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Russia and Syria: Nuances in Allied Relations

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The foreign policy strategy of any state includes a certain set of means and ways to ensure the practical achievement of its goals. Searching for allies or temporary partners that will help serve a specific purpose has always been an essential part of this strategy. In the past, the belief was that this was primarily the concern of “smaller” states interested in forging an alliance with a strong patron. However, the sharp imbalance that has emerged in international relations in the decades since the collapse of the USSR has shown that large states that are engaged in global politics are just as interested in building various types of alliances and partnership as “smaller” states. Sometimes even more so. Recent diplomatic practice has demonstrated that keeping such relations on an even keel demands that the parties delicately balance their understanding of the limits to their mutual concessions and constantly check that they are “on the same page.” The latter is done to preserve confidence in rapidly changing circumstances that are often beyond their control and, most importantly, to ensure they do not present each other with an impossible choice, which is something that happened between the United States and Turkey within NATO, and quite recently in the Union State of Russia and Belarus.

Metamorphoses of U.S. politics from Clinton to Trump demonstrate how the benefits from allied relations may transform into a tarnished image. Having failed to adapt to a world in which it has lost its global dominance, the United States under Obama and particularly under Trump chose to neglect traditional diplomacy, which involves finding ways to align the possibly diverging interests of allies. In regard to Europe, this policy was encapsulated in the withdrawal from multilateral trade partnership agreements, the use of NATO to exert pressure on allies, the introduction of sanctions, and the employment of other methods of gaining unilateral economic and political advantages.

The Middle East is even more indicative in this respect. Within a very short period of time, U.S. foreign policy in the region has oscillated between extremes. America’s allies in the Gulf were alarmed when Obama, looking to be “on the right side of history,” rapidly withdrew support for Mubarak when the protests in Egypt broke out (in February 2011) and when the United States effectively gave in to Iran in the struggle for influence in Iraq. Trump’s demonstrative turn towards Saudi Arabia, coupled with the U.S. withdrawal from the multilateral agreement on the Iranian nuclear programme and the subsequent policy of applying “maximum pressure” on Iran, negatively affected U.S.–EU relations, caused a split in the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf and failed to allay their concerns regarding the reliability of the United States as an ally. Finally, the concessions to Israel, which no U.S. President had dared make before (no matter how their Middle East policies zigged and zagged), added new wrinkles to the issue. As a result, the Trump administration approaches the 2020 presidential elections with an unprecedented burden of problems in its relations with its North Atlantic allies, in an almost complete isolation owing to its illegal actions in the UN Security Council concerning the lifting of the Iranian sanctions, and having generally lost its moral and political prestige.

In the same period of time following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia had failed to fit into the architecture of pan-European security and was faced with a choice: given NATO’s territorial expansion and the ineffectiveness of such collective mechanisms as the CIS and OSCE, what policy should it pursue moving forward? Does Russia see its future self as an independent centre of power with a free hand? Or does it want to be an influential actor within new alliances and integration unions? The answers to these questions are more or less clear today.

Russia is steering its own course in relations with the West, acting in its own interests, yet not shutting the door on an equal dialogue designed to search for points of contact on the most conflict-ridden problems. At the same time, Russia has made efforts to build a sub-system of inter-country alliances to counterbalance the NATO–EU pairing. These efforts have led to multilateral diplomacy guided by the principle of “going as far the other party is prepared to go.” These efforts have resulted in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in the military–political arena, the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) alliance in the geopolitical arena, and the Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEC) and the Customs Union in the trade and economic arena. Compared with western alliances that entail transferring part of one’s sovereignty to supra-national bodies, members of these unions are more free in their commitments, although they share Russia’s stance on the key issues of global politics.

Following a brief hiatus in the 1990s, Russia returned to the Middle East, no longer shackled by ideological clichés. The very paradigm of Russian–Arab relations had changed. They were no longer characterized by unilaterality and were developing over a wide spectrum. Pride of place was given to such foreign political landmarks as the achievement of national security in the face of new threats emanating from the chronic instability in the region, the support for Russian businesses, and the measures to counteract external intervention aimed at regime change for the sake of political expediency (in extreme cases, this would be done by force, but mostly it would be done by establishing networks based on coinciding interests). These were the landmarks that Russia used to guide itself post-2011, when the Middle East entered a protracted era of reconstruction. This pragmatic approach was largely responsible for preserving business partnership relations with Egypt, Iraq and Algeria, all of which experienced regime changes, as well as for building coherent relations with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, where existing differences on conflict settlement do not get in the way of bilateral cooperation in trade and economy and coordinating policies on the global energy markets.

Russia gains certain benefits from its ability to maintain business partnership ties with all the regional and non-regional actors in the Middle Eastern conflicts, including Turkey, the Kurds, Hezbollah, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the Palestinian authorities in Ramallah and Gaza. At the same time, it is clear that this situation and, in particular, the widespread concept of Moscow as an “impartial mediator” or “honest broker,” is with increasing frequency being used for unseemly purposes, such as shifting the responsibility for the actions or inactions of other parties in the region or outside it onto Moscow. In today’s new multi-layered conflicts, no single actor is capable of holding all the settlement threads in its hands.

Russia and Syria: Questions of War and Peace

Russia and Syria have gradually become allies since the civil war broke out in the Middle East state in 2011. The leaders of both countries have said as much, and it is taken as a given in the West and the other countries in the region.

At the same time, the complicated entanglements of relations both in and around Syria have prompted certain questions from our colleagues and institutional partners in the Damascus Center for Research and Studies. Most of them are quite logical and do indeed need to be discussed at the expert level to begin with.

Russia and Syria have a long history of cooperation in many areas, and the countries were particularly close during the presidency of Hafez al-Assad, the outstanding statesman who enjoyed worldwide respect. A Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation was signed back then, but it was more of a framework document that did not impose any specific international legal commitments on either party. These were relations of trust that withstood the test of the war with Israel in 1973 in the Golan Heights and the Civil War in Lebanon (1975–1989), where Syrian troops fought and Soviet military advisors participated indirectly. There were also disagreements on the situation in the Palestinian movement and the attitude to Yasser Arafat personally. Yet these differences were resolved through regular trust-based dialogue at the highest level and through close military-political consultations.

In the 1990s and the early 2000s when Russia, burdened by its domestic problems, “withdrew” from the Middle East, Russia–Syria relations were in decline. After being elected president, Bashar al-Assad steered a course for Europe, for Jacques Chirac’s France in particular, viewing it as a centre for containing the United States, which had accused Syria of supporting the Iraqi resistance to the American occupation [1]. Bashar Al-Assad’s first visit to Russia took place in 2005. The agreements achieved at the highest level covered a wide range of issues in military-technical and economic cooperation in the context of Syria fully settling its debt, and they gave a new impetus to developing bilateral relations in the changing geopolitical circumstances.

In 2011, the civil conflict in Syria transformed into an armed confrontation. Since then, Russia–Syria cooperation has been dominated by its military component. Russia directly intervened in the conflict at the request of President Bashar al-Assad, a fact that was accounted for by the intergovernmental agreements between the two countries, which, unlike the largely for-show agreements concluded with a number of Arab states in the past, set out specific commitments for both parties. The relations were thus given a new quality. All efforts were channelled into repelling the terrorist threat and saving Syria’s statehood. In the run-up to the decisive intervention of the Russian Aerospace Forces, most military experts around the world agreed that the “terrorist international” had made it as far as the suburbs of Damascus, and that regime change was imminent, even though Iranian units and Lebanese Hezbollah were fighting in Syria.

Five years later, the military and administrative infrastructure of Islamic State has been destroyed, the armed opposition is weakened, and the remaining pockets of resistance no longer posit a real threat to the al-Assad regime [2].

Back then, the objectives were clear and, naturally, there were no questions as to what the Syrian people expected from Russia. Why did Moscow and Damascus experience an upsurge of information attacks along the lines of “who needs whom more”? What are the reasons for the “uncertainties” and “doubts” that Syrian political analysts ponder in a friendly manner, wondering whether or not Russia intends “to give up on Syria and leave the regime to deal with the increasing pressure” from the United States? What changes have happened now that the active phase of the conflict has ceased?

The official statements from the Russian side leave no doubts as to its principled stance. Keeping air force and naval bases in the Mediterranean is a strategic move, meaning that Russia does not have any “withdrawal scenarios.” According to the Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation, materiel support for the Syrian operation does not exceed the funds budgeted for defence. It is flexible and generally tends to shrink as military action deescalates.

Legitimizing “entry” is another matter entirely, both from the point of view of legal documents concluded between Russia and Syria and on a broad international scale. And it is something that does not depend on Russia alone. Fundamentally, it should be in the interests of Damascus itself. That is, the two countries are effectively doomed to find a balance of power in the long term, both in a war that cannot last indefinitely, and during the post-war period. Our point here is clear: using political realism as a stepping stone, Russia and Syria need to properly balance common strategic goals and search for optimal ways to deal with possible tactical differences.

A Hierarchy of Priorities

It is noteworthy that, in his analytical article, my esteemed colleague Aqeel Mahfoud describes the current situation in Syria as a war with “no end in sight” and asks Russia such questions as: What is the “middle ground” between “‘high costs’ and ‘low returns’ … between ‘retreating’ from Syria and ‘continuing’ the course?” It is thus clear that certain “misunderstandings” have emerged, and in order to properly analyse the prospects, we need to jointly access the essence of the point in time we arrived at after five years of allied cooperation.

Our general assessments are essentially the same. The challenges and threats that Syria currently faces are economic, a destructive effect of the sanctions, and the U.S. “Caesar Act” in particular, with the coronavirus pandemic making the situation worse. The reality is that there are virtually no prerequisites for implementing major post-war reconstruction projects in Syria. Most Syrians are fighting for survival in the face of growing prices, food, power and fuel shortages and a destroyed living infrastructure. The Syrian government is mobilizing its limited financial resources to mitigate the socioeconomic consequences for the regime, focusing on supporting business activities and preserving the system of subsidies. At the same time, it is quite clear that resolving the problem of the economy’s uninterrupted functioning cannot be solved without urgent outside assistance. It is also obvious, however, that, unlike in the case of Lebanon, the sources of such assistance for Syria are very few.

The Russian government, in turn, is doing everything possible to provide real aid to the people of Syria (urgent deliveries of grain, pharmaceuticals and equipment in the form of grants or through contracts; reconstructing civil infrastructure facilities, communication lines; providing humanitarian aid, etc.). The government is encouraging Russian businesses to cooperate with Syrian companies more actively through public-private partnerships and by granting them most favoured nation status. It should be said, though, that the method of “giving commands” has little effect in the Russian economy compared with Soviet times. Russia expects the Syrian government to take further steps to set up both central and local governance systems that would ensure corruption is dealt with, offer preferences to foreign investors, make sure that laws are obeyed and that the “military economy” would give way to normal trade and economic relations as speedily as possible. President Bashar al-Assad’s address to the members of the newly formed government can be seen as a major step in this direction.

It should be noted in this connection that the article published by the Damascus Center for Research and Studies focuses on Russia, and most questions are addressed to Moscow as if it holds some kind of a “magic key” to resolving all the problems. At the same time, practical advice and friendly criticism are perceived as “pressure” and “interference.” As for the negative dynamics, what is Damascus’ attitude to the fact that after the active military phase was over, little changed aside from the strengthening of “psychological pressure” and tightening of the “economic noose” on Syria? And regarding the positive dynamics, what conclusions should the Syrians themselves draw concerning the balance of power and political steps that should be taken? These important aspects slid under the radar of our Syrian colleagues. We would like to understand what is meant by the phrase “returning to the ‘requirements’ of UN Security Council Resolution No. 2254 […] would bring us back to March 2011.”

Russia’s position on the issue of the Syrian settlement, President Vladimir Putin has said on numerous occasions, proceeds from the premise that a military solution is impossible. At the talks held with Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Syria Geir Pedersen in Moscow on September 3 (which took place only a few days after the session of the Constitutional Committee’s Drafting Commission in Geneva), Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation Sergey Lavrov confirmed that Russia supports Pedersen’s efforts to help the Syrian people come to an agreement themselves on constitutional reform in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 2254 as a sovereign state and one of the guarantors of the Astana process. This stance has been approved by the “Astana Troika,” it is known to the Syrian leadership and does not prompt open objections.

Some Russian political analysts that are in the know expect Syria, and probably President Bashar al-Assad himself, to spearhead some major initiatives that will jumpstart the Geneva process – not as a return to the 2011 status quo, but as a means of restoring Syria’s territorial integrity and bolstering the country’s statehood on the inclusive foundation of national accord. A flexible approach on the part of Damascus and a better understanding of its intentions would certainly help Russia, giving it more solid ground in its contacts with western and Arab partners. In the current reality, Syria can hardly be “rehabilitated” economically without coordinated international efforts. This is the kind of convergence of interests that would make it possible to bring together external aid and progress in the intra-Syrian dialogue into a single stabilization package.

Another important set of issues raised by our Damascus partners pertains to Russia being “an ally for Syria, Israel, Iran and Turkey” in the continuing conflict and to what the nature of Russia–U.S. contacts is.

It is no secret that the foreign political services of both countries have always maintained a working exchange of current information. This is particularly true of the current situation. My many years of experience in the diplomatic service (in Syria among other states) allow me to state confidently that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation regularly informs the Syrian leadership about its talks with its western and regional partners on issues that concern Syria. If there is any “uncertainty” within the Syrian public or the Syrian expert community about this fact, it might rather be explained by Russia being excessively guarded about sensitive information that concerns its relations with its allies, or by Russian media’s inability to demonstrate any kind of subtlety when it comes to foreign political steps in this area and properly explain Russia’s intentions to the world at large. Incidentally, Syria itself is far more guarded and “secretive” in its media coverage of its relations with Russia – and this coverage is often, quite frankly, far more tendentious.

Most Russian experts view Russia–Syria relations on the matters of war and peace as a relationship of “twins” connected by “kindred threads.” Their western colleagues share this point of view, indicating that the United States and Europe no longer tie compliance with UN Security Council Resolution 2254 with Assad’s “removal.” Instead, they adopted the concept of constitutional reform and democratic elections under the UN’s supervision. It is natural for allies in protracted and convoluted conflicts to have some misunderstandings. Aqeel Mahfoud notes that “the Syrian people understand […] that Russia does not approach the issue from a Syrian perspective.” The main thing is that if strategic “constants” are in place, which is undoubtedly the case, then periodical tactical differences should be resolved in a timely manner, on the basis on openness and trust.

At the level of government and opposition forces, the Syrian people should take into account the fact that Russia has its own global interests that do not always coincide with those of the Middle East. Russia–Syria relations cannot be equated with relations with influential regional actors, which are based on different considerations. But one thing brings them together: a common history, coinciding interests in regions outside Syria and mutually beneficial cooperation, including in the military area. It is thus wrong to posit an “either/or” question.

On the other hand, a realist assessment of the situation “on the ground” reveals that the existence of particular situational arrangements with Israel and Turkey is something that benefits Syria itself. Let us take, for example, agreements on southern Syria, in which Israel unofficially participated. It was these agreements that allowed Syria to regain control of its southern provinces, provided that it complied with the terms that did not breach its sovereign rights. Russian officials did not hide the fact that it meant withdrawing Iranian and pro-Iranian military units from the 80-kilometre security zone and using national reconciliation principles to form local authorities. Russia is entitled to expect Syria to comply with these conditions.

Or let us take the agreements reached between the presidents of Russia and Turkey on March 4, 2020, concerning Idlib and which were achieved as part of the implementation of the de-escalation zone agreement developed by the “Astana Troika” with Syria’s participation. This development makes it possible to avoid the worst-case scenario, which would not have been in the interests of Syria, Russia and Turkey. In no way does it change the attitude towards the Idlib problem as part of the principled approach to restoring Syria’s territorial integrity and the joint fight against terrorism.

As for U.S.–Syria relations, Russia is pursuing a realistic policy here aimed at preventing incidents that could result in an armed clash, and at the same time is searching for opportunities to interact in those areas where the interests of Russia and the United States may coincide without detriment to the “strategic constants” of Russia’s relations with its Syrian ally. Recently, tensions in northeast Syria, where the U.S. military presence is concentrated, have increased noticeably, which makes further developments less predictable. Consequently, the parties focus specifically on the “de-conflicting channel” and simultaneously draw “red lines” that should not be overstepped. Politically, Russia endeavours to promote understanding between Damascus and the Kurds on their constitutional status, which increases the chances of restoring Syria’s territorial integrity as part of the post-conflict settlement.

Memories of the Future

They say that “it is difficult to make predictions, particularly about the future.” The issues outlined by our Syrian partners for the “strategic dialogue” are so broad that it is impossible to cover everything. In conclusion, I would like to make a few brief remarks.

The Syrian people are known to hold different views of the country’s situation and of Russia’s role in Syria’s affairs. Part of civil society is currently outside Syria, and they are by no means terrorists or Russophobes. Consequently, as it supports Bashar al-Assad, Russia emphasizes an intra-Syrian agreement on a model of Syria’s future state that would ensure the country against bloody civil wars. Clearly, there can be no return to 2011, and the Syrian people themselves should decide how to reform their state and society. During the protracted wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Balkans, the United States was engaged in social engineering and state-building, but these tasks proved too much for them. Russia also had its own regrettable experience in Afghanistan, since every war has its own logic that sooner or later outweighs politics.

As the summer 2021 presidential elections approach, a feeling of hopelessness and anxious expectation is engulfing the international community and Syrians of various political persuasions. Numerous scenarios, largely pessimistic, are being developed – as far as the “Balkanization” of Syria or even a clash between the United States and Russia or between Russia and Turkey on Syrian soil.

There is thus only one thing we can say: if compromise solutions are found, the settlement of the Syrian conflict could serve as a precedent for the global community and a key to undoing other conflict knots. Alternatively, if the right conclusions are not drawn from the lessons of 2011, Syrian settlement may turn into a time bomb for Syria’s sustainable domestic development.

 [1]Kleib, Sami. The Destruction of Syria or the Departure of Assad? Moscow: Biblos Konsulting Publ., 2018. pp. 66–70.

 [2]Islamic State (IS) is a terrorist organization banned in Russia.

From our partner RIAC

Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Russian Federation, RIAC Vice-president

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Assyrians are Not Refugees Who Settled in Iraq

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In recent years, some Kurdish and Arab politicians and wanna-be historians have been making statements that the Assyrians of Iraq were refugees from Hakkari, Turkey and that the British brought them to Iraq. This absurd and misleading statement spread as Assyrians were trying to find their place in the new Iraq post 2003 US invasion.

On October 3, 1932 Iraq became the 57th member of the League of Nations (replaced by the United Nations on October 24, 1945 post World War II). On December 15, 1932, an article titled “Iraq and the Assyrians” was published in the periodical The Near East and India. The article addressed the settlement of the Assyrians in Iraq. The Assyrian leaders have been pleading to solve the settlement issue before ending the British mandate over Iraq and before admitting Iraq into the League of Nations as a sovereign and independent state (planned for 1932). The Assyrian leaders warned the West that Iraqi leaders could not be trusted and that Assyrians are not safe under the rule of Arabs and Kurds.

Before going further into the article aforementioned there is an important point that the readers must understand. The Assyrians did not fall from Mars onto northern Iraq. The Assyrians have been living in Northern Mesopotamia from time immemorial and their dynasties established one of the greatest civilization and empire in the Near East. The fall of the last Assyrian dynasty, i.e., the Neo-Assyrian Empire, in 612 BC and the last capital in Harran in 609 BC did not mean the disappearance of the people. This is similar to the fall of the Roman, Greek, Persian and many other empires. The people of those empires survived. The Assyrians continued to live in and around the historic Assyrian capitals of Ashur (Qal’at Sharqat), Kalhu (Nimrud), Dur Sharukin (Khursabad), Nineveh (Nebi Yunis) and Harran in upper Mesopotamia or lived in new settlements near by those capitals, such as Mosul, Arbil, Kirkuk, Urfa (Urhai or Edessa), Nisibin, etc. that were centers of the Assyrians’ Christianity.

Assyria was occupied by several nations including the Medes, Greeks, Parthians, Romans, Sassanids, Arabs, Mongolians, Ottoman Turks and others in between. The Assyrians adopted Christianity during the time of the Apostles and remained Christians ever since. The Christological controversies that followed the Council of Ephesus (431) and the Council of Chalcedon (451) isolated these Assyrian denominational communities from each others. As the Church established further structure and hierarchy, the Churches of the Assyrians kept the various Assyrian communities together, each under its leader, the patriarchs. The Assyrian denominational terms Nestorian and Jacobite were born. Later, in 1681 in Diyar Bekir (Turkey) and in 1830 in northern Iraq (Alqosh) the conversion of Assyrians to Catholicism isolated more Assyrians as the term Chaldean was given to these converts.

With the clear establishment of these denominations, a clear distribution of the Assyrian population was shaped. The Nestorian Assyrians lived as a concentrated region of the Hakkari Mountains (Van Province) and Urmia region in Persia, Jacobite Assyrians in the Tur Abdin/Diyar Bekir region (Sandschak Zor and Diyar Bekir Provinces) and Chaldean Assyrians in Nineveh region/Arbil/Kirkuk (Mosul Province); however, these various denominational groups were intermixed in some locations. Despite this denominational separation, they all continued to refer to themselves as Suraye, which is Asuraye or Assuraye, meaning Assyrians.

The genocide of World War I (1914-1918) committed against the Assyrians by Turks and Kurds in Hakkari and Tur ‘Abdin (today both in modern Turkey) forced the Assyrians out. One escape route ended the Assyrians first in the camp of Baquba (1918 near Baghdad) and then in the camp of Mindan (1920 near Mosul) via Urmia, Persia.

Map of the Ottoman Empire divided by provinces Before its Fall in 1922

The other route ended up in Qamishli and Aleppo as genocide continued even after the Ottoman Empire had collapsed and the Turkish State was created in 1922. Therefore, the Assyrians were basically displaced because of genocide from one province to another within the same Ottoman Empire, i.e., from Hakkari to Mosul and from Diyar Bekir/Tur Abdin to Qamishli/Aleppo. Those displaced refugees from Hakkari and Urmia joined their Catholic brethren, the Chaldean Assyrians, in Mosul Province. Therefore, the Assyrians did not migrate from some foreign planet to Mosul Province considering also that there were Assyrians in Mosul region since the fall of the Assyrian Empire and these Assyrians after converting to Catholicism became known as Chaldeans.

Another important issue is the similarity in the geographical terrain. One of the principle Assyrian regions was the highlands that starts from Mosul (today in Iraq) and extends all the way to southern Lake Van (today in Turkey). The Assyrian people lived throughout these highlands. This continuation of topography was not divided politically until the official fall of the Ottoman Empire in November 1, 1922. After many disagreements, protests and negotiations, the British and the Turks finally signed the Treaty of Ankara on June 5, 1926 by which both states recognized the Brussels line (with some minor modifications) as the frontier between the two new created states of Iraq and Turkey. Even if we consider this new frontier, we need to understand that the large Assyrian region of Lower Barwar was always part of the Ottoman’s Mosul Province (Iraq) – the Assyrians of Lower Barwar did not migrate from Turkey to Iraq per se, unlike those of Upper Barwar.

During World War I, British and French representatives, Sir Mark Sykes and Francois Georges Picot, authored a secret agreement (concluded on May 19, 1916 ) regarding the future spoils of the Ottoman Empire that was expected to lose the war. After few modifications and incidents, the Hashemite Kingdom of Iraq was created from the three Ottoman provinces of Mosul, Baghdad and Basra and immediately placed it under the British mandate. Modern Turkey, Iraq, Syria and other states in the region did not exist before 1921/22. Therefore, we cannot say that in 1918 people moved from Turkey to Iraq because Turkey and Iraq did not exist at the time.

Now back to the December 5, 1932 The Near East and India article, which stated that the Council of the League of Nations considered the question of the settlement of the 40,000 [Nestorian] Assyrians in Iraq. At the council meeting, Nuri al-Said, the prime minister of Iraq stated: “The government of Iraq is determined to assure the prosperity, the happiness and the tranquility of all inhabitants of Iraq. It is following the best and most practical path to this end, allowing itself to be guided by the most human principles, by considerations of the general interest and by respect for existing laws.”

It took only few months later from the promise of the Iraqi prime minister that 3,000 Assyrians were massacred in the state-sponsored Simele Genocide in August 1933. The Assyrians continue to be persecuted and oppressed in Iraq by the Arab and the Kurdish authorities as the leaders and historians of Arabs and Kurds continue to claim that the Assyrians were refugees from Turkey and Persia (later Iran) and needed to be relocated or settled outside Iraq, if they had any conditions or hard to meet conditions, regardless how reasonable.

One important note, Kurdish nationalists and writers claim that the Allies post WWI divided Kurdistan into north, south, east and west Kurdistans. Such wild claims must never be allowed to spread. Unlike the well established and historic Assyrian Empire, there never existed an official state or country on the world map under the name of Kurdistan. After European travelers and missionaries visited the Middle East region, they encountered the nomad Kurds and soon a border-less and unofficial region under such name began to be inserted on certain Middle East maps to reflect the presence of these stateless people. In 1946, a Kurdish state under the name of Mahabad Republic was established in west Iran, but it was crushed by the Iranian army after 11 months. The Kurdish nationalists have promoted an aggressive Kurdification campaign to erase the Assyrian history from northern Iraq and replace it with Kurdish history.

Education empowers people – it enables them to understand. When they understand, they discuss issues affecting them with confidence, logically and accurately. Assyrians and other undermined people around the world must participate in this great battle of survival armed with education, because they must not let the murderers or oppressors write the history. The Assyrians are the indigenous people of Iraq – history and archeology proves that. Throughout history, many Assyrians were forced to flee their homes and lands of northern Iraq (occupied Assyria) because of massacres and persecution.

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U.S. Policy Case for Middle East under New Conditions

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Image source: twitter @POTUS

In contrast to the presidential elections of the past two decades, the new White House administration has faced great difficulties in shaping its Middle East policy. With internal division, polarization, political system failures and the unwavering pandemic, the Middle East has largely dropped out of U.S. foreign policy priorities. Shortly after his election, George W. Bush came up with the ambitious initiative of a Greater Middle East which entailed a democratic restructuring of the region; Barack Obama quickly sent a special envoy for the Middle East to mediate between Israel and the Palestinian Authority; and Donald Trump, by contrast, dashed a number of traditional constants in the policies of his predecessors. It took Joe Biden’s administration a long time to realize the place of this troubled region in the U.S. grand strategy. Trump left Biden a heavy and intricate legacy, with no room for continuity or a sharp change of course on all fronts.

The continued policy of confrontation with Russia and China, framed ideologically as that of a democracy vs. autocracy, implied a revision of the approach towards the Middle East and a need to restore trust globally, taking into account all the painful experiences of the U.S., especially after the fiasco in Iraq and Afghanistan. How to achieve this amid a shifting global balance of power—clearly, not in favor of the United States—and striking changes in the region where the U.S. is increasingly seen as a key regional player was exactly the question. As early as by President Obama’s second term, a kind of consensus had been reached in the U.S. after long discussions. Trump was also guided by it, although one of his first trips abroad was to Saudi Arabia. U.S. policy in the Middle East is overly militarized, while meddling in the region’s internal affairs and the resources invested do not yield proper political impact. This leads to the conclusion that the U.S. military presence and political commitments should be reduced, avoiding overstretching in the face of emerging global threats and challenges.

The president and the secretary of state were critical of their predecessors, while devising their own approach to the region, with its unresolved conflicts and socio-political cataclysms, was clearly delayed. There has been a sense of uncertainty in the Arab world as to how and when Joe Biden would set a course for the Middle East. Questions arose as to whether one should prepare for a U.S. withdrawal from the region and Washington’s search for foreign policy alternatives. There were growing security concerns in the Gulf, which viewed Iran as a real threat. Namely, they believed that the U.S., having lost interest in the region, would decide to abandon its traditional guarantor role in the face of ongoing course corrections. Washington’s general words about “recalibration,” “redeployment,” and “reorientation” evoked mixed feelings: On the one hand, a desire for America to somehow define itself; on the other, a loss of confidence in it. The prolonged lack of progress in reaching agreement on the terms of a U.S. return to the JCPOA and the uncertainty over the parties’ future intentions were perceived with concern by Washington’s regional partners; not only by the Arab monarchies but also by Israel. The complicated domestic situation in Israel after the establishment of a shaky two-headed coalition and the prospect of a fifth edition of parliamentary elections in the last two years have put U.S. diplomacy in an ambiguous position.

The negative for the United States impact of the Ukrainian crisis on global energy as well as predominantly neutral attitudes towards the crisis in the non-Western world, which is somewhat closer to understanding Russia’s motives, seemed to serve as a stimulant that prompted Washington to shift its attention back to the Middle East—especially since the current conditions on the oil market have led to a significant increase in fuel prices in the U.S., which could have an adverse impact for the U.S. administration in light of the approaching midterms.

In this environment, the announcement of Biden’s upcoming trip to the Middle East on July 15-16 was met with a lot of skepticism, especially within America. The visit to Saudi Arabia came in for particular criticism because Biden promised to make Riyadh a “pariah” after the brutal assassination of Saudi journalist Khashoggi, and he was now planning to rehabilitate it in favor of domestic interests. Biden himself was forced to speak publicly to put the purpose of his visit to the Middle East in a broader global and regional context.

The pessimistic sentiments in the U.S. expert community were vividly expressed by Daniel Kurtzer and Aaron David Miller, two retired senior diplomats who worked for years in the Middle East and at the State Department under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. The essence of this image, translated into political language, is as follows: “If you plant a garden and go away for six months, what have you got when you come back? Weeds.” Biden deprioritized the Middle East for sixteen months, and the weeds have grown in the meantime. And so the president was sent on a “diplomatic foray into the region to plant U.S. flags and start to repair the damage done to the flowers and greenery.” The conclusion is that the pivot to the Middle East will not last long, and one should not expect quick pay-offs.

The itinerary from Tel Aviv to Jeddah, where, alongside with the bilateral U.S.-Saudi negotiations, the U.S. president met with a number of Arab leaders in the GCC+3 format (Egypt, Iraq, Jordan) is quite telling. This list indicates the states the Biden administration intends to bet on as well as the range of oft-interrelated problems, the approaches to which the administration considers necessary to clarify and harmonize. These include regional security, continued normalization of the Arab-Israeli relations, the issue of a U.S. return to the JCPOA, warning signals to Iran, a new understanding of the nature of allied relations, conflict resolution with a focus on Yemen, continued Palestinian-Israeli contacts, etc.

The Israeli part of Biden’s trip showed that the United States was not going to revise the legacy of the previous administration, which formally declared Israeli settlements in the West Bank not contrary to international law and recognized Jerusalem as the capital of the State of Israel. By and large, the status of Jerusalem, like the issue of Jewish settlements, is a fait accompli for the United States. At the same time, Biden reiterated his support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—it was a purely formal gesture, though: more of a tribute to his election campaign. This position is also enshrined, albeit one-sidedly, in the Jerusalem U.S.-Israel Strategic Partnership Joint Declaration. Apart from passing remarks about his intention to promote dialogue with the Palestinians and provide humanitarian grants, the American president’s visit to the Palestinian Authority was more of a touristy, humanitarian nature. The text of this widely circulated declaration leaves no doubt that the U.S. continues to pursue the principled policy of ensuring Israel’s security and military dominance as “strategic commitments that are vitally important to the national security of the United States itself.” In this regard, we have seen additional measures of cooperation in air defense and laser technology development. Another important point of the declaration was the message to the U.S. partners in the region that America will “never allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon” and will work with them “to confront Iran’s aggression and destabilizing activities.” Finally, the U.S. and Israel praised the Abraham Accords as a critical addition to Israel’s strategic peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan and an important starting point for building a new regional security system.

The most complicated and sensitive part of the president’s Middle East tour—the trip to Saudi Arabia—had two dimensions to it. First, a normalization of the long-struggling bilateral relations with a new focus on the policies of Trump and Obama; and second, a presentation of the U.S. administration’s vision of the Middle East strategy.

On the bilateral agenda, Biden tried to find some middle ground in the eternal conflict between “American values” and “national interests,” between respecting human rights and supporting rigid autocracies, which in the United States, i.a. among Democrats, include the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. There has been a heated debate in the United States over the dilemma where the prestige of a powerful figure in the kingdom, like Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has been directly affected by Khashoggi’s assassination. Did the U.S. president raise human rights issues with the Crown Prince and what was his reaction? Responding to the numerous questions, the president confirmed that he had discussed this issue “directly and openly,” though there remained great doubt in U.S. domestic political discourse about the administration’s determination (and that of Biden personally) to put ideological values above practical considerations. The reaction of the Saudi leadership was no less direct. As it became known in the Arab world, Mohammed bin Salman replied briefly: “And what about Shireen Abu Akleh?” (a journalist of Palestinian origin murdered in Israel). In general, the contrast between the way Americans “defend” democracy and human rights in Ukraine and the way they do it for the Palestinians in the Arab world has not gone unnoticed. This partly explains no mention of the Ukrainian conflict from the Arab side during the talks.

The U.S. president’s trip to the Middle East was the occasion for the public announcement of a revised foreign policy in its regional dimension. Biden thought it was symbolic that he was the first U.S. president to come to Saudi Arabia from Israel and the first to visit the region at a time when the U.S. has no military personnel engaged in military operations there. Thereafter, the U.S. emphasized intensive diplomacy with the caveat that the use of force is seen as a last resort when all other options have been exhausted.

The U.S. Middle East strategy is presented in five main areas. First, the U.S. will not leave a vacuum to be filled by China, Russia, or Iran, so it is not withdrawing from the region. Washington will bolster partnerships with countries that subscribe to the rules-based international order, making sure these countries can defend themselves against foreign threats. Second, security cooperation. The U.S. will pledge determination to ensure the freedom of navigation through the Middle East’s waterways, including the Strait of Hormuz and the Bab el-Mandeb, to prevent dominance by any country. Third, de-escalation and termination of regional conflicts. The U.S. is ready to work with the partners to counter threats from Iran by forcing it to curtail its nuclear program. Fourth, the development of bilateral political, economic, and security connections, and the promotion of regional projects in energy, free trade and investment. Fifth, the U.S. commitment to human rights, fundamental freedoms and the values enshrined in the U.N. Charter.

It remains a matter of debate how the American president’s significant statements in the Middle East with a leadership bid can convert into practical policy. At the same time, growing tensions in Europe and Asia are gradually pushing this into the background. Assessments of the prospects for achieving the goal in practice are rather restrained, ranging from a complete disbelief in the U.S. ability to achieve ambitious goals in a rapidly changing region to assertions that Biden should be given time and that America still has chances to adjust its Middle East policy to the new realities in the world and in the United States itself. Looks like Biden took some not-so-heavy political baggage from the Middle East. U.S. attempts to present Saudi Arabia’s consent to overflight of its airspace by Israeli civilian aircraft as a breakthrough were quickly devalued by the Saudis’ official explanations that it was only about facilitating international air communications, not about normalizing relations with Israel. The Saudis have also made adjustments to the definition of the U.S. role in lowering oil prices. Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Al-Jubeir hastened to declare that the decision will be based on market assessments, and Saudi Arabia intends to continue consultations with OPEC members as well as within OPEC+, i.e. with Russia. The Saudis oppose the politicization of the global financial system and do not support calls for an oil embargo. According to experts, if the decision to further increase oil production was made, such an increase wouldn’t be so critical that the U.S. could take the credit.

Biden’s post-Bush, post-Obama and post-Trump Middle East strategy looks like a desire to find a middle ground between two extremes: over-involvement in the regional set-up coupled with military intervention or a complete turn toward the Indo-Pacific. That is, there is an understanding that the U.S. cannot change the Middle East, nor can it afford to withdraw from it. At the same time, the focus on countering Russia and China, which allegedly took advantage of the vacuum in the region, remains part of this adjusted strategy, much as the pivot to mobilize traditional Arab partners to achieve U.S. goals. And that is where the main contradiction lies. The U.S. plan for a regional alliance of democracies has no real prospect in the Middle East. The results of Biden’s Middle East trip clearly showed that, in contrast to the times of the Soviet-American confrontation, the Arab countries pursue a diversified policy, avoiding a strictly one-sided orientation on the principle of “the enemy of my friend is not my enemy.” With a new round of global confrontation, the leaders of these countries tread carefully, without closing foreign relations on unstable alliances and believing that their national interests in the new geopolitical and regional realities are more consistent with maintaining a situational partnership with the major powers.

Strengthening the U.S. strategic partnership with Israel at the expense of the right of the Palestinian people to their statehood is unlikely to advance further normalization of Israel’s relations with the Arab world, but rather will complicate the country’s integration into the region. As a result, one can expect a sharp rise in radical sentiment among the Palestinians, with the support of the resistance front by Arab states. This is evidenced by the restoration of Hamas’ relations with Syria, as well as the meeting of all Palestinian factions in Algeria facilitated by the movement. In security issues, the Gulf monarchies are looking for opportunities to defuse tensions with Iran through regional mediation as an alternative to U.S. guarantees.

One should not expect a dramatic turnaround in the U.S. Middle East policy. The incumbent president will have to reckon with the balance of power in Congress, which cannot be changed by executive orders. The Middle East will remain a focus of the Democratic administration, albeit not a top priority. The new style, with its emphasis on multilateral diplomacy, will help set a more balanced course toward key regional issues. At the same time, the Biden administration will not be able to ignore that Russia’s multi-vector policy has shown its relevance over the past two decades. The new reality in the Middle East will force American diplomacy to seek interaction points with Russia through overcoming the credibility gap, even in the face of tense bilateral relations. The question is whether it is possible to separate the Middle East from the context of the real geopolitics unfolding at odds. In this sense, Syria will be an important indicator of U.S. intentions, being a country where both Washington and Moscow, like in Europe, are in direct military contact.

From our partner RIAC

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Middle East

An updated Chinese strategy towards the Arab region: Evidence from Saudi Arabia

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The economic ties between Saudi Arabia and China are a reflection of both countries’ current development. From 1949 until the mid-1970s, interactions between China and the Muslim world were almost non-existent. During the late 1970s, China began its economic reform initiative, which reshaped China’s economy from 1978 to 2000, opening the way for developing the bilateral relations. The relationship between Saudi Arabia and China was improved with the beginning of the twenty-first century. In 2008, the global financial and economic crisis ravaged the United States; this paved the way for further progress in the Saudi-Chinese relationship.

After Saudi Arabia put out its 2030 vision for multilateralism, the movement in Saudi-Chinese relations coincided with the transformation in the global system, which is one of the most essential parts of multipolarity. As a result, China now has more possibilities for being involved in this process.

After China’s openness to the West, the country devoted itself primarily to the acquisition of advanced financial and technological infrastructure. At the time, China was not interested in strengthening its ties to Saudi Arabia and raising the level of the relationship to a strategic partnership. According to Saudi officials, the Chinese economy had nothing to tempt them to create links with it, regardless of China’s significant economic progress made. In terms of the world’s greatest economies, China has yet to make it into the top ten.

There was little trade between the two countries. A mere 1.171 billion riyals, or around 1.5 percent, of Saudi Arabia’s total imports were made in China in 1987. After more than 20 years of economic changes in China, this statistic remained unchanged. Even though China’s volume tripled, China’s share of Saudi imports remained at 3.5%, thus it takes time to create economic ties.

China’s imports to Saudi Arabia doubled in value between 1987 and 1999, rising from 1.2 billion to 3.7 billion riyals. The Saudi’s overall worldwide imports still dwarf this amount, notwithstanding the rise. However, by the end of the nineties, there was an improvement in this relationship. The year 2000 marked the beginning of a major shift in the economic ties between the two countries. There was an increase in bilateral trade that year of more than 1.7 times what it was last year. This is due to an increase in previously unreported Saudi shipments to China. Between 1990 and 2000, exports nearly quadrupled. Saudi’s on-going trade surplus with China can be attributed to this increase in exports.

Economic ties between the United States and Saudi Arabia will be altered significantly. High-level visits, discussions, and exchanges of views between Saudi Arabia and China have created new horizons in bilateral relations, in addition to strengthening economic ties. Globalization has also contributed to the building of trade linkages between all countries, including China and Saudi Arabia. This is also relevant to the World Trade Organization’s principles and the development of a free market economy. The economic ties between the two countries developed dramatically between 2000 and 2007. This is mainly due to the rapid growth of the Chinese economy. Growth in China’s economy has begun to pick up steam, shifting the world’s top economies into a new position. China, which ranked sixth in 2000, surpassed the United Kingdom to take fourth place in 2006. In 2007, it overtook Germany to take third position.

During the period between 2001 and 2007, Saudi Arabia’s exports to China nearly doubled, while imports nearly quadrupled. In the time since 2008, major developments have led to stronger ties between the two countries’ economies, paving the way for future strategic collaboration. After the housing crisis, the financial and economic crisis of 2008 had a significant impact on the development of Saudi Arabia’s ties with China. Because of this tragedy, there was a global economic downturn. Except for China, the rest of the industrialized world’s growth rates were either negative or extremely low throughout this period. China rose from third to second place in the world’s economy between 2007 and 2010, ahead of Japan, which fell from third to fourth.

As of 2010, China’s GDP had overtaken Japan’s, ranking it second in the world’s major economies matrix. By 2028, China is expected to overtake the United States as the world’s most powerful economy.

In terms of bilateral trade exchanges, minerals accounted for nearly eighty per cent of the overall value of Saudi’s top exports to China in 2019. Electrical goods and equipment are among the many items that China exports to Saudi Arabia.

It’s no surprise that Saudi Arabia ranked first and second in terms of oil exports to China in 2019 and 2020, respectively. Last year, China bought more than twice as much oil from Saudi Arabia as Russia did, at 1.69 million barrels per day.

The Chinese grand strategy, based mainly on the Belt and Road Initiative, will not make progress without a solid partnership with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. China is a huge powerhouse that depends mainly on trade and industry; therefore, in order for China to survive, it is likely that in the next few years we will witness a qualitative leap in the bilateral relationship between China and Saudi Arabia.

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