Syria’s current prospects are no longer a return – albeit a laborious one – to an old pre-2015 unitary State, but the persistence of a very fragmented territory. This, however, responds to a logic of various countries’ future participation in the great reconstruction business.
The war operations on the Syrian territory are currently prerequisites for the various strategic players’ future presence for reconstruction. They are not only mere war actions for reconquering a specific territory, but also actions to achieve a “post-national” hegemony.
In this regard, as early as 2005, in his article entitled War is Peace: on Post-National War, Ulrich Beck spoke about the relationship between post-national and cosmopolitan responsibility, currently typical of the West, when war is decided in a specific place of cosmopolis.
War is waged – often an unending war as the United States is currently doing – but then a new war is waged to isolate the type 1 conflict from the rest of the global system.
Certainly, as we well know, the motivations of the various players that started the war in Syria were much more immediate and earthly. However, if the West decides a war in its periphery, it must always justify it globally, because this is now its code of action and the justification it must “sell” to its public.
Ever more laboriously, indeed.
The East must not justify its wars. It just wages them. Also China and Russia, however, are very careful not to spread the effects of a regional conflict to the rest of the international equilibria system like wildfire.
Israel is continuing its air strikes in Syria, especially to avoid friction between Hezbollah, Iran, some Syrian units and its key positions in the Golan Heights.
On September 11, the Israeli Air Force and missiles hit the missile construction stations at al-Safirah, near Aleppo, probably in Hezbollah’s hands.
In that case, sources of the Syrian regime stated that most of the Israeli missiles were shot down by Syrian anti-aircraft forces.
The Israeli Air Force also attacked the T-4 base, in the Homs province, with a probable departure of Israeli jets from the U.S. base of Al-Tanf on the Iraqi-Jordanian border.
Moreover, some military logistics analysts state that Israel’s targeted attacks on the Hezbollah missile stations in Syria and on the Golan Heights have now completely inhibited Iran from transporting weapons, both within the Tehran-Beirut line and from that line to the Golan Heights.
Other Israeli attacks have been recorded in Al-Mayadin and Abu Kamal, but in total there have been six Israeli attacks, at least since the beginning of September 2020.
There was also an ammunition depot in Abu Kamal.
Pending the attacks, but also the current reconstruction of the “Caliphate”, all this is matched by Bashar el Assad’s request for closer relations with Russia, with a meeting held on September 7 last between Bashar el Assad, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov and Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, where the two countries reaffirmed their common fight against “terrorism”, but underlined their efforts for Syria’s reconstruction.
Russia is more interested in achieving hegemony and benefiting from the reconstruction business than in militarily supporting Assad for him to fully reconquer the whole Syrian territory both against the jihad and the various other forces, always linked to external players. An operation which is unlikely and anyway future and very expensive.
The “Caliphate” is currently present in various parts of the Syrian central desert.
There were already some ISIS suicide attacks to take some territories back after the “Battle of Baghouz” of March 2019, which also put an end to the Caliphate’s grip on Iraq.
By what means? Much of the money that was in Raqqah, the capital of the aforementioned ISIS, is still held by the various regional leaders who, however, still have an obscure, but probably strong military and political link between them.
Initially the flow of money was above all from Raqqah to Abu Kamal, the ISIS last outpost before the supreme, but not final defeat. Currently, however, the “Caliphate” is attacking Deir-ez-Zor, Raqqah, Homs and Shaddadi, south of Hasakah, hitting both Bashar el Assad’s army and the Syrian Democratic Forces. Only a few days ago the Russian forces reconquered the gas deposits and wells of Doubayat, south of Sukhnah, in the Homs province.
There were also other ISIS attacks against the Shiite militias west of the Euphrates.
Nevertheless, the most important one was the attack of various (Sunni) tribes, gathered by the leaders of the Aqidat tribe, against the Kurdish troops and especially against the Syrian Democratic Forces.
This happened after the clashes in Jajsh Aqidat, but there was also a threat – not even too veiled – from the Baghouz Coordination to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), so as to force them to apologize for their behaviour in the region, especially with regard to the many citizens of Baghouz currently interned in the camps organized by the Kurdish-led FDS.
Tribes really count, “foreign” armies less.
It is the logic of the old Bedouin proverb: “I against my brother. I and my brother against my cousin. I, my brother and my cousin against the stranger”.
Meanwhile, the Iranian Al Qods Forces support, even materially, the Shiite or non-Shiite defections of elements already belonging to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), without any Western supporters of the SDF raising the problem.
The main Kurdish tribes are currently seven, with religious affiliations of various origin, including Yazidis, Yarsanis (the oldest Kurdish religion),Alevis and obviously Sunnis.
In the Kurdish tradition, however, there is also a considerable Shiite minority, the FailiKurds – about 1.5 million people – who are found between the Zagros mountains and the two Syrian and Iraqi borders, but now also live in Baghdad, Diyala, Wasit, Missan and Basra.
They have always had little affinity with the Ba’ath Party. They are often rich and hold important positions in the commercial communities of the cities where they live, but they have played a significant role in the creation of Kurdish nationalism.
There are also the Shabak, mainly Iraqi Kurds, who speak an Iranian dialect and live in religious communities (ta’ifa) in the Nineveh area.
The ancestors of the Kurdish Shabak were almost all followers of the Kurdish mystic Saif-ad-Din Ardabili.
As a man linked to the Sufi order of Zahed Gilani, the Zahedieh, Ardabili created a mystical tradition largely linked to the Kurdish identity, although no Sufi order really bonded with these “appearances”.
If we do not study the development lines of Islamic mysticism, but also Alawite (which is a modern expansion of Shiite Sufism) and Christian mysticism, we do not understand anything about Middle East’s Arab factionalism and the true “incense route” that currently separates the various territories of the Greater Middle East and not only them.
The Sufi, Sunni and Shiite Tariqat connect areas which are very far one another: the Horn of Africa connects to Iran, from Sudan to the Amazigh of the Maghreb desert, from India to Egypt.
It should be recalled that in Turkey the Sufi orders were banned by Atatürk in 1925, but they went ahead with little legal trouble.
The Albanian Bekhtashi were tolerated and, indeed, they became powerful even under Enver Hoxha’s regime.
Currently the greatest Sufi order is the Qadiriyyah, linked to the tradition of the first Sufi recognized by the Islamic tradition, Abd Al Qadir al Jilani, who was probably Kurdish. It was our year 1000 in Baghdad.
It is a very rich order – thanks to the Arab informal finance channels – and operates everywhere.
In Sudan there is also the Khatimiyyah, namely the Mirganiyah, not to mention the Mahdi sect.
Also Omar al Mukhtar, well known to the Italian occupying forces in Libya, was a Qadiriyyah, a Sufi order from which the secret society of Tijanijah originated and developed. It expanded especially among the Amazigh, in our 18th century, and had many Sufi traits.
There are even the Fulani, who also love jihad very much, but in a different way from Al Qai’da al-Sulbah and other very recent similar organizations.
If, instead of studying how to fatten up the Islamic goose to make it addicted to the mystical Western ritual of the ballot in a box, we had studied the esotericism – even the political one – of the seven Sufis and the various confraternities and brotherhoods, we would have had much fewer political and terrorist problems.
As an old Afghan Sufi “master” told me, “do not send us mobile phones and computers. We already have them and we know how to use them better than you. Just send us a holy manand we will listen to him with respect”.
Materialistic secularism destroys, above all, its worshippers.
But let us revert to Syria.
In Syria, ISIS is continuing its assassinations against both Assad’s and the Syrian Democratic Forces’ soldiers.
General Talal Qassem, an officer linked to Assad, was assassinated, as well as two officers of the 4th Division, supported and armed by Iran, and Muhammad Jamal al-Jamal, very close to Russia and leader of the Deraa Committee. The jihadists also killed Muhammad Qasimal-Yunis, recruiter of the Iranian Al Quds Forces in Deraa.
Hence a significant level of Caliphate’s territorial intelligence, which makes us assume that much more relevant operations will be made in the future.
Since 2019 the “Caliphate” has been reorganizing itself, from al-Sukhna in the province of Homs,al-Mayadin, in the area of Deir-ez-Zor, to Ma’adan near Raqqa, towards the desert of Al-Suwaida, the one of Al-Buqamal, of Al-Mayadin, al-Salamiya and al-Zakf, in the Western area of the Anbar desert.
The Caliphate’s primary triangle is currently the one between Al-Sukhna, al-Mayadin and Ma’adan that is supposed to count 45,000 militants approximately.
Talking again about Ba’athist generals, Firas Al-Nasaan, executive of the Syrian Air Force Intelligence Service, the real core of Syrian intelligence, and other leaders of Assad’s Intelligence Service, were also killed.
This implies a dangerous penetration of Syrian structures by the jihad, which not even Russia has been able to avoid.
There were clashes – very dangerous politically – between Assad’s 8th Brigade, in the hands of the Russian forces (like all the Syrian army operational corps),and some Bedouin tribes in the Deraa province.
Clearly this province is already an area of Caliphate’s deep penetration, but also of its financial, political and religious networks which, apparently, are currently not an evident part of ISIS.
This intelligence and military porosity of Assad’s regime is therefore extremely dangerous and could thwart both the pax russica and, above all, the already defined projects of investment in the “New Syria”, mainly by China. It is therefore clear to understand who is behind it, if anyone.
In the meantime, the United States is sending mainly drones, which killed two commanders of “Hurras al-Din“, also known as the Guardians of Religion, an organization affiliated to Al Qa’eda, but also opposed to the other traditional subsidiaries of Bin Laden’s network in Syria. The two commanders were Sayyaf al-Tunisi and Abu Hamza Al-Yamani.
War with remote control, namely strategic zapping. It will not be enough.
The two U.S. operations were recorded by Russia in the Idlib area, but it is likely that the contrast between this Qaedist organization and the other traditional ones did not favour Haya’tTahrir Al-Sham and the subsequent Bin Laden’s networks.
The Hurras al-Dinnetwork, however, is known to have stable relations with the Turkish Intelligence Services.
In 2018 it operated to mediate between the Syrian Liberation Army, in the Aleppo area, and Ayat Tahrir al-Sham.
The above-mentioned pro-Turkish group has recently operated in the Hama area and, sometimes, in Idlib.
The Russian Federation has operated successfully in Syria but, mainly and indirectly, by organizing the Army structures of Bashar el Assad, thus controlling him closely.
The factionalism of the Syrian Ba’athist army is well known. In 2018-2019, Bashar el Assad’s Chief of Staff directly controlled only 25,000-30,000 soldiers and officers out of a total of over 200,000.
Hence the usefulness of the non-Syrian Shiite militias, such as the Lebanese Hezbollah; the Iraqi and Pakistani Ali Zulfikar, originating directly from the Islamist efforts of the Bhutto family; the Abu Fadl al Abbas Brigade, born in Syria mainly to prevent jihadist activities of desecration of Shiite mosques (and Christian churches), as well as, obviously, the Al Quds Brigade of the Iranian Pasdaran, and finally the Afghan Shiite Fatimiyoun and the members of the Pakistani Zeinabiyoun Brigade.
Russia strongly needs to have Iran present in Syria, but it certainly does not want to leave the Syrian future in Iran’s hands.
Quite the reverse. Many intelligence signals tell us that Russia knew about some operations of other regional players against the Pasdaran and the other forces led by Iran, but did not lift a finger.
The Russian plan is therefore to have a mobile and very centralized Ba’athist force, with a significant share of Special Corps and relative autonomy from Russia, especially in the Southern and Eastern Syrian territory, with reference to both jihadist operations and operations by more or less regular forces led by regional or global players.
As early as 2015 Russia had created the 4th Syrian Corps, with a core of Bashar el Assad’s old army and a unit of the National Defence Forces led by Iran, as well as some brigades of the Ba’ath Party.
It is therefore obvious that, in Syria, the second opponent of Russia is an ally, namely Iran.
Putin has therefore correctly calculated his strategic equation: the West could not materially oppose his intervention in Syria.
Part of his intervention in that country was aimed at deterring the West.
Hence many Anti Access-Denial Area (A2AD) operations and full control of the airspace, as well as – particularly today – Russia’s continuous use of Private Military Companies (PMCs), which allow greater flexibility in the use of force and also to “do politics” on the territory.
There is also the oil problem, which can never be neglected.
At the end of June 2020, the U.S. company Delta Crescent Energy signed a contract with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, but also with a guarantee from the Kurdish leadership that Russia could benefit from the agreement, and with possible future opportunities for Russia to explore and extract local oil.
Erdogan, too, offered Russia the opportunity to modernize the Deir-ez-Zor oil fields, in view of reinvigorating the Syrian economy.
The Mercury company, owned by Yevgheni Prigozhin, an entrepreneur who is Putin’s personal friend, already operates in Eastern Syria but, in the meantime, Russia’s operatives are permanently dealing with the Syrian Tribal Council, as well as with the pro-Iranian Nawaf al-Bashir tribes.
Unlike other countries, Russia knows that the Middle East States are mobile compositions of tribes that are the real basic political entity.
This happens while the United States is leaving the Syrian buffer zone, i.e. the Peace Corridor, or the Security Mechanism placed on the Syrian side of the Syrian-Turkish border, and hence China is entering the scene.
China’s humanitarian aid to Bashar el Assad began in August 2016, but obviously China always stresses the principle of non-interference in conflicts and in the internal affairs of other States.
It should also be recalled, however, that China has shown a cold attitude also towards Russia’s missile and air operations in Syria, although it is an open ally and friend of Bashar el Assad’s regime.
Iran has often sought Chinese support for its engagement in Syriaand it is also trying to enter the system of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).
This Chinese support will continue also during the likely future offensive by Assad’s forces on Idlib.
Public opinion surveys challenge the image Arab leaders like to project
Several recent public opinion surveys send a mixed message to autocratic reformers in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar, which hosts this year’s World Cup in less than two months.
The surveys reveal contradictory attitudes among Arab youth towards religion as well as widespread rejection of notions of a moderate Islam and formal diplomatic ties with Israel.
One survey, published this week by Dubai-based public relations agency ASDA’A BCW, revealed that 41 per cent of 3,400 young Arabs in 17 Arab countries aged 18 to 24 said religion was the most important element of their identity, with nationality, family and/or tribe, Arab heritage, and gender lagging far behind. That is 7 per cent more than those surveyed in the agency’s 2021 poll.
More than half of those surveyed, 56 per cent, said their country’s legal system should be based on the Shariah or Islamic law.
Seventy per cent expressed concern about the loss of traditional values and culture. Sixty-five per cent argued that preserving their religious and cultural identity was more important than creating a globalized society.
Autocratic Arab reformers will take heart from the discomfort with the role of religion and skepticism towards religious authority that stroked with earlier surveys by ASDA’A BCW, which has conducted the poll annually for the past 14 years.
Even so, the greater emphasis on religion as the core pillar of identity, concern about traditional values and culture, and the call for Islamic law cast a shadow over social reforms introduced by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia and President Mohammed bin Zayed in the UAE.
Moreover, the poll results were published as Qatar debates how to deal with potential conduct by World Cup fans that violates Qatari law and mores, such as public intoxication and expressions of affection, pre-marital sex, and sexual diversity.
Qatar has suggested that World Cup fans caught committing minor offences such as public drunkenness would escape prosecution under plans under development by authorities.
While Saudi Arabia’s rupture with religious ultra-conservatism that long was the kingdom’s hallmark was stunning, reforms in the UAE were the most radical in their break with Islamic law that constitutionally constitutes the principal source of the country’s legislation.
Mr. Bin Salman’s reforms severely restricted the authority of the religious police, lifted the kingdom’s ban on women’s driving, enhanced women’s rights and opportunities, loosened gender segregation, and introduced western-style entertainment – all measures that are essentially not controversial in much of the Muslim world but went against the grain of the kingdom’s ultra-conservative segment of the population and clergy.
That could not be said for Mr. Bin Zayed’s equally far-reaching changes that decriminalized sexual relations out of marriage and alcohol consumption for UAE nationals and foreigners and lifted the prohibition on living together for unmarried couples.
Mr. Bin Zayed’s reforms are expected to persuade some fans to base themselves in the UAE during the World Cup and travel for matches to Qatar, which is socially more restrictive.
Even so, the ASDA’A BCW survey suggests that the reforms in the kingdom and the Emirates may not have been embraced as enthusiastically by a significant segment of the youth as the two countries would like public opinion to believe.
Separate surveys by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy showed that 59 per cent of those polled in the UAE, 58 percent in Saudi Arabia, and 74 per cent in Egypt, disagreed with the notion that “we should listen to those among us who are trying to interpret Islam in a more moderate, tolerant, and modern way.”
The youth’s quest for religion and traditionalism strokes with youth attitudes toward democracy and diplomatic relations with Israel.
Autocratic leaders will likely be encouraged by the fact that a whopping 82 per cent of those surveyed by ASDA’s BCW said stability was more important than democracy. At the same time, two-thirds believed democracy would never work in the Middle East.
Three quarters saw China, followed by Turkey and Russia as their allies, as opposed to only 63 per cent pointing to the United States and 12 per cent to Israel. Even so, they viewed the US as having the most influence in the Middle East, but a majority favoured US disengagement.
Yet, the United States and Europe continued to constitute preferred destinations among 45 per cent of those polled seeking to emigrate.
However, despite widespread skepticism towards democracy, leaders will also have noted that 60 per cent expressed concern about the increased role of government in their lives.
The establishment two years ago of diplomatic relations with Israel by four countries included in the ASDA’A BCW survey — the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan, — and the fact that Saudi Arabia has become more public about its relations with the Jewish state and its desire to establish diplomatic ties once a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is found is likely to have shaped responses in the surveys.
Aware of public hesitancy, Saudi Arabia, together with the Arab League and the European Union, this week convened a meeting in New York on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly to explore ways of dusting off the 1982 Saudi-inspired Arab peace plan.
The plan offered Israel recognition and diplomatic relations in exchange for creating a Palestinian state in territories occupied by Israel during the 1967 Middle East war.
For his part, Yair Lapid expressed support for a two-state solution in his address to the assembly. It was the first time Mr. Lapid backed two states since he became prime minister and the first time since 2017 that an Israeli prime minister spoke in favour of Palestinian statehood.
Nevertheless, only 14% of the Egyptians polled in the Washington Institute surveys viewed their country’s 43-year-old peace treaty with Israel and the more recent establishment of diplomatic relations with the Jewish state by the UAE and others as positive.
In contrast to the UAE, Bahrain, and Morocco, where Israeli business people, tourists, and residents have been welcomed, only 11 per cent of Egyptians surveyed favoured the normalisation of people-to-people relations.
Similarly, 57 per cent of Saudis surveyed by the institute opposed the normalization of the kingdom’s relations with Israel. Still, a higher percentage in the kingdom and the UAE than in Egypt, 42 per cent, agreed that “people who want to have business or sports contacts with Israelis should be allowed to do so.”
To sum it all up, the message is that autocratic reformers appear to be far ahead of significant segments of their populations even if public attitudes may be contradictory.
For now, keeping the lid on freedom of expression and dissent helps them maintain their grip but casts a shadow and a doubt over the image they work so hard to project.
Middle Eastern Geopolitics in The Midst of The Russo-Ukrainian War
Russia’s national interests have been harmed by the West’s efforts to obstruct Eurasia’s integration and provoke conflict. Support from the United States and the European Union for Ukraine’s anti-constitutional coup d’état sparked a societal upheaval and a bloody conflict. Right-wing nationalist ideology is getting more and more popular, Russia is being painted as an enemy in Ukrainian society, the violent resolution of internal problems is being gambled on, and a profound socioeconomic catastrophe is making Ukraine a chronic centre of instability in Europe and along Russia’s border.
US military-biological labs in Russia’s neighbours are being expanded. There are four ways Russia utilizes to keep the world safe: political, legal, diplomatic, and military. To protect national interests, armed force can be employed only after all other options have failed.
NATO has effectively rendered Russia’s Black Sea control worthless in terms of gaining access to warm water. “Irresponsible” would be a better word to describe Ukraine’s attempt to join NATO. Russia’s Eurasian aspirations are jeopardized by Ukraine’s proclivity for self-determination. From Ukraine to Abkhazia, Russia seeks to control the northern Black Sea coast and to turn it under its sovereignty. For Russia, it is necessary to remove Western influence from this region and Russia’s immediate surroundings. However, it is impossible for Ukraine to remain “neutral” because of its geopolitical and ethnic realities.
Russia’s geopolitical security is threatened by Ukraine’s borders and sovereign orientations, which are equivalent to invading Russia’s land. Eastern Ukraine (east of the Dnieper River to the Sea of Azov) is inhabited by Great Russians and Orthodox Little Russians, whereas the rest of the country is controlled by Ukrainians. Anti-Russian sentiment runs deep in Crimea, a region with a wide range of nationalities (such as the Tatars). Crimea is under Moscow’s authority for strategic reasons. From Chernigov to Odessa, an area has cultural ties to Eastern Ukraine and a place in the Eurasian geopolitical context.
The Eurasian core (Russia) and the European core (Germany) should work together to complete the long-term disengagement between Europe and the United States by forming a Eurasian continental military complex.
Russian intervention in Ukraine is urgent in order to avert an attack by NATO. The foregoing suggests that Russia’s policy of severing all ties with Western security systems in the vital territory directly adjacent to Russia is being carried out in Ukraine. The only way to achieve this aim peacefully is to use force.
There are two main actors engaged in this conflict; the Russian Federation (the official heir to the USSR) and the United States, which is slipping in several soft and hard power indicators. Paul Kennedy saw imperial overstretch as a precursor to strategic decline for the United States, while Richard Barnet predicted decline for the United States in the 1980s. Flora Lewis’ research, published a year after Paul Kennedy’s, confirmed the fall of the United States. It was prophesied by James Schlesinger that the United States will lose both its economic and military power. Peter Passell and Tom Wicker argued that the United States has lost its economic and scientific leadership to Japan because of its dependence on foreign sources of raw resources and energy.
According to Niall Ferguson’s 2004 study on US diclinism, the United States wants to expand free markets, the rule of law, and representative government around the world, but it is unwilling to make the long-term investments in human capital and financial resources necessary to end conflict resulting from state inefficiency. When it comes to internal weaknesses like financial deficits and people power, as well as ignoring global responsibilities, he thinks that the United States is a failing empire that refuses to accept its own demise. “Terrorist” groups and organized crime gangs will fill the void, he predicts. Ferguson sees this as a strong endorsement of the US-China-European partnership.
Biden should not threaten China and should treat Russia as a serious power in Eurasia, as argued by one of the most anti-EU thinkers in the United States, Francis Ferguson, Jr. An analysis conducted by the US National Intelligence Council in 2008 predicted that the international system would become more multipolar due to the emergence of new major powers, the continuation of economic globalization, the transfer of wealth from the West to the East, and the expansion of sub-state and supra-state entities.
According to the report, by 2025, there would be less disparities between regions and governments in the international system. In order to avoid further collapse in Russia’s interior and to enlarge Russia’s critical space, each empire looks to exploit geostrategic territories. NATO’s laxity has made it easier for the other empire (the United States) to halt its collapse and strengthen relations with Europe.
All of the foregoing has an impact on the Middle East, particularly on the Arab region. The Middle East is no longer a priority for US policy, according to President Joe Biden’s strategic plan. Some countries in the region have attempted to compensate for the loss of the United States by forging ties with Israel to counter internal opposition and strengthen the anti-Iran coalition.
It is possible that the Ukraine issue could divert American attention away from the Middle East in the next months, which could have an impact on Arab relations with Israel, Iran and Turkey. Because of the lack of response from the Middle East in response to US demands about the Ukrainian issue (blockade of Russia, military support for Ukraine, increased gas and oil production, etc.), there has been a “relative” shift in the region’s position in US strategy.
Currently, there are many thorny issues in the Middle East, including: Russia’s policy in the Arab region is hampered by its inability to overcome regional power imbalances. Russian, Iranian and Israeli differences. Reconciling Iran with Gulf States and a number of Arab nations. Reconciling the security needs of Israel and Syria. Israeli demands vs. Russian pledges on Palestinian rights.
The trade volume differential between Russia and the Arab region just adds to the complexity of these political issues already in existence. Over the previous three years, Russian trade with the Arab world has averaged $18 billion each year. One group of Arab countries imports Russian civilian goods, such as wheat and iron, whereas the other group imports Russian military equipment. Russia exports civilian goods to Egypt, Morocco, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Jordan, and Qatar. After Syria, Algeria (81 percent), Iraq (44 percent), Egypt (41%), and the United Arab Emirates (5.3%), Russian arms sales to Arab countries account for 21 percent of Russia’s overall sales, or $5 billion yearly, making them the top five countries acquiring Russian weaponry.
It’s not uncommon for relations between Arab countries that acquire Russian civilian items and those that import Russian military hardware to be strained. In the near future (within the next five years), when Russia’s global economic embargo will cover more civilian items than military ones, it will be difficult for Russia to limit the influence of Arab disputes on its relations with all Arab countries.
Due to its military-to-civilian trade imbalance, Russia may have to reassess its regional priorities. Relations between the Arab world and Russia could take a dramatic turn in the near future. Russia’s trade with Israel ($3.5 billion) and Iran ($777 million) is impossible to compare. Even in light of the boycott, Russia’s relations with Iran and Israel will be problematic.
Creating Building Blocks for Cooperative Security in the Middle East
Fading hopes for a revival of the 2015 international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program potentially puts one more nail in the coffin of a regional security architecture that would include rather than target the Islamic republic.
The potential demise of the nuclear agreement, coupled with America redefining its commitment to Middle Eastern security as it concentrates on rivalry with Russia and China, spotlights the need for a regional security forum that would facilitate confidence-building measures, including common approaches to transnational threats such as climate change, food security, maritime security, migration, and public health.
Mitigating in favour of a firmer grounding of the reduction of regional tension is the fact that it is driven not only by economic factors such as the economic transition in the Gulf and the economic crisis in Turkey, Iran, and Egypt but also by big-power geopolitics.
China and Russia have spelled out that they would entertain the possibility of greater engagement in regional security if Middle Eastern players take greater responsibility for managing regional conflicts, reducing tensions, and their own defense.
Rhetoric aside, that is not different from what the United States, the provider of the Middle East’s security umbrella, is looking for in its attempts to rejigger its commitment to security in the Gulf.
In addition to the emerging, albeit tentative, unspoken, macro-level big power consensus on a more inclusive, multilateral approach, efforts by the major regional powers – Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Turkey, Israel, and Iran, except for as it regards ties between the Jewish state and the Islamic republics — to reduce tensions and put relations on a more even keel, contribute to an environment potentially conducive to discussion of a more broad-based security architecture.
The need to focus on conflict prevention and improved communication between regional rivals alongside more robust defense cooperation is evident irrespective of whether the Iran nuclear accord is brought back from the dead, given that the covert war between Israel and Iran will continue no matter what happens.
Israeli officials this month warned that an Israel airstrike against Syria’s Aleppo airport was a warning to President Bashar al-Assad that his country’s air transport infrastructure would be at risk if he continues to allow “planes whose purpose is to encourage terrorism to land,” a reference to flights operated on behalf of the Iranian military and Revolutionary Guards.
Even so, the Biden administration remains focused on broadening responsibility for a regional security architecture that targets Iran rather than an inclusive structure that would give all parties a stake, seek to address root problems, and stymie an evolving arms race.
The administration has encouraged security cooperation between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, the two Arab states that two years ago established diplomatic relations with Israel, and Saudi Arabia, which has changed its long-standing hostile attitudes towards the Jewish state but refuses to formalise relations in the absence of a resolution of the Palestinian problem.
The year’s move of Israel from the US military’s European to its Central Command (CENTCOM) that covers the Middle East facilitates coordination between regional militaries. In a first, Israel this year participated in a US-led naval exercise alongside Saudi Arabia, Oman, Comoros, Djibouti, Somalia, Yemen, and Pakistan, countries with which it has no diplomatic relations, as well as the UAE and Bahrain.
In March, top military officers from Israel, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, and Egypt met in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh to discuss the contours of potential military cooperation.
Similarly, the US, the UAE, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia are attempting to create a regional air defense alliance. In June, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz claimed the partnership had already thwarted Iranian attacks.
Similarly, the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Israel are working on a fleet of naval drones to monitor Gulf waters and ward off Iranian threats.
Furthermore, CENTCOM plans to open a testing facility in Saudi Arabia to develop and assess integrated air and missile defense capabilities.
Scholar Dalia Dassa Kaye argues that focusing on confidence-building aspects of cooperative security involving a dialogue that aims to find common ground to prevent or mitigate conflict rather than collective security that seeks to counter a specific threat is one way of breaking the Middle East’s vicious circle.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) patchwork of security structures, alliances between external powers and individual association members, and inclusive regional forums demonstrate that the two security approaches are not mutually exclusive.
The ASEAN model also suggests that, at least initially, a less centralized and institutionalized approach may be the best way to kickstart moves towards regional cooperative security in the Middle East.
Negotiating an agreement on principles guiding regional conduct on the back of exchanges between scholars, experts, and analysts, as well as informal, unofficial encounters of officials, could be a first step.
To be sure, Iran’s refusal to recognize Israel and its perceived goal of destroying the Jewish state likely constitutes the foremost obstacle to initiating an inclusive, cooperative security process.
The carrot for Iran will have to be credible assurances that the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Israel will not pursue regime change in Tehran and recognize that Iran’s security concerns are as legitimate as those of others in the region. However, even that could prove to be a tall order, particularly if the negotiations to revive the nuclear accord fail.
Nevertheless, that may be the only realistic way of putting Iran’s support for militants in various Arab countries, including Lebanon’s Hezbollah Shiite militia, various pro-Iranian paramilitary groups in Iraq, and Houthi rebels in Yemen, as well as the Islamic republic’s ballistic missiles program – the two major concerns of Israel and the Gulf states — on an agenda to which Iran is a participating party.
Ms. Kaye argues that “despite these serious obstacles, it is important to present a vision and pathway for an inclusive, cooperative process when a political opening emerges, or when a crisis erupts of such severe magnitude that even bitter adversaries may consider options that were previously unthinkable.”
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