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Strategic equalization in current Syria

Giancarlo Elia Valori

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One of the most obvious results of the current stabilization of operations in Syria is the next and predictable equality of offensive potentials on the ground.

The United States, however, thinks it shall no longer deal with Syria, considering that the ultimate goal of the War on Terror is to avoid jihadist attacks on its territory or on its bases.

As often happens, psychopolitics for internal use that pretends to be  global strategy, which is indeed wrong.

Clearly, too little as US political goal. Nevertheless we have now already entered the classic overstretch cycle – “let us go back home soon” -that characterizes the American cyclical history of strategic burn and burst of US geopolitics, which works as the boom and bust cycles of financial economy, but anyway also old and Jeffersonian.

We could define it as “geopolitics of the altered states of consciousness”.

In other papers we have already analysed the issue of the US- Free Syrian Army base in Al Tanf, which is essential to protect Jordan and avoid encirclement on the Euphrates by the Caliphate jihad. Currently, however, this base is an uncertain bivouac of terrorists, although “moderate” and connected to the Free Syrian Army.

The Free Syrian Army was the first US operation in Syria. From the very beginning it was linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, but it was born during the 2011 “Arab Springs”.

If President Trump really decides to withdraw from Syria, the only highly probable future variable will be Turkey’s open invasion of  the Northern and Western Kurdish areas.

Hence, as already happened, the Kurdish Rojava will immediately head for Damascus, as it has already done, thus creating a new internal front within Syria, a harbinger of future and severe dangers.

Obviously, the hasty and strategically undefined US withdrawal is also a great and unique missed opportunity for Iran.

Iran, however, has already reached an agreement with Turkey: the stable tripartition of the areas of influence in Syria, already fully foreshadowed by the “de-escalation zones” of 2017.

Russia will certainly claim to be the strategic winner in Syria, which is what it wanted, but excluding particularly the USA and the EU from that area (certainly an easy success to be achieved).

Iran, however, will have reached its goal anyway, i.e. changing and turning to its advantage the configuration of its strategic potentials along the Syrian border with Israel and reaching up to its new Mediterranean  with the maximum political-military destabilizing power.

Once won its fight for Syria, Turkey will be in a position to afford a new area of protection and control against the unification of the Kurdish world, but will particularly ensure the smooth and undisturbed passage from Anatolia to Central Asia.

Therefore, we will have in Syria the S-300s and other advanced technologies of the Russian Defence, which will remain there in Bashar al-Assad’s hands. Nevertheless we will also have as many as 11 types of air superiority fighters in various bases (Palmyra, T4, Humaynim and two other dedicated and confidential ones), but also all the highly-advanced  set of C3 active war-control networks and of sensors, directly connected to Russia’s Central Command.

Israel finally reaches an agreement with Russia that could even allow a new arrangement of its operations in Southern Syria or even a full  agreement with the Russian Federation on the bipartite control of the Bekaa-Golan-Southern Lebanon axis, where both countries have potentially converging interests.

Moreover Iran has reached its true strategic result, the Iraqi-Lebanese “corridor”, which is modest at technological level, apart from some thefts of Russian and Turkish material, but is very effective in enabling Iran to wage its asymmetric war against Israel on a broader front, and above all new compared to the old positions.

Israel’s Kurdish friends could control this network from the North.

The Shiite Republic certainly wants to eliminate the “Zionist entity” – as Israel is called in Iran –  or make it irrelevant, but it wants above all to play  a primary role on the Mediterranean shores. This will have endless repercussions on the Shiite oil trade and on the different arrangement of  defence potentials around the Saudi axis, of which Iran wants to destabilize all its vast Shite areas, one after the other.

It will then be the turn of Bahrain and other Emirates, while the Shiite Egyptian, Moroccan, Tunisian and Algerian communities will move radially.

Considering that, for the time being, light and stable missile bases on the “corridor” are not available – although there are signs of rooting-technologically Iran’s policy line is to make every point of its “corridor” an element of mobile and variable guerrilla warfare against Israel, so as to finally set fire to the whole line and block the North of the Jewish State.

With a certain, connected and subsequent attack from the Gaza Strip and, in all likelihood, even from the areas already arranged on Israel’s Eastern  border.

Hence the quick and full deprivation of every strategic asset for the Jewish State.

Nevertheless, so far the military potentials are still asymmetric for Iran.

The missiles it has granted to Hezbollah are manifold and sufficiently advanced, but small and mainly suited to saturate Israel’s defences, so as to later propose to the Islamic world an internal and concentric attack on Israel.

Hence Israel would become a mere small terrestrial power, inevitably devoid of its technological, air, sea and signal intelligence strengths.

As already seen, however, Iran does not even trust Russia, which has no interest in permanently protecting its “corridor” northwards.

Certainly Russia does not even trust its “proxy agents” left in Syria that it wants to control permanently so as to avoid precisely what Iran wants: the clash between Russia and Israel.

A struggle that would extend ad infinitum the destructive effect of its own guerrilla warfare and of its small missiles, which today, however, are certainly much more advanced than the “toys” it supplied to Hezbollah until a few years ago.

However, the Iranian variable to command and control the phases following the outbreak of a war north of Israel is currently technological and resolves the dispute between Iran and Russia at its root.

It is a missile, namely Hoveizeh, which has been tested for the first time this February.

It is not by chance that is named after a city in South-Western Iran that bravely resisted Iraq in the Shiite “war of necessity” when the USA armed Saddam Hussein and later left him to his own destiny.

And the symbolism of the “war of necessity” comes to the fore today, on  the forty-year anniversary of the Shiite revolution.

Symbols always have essential strategic power.

Hoveizeh is a surface-to-surface missile with an average range of 1,350 kilometres, always flying at a low altitude. It needs a very short time for its preparedness and armament.

As has long been the case in Iranian arsenals, it has a fully autonomous and “national” technology.

Hence it is hard to be tracked.

The Hoveyzeh missile, however, is Iran’s direct response to the success of the recent Israeli-US Arrow (orHetz) 3missile.

Said Israeli-US missile had been tested on January 22 last.

It is an exoatmospheric anti-ballistic missile for intercepting enemy missiles which, however, can also be an attack weapon.

The Arrow 3 structure also consists of a hypersonic missile interceptor missile, also equipped with an ELM-2080 Green Pine produced by Elta, which is an AESA early warning radar, finally connected to a C3 centre and to the network of Israeli air industries known as Hazelnut.

Nevertheless it is a system that has already been declared operational in 2000.

Only the third part of the Arrow 3 system, however, has been declared fully operative in 2017.

Arrow 3 can also be used as an anti-satellite weapon, but the Israeli Forces still do not fully like it since they have always preferred the strategy of preventive attacks and deterrence. Another very problematic aspect is the high cost of this system.

Is it better to have many and possibly inexpensive missiles, with scarce  but efficient technology, or very few and expensive ones, probably even insufficient and inadequate to oppose a salvo intended to saturate the Dome?

Iran has already made its choice.

It would be interesting, however, to see Israel’s final choice in the field of the so-called “mass” missile weapons, which could also be suitable for strategies where the central point still consists in the advanced weapon, that determines in a moment the attacker’ superiority.

Also the attacker, however, must be saturated quickly.

Coincidentally, however, Arrow 3 was tested just two days after Hoveizeh, at the base of Palmachim, Israel, but there will soon be further tests on the island of Kodjak, Alaska.

Arrow 3 was tested after an Iranian missile, launched from the Syrian skies on January 28 last, had been intercepted by the Israeli structure.

However, over the last few days, a significant number of Iranian carriers has been launched onto Israel: a Fajr 5 (with a 35-kilometre range) on December 29 last, and a Fatteh 100 (with a 300-kilometre range) onto the Golan on January 21 last, which was also intercepted.

Many other smaller ones were fired.

Hence, while Israel and the United States are developing hypersonic missiles capable of striking outside the atmosphere, Iran is following  exactly the opposite policy, i.e. manufacturing fully traditional missiles, albeit capable of long flying at a low altitude, since so far no one can define valid interception techniques before the missile has actually been launched.

Israel has also recently used missiles (such as the Delilah, with a 250-kilometre range) that have not been intercepted by Russia or Syria.  The United States still has the old Tomahawk missiles in the Middle East and Russia uses its most recent Kalibr, but they are all controllable only after being launched, if all goes well.

A solution to the problem is the missiles fired by ships which, however, can be useful only if they operate in an area already full of sensors and radars.

Even in this case, these operations are traceable only for large sea and land areas and for the main launches only. This tactic is essentially useless to counteract surface missiles at a low altitude.

Hence Israel currently operates with a high-tech strategy, which strikes selectively and in the best of times, with a view to weakening the Iranian enemy and making its mass attack with small surface warheads useless.

But will it be enough? I do not believe so.

It should, however, be possible for Israel to respond quickly with equal and opposite saturation so as to avoid the temporary blindness of sensors and the excess cost of very “American-style” technologies, which are extremely top range but often of little effect.

Before leaving Syria, however, also the United States carried out attacks there. Just on February 3 last, an attack was launched between Abu Kamal and Deir Ezzour, with probable collateral damage to the Syrian artillery.

On February 2 last, three Iranian missiles were ready to be put into action at the US base of Ain Al Assad in Anbar, but they were not activated only thanks to the Iraqi intelligence services.

This means that Iran wants the United States not only out of Syria, but also out of  Iraq.

Without this preventive “cleansing” of the territory, which primarily regards the stabilization of Iranian missile forces, all the variables of command, direction and response against Iranian missiles – anyway large and numerous – are too dangerous for the Shiite Republic itself.

Probably, however, the missile bases that the USA hit on February 3 last were those of the Pasdaran’s Al Qods Force.

In that region there are also the bases of an Iraqi Shiite militia under the  Al Quds’ command, namely the Kataib Hezbollah that serves as a line of communication between the Iranian forces in Iraq and those in the Lebanon.

An essential axis of the “corridor”.

From this viewpoint, President Erdogan’s new anti-Semitic policy is certainly functional to the new Syrian stability. In fact, Erdogan has recently had Dawud Baghestani – the Secretary of the Israeli-Kurdish Friendship Association, who is also the editor of the official Kurdish-Israeli magazine – arrested.

Therefore President Trump has completely abandoned both Israel and the Kurds in Syria. Hence it is obvious that now Turkey wants to control the whole Kurdish area, thus putting in serious difficulty even Israel, which is now the only organizational, financial and military point of reference for Rojava.

The United States will certainly leave both Al Tanf- although we do not know yet how – but also the area of Al Bukhamal, on the Iraqi borders, the last stretch of Western protection between the Iranian area and the Syrian world.

This is precisely the point that is still missing to close the well-known “corridor”.

President Erdogan’s political aim is to demonstrate that there is still a link between US and Israeli intelligence services and the Kurds, which would be the greatest possible justification for a final takeover of Rojava.

Hence it is a matter of concealing – with an alleged operation of the Turkish intelligence services – Turkey’s willingness to take and control the whole of Northern Syria where there is a Kurdish majority.

Here the war of words between Israel and Turkey is always very clear in its strategic aims.

In fact, two years ago Prime Minister Netanyahu stated that Israel considered the PKK a “terrorist group”, unlike what Turkey had always said about Hamas.

Again on that occasion, however, the Israeli Prime Minister stated that one thing was to combat terrorism, even the Kurdish one, while another thing was to accept the free claim of the Kurdish people to have their right to freedom and autonomy, which Israel supported.

In other words, if the United States leaves and Turkey continues to avoid any opening to the autonomy of the Kurdish territories in Syria, without anyway putting them in communication with the Turkish-Anatolian territories, Rojavawill become the preferential target of Israel’s attention and designs.

Israel will take advantage of its old excellent relations with the Kurds to use them both against the Iranian-Lebanese “corridor” and to avoid Iranian, Syrian or other pressure on the Northern borders between Israel and Syria.

As well as to deal –  possibly from an indirect position of strength – even with Russia which, however, has no interest in using the Kurdish area  against Iran or Turkey.

Obviously Putin has already announced he will never accept a Turkish invasion of Syria for the Kurdish territories, nor the Turkish control of the YGP-controlled Kurdish areas.

Hence a new structure and organisation of central Syria: Israel plays the Kurdish card, knowing that Turkey cannot take it due to its relations with Russia, which would block any Turkish interest in Syria.

Therefore any agreement between Russia and Israel envisages a possible control zone of the “corridor”, well before the 80 kilometres set by Israel, as well as a new positioning of Syria within the Russian sphere of influence.

This means that Russia could also tolerate the line between Iran and the  Lebanon, but it would certainly put the former in a position to accept pressing remote or direct systematic checks on the corridor.

As well as additional security on the Lebanese coasts by Hezbollah that now operates near the Russian military ports of Latakia and Tartus.

This could also reduce the mass of missiles deployed by Iran and Hezbollah in the Bekaa-Golan region, although always remaining well beyond the threshold of lethality and, above all, of saturation of the attack areas in Israel’s metropolitan territory, which is the true target of Iran and its regional allies.

Therefore Turkey shall place itself at the edges of the Kurdish region, albeit with all the possible operations of intelligence and strategic harassment.

Israel could control the “corridor” also from the North, even in partial autonomy from Russia.

Russia shall keep control of central Syria (the Sunni area, in particular), but in a stable and non-adverse relationship with the Kurds.

Moreover Iran shall fight with some not fully opposed factions of the Kurdish world on the Iraqi borders. However, under these conditions, Bashar al-Assad’ Syria will hence have the possibility to filter all the funds for reconstruction, but with the Russian-Chinese permission.

Nevertheless, once again the real political issue is to manage the Lebanese chaos, which is largely agreed among the real leaders of the region.

For obvious reasons, these leaders do no longer include Bashar al-Assad. However, Saudi Arabia counts very much, with its current policies for enslaving the old political-business classes of the coastal area.

And if Saudi Arabia decides to play a role, it mainly plays its own and, only residually and on the sidelines, it plays the Turkish role.

As is well-known, after nine months, Saad Hariri – the former expensive “guest” of the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh – had to leave in Saudi Arabia much of the funds he held abroad, but not directly in the Lebanon.

The construction company Saudi Oger had a 3.5 billion debt with the Saudi banks – a debt promptly repaid mainly thanks to Mohammed Bin Salman’s prompt favours.

Now freed from his severe outstanding accounts and matters in the Saudi Kingdom, Saad Hariri is still and again President of the Lebanese Council.

However, at a price which is certainly not good even for Mohammed bin Salman.

The price of forming a government basically in Hezbollah’s hands.

The Shiite militia was given three Ministries, including Health, a Ministry  that is worth one fourth of government spending.

Hariri’s government should above all manage to release a share of foreign funding to the Lebanon of at least 84 billion, equivalent to 150% of the local GDP, with a view to solving many problems, including  unemployment which is around  36%.

All money fuelling Hezbollah, which uses a lot of public money for organizing its militias and managing its charitable activities and institutions, which are also guerrilla warfare, coverage and training structures, where necessary.

Probably only Hezbollah will solve the electricity crisis, which is structural in the Lebanon, thus creating a further basis of support and militancy to cover military operations or even to develop an attack strategy from Southern Lebanon.

The creation of the government was compulsory: the World Bank had threatened to immediately transfer to Jordan the 4 billion US dollars of funding previously envisaged for the Lebanon, if the country had not decided to form a government soon.

Corruption is always very widespread in the Lebanon, which is one of the twenty most corrupt countries in the world.

Hence the State does not exist there.

Now, however, at the core of the Lebanese power system there is the Head of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, whose primary ally is Michel Aoun, a Maronite Christian closely linked to Iran and Syria. There is also Foreign Minister Gebrane Bassile, son-in-law of President Aoun, but also very close- personally – to Hezbollah.

As is now well-known, Israel’s policy line has always been to preliminary destroy the Hezbollah tunnels in its territory and elsewhere.

On November 3 last, Prime Minister Netanyahu made it clear that those operations would continue and should also be provided some coverage from the United States and even from the irrelevant EU.

At this juncture, however, there is a clear link between the US withdrawal from Syria and the persistent Israeli operations in the Lebanon.

In particular, this clearly means that the United States will no longer be in a position to put pressure on Aoun and the new Lebanese government, with a view to marginalizing Hezbollah.

Hence Israel has currently no support from the United States for its actions against the Hezbollah tunnels, which are still located in some Caliphate’s pockets on the border between Syria and the Lebanon.

The US leaders have already said to the Lebanon that the Hezbollah leaders shall not use government funds to wage war against Israel.

Good intentions, especially in foreign policy, are welcome because they make us smile and relax.

Exactly the opposite happened in the division of Lebanese Ministries.

The Treasury Minister is Hassan Khalil, a man of the old Shite movement “Amal”. Elias Bou Saab, a businessman very close to Aoun, was appointed Defence Minister. The Health Ministry, a traditional focus of Hezbollah, was assigned to Jamil Jabak, a Shiite doctor who is very well known in the local scientific community but is, above all, a man very close to Iran.

Westerners – who are real geniuses – support Hariri, but not much of his government.

The squared circle of geopolitics.

The Interior Ministry was assigned to Raja al-Hassan, an important woman linked to Hariri’s party, but in excellent relations also with Iran and, indirectly, with Hezbollah.

Thus, in the Lebanon, there will be an officially “pro-Western” government, albeit with a wide para-Iranian majority, which will lead the country to support any Hezbollah actions in Israel.

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 Causes and Effects of the United States “Long Goodbye” to the Middle East

Lawrence Habahbeh

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A glance at a world map reveals one great reason why the Middle East (ME) claims the attention of great power centres of the world.  A roughly rectangular area stretching from the Adriatic Sea, East to the black sea ,and south to the Indus River.   The ME is a joining point of three continents, Europe, Asia, and Africa and one of the most vital crossroads on the planet.   It is the cradle of world civilization and the birth place of the three monotheistic religions, Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.    Further, it is rich in oil, gas, and other commodities.   According to British Petroleum 2019 (BP) Statistical review of World Energy, the Middle East holds 836 billion barrels of proven oil reserves, which constitutes 48% of world total.   In comparison to other regions of the world, it holds 3X the proven oil reserves of the U.S, Canada and Mexico combined, and 58X the proven oil reserves of Europe.   Likewise, the Middle East has the world’s largest proven reserves of Natural Gas (NG); standing at 38.3% of the world’s total, while the Common wealth of Independent States (CIS) holds the second largest reserves at 31.9%.

Historically, the strategic foundation for the U.S. involvement in the Middle East was shaped by several policy objectives reflecting both regional dynamics and U.S. interests.  These strategic interests centred primarily around protecting the reliable free flow of commodities and commercial activity through well known checkpoints in the Arabian Peninsula, especially the strait of Hormoz and Suez canal; supporting the security, stability, and prosperity of U.S. partners in the region, including the State of Israel; preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, countering Jihadist movements, and terrorism.  Since 2011, geopolitical tensions, trade disputes, and changes in the international security landscape have tested the US-ME relationship, and have caused the strategic pillars of the U.S. Involvement in the region to undergo a state of transition, hastened by three major factors: 

First; In a speech by former Secretary of Defence James Mattes at Johns Hopkins University, School of Advanced International Studies, January 19, 2018, he asserted” Great Power competition, not terrorism, is now the primary focus of U.S. national security”.  Further, according to President Obama’s June 2015 National Military Strategy and also President Trump’s January 2018 National Defence Strategy  (NDS), they both acknowledged that the shift in U.S. strategic direction is driven by a return to great power competition with China and Russia, underlined by a rising trend in strategic cooperation between two countries on many issues across many regions of the world, In fact; this strategic cooperation can be seen taking shape in the economic and military spheres.  For example, according to various press reports, in September of 2019, Chinese and Russian troops took part in joint military manoeuvres; dubbed, “Tsentr-2019” to strengthen their military readiness.  Further, direct trade between the two countries is increasing.  According to data from statista, trade between Russia and China reached a record level, exceeding $100 billion compared to previous years.  Likewise, China’s natural gas imports from Russia more than doubled in 2019 subsequent to operating the “Power of Siberia”  gas pipeline with a total initial capacity of 5 Billion Cubic meters (BCM) of gas, and a targeted capacity of 38 BCM by 2025, which constitutes 13% of China’s 2018 demand.  Equally important; China’s expanding major economic development project, the Belt and Road (BRI) initiative.  The BRI initiative is an ambitious plan to build an open and balanced regional economic architecture connecting dozens of countries in Asia, Eurasia, and Europe by constructing six international economic corridors and an extensive rail network linking China to Europe through a “new Eurasian Land Bridge”.  In the same way, the project aims to construct economic corridors linking China, Mongolia, and Russia; also, China to west, central, and South Asia. 

The evolving dynamics of economic corridors connecting all sub-regions in Asia, and between Asia, Europe, and Africa is consistent with the ideas of the Eurasianist Aleksandr  Dugin’s, and the ideas advanced in his book published in 1997 titled “Foundations of Geopolitics”, in which he calls for the realization of a Unified Economic Landscape called Greater Eurasia.  Greater Eurasia refers to countries that are on the territory of the Eurasian continent across Asia, Europe and the Middle East.  It consists of two regions of energy consumption (Europe & Asia Pacific) and three regions of energy production (Russia and Arctic & Caspian & Middle East) in between.  It includes 91 countries, which represents two-thirds of the world population, exports of goods and services and GDP.

These evolving and developing geographic and economic integration projects based on strategic cooperation between Russia and China create a geographic mass of countries across, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East that are increasingly interdependent, and their interests are more closely intertwined than ever before.  Consequently; shifting geopolitics in Greater Eurasia driving the strategic convergence in economic power between Russia and China is posing challenges to U.S. leadership in the region and the world.   These interactions between Russia and China in the military and economic spheres demonstrate a growing trend in strategic cooperation between the two countries and may be driven by an ideological denominator, where both countries view the U.S. as the “Glavny Protivnik”.

Second; according to the U.S Energy Information Administration (EIA), the United States became the world’s largest producer of petroleum hydrocarbons and the largest producer of oil with a total production capacity of 12.7 million barrels of oil per day as of March 2020, surpassing the daily production capacity of both Russia and Saudi-Arabia.  In the same manner; according to BP’s 2019 Statistical Review of World Energy report, the U.S. is still the world leader when it comes to natural gas production, averaging approximately 920 billion cubic meters of gas in 2019, followed by Russia, Iran, and Qatar.  As a result, the United States is undergoing an oil and natural gas production renaissance that will likely continue to change the global energy landscape, and lead to wide-ranging regional and global geopolitical implications.   The Age of Abundance for the U.S is driving the change in relations with regional allies, which, in part, will be redefined based on relations that are built around competition in the global gas market, and the supply of cleaner energy sources, especially, Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG).

Third; according to the CIA’s Global Threats Report  2019.  The ME region is highly vulnerable to changes in the frequency and severity of heat waves, droughts, and floods, and that combined with Poor Governance – leads to increased food and water insecurity.    As a result, it is very likely that there will be an increased risk of social unrest, migration and tension between regional State, and non-State actors.

It stands to reason that the U.S. views the strategic benefits derived from maintaining the  historical strategic pillars, and policy objectives in the ME vis-à-vis the strategic risks associated with such policy as costly and no longer viable because of the greater strategic threats posed by both Russia’s aggression towards its neighbours in Europe in consequence of Russia’s own economic, political, and social agenda, which opposes the international liberal order promoted, and protected by the U.S. since the second world war., and China’s expanding financial and economic influence, and strategic cooperation with Russia in multiple domains to amass political and strategic advantage through improved economic and energy connectivity projects in Europe, Eurasia, Middle East, and Asia pacific.  Therefore; U.S vital strategic interests lay elsewhere and the U.S. views Russia and China as a greater strategic risk than Iran and Al-Qaeda, and that requires the U.S. to “do less” in the Middle East.  In consequence, from U.S perspective the Middle East region is no longer a priority for the United States.  

The strategic implications of the ongoing U.S. long goodbye to the M.E. region over the past decade have shifted the regional geopolitical environment and caused the formation of a power vacuum where state and non-state actors competing in a multi-level and proxy executed competition to gain diplomatic, economic, and strategic advantage.  As a result, three regional spheres of influence emerged vying for control and power in the region, including the conservative wing, comprising Saudi Arabia (GCC, less Qatar), Egypt, Jordan, and Israel. The anti-American wing includes Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah.  Lastly the Islamist wing includes Turkey, and Qatar.  Add to this complex geopolitical landscape, Russian and Chinese inroads through military, economic, and weapons sales to regional actors to increase their regional influence.  In fact; in recent years, Moscow has strengthened its military foothold in Syria and secured access to military bases on the Mediterranean Sea, in order to expand its regional political, military, and economic influence.  Moscow’s regional engagement has solidified since 2015 Russian intervention in Syria.  Moreover, Russia’s expanding military exercises and weapons sales with Egypt selling 2$ billion worth of aircrafts to Cairo.  Further, Moscow support and expanded ties with Khalifa Haftar in Libya,  talks to sell S-400 Missile Defence System to Qatar, cooperation with Saudi Arabia to stabilize global oil markets, and strengthening relations with Israel and Iran are clear indications of Moscow’s increasing influence in the Middle East region.

In the same way, China’s strategic cooperation with Middle Eastern countries is on the rise.  For instance, the region is China’s No.1 source of imported petroleum products.  According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, over 50% of Chinese Oil imports come from Saudi Arabia, UAE, Iraq, and Iran, with Saudi Arabia providing 16% of Oil imports.  Further; Qatar, is the one of largest LNG suppliers to China.  Moreover, In July 2018, China and the UAE announced an upgrade to their 2012 strategic partnership to a “comprehensive Strategic Partnership”- China’s highest level of diplomatic relations, outlining cooperation in wide range of fields such as politics, economics, trade, technology, energy, renewable energy, and security.   Likewise, In Egypt, in September 2018 President Sisi visited Beijing and signed 18$ billion worth of deals with China including projects covering rail, real estate, and energy.  Again, Chinese construction firms are heavily engaged in constructing Egypt’s new administrative capital outside of Cairo and developing the Red Sea port and industrial zone.  Likewise, Jordan, Israel, and Egypt are important to China’s expanding BRI initiative.   The majority of Chinese trade with Europe passes through the Suez Canal, and China is expanding the cooperative zone around the canal by expanding the port and shipping facilities.   Finally, Jordan joined the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank in 2015, and Israel high speed rail project with China that will connect Tel Aviv on the Mediterranean to Eilat on the Red Sea.  Clearly, the multitude of Chinese driven infrastructure projects in the region are an indication that countries in the Middle East are welcoming China’s economic investments, and if history is a gauge of future developments, then it is reasonable to conclude that China is likely to increase its political engagement and expand its military presence in the region to protect and secure its economic interest.

In 2017, during a visit by president Trump to Saudi Arabia, the Riyadh declaration was announced.  The declaration is a U.S. proposal for a multilateral regional arrangement between Gulf Cooperation Council nations (GCC), including Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, in addition to Jordan and Egypt, dubbed the Middle East Strategic alliance (MESA).  The proposal centres on the idea of a regional system with shared security, economic, and political architecture.   According to data from the World Bank Development Indicators (WBDI) (2018), the MESA boasts a combined GDP of $2.3 trillion and represents a market of 175 million consumers.  The proposal joins an increasing number of regional alliances that exist across the globe, such as the three seas initiative (3SI), the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), among others.  Since its announcement, an ongoing dispute among the competing, regional spheres of influence, due to differences in their respective interests, capabilities, and threat perceptions has caused little progress in the future trajectory of this multilateral arrangement.

Finally, the reality is that the U.S. should not fully extricate itself from the region due to the U.S. great power competition with China and Russia, which the Trump Administration has placed at the centre of its national security strategy.   Instead, the U.S. should invest in its regional network of allies and partners to work together to maximize their strengths and address common challenges that are vital to U.S. national security and geopolitical stability.  The U.S. should push for and hasten the strategic convergence of the MESA member States by promoting deeper coordination and interaction among participants through multilateral cooperation in the economic, political, security, and energy spheres by calling to build the tools and the governing institutions to govern MESA operations and decision making such as a Middle East Strategic Alliance Council with prime ministers as members, the Middle East Strategic Alliance Economic Commission to manage the organizations day to day decision making activity, the Middle East Strategic Alliance Court system, tasked with managing disputes among member States, and a Middle East Strategic Alliance development bank and stabilization fund to support and drive integration efforts through regional lending and investment programs to boost, along an East-West axis, cross-border economic development, energy, water, transportation, and digital infrastructure connectivity projects.

As noted above, the U.S. should reposition itself at the helm of key Middle East dynamics, while simultaneously working with regional partners to balance Russian and Chinese inroads and expanding patterns of influence in the region.  Else, a lack of a clear, unified strategy for the Middle East, will perpetuate the current Hobbesian state of a bellum omnium contra omnes, which renders the whole Middle East system in a quantum state of neither at peace, nor at war, but, entangled in a super position of both states simultaneously; waiting for an observer; to implement the wrong policy option, resulting in the collapse of the state function; into a wilderness of tempestuous combustion; likely, paving the way, to the last age of Pax Americana.

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Economic Crisis Does Little to Dampen Mohammed bin Salman’s Pricey Ambitions

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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When Saudi Finance Minister Mohammed Al-Jadaan announced austerity measures in May, including an $8 billion USD cut back on spending on Vision 2030 — Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s ambitious plan to restructure the Saudi economy — economists and pundits assumed that was the death knell for trophy projects like NEOM, a $500 billion USD plan for a futuristic mega smart city on the Red Sea.

Economists and pundits may want to think again.

Plagued by questions about the project’s strategic value at a time when the kingdom is struggling with the economic fallout of a pandemic, the impact of an oil price rout, and controversy over the killing of a tribal leader who resisted displacement, NEOM last week sought to counter the criticism by hiring a US public relations and lobbying firm.

NEOM’s $1.7 million USD contract with Ruder Finn – a PR company with offices in the US, Britain, and Asia – was concluded as the kingdom sought to salvage another trophy project, the acquisition of English Premier League soccer club Newcastle United, beset by accusations that the Saudi government had enabled TV broadcasting piracy in its rift with fellow Gulf state Qatar.

The controversy proved to be a lesson in the reputational risk involved in high-profile acquisitions. Piracy was not the only thing complicating the acquisition of Newcastle. So was Saudi Arabia’s human rights record as a result of mass arrests of activists and critics and the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.

With the publication of a damning report by the World Trade Organization (WTO), Saudi Arabia moved quickly to counter the criticism by removing boxes of BeoutQ, an operation that pirated sports broadcasts legally contracted by BeIN, the sports franchise of state-owned Qatari television network Al Jazeera. BeoutQ broadcasts were carried by Saudi-based Arabsat.

BeoutQ was taking advantage of the banning of BeIN in the kingdom as part of the three-year-old Saudi-UAE diplomatic and economic boycott of fellow Gulf state Qatar. Saudi sports cafes began broadcasting BeIN for the first time immediately after release of the WTO report.

Like the Saudi response to the WTO, NEOM’s contract with Ruder Finn seems to be an effort to repair reputational damage.

Ruder Finn’s mandate appears designed to counter the fallout of the killing in April of Abdulrahim al-Huwaiti, whom the government labelled a terrorist, and to project NEOM as a socially responsible corporation bent on engagement with its local community.

Taking issue with the suggestion that NEOM was in damage limitation mode, Ali Shihabi, a political analyst, former banker, and member of NEOM’s advisory board who often reflects Saudi thinking, argued in a series of tweets that project NEOM was about much more than refuting negative media reporting.

“There is much more substance to NEOM than ‘flashy projects.’ NEOM will be heavily involved in serious projects like advanced desalination, innovative desert agriculture and more use of solar and wind energy, etc. that are very relevant to the country and the region’s urgent needs. These have been very well planned/researched and some are already being executed,” Mr. Shihabi wrote, admitting that the company behind the project had yet to detail its plans.

Mr. Shihabi’s claims were seconded by Ruder Finn in its filing to the US Department of Justice as a foreign agent.

“NEOM is a bold and audacious dream,” Ruder Finn said. “It’s an attempt to do something that’s never been done before and it comes at a time when the world needs fresh thinking and new solutions.”

Ruder Finn’s contract was announced after NEOM said that it was taking multiple steps to demonstrate that it was being “socially responsible and [would] deliver . . . impactful, sustainable and committed initiatives.”

In lieu of Mr. Shihabi’s anticipated detailing of NEOM’s grandiose plans, Ruder Finn’s filing to the Department of Justice as a foreign agent, as well as NEOM’s announcements, seemed less geared toward projecting the futuristic city’s economic and environmental contribution and more towards repairing damage caused by the dispute with local tribesmen and the killing of Mr. Al-Huwaiti.

Mr. Al-Huwaiti, a leader of protests against alleged forced evictions and vague promises of compensation, was reportedly killed in a gun fight with security forces.

Mr. Al-Huwaiti predicted that he would be either detained or killed in a video posted on YouTube hours before his death. In the video, he claimed that whatever happened to him would be designed to break the resistance of his Huwaitat tribe to their displacement.

He denounced Prince Mohammed’s leadership as “rule by children” and described the kingdom’s religious establishment that has endorsed the Crown Prince’s policies as “silent cowards.”

An estimated 20,000 people are expected to be moved out of an area that Prince Mohammed once said had “no one there.”

NEOM declared earlier this week that it would be offering English-language lessons at its recently established academy and that some 1,000 students would be trained in tourism, hospitality, and cybersecurity.

At the same time, the government said that eligible Saudis would be compensated for loss of land with plots along the coast as part of a program to improve standards of living.

Online news service Foreign Lobby Report reported that Ruder Finn would produce informational materials, including a monthly video to promote NEOM’s engagement with the local community as well as visual materials highlighting the company’s fulfillment of its social responsibility.

Ruder Finn’s efforts were likely to do little to convince the kingdom’s critics.

Writing in Foreign Policy in April, Sarah Leah Whitson, Human Rights Watch’s former Middle East and North Africa Director, and Abdullah AlAoudh, a Saudi legal scholar, dismissed NEOM’s grand ambitions. Mr. AlAoudh’s father Shaykh Salman Al-Odah, a prominent reformist religious scholar, has been imprisoned in Saudi Arabia since 2017 for advocating an end to the rift with Qatar.

“Whether the NEOM project is even remotely viable, given the global financial collapse because of the coronavirus and rising Saudi debt amid historically low oil prices, is highly doubtful,” Ms. Whitson and Mr. AlAoudh said. “The only result we’ve seen from this vision for a futuristic city is the promised destruction of a historic community and the death of a Saudi protester, using archaic means with no room for modern notions of rights and justice.”

Author’s note: An initial version of this story was first published in Inside Arabia

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Netanyahu’s plan to annex West Bank: Old and new problems

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Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has announced plans to establish as of July 1 Israeli sovereignty over the Jordan Valley and over some areas of Judaea and Samaria, also known as parts of the West Bank and the River Jordan, which fell under the  control of Israel as a result of the 1967 Six-Day War. At present, about half a million Israelis reside in these areas. However, most countries, citing international law, consider Israeli settlements in the West Bank illegal on the grounds that they pose an obstacle to clinching peace with Palestinians.

The announcement of the Israeli leader had nothing sensational about it. Israel’s policy, aimed at de facto annexing Palestinian territories and at legal acts regarding Israeli communities in the West Bank, undergoes no substantial changes. But this time, the issue under consideration is the legitimization, the establishment of the legal status of these territories as Israeli.

Ideas of this kind are constantly circulating within the ranks of the country’s right-wing politicians. Moreover, being a staunch Zionism maximalist and after 15 years in power, in the course of which he frequently enjoyed a parliamentary majority,  Benjamin Netanyahu could have easily secured this status. However, political caution and pragmatism held him back. That’s why the question is why these plans have acquired a clear-cut shape now, with even a date set for the start of the process.

There seem to be many reasons for this. Naturally, some are personal. At the peak of success, in connection with the transfer of the US Embassy to Jerusalem and Washington’s recognition of Israel’s sovereignty of the Golan Heights, and also, following a triumphant recovery from the long-running government crisis, Benjamin Netanyahu is set on strengthening his positions, on winning the support of a maximum number of Israelis, particularly in the light of recent events, after his case went to court.[1]

But the main reason is overall support of Israel from the Trump administration. Never before were relations between Washington and Jerusalem that close.

Undoubtedly, what triggered the process was the ambitious and difficult-to-implement draft agreement proposed by US President Donald Trump to secure peace between Israel and the Palestinians, which, in the opinion of the White House, guarantees a final settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute and puts an end to the more than 70 – year conflict in the Middle East.  The 180-page document stipulates that Israel maintains its sovereignty over the territory of the Jordan Valley, Judea and Samaria. In addition, Washington insists that Jewish settlements on Palestinian lands should be recognized as territory of Israel. That is, all Jewish settlements will remain in their places, including 15 remote settlements which are in no way connected to territories that will be handed over to Israel.

It’s no secret that the draft was developed by Trump’s officials within the framework of consultations with Israelis. The document, presented by Trump on January 28, 2020, was dubbed “the deal of the century”. After the presentation, Israeli and American teams got down to work to make maps of West Bank areas which Israel could annex first under the plan. Although, the American and Israeli positions do not always coincide.

Yet, the coming on the scene of the “deal of the century” and the Netanyahu plan are no accident. Times are changing.

Firstly, after a months-long political crisis in Israel a coalition government has been formed which will be run by Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu for 18 months, and the remaining 18 months after November 17, 2021 (if nothing extraordinary happens) until the next elections – by Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz. Thus, the political instability at home has been neutralized.

The coalition agreement which has been achieved in Israel hinges on a document signed by Netanyahu and Gantz on behalf of their parties Likud and Kahol Lavan. This document regulates division of power, the functioning of the new government, and a detailed procedure of decision-making with the right of veto. One important reservation is that expansion of Israeli sovereignty (or annexation) can be proclaimed by Netanyahu and his party without the consent of Gantz, and accordingly, his party. This is the only political area which has such a reservation which abolishes veto.

What speaks of Netanyahu’s “resoluteness” is a changed role of Israel in regional and global affairs. Having integrated into the global economy, Israel, without any exaggeration, has achieved a lot, both technologically, and in terms of security potential. This was backed by progress in the demographic sphere (which is important for Israel), and in the economy. In 2000 the population of Israel was a little over 6 million, in April 2020 – 9,2 million. (At the time of the declaration of independence in 1948 Israel was home to 872 700). In 2000 per capita GDP totaled $ 21038, by 2020 it increased to $ 42823.

The hefty reserves of natural gas which were discovered on Israel’s Mediterranean coast in 2010 and which are already being developed form a foundation of the country’s energy independence and enable it to become a gas exporting country. All this contributes to Netanyahu’s confidence.

Israel’s position in the Middle East is changing as well. The Arab neighbors have become less adverse to it. Gulf monarchies, along with other Arab nations are getting closer and closer to Israel in their confrontation with Iran. Europe, preoccupied with migrant-related problems, is  less critical of Israel and  less protective of Palestinians. Meanwhile, Palestinian political institutes, just like Palestinian leaders, are split between the West Bank and Gaza, which makes them weaker politically.

On the whole, the Palestinian issue appears to be tiring for many actors in the  Middle East.

Therefore, a combination of positive factors, both subjective and objective, has set the stage for the  appearance of Trump’s “deal of the century” and led to the present announcement of the Israeli prime minister. 

US and Israeli leaders are in a hurry: November 3, 2020 – the day of the presidential elections in America – may become critical for the far-reaching plans of the parties concerned.

It needs to acknowledge, however, that if put into effect, the Netanyahu plan is fraught with severe consequences for Israel proper, and for the rest of the Middle East.

Undoubtedly, the initiative voiced by Prime Minister Netanyahu will prove explosive for the current political situation in the country, which is complicated enough without it. Protests are already rolling through Israel against the expansion of sovereignty to the West Bank. Even Netanyahu’s supporters are fully aware that the risks in the Netanyahu-proposed strategic game are extremely high. A great deal is put on stake: human lives, security, economy, the country’s international image. That is why voices against the plan are heard ever more frequently, demanding that the date of the start of the sovereignty declaration procedure be postponed.

Moreover, on June 9 the Israeli Supreme Court of Justice passed a ruling that could come crucial for the country and for the Israeli-Palestinian settlement process. The Court abolished a law under which Jewish settlements in the West Bank which were built on Palestinian territories illegally, can be legalized.

The Netanyahu plan boosts the risk of a new intifada, new terrorist attacks from radical Islamists. Naturally, Palestinians are highly adverse to the move. Deputy chief of the JAMAS “political bureau” Saleh Aruri has made it clear that a return of “armed confrontation” to the West Bank has become a possibility, “more probable   than some could imagine”.

A political storm at home will have a negative effect on Israeli economy and will undermine its defense potential, its power to confront JAMAS, Hezbollah and their ally – the Islamic Republic of Iran.  Tehran will get a good stimulus for activating anti-Israeli propaganda, for convincing its Arab neighbors of Israel’s wickedness, for expanding financial and military support of Palestinians in their struggle for a Palestinian state, for initiating a new phase of the hybrid war against the Jewish state.

The fledgling Israel-friendly architecture for the Middle East, which envisages a certain normalization of relations with Arab opponents, may crumble in a flicker of an eye.

Without doubt, Arabs will condemn the Netanyahu plan, though it may happen that Egypt, Saudi Arabia and some other Gulf states, having joined the anti-Israeli chorus, will not risk jeopardizing cooperation with it.

Europe, which is a major trade partner of Israel, is against the Netanyahu plan. Israel is closely integrated with European cooperation programs, including in education, scientific research and innovations, which yield considerable mutual benefits. All this may now be put under threat. The position of the European Union on annexation is clear and consistent: the EU «does not recognize any changes of the 1967 borders, unless they are acknowledged by Israelis and Palestinians». The EU urges Israel to refrain from annexation.

China and Russia will adhere to their present positions, based on the resolutions of the UN Security Council and international law. Moscow and Beijing, while defending their views, will strive to prevent a deterioration of bilateral relations with Israel.

The Russian position on the Netanyahu plan was spelled out by Russian Ambassador to Israel Anatoly Viktorov, who said that implementation of intentions to apply Israeli sovereignty to parts of the West Bank seemed a very dangerous scenario. Annexation of Palestinian territories by Israel will cross out prospects for a Palestinian-Israeli settlement and trigger a new upsurge of violence.

The ambassador reiterated a position in favor of a two-state solution on the basis of a commonly recognized international framework. He pointed out the need to secure an early resumption of direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians under the patronage of the United Nations in order to negotiate a final status and achieve a comprehensive peace settlement on the basis of UN resolutions and the Arab Peace Initiative.

Earlier (on May 20) Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, speaking on the phone  with Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, confirmed Russia’s readiness in tandem with other members of the Middle East Quartet (Russia, the USA, the EU, the UN) to contribute to the reset of a peace process by means of a dialogue between Palestinians and Israelis.

The Palestinian-Israeli problem is clearly a knotty issue which has been a point of unsuccessful talks for more than 70 years. It penetrates the political, diplomatic and military space of the Middle East, affecting the situation in different parts of the region. The putting into effect of the Netanyahu plan on expanding the Israeli sovereignty to the Jordan Valley and parts of Judea and Samaria, coupled with Trump’ “deal of the century”, will surely cause an explosive reaction worldwide, in Israel proper, and throughout the Middle East.

It looks like the only positive thing about Netanyahu’s and Trump’s controversial and dangerous plans is that these projects have yet again attracted the attention of the world community to the Palestinian problem, an acute issue of our day. But July 1 is just round the corner! 

[1] Reference: On May 24 the first session of the Jerusalem District Court got under way to consider three cases which were filed against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. This is the first time in Israel’s history when an incumbent prime minister is officially accused of criminal wrongdoing. 

The first inquiry against the prime minister was held in 1999-2000. Back then, the police sued him on five charges – bribery, an attempt to embezzle state property, fraud, abuse of office and attempts to impede the inquiry. However, all lawsuits were closed before reaching court for lack of evidence.

The year 2016 saw a new inquiry which was conducted within the framework of three separate cases known in the press as «Case 1000», «Case 2000» and «Case 4000». On the basis of these cases the Israeli Prosecutor-General Avichai Mandelblit issued official charges against Netanyahu on November 21st, 2019. On  «Case 1000» and «Case 2000» the prime minister is charged with fraud and abuse of trust (Article 284 of the Criminal Code provides for a three-year imprisonment), on «Case 4000» he is charged with fraud, abuse of trust and bribery (Article 290 of the Criminal Code, up to 10 years in prison). On January 28, 2020 all cases were transferred to the Jerusalem District Court.

Benjamin Netanyahu denies all charges saying that all the cases against him have been fabricated for the purpose of removing right wingers from power.

From our partner International Affairs

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