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Additional considerations on Syria

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A complex strategic game is underway between Russia, Iran, Syria and, consequently, between Assad’ supporters and the other actors of the current Syrian war balance.

Firstly, note must be taken of the statements made by the Secretary of the Iranian Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani who, on January 15 last, said that “the fragmentation of regional areas in the Middle East will anyway pave the way for the Takfiri forces (i.e. the “Infidels”) on all Islamic territories”. He also added, with an interesting nuance, that this runs counter to the interests of the whole Islamic world” – and hence Iran.

In other words, Shamkhani, who speaks in the name and on behalf of the Supreme Leadership Authority and Supreme Leader, Rahbar Khamenei, means two things: he means that Iran will fight for the integrity of Syria, and within its old borders, and that Iran is anyway ready to fight against the Takfiri, namely the “apostates”, both in the Shiite and in the Sunni world.

Iran has no interest in setting a “democracy” fire to the Middle East, as conversely was the case for the United States with the notorious “Arab Springs” and the creation of the so-called “Caliphate” between Iraq and Syria.

Furthermore, in Iran, the Shiite fight against the Sunni Takfirism entails   some future clash with Saudi Arabia, although Shamkhani has been clear in saying that what he states does not even regard Saudi Arabia’s regime.

Shamkhani added: “The fall of the ruling Saudi Royal Family does not mean that it would be replaced by a new regime better adapted to the needs.” It is better to control and protect, at a very high political cost, rather than creating strategic void conditions which would be uncontrollable.

Once again, the “Arab springs” lesson has been fully understood and learnt by the Middle East powers.

Moreover Iran insists on the fact it does not want to destabilize anyone – and the same holds true for Russia itself, which has even invited Saudi Arabia in the future conference for the New Middle East.

For all those who are winning the war in Syria the essential strategic aim is to maintain the current system, with the United States losing and – hopefully now reluctantly – linked to Saudi Arabia.

Furthermore, the Americans still have a lukewarm attitude – as in Obama’s perspective – vis-à-vis Israel, the only right card they were not able to play and which will finally be played by the current Trump Presidency.

And we expect so not just in the Middle East.

Meanwhile, on Monday 15 last, Bashar al-Assad’ Syrian Arab Army launched an effective attack on the military emplacements and installations of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, the new franchise of the Al-Nusra Front, the Syrian group of al-Qaeda operating in the region along with the jihad of Harakat Harar al-Sham, another contentious union of small jihadist groups.

Since yesterday the 42nd Brigade of the 4th Mechanized Division of Assad’s forces has been repeatedly hitting al-Fijah areas, in the Wadi Barada region, in an emplacement that the jihadist forces not signatories to the agreement held and refused to leave, according to the letter of the Treaty signed on December 30, 2016 in Astana.

Wadi had been recently held by the Free Syrian Army, the main operator of the West’s “blind kittens”.

Fateh al-Sham is even supposed of having killed a mediator of the peace treaty.

Looking at the Chiefs of Staff’s maps and documents, Wadi Barada is the point linking Central Syria’s water needs and the closure of the Syrian, Russian and Iranian front on Damascus, of which Wadi is the primary gateway.

Bashar al-Assad’s and the Lebanese Hezb’ollah forces are still at work – liberating Wadi means to ensure the survival of Damascus and to open the way to Idlib.

Meanwhile, Russia and Bashar al-Assad’ Syrian Arab Army keep on bombing Isis-Daesh emplacements between Maskanah and the Deir Hafer plain.

We are in Aleppo’s Eastern region, which is also central to put an end to the war. The Russian and Syrian bombings are targeted to destroy the main road for the supplies of the so-called “Caliphate”, going from Raqqa to East Aleppo.

According to internal military sources, Russia even supported and protected the Turkish control area north of Al Bab, by throwing bombs in air raids.

Furthermore, again according to Syrian sources, the Russian Air Force has already created its own fixed structure, which should support and cover the Syrian ground offensive precisely in the Deir Hafer region.

As expected, Russia is using the truce of December 30 last to strengthen its positions in Syria.

Rumours are rife that there is a plan to strengthen the naval base of Tartus, in the Mediterranean, and that the Russian air forces will be increased in the Humaynim base.

Furthermore, in another crucial point of the war in Syria, reliable Russian sources inform us that Bashar al-Assad’s forces are advancing in East Ghouta, in the region of Damascus, and hitting jihadist positions in Autaya and Nashabiyan, areas where Jaysh al-Islam operated.

Bashar al-Assad’ Syrians had the support of some agents of the Iranian intelligence services and, above all, of a hit squad of Free Palestine Movement which, in the current Syrian war, is usually armed precisely by Iran.

Another battle that helps to understand the war is the one in Deir Ezzor, where Daesh-Isis is operating massively.

Obviously if the “Caliphate” loses Deir Ezzor, Bashar al-Assad’s forces and Russia will have all clear way to Raqqa.

For the time being, Bashar al-Assad’ Syrians are taking back some significant military positions and installations, such as the helicopter fields that Daesh/Isis had previously regained, while the so-called “Caliphate” definitely wants to keep Deir Ezzor airport, which is the axis of Isis jihadists’ territorial resilience to protect Raqqa, which is still their “capital city”.

In essence, the crisis points of the current war in Syria are the offensives of Assad’s Damascus forces towards Deir Ezzor and Palmyra, as well as the “Caliphate” response in the Deir Ezzor region.

Among other things, there is also the already mentioned issue of Wadi Barada and Ghouta East. If the operations in Wadi Barada are successful for the Syrian forces, the way to Beit Jinín, the crucial area running between Damascus and the Golan Heights, will be open for Assad’s Army.

This is an essential point for Israel’s involvement in the war that no one wants and is definitely not in Israel’s plans.

In the coming days, the role played by Turkey in East Aleppo will be very decisive, because the Turkish forces should conquer Al Bab, the current lowest point of the “Islamic State” military force and possibly the key for breaking it up and destroying it definitely.

These are the forces on the ground but, at cultural and political levels, we are witnessing a new and largely unexpected phenomenon.

One of today’s active forces is what we could define new totalitarian Islamism, which obviously include the so-called “Islamic State”, but also all the jihadism operating in the Middle East, including the Muslim Brotherhood’s old network, which is at the origin of the current chaos.

These are forces which, apart from the so-called “Caliphate”, are fighting for greater and more decisive political presence in all their Sunni or non-Sunni penetration areas.

Furthermore there is Iran, which does not want to create the all too familiar “Shiite camp” and is not interested in doing so, but supports its interests in Syria, Yemen, the Unites Arab Emirates and the wide minorities of “the Party of Ali” throughout the Fertile Crescent.

As stated by the Iranian leader mentioned at the beginning of this article, for the time being Iran does not want to wage war, but the Shiite Iran is seeking stability so as to later negotiate with the existing powers in the region from a position of strength.

We are reminded of the recent statement made by a commander of the Pasdaran, namely the Iranian “Revolutionary Guards”, informing us of the fact that his army structure already controlled four Arab capital cities, namely Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and Sana’a.

Hence Turkey is basically distant from NATO policies in the Middle East – if it were ever close to them – and Russia has gained, on the ground, the decisive support of the Atlantic Alliance’ second military force.

Iran will continue to play its “Shiite International” card, but without abrupt or dangerous operations, which could isolate it from Russia, its inevitable global ally, and from the “Sunni camp”, which has a vested interest in bringing the conflict with Iran closer.

Up to a certain extent, however.

No one, in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, wants military confrontation with Iran, considering that their Shiite minorities are now active on their own territory.

As Shamkhani said, the very resilience of their States would be in danger.

Furthermore Russia will remain in Syria until three key strategic goals are reached: the elimination of every US jihadist or non-jihadist proxy; the creation of a series of alliances, also with Donald Trump’s United States, so as to monitor truces and Syria’s internal stability under Bashar al-Assad; finally, the agreement with Turkey for its areas of interest in the Syrian and Iraqi territory.

Furthermore there is also the control of Iran’s ambitions and designs which, in Russia’s opinion, must only be regional and designed to protect its borders.

Russia does not want to build its Shiite “Saudi Arabia” to which it should be linked in a region where strategic autonomy is the essential factor for those who know how to wage war and hence how to make peace.

This is what is happening, while the European Union pretends to exist and the widest regime change of our time is taking place not in Syria, but in the United States.

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

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The 25-year China-Iran agreement

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On March 27, 2021, a document entitled “Comprehensive Document of Iran-China Cooperation” was signed by Javad Zarif, Iran’s Foreign Minister, and his Chinese counterpart. The Iranian regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei had previously called “the agreement between the presidents of Iran and China correct and wise.” However, the Iranian people have widely criticized it as entirely against their national interests. Iranian officials have not even publicized the document’s contents yet probably because it is highly contentious.

In 2019, excerpts from this document were revealed by the Economist Petroleum news site. The details included:

  • China invests $460 billion in Iranian oil and transportation sectors. China will get its investment back from the sale of Iranian crude during the first five years.
  • China buys Iranian petroleum products at least 32% cheaper.
  • The Chinese can decide before other companies whether to participate in completing all or part of a petrochemical project.
  • 50,000 Chinese security personnel will be deployed to protect Chinese projects in Iran.
  • China has the right to delay the repayment of its debts for up to two years in exchange for Iranian products’ purchase.
  • At least one Russian company will be allowed to participate in the Tabriz-Ankara gas pipeline design together with the Chinese operator.
  • Every year, 110 senior Revolutionary Guards officers travel to China and Russia for military training. 110 Chinese and Russian advisers will be stationed in Iran to train Revolutionary Guards officers.
  • Development of Iranian military equipment and facilities will be outsourced to China, and Chinese and Russian military aircraft and ships will operate the developed facilities.

Even some circles within the regime have criticized the agreement. The state-run Arman newspaper wrote, “China has a 25-year contract with Iran and is investing $460 billion in Iran. It is somewhat ambiguous. Presently, China is holding the money it owes us and blames it on the U.S. sanctions. How can we trust this country to invest $460 billion in Iran?”

Last year, Iran and China had the lowest trade in the previous 16 years, and according to statistics, by the end of 2020, the volume of trade between Iran and China was about $16 billion, which, including undocumented oil sales, still does not reach $20 billion.

Jalal Mirzaei, a former member of Iran’s parliament, said: “If in the future the tensions between Tehran and Washington are moderated, and we see the lifting of some of the sanctions, China can also provide the basis for implementing the provisions of this document, but if the situation continues like today, Beijing will not make any effort to implement the document, as it is essentially unable to take concrete action on the ground because of the sanctions.”

China’s objectives

Iran is vital to China in two ways, through its geopolitical location and its geo-economic importance. China knows that it does not have enough natural resources and is currently having a hard time supplying them from Russia and Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia supplies its energy needs from oil giant Aramco, half of which is owned by the United States. That is why China is looking for a safe alternative that the United States will not influence, and the only option is Iran. They may also have a two-pronged plan in Iran, which involves using Iran’s profitable market and making Iran into a lever of pressure against the United States for additional concessions.

The Iranian regime’s objectives

The deal could deepen China’s influence in the Middle East and undermine U.S. efforts to isolate the Iranian regime. While the international dispute over the Iranian regime’s nuclear program has not been resolved, it is unclear how much this agreement could be implemented. The regime intends to make it a bargaining chip in possible future nuclear negotiations. However, some of Iran’s top authorities believe that China and Russia cannot be trusted 100 percent.

Due to the sanctions, the regime has a tough time to continue providing financial support to its proxy militias in the region. The regime also faced two major domestic uprisings in 2017 and 2019. Khamenei’s regime survived the widespread uprisings by committing a massacre, killing 1,500 young protesters in the 2019 uprising alone, according to the Iranian opposition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) and later confirmed by the Iranian regime’s Interior Ministry officials. Now with the coronavirus pandemic, Khamenei has been able to delay another major uprising.

Iran’s economy is on the verge of collapse. Khamenei must bow to western countries’ demands regarding the nuclear issue, including an end to its regional interventions and its ballistic missile program. Khamenei will struggle to save his regime from s imminent uprisings and a deteriorating economy that will undoubtedly facilitate more protests by the army of the unemployed and the hungry at any moment.

Unlike the 2015 JCPOA, the Iranian regime in 2021 is in a much weaker position. In fact, by many accounts, it is the weakest in its 40-year history. By signing the recent Iran-China agreement and auctioning Iranian resources, Khamenei wants to pressure the United States to surrender and restore the 2015 JCPOA as quickly as possible. But in the end, this pivot will not counteract domestic pressures that target the regime’s very existence.

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China-Arab Relations: From Silk to Friendship

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China and the Arabs have a long and rich economic and cultural history, and this distinguished relationship still exists today, with a promising future. This bilateral relationship between the two nations is based on the principles of respect and non-interference in internal affairs or foreign policies. Therefore, China’s relationship with the Arabs as well as with other nations is unique and a model to be followed. If you meet a Chinese person, the first phrase will be “Alabo” or an Arab in Mandarin, and he/she will welcome you. The Chinese state’s dealings with its counterparts can be measured based on the model of this Chinese citizen. China deals with the Arabs on the basis of friendship and historical ties.

The history of Sino-Arab relations goes back to the Tang Dynasty, and these relations developed with the flourishing of trade between the two nations. Since China was famous for its high quality silk, this trade route was called the “Silk Road”. Baron Ferdinand Freiherr von Richthofen, better known in English as Baron von Richthofen, was a German traveller, geographer, and scientist. He is noted for coining the terms “Seidenstraße” and “Seidenstraßen” = “Silk Road” or “Silk Route” in 1877.

Chinese-Arab relations have developed in contemporary history. In 1930, China established official relations with the Arab Republic of Egypt and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. A library in China was named the “Fouad Islamic Library”, after the late Egyptian king, “Fuad the First”. In 1956, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser cut ties with China and established relations with the Communist People’s Republic of China and inaugurated an embassy in Egypt. In the same year, the Arab League established relations with the People’s Republic of China. By the year 1990, all Arab countries cut their relations with the Republic of China and established diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China.

In 2004, the China-Arab Cooperation Forum was established, and today it is considered a milestone for the Sino-Arab relationship. At its inauguration, Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing delivered a speech stating:“The Arab world is an important force on the international scene, and that China and the Arab countries have enjoyed a long friendship. Our similar history, our common goals and our broad interests have been credited with enhancing cooperation between the two sides; no matter how the international situation changes, China has always been the sincere friend of the Arab world”. The China-Arab Cooperation Forum was officially established during the visit of Chinese President Hu Jintao to the headquarters of the League of Arab States in January of 2004.

Hu Jintao indicated at that time that the formation of the forum is a continuation of the traditional friendship between China and the Arab world. The Chinese president said at the time, “The establishment of the forum is conducive to expanding mutual cooperation in a variety of fields. He added that China had made four proposals; First, maintaining mutual respect, fair treatment and sincere cooperation at the political level. Second, strengthening economic and trade relations through cooperation in the fields of investment and trade, contracted projects, labor services, energy, transportation, communications, agriculture, environmental protection and information. Third, expand cultural exchanges. Finally, conducting training for the employees.”

During the second session of the forum in Beijing in 2006, China showed its sympathy for the issues of the Arab world and its interest in the peace process between Palestine and Israel, since China is a peace-loving country; it presented the idea of “a nuclear-free Middle East”. China is the best friend of the Arab countries today. Although some Arab countries have strong relations with the West whose policy does not match the Chinese policy, but all Arab countries agree on friendly and good relations with the People’s Republic of China.

The Arab citizen is not interested today in the foreign policy of the US, the deadly weapons of the US and Russia, or European culture, but rather the livelihood and economy, and this is what China provides through its wise economic policy. In 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping launched the Belt and Road Initiative, or New Silk Road, which will restore glow to China-Arab relations; as the Arab world is in a strategic location on the initiative map. Thus, the Arab countries are an important partner for China in the initiative. Although the volume of trade exchanges between China and the Arab countries exceeded 200 billion US dollars, which increased 10 times over the past decade, there was no commercial and institutional arrangement to facilitate trade between the two sides.

China, as a peaceful and non-invasive country, aims to promote economic cooperation with Arab region on an equal basis because it considers the Arab world a historic partner. The historical experience of the Arabs with the Chinese through the Silk Road has confirmed that China differs from the nations of colonialism and imperialism, which consider the Arab region a place rich in natural resources only. In his historic speech at the Arab League, Chinese President Xi stressed that China will not seek to extend influence and search for proxies in the Middle East. The Chinese initiatives will contribute to establishing security and stability through economic development and improving the people’s livelihood, in line with the post-2015 development agenda and the aspirations of the Arab people for a better life, as the Chinese experience proves that development is the key to digging out the roots of conflicts and extremism in all its forms.

China is a neutral country and does not favor the use of violence. During the Syrian crisis, for example, the Chinese envoy to the Security Council raised his hand three times, meaning that China, with its wise diplomacy, supported the Syrian regime without entering the military war. During the recent Chinese military parade, Chinese President Xi Jinping revealed some Chinese military capabilities and thus sent a message to the enemies that China will always be ready if a war is imposed on it, and a message of support to China’s allies. The Arab region today needs a real partner who possesses economic and military power and international political influence, such as China; to ensure the success of the Belt and Road Initiative, and to consolidate the China-Arab relations and raise it to the level of a strategic alliance.

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The analysis of developments in relations between Turkey and Israel

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The fear of Biden’s Administration, the concern over the Abraham Accords (see below), the positioning of the geopolitical status in the Middle East, and the safeguarding of interests in Israel are the main factors through which Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan seeks to improve relations with Israel which, however, he connects to the Palestinians.

The statements made by Turkish President Erdoğan’s on developments in relations with Israel have confirmed media reports of his repeated attempts to reach an understanding on several controversial issues, as well as paving the way for the re-establishment of diplomatic relations. The statements made by President Erdoğan, as well as other Turkish officials, have stressed the connection between the change in Turkish-Israeli relations and Israel’s policy towards the Palestinian issue.

The “linking principle” connecting the two issues has been a key factor in Turkish foreign policy since the 1950s, and it operates in the range between words and deeds, which at times have also led to severe crises in the relations between the two countries.

At the time Turkey opposed the partition plan, but recognised Israel and maintained diplomatic relations with it. Relations were suspended after the second Arab-Israeli war in 1956, when Turkey recalled its diplomatic representative from Tel Aviv, announcing he would not return there “until a just solution to the Palestinian issue was found in accordance with UN Resolutions”.

After rising to power, President Erdoğan has developed the aforementioned “linking principle”. Against the backdrop of Israel’s actions with the Palestinians, Turkey has increased its political and economic support for its Muslim brethren and caused crises.

President Erdoğan’s recent statements have been made against the backdrop of this policy: on the one hand, the Turkish President has expressed his country’s desire to improve relations with Israel and continue intelligence cooperation; on the other hand, he has maintained that Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians is “unacceptable”.

It is important to note that Turkey will not relinquish the “linking principle”, which differs from the principle of the new Arab normalisation, based on the separation between the Palestinian issue and relations with Israel. The so-called Abraham Accords, such as the recognition of the State of Israel by the United Arab Emirates in September last year: the third Arab country to formally recognise Israel, after Egypt and Jordan; the fourth one if we considers Mauritania’s “frozen” recognition.

The policy implemented by President Erdoğan is not only shaped by foreign relations, but is also a Turkish internal issue in which public opinion plays a key role. It seems that until elections are held in Turkey (scheduled for June 25, 2023), there will be no complete normalisation with Israel. The majority of the Turkish population supports the Palestinians and their rights, feels full solidarity for them and opposes the Israeli presence.

Moreover, President Erdoğan regards the Palestinian issue as an important factor in building a renewed Turkish Muslim national identity. These stances increase his popularity and strengthen people’s support for him and his party, as well as his authority and prestige in the Muslim world.

At the same time, however, this policy also has pragmatic implications: President Erdoğan is not severing ties with Israel, but merely creating actions that lead to symptoms of “diplomatic” crises.

Despite this wait-and-see attitude, economic ties between Turkey and Israel are flourishing. According to official data, in 2018 exports from Turkey to Israel were worth 6.5 billion dollars and imports 1.9 billion dollars (excluding diamond trade and tourism).

Following the crisis in relations and the expulsion of the Israeli Ambassador from Turkey (May 2018), exports had fallen to 4 billion dollars in 2019 and imports to 1.7 billion dollars. Although declining, there are still deep economic ties.

Trade relations, however, are not the decisive factor in determining the nature of Turkey-Israel relations. There are four issues that are believed to have led Turkey to review its relations with Israel:

1. Turkey has welcome the new U.S. President, Joe Biden, with caution and fear that he will oppose Turkish activities in the region. The U.S. leader may also be very tough on security, armaments and minority rights in Turkey. Some believe that improved relations with Israel will calm down the situation with President Biden, and the U.S. Congress and the Zionist lobby will be able to contribute to this result. It is not known, however, whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be as good a mediator with Biden as he was with Donald Trump.

2. Turkey is seeking to remove the isolation imposed on it due to the distribution of marine economic zones in the Eastern Mediterranean area, and is trying to bring Israel on its side to develop a joint stance and oppose such subdivisions. According to Israeli sources, Turkey has made Israel a generous offer to expand its area of control over the marine economic zones, in exchange for Turkey’ siding with Greece, Cyprus and Egypt. Israel has reacted cautiously, both because it much weighs President Erdoğan’s intentions and because it is actually interested in strengthening its relations with the above stated countries.

3. Turkey is worried about the Abraham Accords for normalisation with Israel, particularly the aforementioned one with the United Arab Emirates, and Turkey aims at limiting their influence and status as a further “undertaking” of Arab rivals. Turkey endeavours to dismantle a rising alliance between the Arab countries and Israel. After all, we wonder why Turkey is not instead trying to improve its ties with Arab countries to achieve the same goal. Could it still be because of history and traditional mutual dislike?

4. Turkey is trying to relieve the pressure on its activities in Israel and Palestine as a result of the possible improvement in relations with Israel. Turkey funds important projects in Jerusalem and Israel is trying to contain and restrain it. Conversely, an improvement in Israeli-Turkish relations could release the Israeli brake.

To date, no official Israeli response has been provided to Turkish statements. Israel’s media speak of suspicion and coldness in response to the Turkish rapprochement, with fears that President Erdoğan is preparing a ploy, a trick aimed not at improving his relations with Israel, but at sabotaging Israel’s relations and contacts with other countries.

However, leaks from senior Israeli officials indicate that their country has set conditions for restoring relations, which include ending Turkey’s ties with Hamas and transferring Turkish projects to Jerusalem through Israeli channels, as well as abstaining from voting against Israel in international organisations and adopting a balanced position between Israel and the Palestinians.

It is not yet clear what the fate of Turkey-Israel relations will be in the coming months, with President Biden in the White House and after the Israeli elections held on March 23, 2021. It is important to note, however, that Turkey will not give up the “linking principle”, which differs from the new principle of Arab normalisation, based on the separation between the Palestinian issue and relations with Israel.

The Turkish “linking principle” is a real need for Turkey- hence the Palestinian leadership must work with Turkey to maximise common goals, especially with regard to Jerusalem, the Al-Aqsa Mosque and Gaza.

Not easy steps to make, but not impossible either.

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