel, and Pope Francis, are intended to put sectarianism on the backburner. Ayatollah Al-Sistani met with the pope during his visit to Iraq in March.

The visit takes on added significance in the wake of this week’s suicide bombing of a Hazara Shiite mosque in the northern Afghan city of Kunduz that killed at least 50 people and wounded 100 others. The South Asian affiliate of the Islamic State, Islamic State-Khorasan, claimed responsibility for the attack, the worst since the Taliban came to power in August. It was likely designed to fuel tension between the Sunni Muslim group and the Hazara who account for 20 percent of the Afghan population.

Imam El-Tayeb’s travel to Najaf is likely to be followed by a visit by Mohamed al-Issa, secretary-general of the Saudi-dominated Muslim World League. The League was long a prime vehicle for the propagation of anti-Shiite Saudi ultra-conservatism. Since coming to office, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has recast the League as a tool to project his vaguely defined notion of a state-controlled ‘moderate’ Islam that is tolerant and pluralistic.

In a similar vein, hard-line Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi took many by surprise by allowing women into Tehran’s Azadi Stadium to attend this month’s World Cup qualifier between Iran and South Korea. Iran is the only country to ban women from attending men’s sporting events. It was unclear whether the move was a one-off measure or signalled a loosening or lifting of the ban.

Mr Raisi was believed to see it as a way to rally domestic support and improve the Islamic republic’s image as much in China and Russia as in the West. No doubt, Mr. Raisi will have noted that China and Russia have joined the United States, Europe, and others in pressuring the Taliban in Afghanistan to recognize women’s rights.

To be sure, women in Iran enjoy education rights and populate universities. They can occupy senior positions in business and government even if Iran remains a patriarchal society. However, the ban on women in stadia, coupled with the chador, the head to foot covering of women, has come to dominate the perception of Iran’s gender policies.

Allowing women to attend the World Cup qualifier suggests a degree of flexibility on Mr. Raisi’s part. During his presidential campaign Mr. Raisi argued that granting women access to stadiums would not solve their problems.

It also demonstrates that the government, with hardliners in control of all branches, can shave off sharp edges of its Islamic rule far easier than reformists like Mr. Raisi’s predecessor, Hassan Rouhani, were able to do.

The question is whether that is Mr. Raisi’s intention. Mr. Raisi may be testing the waters with this month’ soccer match, only time will tell.

It may be too big a leap in the immediate future but, like Imam El-Tayeb’s visit to Najaf, it indicates that the dialling down of regional tensions puts a greater premium on soft power which in turn builds up pressure for less harsh expressions of religion.

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