What is the real strategic sense of Turkey’s very recent military operation in the Idlib region of North-Western Syria?
We will analyse here, above all, the main strategic effects and the consequences within the entire Middle East region, as well as the counterpressures within the global geopolitical framework.
The word Idlib comes from the Aramaic “Adad” (God) and “Lib” (centre).
A very important geographical and military factor is that, to the West, Idlib is very close to Latakia, where the Russian base of Khmeimimim is located, with more than 1,000 stable operatives, who are now part of the Russian defence apparatus, together with those of the Tartus naval base, where – at the air base near Latakia – also an important unit of the Sixth Directorate of the Russian Military Secret Service (GRU) operates.
As early as 2015, i.e. the outbreak of war in Syria, Idlib has been, at first, the centre of protests against Bashar al Assad by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and other Sunni groups. Later Idlib was taken as a safe base by the various jihadist groups, including the remaining elements of the “Islamic State” of Raqqa that have now largely fled to the North-Western Syrian city, in close contact with the Turkish territories.
Not to mention the over 100,000 ones, previously held by the Kurds, who are relatives, collaborators and mere militants of the so-called “Caliphate” that Turkey has no interest in keeping detained and is slowly releasing.
Currently Idlib is not controlled by any majority jihadist group, but by an often vague balance among the many groups of the “holy war”, i.e. the Middle East and the other proxy wars, usually mediated by the Turkish Intelligence Services.
Besides autonomous groups of jihadists coming from the Chinese Turkestan-Xinjiang, often weakened with lightning operations by the operatives of the Chinese Armed Forces, in the region. There are also Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the Al Qa’eda faction that has been operating for many years in Syria and partly in Iraq, and the National Liberation Front, founded in May 2018 and openly supported by Turkey.
It currently includes as many as 11 jihadist factions, but also nationalistic and mainly anti-Assad groups.
These groups often emerge from the Syrian Sunni majority, largely present in the North of the country.
In agreement with Russia, however, as early as 2019 the Syrian government led by Assad has stated that “Syria’s first goal is to free Idlib”.
A very harsh signal for Turkey which, just in that phase, was beginning to have as many as 1,300 soldiers around Idlib to monitor the ceasefire.
In that case, Turkey’s primary goal was to avoid adding a further and probably incalculable mass of other migrants to the 3 million Syrians already present in the Turkish territory on the border with Syria – with EU money – but assigned by Germany alone to Turkey.
That situation made the U.N. Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, do his utmost to prevent a new offensive against Idlib from the South and from the East.
Hence, Staffan de Mistura’s proposals were the usual talks to avoid military pressure and, above all, create a humanitarian corridor, mainly with a view to avoiding the rush of crowds of Syrian migrants to Idlib and, from there, to the “Balkan route”.
European countries are full of migrants but, when thinking about geopolitics, they focus only on humanitarian aspects and, precisely, on how to avoid the arrival of other migrants.
Cannot we call it a failure?
In October 2018, in Sochi, the contacts between Putin and Erdogan led to an agreement.
A “de-escalation zone” was created in Syria – just to use the terminology of the Astana talks, the real ones, not the semi-deserted talks in Geneva – and it was in that area that Turkey took up the role of maintaining public order.
Shortly after the Sochi agreement, in an interview on the Russian TV, Bashar al Assad stated: “The Syrian military confrontation with Turkey is illogical”.
The document signed in Sochi between the two leaders stated that: a) there was a commitment of both countries for Syria’s territorial integrity; b) there was a common commitment to the fight against “all terrorists”, as well as the beginning of a ceasefire regime in Idlib as from March 6, and the establishment of a ‘security corridor’ along the Syrian M-4 motorway, six kilometres to the right and six kilometres to the left of the road axis; c) finally, there was the introduction of joint Turkish-Russian patrols, again along the M-4 motorway, in Idlib, in the direction controlling the Latakia-Aleppo axis.
Regardless of what happens to the Sochi agreement, the clash between Turkey and Russia is therefore very unlikely.
Neither Turkey nor, even less, Russia want to open a Syrian front where they would inevitably enter de facto marginalized from Syria.
A new war for hegemony in North-Western Syria between Russia and Turkey would be a very hard blow for both economies, which are now increasingly interconnected. By clashing with Turkey, the Russian Federation could lose an easy access to the Dardanelles and its own Syrian bases, as well as to the Bosphorus.
Moreover, Russia does not want to upset a NATO country like Turkey, which is now a maverick in the Atlantic region. An incalculable advantage position for Russia.
On its part, however, Turkey cannot do without specific support also from the United States, especially if obtained outside the North Atlantic Treaty region.
This means Turkey’s future concessions to the United States in the Eastern Mediterranean region and Turkey’s involuntary delicate hand against the PKK and other Turkish organizations (all offspring of the PKK, however) that are still essential on the ground for the United States (and Israel).
Currently, however, many executives of CIA, the Pentagon and the vast U.S. intelligence community do not even hide the desire to put an end to Erdogan’s regime.
Certainly the new Turkish Sultan is “scarcely democratic”, but if the United States were to test the approach of all its Middle East traditional allies in this regard, obviously the only democratic country would be Israel.
It will not be easy for the United States to define its future regional alliances, but the situation of relations between Turkey and the United States is today increasingly ambiguous and, in any case, very tense.
Only the most brilliant people within CIA are worried about not exasperating tempers, so as to avoid Turkey agreeing definitively with Russia irremediably against the United States.
The idea of some North American intelligence executives is also to push Turkey into reckless military adventures in Syria and, possibly, also in Libya – a distant area, but very much correlated with Syria – to eventually create a Turkish Vietnam and then leave Erdogan’s regime in the hands of the increasingly angry and impoverished Turkish crowds. A hope more than a strategic idea.
A vast program- as De Gaulle would have said – but anything is possible, even the U.S. planners’ dreams, if you are in the Middle East.
At this juncture, there is a key question. Can Assad alone control the stability of his Syria, after a victory which means, above all, the persistence of Russian protection over the old Ba’ath regime and also the inevitable support of the covert or non-covert military structures of Iran, which wants, above all, to create a stable terrestrial continuity towards the Lebanon and border with Israel, with its military and signal intelligence (SIGINT) stations?
Currently – after having changed and made the strategic framework much more insecure, with an ineffective stability of the U.S. positions in Syria and Turkey’s definition of the agreement with Russia, as well as the strong permanence of the ever stabler Assad’s regime, in the rest of Syria – the Turkish forces have approximately 20,000 soldiers in the Idlib area.
The deployment of Erdogan’s forces in Idlib includes his five special forces, which depend only on the Chief of Staff and not on the classic territorial chain of command of the Turkish Armed Forces. It also includes some armoured units, light infantry units, i.e. real commandos, and the 5th Brigade, specialized in paramilitary operations and mountain warfare.
Hence nothing to do with a Military Police that deals with an agreement on the M-4 motorway line.
The dozens of thousands Syrian or para-Syrian migrants, who want to push towards Europe, in the direction of Greece and then the “Balkan route”, are always supported by the Turkish Armed Forces themselves, who do not want civilians standing in the way between them, Assad’ Syria, Russia and the other players in the Syrian war, especially Iran.
Clearly Turkey does not want even the United States. If anything, Erdogan wants the financial support of the E.U., which, as usual, is terrorized of the obvious result of a war it has recklessly supported.
Hence, currently, the feeble agreement that Turkey and Russia reached in Sochi – which, indeed, served their most basic strategic interests – no longer holds, except for the wise malice of both statesmen.
It has even been said that recently Russia has sought the support of the Emirates and of Saudi Arabia (currently it is more difficult, after the fall of OPEC+) so as to break the stalemate with Turkey, while it is known that none of the powerful countries of Jazeera, namely the Arabian Peninsula, likes the Turkish strategic behaviour.
Syria, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates have begun to support, with money and weapons – the weapons that the new E.U. IRINI mission naively seeks at sea – the Libyan “rebels” of Cyrenaica, against the pro-Turk Tripolitanians, supported by the naivest part of the international community and, above all, by the Muslim Brotherhood that, instead, is not naive at all.
Obviously, however, Syria’s final victory at Idlib would never be accepted by Turkey, which would probably react with a limited but very harsh counteroffensive, capable of turning the Idlib area not into a Turkish enclave, to be used as a bargaining chip with Syria, but into a real Turkish area.
Furthermore, the Syrian economic crisis has not permitted an acceptable reconstruction in the areas of the Idlib region brought back to the Syrian regime or to Russia. This has also led to further revolts and provided induced support to the old jihadist networks that are fierce and still rich in liquidity.
It is also possible that the great push of Syrian and para-Syrian migrants – of various ethnic origin and political nature – is not viewed too negatively by Russia, which could thus favour those ethnicist and right-wing forces which now permanently support Russian strategic goals in the now brain-dead Europe.
Hence what should we do? Should we support the Idlib Strip as an area of permanence and support – with E.U. money – of the over three million additional migrants – something that is now physically impossible?
Where could the E.U. money be found, in the midst of a COVID-19 financial emergency?
Meanwhile, until the Idlib issue is solved, Assad’ Syrian regime is not stable and hence not capable of facing the great business of the country’s reconstruction, without the others’ strategic “teeth”.
Certainly – for what foreign policy agreements are worth – the Adana Agreement of 1998 still applies between Syria and Turkey. It dealt with the Province of Hatay, as well as the issue of water, essential for both countries, not to mention the Syrian recognition of the PKK as a “terrorist organization” and, therefore, the subsequent and immediate expulsion of the PKK leaders, especially Abdullah Ŏcalan, from Syria.
This is something we Italians remember fairly well. Therefore, between 2004 and 2010, the relations between Turkey and Syria were excellent.
The two countries also signed the beginning of a High Level Strategic Cooperation Council in September 2009, with an immediately subsequent free trade agreement between them.
That agreement was immediately extended to the Lebanon and Jordan, besides the two first signatories – hence the old Levant Quartet. When the war, which had begun as the Syrian “Arab Spring”, became radicalized, and both global and regional elements entered Syria, Turkey changed its observation point, mainly with reference to the strong presence of Iranian and, in any case, Shi’ite forces organized by Iran.
This was also connected to the proven substantial U.S. lack of interest in Syria, and above all its sole support for the various Kurdish political-military organizations – which, indeed, has never been the only one for the Kurds.
Since the beginning of tensions in Syria in 2014 – especially thanks to the local organizations of the Muslim Brotherhood, often connected at the time to the U.S. networks, as in Egypt – Turkey had clear and very simple goals in mind: the management of the inevitable humanitarian crisis, in which it was directly and inevitably interested; the fall of Assad’s regime; a proxy war against Iran; the elimination of Daesh, competing with the Turkey-manipulated jihadist organizations on the ground, and the final marginalization of the entire Kurdish area.
Currently there are approximately 4 million Syrian refugees in Turkey. Therefore, Turkey’s goals are currently to stop further migrant flows, as well as to support those already there, and finally keep its very safe borders with Syria in view of avoiding further migrant flows.
At that juncture, once the clash in Syria had started, Turkey saw both the Kurds and Daesh arrive at its borders.
Later, in 2011, when the “Arab spring” broke out in Syria, Turkey explicitly advised Assad to start a radical reform of the Ba’athist regime in view of maintaining internal stability.
Certainly, today, with the penetration of Russian and Iranian security apparata into Assad’s regime, the fall of Ba’ath and the Assad dynasty – a desire never hidden by Turkey – is much more difficult to achieve. Furthermore, Russia has an economic and oil agreement with Turkey that is worth the entire survival of the Turkish AKP regime.
One of Turkey’s primary plan to topple Assad, and hence free Syria from Russia and Iran and turn it into a dépendance of Turkish geopolitics, was to try to unite all the forces opposing Assad into a single “front”.
The Turkish support also applied to the Astana talks, where Turkey supported the opposition against Assad, including jihadists, and, above all, sought peace in Syria with a view to sending its 4 million migrants back to their Syrian homes and in the rest of the world.
From this viewpoint, we can better understand the Turkish operations Euphrates Shield in 2016 and Olive Branch in 2018, both designed to avoid the Daesh penetration into Turkey and the Kurds’ arrival in Ayn-el-Arab and Afrin.
As already seen, however, the real punctum dolens of Turkey’s regional geopolitics is the possible “Shiazation” of Syria, while Turkey would like to have the entire Syria or, at least, its Sunni-majority parts, hegemonized by Turkish interests.
The Turkish Forces’ and Intelligence Services’ penetration into Idlib has also this meaning: at first, we take our area of influence, then we will decide to negotiate with Bashar al Assad, but from a position of strength.
It should be recalled that the first aspect of the 1979 revolution in Iran was the expansion of Islamic radicalism, which immediately spread to both Sunni and Shi’ite countries.
The second strategy, which is currently still pursued by Iran, was instead pan-Shi’ism.
After the predictably unfortunate “Arab Springs” that the United States invented to defuse the sword jihad by reactivating the militancy, including the religious one, with a bottom-up and rank-and-file approach, with the results we could well imagine even before, Iran no longer uses pan-Islamism, but only pan-Shi’ism.
Since 1980, however, Turkey has carved out its geo-informative role of defender of the West against pan-Islamism and, above all, against the great Shi’ite insurgency organized by Iran, which has also strengthened the never well clarified relations between the AKP, Erdogan’s party, and the Muslim Brotherhood which, at the beginning of the “Arab Springs”, was also the primary instrument of the U.S. operations in the framework of the great change regime planned by Langley in the Arab-Islamic world.
Certainly Iran has its very strong Shi’ite identity, which mobilizes and strongly motivates all its proxies, in Syria as in the rest of the world. Also Turkey, however – especially after Operation Olive Branch, has created its myth: a “democratic and pluralistic” Syria, i.e. without the Assad dynasty in power, but still maintaining the political and territorial unity of the Syrian Republic.
In other words, Turkey still envisages the silent division into zones of influence, possibly favouring Russia, which maintains the TurkStream project, the bilateral gas pipeline leaving from Anapa, in the Russian region of Krasnodar, crossing the Black Sea and arriving at the Turkish station of Kiyikoi.
A clearly strategic pipeline since it strengthens Russian-Turkish ties and hence favours Turkey’s substantial moving away from NATO. It also avoids Russia’s transit through the dangerous and unstable Ukraine, which will hence become more a problem for the West, which has opposed Russian operations in the region, than for Russia.
Let us, however, analyse the current Turkish military operations in Syria. The Turkish military action began on October 9, 2019, with attacks on the Kurdish area of Tall Abyad and Sere Kaniye, which were carried out also thanks to the help of some jihadist groups connected with the MIT, the Turkish secret service.
Still today, it is an area of Turkish hegemony, obtained in a territory previously controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), led by the Kurdish initiative and involving Christian (Assyrian) and Arab (Sunni) troops.
Well before the SDF, however, much of the territory occupied by Turkey was previously held by the so-called Caliphate of Raqqa.
Another Turkish goal was to militarily separate the Syrian Kurds – who are often mostly on the Syrian-Turkish North-Western border – from their fellow countrymen in Iraq and, all the more so, in Turkey.
In addition, Erdogan’s Turkey plans to relocate at least 2-3 million Syrian refugees or refugees coming from Syria (who are the largest share) already present in Turkey.
A solution that has already caused two problems. All migrants come from North-Western Syria and, hence, they are not homogeneous with the Turkish stability projects in the region. There is also the danger of giving room and bases for action to Turkey’s traditional enemies: the Syrian Democratic Forces; some remnants of the “Caliphate”, that, especially in its last phases, had close relations with the Turkish Intelligence Services; some Kurdish areas well armed from their supply lines, which go mainly from South-Eastern Syria to the whole Northern border.
Just think that, in 2013, there were also confidential talks between the Chief of MIT and the Turkish Foreign Ministry and the leaders of all the Kurdish forces, in view of reaching a stable agreement. Those negotiations, however, were harshly disrupted by Turkey.
In the meantime, the E.U. is obtusely undertaking to paying Turkey to stop migrants at the beginning of the “Balkan route”, which is, however, largely used both by Syrian migrants and by the majority migrant flows passing through Syria.
Indeed, the E.U. support for all the U.S. and Franco-British democratist follies, aimed at bringing free elections and secular democratic systems throughout the Middle East, has been a unique case of strategic masochism, i.e. paying the same Turks who destabilize North-Western Syria and then asking Europe to pay the bill for what they have done precisely to the designated victims, namely the powerless Europeans.
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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