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Israel and the war in Syria

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There is fundamental point which needs to be studied carefully: the war in Syria – after the entry of the Russian Federation into the region – implies a connection between Russia and Iran that is supremely dangerous for Israel. In fact, many of the Russian air raids on the Syrian soil come from the Iranian base of Hamadan, 175 miles south of Tehran – the historical tomb, inter alia, of Esther and Mordechai, the traditional pilgrimage of Iranian Jews.

If Russia really wants to avoid traditional Western powers managing again the equilibriums of the Great Middle East, it must favour the strengthening of a “Shiite crescent” stretching from Iran to the Alawite region in Syria up to the Southern Lebanon of the “Party of God”, namely Hezbollah.

However, if Russia leaves the whole work in the hands of Iranians and their allies, it must rely on a strong Israel enabling it to stay in the game throughout the Syrian territory.

Moreover, Putin wants to block every Western temptation to conduct other “Arab Springs” in the Middle East or riots in the streets that, as the Russian leader knows all too well, would sooner or later be used against his regime within the Russian Federation.

Putin has blocked any possibility of “indirect strategy” on the part of Westerners – and this is already one of his significant victories.

In fact, with Crimea’s annexation on March 18, 2014 and the counter-revolution in Ukraine, Putin has stabilized Russia’s power projection from the South, so as to cover its main networks for the distribution of oil and gas to the West and the Mediterranean.

Russia’s conquest of Syria – hence of the whole Greater Middle East – is the necessary “second circle” of this new security policy.

Russia focuses on countries, while Westerners, and especially Americans, focus on ethnic groups, religious groups and tribal areas.

And this is also a strength for Russia.

This is the reason why the continuous fragmentation of the clash fronts has not led to US hegemony, but to the now definitive US defeat in the Middle East.

Therefore Russia is certainly interested in the new expansion of Iran’s economy and geostrategic influence, but Iran still wants Bashar al-Assad as Syria’s leader.

The Russian Federation, however, still wants Assad to stay in power because this allows the maximum security and safety of its maritime bases in the Syrian Mediterranean.

Conversely Iran intends to keep Assad and the Shiite regime in power because they enable it to have the maximum strategic continuity with Lebanese Hezbollah.

Obviously Israel has no interest in entering the Syrian conflict.

The presence of the Jewish State would catalyze an alliance between Sunnis and Shiites against Jerusalem and would not play into the hands of Russia or Israel itself.

Moreover Israel has provided humanitarian and medical aid to the Syrian wounded people who reached the borders of the Golan Heights and has authorized the passage of humanitarian convoys across its borders.

However, the Israeli armed forces have hit individual targets within the Syrian territory during the conflict and the Jewish State’s military planning assumes that, even with the Russian support, there can never be strategic continuity between Bashar al-Assad’s forces and the Lebanese Shiites’ “Party of God”.

Russia has so far shown interest in the protection of Israeli borders for a number of important reasons.

Firstly, the Jewish State is home to over a million Russian citizens of Jewish religion.

In the Russian orthodox and nationalistic culture Slavophilia applies also to Russian Jews.

Furthermore the economic link between Russia and Israel is of primary interest, also and especially for Russians.

Currently the economic relations between Russia and Israel are worth approximately 4 billion US dollars – a much higher amount than trade between Russia and Egypt.

And this trade regards almost always high-tech goods.

Moreover, currently Putin could be the best broker for serious and final negotiations between Israel and Palestine.

Now Obama’s America does no longer want to deal directly with the Middle East and in the United States there is an increasingly tense climate towards Israel, its internal political lobby and its strategic interest in the region, which does not coincide with the US policy of uncontested support for the Gulf monarchies.

Americans have entrusted the Sunnis with the protection of their interest in the Middle East – a risky and dangerous move.

Also in this case, the US decision-making mechanisms have been ambiguous.

While, on the one hand, March 2016 saw the signing of a US-Israel military agreement worth 38 billion US dollars over ten years, with some Israeli political concessions to the Palestinians, on the other hand, never as during Obama’s era there has been steady conflict between Washington and Jerusalem.

Conversely Putin and Netanyahu have reached an agreement for the mutual exchange of strategic information during the war in Syria, which is working well and could be the first step for a stable political-military exchange between the two countries.

Do the Americans want so? And how could they counteract the growth of Russia as Israel’s broker in the Arab and Islamic world?

Moreover, if Israel wants to count in a future redesign of Syria, it is only with Russia that it shall negotiate, considering that Westerners still fiddle with “moderate” jihadists and, although not counting at all on the ground, they want the regionalization of a future pacified Syria.

Furthermore, without the Western allies present in the Syrian region, Israel cannot avoid dealing with the only credible non-Islamic power, namely Russia.

Moreover, if we see how the crisis points of the Israeli deployment of forces have changed, we realize that the war in Syria has made the Lebanon very dangerous and the Gaza Strip even more unstable, but it has completely changed the military and political structure of the Golan Heights.

For over 40 years, the Golan Heights – conquered by the Syrians during the 1967 War – have been the quietest Israeli border.

UNDOF, the UN peacekeeping force in the region, collaborates in stabilizing the border, along with Israeli and Syrian forces located in the rear.

However, the Druze and the Israelis living in the Golan Heights are over 40,000.

The front between Israel and Syria is very dynamic and it has already witnessed Daesh/Isis operations and attacks on the Golan Heights areas closer to Jordan.

Assad has no interest in awakening Israel’s lion; the jihadists do not want to pay the price of very harsh reactions by the Israeli forces and in no way Israel wants to be involved in the Shiite-Sunni conflict.

There are two real strategic dangers: a Shiite or Sunni action going deep only into the Golan Heights or a correlation of forces between the front of the Golan Heights, the Southern Lebanon and the Gaza Strip.

In fact, before the outbreak of war in Syria, the strategic debate among the Israeli decision-makers was simple: it would be good for Israel if Sunnis defeated Assad’s forces, which would break the link between the Syrian regime’s Alawites and Iran.

Or would the Sunnis build a strategic corridor from Turkey to the Golan Heights, with the support of Qatar and Saudi Arabia?

A prospect which would bring Daesh or the various jihadist “fronts” on Israel’s borders.

Better “the devil we already know” or a new form of the same dangerous presence?

Moreover, Assad, who is a shrewd man, has never directly attacked the Israeli forces on the Golan Heights, for fear of the predictable and powerful response actions. However he has smuggled Iranian arms to Hezbollah by using his Southern border with Israel.

For the time being the Jewish State’s rejection to follow one of two options, so as to manage a favourable equilibrium with the Russian winner, has proved to be the right choice.

Hence it must avoid exciting and rousing both the Turks and the Russians in the region, even though – pending the Syrian war – Israel has decided to support some Sunni groups on its Syrian border to prevent the stabilization of Hezbollah positions immediately behind its own defence lines.

Sunni groups that, however, are supported by Saudi Arabia and not by Turkey, always in front of the Golan Heights.

As from January 2015 to date, the Israeli attacks have always been tough and accurate and targeted to the Iranian officials and the leaders of the Lebanese “Party of God” operating on the Golan border.

The Lebanese Shiites’ activities, however, have become more difficult since Russia supplied Syria with its advanced radar and anti-aircraft missiles S-400.

In fact, at that juncture, the agreement between Israel and Russia was immediate, thus showing the relevance that the Jewish State has for Russia.

Iran could not supply Hezbollah with advanced weapons and, if it had done so, Israel would have been entitled to immediately respond militarily in Syria.

Always referring to the debate among the Israeli strategic decision-makers, there are many signs that Israel is allegedly changing its assessment of the clashes in Syria.

If the conflict continues – as everything currently make us predict – the Syrian forces will be a mere shadow of what they were, while the Lebanese “Party of God” must strongly support its ally, Assad, thus reducing its pressure on Israeli targets.

Therefore, for many Israeli analysts, a war definitely exhausting all the Jewish State’s Northern enemies is the optimal strategic equation.

On the other hand, there is the danger that, with a view to preventing the victory of Bashar al-Assad’s Alawites, supported by Russia, Israel may have a sort of US-style “conditioned reflex”, thus starting to support – against Assad – Iran and Hezb’ollah, the famous Sunni “rebels” so dear to the Western strategic foolishness.

The latter, after having received support, would turn immediately against those who have protected them.

Does the story of Daesh/Isis foundation teach us nothing?

A rational alternative for the Jewish State would be to support the Kurds or, in a wider perspective, the splitting up of the Syrian State, namely its “cantonization”.

Nevertheless we can also think of the great geopolitical opportunities that the Russian intervention opens up for Israel.

For Russia, rescuing Assad means marginalizing the United States in the whole Middle East and becoming a global strategic actor.

Furthermore, the secondary objective of this Russian operation is to maintain the key ally in the region, namely Assad, but above all to eliminate any possibility of radical Islamization of the Sunni areas and, hence, prevent Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia – three powers close to the United States – from having a marked presence in Syria.

Therefore Russia may want three different things – and we do not know yet what Russia will choose.

A very small and united Syria – an Alawistan to protect the Russian military zones on the Mediterranean – a less little Syria with Assad reigning over Aleppo, Homs, Hama and Damascus or, finally, a greater Syria without Assad.

For Israel, the alternatives could be those of silently supporting the Russian actions in Syria and simultaneously resume relations between the Jewish State and some Sunni countries, so as to make them oppose Iran’s hegemonic expansion between Iran and Southern Lebanon.

Or Israel could negotiate directly with Russia a deployment of forces in Syria which would substantially allow to defuse and avert the Iranian-Shiite danger in the Golan Heights.

But what will be the bargaining chip with Russia and the other regional players, considering that the United States are no longer present in that region?

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. “

Middle East

Will Oman Succeed In What The UN And US Envoys Failed In Yemen?

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Since taking office on January 20, US President Joe Biden has made a priority for Yemen and appointed Tim Linderking as the US special envoy to Yemen to seek an end of the war that has been going on for more than six years, which made Yemen live “the worst humanitarian crisis in the world”, as described by the United Nations.

Nearly four months after his appointment as a special envoy to Yemen, and after several visits to the region, and several meetings through Omani coordination with representatives of the Houthi movement in Muscat, Linderking returned to the United States empty-handed, announcing that the Houthis are responsible for the failure of the ceasefire to take hold in Yemen. The US State Department said “While there are numerous problematic actors inside of Yemen, the Houthis bear major responsibility for refusing to engage meaningfully on a ceasefire and to take steps to resolve a nearly seven-year conflict that has brought unimaginable suffering to the Yemeni people”.

Two days only after the US State Department statement, which blamed the Houthis for the failure of the peace process in Yemen, an Omani delegation from the Royal Office arrives in Sana’a. What are the goals behind their visit to Sana’a, and will the Omani efforts be crowned with success?

Houthi spokesman Muhammad Abdul Salam said that “the visit of a delegation from the Omani Royal Office to Sanaa is to discuss the situation in Yemen, arrange the humanitarian situation, and advancing the peace process”. However, observers considered that the delegation carried an American message to the Houthi leader as a last attempt to pressure the Houthis to accept a ceasefire, and to continue the peace efforts being made to end the war and achieve peace, especially after the failure of all intensive efforts in the past days by the United Nations and the United States of America to reach a ceasefire as a minimum requirement for peace.

Oman was the only country in the Gulf Cooperation Council that decided not to participate in what was called “Operation Decisive Storm”, led by Saudi Arabia following its consistent policy of non-interference. Due to its positive role since the beginning of the crisis and its standing at the same distance from all the conflicting local and regional parties in Yemen, it has become the only qualified and trusted party by all the conflicting parties, who view it as a neutral side that has no interest in further fighting and fragmentation.

On the local level, Oman enjoys the respect and trust of the Houthis, who have embraced them and their negotiators for years and provided them with a political platform and a point of contact with the international parties concerned with solving the Yemeni problem, as well as embracing other political parties loyal to the legitimate government, especially those who had a different position to the Saudi-Emirati agenda during the last period.

At the regional level, Oman maintains strong historical relations with the Iran, and it is a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council, and this feature enables it to bring the views between the two sides closer to reach a ceasefire and ending the Yemeni crisis that has raved the region for several years as a proxy war between the regional rivalries Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Oman now possesses the trust and respect of all local, regional and international parties, who resorted to it recently and they are all pushing to reach a ceasefire and ending the crisis, after they have reached a conviction that it is useless. So the Omani delegation’s public visit to Sana’a has great connotations and an important indication of the determination of all parties to reach breakthrough in the Yemeni crisis.

The international community, led by the United States, is now looking forward to stop the war in Yemen. Saudi Arabia also is looking for an end to the war that cost the kingdom a lot and it is already presented an initiative to end the Yemeni crisis, as well as Iran’s preoccupation with its nuclear program and lifting of sanctions.

Likewise, the conflicting local parties reached a firm conviction that military resolution is futile, especially after the Houthis’ failed attempt for several months to control Marib Governorate the rich of oil and gas and the last strongholds of the government in the north, which would have changed the balance of power in the region as a whole.

Despite the ambiguity that is still surrounding the results of the Omani delegation’s visit to Sana’a so far, there is great optimism to reach a cease-fire and alleviate the humanitarian crisis and other measures that pave the way for entering into the political track to solve the Yemeni crisis.

The situation in Yemen is very complicated and the final solution is still far away, but reaching a ceasefire and the start of negotiations may be a sign of hope and a point of light in the dark tunnel of Yemenis who have suffered for years from the curse of this war and its devastating effects.

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Middle East

Saudi Arabia steps up effort to replace UAE and Qatar as go-to regional hub

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Saudi Arabia has stepped up efforts to outflank the United Arab Emirates and Qatar as the Gulf’s commercial, cultural, and/or geostrategic hub.

The kingdom has recently expanded its challenge to the smaller Gulf states by seeking to position Saudi Arabia as the region’s foremost sport destination once Qatar has had its moment in the sun with the 2022 World Cup as well as secure a stake in the management of regional ports and terminals dominated so far by the UAE and to a lesser extent Qatar.

Saudi Arabia kicked off its effort to cement its position as the region’s behemoth with an announcement in February that it would cease doing business by 2024 with international companies whose regional headquarters were not based in the kingdom. 

With the UAE ranking 16 on the World Bank’s 2020 Ease of Doing Business Index as opposed to Saudi Arabia at number 62, freewheeling Dubai has long been international business’s preferred regional headquarters.

The Saudi move “clearly targets the UAE” and “challenges the status of Dubai,” said a UAE-based banker.

A latecomer to the port control game which is dominated by Dubai’s DP World that operates 82 marine and inland terminals in more than 40 countries, including Djibouti, Somaliland, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey and Cyprus, the kingdom’s expansion into port and terminal management appears to be less driven by geostrategic considerations.

Instead, Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea Gateway Terminal (RSGT), backed by the Public Investment Fund (PIF), the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund, said it was targeting ports that would service vital Saudi imports such as those related to food security.

PIF and China’s Cosco Shipping Ports each bought a 20 per cent stake in RSGT in January.

The Chinese investment fits into China’s larger Belt and Road-strategy that involves the acquisition regionally of stakes in ports and terminals in Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Oman, and Djibouti, where China has a military base.

RSGT Chief Executive Officer Jens Floe said the company planned to invest in at least three international ports in the next five years. He said each investment would be up to US$500 million.

“We have a focus on ports in Sudan and Egypt. They weren’t picked for that reason, but they happen to be significant countries for Saudi Arabia’s food security strategy,” Mr. Floe said.

Saudi Arabia’s increased focus on sports, including a potential bid for the hosting of the 2030 World Cup serves multiple goals: It offers Saudi youth who account for more than half of the kingdom’s population a leisure and entertainment opportunity, it boosts Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman’s burgeoning development of a leisure and entertainment industry, potentially allows Saudi Arabia to polish its image tarnished by human rights abuse, including the 2018 killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and challenges Qatar’s position as the face of Middle Eastern sports.

A recent report by Grant Liberty, a London-based human rights group that focuses on Saudi Arabia and China, estimated that the kingdom has so far invested in US$1.5 billion in the hosting of multiple sporting events, including the final matches of Italy and Spain’s top soccer leagues; Formula One; boxing, wrestling and snooker matches; and golf tournaments. Qatar is so far the Middle East’s leader in the hosting of sporting events followed by the UAE.

Grant Liberty said that further bids for sporting events worth US$800 million had failed. This did not include an unsuccessful US$600 million offer to replace Qatar’s beIN tv sports network as the Middle Eastern broadcaster of European soccer body UEFA’s Champions League.

Saudi Arabia reportedly continues to ban beIN from broadcasting in the kingdom despite the lifting in January of 3.5 year-long Saudi-UAE-led diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar.

Prince Mohammed’s Vision 2030 plan to diversify and streamline the Saudi economy and ween it off dependency on oil exports “has set the creation of professional sports and a sports industry as one of its goals… The kingdom is proud to host and support various athletic and sporting events which not only introduce Saudis to new sports and renowned international athletes but also showcase the kingdom’s landmarks and the welcoming nature of its people to the world,” said Fahad Nazer, spokesperson for the Saudi Arabian embassy in Washington.

The increased focus on sports comes as the kingdom appears to be backing away from its intention to reduce the centrality of energy exports for its economy.

Energy minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, Prince Mohammed’s brother, recently ridiculed an International Energy Agency (IEA) report that “there is no need for investment in new fossil fuel supply” as “the sequel of the La La Land movie.” The minister went on to ask, “Why should I take (the report) seriously?”

Putting its money where its mouth is, Saudi Arabia intends to increase its oil production capacity from 12 million to more than 13 million barrels a day on the assumption that global efforts to replace fossil fuel with cleaner energy sources will spark sharp reductions in US and Russian production.

The kingdom’s operating assumption is that demand in Asia for fossil fuels will continue to rise even if it drops in the West. Other Gulf producers, including the UAE and Qatar, are following a similar strategy.

“Saudi Arabia is no longer an oil country, it’s an energy-producing country … a very competitive energy country. We are low cost in producing oil, low cost in producing gas, and low cost in producing renewables and will definitely be the least-cost producer of hydrogen,” Prince Abdulaziz said.

He appeared to be suggesting that the kingdom’s doubling down on oil was part of strategy that aims to ensure that Saudi Arabia is a player in all conventional and non-conventional aspects of energy. By implication, Prince Abdulaziz was saying that diversification was likely to broaden the kingdom’s energy offering rather than significantly reduce its dependence on energy exports.

“Sports, entertainment, tourism and mining alongside other industries envisioned in Vision 2030 are valuable expansions of the Saudi economy that serve multiple economic and non-economic purposes,” “ said a Saudi analyst. “It’s becoming evident, however, that energy is likely to remain the real name of the game.”

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Middle East

Iranians Will Boycott Iran Election Farce

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Iran and elections have not been two synonymous terms. A regime whose constitution is based on absolute rule of someone who is considered to be God’s representative on earth, highest religious authority, morality guide, absolute ruler, and in one word Big Brother (or Vali Faqih), would hardly qualify for a democracy or a place where free or fair elections are held. But when you are God’s rep on earth you are free to invent your own meanings for words such as democracy, elections, justice, and human rights. It comes with the title. And everyone knows the fallacy of “presidential elections” in Iran. Most of all, the Iranian public know it as they have come to call for an almost unanimous boycott of the sham elections.

The boycott movement in Iran is widespread, encompassing almost all social and political strata of Iranian society, even some factions of the regime who have now decided it is time to jump ship. Most notably, remnants of what was euphemistically called the Reformist camp in Iran, have now decided to stay away from the phony polls. Even “hardline” former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad realizes the extent of the regime’s woes and has promised that he will not be voting after being duly disqualified again from participating by supreme leader’s Guardian Council.

So after 42 years of launching a reformist-hardliner charade to play on the West’s naivety, Khamenei’s regime is now forced to present its one and true face to the world: Ebrahim Raisi, son of the Khomeinist ideology, prosecutor, interrogator, torturer, death commission judge, perpetrator of the 1988 massacre of political prisoners, chief inquisitionist, and favorite of Ali Khamenei.

What is historic and different about this presidential “election” in Iran is precisely what is not different about it. It took the world 42 years to cajole Iran’s medieval regime to step into modernity, change its behavior, embrace universal human rights and democratic governance, and treat its people and its neighbors with respect. What is shocking is that this whole process is now back at square one with Ebrahim Raisi, a proven mass murderer who boasts of his murder spree in 1988, potentially being appointed as president.

With Iran’s regime pushing the envelope in launching proxy wars on the United States in Iraq, on Saudi Arabia in Yemen, and on Israel in Gaza and Lebanon, and with a horrendous human rights record that is increasingly getting worse domestically, what is the international community, especially the West, going to do? What is Norway’s role in dealing with this crisis and simmering crises to come out of this situation?

Europe has for decades based its foreign policy on international cooperation and the peaceful settlement of disputes, and the promotion of human rights and democratic principles. The International community must take the lead in bringing Ebrahim Raisi to an international court to account for the massacre he so boastfully participated in 1988 and all his other crimes he has committed to this day.

There are many Iranian refugees who have escaped the hell that the mullahs have created in their beautiful homeland and who yearn to one day remake Iran in the image of a democratic country that honors human rights. These members of the millions-strong Iranian Diaspora overwhelmingly support the boycott of the sham election in Iran, and support ordinary Iranians who today post on social media platforms videos of the Mothers of Aban (mothers of protesters killed by regime security forces during the November 2019 uprising) saying, “Our vote is for this regime’s overthrow.” Finally, after 42 years, the forbidden word of overthrow is ubiquitous on Iranian streets with slogans adorning walls calling for a new era and the fall of this regime.

Europe should stand with the Iranian Resistance and people to call for democracy and human rights in Iran and it should lead calls for accountability for all regime leaders, including Ebrahim Raisi, and an end to a culture of impunity for Iran’s criminal rulers.

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