On July 20, Jerusalem hosted a summit meeting for the national security advisers of Israel, the US, and Russia that was unusual both in terms of composition and thematic content. Intensive negotiations held in bilateral and trilateral formats, including meetings with Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel, focused on a wide range of regional security issues, as well as other issues non-related to the Middle East. While the situation is only exacerbating, and there are practically no stable channels for bilateral negotiations on different vectors or they are being used occasionally, the participants of the negotiators touched upon the issues of civil conflicts in Ukraine and Venezuela, combined with an increasing wave of problems that aggravate Russia-the US relations.
However, no matter how varied the range of issues was, the Middle East content prevailed. Namely, Iran’s policy and its role in the region, especially in the Syrian conflict. It was Netanyahu who proposed to hold such consultations, and this fact predetermined the focus on Iran, that has always been considered in Israel as an “existential threat”. Fears of this kind only intensified as Iran, after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and during the war in Syria since 2011, consistently increased its military-strategic positions and political influence along Baghdad — Damascus — Beirut vector.
The anti-Iranian Middle East policy of Trump’s Administration has strengthened Israel’s determination to defend its interests by force. A certain division of roles between the two countries has been observed. Israel exerts constant military pressure on Iran with airstrikes at its facilities in Syria, the United States increasing financial and economic sanctions. A new situation emerged and is now perceived as a potential flashpoint for a direct clash between Israel and Iran on the Syrian territory, which would put Russia, having long-standing partnerships with both countries, in an extremely delicate position.
On the eve of the trilateral meetings in Jerusalem, various speculations about the upcoming “backstage deal” were widely spread in Russian and foreign media. The United States and Israel would allegedly propose Russia to put pressure on Iran in order to curtail the Iranian military presence (regular military units, divisions of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, as well as Iranian-controlled Lebanese Hezbollahs and the so-called “people’s militia”). In response, the United States will be ready to recognize the legitimacy of Assad, lift the sanctions from the Syrian regime, and contribute to the economic recovery of Syria.
Of course, any objectively thinking expert would consider such predictions far-fetched and rather superficial. While there is a need for a meaningful conversation on the whole range of issues for the future of Syria in the context of the strategic interests of Russia, Israel, and the United States; and as the tension has been growing, this need is getting more and more urgent. Before giving any assessment, it is important to trace which new trends in the Middle East policy of the United States and Israel served as the ground for the summit in Jerusalem and how they affect the interests of Russia in the region.
From Obama to Trump: Middle East U-Turns
During the presidency of Obama the US strategic line in the Middle East as a whole did not go beyond the traditional framework of previous administrations being committed to Israel’s security, maintaining allied relations with Saudi Arabia, and deterring Iran. At the same time, the peculiarities of Obama’s administration have revealed in exactly these three key areas.
As Netanyahu’s policy on the Palestinian issue was shifting more and more to the right-radical side, which deprived the Palestinians of practical opportunities to have their own statehood, serious irritants gradually accumulated in relations between the US and Israel. The President and his Secretary of State J. Kerry reaffirmed the internationally recognized solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the basis of coexistence of the two states and publicly criticized the expansion of settlement construction in the West Bank. Since 2011, after the collapse of the seemingly unshakable Arab regimes the US policy in the Gulf region has been shaped on a more pragmatic basis, on the principle of a “moving equilibrium.” This implied some kind of balancing between Iran (the regional aspect of its policy did not come to the fore) and Saudi Arabia (the threats from Iran, as the Americans stated at that point, should not be exaggerated). All this caused strong discontent both in Riyadh and in Tel Aviv. The signing of the agreement on Iran’s nuclear program (JCPOA) was perceived in these capitals as a violation of allied obligations and served as an impetus for the rapprochement of Israel and Saudi Arabia on the anti-Iranian basis.
Assessing the zigzags of the US policy with the change of administration, it can be stated that the difficulties with its formation are connected with the clash of two contradictory realities: on the one hand, Trump’s obsessive desire to become “anti-Obama” in the Middle East (and not only), and on the other, the inability to make this without infringing the US national interests and the normal functioning of all departments involved in foreign policy activities — the Department of State, the National Security Council, the Pentagon, and special services. This was especially evident in the internal struggle that Trump had to deal with while conducting a steep drift towards Israel and Saudi Arabia with a simultaneous shift in policy towards Iran.
Never in the history of the United States after the presidential election have senior posts at key management levels been filled so slowly and with great scandals. Trump broke all records for the number of layoffs and rearrangements of prominent figures in foreign policy; some of them (Tillerson, McMaster, Matthews, Cohen) expressed disagreement with the spontaneous decisions of the President regarding Iran in many cases. For the same reasons, the CIA has undergone personnel changes in the leadership, that, like in the case with IAEA, did not confirm the information Trump needed about Iran’s violation of the terms of the “nuclear dossier” agreement.
The withdrawal of the United States from the JCPOA, which was largely the sole decision of the President, caused a barrage of criticism from well-known American diplomats, politicians, and Middle Eastern experts. W. Burns, former US Under Secretary of State, one of the initiators of secret negotiations with Iran, noted: “But we don’t live in an ideal world. Diplomacy requires difficult compromises. And the nuclear deal achieved the best of the available alternatives… By failing to operate in good faith, the administration has weakened — not strengthened — our hand.” According to J. Allen, President of Brookings’s Center on the United States, Trump’s decision “would be a much more serious blow to American interests and to US global leadership than Trump’s previous treaty-related decisions.” T. Pickering, a prominent American diplomat who worked as ambassador to a number of leading world capitals, including Moscow, calls for a change of the political vector with regard to Iran and a reorientation of US foreign policy. His position included the following important points: “Withdrawing from the deal has left the U.S. isolated and weakened the international consensus on Iran, seriously damaging the transatlantic alliance, undercutting the U.S. position in the global financial system, and putting U.S. credibility on the line.”
The above estimates represent the quintessence of the reaction in the United States to a sharp turn in the US policy on Iran and, as a result, to a change in the nature of relations with Saudi Arabia. According to widespread opinion in the US Congress and in expert circles, with the rise of Mohammed bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Riyadh started playing a “dangerous game” in the region, making use of the “strategy of kowtowing” conducted by Trump, as the authoritative American political scientist M. Lynch put it. Such strategy deprives American diplomacy of the ability to restrain regional ambitions countering to the long-term interests of the United States.
The anti-Iranian strategy of Trump’s administration did not bring dividends and only added new dangerous elements to the conflict centers in Syria, Yemen, and the entire Gulf region.
International efforts, including Russia-the US cooperation, to resolve the Syrian conflict, in which Iran should and can play its positive role under certain conditions, are significantly complicated. The US Administration report on Syria submitted to the Congress contains the requirement of “the removal of all Iranian-led forces from Syria” as one of the three strategic goals along with “the defeat of ISIS” and “resolution of the Syrian crisis through a political solution in line with United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 2254”. This requirement is in no way consistent with the continued illegitimate US military presence in eastern Syria, which allows to support alternative to Damascus local government structures, jeopardizing its territorial integrity.
The war in Yemen and the tensions around Iran spurred the arms race in the Gulf region. Over the past few years, military spending by countries in the GCC has grown by 6% hitting an all-time high of USD 100 billion. The widespread competition between the United States and major European suppliers for multibillion-dollar defense orders has weakened the possibility of external influence on regional players, getting more and more uncontrolled.
The Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA) project launched during Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia (May 2017) with a clear anti-Iran focus turned out to be an inoperative tool due to suspicions about the intentions of the United States, that did not hide its opportunistic goals, and also because of the conflict interests among its members. A number of Arab states members of the “alliance” do not consider Iran a threat to security in the Middle East. In addition to Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE, none of the states in the region supports the policy towards confrontation with Iran, and even more so military actions. Kuwait, Qatar, and Oman advocate for maintaining dialog with Tehran and resolving the Gulf crisis through political means. Egypt and Jordan are also not enthusiastic in supporting the United States and Saudi Arabia, although they refrain from public criticism given the strong dependence on the financial investments.
One of the reasons for the failure of the US diplomacy is the attitude of the most states in the region towards Saudi Arabia, whose policy in the region is viewed as having “great-power” ambitions, unpredictable, and gravitating towards dominance. Trump’s opponents in the United States are also paying attention to this. Saudi Arabia’s boycott of Qatar and the unexpected support of this decision by the US President, contrary to the recommendations of the Department of State and the military, caused a deep split in the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf. At the same time, the previous US administrations relied precisely on this military-political association as a regional instrument of pressure on Iran.
The policy of maximum US pressure on Iran through increasing the military presence of extra-regional powers in the Persian Gulf, the development of a “tanker war”, and the imposition of ever new sanctions created a potential threat of open conflict, given that both sides declare their unwillingness to bring the matter to a military clash and signal their readiness to negotiate. In general, it can be stated that steep turns and unpredictable decisions in Trump’s Middle East policy have increased the degree of tension in the region, created new obstacles to resolving multi-year conflicts and stabilizing the situation through multilateral cooperation mechanisms.
Israel’s Strategy in Syria and Russia’s Interests
After the change of Administration in the US, the “shadow war” of Israel in Syria underwent significant changes. While the US was increasing the sanctions, Israel began to escalate its pressure on Iran. With the outbreak of the civil war, Israel was only striking at convoys and arms depots of the Lebanese Hezbollah, later with the strengthening of Iran’s military infrastructure and the Shiite “people’s militia”, the number and the geography of objects significantly increased. Military bases, concentration of military force controlled by Iran, factories for production and assembly of missiles, and bases of unmanned offensive arms were subjected to air attacks. Thus, Israel made it clear that Iran’s military activities in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon are under constant surveillance. In the changed situation around Iran, Israel’s military-political leadership considers it possible to eliminate the military threat on its part by combining constant force pressure and the use of diplomatic means. Russia is given a special place in the foreign policy in the hope of providing assistance on its part, taking into account the influence on Damascus and special relations with Iran. Supposedly, in the medium term, as the situation stabilizes, Russia will not need military cooperation with Iran in Syria that much. Issues of restoring the ruined economy and political influence on the Syrian leadership will come to the fore, which will strengthen elements of rivalry in Russia-Iran relations.
At the same time, adjustments were made to the military tactics. On Israel’s initiative, agreements were reached on improving the channel of military communication with Russia and on the fullest exchange of information in order to avoid unintentional clashes. Russia outlined its “red lines” and, judging by Netanyahu’s statements, during the trilateral summit in Jerusalem in June Russia’s warnings about the consequences of Israel’s military activity, including for the security of Russian personnel and military facilities, were perceived with serious understanding. Israel’s strikes in Syria are aimed primarily at the military infrastructure of Iran, Lebanese Hezbollah, and their personnel. Contrary to previous years of “maximum secrecy” it is now officially announced every time with an indication of the objects struck. Thus, Israel ensures relatively “free hands”, seeks understanding of its motives on the part of the international community, and makes Damascus understand that close contact with Iranian strongholds should be avoided.
After the Syrian forces were moved to the southern Syria to the Israeli-Syrian demarcation line in the Golan Heights area (in July 2018), a local point of tension occurred that can be compared to the one in the northwest in Idlib or in the east – in the areas where the US military contingent is located. Russia, the USA, and Israel, with the participation of Jordan, agreed on creating a “security zone” 70–80 km inland from the border with Israel within the Syrian territory. These agreements provided for the withdrawal of all Iranian forces from these areas and their patrolling by the Russian military. Russia held consultations with Iran and Syria, whose consent on the administrative status of the territories bordering Israel was to be part of multilateral agreements on the south of Syria.
However, according to Israel’s and Western estimates, over the past year, pro-Iranian formations under various coverings have once again entrenched themselves in the immediate vicinity of the border with Israel. Hezbollah and Shiite militias patrol areas dressed as uniformed Syrian regime forces deploy former rebel fighters in the provinces of Sweida and Quneitra to patrol areas and provide intelligence directly to the Iran-backed paramilitary group. During the trilateral summit in Jerusalem, Netanyahu strongly urged that “Israel would not allow Iran, calling for our destruction, to establish a bridgehead on our borders.” Israel’s military leaders are seriously considering a scenario in which Iran, in the event of an extreme aggravation with the United States, could open a “second front” on the northern border of Israel taking advantage of the increased military potential of Hezbollah on its southern border.
Thus, the initiative of Israel to organize a new format for Syria in Jerusalem was put forward at the time when the erroneous estimations could lead to an exchange of blows with the escalation into an armed confrontation of a regional scale. Moreover, on the eve of the parliamentary elections Israel does not want to be drawn into a war that has no winners, but they cannot afford inaction.
Jerusalem Format: Are there any Further Prospects?
Multilateral efforts to resolve the Syrian crisis create a system of peculiar concentric negotiating circles, that are so far loosely connected with each other. This is a negotiation track of various levels between Russia, Turkey and Iran (“Astana Format”), the mission of the UN Secretary-General Special Representative, the summit of Russia, France, Germany, Turkey (the possibility to continue meetings in this format was discussed at the meeting between Putin and Macron on August 19), the so-called “Small Group” of the United States, Great Britain, France, Germany, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. Russia occupies a central place in this negotiation system, having working contacts with all the players on the “Syrian field”, unlike other participants.
Will the trilateral meetings in Jerusalem at the level of the Heads of the National Security Councils of Russia, the USA, and Israel become an effective channel to achieve proper understanding that would allow us to timely suppress the outbreaks of military tension and bring together a vision of the future? It is still difficult to fully estimate such an opportunity, although certain nuances provide the basis for reflection on further possible scenarios.
The statements of the participants following the results of the negotiations sounded optimistic, which gives reason to assume mutual interest and keep to this negotiation track not only as a “fire-fighting” tool. Nikolai Patrushev noted the “spirit of goodwill” and the coherence of opinions on most issues, however, “we have to conduct a dialog on how to implement this,» he said. Bolton, a well-known hardliner for Russia and Iran, also noted “We didn’t come with the expectation we were going to solve all the problems, or even most of them” during the negotiations, which he described as “historic.” The initiator of the summit, the Prime Minister of Israel commended the trilateral meeting designed for an internal audience on the eve of the parliamentary elections.
As for the content of negotiations, all participants reaffirmed their previous positions in public speeches, emphasizing the desire to move on the oncoming tracks. Russia’s approach to the problem of Iran’s military presence in Syria was stated earlier by President Putin: “The start of a more active phrase of the political process, foreign armed forces will be withdrawing from the territory of the Syrian Arab Republic.” Explaining the words of the President of the Russian Federation, A. Lavrentiev, the Special Envoy to Syria, emphasized that Moscow addressed its appeal to “everyone, including the Americans, the Turks, Hezbollah and, of course, the Iranians.”
Taking into account the recurring aggravations between Israel and Iran, the Head of the Russian Security Council gave further explanations of Russia’s position in the sense that the withdrawal of Iran’s military units and allied forces should be considered in conjunction with the complete elimination of the foreign military presence in Syria. This is the ultimate goal in the settlement process, and it cannot be achieved in one step. The Russian side emphasized the need to reduce tensions through a conversation with Iran, rather than confrontation, and it was suggested that they take oncoming steps in order not to turn Syria into an arena of geopolitical confrontation. Russia shares Israel’s concerns about ensuring security, but proceeds from the assumption that other states of the region have their own national interests in this area. In response to a well-known set of accusations against Iran, Patrushev pointed out that it is unacceptable for Moscow to view Iran as the main threat to regional security, let alone equal it with ISIS.
The trilateral meeting in Jerusalem showed significant differences in the approaches of Russia and the US-Israel tandem towards the tactics regarding the role of Iran in Syria and the region as a whole. At the same time, judging by the final statements, the parties agreed that this new format could become a useful political asset for removing any misunderstanding in regards with each other’s intentions and plans. In this context, forthcoming trustful consultations at this level, as confirmed by the Israel’s Prime Minister, cannot be ruled out. There are also opportunities for Russian diplomacy to moderate the situation between Israel and Iran, while Israel could help mitigate irritants in relations between Russia and the United States on the whole range of issues of the Syrian settlement.
According to European estimates, Russia is still trying to maintain its balancing role between Israel and Iran while preserving effective working relations with its Iranian military ally on the ground. Apparently, this role of Russia has been tacitly accepted by partners, including Iran. And only de-escalation of tension can make it possible to find a formula that would satisfy Israel’s real security needs and allow Iran to outline acceptable limits for its influence in the region, including political and economic positions in Syria.
From our partner RIAC
A New Era in US-Jordan Relations
King Abdullah of Jordan is the first Arab leader who met American President Joe Biden at the White House. The visit has reaffirmed the strong and long-standing Jordan-US strategic partnership and reinvigorated the bilateral engagement for working together on security issues, and economic development on the basis of shared values and priorities. The King’s visit to Washington reaffirmed Jordan’s value as a reliable ally who plays a critical role for stability in a highly volatile region.
Jordan’s value is multi-dimensional and ranges from bilateral military cooperation, intelligence sharing and joint global counterterrorism operations including as a member of the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS and the Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve to deployment of almost three thousand (3,000) American troops to Jordan as part of the ongoing campaign to combat regional terrorism. The US has expanded military footprint to Jordan after Washington’s decision to withdraw forces from Syria and reduce military presence in the Turkish airbase of Incirlik. In addition, the kingdom’s geopolitical position in the heart of the Middle East provides a viable alternative for logistical support to the American military taking into consideration the US decision to withdraw from Afghanistan and close three bases in Qatar. Notably, the remaining supplies from the three Qatari bases along with the Support Mission have been transferred to Jordan and have become part of the Area Support Group-Jordan that operates as the Base Operations Support Integrator to back contingency operations and military-to-military engagements within the US Army Central Command’s area of responsibility.
Jordan’s value also stems from its critical role in addressing the overwhelming humanitarian needs created by the conflicts in Syria and Iraq as well as in hosting almost two million registered Palestinian refugees.
Support of Two-state Solution
The fact that Jordan remains at peace with Israel and is a key interlocutor with the Palestinians adds to the kingdom’s reliability to mediate and advance initiatives that support the two-state solution. This presupposes the resetting of Jordan-Israel relations. Washington is well-placed to offer its good offices and help restore trust between the two neighboring countries. The twenty-seventh year Jordan-Israel peace treaty shows not only the possibilities for coordination and co-existence but also the ceilings to peace with Israel in the absence of a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A “cold peace” and quiet, limited cooperation are currently the maximum possibilities vis-a-vis a “warm peace” that will unlock Jordan-Israel cooperation and potential.
It is nevertheless noteworthy that the last five years have been discerned by the previous American administration’s lack of appreciation of the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Trump peace proposal, known as “the Vision”, not only undermined the long-established aim of a two-state solution but also reinforced discussions over alternatives including a one state outcome to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; different measures of annexation, such as Israeli annexation of Area C in the West Bank; “exotic options” such as a federation in which Israel and Palestine share certain aspects of sovereignty; potential unilateral Israeli initiatives with most prevailing a Jordanian model, in which Jordan takes control of the West Bank and Palestinians are given Jordanian citizenship; and, reinforcement of the notion that “Jordan is “Palestine””.
Practically, Jordan can serve as honest broker in any future Israeli-Palestinian peace process, but as the late King Hussein stated in an interview with The New York Times in 1991 “Jordan should not be, cannot be, will not be a substitute for the Palestinians themselves as the major aggrieved party on the Arab side in a process that leads to peace”. The cited statement is fully embraced by Jordan’s current leadership.
Acknowledgment of Jordan’s Custodianship
The public acknowledgement by the American President of the kingdom’s special role as custodian of the Muslim holy places in Jerusalem is translated into a vote of confidence and a commendation for Jordan’s efficient safeguarding of religious sites for decades. As known, Amman pays the salaries of more than one thousand (1,000) employees of the Jerusalem Waqf Department and its custodianship role is carried out on behalf of all Islamic nations. The kingdom holds the exclusive authority of the Jordanian-appointed council, the Waqf, over the Temple Mount/ Haram Al Sharif and has spent over 1 billion dollars since 1924 for the administration and renovation of Al Aqsa mosque.
Jordan has admittedly served at multiple occasions as credible intermediary for Israel and the Palestinians to suspend tensions in the old city of Jerusalem, particularly at the Temple Mount/Haram Al-Sharif and pursues a successful administration of religious funded schools favoring moderate religious education and religious tourism. Jordanian moderation has guaranteed co-existence of the three monotheistic religions in Jerusalem at a time when on the contrary, counties like Turkey funnel millions of dollars in charity projects in Jerusalem promoting the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Overall, Jordan’s custodianship has proved to be successful in maintaining delicate arrangements for the benefit of all religions and parties involved.
American Loan Guarantees
The King’s discussions with the American President also centered on the economic challenges exacerbated by the effect of the pandemic and the enhancement of bilateral economic cooperation. Admittedly, Jordan showed strong leadership and governance with early actions that reduced the coronavirus pandemic pressure on the kingdom’s health system. The Jordanian government imposed a nationwide lockdown and severe social distancing measures at a much earlier stage of the pandemic than other Middle East countries.
Jordan withstood the pandemic’s impact with minimal loss of life but with a significant cost to its economy. As of June 2020, most restrictions on economic activity were lifted turning Jordan into one of the first Arab countries to reopen. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has contracted in 2020 by 3.5 percent after growing 2 percent in 2019 due to losses in state revenues because of fewer remittances and a weakened tourism market.
To cope with the direct negative effects of the pandemic on its state budget, the Kingdom received $396 million from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The amount of finance has specifically helped address the country’s balance of payments needs and allowed for higher spending on healthcare, and assistance to households and companies most affected by the pandemic. Despite that the IMF provided in March 2020 another multi-year $1.3 billion loan package to Jordan, the pandemic has caused a $1.5 billion shortfall in its balance of payments.
This complex economic reality along with Jordan’s moderation in the Arab world justify continued robust annual American economic assistance to the kingdom in the form of budgetary support (cash transfer), USAID programs in Jordan, and loan guarantees. US cash assistance should increase in the coming years taking into consideration that it is directed to refugee support and to segments of the economy that are mostly affected by the pandemic like foreign debt payments and fuel import costs. Overall, a pledge should be made for Jordan in American congress for the authorization of moreUS sovereign loan guarantees that will help the kingdom weather the pandemic’s adverse medium-to-long-term effects on its economy. US sovereign loan guarantees will allow Jordan to issue debt securities that are fully guaranteed by the American government in capital markets, effectively subsidizing the cost for the Jordanian government to access financing.
It is also noticeable that in a genuine effort to help the kingdom contain the pandemic and safeguard public health, the American administration proceeded with the delivery of over 500 thousand covid-19 vaccines to Jordan highlighting American commitment to international vaccination programs including that of the kingdom.
US-Jordan Defense Partnership
The strategic US-Jordan defense relationship was reflected in the discussions that were conducted between the Jordanian King and the American President. American support for the modernization of Jordan’s F-16 fighter jets has been at the forefront of the agenda with the aim of achieving greater interoperability and effectiveness for the Jordanian Armed Forces. The American President recognized Jordan’s contribution to the successful international campaign to defeat ISIS and honored as an example of heroism the memory of captain Muath al-Kasasbeh who was executed in 2015 by the terrorist organization’s militants.
Jordan has suffered avowedly from terrorism throughout the years and works collectively at regional and international levels to eliminate all its forms. The kingdom lost two prime ministers, Haza’a Al-Majali and Wasfi Al-Tal, as victims of terrorism and experienced a series of terrorist attacks like the simultaneous suicide bombings against three hotels in Amman in November 2005 that led to the loss of life of American, Israeli, Palestinian, and Jordanian nationals.
In effect, Jordan is the third-largest recipient of annual American foreign aid globally, after Afghanistan and Israel. A Memorandum of Understanding on American foreign assistance to Jordan commits the United States to providing $1.275 billion per year over a five-year period for a total of $6.375 billion (FY2018-FY2022). Renegotiations on the next such agreement for FY2023-FY2027 is estimated that will aim at increasing the American commitment to Jordan, a key ally in the fight against international terrorism whose military should be in position to procure and maintain conventional weapons systems.
On the whole, Jordan is a steadfast security partner of the United States in the Middle East whose moderation and pragmatism helped the kingdom weather regional and world challenges. As 2021 and past years have showed, Jordan’s position as a bridge between the Levant and the Persian Gulf provides it a unique geopolitical standing, in a way that nowadays Amman is granted with a significant security, diplomatic and humanitarian role that signals a new era in US-Jordan relations.
Chinese FM Wraps Up his Visit to Egypt
Wang Yi, the Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister, visited Egypt on July 18, 2021, in El Alamein City, northwest Egypt. The Chinese Foreign Minister is the first foreign official to visit this strategic city.
Wang Yi met with his Egyptian counterpart, Sameh Shoukry, during his visit to Egypt, and they discussed bilateral relations between the two countries. This year marks the 65th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Egypt and China. Egypt is the first Arab country to establish diplomatic relations with China and the first African country to do so. In the Arab world, the Islamic world, Africa, and developing countries, Egypt has long been one of China’s most important strategic partners. At the international level, the two countries mutually support one another. The meeting between Egypt’s Foreign Minister and China’s Foreign Minister focused on three main issues: the Covid-19 vaccine, the One Belt One Road Initiative, and international and regional issues such as Palestine and Syria
Both Egypt and China have a long history of cooperation and friendship. Before the outbreak of the Covid-19, the two countries’ relations were based on economic and trade cooperation, with China being Egypt’s first trading partner for the eighth year in a row since 2013, and the volume of trade exchange between the two countries exceeding $14.5 billion in 2020. However, as the outbreak Covid-19, cooperation between the two countries expanded to include medical cooperation. Egypt and China worked together to combat the virus. Egypt sent medical supplies to China, and China sent medical supplies and Chinese vaccine to Egypt. In addition, in December 2020, the two sides signed a cooperation agreement on COVID-19 Vaccine Production and China dispatched technical teams to Egypt to assist in the vaccine’s local manufacture. As a result, Egypt is considered Africa’s first vaccine manufacturer.
One Belt One Road Initiative
Egypt is an important strategic partner in building the Belt and Road Initiative. According to CGTN, the Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah al- Sisi, stated that:” Egypt supports the Belt and Road Initiative(BRI).” He added that Egypt is ready to strengthen cooperation with China in the fields of economy, trade, industry, science and technology, and expand human exchanges within the framework of the “Belt and Road Initiative.” One Belt and One Road Initiative is one of the most important initiatives of the twenty-first century, announced by President Xi Jinping during official visits to Indonesia and Kazakhstan in 2013. Egypt was one of the first countries to participate in this initiative. In 2014, Egyptian President al-Sisi expressed in an interview that China’s One Belt and One Road Initiative was an “opportunity” for cooperation between China and Egypt. Egypt was willing to participate in it actively.
International and Regional Issues
Regarding the international and regional issues, the two sides exchanged views and coordinated positions on some issues as Palestine, Syria issues. It’s worth mentioning that Wang Yi paid a visit to Syria the day before his trip to Egypt, marking him the first Chinese official to visit Syria since the country’s civil war began. China supports the Syrian sovereignty and rejects foreign interference in Syria, and also rejects the regime change. The Egyptian Minister Sameh Shoukry also discussed with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi the GERD issue. According to Sky News, Shoukry explained Egypt and Sudan’s positions as two downstream countries, the importance of preserving the interests of all parties and not jeopardizing the downstream countries’ water security, and the importance of engaging in intensified negotiations under the auspices of the African Union presidency. The two sides signed an agreement on the Egyptian-Sino Intergovernmental Cooperation Committee at the end of their meeting.
Greater Middle East may force China to project military power sooner rather than later
China may have no short-term interest in contributing to guaranteeing security in parts of a swath of land stretching from Central Asia to the East coast of Africa, but that does not prevent the People’s Republic from preparing for a time when it may wish to build on long-standing political and military relationships in various parts of the world to project power and maintain an economic advantage.
Determined to exploit the principle of allegedly win-win relationships that are underwritten by economics, trade, and investment as the solution to problems, China has so far delayed if not avoided bilateral or unilateral political and military engagement in conflicts beyond its borders.
The question is how long it can continue to do so.
China took a first baby step towards greater power projection with the creation in 2017 of its first overseas military base in the East African state of Djibouti, a rent-a-base nation that hosts multiple military facilities for among others the United States, France, and Japan and potentially Saudi Arabia. The base signals the importance China attributes to regions like the Gulf and the Horn of Africa.
A recent article in a Chinese military publication sheds further light on Chinese preparations for a day when it may have to project military might in different parts of the world. The article laid out Chinese thinking about the virtues of offering Middle Eastern, Asian, and African militaries and political elites training and educational opportunities.
“Students who can study in China are mostly local military and political elites or descendants of notable families. After they have studied and returned to their country, they have a high probability of becoming the top military and political leaders of the local country. This is very beneficial for China to expand its overseas influence and corresponding armaments exports,” the publication, Military Express, said.
The publication asserted that Chinese military academies were more attractive than their Western counterparts that impose “political conditions,” a reference to students having to hail from countries aligned with the West.
“Chinese military academy does a better job in this regard. There are no political conditions attached here. Foreign military students here learn Chinese strategies and tactics and learn to operate Chinese weaponry by themselves,” the publication said.
The publication failed to mention that China unlike Western producers also refrains from attaching political conditions to its arms sales like adherence to human rights.
Recent months have not been necessarily kind to Chinese aspirations of remaining aloof to conflict beyond its borders, suggesting that reality on the ground could complicate China’s strategic calculations.
The US withdrawal from Afghanistan threatens to put an ultra-conservative religious regime in power on the border with Xinjiang, the north-western province where China is attempting to brutally Sinicize Turkic ethnic and religious identity.
Recent Taliban military advances have already bolstered ultra-conservative religious sentiment in neighbouring Pakistan that celebrates the group as heroes whose success enhances the chances for austere religious rule in the world’s second-most populous Muslim-majority state.
“Our jihadis will be emboldened. They will say that ‘if America can be beaten, what is the Pakistan army to stand in our way?’” said a senior Pakistani official.
Nine Chinese nationals were killed last week in an explosion on a bus transporting Chinese workers to the construction site of a dam in the northern mountains of Pakistan, a region more prone to attacks by religious militants than Baloch nationalists, who operate from the province of Balochistan and are responsible for the bulk of attacks on Chinese targets in the South Asian nation.
It was the highest loss of life of Chinese citizens in recent years in Pakistan, the largest recipient of Chinese Belt and Road-related infrastructure and energy investments. China’s sees Pakistan as a key to the economic development of Xinjiang and part of its effort to Sinicize the region.
Indicating Chinese concern, China last month advised its citizens to leave Afghanistan and last week evacuated 210 Chinese nationals on a chartered flight. China last week delayed the signing of a framework agreement on industrial cooperation that would have accelerated implementation of projects that are part of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
Complicating Chinese calculations is the fact that both Russia and Turkey are maneuvering for different reasons to strengthen Turkic identity in the Caucasus that potentially would be more sympathetic to the plight of the Uighurs and other Turkic Muslims.
Turkey moreover may see Afghanistan as another stepping stone towards recreating a Turkic world. Turkey has reportedly asked Azerbaijan, whom Ankara supported in last year’s Caucasus war against Armenia, to contribute forces to a Turkish contingent that would remain in Afghanistan after the US and NATO withdrawal to secure Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport.
Turkish influence among Afghanistan’s Turkic minorities has been bolstered by the operation of Turkish schools, an increased number of Turkish scholarships, training of Afghan military and police personnel, the popularity of Turkish movies and television series, and efforts to mediate an end to conflict in the country.
The Taliban have rejected the continuation of a Turkish military presence that for the past six years was part of the NATO-led Resolute Support Mission. The Taliban insisted that Turkish soldiers were “occupiers in Afghanistan” who should leave with NATO and US forces even if they were also representatives of a “great Islamic nation.”
In anticipation of a threatening development in Afghanistan, China quietly established a small military post in 2019 in the highlands of Tajikistan, a stone’s throw from where Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor meets Xinjiang.
More recently, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Ji advised his interlocutors during a visit last week to Central Asia that going forward Chinese private military companies would play a greater role in securing Belt and Road-related strategic infrastructure projects.
Some analysts suggested that the Chinese companies would also be employed to train Central Asian militaries – a domain that was until now largely a Russian preserve.
In a similar vein, France’s withdrawal of its forces from West Africa steps up pressure on China to defend its overseas nationals and interests. Three Chinese construction workers were among five foreigners kidnapped by gunmen this weekend in southern Mali. No group has so far claimed responsibility for the kidnapping.
All of this leaves aside the question of how long China will feel that it can rely on the US defence umbrella in the Gulf to secure the flow of energy and much of its trade against the backdrop of a reconfigured US regional commitment and increasingly strained relations between Washington and Beijing.
It also does not consider China’s ability to manage expectations of the People’s Republic’s willingness to engage, in some cases not only politically or militarily, but also economically.
That was evident during Mr. Wang’s most recent visit to the region, and particularly Syria, which for much of its civil war was home to Uighur jihadists who distinguished themselves in battle.
It was Mr. Wang’s second visit to the Middle East and North Africa in four months. Furthermore, Mr. Wang last week discussed Afghanistan and Gulf security with his Saudi counterpart on the sideline of a regional cooperation meeting in Uzbekistan.
Syrian officials have for domestic and foreign policy reasons long touted China as the imaginary white knight that would come to the rescue in the reconstruction of the war-ravaged country.
“China is far less interested in Syria than Syria is in China… Syria has never been a priority in China’s economy-driven approach to the Middle East,” noted scholars Andrea Ghiselli and Mohammed Al-Sudairi.
The scholars cautioned however that “the significant potential impact of narratives created by local actors in the context of international politics,” a reference to Syria’s projection of China as its saviour, cannot be ignored.
Implicit in the scholars’ conclusion is the notion that Chinese policy may in future increasingly be shaped as much by decision-making in Beijing as developments on the ground in a world in which powers compete to secure their interest and place in a new world order.
Ultimately, the fundamental question underlying all these push factors is, according to Financial Times columnist Gideon Rahman, whether China has not only the capability and aspiration to become a superpower but also the will.
“If China is unwilling or unable to achieve a global military presence that rivals that of the US, it may have to find a new way of being a superpower – or give up on the ambition,” Mr. Rahman argues.
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