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The Syrian Congress in Sochi: Too Much Too Soon

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The Syrian National Congress was held in Sochi on January 30 and reportedly gathered close to 1,500 Syrians to kick-start the national dialogue by giving platform to the broader Syrian community. The Congress, it seems, had an ambition to become an umbrella platform that would bring together Syrians who participate in existing negotiating tracks, such as Geneva and Astana, as well give agency to those who have not had a chance to become part of any existing negotiating rounds and thus have no say in defining the future of the country. Participation of a large number of Syrian figures in the Congress perfectly matches up with the idea expressed in the UN Resolution 2254 that Syrians should be the ones deciding the future of the country and gives greater legitimization to the process of political settlement of the conflict.

Despite the fact that the conditions were seemingly in place for a successful discussion, the Congress was taken hostage by its own agenda. It seems that it was designed to meet too many objectives, both in Russia’s Syria policy as well as in its domestic politics ahead of the Presidential election. The work on the constitution is something that is called for in the UN Security Council Resolution 2254, so there is nothing controversial in that Russia is proposing a mechanism to kick-start that work.

Moscow first proposed a project of the Syrian Constitution in January 2017, which was rejected by the Syrian opposition, and most surprisingly was not taken positively by Russia’s allies. The project came after the signing of the Syria ceasefire agreement between Russia, Turkey and Iran in December 2016, as Moscow was hoping to incentivize political resolution of the conflict. The ceasefire was ultimately derailed and Moscow took a lot of blows from the international community for alleged attempts to sabotage the Geneva process by unilaterally launching the drafting of the constitution.

The unsuccessful, albeit honest, attempt to revive political resolution led Russia to a realization that constitution drafting needs to be institutionalized. At the same time Moscow could not go about it by coercing political opposition into accepting the Russia-led constitution drafting process in the same way it has done in forcing the armed rebel groups into accepting the new status quo on the ground in Syria. There is a certain disconnect between Russia’s hard power instruments and its ability to spearhead political dialogue. These are the faultiness that Russia tried to overcome in Sochi by institutionalizing the process of constitution drafting.

Foreign governments as well as the Syrian opposition and the UN itself had fears that by holding Sochi Russia was going to marginalize the Geneva track of negotiations and all parties that take part in these talks. In reality, however, the opposite happened: By looking to deliver on Vladimir Putin’s promise to hold the Syrian Congress as a logical conclusion of the Syrian war Moscow had to try to secure the backing of all concerned parties. Russia, however, faced a dilemma from the very outset because by looking to hold the constitution drafting process as a parallel track to Geneva (something that loyalist opposition figures were insisting on), much like Astana, it was causing its outright rejection by the international community. Similarly, by seeking its inclusion in Geneva Russia was ultimately agreeing that the Moscow-initiated effort would fall under the control of the UN. As a result, the Russian government opted for a mix of both approaches that will hardly be conducive to the Geneva track of negotiations.

There is no doubt that the Syrian constitution will need to change drastically due to the war and as a means to end the war. The project of the constitution proposed by Russia in 2017 united the opposition and the loyalists in rejecting it. However, in private conversations a lot of opposition figures acknowledge that this project was an acceptable point of reference for a national debate on the future constitution. However, being an externally-imposed document, it immediately became a non-starter for many Syrians. What is more, some opposition figures argue that Syria does not need a new constitution and could do with an amended 2012 document. But for all of them the bottom line is that the work on the constitution is an issue of internal Syrian deliberation.

It seems that Russia learnt its lesson the hard way in January 2017 having had its project dismissed by virtually all sides to the Syrian conflict and decided to give Syrians a platform in Sochi to launch the discussion on the constitution. However, the political actors who are expected to play a role in the shaping of the transitional period in Syria, namely the High Negotiations Committee that represents the opposition and the Democratic Union Party that represents the Kurdish minority, did not attend the Congress. The participation in the Sochi Congress implied no institutional presence, meaning that neither the Syrian government nor the HNC were there in institutional capacity. The HNC did send three representatives to Sochi, including head of the so-called Moscow group of the opposition Qadri Jamil, which might help secure acceptance of the Sochi process by the opposition. However, the absence of Nasr Hariri, head of the opposition groups in Sochi might spell troubles for the Congress’ mission down the road.

Dropping the Kurds from the list of participants was Russia’s price to pay for Turkey’s backing the Congress. Turkey arguably played a key role in legitimizing the Congress but HNC low-key participation and complete absence of the Kurds at the end of the day may threaten the Russia-Turkey axis with Ankara not doing enough to secure high-level HNC participation in Sochi and doing all it could to bar the Kurds from participation.

There is a lot of skepticism as to how the results of the Sochi Congress could feed into the Geneva process. UN envoy for Syria Stefan De Mistura acknowledged the results of the Congress but expressed no obligation to follow them, only stating that he is intended to indicate how he is willing to proceed on the task mandated under the Congress declaration. The language of this statement is diplomatic enough to give a due credit to the Sochi effort and vague enough so as not to commit to the implementation of its results.

It is not only the hesitation of the Syria envoy to get the Sochi results on board of the Geneva process, but also the refusal of the Assad government to discuss the constitution outside Syria as well as conditions on the ground in Syria that may inhibit the establishment of the Constitutional Committee. In the run-up to the Sochi Congress the fighting in Syria significantly escalated not least due to the Assad government’s expansion into the Idlib de-escalation zone and Turkey’s incursion in Afrin. These developments have a distinct Aleppo taste to them, which may deter the Syrian opposition from entering into any substantive political talks for the time being. While this may be an acceptable outcome for Ankara that for the time being only seeks a military advance against the Kurds as a way of marketing its victory in Syria for the Turkish public, it is certainly bad news for Russia that bet its prestige on the success of the Sochi Congress.

The unintended consequence of opposition’s low-key representation at the Sochi Congress is arguably a blow to Russia’s position as a chief negotiator on Syria. The Astana process that propelled Moscow to the title of a leading mediator on military issues and showcased its ability to engage armed opposition and the government in diplomatic talks may have also led Russia to believe that it can equally as easily spearhead complex political negotiations. However, Moscow appeared less predisposed to exercising political clout when it comes to issues not involving hard power, just as it fails to rally support for its cause. This sets a potentially dangerous precedent for Russia and may impact its positioning vis-a-vis other international negotiators. In fact a new political plan to solve the Syrian conflict introduced by the United States, France, Jordan and the UK on the sidelines of a Paris meeting on chemical weapons in January that called for radical changes to the Syrian constitution may surprisingly gain traction.

There has been a lot of talk prior to the Sochi Congress as to whether it undermines the Geneva process. The results of this gathering unequivocally demonstrate that it is no threat to Geneva, but so is it unlikely to give a much needed boost to the political settlement. Rival sidekick tracks to the Geneva process that have started appearing lately are only indicative of the fact that the progress in military de-escalation in Syria has failed to facilitate political progress. It increasingly looks that the Syrian conflict has been pushed back to a year ago when fighting was the key defining element of the political process, the circumstances in which the drafting of the constitution is an untimely step.

First published in our partner RIAC

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Middle East

Who are the real betrayers of Egypt, Critics or Sycophants?

Mohammed Nosseir

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“You are betraying your country by exposing its defects!” is a common accusation made by the sycophants to the ruling regime in Egypt who have managed to well situated themselves in our society simply by blindly praising the ruler’s policies. Apparently, these sycophants place a higher value on the privileges that they have gained to living in a truly advanced nation. In fact, the real betrayers of any given authoritarian nation are those who justify this immoral ruling mechanism for their own personal gain.  

Despotism is the evilest ruling mechanism ever devised; apart from its cruelty and unfairness, it works on inflating the ruler’s ego by mirroring his thoughts that are always passionately endorsed by his flatterers, regardless of their merits! Meanwhile, the ruler’s manipulation of the entire political sphere impairs the state’s ability to detect and correct its blunders. Concurrently, the harsh and inhuman treatment of the state’s critics, which includes threats to their personal lives, results in spreading fear throughout the entire society.

A successful strategy for running a country ruled by a tyrannical government is to enable ignorant citizens to dominate the state media exclusively, thus empowering them to express their opinions on a much wider scale than knowledgeable citizens. This approach consequently creates significant friction between knowledgeable and ignorant citizens, resulting in the polarization of the entire nation. The state methodically fuels this process by labeling the mediocre as loyal citizens and accusing its critics of treason.

The privileging of sycophants financially, along with advancing their power and upscaling their status, have prompted many Egyptians to join this beneficial club, which prerequisites praising superiors and justifying their faults, thus compensating for the natural dullness and incompetence of the flatterers. Meanwhile, the state’s critics who demand freedom and stand by their values are aware that they are engaged in a long-lasting battle and are risking their lives for generations to come!

In fact, sycophants are the weakest link in the state’s ruling dynamics. They hypocritically heap intense praise on the security apparatus who sacrifice their lives to defend our nation – but do their utmost to ensure that their youngsters abandon their military duty; just one facet of their deceitful conduct. Sycophantic behavior and false testimony are the most sinful acts in Islam; yet they have become, ironically, a habitual pattern of behavior in our social norms.  

That Egypt needs to be ruled by an Iron-fist is a common argument put forth by the flatterers. It is translated into applying harsh measures to critics and laxity toward lawbreakers – a proposition that reflects the low moral values espoused by flatterers to secure their status. The policy of maximum repression adopted by the current ruling regime might be successful in controlling society; however, it has certainly contributed to an escalation of terrorism activities by political Islamists against the military apparatus.

In my former party, the Egyptian Democratic Front, a few executive party members used to instantly report our internal discussions to the State Security apparatus. In addition totheir immoral conduct and betrayal of their peers, they used to enhance their ratting out by exacerbating our opposing political stands. I argued, at that time, for either offering those ratters a crash course on “minutes-taking” or inviting the State Security apparatus to participate in our meetings to better learn about our viewpoints.

“Cairo is a dirty city” – a painful remark that I occasionally hear from international visitors to our capital. The Egyptian State will never be able to manipulate the perception of millions of diversified tourists who visit Cairo yearly, but we can easily work to bring order to our city and live in a hygienic place. The same applies to other qualities of life such as freedom, dignity and justice; we need to highlight deficiencies in these areas to be able to advance our nation.  

President Al Sisi has a clear desire to be a remarkable leader; he believes that expanding our roads and building new flyovers will make Egypt an advanced nation and that these developments will be credited to his legacy. The president is unaware that the future of our country will be written and judged by the youths of today, who are extremely angry with him due to his policy of demolishing humanity and freedom, compounded by his inability to create decent jobs for youngsters.

Egypt is currently confronting a number of complex internal and external challenges, including an economic slowdown, a civil war on our eastern borders, a potential water shortage due to the filling of Ethiopian GRED and rising unemployment. All of these challenges, and many more, will simply be intensified by our deep polarization, further weakening the state. The sycophants’ deliberate misleading of Egypt concerning these challenges is dragging our nation downward, transforming us into a fragile state.

Advancing an old-fashioned country like Egypt requires honest citizens who have bold ideas and enough courage to implement their ideas. These qualities are found more among knowledgeable citizens and critics of the state who are already sacrificing for their country; large numbers of them are spending their best years in prison simply for having voiced their opinions. Modernizing Egypt will require our president to unite our nation, appointing well-educated citizens to key positions and completely discarding state sycophants.

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Middle East

Israel-China Relations: Staring Into the Abyss of US-Chinese Decoupling

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Israel knew the drill even before US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo boarded his flight to Tel Aviv earlier this month four days after the death of his father. It was Mr. Pompeo’s first and only overseas trip since March.

Echoing a US warning two decades ago that Israeli dealings with China jeopardized the country’s relationship with the United States, Mr. Pompeo’s trip solidified Israel’s position at the cusp of the widening US-Chinese divide.

Two decades ago the issue was the potential sale to China of Israeli Phalcon airborne warning and control systems (AWACS). Israel backed out of the deal after the US threatened withdrawal of American support for the Jewish state.

This month the immediate issue was a Chinese bid for construction of the world’s largest desalination plant and on the horizon a larger US-Chinese battle for a dominating presence in Eastern Mediterranean ports.

Within days of his visit, Mr. Pompeo scored a China-related success even if the main focus of his talks with Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu was believed to be Iran and Israeli plans to annex portions of the West Bank, occupied by Israel since 1967.

Israel signalled that it had heard the secretary’s message by awarding the contract for the Sorek-2 desalination plant to an Israeli rather than a Chinese company.

The tender, however, is only the tip of the iceberg.

China’s interest in Israel is strategic given the fact that the Jewish state is one of the world’s foremost commercial, food and security technology powerhouses and one of the few foreign countries to command significant grassroots support in the United States.

If there is one thing Israel cannot afford, it is a rupture in its bonds to the United States. That is no truer than at a time in which the United States is the only power supportive of Israeli annexation plans on the West Bank.

The question is whether Israel can develop a formula that convinces the United States that US interests will delineate Israeli dealings with China and reassure China that it can still benefit from Israeli assets within those boundaries.

“Right now, without taking the right steps, we are looking at being put in the situation in which the US is telling us we need to cut or limit our relations with China. The problem is that Israel wants freedom of relations with China but is not showing it really understands US concerns. Sorek-2 was a good result. It shows the Americans we get it.” said Carice Witte, executive director of Sino-Israel Global Network and Academic Leadership (SIGNAL) that seeks to advance Israeli-Chinese relations.

Analysts, including Ms. Witte, believe that there is a silver lining in Israel’s refusal to award the desalination plant to a Chinese company that would allow it to steer a middle course between the United States and China.

“China understands that by giving the Americans this win, China-Israel relations can continue. It gives them breathing room,” Ms. Witte said in an interview.

It will, however, be up to Israel to develop criteria and policies that accommodate the United States and make clear to China what Israel can and cannot do.

“In order for Israel to have what it wants… it’s going to need to show the Americans that it takes Washington’s strategic perceptions into consideration and not only that, that it’s two steps ahead on strategic thinking with respect to China.  The question is how.” Ms. Witte said.

Ports and technology are likely to be focal points.

China is set to next year takeover the management of Haifa port where it has already built its own pier and is constructing a new port in Ashdod.

One way of attempting to address US concerns would be to include technology companies in the purview of a still relatively toothless board created under US pressure in the wake of the Haifa deal to review foreign investment in Israel. It would build in a safeguard against giving China access to dual civilian-military use technology.

That, however, may not be enough to shield Israel against increased US pressure to reduce Chinese involvement in Israeli ports.

“The parallels between the desalination plant and the port are just too close to ignore. We can’t have another infrastructure divide,” Ms. Witte said.

The two Israeli ports will add to what is becoming a Chinese string of pearls in the Eastern Mediterranean.

China already manages the Greek port of Piraeus.

China Harbour Engineering Company Ltd (CHEC) is looking at upgrading Lebanon’s deep seaport of Tripoli to allow it to accommodate larger vessels.

Qingdao Haixi Heavy-Duty Machinery Co. has sold Tripoli port two 28-storey container cranes capable of lifting and transporting more than 700 containers a day, while a container vessel belonging to Chinese state-owned shipping company COSCO docked in Tripoli in December 2018, inaugurating a new maritime route between China and the Mediterranean.

Major Chinese construction companies are also looking at building a railroad that would connect Beirut and Tripoli in Lebanon to Homs and Aleppo in Syria.  China has further suggested that Tripoli could become a special economic zone within the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and serve as an important trans-shipment point between the People’s Republic and Europe.  

BRI is a massive infrastructure, telecommunications and energy-driven effort to connect the Eurasian landmass to China.

Potential Chinese involvement in reconstruction of post-war Syria would likely give it access to the ports of Latakia and Tartous.

Taken together, China is looking at dominating the Eastern Mediterranean with six ports in four countries, Israel, Greece, Lebanon, and Syria that would create an alternative to the Suez Canal.

All that is missing are Turkish, Cypriot and Egyptian ports.

The Chinese build- up threatens to complicate US and NATO’s ability to manoeuvre in the region.

The Trump administration has already warned Israel that Chinese involvement in Haifa could jeopardize continued use of the port by the US fifth fleet.

“The writing is on the wall. Israel needs to carve out a degree of wiggle room. That however will only come at a price. There is little doubt that Haifa will move into the firing line,” said a long-time observer of Israeli-Chinese relations.

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Middle East

Will Gulf States Learn From Their Success in Handling the Pandemic?

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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The economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic for Gulf states has done far more than play havoc with their revenue base and fiscal household. It has propelled massive structural change to the top of their agenda in ways that economic diversification plans had not accounted for.

Leave aside whether Gulf states can continue to focus on high-profile, attention-grabbing projects like Neom, Saudi Arabia’s $500 billion USD 21st century futuristic city on the Red Sea.

Gulf rulers’ to do list, if they want to get things right, is long and expensive without the burden of trophy projects. It involves economic as well as social and ultimately political change.

Transparency and accurate and detailed public reporting go to the core of these changes.

They also are key to decisions by investors, economists, and credit rating companies at a time when Gulf states’ economic outlook is in question. Many complain that delays in GDP reporting and lack of easy access to statistics complicates their decision-making.

Nonetheless, if there is one thing autocratic Gulf governments have going for themselves, beyond substantial financial reserves, it is public confidence in the way they handled the pandemic, despite the fact that they failed to initially recognize crowded living circumstances of migrant workers as a super spreader.

Most governments acted early and decisively with lockdowns and curfews, testing, border closures, repatriation of nationals abroad, and, in Saudi Arabia, suspension of pilgrimages.

To be sure, Gulf countries, and particularly Saudi Arabia that receives millions of Muslim pilgrims from across the globe each year, have a long-standing history of dealing with epidemics. Like Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan, they were better prepared than Western nations.

History persuaded the kingdom to ban the umrah, the lesser Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, in late February, days before the first case of a Covid-19 infection emerged on Saudi soil.

Beyond public health concerns, Saudi Arabia had an additional reason to get the pandemic right. It offered the kingdom not only an opportunity to globally polish its image, badly tarnished by human rights abuses, power grabs, and the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, but also to retain religious influence despite the interruption in the flow of pilgrims to the kingdom.

“Saudi Arabia is still a reference for many Muslim communities around the world,” said Yasmine Farouk, a scholar of Saudi Arabia at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

It also allowed Saudi Arabia to set the record straight following criticism of its handling of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in 2012 when the kingdom became the epidemic’s epicenter and in 2009 when it was hit by the H1N1 virus.

Saudi Arabia is also blamed for contributing to a public health catastrophe in Yemen with its frequent indiscriminate bombings.

A country in ruins as a result of the military intervention, Yemen has grappled for the past four years with a cholera epidemic on the kingdom’s borders.

Trust in Gulf states’ handling of the current pandemic was bolstered by degrees of transparency on the development of the disease in daily updates in the number of casualties and fatalities.

It was further boosted by a speech by King Salman as soon as the pandemic hit the kingdom in which he announced a raft of measures to counter the disease and support the economy as well as assurances by agriculture minister Abdulrahman al-Fadli that the crisis would not affect food supplies.

Ms. Farouk suggested that government instructions during the pandemic were followed because of “trust in the government, the expertise and the experience of the government [and] trust in the religious establishment, which actually was following the technical decisions of the government.”

To be sure, Ms. Farouk acknowledged, the regime’s coercive nature gave the public little choice.

The limits of government transparency were evident in the fact that authorities were less forthcoming with details of public spending on the pandemic and insight into available medical equipment like ventilators and other supplies such as testing kits.

Some Gulf states have started publishing the daily and total number of swabs but have yet to clarify whether these figures include multiple swabbings of the same person.

“It is likely that publics in the Middle East will look back at who was it that gave them reliable information, who was it who was there for them,” said political scientist Nathan Brown.

The question is whether governments will conclude that transparency will be needed to maintain public confidence as they are forced to rewrite social contracts that were rooted in concepts of a cradle-to-grave welfare state but will have to involve greater burden sharing.

Gulf governments have so far said little about burden sharing being allocated equitably across social classes nor has there been transparency on what drives investment decisions by sovereign wealth funds in a time of crisis and changing economic outlook.

Speaking to the Financial Times, a Gulf banker warned that the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman “needs to be careful what he spends on . . . Joe Public will be watching.”

Headed by Prince Mohammed, the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund has gone on a $7.7 billion USD shopping spree buying stakes in major Western blue chips, including four oil majors: Boeing, Citigroup, Disney, and Facebook. The Public Investment Fund is also funding a bid for English soccer club Newcastle United.

The banker suggested that Saudi nationals would not appreciate “millionaire footballer salaries being paid for by VAT (value added tax) on groceries.” He was referring to this month’s hiking of sales taxes in the kingdom from five to 15 percent.

The fragility and fickleness of public trust was on display for the world to see in Britain’s uproar about Dominic Cummings, a close aide to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who violated lockdown instructions for personal reasons. Mr. Johnson is struggling to fight off demands for Mr Cummings’ dismissal.

To be sure, senior government officials and business executives in the Gulf have cautioned of hard times to come.

A recent Dubai Chamber of Commerce and Industry survey of CEOs predicted that 70 percent of the United Arab Emirates’ companies would go out of business in the next six months, including half of its restaurants and hotels and three-quarters of its travel and tourism companies.

Saudi Finance Minister Mohammed Al-Jadaan warned earlier this month that the kingdom would need to take “painful” measures and look for deep spending cuts as a result of the collapse of oil prices and significantly reduced demand for oil.

Aware of sensitivities, Mr. Al-Jadaan stressed that “as long as we do not touch the basic needs of the people, all options are open.”

There was little transparency in Mr. Al-Jadaan’s statements on what the impact would be on employment-seeking Saudi nationals in a labor market where fewer migrant workers would be available for jobs that Saudis have long been unwilling to accept.

It was a missed opportunity considering the 286 percent increase in the number of Saudis flocking to work for delivery services.

The increase was fueled by an offer by Hadaf, the Saudi Human Resources Development Fund, to pay drivers $800 USD a month, as well as a newly-found embrace of volunteerism across the Gulf.

The surge offered authorities building blocks to frame expectations at a time when the kingdom’s official unemployment rate of 12 percent is likely to rise.

It suggested a public acknowledgement of the fact that well-paying, cushy government positions may no longer be as available as they were in the past as well as the fact that lesser jobs are no less honorable forms of employment.

That may be the silver lining as Gulf states feel the pressure to reinvent themselves in a world emerging from a pandemic that potentially will redraw social, economic, and political maps.

Author’s note: This story was first published in Inside Arabia

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