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Middle East

The truce in Syria and the plans to cease hostilities

Giancarlo Elia Valori

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The insurgency against Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite regime began on March 15, 2015 in the framework of the Arab Springs – in that case designed to destabilize Saudi Arabia. Unlike what had happened in the Maghreb region and in Egypt, Saudi Arabia managed the issue by putting severe pressures on the United States – the global managers of the “Arab Springs” – but, above all, by harshly repressing every internal rebellion.

The war in Syria coincided with the end of the reckless US plan to extend the “Arab Springs” to the whole Greater Middle East.

Rather than understanding that it was one of their defeats, the United States passively supported the Sunni jihad in Syria – and we cannot currently understand which their real goal was.

Was it to help the Saudi friends? Excessive. Was it the idea of democratizing the Arab world by using jihadists? Pure madness.

Was it to spite Iran by closing it into a Sunni pocket? And why?

Hence the war remained in Syria and Saudi Arabia could support all the forces that opposed Bashar al-Assad’s regime – considered by Saudi Arabia, with some exaggeration, as a mere Iran’s emissary.

The self-proclaimed “Caliphate” or jihadists comically defined as “moderate”, everything was good to set the Middle East on fire.

And, we wonder again, why?

So far the Syrian war has caused over 300,000 casualties and 12 million displaced persons or migrants, thus also prompting the British Brexit and the European countries’ future nationalistic closed-minded attitudes.

Certainly you may think that destabilization throughout Europe – which now never notices anything – is an important strategic goal. However, who should contain Russia, according to the old Obama’s logic of the new cold war?

Talk about the heterogenesis of intents or the law of unintended consequences.

Furthermore, from the very beginning, Barack Obama has also supported the Saudi proxy war in Syria, by pushing the Russian Federation – which wanted to avoid being completely sealed up in the Mediterranean – to start its air raids on September 30, 2015, so as to support the Assads’ Alawite regime and oppose the network of Sunni jihadist groups backed by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the United States.

An alcoholic-style geopolitics.

Finally it is a mystery how it is possible for the United States to still think of supporting the jihadist gangs, in a fragmented and very unstable environment such as the Middle East.

The jihadists will not destabilize Russia – if this is what is sought. Putin got rid of them with two very harsh wars in Chechnya.

Finally Saudi Arabia wanted to close a vital strategic space for Iran, namely Syria; Erdogan’s Turkey wanted to extend its new caliphate to the Sunni majority in Syria and the United States wanted to support their Saudi and Qatari allies against Iran and its hegemonic ambitions on Shiite minorities throughout the Fertile Crescent.

However, can a superpower like the United States strategically think of destabilizing the whole Middle East, the region which has also built the US financial fortunes since the 1970s?

Hence, currently, the Syrian region highlights some objective factors: a) Obama’s policy of encircling Russia has failed definitively; b) Russia has succeeding in involving also Turkey – the second Atlantic Alliance’s power – in its Syrian project; c) the Sunni jihad supported by Saudi Arabia and its global and regional allies has lost its own challenge precisely on its ground.

On November 30, 2016 the jihadists were expelled from the suburbs of Damascus and from its aqueduct with an action of the Syrian Arab Army and Russia’s very effective air support.

Putin and Erdogan could reach their own agreement because Aleppo had been freed.

Moreover, the Russian agreements signed in Astana clearly state that all the various jihadist groups, adhering or not to the ceasefire of December 30, 2016, must immediately, and without exception, leave their positions in Syria.

As increasingly happens after acts of terrorism, with the brutal New Year’s attack in Istanbul, Turkey is bearing the brunt of its new pro-Russian stance.

A stance which, today, is already a strategic success.

A stance which is fully rational.

Erdogan wanted to conquer the whole Sunni Syria when Bashar al-Assad appeared to be weak, but currently he is satisfied with an Alawite regime not permitting the establishment of a “Kurdish state” between Syria and the Iraqi territory.

Therefore, also thanks to Barack Obama’s strategic foolishness, currently Russia gives the cards and controls the New Middle East game.

Hence if the United States want to rescue their power in the region, they shall avoid delegating their strategic interest in the Middle East to the Sunni powers.

Furthermore the United States must avoid unilateralism, thus accepting the fait accompli and creating their control areas, without hoping Saudi Arabia would do so on their behalf.

Israel is the real winner of this war: it sees all its historical enemies exhausted in a long and bloody war; it has an information exchange agreement with the Russian Federation and can control – better than in the past – the whole Golan Heights region, which is essential for its defense.

Finally, at political and legal levels, the restriction to Hezbollah and Iranian special forces’ operations in Syria – according to the Astana agreements – reflects Russia’s and Assad Syria’s willingness to expel all jihadist groups – and, hence, their supporters’ interests – from the territory.

Too much Iran’s involvement prompts and recalls Saudi Arabia and neither Syria nor Moscow have any interest in being involved in the final war between the two Islam’s schools of thought.

Therefore the Middle East is too important to be managed with proxy wars or with set-ups built only with words and for a very short lapse of time.

We must therefore change our conception of the whole region, which currently has the Syrian war at its core.

The Fertile Crescent is not only the channel between Europe and Asia, as in the British Empire’s days, but also an area acting as a buffer zone between two regions which will be crucial in the future: Central Asia and China.

It is also autonomous in its dynamics – for many years it has no longer been the Arab, Islamic or Jewish extension of the great powers’ interests.

Obviously the central point of this new set-up will be the Mediterranean, which will become the most important “regional sea” of the globe.

Just to paraphrase the old laws of British and American geopolitics, whoever dominates the Middle East controls the Heartland, but whoever is dominant in the “middle land” controls the Eurasian peninsula and the two oceans.

Thinking of the Fertile Crescent only in terms of oil or energy transits is certainly important but, by now, fully reductive and simplistic.

Nevertheless let us revert to clashes and fighting. To date, the local sources of the war in Syria give us some definite results: the jihadist groups have been expelled from Wadi Barada and Ghouta East with the Syrian Arab Army’s weapons and hence have broken off – out of spite – the negotiations in Astana, Kazakhstan.

The jihadist groups expelled from Wadi Barada and Ghouta East include also the Syrian Free Army – a coalition of “moderate” groups, according to the US State Department’s dangerous jargon – and the Army of Conquest, another coalition of small jihadist groups.

All groups and people who have always gone back and forth the self-proclaimed Daesh/Isis Caliphate and the so-called small jihadist groups.

In ever clearer terms, the truce of Astana is becoming the legal and military tool to quickly remove the jihadist pockets still remaining between the center of Syria and its Southeast.

Hence the truce will hold until the jihadists do not realize it is a powerful tool of war against them and – as claimed by multiple sources of the Syrian Sunni jihad – the “cease-fire” will end unilaterally, but with the jihadists out of all the strategic positions they held so far.

Without “America being able to do anything for us”, as one of the leaders of the Syrian jihad said.

Therefore the issue lies in definitely freeing Mosul – the Iraqi axis of the Syrian victory – where the elimination of the so-called “Islamic State” is entrusted to 50,000 units including Kurds, Iraqi intelligence services, Anbar Sunni tribes and paramilitary Iranian Shiites.

It is the real center of gravity of the war against the so-called “Caliphate”, which will be quick and effective when the various jihadist groups, adhering or not to the Astana Agreement, will get out of the way.

The other areas from which to currently expel jihadists are Maarat al Numan, Saraqeh and Sheikhoun near Idlib, Teir Maalah, north of Homs and Souha, east of Hama.

Hence, at strategic level, Russia and Syria are closing every escape route to the many Syrian jihadi groups, before launching – with the necessary forces – the attack on the so-called Al Baghdadi’s Caliphate.

Therefore, politically, we can envisage the following scenario.

Russia has no interest in making its Syrian hegemony unipolar: Putin has repeatedly stated that the “truce way” is also open to the United States and even to Saudi Arabia.

Russia does not want to bear the whole Middle East burden upon itself – and rightly so.

Those who hegemonized the Middle East before Russia created the conditions for their ruin and the subsequent Middle East disaster – see the United States which, with the Bush’s and Obama’s administrations, made their interest overlap with Saudi Arabia’s.

Politically, the alternative options will be either a smaller Syria under Bashar al-Assad, who has anyway won his war, or a “Greater Syria” with an Alawite leader who can also be liked by the United States and the Sunni powers in the region.

Bashar al-Assad, however, has won and he will not get out of the way so quickly or easily.

And the Alawite leader shall also be liked by Israel, if he does not create problems in the Golan Heights and does not allow militants and advanced weapons to pass through the Heights up to the Lebanese border or even the areas of the Gaza Strip.

Israel, too, is one of the winners of this new Syrian war and has the right to have many of its demands accepted.

Russia will involve the United States in the final agreement, with some strategic guarantees and especially stable cooperation between the two countries throughout the Middle East, in addition to the acceptance of Russia’s primary interest in the region.

Security of Russia’s military ports on the Mediterranean; the right to be consulted on all matters regarding the Mediterranean; Russia’s business expansion throughout the region.

Under these conditions, the United States can rest easy and avoid Saudi Arabia’s subsequent destabilization, the Lebanon’s final cantonization, which is in nobody’s interest, and finally Israel’s very dangerous encirclement.

Forget about Obama’s anti-Semitic hysteria: if America does not keep Israel it cannot afford any independent policy throughout the Middle East.

The Jewish State could have an international guarantee, with a “stabilization” force similar to UNIFIL II in the Lebanon, but on its Northern borders and, above all, in the strategic link between these areas and the border with Jordan.

In fact, the game played by some Israeli analysts is very dangerous: they favour the anti-Iranian and Assad’s enemy groups so as to avoid the integration of the Shiite forces in the Golan Heights and the Lebanon.

A US-borrowed strategy that will only cause disasters in the medium term.

The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, which is essential for every geopolitical project in the Middle East, could be integrated with most of the Palestinian National Authority, a very dangerous failed state that is the offspring of the Cold War old logic.

Russia could be the reliable and credible broker for the Palestinians, with a view to settling the Arab-Palestinian issue, in connection with Israel.

At the end of Barack Obama’s two Presidential terms, the United States could reach an agreement with the Russian Federation for Syrian stabilization and for the final settlement of the Kurdish issue, by redesigning – together with Russia – the borders of a non-sovereign Kurdish area which, of course, cannot destabilize Turkey.

Turkey will be in a position to have what it has always wanted, namely a droit de regard on the Sunni majority in Syria and safe passage to Central Asian Turkmen areas.

Bashar al-Assad has won. He will not get out of the way easily and, moreover, we do not even understand why he should do so.

If he is politically smart and open-minded – as he has proved to be during the war against the Sunni jihad – he could avoid maintaining the aura of Alawite leader extended to all Syria and create, for himself, the image and project of leader for all Syrians.

Furthermore, Iran has gained what it wanted, namely the security of the Shiite areas on its Syrian border.

It will not want more than this, if there are those that will be able to deal with the tough but smart religious leaders of the Iranian Shi’a.

Who is the loser? Obviously the European Union.

It had proposed the previous two totally ineffective truces and it did not succeed in creating its own geopolitical autonomy between a flat reiteration of US slogans and its interest in curbing and controlling immigration, which was used as blackmail by Erdogan’s Turkey.

Currently, if the United States come back into the Middle East region, they can only do so as losers: accept the Russian conditions and start again from there, without being deceived by the siren songs of some of their allies’ Sunni jihad.

From this viewpoint, Trump’s signals are fully reasonable.

Israel can see all its enemies be exhausted and be content with it, or take control of the situation.

In the latter case, it will be in a position to involve the United States and Russia in the new negotiations between the Jewish and the Islamic States, outside all the Cold War old ideas: useless and dangerous territorial concessions; creation of strategically useless pockets southwards and eastwards; trade only on paper.

Old “cold war” junk that no longer serves anyone.

Either Russia will make peace prevail between the Jewish State and its historical opponents or the work made in Syria will melt away like snow in the sun.

Conversely, the new US President, Donald Trump, may rebuild the US hegemony over the Middle East, possibly by being the promoter of a military agreement between all parties that would mark the greatness, vision and far-sightedness of the new White House leader.

Meanwhile the European Union will stay idle faced with its demographic and strategic disaster, waiting for someone to solve problems on its behalf.

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 "La Centrale Finanziaria Generale Spa", he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group and member of the Ayan-Holding Board. 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 of "Honorable" of the Académie des Sciences de l'Institut de France

Middle East

Algerian controversy over Salafism puts government control of religion on the spot

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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photo: Wikimedia Commons

A controversy in Algeria over the growing popularity of Saudi-inspired Salafi scholars spotlights the risk governments run in a region in which they strive to control religion in a bid to counter militant strands of Islam, often by touting apolitical, ultra-conservative trends.  These efforts are proving difficult to contain within the limits of the government’s agenda.

The controversy over Saudi support of Salafi scholars highlights how state control, frequently exercised through degrees of micro-management of weekly Friday prayer sermons, and/or putting clerics on the government payroll as well as supervision of mosques and school textbooks, often backfires.  For one, the credibility of government-sponsored Islamic scholars is undermined as they become increasingly viewed as functionaries and parrots of regimes.

It also thrusts into the limelight the slippery slope on which governments play politics with conservative and ultra-conservative religion for opportunistic reasons or as in the case of Turkey in a bid to establish state-controlled Turkish Islam as a global force.

Ultra-conservatism’s increasing attractiveness is magnified by the inability of governments to comprehensively police alternative expressions of religion on the Internet and social media as well as halt the popping up of unlicensed mosques and informal study groups.

As a result, Saudi-inspired ultra-conservative as well as militant strands of Islam emerge as the only alternative release valve, particularly in countries that restrict freedom of expression, the media and religion and have failed in their delivery of public goods and services

“Whatever the state does to control the religious realm, it cannot oblige or guarantee that people will rely on official bodies and individuals for their religious guidance. In fact, Algerian youths in particular are disillusioned and have lost confidence in their religious institutions. As such, they may be attracted to other religious voices, especially those offering ‘grab and go’ solutions to complex issues or a Manichean view of the world,” said Algeria scholar Dalia Ghanem-Yazbeck.

The controversy in Algeria further raises questions about definitions of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s declared effort to return the kingdom to what he termed ‘moderate Islam’ given that Saudi Arabia played a key role in globally promoting Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism for almost half a century.

In Saudi Arabia, the jury is still out on Prince Mohammed’s approach to moderation. In an ultra-conservative country in which religious leaders were not only popular, but government employees who shared power with the ruling Al Saud family, Prince Mohammed has whipped the religious establishment into subservience and kowtowing to his reforms with little indication that they have had a true change of heart.

Algeria has long seen Saudi-inspired quietist strands of Salafism that preach unreserved obedience to a Muslim ruler as a way of countering expressions of popular discontent and more militant strands of Islam.

“The onset of the 2011 Arab uprisings only increased the utility of quietist Salafists to the state. All the main quietist figures issued calls for Algerians to resist the wave of political contestation rocking the Arab world… This drove a wedge between rulers and ruled, exacerbating social divisions, which would inevitably lead to a rise in insecurity and worsening corruption,” said international relations scholar Anouar Boukhars.

A recent study showed that many Algerians were turning on social media to Saudi and Egyptian rather than Algerian religious scholars.

Some Saudi scholars like Sheikh Mohamed al-Arefe, a controversial ultra-conservative, known for his misogynist and anti-Shiite tirades, who ranks among the top 100 global and top 10 Arab social media personalities with 21.6 million followers on Twitter and 24.3 million on Facebook boast a larger following in Algeria than in the kingdom itself.

The study concluded that Mr. Al-Arefe had two million Algerian followers as opposed to 1.3 million Saudis.

Algerian media reports, echoing secular concerns, detailed earlier this year Saudi propagation of a quietist, apolitical yet supremacist and anti-pluralistic form of Islam in the North African country. The media published a letter by a prominent Saudi scholar that appointed three ultra-conservative Algerian clerics as representatives of Salafism.

“While Saudi Arabia tries to promote the image of a country that is ridding itself of its fanatics, it sends to other countries the most radical of its doctrines,” asserted independent Algerian newspaper El Watan.

El Watan and other media reproduced a letter written by Saudi Sheikh Hadi Ben Ali Al-Madkhali, a scion of Sheikh Rabia Al-Madkhali, the intellectual father of what French Islam scholar Stephane Lacroix terms a loyalist strand of Salafism that projects the kingdom as the ideal place for those who seek a pure Islam that has not been compromised by non-Muslim cultural practices and secularism.

The letter appoints three prominent Algerian scholars, including Mohamed Ali Ferkous, widely viewed as the spiritual guide of Algerian Madkhalists, as Salafism’s representatives in Algeria.

“Madkhalism…(is) perhaps Saudi Arabia’s own Trojan Horse,” quipped North Africa scholar George Joffe. “State-approved imams in Algeria now find themselves under considerable pressure, in mosques that have been targeted, to adapt their teachings and doctrines to Salafi precept, even if this challenges the authority of the ministry of religious affairs,” Mr. Joffe added.

The mixed results of the Algerian government’s effort to control and use religion are replicated across the Muslim world.

Pakistan, a country in which ultra-conservatism and militancy has over decades been woven into the fabric of the state and society and that is struggling with political violence against the state as well as minorities, serves as an example of the risks involved in playing politics with religion and state support for non-pluralistic, intolerant and supremacist interpretations of Islam.

Attempting to rollback the fallout of such policies is proving to be a gargantuan task. The Pakistani government earlier this year launched a pilot project in Islamabad to regulate Friday prayer sermons. The problem is that it controls a mere 86 of the city’s 1,003 mosques.

Some critics warn that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan may be taking his country down a road like that of Pakistan. They compare the Turkish leader to former Pakistani ruler General Zia ul-Haq who in the 1980s accelerated Islamization of Pakistani society.

Former Pakistani ambassador to the United States and director of South and Central Asia for the Washington-based Hudson Institute Husain Haqqani asserted that Mr. Erdogan was adopting the “Pakistani formula of mixing hard-line nationalism with religiosity” and pouring money into Islamic schools.

“Erdogan has taken the Pakistani formula of mixing hard-line nationalism with religiosity. Zia imposed Islamic laws by decree, amended the constitution, marginalized secular scholars and leaders, and created institutions for Islamization that have outlasted him. Erdogan is trying to do the same in Turkey,” Mr. Haqqani told journalist and columnist Eli Lake.

Mr. Lake argued that Turkey, despite having tacitly supported the Islamic State at one point during the Syrian civil war, Turkey had not yet “sunk” to Pakistan’s level of cooperation with Islamic militants in its dispute with India and manoeuvring in Afghanistan.

However, suggesting that Turkey risked becoming another Pakistan, Mr. Lake quoted former US ambassador to Turkey Eric Edelman as saying: “Turkey is not Pakistan yet, but if it continues the trajectory that Erdogan has put it on, there is a prospect it could become like Pakistan.”

At the other extreme, Chinese authorities in the north-western province of Xinjiang, home to China’s Uyghur Muslim minority, were several months ago shutting down some 100 illegal, underground religious seminaries a month despite creating in the region the world’s most repressive surveillance state, according to a Chinese communist party official.

The crackdown involves the banning of religious practices and the teaching of the Uyghur language in schools and the detention of thousands in political re-education camps.

The controversy in Algeria, Mr. Erdogan’s embrace of Islam, Pakistan’s struggle to come to grips with the fallout of ultra-conservatism, China’s efforts to crackdown on religion, anti-government and anti-clergy protests in Iran earlier this year, and examples of societies elsewhere in Asia turning towards intolerance and conservatism as governments employ or repress religion for opportunistic political purposes, suggest that political leaders have learnt little, if anything.

Yet, the lesson is that government control and/or playing with religion seldom produces sustainable results. The lesson is also that repression, including restricting freedoms of expression, media and religion, aggravates problems and benefits ultra-conservatives and militants.

Finally, the lesson is that the solution likely lies in inclusive rather than exclusionary policies and transparent and accountable governments capable of delivering pubic goods and services that ensure that all segments of the population have a stake in society. That lesson is one that governments in Algeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and China seemingly prefer to overlook.

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Middle East

A Mohammedan Game of Thrones: Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the Fight for Regional Hegemony

James J. Rooney, Jr.

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Authors: James J. Rooney, Jr. & Dr. Matthew Crosston*

The people in the United States didn’t think well of those living in the Soviet Union during the Cold War. There was a basic mistrust and a lack of kind words on both sides. But what you didn’t hear was anyone excitedly talking about wanting to completely annihilate the other side despite both having the capacity to do just that. Fast forward to 2018: to Saudi Arabia and Iran and a new regional Middle East version of Mutually Assured Destruction, where it takes on a whole new meaning. Both of these nations maintain terrible images of each and neither would probably shed a tear if the Earth suddenly opened up and swallowed the other. Forgive the propensity to reach hyperbole, but in truth this rivalry goes back 1,385 years when, just after the death of the prophet Mohammed in AD 632, there arose among the faithful a disagreement concerning the issue of succession. Mohammed drafted a Last Will & Testament and set up an ancient version of a Trust Fund for the kids’ college/ lifeneeds, but never said a word about succession. In hindsight we now know what colossally poor planning this was as it led to a split between two key factions that would come to be known as the Sunni (who favored a vote for succession) and the Shi’a (who favored keeping it in Mohammed’s bloodline). “The Sunnis prevailed and chose a successor to be the first caliph.” (Shuster, 2017, 1) What followed was a swinging pendulum of tension with hundreds of years of both war and peace interspersed between the two sides. Today, it looks like they’re heading back to war in some form. But the real question is, are they heading back to war because of a 1,000+ year old religious grudge match? Many experts think not. Some say that the bad blood that has been forming between Saudi Arabia and Iran is not about religion, but something else: competing and hostile legitimizing myths. “With the aim of uniting peoples behind their leaders in distinction to ‘the other’, as it is so often the case, religion is misused as a dividing tool in order to enforce a political agenda.” (Reimann, 2016, 3) Not surprisingly, there are religious overtones embedded within these regional hegemonic politics pushing both sides continuously to greater episodes of dangerous tension.

The House of Al Saud, the ruling royal family of Saudi Arabia, is composed of the descendants of Muhammad bin Saud, founder of the Emirate of Diriyah, which was known as the First Saudi state (1744–1818), and his brothers. The ruling faction of the family, however, is primarily led by the descendants of Ibn Saud, the modern founder of Saudi Arabia. The government of Iran is a modern Shia theocracy that was forged in part by the overthrow of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last Shah of Iran, in 1979. Today, “Iran is considered a unitary Islamic republic with one legislative house. The country’s 1979 constitution put into place a mixed system of government, in which the executive, parliament, and judiciary are overseen by several bodies dominated by the clergy. At the head of both the state and oversight institutions is a ranking cleric known as the rahbar, or leader, whose duties and authority are those usually equated with a head of state.” (Editorial Staff, 2017. 1) Ironically, many have argued that Iran has one of the most democratically structured Constitutions in the world, if not for these extra-constitutional religious oversight bodies that sit over all of the constitutional structures. Even putting the religious affiliations and religio-political structures aside, these two countries are as different as Persian night and Saudi day.

Both Saudi Arabia and Iran view themselves through the legitimizing myth of being the purer form of Islam and true holder of Mohammed’s legacy. As if that wasn’t conflictual enough, to make matters worse, the Wahhabist theocratic leadership in Riyadh sees the government and family of Saud as secular barbarians that strategically use their Sunni Wahhabist religious connections as a hedge to maintain power. The royal family of Saudi Arabia, for its part, views the theocracy of Iran as a bastardized form of Islam led by illegitimate Imams that hold a potentially progressive nation hostage to outdated religious edicts that have no relevance in the modern Islamic world. Even more dismissively, the Saudi royal family sneer at how this ‘Iranian backwardness’ has led directly to decades of crippling American sanctions against the people. Of course, the theocracy in Iran sees the cozy relationship between the Saudis and Americans as proof of the infidel fall of the keepers of the Prophet’s two great cities, Mecca and Medina. The Saudis are in bed with the Great Satan.

These underlying myths that debate ancient religious legitimacy may be fueling the hatred and Muslim-on-Muslim discrimination found on both sides. But disturbingly, there is one more legitimizing myth that might actually rule over all the others and it’s tied to the massive political power and influence greased by black crude. Saudi Arabia comes in as number 2 in terms of the world’s known oil reserves. Iran sits at number 4. That oil, and the wealth and political power it translates to, is not lost on either side. Oil is easily the top revenue-producing commodity in both countries. While ups and downs in the global market can have serious consequences for both countries, it means more damage for Iran than Saudi Arabia. The royal Saudi family has wisely/secretly over the past half century stashed away over half a trillion dollars to uniformly smooth out the revenue curves that are innate to the natural resource market in a volatile global economy. Since Tehran has been the subject of severe sanctions, due to its association with Islamic extremism and terrorism, it simply has not been able to create the same safety net/golden pillow of economic protection. Consequently, Iran has not been able to capitalize on its vast reserves of oil, selling much of it on the black market for rock bottom prices to less-than-ideal market consumers. This disparity in oil wealth, the freedom of action within the world market, and the subsequent ability to wield enhanced political power in the region is the real legitimizing myth that acts as a true political hammer separating the two and concretizing their strife with one another.

Iran’s political and military expansion into Syria, and its alliance with Russia, is another facet of its hegemonic intentions and desire to unseat Saudi Arabia as the real regional power broker. Iran appears willing to become a client or “dependent” ally of Russia, much as Saudi Arabia has a similar arrangement with the United States. Obviously, this is a dangerous recipe: regional power pretenses, advanced weapons from larger global powers, divergent religious positions, and political gamesmanship operating in the middle of another country’s civil war. Both Russia and the United States have cautiously moved their respective chess pieces as events develop in Syria, but unfortunately this caution does not exhibit the press for peace: rather, the American-Russian chess game in Syria only seems to exacerbate the animosity between the Saudis and Iranians. The alleged chemical weapon attacks on rebel positions inside Damascus by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, backed by Russian forces, caused a direct but limited military response by Washington. American cruise missile attacks on Syrian chemical weapons plants, though marginally effective, nevertheless was a message to Russia and Iran that the U.S. would defend its interests in the region. Those interests are decidedly in favor of a Saudi regional hegemonic leadership. Thus, what we have are cross-competing and hostile legitimizing myths being created in real time about what the future role of each of these players is going to be, America supporting the Saudi myth and Russia supporting the Iranian one.

Clearly, Saudi Arabia and Iran are going to remain deeply entrenched in hostile efforts for political and military dominance in the region. Though ancient religious strife seems like a convenient excuse for continued bad feelings between the two powers – and is focused on to a heavy extent by world media – modern strategic reasons are more dangerous and multi-layered. What we can recognize is an old fashion game of power politics in which both sides have aligned themselves with powerful and protective allies. This game is being made manifest in a critical region of the world where resources are converted to global wealth and power. The parties should remember that oil is combustible. Politics built on oil even more so. But politics built on oil, doused in religious fervor, and shaken vigorously by outside players with their own agendas is the most combustible of all. For the time being, this Mohammedan Game of Thrones seems to have a plotline that will be as deadly and bloody as its more famous Hollywood moniker.

*Dr. Matthew Crosston is Executive Vice Chairman of ModernDiplomacy.eu. He is Senior Doctoral Faculty in the School of Security and Global Studies at the American Military University and was just named the future Co-Editor of the seminal International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence. His work is catalogued at:  https://brown.academia.edu/ProfMatthewCrosston/Analytics

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Middle East

Might Trump Ask Israel to Fund America’s Invasion-Occupation of Syria?

Eric Zuesse

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On 16 April 2018, the internationally respected analyst of Middle-Eastern affairs, Abdel Bari Atwan, headlined about Trump’s increasingly overt plan to break Syria up and to establish permanent U.S. control over the parts it wants, “Attempting the Unachievable”. He stated that “The coming few months are likely to prove very difficult for the Americans, and very costly, not just in Syria but also in Iraq.” He closed: “Who will cover the costs of this American move? There are no prizes for guessing the answer: it has already been spelled out.” The only country that his article mentioned was Israel: “It would not be surprising if Israel and the various lobbies that support were behind this American strategic volte-face. For Israel is in a state of panic.”

The U.S. already donates $3.8 billion per year to Israel’s military, in order for Israel to purchase U.S.-made weapons. However, Atwan argues that the costs of this invasion-occupation of Syria are likely to run into the trillions of dollars. The Gross Domestic Product of Israel is only $318.7 billion as of 2016. So, America now already donates a bit more than 1% to that amount, and Atwan’s thesis is that Israel will now become instead a net donor to America’s international corporations (funding some of the Pentagon, which then will pay that money to America’s weapons-firms), in order to avoid adding the enormous costs of this increasing invasion-occupation of Syria, onto America’s taxpayers, fighting forces, etc.

I do not consider this enormous reversal of Israel — from recipient to donor — to be likely. Far likelier, in my view, is Saudi Arabia, to finance the invasion.

The GDP of Saudi Arabia is $646.4 billion as of 2016, more than twice Israel’s — and the Saud family, who own that country, are accustomed to paying for the services they buy, not having them donated (unless by their fellow fundamentalist Sunnis, to spread the faith). Furthermore, the royal family, the Sauds, are extremely close to America’s leading oil families, who also donate heavily to Republican politicians. Ever since at least 2012, the Sauds have been the U.S. Government’s main partner in the long campaign to overthrow and replace Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, by a Sharia-law, fundamentalist-Sunni, regime, which will do what the Sauds want.

America’s oil companies and pipeline companies, and military contractors such as Lockheed Martin, profit from America’s invasion-occupation of Syria, but U.S. President Donald Trump isn’t doing it only with their welfare in mind; he has an international campaign to press America’s allies to foot a larger percentage of the cost to U.S. taxpayers for America’s military. He wants America’s allies to pay much more, in order for them to be able to enjoy the privileges of staying in America’s alliance against Russia, China, and other countries whose economies threaten to continue growing faster than America’s. U.S. aristocrats fear that such challengers could replace them as the global hegemon or Empire, the über-aristocracy. Empire is expensive, and the general public pay for it, but Trump wants foreign taxpayers to pay a bigger share of these costs in order to relieve part of the burden on U.S. taxpayers. His famous comment about the invasion-occupation of Iraq, “We should have taken the oil”, is now being put into practice by him in Syria. However, that money goes only to corporations, not to the U.S. Treasury.

Which allies could finance escalated war against Syria?

On 24 September 2017, the Wall Street Journal bannered, “U.S.-Backed Forces Seize Syrian Gas Plant From Islamic State”, and reported: “U.S.-backed forces said Sunday they were advancing through eastern Syria after seizing a gas plant there from Islamic State, striking a blow to the terror group’s dwindling finances, which rely heavily on its control of Syria’s oil and gas fields. The plant, one of the most important in the country, is capable of producing nearly 450 tons of gas a day.”

Trump wants the profits from that to go to American companies, not to Syrian ones. That’s the type of arrangement Trump has been favoring when he says “We should have taken the oil.” Syria is allied with Russia, and with Iran. The U.S. is allied with Saudi Arabia and Israel, which are the two countries that call Iran an “existential threat” — and which have been urging a U.S. invasion to overthrow Assad.

The Sauds and their allied fundamentalist Sunni Arab royal families are considering to finance an American-led invasion of Syria. Turkey’s newspaper Yeni Safak headlined on 15 June 2017, “Partitioning 2.5M barrels of Syria’s oil”, and reported:

A meeting was held on June 10 for the future of Syrian oil on the premise of the intelligence of Saudi Arabia and the US in Syria’s northeastern city of Qamishli, which borders with Turkey. One of the US officers who visited terrorist organizations in the Sinjar-Karachok region after Turkey’s anti-terror operation in northern Syria and spokesman for the Global Coalition to Counter Daesh, Colonel John Dorrian, attended the meeting. Representatives from Egypt, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia, as well as some tribal leaders from Syria and senior Democratic Union Party (PYD) members attended the meeting. The delegation gathered for the purpose of determining a common strategy for the future of Syrian oil, and decided to act jointly after Daesh. Former President of the National Coalition of the Syrian Opposition and Revolutionary Forces, Ahmed Carba, determined the tribal and group representatives from Syria, and Mohammed Dahlan determined which foreign representatives would attend the meeting. Representatives agreed on a pipeline route. Radical decisions were made regarding the extraction, processing and marketing of the underground wealth of the Haseke, Raqqah and Deir ez Zor regions, which hold 95 percent of Syrian oil and natural gas’ potential.

That’s “taking the oil.” There could be lots of it.

This article also reported that, “Syria produced 34,828,000 barrels of crude oil in the first quarter of 2011 and reached 387,000 barrels per day during the same period” and that, “there are 2.5 billion barrels of oil reserves in Syria.”

On 16 April 2018, Whitney Webb at Mint Press bannered “How the US Occupied the 30% of Syria Containing Most of its Oil, Water and Gas”, and reported that, “Though the U.S. currently has between 2,000 to 4,000 troops stationed in Syria, it announced the training of a 30,000-person-strong ‘border force’ composed of U.S.-allied Kurds and Arabs in the area, which would be used to prevent northeastern Syria from coming under the control of Syria’s legitimate government.”

She noted, regarding the area in Syria’s northeast, where U.S.-armed, Saudi-funded, Syrian Kurds are in control: “those resources – particularly water and the flow of the Euphrates – gives the U.S. a key advantage it could use to destabilize Syria. For example, the U.S. could easily cut off water and electricity to government-held parts of Syria by shutting down or diverting power and water from dams in order to place pressure on the Syrian government and Syrian civilians. Though such actions target civilians and constitute a war crime, the U.S. has used such tactics in Syria before.”

She says: “Given the alliance between Syria and Iran, as well as their mutual defense accord, the occupation is necessary in order to weaken both nations and a key precursor to Trump administration plans to isolate and wage war against Iran.”

That type of plan could be worth a lot to Israel, but Yeni Safak headlined on 18 April 2018, “US to build Arab force in NE Syria as part of new ploy: The US is seeking to amass an Arab force in northeastern Syria comprised of funding and troops from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE.” This report said:

The Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said that the kingdom is willing to send troops to Syria in a press conference on Tuesday. The minister noted that discussions on sending troops to Syria were underway. “With regards to what is going on now, there are discussions regarding what kind of force needs to remain in eastern Syria and where that force would come from. And those discussions are ongoing,” said al-Jubeir. He stressed that troop deployment in Syria will be done within the framework of the Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition and also suggested Saudi Arabia would provide financial support to the U.S.

How likely is it that Israel would be funding this huge escalation in The West’s invasion-occupation of Syria — an escalation in which fundamentalist-Sunni armies would then be serving Israeli masters? Though Arab royals might find it acceptable, their soldiers would not.

The Sauds are the world’s wealthiest family, and they can and do use the state that they own, Saudi Arabia, as their investment asset, which they aim to maximize. This war will be a great investment for them, and for their allies, in U.S., UK, Israel, and elsewhere. Israel can’t take the lead in such a matter. But the Sauds and their friends could.

Funding by the Sauds would be the likeliest way. On 21 May 2017, I headlined “U.S. $350 Billion Arms-Sale to Sauds Cements U.S.-Jihadist Alliance” and reported that the day before, “U.S. President Donald Trump and the Saud family inked an all-time record-high $350 billion ten-year arms-deal that not only will cement-in the Saud family’s position as the world’s largest foreign purchasers of U.S.-produced weaponry, but will make the Saud family, and America’s ruling families, become, in effect, one aristocracy over both nations, because neither side will be able to violate the will of the other. As the years roll on, their mutual dependency will deepen, each and every year.” That turned out to be true — and not only regarding America’s carrying the Sauds’ water (doing their bidding) in both Yemen and Syria, but in other ways as well. Now the Sauds will pitch in to pay tens of thousands of troops in order to dominate over Iran and Shiites, whom the Sauds hate (and have hated since 1744).

On 21 March 2018, CNBC bannered “Trump wants Saudi Arabia to buy more American-made weapons. Here are the ones the Saudis want”, and reported what Trump had just negotiated with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman al-Saud, which was a step-up in that $350 billion sale, to $400 billion. So: Trump is working on the Sauds in order to get them to take over some of the leadership here — with American weapons. It’s a business-partnership.

On 16 April 2018, which was the same day that Atwan suggested Israel would take the lead here, the Wall Street Journal bannered “U.S. Seeks Arab Force and Funding for Syria: Under plan, troops would replace American military contingent after ISIS defeat and help secure country’s north; proposal faces challenges,” and reported that:

The Trump administration is seeking to assemble an Arab force to replace the U.S. military contingent in Syria and help stabilize the northeastern part of the country after the defeat of Islamic State, U.S. officials said. John Bolton, President Donald Trump’s new national security adviser, recently called Abbas Kamel, Egypt’s acting intelligence chief, to see if Cairo would contribute to the effort, officials said. The initiative comes as the administration has asked Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates to contribute billions of dollars to help restore northern Syria. It wants Arab nations to send troops as well, officials said.

If the U.S. will invade, Israel will participate in this invasion-occupation, but the Sauds will lead it — with U.S.-made weapons. And taxpayers everywhere will lose from it, because invasions just get added to the federal debt. The invading nation goes into debt, which that nation’s public will pay. The invaded nation gets its wealth extracted and sold by the invading aristocracy. It’s happened for thousands of years.

first published at strategic-culture.org

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