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Syria lures but will China bite?

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China looms large as a potentially key player alongside Russia and Iran in President Bashas al-Assad’s post-war Syria. With Russia and Iran lacking the financial muscle and the United States and Europe refusing to  engage with the Al-Assad regime, China is from Syria’s perspective the shining knight on a white horse. Syria could become a key node in China’s infrastructure, telecommunications and energy-driven Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Syria could also bring it closer to being sucked into the Middle East’s multiple conflicts.

China’s economic interests in Syria

Mohammed Jarah and Ahmad Bustati’s warehouse in Damascus symbolized China’s emergence as the largest supplier of industrial and consumer goods to Syria on the eve of the Syrian civil war. The dilapidated warehouse was stocked with everything from Chinese laser cutting machines to plastic toys for children.

A decade of fighting dashed the two Syrian entrepreneurs’ hopes. However, things seem to be looking up for businessmen like Mr. Jarah and Mr. Bustati with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad having gained the upper hand in the war with Russian and Iranian assistance and China seeing longer-term economic potential in Syria as a regional node of what BRI will look like irrespective of the coronavirus pandemic and its devastating economic consequences.

Syrian officials have sought to drive home China’s competitive advantages and perceived interest in taking a lead in the reconstruction of their country. “The Silk Road is not a silk road if it does not pass through Syria, Iraq and Iran,” said Buthina Shaaban, Bashar al-Assad’s media advisor, referring to the BRI.

Chinese access to the Syrian Mediterranean Sea ports of Tartus and Latakia is an attractive prospect for China’s multi-billion-dollar infrastructure, telecommunications and energy-driven initiative that seeks to link Eurasia to the People’s Republic. It would complement Beijing’s footholds in Greece’s Piraeus and the Israeli harbours of Haifa and Ashdod and echo Syria’s key position on the ancient Silk Road.

Closely connected to Chinese interest in Syrian ports is the exploration by China Harbour Engineering Company Ltd (CHEC) of the possible upgrading of the deep seaport of Tripoli, Lebanon to allow it to accommodate larger vessels. In contrast to Syrian ports, Tripoli would grant China greater freedom of action because it would not have to share control with Russia. Together with Syrian ports, Tripoli would serve as an alternative to passage through the Suez Canal.

Russia appeared to be anticipating potential Chinese moves when it last year negotiated with the Assad government an extension of its access to military bases including what it describes as a “logistics support facility of the Russian navy” in Tartus.

In the absence of making the agreement public, it remained unclear what Russian intentions are. However, modernization of Tartus for military purposes that would guarantee Russia a role in control of the Eastern Mediterranean would have to involve upgrading it to be able to accommodate all types of vessels, including aircraft carriers.

In a further move, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his foreign and defence ministries in May to reach agreement with Syria on an additional expansion of a 2015 accord that governs Russia’s naval presence in Tartus and allows the Russian navy to base up to 11 ships in the port for 49 years. Mr. Putin wants the life of the agreement to be extended by an additional 25 years.

“From the coast of Syria, there is an opportunity to control not only the eastern part, but the entire Mediterranean Sea,” said Captain 1st Rank Anatoly Ivanov, a Moscow-based naval expert. “The United States has in the Mediterranean Sea not only the ships of its Sixth Fleet, but also an extensive ship repair base and training centres of the Navy. For Russia, the Mediterranean Sea is much closer not only geographically, but also geopolitically. Therefore, to use the opportunity to establish (itself) more densely in Syria seems to be a reasonable measure”

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

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

Adding to China’s expansion in the Eastern Mediterranean, COSCO acquired in 2015 a 65 percent stake in Turkey’s  Kumport Terminal on the Ambarli coast of Istanbul. To round off the circle, Egypt’s navy last year signed an agreement with China’s Hutchinson Ports to build a terminal in Abu Qir, a port 23 kilometres northeast of Alexandria.  Chinese companies already operate Alexandria’s own port as well as that of El Dekheila, ten kilometres west of the city.

Chinese influence in at least ten ports in six countries bordering the Eastern Mediterranean – Israel, Greece, Lebanon, Turkey, Egypt, and Syria – could complicate US and NATO’s ability to manoeuvre in the region.

This was one reason that the Trump administration has warned Israel that Chinese involvement in Haifa, where the Chinese have built their own pier, could jeopardize continued use of the port by the US sixth fleet.

Informing US thinking is China’s Military Strategy white paper, published in 2015, that emphasises the “strategic requirement of offshore waters defense and open seas.” It raises the spectre of Chinese-managed or owned ports in the Eastern Mediterranean serving the People’s Republic’s economic and commercial, as well as military interests.

The Chinese sway over multiple ports in the Eastern Mediterranean could also  encourage  Turkey to bolster its grip on the  energy-rich waters in violation of international law. Turkish military support for the internationally recognised Libyan Government of National Accord produced a maritime agreement between the two entities that created an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the Eastern Mediterranean favouring expansive Turkish claims.

China’s interest in Mediterranean ports is part of a larger effort to integrate the Middle East into the maritime leg of the Belt and Road that also includes the Gulf, the Arabian Sea with the Pakistani port of Gwadar as its focal point, and the Red Sea with the establishment of the People’s Republic’s first military outpost in Djibouti.

The integration is further advanced by Chinese investment in ports and logistics facilities in among others Dubai and Oman as well as industrial parks linked to maritime infrastructure. China’s moves have been embraced by Gulf states, several of which have incorporated them in long-term plans to diversify and streamline their economies.

Qi Qianjin, China’s ambassador in Damascus, spelled out China’s interest in Syria when he stressed in 2018, in a statement in 2018 to the People’s Republic’s state-run news agency Xinhua as well as in a letter, his country’s intent to expand its economic, political, and military footprint in  the.

“I think it’s about time to focus all efforts on the development and reconstruction of Syria, and I think China will play a bigger role in this process by providing more aid to the Syrian people and the Syrian government,” Mr. Qi said during a visit to a hospital in the Syrian capital.

Donations in recent years of at least US$44 million to Syria for humanitarian purposes back up Mr. Qi’s statements.

In  a letter written in August 2019, the ambassador focussed among other things, on the development of Syrian railways and seaports. The letter was published a month after Chinese President Xi Jinping promised to lend  $20 billion to Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, and Jordan for reconstruction and economic development.

Few doubt that China, even prior to the coronavirus pandemic and its devastating economic fallout, is best positioned to be a key, if not the key player, in post-war reconstruction of Syria, estimated to require between  $250 and $400 billion in investment.

This is even more the case as other potential funders, the United States, Europe, Russia and the  Gulf Cooperation Council states, will either refuse to work with the government of Mr. Al-Assad or be consumed with fighting a domestic and global recession and substantial loss of revenues in the wake of the pandemic. 

Moreover, in opposition to Western states, China on six occasions, backed Russian vetoes in the United Nations Security Council that blocked condemnations of the  Syrian government and its backers, Russian and Iran; calls for ceasefires; and sanctioning of alleged war criminals.

One  of China’s comparative advantages in heavily sanctioned Syria is the experience it garnered  in circumventing US and United Nations sanctions imposed on  Iran and North Korea. 

China further benefits from  alternative institutions that it built like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization that it either controls or in which it has considerable influence.

That has not stopped the US Justice Department from accusing Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei of operating in Syria in violation of US sanctions. The department is seeking the extradition from Canada of Meng Wanzhou, the company’s chief financial officer and daughter of its founder. Ms. Meng was detained in Canada at the request of the United States.

Seemingly oblivious to the risk of being targeted by the long arm of US justice, some 200 Chinese companies in 2018 and 58 in 2019, active in sectors such as telecommunications, oil and gas, and transportation, attended the Damascus International Fair where they discussed deals ranging from car manufacturing to development of mobile hospitals.

The participation of China National Heavy Duty Truck Company highlighted Chinese interest in the Syrian automotive sector. Syria could also prove to be a lucrative market for Chinese military exports. Mr. Al-Assad could well see Chinese interest as a way of loosening Moscow and Tehran’s grip on his country despite Russian and Iranian effort to reap the benefits of their boots-on-the-ground support for his government by winning lucrative reconstruction contracts.

China has so far refrained from responding in any real way to Syrian urging to kickstart reconstruction of critical national infrastructure even before remaining rebel strongholds in the country are reconquered. It has however exploited commercial opportunity.

The vast majority of Syrian exports go to China and Chinese goods are ubiquitous in Syrian markets. Hama, Syria’s most important industrial region after the collapse of manufacturing in Aleppo and Damascus as a result of the war, is awash with Chinese-made car parts, machine tools and equipment for the automobile, motorcycle, and shoe industry.

Multiple delegations of Chinese investors and businessmen have visited Syria in recent years. In 2018, China hosted its First Trade Fair on Syrian Reconstruction Projects with some 1,000 Chinese companies in attendance and pledged $2 billion for the construction of industrial parks.

China’s security concerns from Syria

Mr. Al-Assad’s ability to regain control of most Syria, with the exception of the rebel-held northern region of Idlib, created not only economic opportunity but also heightened already existing Chinese security concerns.

As  Syrian government forces rolled back rebel fighters, China feared that their battle-hardened Uyghur and Central Asian contingent would gravitate towards Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Pakistan from where it would be easier to target China.

The presence of Uyghur fighters in Syria was one driver for a brutal crackdown on Turkic Muslims in China’s troubled north-western province of Xinjiang. It also persuaded China to step up border security cooperation with Tajikistan and Afghanistan, where militants of the Uyghur jihadist Turkistan Islamic Party, an al-Qaeda-affiliated group, allegedly fight alongside the Taliban.

The Uyghur presence in Syria prompted China to consider sending Chinese troops to join the fight for Idlib in violation of its foreign and defense policy principles. China ultimately dropped the idea, which would have amounted to the People’s Republic’s first military intervention in recent memory beyond its borders.

Repeated unconfirmed media reports have, however, suggested that China has been sharing intelligence with Syria and has been sending military advisors for the past four years to help in the fight against Uyghur militants.

The discussion about an intervention followed a pledge in 2016 by Rear Admiral Guan Youfei of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) to increase military cooperation with the  Syrian government.

Two years later, a Syrian state-controlled newspaper, Al Watan, Mr. Qi, the Chinese ambassador, and China’s military attaché, Wong Roy Chang, as saying that China wanted to contribute “in some way” to Syrian military campaign against the rebels in Idlib. The PLAN took nine days to deny Chinese interest in getting involved in the fighting, calling the report a “misunderstanding.”

Meanwhile, while supportive of efforts to negotiate an end to the Syrian war, China has studiously avoided taking a leading role. Its sole initiative to shape the outcome of the conflict was a four-point plan that never gained significant traction.

China’s dilemma in Idlib lies partially  in sensitivity to Turkish opposition to an all-out assault on Idlib. Turkey fears that it would likely spark a renewed refugee exodus and concern that Chinese involvement in an assault could whip up pro-Uyghur sentiments in Turkey despite growing anti-refugee sentiment in the country.

Turkey has long supported Uyghur rights and has frequently turned a blind eye to Uyghur militants.

An Uighur dressed in a Turkish military uniform and sporting an automatic weapon, claiming in a video clip posted on Twitter that he was fighting in the northern Syrian district of Afrin alongside Turkish-backed rebels, advised Han Chinese residents of China’s troubled north-western province of Xinjiang to leave the area. “Listen you dog bastards, do you see this? We will triumph! We will kill you all. Listen up Chinese civilians, get out of our East Turkestan. I am warning you. We shall return, and we will be victorious,” the Uyghur said.

Syria in the wider Chinese Middle East  policy

Beyond its hesitancy of becoming embroiled in the Syrian war, China, despite its consistent backing of the Syrian government as a secular bulwark against Islamic extremism, feared that greater involvement in Syria could jeopardise its successful efforts to remain aloof in the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran that influenced multiple disputes in the Middle East.

That fear has receded with states in the GCC ending their long-standing support for anti-Assad rebels and cosying up to the Syrian leader in an effort to counter Iranian and Turkish influence.

Chinese aloofness also shielded it from entering into direct competition with Russia and Iran in the post-war reconstruction phase. Deepening Chinese-Russian ties in the wake of the pandemic and perceived greater Iranian dependence on China may allow for a divvying up of the pie in ways that turn Syria into an important Belt and Road node

Author’s note: The original version of this article was published by the Geneva Center for Security Policy

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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Middle East

Erdogan punches above his weight

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Since months Turkish Lira losing its value and inflation is on the rise, the statistics shows that inflation increased from 8 percent by 17 percent and still climbs. According to the National Statistics Institute-Tüik, inflation jumped by 14.6 since 2020 and 17.84 % from the time when 2019. Turks have lost their reliance on Lira, so that people purchase foreign currency or gold, which in turn caused unemployment and capital fight. When venture capitalists avoid investing, it sparks unemployment subsequently, redundancy brings about less money spending and capital flow, ultimately, poverty and depression takes place.

Erdogan attempted to fix the issue thru his monetary policy and fiscal measures, and he even reshuffled national financial institutions.  Erdogan sacked finance minister and head of central bank in hope of deflation and economic recovery.

In order to ameliorate country’s Real GDP, Erdogan raised the prime interest rate, doubled gold reserves and began to sell collaterals. Despite Erdogan’s monetary measures, Turkish quarterly Nominal GDP signifies price increase and inflation escalation. One has better find the root cause for the economic stagnation in Turkey, in precise sluggish economic developments have not been effected due to fiscal policy, rather Erdogan’s politically motivated foreign and interior ambitious policies.

Erdogan’s imperialistic political ideology to ottomanize the world has had backlashes, as result most of the regional countries have distanced themselves from Turkey. In order to sponsor such a dogma, Ankara signed an agreement with Moscow to run Turk-stream a natural gas pipeline. Moreover, Erdogan’s Ankara launched drilling in offshores of Greek and Cyprus, and signed an exclusive agreement with Tripolis’ leadership to get access to the oilfield and natural resources of the country, which nurtured a possible full-scale war between Athens and Ankara.  Meanwhile, Erdogan’s ambitions caused anger within European Union’s leaders, who warned Turkey with penalties and sanctions.  Turkey’s acquisition of S-400 missile system form Russia not only infuriated its traditional ally the United States but also annoyed its fellows within the NATO club. In the aftermath of the purchase, Trump’s administration sanctioned Turkey on 14 December 2020, Ankara was dropped from F35 stealth fighters’ project, and the decades-long history of productive defense cooperation between the countries demised. 

Erdogan has joined Chinese Belt and Road Initiative, and he recently signed an extradition covenant to deport Uyghurs and Beijing’s criticizers to China, whereby they face death penalties and capital punishment. Erdogan’s sponsorship of Turkish enunciated minorities not only defamed Turkey in Afghanistan, but also in most of east European countries.

Turkey’s military and financial support to HAMAS (Palestinian Radica Islamic Movement) exasperated Israel, which has been in turn counter-productive, triggering face-off between Ankara and Jerusalem. Turkish military intervention in both Azerbaijan and Libya led adversary between Ankara and Moscow. Erdogan’s fundamental Islamic hegemony (Muslim Brotherhood) instigated rift between Ankara and Riad and its allies, who sponsor the ideal of Salafism, consequently, most of the gulf countries removed Turkish products from their ranges and excessively complicated Ankara’s access to the regional markets. Ankara has recently agreed to finance and train Pakistan’s backed mercenaries and militants in Kashmir to fight Indian army in the region, which put Ankara at diplomatic, political and economic standoff with New Delhi.

Erdogan’s support to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt ramified Ankara from Cairo, which minimizes Turkish entree to Suez-Canal. Accordingly, Erdogan has drawn a political, military and economic buffer zone all around the country.

If we put all pieces together, it will eventuate a conclusion that Erdogan punches above his weight. Erdogan’s monetary policy and populistic dogma cannot handle Turkey’s grimy economic situation and inflation, relatively a profound strategic shift in policy within internal and external realms of the country can rescue Ankara from total collapse. 

Additionally, thru populist rhetoric and national-populism, he hits below the belt.  Since Turkish lethargic economy cannot bear the burden of neo-ottmanism and tans-national Islamic fundamentalism as well as cross-border terrorism. 

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Can Syria be reborn from the ruins after a decade of civil war?

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According to the data from the “Syrian Observatory for Human Rights” (a non-governmental organization based in London), in 2020 – after ten years of civil war – “only” 6,800 people were killed in Syria, the lowest figure since 2011.

In this long and bloody decade a total of 387,000 people died, of whom 117,000 were innocent civilians, victims of a war that began with a student protest and, in a short time, turned into a small “world war” that saw Turkish, Iranian, Russian and American forces in the field, besides the “local” contenders, namely Bashar al-Assad’s loyalist army and the various indigenous militias, ranging from the Kurds in the North-East to the jihadist militiamen of various complexion or background.

 Considering the importance of Syria in the Middle East and in Mediterranean’s and North Africa’s equilibria, before analysing the possible developments of the geopolitical situation triggered by the conflict, it may be useful to go over the five phases in which the Syrian war unfolded, which turned out to be the most explosive and bloody consequence of the entire phenomenon of the so-called “Arab Springs”.

The first phase, in March 2011, was triggered by a demonstration of students in Deraa who, on the wave of the first protests in Egypt and Tunisia, took to the streets to demand the democratization of Assad’s regime, based on an Alawite leadership (a minority sect of Shi’ite origin) that for over forty years had been in power in a country where the Sunnis, traditional enemies of the Shi’ites, accounted for 65% of the population – as is still currently the case.

The police repression of student demonstrations was extremely harsh and, also thanks to a skilful information and disinformation campaign by Al Jazeera – the Qatari TV channel which is a master in defending the interests of the “Muslim Brotherhood” protected and supported by the Qatari Emir – the protests quickly spread throughout the country, while Assad’s forces tried to control them with the military iron fist.

Soon what looked like a re-edition of the French 1968 protest movements in Arab guise turned into a full-blown civil war.

 In early 2012 there was the second phase of the crisis. The street protests turned into armed conflict due to the fact that better armed and better organized militias took the field, thanks to weapons and money from Qatar and Erdogan’s Turkey.

While the Syrian regime began to lose control of strategic territories in the North and in the South of the country, ceding the city of Aleppo to the insurgents, Iran – worried about the fate of the regime and the Alawite minority – had the Shi’ite militias of Hezbollah intervene in the conflict, from the neighbouring Lebanon, as well as “military advisers” from the “Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps,” a powerful paramilitary organization created by the Ayatollahs to defend Iran’s interests abroad and the internal stability of the theocratic Republic.

In the spring of 2013, the Syrian regime appeared to be on the verge of collapse but, thanks to the Iranian help, it managed to maintain control of the capital and the strategic ports of Latakia and Tartus, in which a strong Russian naval presence was “hosted”.

The third phase marked the internationalization of the conflict, with the emergence of ISIS and the American and Turkish intervention.

 In June 2014, faced with the total marginalization of the Sunni minority by the Shi’ite majority in Iraq, a Sunni political-military group composed of former Iraqi members of Saddam Hussein’s regime decided to establish the “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria”, a jihadist military organization aimed at building a new Sunni nation sitting astride two States considered “bastard” because they were conceived by Anglo-French colonialism.

The armed forces of ISIS, under the leadership of the “Caliph” Al Baghdadi, quickly conquered the city of Raqqa and territories in the North-East on the borders with Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan, and initially thanks to the Turkish help they threatened to exterminate the Syrian Kurdish population and establish a bloody terror regime in the conquered areas.

The threat of ISIS led to the first American intervention, with targeted bombings in defence of the Kurds, while Turkey supported not only the Caliphate but also the creation of Sunni militias gathered under the name of “Jabhat Al Nusra”, that progressively reduced the control of the Syrian territory by the loyalist forces faithful to Damascus.

The fourth phase of the conflict started in 2015. The fate of Assad’s regime seemed doomed: the Damascus army did not even control the entire capital; the international isolation of the regime was almost absolute and the Sunni forces of ISIS and Al Nusra seemed destined to a victory that would deliver Syria to the fundamentalists and bring back to the centre of the Middle East scene a neo-Ottoman Turkey whose leader, Tayyip Recep Erdogan, pursued  the dual goal of definitively cutting Kurdish irredentism down to size and ensuring Turkey the role of centre of gravity in the whole region.

At that juncture Russia directly entered the field with its own air force, siding with the Iranian forces deployed in defence of Assad, thus turning the tide of an increasingly confused and bloody conflict.

In the fifth and final phase of the Syrian war, thanks to the Russian military support, which almost led to a direct clash between Russian and Turkish forces, the Syrian armed forces not only regained total control of the capital but also of all the cities that had fallen under the control of ISIS and its allies, ranging from Aleppo to Raqqa, at the time reduced to a heap of rubble as a result of street fighting and Russian and American bombings.

The final conquest of Deraa – the symbolic city of the civil war – by Assad’s military forces at the end of 2018 marked the end of Sunnis’ and their internal and external supporters’ hopes to overthrow the secular Alawite regime in Damascus. However, as the 6,800 deaths in 2020 show, Syria cannot be considered pacified.

The Syrian civil war had significant impacts throughout the Middle East and Europe.

Over 3 million refugees poured into Turkey, the Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt. Some of them arrived also in Europe via Greece, while Erdogan was “convinced” – with a donation of 7 billion euros- initially to curb and later to stop the flow of Syrian migrants to Europe.

 Currently Syria is a country in ruins which, however, remains fundamental for the Middle East equilibria.

The role played so far in the conflict by Russia, Iran and Turkey and, albeit marginally, by the United States and Israel, shows that what appeared to be the “Arab Spring” in Damascus, was indeed an attempt to exploit the international unpopularity of Assad’s regime to alter the regional balance in favour of Turkey, Qatar and the most reactionary Sunnis.

 Despite the Turkish military backlash that, in 2019, attempted to definitively eliminate the Kurdish threat from its borders by seizing Syrian territories, currently Syria is gradually integrating again into the Arab world.

It is a world that survived the impact of false “Arab Springs” which, badly analysed by a short-sighted and superficial West, were not initially understood in their most realistic sense, i.e. a well-orchestrated attempt by the most reactionary part of political Islam to overthrow the secular governments of the Arab-Muslim world.

Thanks to the efforts of Al Sisi’s Egypt, Syria is back again in the Arab League and has progressively resumed diplomatic relations with most Arab nations. With its support for Assad, Egypt is trying to curb the strong Iranian presence in the region and the unscrupulous activism of Turkish President Erdogan, who still dreams of becoming the “dominus” of the region.

The worst part of the Syrian war has come to an end. The Caliphate has been defeated militarily, but it still controls some parts of territory in the North-East of the country and is still able to carry out sporadic attacks against the regular armed forces.

Turkey remains a threat to the stability of Syria, a half-destroyed country, with a collapsing economy as a result of the U.S. sanctions and the Covid 19 pandemic.

Egypt, the Gulf States and Russia are working to bring Syria’s relations with the rest of the world back to normalcy, thus taking the first steps in the process of physically rebuilding a country in ruins. China and North Korea are also players in the game – a game that, in the future, will have important positive economic repercussions for the protagonists of the process.

For the time being, Europe and the United States have a wait-and-see attitude and are satisfied with maintaining a system of indiscriminate sanctions that have negative effects not on the stability of the regime, but on the well-being of its citizens.

After a decade of war, Syria has the right to peace and reconstruction – a complex process at which Europe should look with pragmatism and rationality, recalling the statement by Henry Kissinger that “in the Middle East there can be no peace without Syria”.

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Maritime Border Dispute: The South Lebanon Crisis

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The Middle Eastern region has been riddled with crisis and disputes for centuries yet only a few seem to make their way out of an endless war. One such instance is making its way to the map as aged rivals: Lebanon and Israel, are inching their way to a possible resolution to a meddling dispute spanning decades. The two countries have been formally at war with each other since the Arb-Israel conflict initially sparked after the establishment of Israel post Holocaust in 1947-48. Though the official position has not deterred much since then, Lebanese representation states that a ‘framework’ has been devised under the eye of The United Nations (UN) while Israel’s energy minister Yuval Steinitz confirmed that the talks over the maritime dispute would initiate soon after being deterred since October 2020. The significance of these talks could only be deciphered once you realise the backdrop leading to such complex relations.

Both Lebanon and Israel are Middle Eastern countries located to the western periphery of Asia. Lebanon, officially known as the Lebanese Republic, shares a border with Syria to the north and east while meets Israel in the south. The two countries share no border on land and have overlapping borders in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, which stems the basis of the conflict. The disputed region is cited by experts as rich with lucrative energy reserves. Back in 2011, Israel discovered two gas fields in the region as the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu stated that, “The state enjoys exclusive economic rights including the right to exploit sea’s natural resources”. Lebanon on the other hand is not economically upright relative to Israel and could reap immense benefits from the resourceful region.

As Lebanon and Israel share no defined border on land, it makes it significantly difficult to draw a justifiable demarcation to the maritime. The current boundary, known as the ‘Blue Line’, was drawn by the UN after, almost 22 years of occupation, Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon back in 2000.

The region is the most sensitive region between the two countries as it has often been deemed as the ‘Tensest Frontier’ of the region. Historical facets make this fact even more apparent since Israeli forces have met thorough resistance over decades in this very perimeter from the Lebanese army and the Shia militant group, its arch-rival, Hezbollah. The deadliest conflict struck between the duo back in 2006 when Israeli forces clashed with Hezbollah over the blue line frontier. A month-long war resulted in 1190 casualties on the Lebanese side whilst 163 Israeli soldiers were rendered dead in the sea. A recent skirmish came about only 3 months back in July when Lebanese border again quivered with ammunition. A set-up attack sparked when a Hezbollah cell comprising of heavy artillery throttled the Israeli forces. The responsibility of the attack was never accepted by Hezbollah, but the incident was cited as a revenge operation over the assassination of a Hezbollah fighter due to an Israeli airstrike in Damascus mid-July.

Despite the nations being on rough patch, both militaristically and diplomatically, both have showed positive signs to resolve the dispute once and for all. Israel has been under pressure over the growing tensions as the normalisation of relations with UAE, Bahrain and Morocco came about. While, Lebanon is still reeling with the catastrophe struck by the blast in Beirut and subsequent resignation of the government. Although Lebanon refused to directly negotiate the talks with the Israeli representatives, the UN still welcomed this step toward the much-awaited talks as a ‘Historic Agreement’. However, the talks stalled after the fourth round left some dents in the position of either parties. Israel’s Energy Minister, Yuval Steinitz accused Lebanon of changing, in fact, contradicting its position on the borders seven times, stating that “Lebanon’s position during the fourth round of negotiations not only contradicts its previous positions, but also contradicts Lebanon’s position regarding the maritime borders with Syria, which takes the Lebanese island near the borders into consideration,”

The fifth round of the talks was deferred just hours before the scheduled meeting, casting a gloom over the optimism shown by the UN. After 3 years of dedicated mediation, UN presumes these talks to pave a way towards a conclusive end to the dispute and beginning of development of natural resources for the benefit of all people of the region.

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