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Aleppo under siege: USA lets Russia claim diplomatic advantage

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[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] C [/yt_dropcap] onflicts in Middle East resembling a new World War launched by Bush administration to ensure energy security, are now focused on Syria where many foreign powers, led by USA one the one hand and Russia on the other, are targeting Muslims in Sunni nation ruled by a Shiite Assad who apparently wants to rule the nation of Syrians forever.

Syria has been under siege for years since the onset of Arab Spring and both the government and the Opposition forces keep claiming victories off and on but the war continues, killing and mutilating Syrians.

Bush Junior has made the US government a war machine fully engaged invasions, destabilization, destructions. US generals have demonstrated an impressive aptitude for moving pieces around on a dauntingly complex military chessboard in Islamic world. Brigades, battle groups, and squadrons shuttle in and out of various war zones, responding to the needs of the moment. The lesser theaters of conflict, largely overlooked by the American public, that in recent years have engaged the attention of US forces, a list that would include conflicts in Libya, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen. This engagement in wars have made Islamic world insecure. Saudi Arabia and Iran have been spared so far essentially for strategic reasons. The two principal conflicts of the post-9/11 era: the Afghanistan War, now in its 16th year, and the Iraq War, launched in 2003 and (after a brief hiatus) once more grinding on. Wars have helped USA control entire world.

Syria seems to have slipped out of US control and fallen into Russian orbit. Five years since the conflict began, more than 250,000 Syrians have been killed in the fighting, and almost 11 million Syrians – half the country’s prewar population – have been displaced from their homes. In 2011, what became known as the “Arab Spring” revolts toppled Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. That March, peaceful protests erupted in Syria as well, after 15 boys were detained and tortured for having written graffiti in support of the Arab Spring.

The Syrian government, led by President Bashar al-Assad, determined to stay in power at any cost, responded to the protests by killing hundreds of demonstrators and imprisoning many more. In July 2011, defectors from the military announced the formation of the Free Syrian Army, a rebel group aiming to overthrow the government, and Syria began to slide into civil war. Initially, lack of freedoms and economic woes fuelled resentment of the Syrian government, and public anger was inflamed by the harsh crackdown on protesters. Successful uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt energized and gave hope to Syrian pro-democracy activists. Many Islamist movements were also strongly opposed to the Assad’s’ rule.

Assad control of Aleppo city parts

Reports suggest that Syrian government forces have captured a key part of eastern Aleppo, splitting rebel-held territory. Both state TV and the monitoring group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said that the district of Sakhour had fallen to the Syrian army.

The Syrian army and their allies launched a major offensive to retake control of Aleppo in September. Thousands of civilians have fled rebel-held eastern Aleppo districts after a weekend of heavy fighting. Hundreds of families have also been displaced within the besieged area. Russia says its air force is active in other parts of the country, but not operating over Aleppo. While it is very difficult to find out exactly what is happening in besieged eastern Aleppo, several key districts appear to have fallen to the government, leaving very little, if any, of the northern part of the rebel-held enclave still under the rebels’ control.

There were 250,000 people in need of assistance in eastern Aleppo, 100,000 of them children. The situation on the ground in eastern Aleppo is almost beyond the imagination of those of us who are not there. State TV quoted a Syrian military source as saying that government forces “are continuing their advance in eastern neighborhoods of Aleppo”. The US led opposition had lost more than third of the area it controlled in Aleppo city during the recent advance. The east of Aleppo has been held by rebel factions opposed to President Bashar al-Assad for the past four years. In the past year, Syrian troops have broken the deadlock with the help of Iranian-backed militias and Russian air strikes. Things have turned out very differently.

Meanwhile, Russia has rejected US calls to halt bombing eastern Aleppo. Western observers have been generally impressed by Russia’s deployment in Syria, mainly reflecting a sense of disbelief that they proved to be capable of planning, executing and sustaining such a complex operation and dealing with the logistical issues involved in supplying forces at great distance from Russia.

As reports coming in, the Assad government currently controls the capital, Damascus, parts of southern Syria, portions of Aleppo and Deir Az Zor, much of the area near the Syrian-Lebanese border, and the northwestern coastal region. Rebel groups, ISIL, and Kurdish forces control the rest of the country.

Rebel groups continue to jockey against one another for power, and frequently fight each other. The Free Syrian Army has weakened as the war has progressed, while explicitly Islamist groups, such as the al-Nusra Front, which has pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda, and the Saudi-backed Islamic Front have gained in strength.

Syria under threat

In March 1971, Hafez al-Assad, an Alawite, declared himself President, a position that he held until his death in 2000. Since 1970, the secular Syrian Regional Branch has remained the dominant political authority in what had been a one-party state until the first multi-party election to the People’s Council of Syria was held in 2012.

On 31 January 1973, Assad implemented the new Constitution which led to a national crisis. Unlike previous constitutions, this one did not require that the President of Syria must be a Muslim, leading to fierce demonstrations in Hama, Homs and Aleppo organized by the Muslim Brotherhood and the ulema. They labeled Assad as the “enemy of Allah” and called for a jihad against his rule Robert D. Kaplan has compared Assad’s coming to power to “an untouchable becoming maharajah in India or a Jew becoming tsar in Russia—an unprecedented development, shocking the Sunni majority population which had monopolized power for so many centuries.” The regime survived a series of armed revolts by Sunni Islamists, mainly members of the Muslim Brotherhood, from 1976 until 1982.

In 2000, Bashar al-Assad took over as President of Syria upon Hafez al-Assad’s death. He initially inspired hopes for democratic reforms. A Damascus Spring of social and political debate took place between July 2000 and August 2001The Damascus Spring largely ended in August 2001 with the arrest and imprisonment of ten leading activists who had called for democratic elections and a campaign of civil disobedience In the opinion of his critics, Bashar Assad had failed to deliver on promised reforms.

The Assad government opposed the US invasion and occupation of Iraq. The Bush administration then began to destabilize the regime by increasing sectarian tensions, showcasing and publicizing Syrian repression of Kurdish and Sunni groups, and financing political dissidents. Assad also opposed the Qatar-Turkey pipeline in 2009. A classified 2013 report by a joint U.S. army and intelligence group concluded that the overthrow of Assad would have drastic consequences, as the opposition supported by the Obama regime was dominated by jihadist elements.

Syria is now a major war theater where foreign forces are busy killing Muslims and destroying the nation. .

In the history of Syria – a Sunni nation- many events contributed to its gradual weakening. In the recent past, a severe drought plagued Syria from 2007-10, spurring as many as 1.5 million people to migrate from the countryside into cities, which exacerbated poverty and social unrest. Although the initial protests were mostly non-sectarian, armed conflict led to the emergence of starker sectarian divisions.

In 1982, Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez, a Shiite, ordered a military crackdown on the Sunni led Muslim Brotherhood in Hama, which killed between 10,000-40,000 people and flattened much of the city.

Recently, even global warming has been claimed to have played a role in sparking the 2011 uprising.

Although most Syrians are Sunni Muslims, Syria’s security establishment has long been dominated by members of the Alawite sect, of which Assad is a member.

Having left with no alternatives, no polls Sunnis and minority religious groups tend to support the Assad government, while the overwhelming majority of opposition fighters are Sunni Muslims.

The sectarian split is reflected among regional actors’ stances as well. The governments of majority-Shia Iran and Iraq support Assad, as does Lebanon-based Hezbollah; while Sunni-majority states including Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and others staunchly support the rebels.

Foreign backing and open intervention have played a large role in Syria’s civil war. An international coalition led by the USA has bombed targets of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as IS and ISIS and there could be more to be invented by CIA and Pentagon) group since 2014.

In 2013, ISIL emerged in northern and eastern Syria after overrunning large portions of Iraq. Meanwhile, Kurdish groups in northern Syria are seeking self-rule in areas under their control. This has alarmed Turkey’s government, which fears its large native Kurdish population may grow more restive and demand greater autonomy as a result. In response to attacks within Turkey, the Turkish government has bombed Kurdish targets in Syria. Kurdish groups have also clashed with al-Nusra Front and ISIL.

It appears USA and Russia had informally decided to take opposite sides in Syrian War Theater. In September 2015, Russia launched a bombing campaign against what it referred to as “terrorist groups” in Syria, which included ISIL as well as rebel groups backed by Western states. In October 2015, the USA scrapped its controversial program to train Syrian rebels, after it was revealed that it had spent $500m but only trained 60 fighters.

Russia has also deployed military advisers to shore up Assad’s defences. Several Arab states, along with Turkey, have provided weapons and materiel to rebel groups in Syria. Many of those fighting come from outside of Syria. Lebanese members of Hezbollah are fighting on the side of Assad, as are Iranian and Afghan fighter.

Although the USA has stated its opposition to the Assad government, it has hesitated to involve itself deeply in the conflict, even after the Assad government allegedly used chemical weapons in 2013, which US President Barack Obama had previously referred to as a “red line” that would prompt intervention.

Fluid situation and enter Russia

Syrian war is a multi-sided armed conflict in Syria in which international interventions have taken place. The war grew out of the unrest of the 2011 Arab Spring and escalated to armed conflict after President Bashar al-Assad’s government violently repressed protests calling for his removal. The war is being fought by several factions: the Syrian Government and its various supporters, a loose alliance of Sunni Arab rebel groups (including the Free Syrian Army), the Syrian Democratic Forces, Salafi jihadist groups (including al-Nusra Front) who often co-operate with the Sunni rebels, and the ISIL. The factions receive substantial support from foreign actors, leading many to label the conflict a proxy war waged by both regional and global powers.

As Assad government was facing rout at the crushing attacks of US led Opposition forces, Russia came to the rescue of Assad and his rule. Russian forces, enjoying a free hand in Syria, have been operating in support of the government of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria for a year. Their impact has been significant. When they arrived, there were fears that government forces were close to collapse. This position has largely been reversed. It is the Syrian government – while still fragile – that is now on the offensive with a brutal bid to recapture the whole of the city of Aleppo. Initially seen by US analysts through the prism of recent Western military involvements in the region, many pundits were quick to dismiss the Russian effort as likely to fail. The Russian military, it was said, was not up to expeditionary warfare. Russia would quickly find itself bogged down in a Syrian quagmire.

Russia carries out its first air strikes on 30 September 2015 and Syria says it requested intervention to help in “the fight against terrorism”. On 10 November 2015 the Syrian army, aided by Russian strikes, lifts two-year-long siege by IS on the key Kuwairis airbase in eastern Aleppo province, marking its first victory against IS since the Russian intervention.

Obviously, on instruction from Washington, Turkey shot down on 24 November a Russian Su-24 fighter jet near the Turkish-Syrian border; Benefiting from Russian support, the Syrian army makes territorial gains in various parts of Syria December 2015 – January 2016 and declares Latakia province rebel-free. Syrian army 24 March 2016 backed by Russian strikes inflicts a major symbolic and strategic defeat on IS, recapturing the historic city of Palmyra. In September 2016, Russia acknowledges providing air cover to the Syrian troops in their bid to seize control of Aleppo city.

Russian goal

Russia, of course, has had a strategic relationship with Syria going back to Soviet days. It has long maintained a small naval base on the Syrian coast and has close ties with the Syrian military, being its principal arms supplier. Syria had become Moscow’s last toe-hold of influence in the region. It was the fear of this relationship unraveling that prompted President Vladimir Putin to act.

While it is Russian air power that has been the main focus of news reporting on the Russian intervention, it is as much the intensified training and re-equipping of the Syrian army that has also been a crucial factor in helping to turn around President Assad’s fortunes.

Russian and Syrian military goals are not identical. While the Syrian government insists it still wants to recapture all the territory it has lost, Moscow’s approach is very different. Unlike Syria and Iran, Russia has no interest in fighting for territory. In defending Assad, Moscow had sought to steadily destroy the moderate Syrian opposition on the battlefield, leaving only jihadist forces in play, and lock the USA into a political framework of negotiations that would serve beyond its current Democratic shelf-life. In both respects, Russia has been successful. Ultimately, the Russian goal is to lock in gains for Syria via ceasefires, while slow-rolling the negotiations to the point that true opposition to the Syrian regime expires on the battlefield, leaving no viable alternatives for the West in this conflict by 2017. Russia’s intervention, however, does not seek to minimize losses.

The Russian air force has deployed some of its most modern aircraft to Syria, though the same cannot be said for the munitions they employ. The Russian air campaign overall has relied upon the use of “dumb bombs” of various types, a major distinction with modern Western air campaigns, where almost all of the munitions used are precision-guided. Russian Special Forces and artillery have been engaged on the ground. Long-range missile strikes have been conducted from Russian warships and submarines. Even Russia’s only aircraft carrier is now on its way to the region.

The Syria operation has also provided an invaluable opportunity for Russian generals to try out their forces in operational conditions, as well as offering something of a “shop-window” for some of Russia’s latest military technology. Russian military sees this as an opportunity to test new or modern systems; experiment with network-centric warfare capability; and to present evidence of the success of military modernisation.” This helps Moscow to showcase its new combat systems for West Asia and elsewhere. .

Syria has become a kind of sampler of Russian military capabilities. Israel could be disappointed.

Russia’s air campaign: Key moments

30 September 2015 – Russia carries out its first air strikes. Syria says it requested intervention to help in “the fight against terrorism”. 10 November 2015 – The Syrian army, aided by Russian strikes, lifts two-year-long siege by IS on the key Kuwairis airbase in eastern Aleppo province, marking its first victory against IS since the Russian intervention.

24 November – Turkey shoots down a Russian Su-24 fighter jet near the Turkish-Syrian border

December 2015 – January 2016 – Benefiting from Russian support, the Syrian army makes territorial gains in various parts of Syria and declares Latakia province rebel-free

24 March 2016 – Syrian army backed by Russian strikes inflicts a major symbolic and strategic defeat on IS, recapturing the historic city of Palmyra

September 2016 – Russia acknowledges providing air cover to the Syrian troops in their bid to seize control of Aleppo city.

Diplomatic advantage

The diplomatic consequences of the Russian intervention have also been a plus for Moscow. Its active military role in the WA region has reshaped its relationships with Israel, Iran and Turkey. Indeed, Israel and Russia have developed a significant level of “understanding”. Israeli air operations against the Lebanese Shia militant group Hezbollah, for example, have not been hindered by Russian control of significant parts of Syrian air space.

Attacks on Arab Muslims by any nation are good enough for Tel Aviv seeking to weaken entire Arab world. Russian attacks in Syria are welcome in Israel

Relations between Moscow and Tehran (Syria’s only other significant ally) have developed, and even the enmity between Moscow and Ankara has been diminished, with both countries realising they have to accommodate – at least to an extent – the other’s regional aims. Arabs are slowly shedding the Americophobia.

It is US-Russia relations that have been most profoundly influenced by Moscow’s intervention in Syria. At one level, Syria can be added to Ukraine as a dossier where the USA and Russia are failing to find common ground. But Russia’s military role ensured that the Assad leadership was not going to be removed from the chessboard. This made Washington revise its own approach and pursue what has largely proved an illusory effort, to develop some kind of partnership with Russia.

The indiscriminate nature of the Russian and Syrian air campaigns – exemplified by the current struggle over Aleppo – has certainly not won Russia many friends in the West, however. Russia has been accused by several governments of barbarity and potentially committing war crimes. According to the UK-based monitoring group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, over 4,000 civilians have been killed in one year of Russian strikes. Russian casualties in Syria are difficult to estimate. Helicopters have certainly been shot down, and several members of Russia’s Special Forces are known to have been killed in combat.

Western public opinion seems largely unmoved by the struggle; perhaps to an extent a reflection of war weariness in the wake of the campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. And there has been a good level of confusion. Many in the West, sceptical about their own governments’ records, seem unwilling to get excited about what Russia is up to.

The importance of information operations was most clearly illustrated by the extraordinary concert mounted in the ruins of Palmyra after its recapture from so-called Islamic State (IS) by Syrian forces.

The Kremlin has skillfully managed how the Russian public sees this intervention. Given the woeful state of the economy, Russian leaders have always been concerned that Syria would come to be viewed as an undue burden, though victory in Syria would make Russians happy. Specialists interpret the Kremlin’s decision in March to announce a significant reduction of its air power in Syria as an attempt “to cash-out the political gains at home and recast the war in the public’s mind”.

Western expectations of political peril for President Putin have, so far, simply not been realized. Rather than a prolonged campaign, Russia’s combat operations have become the new normal. Those expecting Russian support behind Vladimir Putin to collapse, either over Ukraine, or Syria, or the economy, have thus far been proven wrong. The Kremlin is demonstrably more adept at securing public approval, or apathy, than commonly acknowledged in the West.

But the overall level of casualties appears to have been limited, and news of combat deaths (like those among Russian forces in eastern Ukraine) is restricted – another reason why there has been no domestic backlash against the Syrian adventure.

By its own standards, Russia’s intervention in Syria has been a success on several levels. The real question is whether this situation can last. Put it another way, is there any clear exit strategy for Russia that might enable it to bank its gains and end its losses?

Russia’s strategic goals are vague. The exit strategy, if there is one appears rooted in strengthening the fighting power of the Syrian army and securing some long-term political settlement that demonstrates Russia has returned as a great power. The “strategic impact” of Russia’s intervention still remains in doubt. “Such gains are readily lost and can prove illusory,” an expert says. The Syrian army remains a shambles, Iran is attached to Assad, while Russia is more interested in the grander game with the USA. And without a political settlement to secure them, these accomplishments can vaporize, as Russian patience and resources become exhausted. Russian leadership knows that this could take years and would rather cut a deal while possessing the military advantage with USA. .

Aleppo was once a place of culture and commerce, with a jewel of an old city that was on Enesco’s list of world heritage sites. Now, the five-year civil war that rages in Syria has left much of it destroyed and divided roughly in two, with President Bashar al-Assad’s forces controlling the west and the rebels the east. A month ago, government forces re-imposed a siege on the east, and launched an all-out assault to take full control of the city, accompanied by an intense and sustained aerial bombardment.

Activists say the offensive has left hundreds of civilians dead, but the government and its ally Russia have denied targeting them and blamed rebel fighters for operating in residential areas. But what about the 275,000 people who are trapped there? Where are they getting their food from? Do they have enough water and medicine?

In August, the UN Children’s Fund (Unicef) estimated that 35,000 people were internally displaced inside eastern Aleppo, some of whom were in official shelters run in abandoned buildings, others staying with family or friends, and still others sleeping outdoors in parks and streets. Not many will have been able to leave since then – and it is likely that the number of people not sleeping in their own homes has gone up. And even those who are still at home know they are not safe. People are saying there is no safe place to go. There may be many who are staying in places that they don’t consider being adequate but they’re staying anyway.

Nearly half the people who live in besieged Aleppo are under the age of 18. Many of their schools have closed or moved. Some of the buildings have been bombed, while others are being used as shelters for displaced people, or fighters in the conflict are using them for military purposes. It might be difficult to imagine any child going back to school when bombs are falling.

People are buying water from wells and privately-owned water tankers, and carrying it home in buckets. Many have reported that it tastes bad, and there is no guarantee that it is free of disease. It is hard to say whether anyone has died of hunger in the siege because with aid agencies unable to get inside, they cannot accurately diagnose the level of malnutrition.

Many doctors have fled the city as refugees or been killed in the fighting, and there are just 30 doctors remaining in eastern Aleppo. Using the UN’s estimate for the number of people trapped there – 275,000 – that means there is roughly one doctor for every 9,100 people. This in a place that is being bombed every day – at least 376 people were killed and 1,266 wounded in the first two weeks of the latest government’s assault, according to the UN.

The places where doctors work have been repeatedly targeted by government and Russian air strikes, activists and charities say. The UN says six hospitals are still operating, although they are only partially functional. Two hospitals have been almost totally destroyed in the past two weeks, and three doctors and two nurses killed. The few remaining hospitals are collapsing under a flow of hundreds of wounded lying in agony on the floors of wards and corridors.

It has long maintained a small naval base on the Syrian coast and has close ties with the Syrian military, being its principal arms supplier. Syria had become Moscow’s last toe-hold of influence in the region. It was the fear of this relationship unraveling that prompted President Vladimir Putin to act.

While it is Russian air power that has been the main focus of news reporting on the Russian intervention, it is as much the intensified training and re-equipping of the Syrian army that has also been a crucial factor in helping to turn around President Assad’s fortunes.

Russian forces have been operating in support of the government of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria for a year. Their impact has been significant. When they arrived, there were fears that government forces were close to collapse. This position has largely been reversed. It is the Syrian government – while still fragile – that is now on the offensive with a brutal bid to recapture the whole of the city of Aleppo.

Initially seen by US analysts through the prism of recent Western military involvements in the region, many pundits were quick to dismiss the Russian effort as likely to fail. The Russian military, it was said, was not up to expeditionary warfare. Russia would quickly find itself bogged down in a Syrian quagmire.

Things have turned out very differently.

Roger McDermott, senior fellow in Eurasian studies at the Jamestown Foundation – and a long-time watcher of the Russian military – says: Western observers have been generally impressed by Russia’s deployment in Syria, mainly reflecting a sense of disbelief that they proved to be capable of planning, executing and sustaining such a complex operation and dealing with the logistical issues involved in supplying forces at great distance from Russia.

But what exactly were Russia’s goals in intervening in the first place? Russia, of course, has had a strategic relationship with Syria going back to Soviet days.

Observation

USA created all problems in Syria but now Russia has all diplomatic advantages to win a powerful point over its nuclear rival America. The siege is pushing people towards starvation and serfdom.

The Syrian war is creating profound effects far beyond the country’s borders. Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan are hosting large and growing numbers of Syrian refugees, many of whom have attempted to journey onwards to Europe in search of better conditions.

Several rounds of peace talks have failed to stop the fighting. Although a ceasefire announced in February 2016 has limited fighting in some parts of Syria, recent government air strikes in Aleppo have prompted uncertainty about the ceasefire’s future. But with much of the country in ruins , millions of Syrians having fled abroad, and a population deeply traumatized by war, one thing is certain: Rebuilding Syria after the war ends will be a lengthy, extremely difficult process.

Syrian war has killed thousands, produced innumerable refugees. As Syria’s war reaches another grim milestone, refugees fleeing the 5-year conflict face greater hurdles to finding safety while international solidarity with its victims is failing to match and reflect the scale and seriousness of the humanitarian tragedy.

UNHCR provides basic and necessary humanitarian aid for Syrian refugees and helps the most vulnerable refugees with urgently needed relief – including water, food, medicine, blankets and warm clothes, household items, diapers and hygiene supplies, and jerry cans.

By its own standards, Russia’s intervention in Syria has been a success on several levels. The real question is whether this situation can last. Put it another way, is there any clear exit strategy for Russia that might enable it to bank its gains and end its losses?

Russia’s strategic goals are vague. The exit strategy, if there is one appears rooted in strengthening the fighting power of the Syrian army and securing some long-term political settlement that demonstrates Russia has returned as a great power. The strategic impact of Russia’s intervention still remains in doubt. Such gains are readily lost and can prove illusory. The Syrian army remains a shambles; Iran is attached to Assad, while Russia is more interested in the grander game with the USA. And without a political settlement to secure them, these accomplishments can vaporize, as Russian patience and resources become exhausted. Russian leadership knows that this could take years and would rather cut a deal while possessing the military advantage.

The USA was compelled not just to deal with Russia as a diplomatic equal but also to shift its own stance towards the Assad government to one – that for all the obfuscation – falls well short of its long-time insistence that President Assad had to go, as the essential pre-condition for any negotiated settlement.

Not many powers like Israel are happy that the USA has not invaded Iran to equalize its destruction efforts in Iraq- both Shiite dominated Muslim nations in West Asia.

Neither the end of war in Syria nor peace in West Asia is the major concern of USA or Russia, or UNSC.

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Saudi religious soft power diplomacy eyes Washington and Jerusalem first and foremost

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Geopolitics is written all over Saudi religious soft power efforts. Nowhere more so than when it comes to Israel and Jews because of the growing importance of security cooperation with the Jewish state and the influence of the Israeli lobby in the United States, the kingdom’s most important yet problematic security partner.

In the latest move, Saudi Arabia ensured that it would be the first stop on the first overseas trip by Deborah Lipstadt as US special envoy to combat anti-Semitism.

“Lipstadt intends to build on the profoundly important Abraham Accords to advance religious tolerance, improve relations in the region, and counter misunderstanding and distrust,” the State Department said in a statement. The department was referring to the accords by which the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan established diplomatic relations with Israel in the waning days of US President Donald J. Trump’s administration.

Ms. Lipstadt said that Saudi religious soft power diplomacy had created an atmosphere in which she could discuss with government officials and civil society leaders, who in the kingdom inevitably are likely to be linked to the government, “normalising the vision of the Jews and understanding of Jewish history for their population, particularly their younger population.”

Saudi Arabia has had a particularly troubled attitude towards Jews even though an older generation of Saudis in regions close to Yemen recall a Jewish presence in the first half of the 20th century.

Moreover, in the days when Israelis were barred from travelling to most Arab countries, Saudi Arabia also tailored its visa requirements to bar Jews.

European foreign ministers planning at the time to pay official visits to the kingdom would at times confront demands that Jewish journalists be dropped from the group accompanying the official.

Some American Jews who had filled out Jewish as their religion on Saudi immigration forms would have them returned with the word Jewish replaced by the term Christian.

That began to change long before the rise of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Mr. Bin Salman has accelerated the policy change. Earlier this month, Saudi Arabia announced that Israeli business people would be granted entry into the kingdom.

Saudi Arabia has also allowed Jacob Yisrael Herzog, a US-born rabbi resident in Israel, to visit the kingdom several times to attempt to build Jewish life publicly. Some Jewish critics have charged that his bombastic approach could backfire.

Moreover, in a slow two-decade-long, tedious process, Saudi Arabia has made significant progress in scrubbing its school textbooks of anti-Semitic and other discriminatory and supremacist content.

To project Saudi Arabia as a moderate forward-looking nation and improve the kingdom’s tarnished image, particularly in the United States, Mr. Bin Salman has met with American Jewish leaders. Many of those leaders are willing to give Saudi Arabia a pass on its abuse of human rights and still weak track record on religious tolerance to advance the cause of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel.

The crown prince has also turned the Muslim World League, once a prime vehicle for the Saudi government funding of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism globally, into a public relations tool for propagating Saudi religious tolerance.

The league’s head, Mohammed al-Issa, a former Saudi justice minister, led a delegation of Muslim religious leaders on a ground-breaking visit in January 2020 to Auschwitz, one of Nazi Germany’s foremost extermination camps for Jews.

Earlier this month, he organized a Forum on Common Values among Religious Followers in Riyadh. Participants included 47 Muslim scholars, 24 Christian leaders, 12 rabbis, and 7 Hindu and Buddhist figures.

The timing of Ms. Lipstadt’s visit is significant. It comes weeks before an expected pilgrimage to Riyadh by President Joe Biden to tackle strains in the strategic relationship between the two countries.

Tensions have emerged over the degree and reliability of the US commitment to Gulf security, Saudi oil production policy in the wake of US and European sanctions against Russia for invading Ukraine, Saudi technological cooperation with China, and Mr. Biden’s belief that Mr. Bin Salman was responsible for the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Moreover, the visits of Mr. Biden and Ms. Lipstadt come as hopes are fading that talks in Vienna between world powers and Iran will succeed in reviving the 2015 international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear programme. A failure is likely to increase regional tension.

The spectre of a failure has driven increased regional cooperation between Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia and Israel.

At the sharp end of confronting Iran, Israel unveiled its newly adopted Octopus Doctrine this month. The doctrine expands Israel’s aiming at Iran’s nuclear, missile and drone programmes by increasingly attacking targets in Iran rather than primarily on battlefields like Syria.

Barbara Leaf, the US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, put Ms. Lipstadt’s visit in perspective when she told Congress last week that Mr. Biden hoped to achieve agreement on a roadmap for the establishment of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel during his visit to the Middle East this month. US officials admit that it will be a lengthy process rather than a head-on lovey-dovey affair, as was the case between Israel and the UAE.

Saudi Arabia has signaled for some time that it would like to formalize its expanding informal relations with Israel but needs a cover to do so. The kingdom has emphasized this in recent weeks as it sought Israeli acquiescence in the transfer by Egypt to Saudi Arabia of sovereignty over two islands at the top of the Red Sea and prepared for a possible visit by US President Joe Biden.

Saudis want to meet us, talk, and rub shoulders with us. They want to learn. I kept getting inquiries. There is incredible potential for cooperation between the Saudi people and Saudi companies and Israel,” said Israeli businessman Eyal Waldheim who visited the kingdom in May travelling on a non-Israeli passport.

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China and the Middle East: Heading into Choppy Waters

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China could be entering choppy Middle Eastern waters. Multiple crises and conflicts will likely shape its relations with the region’s major powers, including Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Turkey.

The laundry list of pitfalls for China includes the fallout of the Ukraine war, strained US relations with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Turkish opposition to Finnish and Swedish NATO membership, the threat of a renewed Turkish anti-Kurdish incursion into northern Syria, and the fate of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the 2015 international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program.

Drowning out the noise, one thing that becomes evident is that neither the Gulf states nor Turkey have any intention of fundamentally altering their security relationships with the United States, even if the dynamics in the cases of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Turkey are very different.

Saudi Arabia recognizes that there is no alternative to the US security umbrella, whatever doubts the kingdom may have about the United States’ commitment to its security. With next month’s visit to Saudi Arabia by President Joe Biden, the question is not how US-Saudi differences will be papered over but at what price and who will pay the bill.

Meanwhile, China has made clear that it is not willing and not yet able to replace the United States. It has also made clear that for China to engage in regional security, Middle Eastern states would first have to get a grip on their disputes so that conflicts don’t spin out of control. Moves to lower the tensions between Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt by focusing on economics are a step in that direction. Still, they remain fragile, with no issue that sparked the differences being resolved.

A potential failure of negotiations in Vienna to revive the Iran nuclear deal could upset the apple cart. It would likely push Israel, the UAE, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia to tighten their security cooperation but could threaten rapprochement with Turkey. It could also heighten tensions in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and Iraq, where Iran supports a variety of political actors and militias. None of this is good news for China, which like other major players in the Middle East, prefers to remain focused on economics.

The dynamics with Turkey and Iran are of a different order. China may gleefully watch Turkish obstruction in NATO, but as much as Turkey seeks to forge an independent path, it does not want to break its umbilical cord with the West anchored in its membership in NATO.

NATO needs Turkey even if its center of gravity, for now, has moved to Eastern Europe. By the same token, Turkey needs NATO, even if it is in a better position to defend itself than the Gulf states are. Ultimately, horse-trading will resolve NATO’s most immediate problems because of Turkish objections to Swedish and Finnish NATO membership.

Turkey’s threatened anti-Kurdish incursion into northern Syria would constitute an escalation that no party, including China, wants. Not because it underwrites Turkish opposition to Swedish and Finnish NATO membership but because with Syrian Kurds seeking support from the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, Turkish and Iranian-backed forces could find themselves on opposite sides.

Finally, Iran. Despite the hot air over Iran’s 25-year US$400 million deal with China, relations between Tehran and Beijing are unlikely to fully blossom as long as Iran is subject to US sanctions. A failure to revive the nuclear agreement guarantees that sanctions will remain. China has made clear that it is willing to push the envelope in violating or circumventing sanctions but not to the degree that would make Iran one more major friction point in the already fraught US-China relationship.

In a world in which bifurcation has been accelerated by the Ukraine war and the Middle East threatened by potentially heightened tensions in the absence of a nuclear agreement, Gulf states may find that increasingly the principle of ‘you are with us or against us’ becomes the norm. The Gulf states hedged their bets in the initial months of the Ukraine war, but their ability to do so may be coming to an end.

Already Saudi Arabia and the UAE are starting to concede on the issue of oil production, while Qatar is engaging with Europe on gas. Bifurcation would not rupture relations with China but would likely restrain technological cooperation and contain Gulf hedging strategies, including notions of granting China military facilities.

Over and beyond the immediate geopolitical and security issues, there are multiple other potentially problematic issues and powder kegs.

A prominent Saudi-owned newspaper, Asharq Al-Awsat, recently took issue with an increasingly aggressive tone in Chinese diplomacy. “China isn’t doing itself any favours … Chinese officials seem determined to undermine their own case for global leadership … Somehow Chinese officials don’t seem to recognize that their belligerence is just as off-putting…as Western paternalism is,” the newspaper said in an editorial.

China’s balancing act, particularly between Saud Arabia and Iran, could become more fraught. A failure to revive the nuclear agreement will complicate already difficult Saudi Iranian talks aimed at dialling down tensions. It could also fuel a nuclear, missiles, and drone arms race accelerated by a more aggressive US-backed Israeli strategy in confronting Iran by striking at targets in the Islamic republic rather than with US backing in, for example, Syria.

While Chinese willingness to sell arms may get a boost, China could find that both Saudi Arabia and Iran become more demanding in their expectations from Beijing, particularly if tensions escalate.

A joker in the pack is China’s repression of Turkic Muslims in its north-western province of Xinjiang. A majority of the Muslim world has looked the other way, with a few, like Saudi Arabia, openly endorsing the crackdown.

The interest in doing so goes beyond Muslim-majority states not wanting to risk their relations with a China that responds harshly and aggressively to public criticism. Moreover, the crackdown in Xinjiang and Muslim acquiescence legitimises a shared opposition to any political expression of Islam.

The problem for Muslim-majority states, particularly those in the Middle East, is that the era in which the United States and others could get away with the application of double standards and apparent hypocrisy in adhering to values may be drawing to a close.

China and, for that matter, Russia is happy to benefit from the global South’s reluctance to join condemnation of the invasion of Ukraine and sanctions against Russia because the West refuses to apply the principle universally, for example, in the case of Israel or multiple infractions of international and human rights law elsewhere.

However, China and Middle Eastern states sit in similar glasshouses. Irrespective of how one judges recent controversial statements made by spokespeople of India’s ruling BJP party regarding the Prophet Mohammed and Muslim worship, criticism by Muslim states rings hollow as long as they do not also stand up to the repression of Muslims in Xinjiang.

For some in the Middle East, a reckoning could come sooner and later.

Turkey is one state where the issue of the Uighurs in China is not simply a far-from-my-bed show. Uighurs play into domestic politics in a country home to the largest Uighur exile community that has long supported the rights of its Turkic brethren in China and still boasts strong strands of pan-Turkism.

These are all elements that could come to the fore when Turkey goes to the polls next year as it celebrates the 100th anniversary of the birth of the Turkish republic.

The question is not whether China will encounter choppy waters in the Middle East but when and where.

Author’s note: This article is based on the author’s remarks at the 4th Roundtable on China in West Asia – Stepping into a Vacuum? organised by the Ananta Aspen Center on 14 June 2022 and was first published by the Middle East Institute in Washington DC.

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Middle East

Recognising Israel: Any Asian volunteers?

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The question for Saudi Arabia and Pakistan is not whether either country will recognise Israel but when and who will go first.

For the past two years, Saudi Arabia was believed to want a Muslim state in Asia, home to the world’s three most populous Muslim majority countries, to recognise Israel first. Asian recognition would give the kingdom, home to Islam’s two holiest cities, Mecca and Medina, a welcome fig leaf.

Numbers, as expressed by population size, were one reason. Compared to Saudi Arabia’s 35 million people, Pakistan has a population of 221 million, Indonesia 274 million, and Bangladesh 165 million.

That was one reason Saudi Arabia preferred an Asian state to take the lead in following the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan, who recognised Israel in the least two years.

Likely more important was the expectation that potential mass protest against a move toward Israel was more likely to erupt in Asia, where the margin for expressing dissent is greater than in much of the Middle East. Such protests, it was thought, would distract attention from the Custodian of the Holy Cities taking similar steps.

Saudi Arabia has signaled for some time that it would like to formalize its expanding informal relations with Israel but needs a cover to do so. The kingdom has emphasized this in recent weeks as it sought Israeli acquiescence in the transfer by Egypt to Saudi Arabia of sovereignty over two islands at the top of the Red Sea and prepared for a possible visit by US President Joe Biden.

The visit is designed to improve relations strained since Mr. Biden came to office over Saudi doubts about US security commitments, US demands that the kingdom increase oil production in a bid to reduce prices and limit Russian energy exports, Saudi acquisition of Chinese missiles, and the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

In advance of a visit, Saudi Arabia has not rejected a US proposal for a regional Middle Eastern air defence system that would include the kingdom and Israel.

Mujtahid, an anonymous tweeter who has repeatedly provided insights into the secretive workings of the House of Saud in recent years, reported that Saudi Arabia and Israel had created a “situation room” on the 14th floor of an Istanbul office building to advance the establishment of diplomatic relations. He said Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s close aide, Saud al-Qahtani, headed the Saudi side.

Despite rampant speculation, Mr. Bin Salman is unlikely to see Mr. Biden’s visit as a capstone for recognition of Israel. More likely, he will continue to insist on a fig leaf in the form of progress in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or a major Asian Muslim-majority state going next.

Much of the attention focused in the almost two years since the UAE-led quartet forged relations with Israel focused on Indonesia. Not only because Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim majority state and its foremost Muslim democracy but also because it is home to the world’s most moderate mass Muslim civil society movement, Nahdlatul Ulama.

Heads of Nahdlatul Ulama have visited Israel and met Israeli leaders multiple times in the past two decades, even though Indonesia and Israel have no diplomatic relations. The movement also has close ties to various American Jewish groups.

Similarly, the absence of formal relations between Israel and Indonesia has not prevented Israeli diplomats, scholars, and journalists from maintaining contact with Indonesian counterparts and travelling to the archipelago nation or Indonesian pilgrims from touring the Jewish state. Nevertheless, Indonesia has rebuffed both the Trump and the Biden administration’s requests to move towards recognition.

Indonesia’s refusal may not come as a surprise. However, suggestions that Pakistan, despite its close ties to Saudi Arabia, may strike a deal with Israel come out of left field. Religious ultra-conservatism is woven into the fabric of society and at least some state institutions. Moreover, anti-Semitism is rampant in Pakistan.

Nonetheless, a recent visit to Israel by a delegation of Pakistani activists seeking to promote people-to-people contacts has sparked anger and debate in Pakistan. The group, which met with Israeli President Isaac Herzog, included American and British Pakistanis, prominent Pakistani journalist Ahmed Qureshi, and Fischel BenKhald, a Pakistani Jew.

Without at least an overt nudge from powerful quarters, no Pakistani journalist could make this public trip to Israel and return safely, reflecting how attitudes pertaining to Israel have evolved in the world’s only Muslim nuclear power,” said London-based Pakistani journalist Hamza Azhar Salam.

That did not stop Pakistani state television from firing Mr. Qureishi.

“The good news is, we today have the first, robust and rich nationwide debate in Pakistan on establishing diplomatic ties with Israel. This is hug,” Mr. Qureishi said.

Many Pakistanis, led by ousted prime minister Imran Khan, saw the visit to Israel as part of an effort by Pakistan’s powerful military to forge closer ties to the Jewish state – a move Mr. Khan appears to have considered when he was in office.

His aide, Zulfi Bukhari, reportedly visited Israel for a meeting with then head of the Mossad, Yossi Cohen. Mr. Bukhari has denied travelling to Israel.

The visit by the Pakistani activists came two years after two Pakistani academics called in an op-ed in Israel’s Haaretz newspaper for Pakistani-Israeli cooperation in resolving the South Asian state’s water stress and upgrading its agriculture sector.

Similarly, Pakistani political analyst Saad Hafiz recently argued that Pakistan’s recognition of Israel would earn it the support of the Biden administration and the Israeli lobby in Washington for continued International Monetary Fund (IMF) aid for his country’s battered economy. Mr. Hafiz also reiterated that Pakistan could benefit from Israeli water conservation technology.

“The US leadership, Congress, and the powerful pro-Israel lobby could support the resumption of financial assistance to Pakistan as an incentive if it agrees to normalize ties with Israel, “ Mr. Saad said.

Pakistanis and Israeli have links in other ways. For example, many Pakistanis offer their services on Fiverr, an Israeli marketplace for freelance professionals.

Degrees of Saudi cooperation with Israel and Pakistani feelers contrasted starkly with legislation passed in the last two weeks by the Iraqi parliament criminalizing contact with Israel and by the Houthi government in Yemen that outlawed contact not only with Israel but also with Jews.

Pakistan is unlikely to follow Iraq or the Houthis. Even so, “it is unlikely that Pakistan’s fragile coalition government has the credibility and time to take the politically risky decision to open dialogue with Israel, especially with (Imran) Khan snipping at its heels,” Mr. Saad said. “Yet, bold decisions are needed for Pakistan to compete in a changing world.”

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