The previous two Syrian “ceasefires” of February and September last were substantial failures. Mediated by too diverging interests, they were bogged down in a zero-sum game among the irregularities committed by all the groups involved.
At strategic and geopolitical levels, many sources still speak of a “tripartite” option for Syria’s future, which could be based precisely on the three agreements of December 30, 2016.
One of them is between the Syrian government and the jihadist “rebels”; then there is a list of mechanisms to monitor the agreement and finally the Astana agreement ends with a letter of intent between the parties so as to begin – after the “ceasefire” – the negotiations which will lead to the end of the conflict.
The agreement signed in the Kazakh capital comes after Assad’ Syrian Arab Army maintaining and sometimes expanding its recent positions, while the jihadists have lost control of half of Aleppo, by also losing the suburbs of Damascus and some large areas in the Idlib province.
The first and most evident political goals are that the Russian Federation wants to capitalize on its new role as Middle East power broker, graciously presented to it by the foolishness of the United States and its European allies, and that Assad also aims at keeping and strengthening his recent positions to soon achieve peace and, above all, the unity of his country.
The maps of the Syrian Chiefs of Staff show that, after this truce, the Syrian attacks will go deep into the centre of the areas still in the hands of the various rebel groups and Daesh, starting from the Mediterranean coast and the border areas between Syria and the Lebanon.
Turkey, which has signed the “ceasefire” along with Russia and Iran, wants to limit the great damage caused to it by the conflict, with the masses of refugees – as many as 2 million people – who are already in Turkey with the other Syrian populations.
Those who would come after Assad’s regime conquering Idlib – as is likely.
Obviously, Turkey hopes that its new role in Syria will be noticed by Bashar al-Assad’s regime and that hence the Kurdish issue will not materialize in a State built by the YPG between Syria and Iraq, which can lap the Turkish Kurdish areas to its border.
On the other hand, an autonomous and independent Kurdistan in Northern Syria could become a sort of geopolitical buffer that would enable Russia, Iran and other powers to have a right of way in the great Middle East region, which would certainly change all the games we have so far experienced in that area and in the Mediterranean.
An essay of the ”Russian National Institute for Research on Global Security” works on the assumption that there is a US primary interest in a great “Sunnistan” at the core of future Syria and Western Iraq.
With a corresponding “Shiite State” in Southern Syria.
It is still the old attempt to extend the pipeline going from Qatar up to Turkey’s Mediterranean border, without touching the Iranian-Shiite areas.
It is the old ethnic federalism, detrimentally experienced for the Balkans, which still inspires the US “line” in the region.
A model derived from the analyses – far more refined than we may think – developed at the time by Samuel Huntington.
Russian, Syria and Turkey do not want this – albeit up to a certain extent.
Russia does not want to military ruin itself for a united Syria; Turkey does not want insecure borders in Northern Syria, while Iran only wants to cover its area of influence to the border with Syria.
If the Syrian war became too long or too expensive, or strategically useless, the Three Powers of Astana’s last “ceasefire” may also accept “federalism” in the region of Bashar al-Assad’s current regime.
Federalism, however, designed by them – certainly not from the United States, which would not even have a proxy State to do the dirty work.
At that juncture, the United States could resort to the strategy of “bloody borders” – as the US analyst Ralph Peters called them – to reshape the local strategic potentials according to its interest.
And hence manage its competitors’ resources with a “long war”.
The confidential documents quoted by our sources speculate that – according to US plans – Bashar may be replaced by a “less polarizing” Alawite presidential candidate and that Iran – given the new and scarcely friendly Trump’s Presidency in the offing – may want to immediately solve the Syrian issue, by gaining control of its border areas and its ethno-religious enclaves.
It is worth recalling, however, that currently at least 70% of the Syrian people want Bashar al-Assad’s regime and only 30%, including Kurds, show they like other options.
Let us revert to the “ceasefire” of December 30, 2016, to be mostly considered a sort of Putin’s personal initiative.
If it holds for the month of formal validity, Turkey and Russia will sponsor the peace talks between Bashar al-Assad’s government and the seven major Syrian jihad organizations, except for Daesh and the Al-Nusra Front – that is Al Qaeda – which have already signed the “ceasefire” in Astana, the Kazakh capital.
The signatory organizations are relevant, even militarily.
They include Feilak al Sham, a jihadist organization sponsored by Turkey, with 19 detachments and 4,000 operational militants.
The second jihadist group is Ahrar al-Sham, or Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiya, with 80 hit squads and a potential of 16,000 jihadists active in all the strategic sites of the Syrian war: Damascus, Homs, Latakia, Hama, Daraa and Idlib.
The signatories to the “ceasefire” in Astana also include Jaish al-Islam, with as many as 64 hit squads and a total of 12,000 armed jihadists.
There is also the jihadist group of Tuwar al-Sham, with eight battalions totaling about 3,000 militants operating in Aleppo, Idlib and Latakia.
Another group that has signed the ceasefire is Jaish al-Mujahideen, with 13 operating centers and 9,000 active militants.
Then there is also Jaish Idlib, obviously operating mainly in the Idlib region, with three great battalions totaling 6,000 fighters.
Finally, in Astana there were also the plenipotentiaries of Jabhat al-Shamiya, a group with 5 battalions in Aleppo, Idlib and Damascus and an estimated force of 3,200 operational militants.
Hence if Bashar al-Assad’s government, which is really supported by its citizens, should think of some sort of territorial autonomies, Russia and even Turkey would recommend quiet local autonomism as opposed to US-style “federalism”.
A system in which also the small and large groups which have signed the ceasefire in Astana may reinvent themselves as local militias, while their old funders leave with their tail between their legs.
For the record, during negotiations Turkey asked to remove the Iranian and Hezbollah forces from the Syrian territory, that obviously denied to the Russian Foreign Minister, Lavrov, that free favour to Turkey and, indirectly, to Saudi Arabia.
Moreover, Ahrar al-Sham, belongs to Al Qaeda – hence to the al-Nusra Front – and initially Turkey did not agree to include the group among the signatories to the Astana ceasefire.
Nevertheless it was precisely Saudi Arabia to directly oblige Ahrar al-Sham to adhere to the Astana Agreement.
The agreement envisages, inter alia, the stop of the Syrian Air Force’s raids against the Syrian “rebels” – air war actions which, where necessary, may be carried out only by Russia.
The signatory groups are required to leave their positions – indicated in the text of the Agreement – which allows to more easily identify and neutralize the Daesh and Al-Nusra Front emplacements.
The text of the Agreement includes a statement providing support by the powers present in Syria to a strong territorial unity of the Syrian government – so that Turkey will not have the Kurdish State, in which not even Russia is interested, and this will remain one of the many US broken promises in the region.
None of the signatories can try to gain more territory while the “ceasefire” is in force.
Finally none of the signatories has insisted on overthrowing Bashar al-Assad.
Furthermore, all signatories shall permit the delivery of humanitarian aid throughout the part of Syria not controlled by the groups excluded from the “ceasefire”.
It is explicitly written in the text of the “ceasefire” agreement that all forces shall withdraw from Aleppo’s Castle Street.
Hence the Turkish attack on Kurds has only been postponed, with or without the naive support of the United States, which will certainly leave that glorious Indo-European tribe to its fate.
The jihadist groups, hit in their Saudi and Qatari “leadership”, will not be as dangerous as they are today.
Not even Saudi Arabia wants to die for Syria.
If Saudi Arabia and Qatar have some territorial or financial reason to cease support for the Syrian jihadists, they will slacken off and loosen their grip.
Russia has won across the board. It has wiped the United States out of the Middle East and it has put together two historical opponents, namely Turkey and Iran, into a credible geopolitical project.
Iran is another winner of the Astana Agreement.
Once ensured the security of its borders, it can fully play the new game of the gas pipelines it will operate after the end of the conflict.
The Iraqi army is already at the gates of Raqqa – the eradication of Daesh is only a matter of time.
In short, if the “ceasefire” holds, the whole Syrian and Middle East strategic scenario will change completely.
Also the Kurds are taking Raqqa, with the usual and effective harshness.
Assad’s Army has conquered the outskirts of Wadi Barada, previously held by the jihadists of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham.
The remaining pockets in Homs and Aleppo will be reduced and later Assad’s Army will conquer the primary areas of the territory, currently held by Daesh.
If, as is likely, the truce works and the jihad that signed the Astana Agreement is reduced significantly, for Syria the fight will only be against Daesh, with the help of its strategic supporters.
In this case there will be no escape, no way out.
Who are the real betrayers of Egypt, Critics or Sycophants?
“You are betraying your country by exposing its defects!” is a common accusation made by the sycophants to the ruling regime in Egypt who have managed to well situated themselves in our society simply by blindly praising the ruler’s policies. Apparently, these sycophants place a higher value on the privileges that they have gained to living in a truly advanced nation. In fact, the real betrayers of any given authoritarian nation are those who justify this immoral ruling mechanism for their own personal gain.
Despotism is the evilest ruling mechanism ever devised; apart from its cruelty and unfairness, it works on inflating the ruler’s ego by mirroring his thoughts that are always passionately endorsed by his flatterers, regardless of their merits! Meanwhile, the ruler’s manipulation of the entire political sphere impairs the state’s ability to detect and correct its blunders. Concurrently, the harsh and inhuman treatment of the state’s critics, which includes threats to their personal lives, results in spreading fear throughout the entire society.
A successful strategy for running a country ruled by a tyrannical government is to enable ignorant citizens to dominate the state media exclusively, thus empowering them to express their opinions on a much wider scale than knowledgeable citizens. This approach consequently creates significant friction between knowledgeable and ignorant citizens, resulting in the polarization of the entire nation. The state methodically fuels this process by labeling the mediocre as loyal citizens and accusing its critics of treason.
The privileging of sycophants financially, along with advancing their power and upscaling their status, have prompted many Egyptians to join this beneficial club, which prerequisites praising superiors and justifying their faults, thus compensating for the natural dullness and incompetence of the flatterers. Meanwhile, the state’s critics who demand freedom and stand by their values are aware that they are engaged in a long-lasting battle and are risking their lives for generations to come!
In fact, sycophants are the weakest link in the state’s ruling dynamics. They hypocritically heap intense praise on the security apparatus who sacrifice their lives to defend our nation – but do their utmost to ensure that their youngsters abandon their military duty; just one facet of their deceitful conduct. Sycophantic behavior and false testimony are the most sinful acts in Islam; yet they have become, ironically, a habitual pattern of behavior in our social norms.
That Egypt needs to be ruled by an Iron-fist is a common argument put forth by the flatterers. It is translated into applying harsh measures to critics and laxity toward lawbreakers – a proposition that reflects the low moral values espoused by flatterers to secure their status. The policy of maximum repression adopted by the current ruling regime might be successful in controlling society; however, it has certainly contributed to an escalation of terrorism activities by political Islamists against the military apparatus.
In my former party, the Egyptian Democratic Front, a few executive party members used to instantly report our internal discussions to the State Security apparatus. In addition totheir immoral conduct and betrayal of their peers, they used to enhance their ratting out by exacerbating our opposing political stands. I argued, at that time, for either offering those ratters a crash course on “minutes-taking” or inviting the State Security apparatus to participate in our meetings to better learn about our viewpoints.
“Cairo is a dirty city” – a painful remark that I occasionally hear from international visitors to our capital. The Egyptian State will never be able to manipulate the perception of millions of diversified tourists who visit Cairo yearly, but we can easily work to bring order to our city and live in a hygienic place. The same applies to other qualities of life such as freedom, dignity and justice; we need to highlight deficiencies in these areas to be able to advance our nation.
President Al Sisi has a clear desire to be a remarkable leader; he believes that expanding our roads and building new flyovers will make Egypt an advanced nation and that these developments will be credited to his legacy. The president is unaware that the future of our country will be written and judged by the youths of today, who are extremely angry with him due to his policy of demolishing humanity and freedom, compounded by his inability to create decent jobs for youngsters.
Egypt is currently confronting a number of complex internal and external challenges, including an economic slowdown, a civil war on our eastern borders, a potential water shortage due to the filling of Ethiopian GRED and rising unemployment. All of these challenges, and many more, will simply be intensified by our deep polarization, further weakening the state. The sycophants’ deliberate misleading of Egypt concerning these challenges is dragging our nation downward, transforming us into a fragile state.
Advancing an old-fashioned country like Egypt requires honest citizens who have bold ideas and enough courage to implement their ideas. These qualities are found more among knowledgeable citizens and critics of the state who are already sacrificing for their country; large numbers of them are spending their best years in prison simply for having voiced their opinions. Modernizing Egypt will require our president to unite our nation, appointing well-educated citizens to key positions and completely discarding state sycophants.
Israel-China Relations: Staring Into the Abyss of US-Chinese Decoupling
Israel knew the drill even before US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo boarded his flight to Tel Aviv earlier this month four days after the death of his father. It was Mr. Pompeo’s first and only overseas trip since March.
Echoing a US warning two decades ago that Israeli dealings with China jeopardized the country’s relationship with the United States, Mr. Pompeo’s trip solidified Israel’s position at the cusp of the widening US-Chinese divide.
Two decades ago the issue was the potential sale to China of Israeli Phalcon airborne warning and control systems (AWACS). Israel backed out of the deal after the US threatened withdrawal of American support for the Jewish state.
This month the immediate issue was a Chinese bid for construction of the world’s largest desalination plant and on the horizon a larger US-Chinese battle for a dominating presence in Eastern Mediterranean ports.
Within days of his visit, Mr. Pompeo scored a China-related success even if the main focus of his talks with Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu was believed to be Iran and Israeli plans to annex portions of the West Bank, occupied by Israel since 1967.
Israel signalled that it had heard the secretary’s message by awarding the contract for the Sorek-2 desalination plant to an Israeli rather than a Chinese company.
The tender, however, is only the tip of the iceberg.
China’s interest in Israel is strategic given the fact that the Jewish state is one of the world’s foremost commercial, food and security technology powerhouses and one of the few foreign countries to command significant grassroots support in the United States.
If there is one thing Israel cannot afford, it is a rupture in its bonds to the United States. That is no truer than at a time in which the United States is the only power supportive of Israeli annexation plans on the West Bank.
The question is whether Israel can develop a formula that convinces the United States that US interests will delineate Israeli dealings with China and reassure China that it can still benefit from Israeli assets within those boundaries.
“Right now, without taking the right steps, we are looking at being put in the situation in which the US is telling us we need to cut or limit our relations with China. The problem is that Israel wants freedom of relations with China but is not showing it really understands US concerns. Sorek-2 was a good result. It shows the Americans we get it.” said Carice Witte, executive director of Sino-Israel Global Network and Academic Leadership (SIGNAL) that seeks to advance Israeli-Chinese relations.
Analysts, including Ms. Witte, believe that there is a silver lining in Israel’s refusal to award the desalination plant to a Chinese company that would allow it to steer a middle course between the United States and China.
“China understands that by giving the Americans this win, China-Israel relations can continue. It gives them breathing room,” Ms. Witte said in an interview.
It will, however, be up to Israel to develop criteria and policies that accommodate the United States and make clear to China what Israel can and cannot do.
“In order for Israel to have what it wants… it’s going to need to show the Americans that it takes Washington’s strategic perceptions into consideration and not only that, that it’s two steps ahead on strategic thinking with respect to China. The question is how.” Ms. Witte said.
Ports and technology are likely to be focal points.
China is set to next year takeover the management of Haifa port where it has already built its own pier and is constructing a new port in Ashdod.
One way of attempting to address US concerns would be to include technology companies in the purview of a still relatively toothless board created under US pressure in the wake of the Haifa deal to review foreign investment in Israel. It would build in a safeguard against giving China access to dual civilian-military use technology.
That, however, may not be enough to shield Israel against increased US pressure to reduce Chinese involvement in Israeli ports.
“The parallels between the desalination plant and the port are just too close to ignore. We can’t have another infrastructure divide,” Ms. Witte said.
The two Israeli ports will add to what is becoming a Chinese string of pearls in the Eastern Mediterranean.
China already manages the Greek port of Piraeus.
China Harbour Engineering Company Ltd (CHEC) is looking at upgrading Lebanon’s deep seaport of Tripoli to allow it to accommodate larger vessels.
Qingdao Haixi Heavy-Duty Machinery Co. has sold Tripoli port two 28-storey container cranes capable of lifting and transporting more than 700 containers a day, while a container vessel belonging to Chinese state-owned shipping company COSCO docked in Tripoli in December 2018, inaugurating a new maritime route between China and the Mediterranean.
Major Chinese construction companies are also looking at building a railroad that would connect Beirut and Tripoli in Lebanon to Homs and Aleppo in Syria. China has further suggested that Tripoli could become a special economic zone within the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and serve as an important trans-shipment point between the People’s Republic and Europe.
BRI is a massive infrastructure, telecommunications and energy-driven effort to connect the Eurasian landmass to China.
Potential Chinese involvement in reconstruction of post-war Syria would likely give it access to the ports of Latakia and Tartous.
Taken together, China is looking at dominating the Eastern Mediterranean with six ports in four countries, Israel, Greece, Lebanon, and Syria that would create an alternative to the Suez Canal.
All that is missing are Turkish, Cypriot and Egyptian ports.
The Chinese build- up threatens to complicate US and NATO’s ability to manoeuvre in the region.
The Trump administration has already warned Israel that Chinese involvement in Haifa could jeopardize continued use of the port by the US fifth fleet.
“The writing is on the wall. Israel needs to carve out a degree of wiggle room. That however will only come at a price. There is little doubt that Haifa will move into the firing line,” said a long-time observer of Israeli-Chinese relations.
Will Gulf States Learn From Their Success in Handling the Pandemic?
The economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic for Gulf states has done far more than play havoc with their revenue base and fiscal household. It has propelled massive structural change to the top of their agenda in ways that economic diversification plans had not accounted for.
Leave aside whether Gulf states can continue to focus on high-profile, attention-grabbing projects like Neom, Saudi Arabia’s $500 billion USD 21st century futuristic city on the Red Sea.
Gulf rulers’ to do list, if they want to get things right, is long and expensive without the burden of trophy projects. It involves economic as well as social and ultimately political change.
Transparency and accurate and detailed public reporting go to the core of these changes.
They also are key to decisions by investors, economists, and credit rating companies at a time when Gulf states’ economic outlook is in question. Many complain that delays in GDP reporting and lack of easy access to statistics complicates their decision-making.
Nonetheless, if there is one thing autocratic Gulf governments have going for themselves, beyond substantial financial reserves, it is public confidence in the way they handled the pandemic, despite the fact that they failed to initially recognize crowded living circumstances of migrant workers as a super spreader.
Most governments acted early and decisively with lockdowns and curfews, testing, border closures, repatriation of nationals abroad, and, in Saudi Arabia, suspension of pilgrimages.
To be sure, Gulf countries, and particularly Saudi Arabia that receives millions of Muslim pilgrims from across the globe each year, have a long-standing history of dealing with epidemics. Like Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan, they were better prepared than Western nations.
History persuaded the kingdom to ban the umrah, the lesser Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, in late February, days before the first case of a Covid-19 infection emerged on Saudi soil.
Beyond public health concerns, Saudi Arabia had an additional reason to get the pandemic right. It offered the kingdom not only an opportunity to globally polish its image, badly tarnished by human rights abuses, power grabs, and the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, but also to retain religious influence despite the interruption in the flow of pilgrims to the kingdom.
“Saudi Arabia is still a reference for many Muslim communities around the world,” said Yasmine Farouk, a scholar of Saudi Arabia at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
It also allowed Saudi Arabia to set the record straight following criticism of its handling of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in 2012 when the kingdom became the epidemic’s epicenter and in 2009 when it was hit by the H1N1 virus.
Saudi Arabia is also blamed for contributing to a public health catastrophe in Yemen with its frequent indiscriminate bombings.
A country in ruins as a result of the military intervention, Yemen has grappled for the past four years with a cholera epidemic on the kingdom’s borders.
Trust in Gulf states’ handling of the current pandemic was bolstered by degrees of transparency on the development of the disease in daily updates in the number of casualties and fatalities.
It was further boosted by a speech by King Salman as soon as the pandemic hit the kingdom in which he announced a raft of measures to counter the disease and support the economy as well as assurances by agriculture minister Abdulrahman al-Fadli that the crisis would not affect food supplies.
Ms. Farouk suggested that government instructions during the pandemic were followed because of “trust in the government, the expertise and the experience of the government [and] trust in the religious establishment, which actually was following the technical decisions of the government.”
To be sure, Ms. Farouk acknowledged, the regime’s coercive nature gave the public little choice.
The limits of government transparency were evident in the fact that authorities were less forthcoming with details of public spending on the pandemic and insight into available medical equipment like ventilators and other supplies such as testing kits.
Some Gulf states have started publishing the daily and total number of swabs but have yet to clarify whether these figures include multiple swabbings of the same person.
“It is likely that publics in the Middle East will look back at who was it that gave them reliable information, who was it who was there for them,” said political scientist Nathan Brown.
The question is whether governments will conclude that transparency will be needed to maintain public confidence as they are forced to rewrite social contracts that were rooted in concepts of a cradle-to-grave welfare state but will have to involve greater burden sharing.
Gulf governments have so far said little about burden sharing being allocated equitably across social classes nor has there been transparency on what drives investment decisions by sovereign wealth funds in a time of crisis and changing economic outlook.
Speaking to the Financial Times, a Gulf banker warned that the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman “needs to be careful what he spends on . . . Joe Public will be watching.”
Headed by Prince Mohammed, the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund has gone on a $7.7 billion USD shopping spree buying stakes in major Western blue chips, including four oil majors: Boeing, Citigroup, Disney, and Facebook. The Public Investment Fund is also funding a bid for English soccer club Newcastle United.
The banker suggested that Saudi nationals would not appreciate “millionaire footballer salaries being paid for by VAT (value added tax) on groceries.” He was referring to this month’s hiking of sales taxes in the kingdom from five to 15 percent.
The fragility and fickleness of public trust was on display for the world to see in Britain’s uproar about Dominic Cummings, a close aide to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who violated lockdown instructions for personal reasons. Mr. Johnson is struggling to fight off demands for Mr Cummings’ dismissal.
To be sure, senior government officials and business executives in the Gulf have cautioned of hard times to come.
A recent Dubai Chamber of Commerce and Industry survey of CEOs predicted that 70 percent of the United Arab Emirates’ companies would go out of business in the next six months, including half of its restaurants and hotels and three-quarters of its travel and tourism companies.
Saudi Finance Minister Mohammed Al-Jadaan warned earlier this month that the kingdom would need to take “painful” measures and look for deep spending cuts as a result of the collapse of oil prices and significantly reduced demand for oil.
Aware of sensitivities, Mr. Al-Jadaan stressed that “as long as we do not touch the basic needs of the people, all options are open.”
There was little transparency in Mr. Al-Jadaan’s statements on what the impact would be on employment-seeking Saudi nationals in a labor market where fewer migrant workers would be available for jobs that Saudis have long been unwilling to accept.
It was a missed opportunity considering the 286 percent increase in the number of Saudis flocking to work for delivery services.
The increase was fueled by an offer by Hadaf, the Saudi Human Resources Development Fund, to pay drivers $800 USD a month, as well as a newly-found embrace of volunteerism across the Gulf.
The surge offered authorities building blocks to frame expectations at a time when the kingdom’s official unemployment rate of 12 percent is likely to rise.
It suggested a public acknowledgement of the fact that well-paying, cushy government positions may no longer be as available as they were in the past as well as the fact that lesser jobs are no less honorable forms of employment.
That may be the silver lining as Gulf states feel the pressure to reinvent themselves in a world emerging from a pandemic that potentially will redraw social, economic, and political maps.
Author’s note: This story was first published in Inside Arabia
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