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Restoration of Syria: Words and deeds

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On July 1st leaders of Russia, Turkey and Iran gathered for the next summit on Syrian settlement. Given the pandemic, the summit was held on-line, in the format of a video conference.

In their closing statement the leaders of the three countries – Vladimir Putin, Hassan Rouhani and Recep Tayyip Erdogan – underscored the importance of complying with the principles of sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity of Syria and condemned any attempts to create “a new reality, …..including illegal initiatives to establish self-rule” in some areas, namely, in the territory off the Euphrates River.

The participants in the conference discussed efforts to be taken to restore the country. Fortunately, the conditions for it were ripe, Vladimir Putin said: «The level of violence in Syria has declined considerably, life is gradually coming to normal, and the most important thing is that there are all prerequisites for a sustainable political and diplomatic settlement on the basis of Resolution 2254 of the Un Security Council». Considering this, the presidents of three countries “urged the international community, particularly the UN and its humanitarian agencies, to boost their assistance to all Syrians without discrimination, politization or preliminary conditions».

Restoration of war-ravaged Syria acquires an ever greater urgency, for a successful political settlement is unachievable without rebuilding the country’s economy and infrastructure. As the conflict continues, the volume of resources needed for the country’s reconstruction is all but growing. According to the United Nations, the cost of restoration will amount to some 250 billion dollars, which is four times more than Syria’s annual GDP before the war. Two years ago Bashar Assad, in turn, estimated the amount needed at 400 billion.

Hypothetical investors comprise the European Union and the rich Arab countries. But neither the former nor the latter is rushing to invest heftily, limiting their assistance to moderate humanitarian aid. Both western and Arab investors prefer de facto independent Trans-Euphratia, which, naturally, finds no understanding with Damascus.

As for Syria as a whole, Europeans make the assistance conditional on cessation of military operations, and, first of all, on the much-needed political reforms. Unlike before, when the West insisted on a change of political regime, now they talk about its greater democratization in line with European standards. Whether such a change of political paradigm is practicable amid  the ongoing war with terrorism is unclear. What is meant is yet again the removal of Bashar Assad from the country’s political landscape.

The position of the United States on Syria is particularly tough and aggressive. Washington continues to believe that the tactic of exerting maximum pressure will work well, both in the case of Tehran, and with Damascus.  The United States will render humanitarian assistance to the destroyed areas of Syria that are under control of the central government only after the launch of irreversible political reforms,  US Special Representative for Syria James Jeffrey said in November 2019, adding that the US will continue to work with the allies so that they pursue an identical policy.

In the middle of June Washington, following the standard pattern, tightened economic sanctions yet again, as part of the Syria Civilian Protection Act, known as the Caesar Act. A total of 39 physical and legal persons in Syria, including the country’s president, fell under the sanctions. In addition, from now on restrictive measures can be introduced against companies and business people that cooperate with Syria, and with Russian and Iranian commercial organizations operating on the territory of Syria.

China has described the new US sanctions as “inhuman” while Russia’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Vasily Nebenzya, said that the Caesar Act is aimed at overthrowing Syria’s legitimate authorities. But when did Donald Trump listen to what is said? As a result, experts of analytical group Stratfor conclude: «The newly introduced American sanctions against the Syrian government are set to prevent Damascus from getting the support of such potential partners as China and the United Arab Emirates. After the coming into force of tougher American sanctions, countries that signaled readiness to render support to Syria are unlikely to find participation in the restoration of the war-torn country an attractive option».

Israel is playing its game. Jerusalem de facto associates with western capitals but pursues its own motivation. According to Israel’s former Military Intelligence Chief Amos Yadlin, the Israeli government wants Damascus and Moscow to understand that restoration of the war-devastated Syrian infrastructure is impossible as long as pro-Iranian units deployed in Syria “threaten Israel”.

Arab monarchies think along the same lines: they do not want pro-Iranian Syria. Not surprisingly, Riyadh has been trying to establish relations with Syrian Kurds, regarding them as a buffer against the spread of Iranian and Turkish influence in the region. At the end of last year Saudi Aramco got down to prospecting for oil reserves in Deir ez-Zor province.

In turn, UAE Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash is urging Arab nations to “face towards Syria”, or it will fall under the influence of Iran, Russia, Turkey and the United States. Meanwhile, Syria is building relations with a whole number of countries of the Middle East and Maghreb – Iraq, Lebanon, Algeria, Oman, Egypt, Jordan. But apparently, these countries are unsuitable for the role of investors.

As for Turkey, it is restoring only the Turkish-occupied Syrian regions where they have set up a local administration, introduced the Turkish lira, and opened Turkish post offices, which also perform the function of credit organizations.  Ankara is in  no hurry to participate in the reconstruction of the rest of the country’s territory, particularly since it has no potential to do so.

Not long ago Erdogan advised the Russian president to sell Syrian oil and use the money in order “to get devastated Syria back to its feet” (and simultaneously create a solvent market for Turkish construction companies – A.I.). In the opinion of the Turkish leader, the project should be financed by the Russian side.

Damascus views Ankara’s initiative as an attempt to assume control of Syrian natural resources without any permission from appropriate authorities. Turkey will not be given permission to engage in oil exploration in Syria, the Syrian Ambassador to Russia Riyad Haddad said. Bashar al-Assad made it clear two years ago that Syria was planning to revive «at the expense of its own resources and assistance from friends».

One of these (if not the main one) is Russia. In 2016 Russia and Syria signed an agreement on the restoration of Syrian war-devastated infrastructure. The total volume of investments needed for that was estimated at 850 million euros. Later, the two sides came to agreement on  a few dozen investment projects, mainly in oil and gas production, energy generation, transport. It is also a known fact that Moscow has been making efforts to raise the resources of third countries for the reconstruction of Syria. According to Crisis Group experts, while doing so Russia «suggests that European leaders stop clinging to an illusion that playing the sanctions and restoration card could still lead to a change of regime», which they failed to achieve by using force».

Iran has announced readiness to contribute to the reconstruction of Syria. Many lay hopes of restoration projects on China, which invested billions of dollars in the Syrian oil industry before the war and which has no intention to part with its investments.

As time passes, an aggravation of economic situation in the country will be accompanied by a rising number of refugees. Syrian migrants, sooner or later, will become yet another destabilizing factor in the region, along with  Palestinian refugees. Inside Syria proper, the conflict may escalate again, causing a revival of terrorism, which has both ideological and social and economic roots.

Given the situation, the Russian president warned in 2018: «Of course, the world community, first of all, Europe, if it does not want an influx of migrants, should think about it, should shake off phobias and just help the Syrian people irrespective of political affiliations».

But the United States is following its own logic – the measures Washington is taking towards Syria pose an obstruction. The US does not want Syria to become attractive for Kurds, who, the Americans think, should play the role of a buffer in their geopolitical games against the spread of Iranian (and along with it, Turkish) influence in the region. Syrian Prime Minister Imad Khamis is quite right saying that  «the purpose of the hot phase of the war was destruction of the Syrian state with the help of military and political instruments. But the state managed to hold out. So the foes started an economic war…».

And naturally, the foreign policy paradigm of the present Washington administration is unthinkable without anti-Russian sentiments.  The US Special Representative for Syria James Jeffrey acknowledges: «My mission is to make Russia bog down in Syria». There are no doubts that one of the ways to see this mission through is to force Moscow to pay for the restoration of Syria.

The fact that this causes a lot of suffering to the people of Syria is, apparently, no one’s concern.

From our partner International Affairs

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When Mr. Xi comes to town

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photo: Xinhua/Liu Weibing

Pomp and circumstance are important.

So are multiple agreements to be signed during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Saudi Arabia this week, his first venture beyond East and Central Asia in three years.

No doubt, Mr. Xi’s reception will be on par with the welcoming of Donald J. Trump when he headed to Saudi Arabia in 2017 on his first overseas trip as US president. At the same time, it will contrast starkly with the more downbeat response to Joe Biden’s hat-in-hand pilgrimage to the kingdom in July.

Mr. Xi Jinping and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s timing is perfect.

The visit allows Gulf states, with Saudi Arabia in the lead, to further diversify their foreign relationships and hedge their bets as the world moves from a unipolar to a bipolar, if not multipolar, order.

In addition, Mr. Xi’s visit boosts the positioning of Mr. Bin Salman and his kingdom as undisputed leaders of the Muslim world.

Like when Mr. Trump was in town five years ago, Mr. Bin Salman has ensured that Mr. Xi’s visit will involve bilateral talks and multilateral gatherings with Gulf and Arab leaders.

Even though Mr. Xi and Gulf leaders project the Chinese president’s visit as a milestone rather than the latest of regular high-level gatherings, neither seeks to fundamentally alter the region’s security architecture with the United States as its guarantor.

On the contrary.

While eager to strengthen and expand relations with China, Gulf states see Mr. Xi’s visit as a vehicle to pressure the United States to spell out and formalize its security commitment to the region at a time when America has made China and the Indo-Pacific its main strategic concern and has not lived up to the region’s expectations.

Speaking three weeks before the Chinese leader’s visit, Anwar Gargash, the diplomatic adviser of United Arab Emirates President Mohammed bin Zayed, insisted that “our primary strategic security relationship remains unequivocally with the United States… Yet, it is vital that we find a way to ensure that we can rely on this relationship for decades to come through clear, codified, and unambivalent commitments.”

Mr. Xi has no problem with that. On the contrary, China is not interested and perhaps incapable of replacing the United States militarily in the Gulf. So while it may want the United States out of East Asia, the same need not be valid for the Middle East.

That allows Mr. Xi and his Saudi and Arab counterparts to focus on the nuts and bolts of their meetings.

High on Mr. Xi’s agenda is the export of its model of authoritarianism, involving one-person rule, a surveillance state, and the ringfencing of the Internet. It’s a model that appeals to men like Mr. Bin Salman and UAE and Egyptian presidents Mr. Bin Zayed and Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi.

The appeal remains, even if Mr. Xi’s proposition has lost some of its shine as a result of his faltering zero-tolerance Covid-19 policy that has slowed economic growth, hindered the country’s private sector that is also hobbled by punitive state interventions, and sparked an anti-government protest that has forced the Chinese leader to abandon core elements of his effort to control the pandemic.

Moreover, Middle Eastern leaders will have noticed that China’s firewall failed to prevent Internet users from discovering that a majority of spectators at World Cup matches in Qatar were unmasked. Nor were Chinese censors able to prevent an avalanche of video clips of nationwide protests against strict Covid-19 rules from flooding the country’s tightly policed social media.

In addition, Gulf efforts to diversify their economies and reduce dependence on fossil fuel exports centre on a free-market economy and a private sector driven by innovation and creativity rather than the kind of state-controlled capitalism envisioned by Mr. Xi.

That has not prevented China from advancing its control and governance systems with investments and partnerships in Middle Eastern telecoms, corporate communication systems, cybersecurity, and smart cities in countries stretching from Morocco to the Gulf.

Chinese involvement runs the gamut from building 5G systems and data centres to providing cloud services and developing artificial intelligence systems.

Investments in technology and knowledge transfers enable Arab autocracies to enhance their surveillance capabilities and Internet control.

Furthermore, countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE have looked for inspiration in China’s restrictive cybersecurity legislation.

Days before Mr. Xi’s visit to Saudi Arabia, China’s foreign ministry released a report on ‘Sino-Arab Cooperation in a New Era’ that, according to Chinese media, misleadingly asserted that China “never seeks any geopolitical self-interest.”

China probably meant to say that it is not seeking to challenge the US position in the Gulf any time soon but intends to be the region’s major partner economically and in terms of technology, a focal point of US-Chinese rivalry.

Speaking last month at a regional security conference, senior Pentagon official Colin Kahl spelt out limits to Gulf-China technological Cooperation that the United States would seek to impose.

“If our closest allies and partners cooperate too deeply with China on the security side, it’ll create security risks for us. Getting into certain networks that create real cyber vulnerabilities and risks for us. Infrastructure that generates real intelligence risks for us, and networks that touch our military networks that create real risk for us, or a presence in certain countries that allow surveillance of our forces and what we’re doing in ways that presents a threat to us,” Mr. Kahl said.

Although Chinese 5G projects in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and elsewhere in the region have progressed despite US objections, Mr. Kahl left unaddressed whether they threatened to cross his threshold.

The Chinese foreign ministry report identified technology, agriculture, and investment as focal points of Chinese-Arab economic cooperation.

During his visit, Mr. Xi was likely to also angle for construction contracts for Mr. Bin Salman’s US$500 billion futuristic Red Sea city of Neom, as well as involvement in developing a Saudi defense and automotive industry.

For its part, Saudi Arabia will want to attract Chinese investment in its mining sector. Khalid Al Mudaifer, the kingdom’s deputy mining minister, said he is seeking US$170 billion by 2030.

In a bid to exploit strains in Saudi- and potentially UAE-US relations and uncertainty about America’s reliability as a security partner, the Chinese report asserted that “China has always believed that there is no such thing as a ‘power vacuum’ in the Middle East and that the people of the Middle East are the masters of the future and destiny of the region.”

Mr. Xi arrived in the kingdom as a US district court in Washington dismissed a lawsuit against Mr. Bin Salman and 20 others for the 2028 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The court based its decision on a finding by the US government that Mr. Bin Salman enjoyed sovereign immunity.

On another note, the Chinese report predicted that China and the Arab world would continue to support each other’s counterterrorism and deradicalisation policies.

In stressing counterterrorism and deradicalisation, the report suggested that Gulf silence, and in the case of Saudi Arabia, endorsement of Mr. Xi’s brutal crackdown on Turkic Muslims in the north-western Chinese province of Xinjiang, reflected a more complex balance of power in the Chinese-Gulf relationship.

In other words, Gulf acquiescence is more than simply wanting to ensure that the region stays on China’s right side or seeking to shield autocracy from criticism as the preferred political system in both parts of the world.

Because the crackdown targets Islam as a faith, not just Turkic Muslims as a minority, Gulf support offers China badly needed Muslim endorsement, particularly from Saudi Arabia, the custodian of Islam’s two holiest cities, Mecca and Medina. In doing so, the support enhances Gulf leverage in relations with China.

At the same time, China’s framing of the crackdown as a fight against extremism, terrorism, and separatism legitmises the clampdown by Saudi Arabia and the UAE on any expression of political Islam.

For Mr. Gargash, the UAE diplomatic advisor, the Gulf’s ties to the United States and China fit neatly into a box. “Our trade relations increasingly look to the East, while our primary security and investment relations are in the West,” Mr. Gargash said.

The official did not mention increasingly close political ties to China, like in the case of Xinjiang or the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and that is where things potentially get messy.

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The Popular Uprisings and unfulfilled achievements

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From the Tiananmen Square uprising in Beijing in 1989 to the Arab Uprisings in 2011, to the demonstrations and anger in Iran that exceeded a month and a half after Iranian security killed Mahsa Amini, a young Kurdish woman in Tehran in mid-October, which triggered protests that are the most dangerous, longest, most widespread, and threatening to the regime since the revolution in 1979. It claimed the lives of more than 400 demonstrators and protesters, according to an Iranian human rights organization – since 1,500 people were killed in 2019-2020.

The eruption of popular anger and the expansion of the area of angry protests led to the deterioration of living conditions and the dominance of the regime and its tools and reversed priorities, and led to a decline in the standard of living and a blockage of horizons for millions of young people. Improving the standard of living of citizens in the face of high rates of unemployment, inflation, high prices, and the collapse of the value of the riyal, which led to the loss of hope and the accumulation of popular frustration.

As we witnessed in the Arab Uprisings(a media term related to the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia in 1968 in response to the repression of the Soviet forces), I prefer to call them the uprisings of freedom, dignity, and a decent life. They did not, in their entirety and on their own, change the regimes from their roots, their old guard, and the deep state. Rather, it kept its pillars who returned to lead the scene and turn the clock back, as in Egypt and Tunisia, or to slide towards chaos and internal conflict, Libya and Yemen, or the militarization of the uprising and the summoning of foreign powers from inside and outside the region and the loss of sovereignty, as in Syria.

We witnessed the failure to bring about change in October 2019 in Lebanon, after tumultuous demonstrations that swept across its cities, under the slogan “All of them means all of them.” Despite the resignation of the Saad Hariri government, the economic and social conditions continued to collapse, the banking sector in Lebanon collapsed, the national currency (the Lebanese pound) lost 90% of its value, Lebanon approached the Venezuelan bankruptcy model, and the banks seized the deposits and accounts of Lebanese citizens (and age transfers), and some depositors deliberately stormed Banks by force of arms to recover their deposits and money withheld due to the arbitrary decisions of the Banque du Liban to withdraw money by dropper! So to live and to pay for treatment! This led to an increase in the number of Lebanese who are below the poverty line to 80 percent! Today, they have mercy on the days before the uprising or bypassing the “October Revolution” whose slogan is change for the worse, and they elected “change-making” deputies. The middle class has disappeared, and the phenomenon of mass brain drain has expanded with tickets without return!

Iraq also witnessed the October 2019 revolution. Protests swept the capital, Baghdad, and major cities and governorates of Iraq due to the deteriorating financial and economic conditions, high rates of unemployment and high prices, rampant corruption and Iran’s interference. The protesters demanded the dismissal of the Iraqi government and early elections, and later elections took place in October 2021, and only a president was elected and a new government formed. More than a year after the parliamentary elections, the parliament elected Kurdish President Abdul Latif Rashid, who commissioned Mohammed Shia al-Sudani last October to form a new government. This was after confrontations and the resignation of the largest al-Sadr bloc in the parliament, and the sit-in of his deputies in parliament and the divided system. What is remarkable, however, is the high death toll, which exceeded 750 dead and 17,000 wounded, and for the first time the protesters shouted, “Baghdad is free – free, and Iran is out, out!” Burning the Iranian flag and the Iranian consulate in Najaf, and pictures of Qassem Soleimani.

We are witnessing the expansion of the protests in China, in its second week, in rejection of the strict measures of closure and strict quarantine to prevent the spread of the Corona virus, which has returned to spread violently in several Chinese cities, including the capital, Beijing, and major cities, Shanghai and Guangzhou, due to anger at the policy of the ruling Communist Party regime. To confrontations and clashes with the security forces and even demands for political reforms, and in the precedent of calling for Chinese leader Xi Jinping to step down.

But the question is: Why did those uprisings and protests fail to impose a fait accompli and succeed in achieving the change for which they arose and the masses who were moved by the hope of change gathered around them to thwart and return the countries against which they revolted, and even in a position more capable of dealing with the protests.

Scientific studies have proven that the chances of popular protests against non-democratic regimes succeeding are slim due to the policy of repression and the employment of censorship, eavesdropping, and monitoring devices, and thwarting the protesters’ ability to intimidate, infiltrate, and disperse. Totalitarian autocratic regimes also succeed in maintaining the cohesion of the ruling class, preventing its weakening. As in the case of China, with its experience in containing protests, it has resorted to easing strict lockdown and stone restrictions!

The studies also indicated that since the first decade of the twenty-first century, the pace of protests increased, but this was accompanied by a decline in their success rates, as in the Arab Uprisings. At the end of the first decade, the success rates of the uprisings declined to one in three. As for the beginning of the second millennium in the twenty-first century, the success rate declined to one in six uprisings. Because of the loss of leaders and the ability to change, and the ability of the regimes to confront them with hacking measures, spreading fake news, and arresting their leaders. China, also has advanced technological capabilities for monitoring and eavesdropping, and even exporting this technology to countries around the world.

The regimes that came to power through revolutions live for a long time and gain experience in dealing with challenges and threats such as the Bolshevik revolution in the Soviet Union from 1917 to 1991, the Chinese revolution of 1949 and the Iranian revolution of 1979.

In the end, as in the bloody protests of the Arab Uprisings, in Lebanon, Iraq, Iran and China, none of the revolutions and popular uprisings, due to counter-revolutions, security measures and the iron fist, failed to achieve their hoped-for goals of improving and changing the difficult reality. The results remain either the survival of the status quo, or further deterioration of the living conditions of the frustrated citizens, which generates uprisings.

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Why Israel should support the establishment of the Middle Corridor

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The governments of Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey, and Kazakhstan earlier in the year signed a declaration on improving the transportation potential throughout the region.   Following that, the Azerbaijani, Kazakh, Georgian and Turkish foreign and transport ministries decided that there should be accelerated transport routes throughout the region, which will include the development of the Middle Corridor, a rail freight and ferry system that will link China with Europe.  

It starts in Southeast Asia and China, and runs through Kazakhstan, the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey before reaching southern and central Europe.   This will permit trains to travel from China to Europe within 20-25 days, thus helping to reconnect the former Silk Road.  As a former Israeli minister, I believe that Israel should be supportive of the establishment of the Middle Corridor, as it will help to strengthen the Abraham Accords if it is expanded to include Israel, the United Arab Emirates and other countries in the region.

The entire Middle East region used to be connected by train under the rule of the Ottoman Turks.   There are a number of remnants of this wonderful train system in Israel, including the Ottoman train stations in Beersheba, Jaffa, and Jerusalem.    These Ottoman train stations are historic landmarks from a bygone era when train travel across the Middle East was possible. Ottoman-era trains used to travel from Jaffa to Jerusalem, Haifa and other areas of the former Ottoman Turkish Empire, such as Medina and Damascus.

However, since Israel was declared to be independent, there has been no train travel between Israel and the Arab world.    This was one of many causalities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.     Yet in the wake of the Abraham Accords, this all has the potential to change, as the Arab countries no longer view Israel to be the pariah that they once viewed it to be.   If anything, the Persian Gulf countries now view Israel to be a partner in the struggle against Iran, as do the Turkic republics like Azerbaijan, who greatly disdain how the mullahs are treating the Azerbaijani population in the Islamic Republic.   

Thus, if this Middle Corridor is built, we Israelis can try to connect onto it as well, as it will help to counter the mullahs in Tehran by creating a stronger connection between the Turkic republics, Israel and the Arab world.   We can connect to it via Turkey by ferry, and then from there, have another set of trains going from Israel to Jordan and Saudi Arabia and from there, to the United Arab Emirates.   In our times, this is within the realm of the possible.   

This will thus help to greatly expand trade between China, the Turkic republics, Israel and the Arab countries.   Already, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan know that it is necessary to have a train that crosses from Israel to the Gulf states.  They are talking about it and thinking about it.  They are starting with trucks with containers that I arranged, where they bring containers from Abu Dhabi to Israel crossing from Saudi Arabia to Jordan to Haifa.  They could continue from there to Turkey via ship and from there to Europe and anywhere else. 

That means that we can have a train traveling from Europe to Turkey and from there, ships can go to Haifa, and from Haifa to Jordan, Saudi Arabia and from there, to the Gulf states, and they can go back in the opposite direction.    I am in Bulgaria now to check how I can make it more relevant.  After that, a Saudi Arabian agreement with Israel can start with a new train, like what existed in the Ottoman times with the Hijaz Railway.   The people of Hijaz want to make it happen again. This is in the plan of the Abraham Accords Agreement and it will happen in the future.    

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