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The strategic significance of the Syrian conflict

Giancarlo Elia Valori

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Considering the quantity and virulence of the groups taking part in the Syrian war, which has been going on uninterruptedly for six years, in principle there are two possible scenarios. An unstable peace that will disrupt the Syrian political and territorial system – as is currently happening in the Lebanon – or a long war of attrition, as in the Balkans of the 1990s or currently in Ukraine or the Horn of Africa.

 A “long war” hiding the strategic and geopolitical void of those who have organized it.

 Initially the aim of the conflict was to prevent Syria from being open to the Iranian power projection onto the Mediterranean region but, in the event of a long war, no one will gain and no country will ever be in a position to obtain a geopolitical surplus from the current conflict in Syria.

 The cultural and military rifts are well-known: the division between Sunnis and Shiites – often craftily manipulated by both religious groups – the divide between religious and “secular” power – insofar as this distinction can be drawn in the Middle East – the division between the two emerging powers in the region, namely Turkey and Iran, and finally the division among the 68 old Western powers of the Coalition led by the United States and the Russian Federation.

  Hence the size and shape of the new Middle East will result from the analysis of the Syrian war.

  The West, which no longer has a true theory of war, interpret the clashes only through the headlines of its newspapers and the psychotic and irrational obsessions of its voters.

  As I have long been maintaining, terrorism is never a strategic concept – the sword Islam operates against the “infidels” through the jihad, which also uses terror, but is not just terrorism.

Here lies the US geopolitical paradox in Syria, where the Muslim Brotherhood’s rebellion against Bashar al-Assad and the subsequent jihadist actions against the Baathist regime deprive the United States of reliable support on the ground for the project designed to bring democracy to the Arab and Islamic world.

 The Arab rebellions were not similar to those of the democratic groups operating within the Warsaw Pact before 1989. The Arab rebellions during  and after the Arab “springs” were mainly economic rebellions, linked to the end of Nasser’s or nationalist Welfare State. All this happened while the Arab States’ fiscal crisis, caused by the measures imposed by the  Monetary Fund and the World Bank, was stifling public spending.

 Moreover, the US support to the Free Syrian Army – often made up and supported by jihadist groups – and the autonomous strategy of Turkey, which is no longer interested in NATO, as well as Russia’s effective support to Bashar al-Assad, are all factors that further complicate the situation in Syria.

 While the United States trained “rebels” who did not carry out operations – or, worse, went to swell the ranks of Daesh-Isis – or joined the Kurds, thus creating very harsh tension with Turkey, Russia correctly identified both the friend and the enemy: the regime of Bashar al-Assad, the friend who could win with the Russian support, and the primary enemy, namely the jihadism of the Syrian-Iraqi “Caliphate”.

 Obviously, in the future, the Russian foreseeable victory in Syria will not enable the United States and the EU to make acceptable concessions to Russia in order to solve the Ukrainian issue.

 This was certainly a hidden motive of the Russian decision-makers.

 It is, however, a good start: in fact, currently Russia is militarily credible, while the United States and its allies have not really made a good impression in the Syrian-Iraqi region.

 Hence – reverting to our analysis on the future of Syria after the conflict or, rather, after the end of the harshest phases of the conflict – we will have to deal with an Alawite regime which will hold the main cities and the Mediterranean coasts, as well as the Kurdish region, divided between the Afrin and the North-East plains, an area that could make the US and Russian interests meet.

 Finally, both Russia and the United States want to control Turkey, which cannot and above all must not become the power of reference for all Sunni Syrians who are the majority of population.

 Here also the Kurds are good as mass of manoeuvre since they can protect Israel from the North.

 There is also the Sunni region, which will long still be in the hands of the many jihadist groups that currently operate between the so-called “Caliphate” and the Free Syrian Army, while the border with Iraq could enable these groups to avoid clashes and gradually rebuild their war potential.

 Furthermore, Isis-Daesh – now caught between Deir-Ezzor and Raqqa – has still the potential to cause further problems and recruit new Sunni militants from abroad and from Syria’s wide Sunni region.

 In particular, the United States also wants to avoid a single group of countries dominating over the whole Middle East and jihadism becoming decisive in the arc of countries that have always strategically supported the United States in the region.

 However, we must be careful: Egypt, weakened by the usual and silly “Arab Springs”, is currently very different from Mubarak’s Egypt; Jordan hosts so many Syrian refugees who now account for 20% of its population; Saudi Arabia – considering the current oil prices – can no longer afford its military and soft power initiatives.

 Iran wants above all to create its own ​​protection and control area from its borders towards the Mediterranean, by supporting its friendly States (Qatar and  Oman) and making its threat to the great Sunni powers credible.

 Another factor not to be forgotten is that the current US Presidency thinks that the control of Iran moves and the possible clash with Iran in Syria are one of its primary goals in the Syrian-Iraqi region.

Nevertheless, President Putin will never accept this situation because, in Syria, Russia is largely guaranteed by the Pasdaran on its Eastern and Southern flank and by the Iranian “volunteers’ forces” often composed of Afghan or Iraqi Shiites.

 Hence Iran wants to secure its internal stability in Syria, in view of Ali Khamenei’s forthcoming death, and to create a new and strong deterrence against Israel, as well as become the primary security provider for the Syrian regime, the Lebanon and the Shiite “Axis of Resistance” units, without ever forgetting the Palestinian units.

 For the Shiite units, the attack on Israel will be from Golan, the Lebanon and the border with the Palestinian Authority, with actions for saturating the combat field capable of causing many problems to the Jewish State’s forces.

 This is the scenario which is emerging also in Syria.

 Iran also wants to definitively oust the United States from Iraq and, in the future, from the Sunni areas traditionally close to the United States.

  Furthermore, Iran will not fully mobilize to support Assad’s operations in Southern Syria as, for the time being, it does not want to create the conditions and the opportunity for a final confrontation with Israel.

 As far as Daesh-Isis is concerned, it is highly likely that – in the coming months – a series of terrorist actions will be launched by the “Caliphate” in Europe, with a sequence of operations also in Russia.

 The more some European countries have been scarcely affected by jihadist terrorism, the more attacks in those areas will be likely, namely in Germany, the Baltic countries, as well as again in Great Britain and – when the new “covert” networks are created – also in Italy.

 In all likelihood, the Caliphate’s first actions on the Syrian soil will be clashes between the forces of what remains of the Caliphate and Iran – probably in the Diyala region – in order to isolate Russia and weaken it on the front in which the Caliphate is most interested, which is the one linking  Syria to Iraq.

  Daesh-Isis may also carry out a widespread action to destabilize Jordan, while al-Qaeda’s network will have the primary aim of maintaining, protecting and expanding the terrorist networks already present in Syria and its neighbouring countries, with a view to later using them in Afghanistan to prevent the stabilization of the Afghan regime, or in Saudi Arabia, which could be currently weak enough to be hit by a large-scale terrorist attack.

 As already partially noted, Turkey is present in Syria mainly to prevent the creation of an autonomous Kurdistan, which would act as a trigger for the Kurdish region currently within the Turkish borders.

 Obviously, Turkey does not even want Russia to further expand in Syria, while it remotely controls the presence of Iran that is Turkey’s true competitor in the region.

 Furthermore, Turkey is present in Syria to reduce NATO’s political and military impact on its foreign policy – hence also the clout of the United States and of the Turkish Armed Forces that President Erdogan keeps on not fully trusting.

  Turkey is present in Syria also to strengthen its strategic cooperation with Russia and reconnect itself with China’s current power projection onto the Middle East.

 President Erdogan is fed up with NATO’s strategic void and intends to connect with both China and the various Central Asian countries, with a view to building his new neo-Ottoman hegemony.

The Turkish AKP’s geopolitics is also cherishing the idea of becoming the power of reference also for the Sunni world in the Middle East, at a time when Saudi Arabia and Egypt are declining both at economic and at political and militarily levels.

 Nevertheless, there are other factors to be considered in our Syrian strategic equation: whatever happens, Assad has not the ability to “hold” Syria – fully or partly – without stable Russian or Iranian support.

 Furthermore, the tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia could break out and radicalize at any time, especially if Jordan became unstable and the Palestinian networks – now all linked to Iran – were to start destabilizing the Saudi regime.

 Not to mention the possible radicalization of the Kurdish issue, which would oblige Turkey to be more present in Syria and to launch a sequence of repressive actions inside it, which would probably isolate Erdogan’s regime at international level.

  Hence no solution is devoid of dangers for the stability of the Mediterranean basin and the EU but, obviously, no EU government seems to become aware of the far-reaching effects of the Syrian tensions.

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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Middle East

Turkish Strengthened Parliamentary System

Muratcan Isildak

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“Corrected” or “enhanced” system of parliamentary debate, thoroughly sat on Turkey’s agenda in recent days. There are two reasons for this. First, it is unclear what, all from a single source power is collected, brought Turkey no balance-point of the current regime where there is no monitoring mechanism. Of democracy, of freedom, which abolished the rule of law, both inside and outside the war which, as all institutions of workers pouring connected to a single person, the economy of bottoming out, which is a record level of unemployment, inequality of well increase as a Turkey. Undoubtedly, the first step to get out of this darkness and tidy up the wreckage is to get rid of the one-man regime called the “Presidential Government System”. The question then arises of what kind of management system to replace. The second reason is the increasing signs that the MHP-backed AKP government is about to end. A transition period will begin after the end of AKP rule. But where is the transition? This question should be discussed and an answer should be sought.

The parliamentary system has led to the domination of the majority over the minority in Turkey. Since there are no mechanisms to prevent the executive from dominating the legislature, the power is meeting in the hands of the prime minister, who is the head of the ruling majority party. The end of the independence of the judiciary, the silencing of the press, the pressure on the opposition, the arbitrary administration all took place in the parliamentary system.

Such a new democracy changes the focus of politics. The subject of politics, political parties cease to be party heads, but become the people themselves. However, in order to create a grassroots popular movement, people need to unite within the framework of a project and not be a “mass”, but turn into a “people” that decide their future. Such “people” make decisions about their own problems and demand that governments implement these decisions. Such a people does not leave their future to the rulers, they take control of their future. Such a people becomes the engine of change in society, creates a libertarian, egalitarian, new society.

One of the most important features of participatory democracy is that it is based on equality. Equality in income distribution as well as in participation can be achieved in this way. We have seen the concrete application of this in the example of Porto Allegre in Brazil.

There are many different models of participatory democracy. These models cover a wide spectrum, from the budgeting powers of local units to different decision-making platforms. It is necessary to discuss these and, according to the results, the construction of local democratic institutions. 

However, no matter what model is adopted, participatory democracy has some unchangeable basic principles:

Participation is open to all who live in that place.

Participatory democracy institutions are independent from the state. The aim of the system is to realize a power sharing between representative democracy institutions and local democracy institutions. Representative democracy institutions will lose their power as they will transfer some of their powers to local institutions. 

But considering that representative democracy is not working well anyway, this weakening is not a loss for democracy.

Informing the public correctly. For this, there is a need for effective use of social media as well as the prevalence of freedom of expression and press in the country.

Participatory democracy leads to deepening democracy and creating a culture of participation. However, the main problem here is that the people adopt this culture with an active citizenship awareness. Successful pilot project implementations are required for this.

Let’s not forget that my imagination of the future determines what we will do now.

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The Battle for Jerusalem: Turkey’s Erdogan stakes his claim

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan didn’t mince his words at this month’s opening of parliament. In his first assertion of a claim to a lost non-Turkic part of the Ottoman empire, Mr. Erdogan declared that Jerusalem is Turkish.

“In this city, which we had to leave in tears during the First World War, it is still possible to come across traces of the Ottoman resistance. So Jerusalem is our city, a city from us,” Mr. Erdogan said.

He went on to say that “the current appearance of the Old City, which is the heart of Jerusalem, was built by Suleiman the Magnificent, with its walls, bazaar, and many buildings. Our ancestors showed their respect for centuries by keeping this city in high esteem.”

Mr. Erdogan was referring to the 16th century Ottoman sultan, a sponsor of monumental architectural development, who is widely viewed as having protected his Jewish subjects.

In July, Mr. Erdogan described that month’s return of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, a sixth century Orthodox-church-turned-mosque-turned-museum, to the status of a Muslim house of worship as paving the way for the “liberation” of Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque, Islam’s third holiest site.

Mr. Erdogan’s office released a month later a four-minute video clip suggesting that Turkey’s quest for leadership of the Islamic world was as much a military and nationalist endeavor as it was a religious drive. Laced with martial music, the clip meshed religious and Ottoman symbolism.  Entitled Golden Apple, the clip ended with a panorama view of Al-Aqsa.

The president, who embeds his often raw nationalism in a religious mantle, can have no illusion that Jerusalem would return to Turkish rule.

Yet, by putting forward his claim, Mr. Erdogan hopes to put his quest for leadership of the Muslim world on par with that of one Turkey’s staunchest rivals, Saudi Arabia. The kingdom is home to Islam’s two most sacred cities, Mecca and Medina.

Rather than seeking to regain lost Ottoman territory, Mr. Erdogan is staking a claim to custodianship of Jerusalem’s Haram ash-Sharif or Temple Mount and Al Aqsa mosque compound that currently rests with a Jordanian-controlled religious endowment known as the Waqf.

The president escalated his rhetoric at a moment that the Palestine Authority has reached out to Turkey as well as Qatar in the wake of the normalization of relations between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain and a series of statements by prominent Saudi and other Gulf leaders taking President Mahmoud Abbas’ administration to task for squandering opportunities for peace with the Jewish state.

Mr. Erdogan’s claim adds to Jordan’s worries that Israel, in the wake of the formalization of its ties to Gulf states, could support Saudi ambitions to join the Hashemite kingdom, if not replace it, as the holy site’s administrator.

Israel Hayom, Israel’s most widely read newspaper that is supportive of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, quoted an unidentified Arab diplomat as saying that Saudi funds were needed to counter Turkish influence in Jerusalem.

“If the Jordanians allow the Turks to operate unhindered at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, within a matter of years their special status in charge of the Waqf and Muslim holy sites would be relegated to being strictly ‘on paper,’” the diplomat was quoted as saying in June.

Raed Daana, a former director of preaching and guidance at the Al-Aqsa Mosque Directorate, said in 2018, in the wake of US President Donald J. Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, that Saudi Arabia had secretly invited Palestinian Muslim dignitaries in a bid to garner support for a Saudi role in the Waqf.

Mr. Daana attributed the secrecy in part to a refusal to accept the invitation by a number of Palestinian religious figures.

Jordan last year increased the number of members of the Waqf from 11 to 18 in a bid to give it a more a more Muslim rather than exclusively Jordanian  flavour and to fend off attempts by regional powers to muscle their way into the body.

The new members included officials of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestine Authority as well as figures with links to Turkey and Gulf states like Sheikh Ekrima Sabri, a former grand mufti of Jerusalem and Holocaust denier who has defended Mr. Erdogan’s militancy regarding Jerusalem; and Mr. Sabri’s successor, Muhammad Hussein, who had close ties to the United Arab Emirates until he last month barred Emiratis from visiting Al Aqsa in protest against the UAE’s recognition of Israel.

Mr. Erdogan has in recent years been laying the groundwork for his claim with millions of dollars in donations to local Islamic organizations as well as Turkish religious activists and pilgrims in Jerusalem whom Israel has accused of instigating Palestinian protests.

Turkey’s Directorate General for Religious Affairs (Diyanet), that is part of Mr. Erdogan’s office, lists Al-Aqsa as a site for the umrah, the lesser Muslim pilgrimage.

Israeli sources say Turkey’s cultural center in Jerusalem as well as a Turkish renovated coffeeshop two minutes from the city’s Western Wall that is adorned with Turkish and Palestinians flags as well as portraits of Mr. Erdogan and Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II serve as a meeting point for activists and pilgrims.

“Turkey is working diligently to deepen its involvement and influence on the Temple Mount, in the Old City of Jerusalem, and in east Jerusalem neighbourhoods. It is encouraging welfare-religious (dawa) activities…aimed at drawing the Palestinian public toward the Turkish-Islamic heritage and at weakening Israel’s hold on the Old City and east Jerusalem,” said conservative Israeli journalist and analyst Nadav Shragai.

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Kingdom’s journey from ultra-conservatism to ultra-modernism

Abdul Rasool Syed

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Saudi Arabia, currently, is undergoing a phenomenal metamorphosis; a country widely known for its ultra-conservative posture is now gradually moving towards liberalism. It is witnessing a remarkable transformation in its socio-economic-cultural contours. The kingdom, once influenced and controlled by orthodox clergy, did not let women come out of their domestic confines but, now, the situation has diametrically changed. It has allowed the womenfolk incredible latitude to not only come out of home but also to travel abroad independently. They are, thus, supposed to contribute to country’s socio-economic development by working shoulder to shoulder with men. Economy, too, is being diversified; the kingdom is jettisoning its chronic dependence on oil revenues and is moving towards rapid Industrialization. Acculturation, once regarded as taboo by Saudi society is now, being appreciated bit by bit.

The man, who masterminded this movement of colossal change, is none other than Crown prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS); He is the real catalyst that is working devotedly and diligently to improve his country’s image nationally and internationally. His ideology is described as nationalist and populist, with conservative attitude towards politics and a liberal stance on economic and social issues.

However, His style of governance came under severe stricture by journalistic community. He has been dubbed as “extremely brutal” by journalist Rula Jabrael and “authoritarian” by Late Jamal khashoggi. On contrary, his move to reform the country has been widely lauded and supported by Saudi populace.

Prince Mohammad is of opinion that his country has been severely harmed by traditional clergy that considered any reformative move as a sin and hence, has kept the country stagnant economically and socially. He emphatically stated at one occasion: “we are returning to what we were before, a country of moderate Islam that is open to all religions and to the world. We will not waste 30 years of our lives dealing with extremist ideas. We will destroy them today.” He later added that Saudi Arabia “will remain committed to the principles “of Islam, “the religion of tolerance and moderation”. The kingdom “will keep on fighting against extremism and terrorism”—a message directly meant to counter the outrageous edicts released by leading clerics against anything they perceived a threat to Saudi society.

The crown Prince took the clergy as a great hurdle in the way of kingdom’s socio-economic development. He, therefore, trimmed its wings of power by stripping it of its policing powers. Instead, the government took the reins into its hands to guide the society. Now, with the passive and emaciated clergy, Prince is aggressively pursuing his agenda of reforms.

“Vision 2030” is the bedrock of Prince Mohammad’s scheme of socio-economic change. Under this vision, he is going to transform country’s economic physiognomy. Vision 2030 aims at steering Saudi’s economy towards more diversified and privatized structure. It expounds goals and measures in various fields, from developing non-oil revenue and privatization of the economy to e-government and sustainable development.

To this end, Bin Salman, in October 2017, at the inaugural conference of Future investment initiative in Riyadh, announced the plan for the creation of NEOM, a $ 500 billion economic zone to cover an area of 26000 sq km on Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea cost, extending into Japan and Egypt.  NEOM aims at attracting investment in sectors of renewable energy, biotechnology, robotics and advanced manufacturing.

 A project to build Saudi Arabia’s first nuclear reactor was also announced by Prince Mohammad in November 2018. The kingdom aspires to build 16 nuclear facilities over the next 20 years. Efforts to diversify Saudi energy sector also include wind and solar energy.

Apart from this, a much awaited high-speed railway line connecting two holiest cities of Islam Mecca and Medina was inaugurated by Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) in last week of September 2018. The Harmain Express is 450 km line travelling up to 300 km/h that can transport around 60 million passengers annually.

In addition, before the outbreak of corona virus, in order to boost tourism industry, the kingdom started issuing e-visas to tourists. It  opened up its borders to fans of live sport, music and culture for the first time with the launch of a new online visa process dedicated to welcoming international tourists.

Moreover, in 2016, Prince Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS) shared the idea for “Green cards” for non-Saudi foreigners with Al-Arabia Journalist Turki Al-Dakhil. In 2019, Saudi cabinet approved a new residency scheme “Premium Residency” for foreigners. The scheme will enable expatriates to permanently reside, own property and invest in the kingdom.

Prince MBS is staunch proponent of women emancipation. He contends that dream of progress and sustainable development cannot be realized unless women become part and parcel of workforce. He, therefore, has brought about many reforms pertaining to the status of women in Saudi society.

For this very purpose, he allowed women to drive in the kingdom. Driving licenses are, therefore, being issued to women at a very fast pace; the number of women drivers on the road, according to Saudi officials, is expected to grow to 3 million by 2020. Further, Saudi women may now attend soccer matches and sporting events. Gyms and fitness centers for women are being established. They can also join the military and intelligence services. They are allowed to open their own business without male’s permission and to travel abroad independently without male guardian. In this very spirit, Saudi Arabia appointed its first woman to head Saudi stock exchange.

On entertainment side, Saudi government has established an entertainment authority that began hosting comedy shows, professional wrestling, live music concerts and monster truck rallies.

In April 2017, Prince MBS announced a project to build one of worlds largest cultural, sports and entertainment cities in AL-Qidiya, southwest of Riyadh. The plan includes a safari and a six flags theme park.

Additionally, cultural transformation of the kingdom is also underway. It held its first public concert by female singer in December 2017. And in January 2018, a sport stadium in Jeddah became the first in the kingdom to admit women. In April 2018, the first public cinema opened in Saudi Arabia after a ban of 35 years, with plans to have more than 2000 screens running by 2030.

This all became possible, when clerical hold over the kingdom was eviscerated. The orthodox clergy with its antiquated and rigid doctrines was the biggest obstacle in the way of progress and development of the kingdom. Addressing this issue, Prince MBS said that he aimed to have Saudi Arabia start “Returning to what we were before—a country of moderate Islam that is open to all religions and to the world.” He told the country’s clerics that the deal the royal family struck with them after the 1979 siege of Grand Mosque in Mecca was to be re-negotiated.

The crown prince believes that industrialization and wahhabism are mutually exclusive. The wahhabies are committed to fixed social and gender relationships. These are consistent with an economy built on oil sales, but industrialization requires a dynamic culture with social relations constantly shifting.

 Inter alia, Ayaan Haris Ali, a celebrated author and human rights activist claimed that if MBS “succeeds in his modernization efforts, Saudis will benefit from new opportunities and freedoms, and the world will benefit from curtailing Wahhabi radicalization agenda. A decade from now, the kingdom could look more like the UAE, its prosperous and relatively forward looking neighbor”.

In the end, I would like to quote Prince Mohammad bin Salman who while addressing to packed audience at the Future Investment Initiative forum in Riyadh said that Middle East can be the “New Europe” and that he would like to see the economic transformation of the region happen within his life time. He said: “his ‘war’ was restoring the Middle East to its past glory. “I believe that the new Europe is the Middle East”. “Saudi Arabia in five years, he added,” will be completely different”.

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