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The current phase of conflict in Syria

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[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] W [/yt_dropcap] hile we are writing this article, much of South Aleppo has now been liberated by Bashar al-Assad’ Syrian Arab Army. Jaish Al Fatah, which cooperates with the Al Nusra Front, namely the “Syrian section” of Al Qaeda, has now been ousted from the Southern districts of Aleppo and from most of the city suburbs. But it still keeps Idlib.

Jaish al Fatah is an “umbrella” organization of jihadists who fight against the Shiites, but not necessarily against Isis.

Assad’ Syrian Arab Army has completely liberated sixteen suburbs of Aleppo, while the anti-jihadist forces still attack some districts, including Karam al-Tarab and Amiriyah, so as to make Aleppo definitively safe and then move forward towards Idlib, still held by the jihadists.

Obviously Bashar al-Assad’s forces must also harshly oppose the expansion of the Turkish military forces operating in Northern Syria.

Furthermore, the Russian Aerospace Forces keep on bombing the Hama Province.

Finally, Assad’ Syrian Arab Army also fights against Isis in the Eastern region of Homs.

Hence this is the picture of the current situation there.

Nevertheless, some pro-Turkish militants, backed by the Turkish army, have attacked the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the Syrian Arab Army in the village of Azrak, near Aleppo.

Turkey and the Kurdish YPG have clashed also in Sheik Nazir, Qert Weran and Oshali.

In short, Turkey keeps on creating protection buffer zones also in favour of Isis, which can use the Turkish flank to defend itself from the Syrian Arab Army and the Kurdish YPG.

In essence this is the Turkish, Kurdish and jihadist military framework of Greater Syria.

It is worth recalling, however, that on December 1 last President Vladimir Putin adopted the new Russian strategic doctrine.

This changes many factors.

Let us see its main aspects: Russia does not accept NATO’s expansion eastwards; it supports the agreements for a balanced reduction of armaments and it does not accept the “global missile defence system” that the United States are supposed to perfect and finalize within 2020.

In short, it is a doctrine designed to make the global strategic balance increasingly multipolar.

Furthermore Russia does not accept any US attempt to put pressure on it and reserves its right to militarily respond to military actions deemed unfriendly.

With reference to Syria, Russia’s ultimate goal is to build a broad international coalition to be defined within the UN framework.

The explicit fight against the jihad and everybody’s acceptance of a united, independent and intact Syria should be at the basis of this coalition.

The very important aspects of the media policy will be studied separately in another article.

Hence, on the Syrian military ground, the Syrian Arab Army and its Russian and Iranian allies are recording successes in North Aleppo, while the Russian aircrafts are bombing the ISIS rear-lines and have significantly reduced the Isis operating mass and materials.

Hence if the Russian air forces continue to carry out their operations, Bashar al-Assad’ Syrian Arab Army will be in a position to press victoriously on Idlib northwards and on Raqqa eastwards.

After the breakup of the jihadist front in north-east Aleppo, the defences of the moderate “insurgents”, as the Americans call them, are supposed to collapse in the short term.

However, despite the many Turkish actions, Syria’s air responses – supported by Russia – have not allowed Turkey to reach its true goal in Syria, namely the creation of a Turkish enclave between Raqqa, Manbij and al Bab.

An emplacement that EU analysts consider “irrelevant”, as we will see later on.

Soon the jihadist pocket in Western Ghouta – the old oasis near which Damascus was founded, the area from which many jihadists will leave as “refugees” towards puerile Europe – will be eliminated.

And the fundamental political and strategic factor is that now the Egyptian forces are entering the Syrian region.

The reason is simple: President al-Sisi rightly believes that every jihadist success in Syria is a vital threat to Egypt.

The United States have always supported the Muslim Brotherhood – suffice to read the very detailed book by Ian Johnson, A Mosque in Munich, published in 2010.

Al-Sisi’s only other option was turn to Russia.

Hence the US strategy of negotiating with the Islamic fundamentalism and de facto relinquishing the US traditional friendship with the Maghreb countries and with Iraq, the country “liberated” a few years ago, was formidable in its inanity.

Hence now Egypt is entering the Syrian scene, siding with Russia and Bashar al-Assad’s alliance with Iran – an intra-Islamic religious paradox which has its own perfect strategic logicality.

Stressing Islam’s religious differences too much makes us forget the extreme pragmatism – not to say cynicism – of the Arab and Islamic political elites.

Hence a few weeks ago a high-level Egyptian delegation had arrived in Syria to discuss the operations that the Egyptian forces should carry out under the Russian and Syrian command.

Some sources maintain that Egyptian aircrafts and helicopters are already deployed in the Hama base.

And it is worth recalling that Egypt has independent access to Syria by sea.

The two “Mistral” ships that France had built for Russia and that it could not sell to it, were later sold to Egypt.

Ironically, those two ships – not sold to Russia due to the current restrictions on trade with this country – will go to Syria to fight in favour of Russia and Assad, thanks to the EU stupidity and the inability of whole Europe to think strategically.

Each of the two French “command and power projection” frigates can accommodate a battalion of 900 soldiers with all their equipment.

Hence a situation would materialize in which a brigade – protected by the Russian air force – is fully autonomous and can operate freely on Syrian territory, being also equipped with Russian attack helicopters.

Therefore the Egyptian forces would be the real “game changer” in the Syrian war, because even the Hezbollah brigades and the Iranian “volunteers” need the Syrian support and logistics.

Hence Egypt can carry out its operations in Syria on its own, in close coordination with Russia and Bashar al-Assad’s forces.

Numerically the Iranian situation in Syria is as follows: 4,000 Iraqi units and 4,000 Shiite units sent directly from the Shiite republic, coordinated by 400 Pasdaran operational units in Iran.

Hezbollah has also sent 2,000 units of its special forces, namely “Ridwan” units, from the Lebanon.

In this particular situation, the 4,000 Egyptian units would be a significant increase of military and operational efficacy.

Obviously no one could prevent Egypt from taking part in the Syrian war, considering that forces and soldiers pass through the Suez Canal.

This is a real blackmail even for the countries which fund and support the jihad, since anyway their oil passes through the Egyptian waterway.

Hence this new complexion of anti-jihadist forces would allow a fast and powerful attack on Raqqa, which would be final and would close the game in Syria, except for some jihad “remnants” in the South.

Furthermore, President-Elect Donald Trump does no longer intend to support the “good” and “moderate” jihadists – hence the Turkish and Saudi game could soon be put to an end.

The era of President Obama – who only aimed at eliminating Assad and did not view the jihad as a real threat which, furthermore, strangely operated ever more often with “US-made” weapons – is over.

The European Union has published a new document on Syria, entitled “The First Trump Test: European Policy and the Siege of Aleppo”.

The EU analysts maintain that unfortunately President Assad is still there and so it is impossible not to accept his political presence.

Hence they think that we must swallow the bitter pill of accepting Assad still in power, as if they could send him away from there – which is not the case – and as if the jihad were an irrelevant operation.

Finally, EU analysts maintain that if Turkey remained interested in its Northern corridor, so as to counter the Kurds, it should no longer create many problems in putting in place a vague, bombastic and non-existent “transition”, which should be managed by the Europeans, who pretend to have powers and abilities they do not have and take actions for no reason or purpose.

We all know, however, that Turkey wants its corridor to trigger off a second fight against the Kurds and Assad – which is not harmless at all, as the EU strategy claims.

The winner does not need to sit at the negotiating table, which the losers need to reduce damage.

Hence it is not clear who should participate in the “transition” led – alas – by the Europeans.

Finally the EU analysts that drafted the Document on Syria believe that currently Europe should resume President Obama’s Syrian policy, namely to reach any bad deal so as to put an end to violence and help the Syrian people.

Nevertheless bad deals worsen the situation – and then, what about jihadists? Are they to be blamed for the Syrian disaster or rather the Russians and the “tyrant” Assad?

It seems that the EU still does not consider the holy war which, however, will certain not pay heed to the EU “humanitarian” requests.

Yet another proof of European inanity while, as President Putin maintains, it would be enough not to provide European aid to President Erdogan for three months and his regime would collapse.

Certainly the European Union will do nothing of this sort. Simply it will take no action at all.

Advisory Board Co-chair Honoris Causa Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is an eminent Italian economist and businessman. He holds prestigious academic distinctions and national orders. Mr. Valori has lectured on international affairs and economics at the world’s leading universities such as Peking University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Yeshiva University in New York. He currently chairs “International World Group”, he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group. In 1992 he was appointed Officier de la Légion d’Honneur de la République Francaise, with this motivation: “A man who can see across borders to understand the world” and in 2002 he received the title “Honorable” of the Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France. “

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Iran Gives Russia Two and a Half Cheers

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Photo: Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov meets with his Iranian counterpart Hossein Amir-Abdollahian in Moscow, March 15 2022. Credit: @Amirabdolahian via Twitter.

Iran’s rulers enthusiastically seek to destroy the liberal world order and therefore support Russia’s aggression. But they can’t manage full-throated support.

For Iran, the invasion of Ukraine is closely related to the very essence of the present world order. Much like Russia, Iran has been voicing its discontent at the way the international system has operated since the end of the Cold War. More broadly, Iran and Russia see the world through strikingly similar lenses. Both keenly anticipate the end of the multipolar world and the end of the West’s geopolitical preponderance.

Iran had its reasons to think this way. The US unipolar moment after 1991 provoked a deep fear of imminent encirclement, with American bases in Afghanistan and Iraq cited as evidence. Like Russia, the Islamic Republic views itself as a separate civilization that needs to be not only acknowledged by outside players, but also to be given ana suitable geopolitical space to project influence.

Both Russia and Iran are very clear about their respective spheres of influence. For Russia, it is the territories that once constituted the Soviet empire. For Iran, it is the contiguous states reaching from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean — Iraq, Syria, Lebanon — plus Yemen. When the two former imperial powers have overlapping strategic interests such as, for instance, in the South Caucasus and the Caspian Sea, they apply the concept of regionalism. This implies the blocking out of non-regional powers from exercising outsize economic and military influence, and mostly revolves around an order dominated by the powers which border on a region.

This largely explains why Iran sees the Russian invasion of Ukraine as an opportunity that, if successful, could hasten the end of the liberal world order. This is why it has largely toed the Russian line and explained what it describes as legitimate motives behind the invasion. Thus the expansion of NATO into eastern Europe was cited as having provoked Russian moves. “The root of the crisis in Ukraine is the US policies that create the crisis, and Ukraine is one victim of these policies,” argued Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei following the invasion.

To a certain degree, Iran’s approach to Ukraine has been also influenced by mishaps in bilateral relations which largely began with the accidental downing of a Ukrainian passenger jet by Iranian surface-to-air missiles in January 2020, killing 176 people. The regime first denied responsibility, and later blamed human error.

Iran, like several other of Russia’s friends and defenders,  the ideal scenario would have been a quick war in which the Kremlin achieved its major goals.

Protracted war, however, sends a bad signal. It signals that the liberal order was not in such steep decline after all, and that Russia’s calls for a new era in international relations have been far from realistic. The unsuccessful war also shows Iran that the collective West still has very significant power and — despite well-aired differences — an ability to rapidly coalesce to defend the existing rules-based order. Worse, for these countries, the sanctions imposed on Russia go further; demonstrating the West’s ability to make significant economic sacrifices to make its anger felt. In other words, Russia’s failure in Ukraine actually strengthened the West and made it more united than at any point since the September 2001 terrorist attacks on the US.

A reinvigorated liberal order is the last thing that Iran wants, given its own troubled relations with the collective West. The continuing negotiations on a revived nuclear deal will be heavily impacted by how Russia’s war proceeds, and how the US and EU continue to respond to the aggression. Iran fears that a defeated Russia might be so angered as to use its critical position to endanger the talks, vital to the lifting of the West’s crippling sanctions.

And despite rhetorical support for Russia, Iran has been careful not to overestimate Russia’s power. It is now far from clear that the Kremlin has achieved its long-term goal of “safeguarding” its western frontier. Indeed, the Putin regime may have done the opposite now that it has driven Finland and Sweden into the NATO fold. Western sanctions on Russia are likely to remain for a long time, threatening long-term Russian economic (and possible regime) stability.

Moreover, Russia’s fostering of separatist entities (following the recognition of the so called Luhansk and Donetsk “people’s republics” and other breakaway entities in Georgia and Moldova) is a highly polarizing subject in Iran. True there has been a shift toward embracing Russia’s position over Ukraine, but Iran remains deeply committed to the “Westphalian principles” of non-intervention in the affairs of other states and territorial integrity. This is hardly surprising given its own struggles against potential separatism in the peripheries of the country.

Many Iranians also sympathize with Ukraine’s plight, which for some evokes Iran’s defeats in the early 19th century wars when Qajars had to cede the eastern part of the South Caucasus to Russia. This forms part of a historically deeply rooted, anti-imperialist sentiment in Iran.

Iran is therefore likely to largely abstain from endorsing Russia’s separatist ambitions in Eastern Ukraine. It will also eschew, where possible, support for Russia in international forums. Emblematic of this policy was the March 2 meeting in the United Nations General Assembly when Iran, rather than siding with Russia, abstained from the vote which condemned the invasion.

Russia’s poor military performance, and the West’s ability to act unanimously, serve as a warning for the Islamic Republic that it may one day have to soak up even more Western pressure if Europe, the US, and other democracies act in union.

In the meantime, like China, Iran will hope to benefit from the magnetic pull of the Ukraine war. With so much governmental, military and diplomatic attention demanded by the conflict, it will for the time being serve as a distraction from Iran’s ambitions elsewhere. 

Author’s note: first published in cepa

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Ignoring the Middle East at one’s peril: Turkey plays games in NATO

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Image source: NATO

Amid speculation about a reduced US military commitment to security in the Middle East, Turkey has spotlighted the region’s ability to act as a disruptive force if its interests are neglected.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan set off alarm bells this week, declaring that he was not “positive” about possible Finnish and Swedish applications for membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

NATO membership is contingent on a unanimous vote in favour by the organisation’s 30 members. Turkey has NATO’s second-largest standing army. 

The vast majority of NATO members appear to endorse Finnish and Swedish membership. NATO members hope to approve the applications at a summit next month.

A potential Turkish veto would complicate efforts to maintain trans-Atlantic unity in the face of the Russian invasion.

Mr. Erdogan’s pressure tactics mirror the maneuvers of his fellow strongman, Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban. Mr. Orban threatens European Union unity by resisting a bloc-wide boycott of Russian energy.

Earlier, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia rejected US requests to raise oil production in an effort to lower prices and help Europe reduce its dependence on Russian energy.

The two Gulf states appear to have since sought to quietly backtrack on their refusal.

In late April, France’s TotalEnergies chartered a tanker to load Abu Dhabi crude in early May for Europe, the first such shipment in two years.

Saudi Arabia has quietly used its regional pricing mechanisms to redirect from Asia to Europe Arab “medium,” the Saudi crude that is the closest substitute for the main Russian export blend, Urals, for which European refineries are configured.

Mr. Erdogan linked his NATO objection to alleged Finnish and Swedish support for the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), which has been designated a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the United States, and the EU.

The PKK has waged a decades-long insurgency in southeast Turkey in support of Kurds’ national, ethnic, and cultural rights. Kurds account for up to 20 per cent of the country’s 84 million population.

Turkey has recently pounded PKK positions in northern Iraq in a military operation named Operation Claw Lock

Turkey is at odds with the United States over American support for Syrian Kurds in the fight against the Islamic State. Turkey asserts that America’s Syrian Kurdish allies are aligned with the PKK.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu warned that Turkey opposes a US decision this week to exempt from sanctions against Syria regions controlled by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

“This is a selective and discriminatory move,” Mr. Cavusoglu said, noting that the exemption did not include Kurdish areas of Syria controlled by Turkey and its Syrian proxies.

Referring to the NATO membership applications, Mr. Erdogan charged that “Scandinavian countries are like some kind of guest house for terrorist organisations. They’re even in parliament.”

Mr. Erdogan’s objections relate primarily to Sweden, with Finland risking becoming collateral damage.

Sweden is home to a significant Kurdish community and hosts Europe’s top Kurdish soccer team that empathises with the PKK and Turkish Kurdish aspirations. In addition, six Swedish members of parliament are ethnic Kurds.

Turkey scholar Howard Eissenstat suggested that Turkey’s NATO objection may be a turning point. “Much of Turkey’s strategic flexibility has come from the fact that its priorities are seen as peripheral issues for its most important Western allies. Finnish and Swedish entry into NATO, in the current context, absolutely not peripheral,” Mr. Eissenstat tweeted.

The Turkish objection demonstrates the Middle East’s potential to derail US and European policy in other parts of the world.

Middle Eastern states walk a fine line when using their potential to disrupt to achieve political goals of their own. The cautious backtracking on Ukraine-related oil supplies demonstrates the limits and/or risks of Middle Eastern brinkmanship.

So does the fact that Ukraine has moved NATO’s center of gravity to northern Europe and away from its southern flank, which Turkey anchors.

Moreover, Turkey risks endangering significant improvements in its long-strained relations with the United States.

Turkish mediation in the Ukraine crisis and military support for Ukraine prompted US President Joe Biden to move ahead with plans to upgrade Turkey’s fleet of F-16 fighter planes and discuss selling it newer, advanced  F-16 models even though Turkey has neither condemned Russia nor imposed sanctions.

Some analysts suggest Turkey may use its objection to regain access to the United States’ F-35 fighter jet program. The US cancelled in 2019 a sale of the jet to Turkey after the NATO member acquired Russia’s S-400 anti-missile defence system.

Mr. Erdogan has “done this kind of tactic before. He will use it as leverage to get a good deal for Turkey,” said retired US Navy Admiral James Foggo, dean of the Center for Maritime Strategy.

A top aide to Mr. Erdogan, Ibrahim Kalin, appeared to confirm Mr. Foggo’s analysis.

“We are not closing the door. But we are basically raising this issue as a matter of national security for Turkey,” Mr. Kalin said, referring to the Turkish leader’s NATO remarks. “Of course, we want to have a discussion, a negotiation with Swedish counterparts.”

Spelling out Turkish demands, Mr. Kalin went on to say that “what needs to be done is clear: they have to stop allowing PKK outlets, activities, organisations, individuals and other types of presence to…exist in those countries.”

Mr. Erdogan’s brinkmanship may have its limits, but it illustrates that one ignores the Middle East at one’s peril.

However, engaging Middle Eastern autocrats does not necessarily mean ignoring their rampant violations of human rights and repression of freedoms.

For the United States and Europe, the trick will be developing a policy that balances accommodating autocrats’, at times, disruptive demands, often aimed at ensuring regime survival, with the need to remain loyal to democratic values amid a struggle over whose values will underwrite a 21st-century world order.

However, that would require a degree of creative policymaking and diplomacy that seems to be a rare commodity.

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Middle East

Health Silk Route: China and the Middle East

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While China’s economic interests in the Middle East are well-known, China’s intrinsic involvement in the Middle East for increased political and cultural influence is a nascent development. For example, in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, China has attempted to increase its footprint in the Middle East through its new ‘Health Silk Route’ (HSR) project which should be viewed as an extension of the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) in the Middle East. Through the new HSR project, China is trying to gain diplomatic bandwidth in the Middle East by spreading its soft power influence in the region.

China  has traditionally maintained a cautious approach in foreign policy towards the Middle East to ensure that its energy needs are consistently fulfilled by Middle Eastern states like Iran and Saudi Arabia. Simultaneously, it has opted for a strong economic relationship with most Middle Eastern states (Dorsey, 2017) as China views the Middle East as a lucrative market for its goods. (Shambaugh, 2014: 87) However, this non-interventionist approach of China towards the Middle East is now on its way out as a ‘rising China’ is approaching the Middle East with new found vigour with the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) making a mark across the region.

China views the Middle East as a region that can aid its ‘peaceful rise’ as China attempts to ‘strive for achievement’ (fenfayouwei) and achieve great power status in keeping with the principles of Tienxia (All Under Heavens) (French, 2017) after ‘keeping a low profile’ (taoguangyanghui) for years. (Xuetong, 2014) This new found Chinese interest in the Middle East is in keeping with the tenets of Chinese conception of ‘Moral Realism’, President Xi Jinping’s ‘China Dream’ project and his clarion call for national rejuvenation and declining American presence in the region. (Xuetong, 2014)

While the region was initially viewed as ‘politically inaccessible’ by Chinese diplomats (Fuhr, 2021) due to the region being ‘America’s strategic headlight’, the region has become important for China today. In fact, China has come out with its ‘Arab Policy Paper’ that documented China’s approach towards the Arab states where China endorsed a “win-win partnership” with all 22 Arab (Middle Eastern) states. This was the first such policy paper published by China in several years.  (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, PRC, 2021)

The Middle East is also an important region for growing Chinese investments. For example, in 2018, China invested $20 billion in infrastructure development alone and another $3 billion in loans for the banking sector in the region. These developments have brought China and the Middle East closer. (Elanggar, 2020)

COVID-19 & Mutual Reciprocity

The COVID-19 pandemic has further opened up the region for China. While China has opted for a more aggressive diplomatic line through the use of ‘wolf-warrior diplomacy’ in regions like Europe and the Americas, to defend itself amidst the raging COVID pandemic, the ‘Chinese Middle Eastern discourse during the pandemic has seen an outpouring of mutual support paired with deliveries of medical aid’ (Wilson Centre, 2020) In the early days of the pandemic, when the pandemic took its roots in Wuhan in the heart of China, Middle Eastern states like Kuwait sent medical equipment worth $3 billion to China. (Kuwait Today, 2020) Similarly, Saudi Arabia through the King Salman Humanitarian RelIef Fund (KSRelief) provided medical devices and protective suits and surgical masks to China. (Xinhua, 2020) For the Middle East, the pandemic transformed China from just a business partner to a scientific benefactor and collaborator. (Bodetti, 2021)

China reciprocated these gestures and offered medical assistance to Middle Eastern states firstly by offering medical supplies and extending lines of credit in the first phase and through the provisions of vaccines. It also suggested that these initiatives were taken to ‘advance global public health’ under the rubric of the HSR.  Firstly, China assisted Iran and Turkey by providing essential medical supplies like medical masks, test devices and Personal Protective Equipments (PPEs) (Xinhua, 2020: Singh & Gupta, 2020) China sent sterile and antiseptic masks and other medical equipments to states in the Maghreb like Algeria and Mauritania as well. (Chachiza, 2021) It also sent 50 boxes of medical supplies with surgical supplies nad masks to Oman. (Hoffman & Yelinek, 2020) However, the primary focus of China’s pandemic diplomacy was related to China’s provision of vaccines to the region. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) was the first country to approve the Sinopharm vaccine and stated that its efficacy stood at 86%. Once the prerequisite approvals were in place, Bahrain, Egypt and Morocco also agreed to use the China-manufactured vaccines. (El Kadi & Zinser, 2021)

Impact of Chinese Health Diplomacy on HSR

These healthcare initiatives have allowed the widening and deepening of ties between China and the Middle Eastern states. For China, the HSR is an opportunity to resurrect its image in the Post COVID-19 era, where China has been blamed for the onset of the pandemic. Through the HSR initiative, China wants to portray itself as ‘benevolent healthcare provider’ to increase its soft power. It wants to take the lead in ‘perfecting global public health governance’ across the world. (Lancaster, Ruben & Rap-Hooper, 2020)

As far as the Middle East is concerned, China wants to use the HSR to increase its soft power in the region. China has traditionally been viewed favourably by Middle Eastern states like Israel, Lebanon, Turkey and Tunisia (Silver, Devlin & Huang, 2019) and China wants to leverage these favourable ratings for its own benefit. While Chinese scholars have negated this line of argument and stated vociferously that the HSR is for “global public good” because the United States has abdicated global health leadership (Jiahan, 2021) It is certain that a diminishing U.S. presence in the Middle East will allow the rise of China in the region and initiatives like the HSR will aide this development.

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