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Elections in Syria: Forgetting Old Resentments?

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In the presidential elections on May 26, Bashar al-Assad won more than 95% of the votes. According to the current constitution, this term will be the last for the president. But in the next seven years of Bashar al-Assad’s rule, the constitution may change, and it is far from certain that this will happen as a result of the work of the Syrian Constitutional Committee, with UN mediation. The victory of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was accompanied by congratulations from allies and a lack of recognition of the election results by Western countries. In any event, what is the attitude towards this war-torn country and its ruling elites in the Arab world? Will Bashar al-Assad be able to rebuild the country and deliver it from chaos?

Forgetting old resentments. From balance of power to balance of interests

Through regional recognition lies the path to global recognition. It is necessary in some form for the reconstruction of Syria, the cost of which is estimated at more than $250 billion. Syria’s allies do not have such funds, and the West links the provision of funds for the country’s reconstruction with conditions for a political settlement of the conflict, which the current authorities will not agree to. In the absence of economic reconstruction, however, there is a threat of the re-activation of the defeated terrorists. In this context, the role of the rich oil monarchies of the Persian Gulf—the most promising source of money—becomes especially significant.

Syria is traditionally called the “heart” of the Arab world. This, nevertheless, did not prevent other Arab countries from responding to the unfolding violence in Syria by freezing its membership in an important regional structure, the Arab League, in 2011. Speaking about the return of Syria to the Arab League, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said: “Arab diplomacy is very, very famous for its effectiveness, so it seems to me that here we can expect that the issue will be resolved, and, I hope, quite quickly.” However, there are a number of factors that can support this process, and constraints that can hinder it.

The conversation about the return of Syria to the Arab League has been going on for several years—since it became clear that Bashar al-Assad will be able to keep power in his hands. This became obvious to regional and global players with the defeat of terrorists and opposition, with the active support of the Syrian leadership from Iran and Russia. In addition, compared to 2011, the situation has changed in the Arab League itself. In Egypt, the largest country in the Arab world, the secular regime of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (who has roots in the military), is now in power, and not the anti-Assad-minded Islamists from the Muslim Brotherhood (banned in the Russian Federation). A number of Arab League member states like Algeria, Iraq and Lebanon have never been against Syria, and now actively advocate its return to the organisation. The Gulf monarchies have gone through a decade of reassessing challenges and threats.

Conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Yemen have led to the strengthening of the regional rivals of the Arab states of the Gulf—Turkey and Iran. The expansion of these major regional powers is forcing the UAE, Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries to seek new approaches. In the context of Syria, this means the Arab rejection of the Turkish occupation of Syrian (and, therefore, Arab) land in northern Syria. At the same time, the rulers of the Arabian Peninsula are thinking about whether it is worth it to push Syria into the hands of Iran, if they can try to return it to the “Arab homeland” and balance the Iranian influence on Damascus. The UAE, Bahrain and Oman have already reopened their embassies in Damascus, but so far Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the two key countries that oppose Syria in the Arab League, are in no hurry to do the same. In any event, the Saudis are increasingly inclined towards a partial return of relations. It is clear from some of their actions. For example, we are talking about the restoration of ties between Bahrain and Damascus, since the policy of Bahrain is a litmus test of Riyadh’s aspirations. In early May, there were reports about the visit of the head of the general intelligence service of Saudi Arabia, Khalid bin Ali al-Humaidan, to Damascus. In late May, for the first time in 10 years, a Syrian delegation led by Minister of Tourism Mohammad Rami Martini made an official visit to Riyadh to participate in the work of the World Tourism Organisation Committee for the Middle East.

The results of the presidential elections in Syria once again remind the Arab states that they will have to work with Bashar al-Assad and his government.

Obviously, Damascus is ready to forget old grievances. Among other things, Arab nationalist rhetoric is extremely important for the ruling Baath Party. On the eve of the elections, Assad’s adviser Busseina Shaaban said: “Efforts are being made to improve relations between Damascus and Riyadh, and in the coming days we can witness results in this matter.” If Riyadh changes its position on the return of Syria to the Arab League, there will be only one Arab country opposing this—Qatar. Qatar’s non-Arab ally in the recently weakened regional confrontation is Turkey, which will also hinder this and continues to declare the need of a political settlement of the Syrian conflict. True, this is less and less possible, although the opinion of Turkey, which has more than 3.5 million registered Syrian refugees, is something to be reckoned with.

Veni, vidi, vici?

At the global level, Russia and the United States have different positions. Russia’s foreign policy advocates sovereignty, the return of Syria to the Arab League and its early restoration. But even if Syria returns to the League, it will not solve the economic problems of the country, where corruption is rampant, the currency continues to depreciate, there is barely enough electricity and fuel for the population to survive, and 80% of citizens remain below the poverty line. In addition, the Syrian economy will not receive serious injections, even from the Gulf countries, due to the policies and sanctions of the United States, which remains the hegemon in the region. However, it is precisely the regional recognition of Damascus that is extremely useful and can be considered as a step towards further stabilisation.

Even before the elections in Syria, the Americans, together with Britain, France, Germany and Italy, issued a joint statement about their illegitimacy. The sanctions adopted by the US Congress against Syria under the name “Caesar Act” are “secondary” in nature, which means that any third country doing business with the Syrian government is included in the US sanctions list. Companies from the UAE have already faced this problem, and potentially sanctions deprive Syria of any major projects with the Gulf States in the future. This issue is unsolvable at the regional level. Much depends on how the Americans are committed to the implementation of the sanctions regime.

An excessive US appetite for sanctions may hurt the interests of its regional allies, which will displease the latter (and not always tacitly).

At the moment, however, to quote the journalists of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, we observe “the absence of American leadership”: the United States is not engaged in promoting any active campaign to counter the normalisation of relations between Syria and other members of the international community. The previous pattern with regard to Syria remains—with the illegal presence of the American military in the east of the country, support for Kurdish groups, and the illegal use of Syrian resources.

The administration of US President Joe Biden has not yet formed a new course towards Syria, since this issue is not a priority for it. In these conditions, regional and interested global players have the opportunity to correct their positions, build up links with previously inaccessible actors, and make attempts to go beyond the existing restrictions.

Bashar al-Assad sent a message to the whole world that he is ready for a new stage. The world is no longer what it was a decade ago. At the regional level, the Arabs are thinking about accepting the existing reality, but at the global level, the Syria issue is not a priority. In his victory speech, al-Assad noted that the Syrian people “returned to the true meaning of the revolution” after it was “blotted by mercenaries”. It is obvious that Damascus persistently and patiently stands on its ground. Arabs say that patience is the key to joy. The only question is whose joy it is.

From our partner RIAC

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Middle East

The Absence of Riyadh in the Turbulent Afghanistan

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As the situation in Afghanistan becoming increasingly turbulent, the NATO allies led by the United States are fully focused on military withdrawal. As this has to be done within tight deadline, there have been some disagreements between the United States and the European Union. Josep Borrell, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security, publicly accused the U.S. military in Afghanistan, which was responsible for the internal security of Kabul Airport, of deliberately obstructing the EU evacuation operations.

China and Russia on the other hand, are more cautious in expressing their positions while actively involving in the Afghanistan issue. This is especially true for Russia, which after both the Taliban and the anti-Taliban National Resistance Front of Afghanistan (NRF) led by Ahmad Massoud have pleaded Russia for mediation, Moscow has now become a major player in the issue.

Compared with these major powers, Saudi Arabia, another regional power in the Middle East, appears to be quite low-key. So far, only the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Saudi Arabia has issued a diplomatic statement on the day after the Taliban settled in Kabul, stating that it hopes the Taliban can maintain the security, stability and prosperity of Afghanistan. Considering the role that Saudi Arabia has played in Afghanistan, such near silent treatment is quite intriguing.

As the Taliban were originally anti-Soviet Sunni Jihadists, they were deeply influenced by Wahhabism, and were naturally leaning towards Riyadh. During the period when the Taliban took over Afghanistan for the first time, Saudi Arabia became one of the few countries in the international community that publicly recognized the legitimacy of the Taliban regime.

Although the Taliban quickly lost its power under the impact of the anti-terror wars initiated by the George W. Bush administration, and the Saudis were pressured by Washington to criticize the Taliban on the surface, yet in reality they continuously provided financial aid to the Taliban and the Al-Qaeda organization which was in symbiotic relations with the Taliban.

However, after 2010, with the Syrian civil war and the rise of the Islamic State, the Riyadh authorities had decreased their funding for their “partners” in Afghanistan due to the increase in financial aid targets.

In June 2017, after Mohammed bin Salman became the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia and took power, Saudi Arabia’s overall foreign policy began to undergo major changes. It gradually abandoned the policy of exporting its religious ideology and switched to “religious diplomacy” that focuses on economic, trade and industrial cooperation with main economies. Under such approach, Saudi Arabia’s Afghanistan policy will inevitably undergo major adjustments.

With the reformation initiated by the Crown Prince, Saudi Arabia has drastically reduced its financial aid to the Taliban. In addition, Riyadh also further ordered the Taliban to minimize armed hostilities and put its main energy on the path of “peaceful nation-building”. This sudden reversal of the stance of Saudi Arabia means that Riyadh has greatly weakened the voices of the Taliban in the global scenes.

In recent years, the Taliban have disassociated with Saudi Arabia in rounds of Afghanistan peace talks. After Kabul was taken over by the Taliban on August 19, a senior Taliban official clearly stated that the Taliban does not accept Wahhabism, and Afghanistan has no place for Wahhabism. Although this statement means that Al-Qaeda’s religious claims will no longer be supported by the Taliban, it also indicates that the Taliban has reached the tipping point of breaking up with Riyadh.

Under such circumstance, for the Riyadh authorities under Mohammed bin Salman, the most appropriate action is probably wait-and-see as Afghanistan changes again.

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Gulf security: It’s not all bad news

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Gulf states are in a pickle.

They fear that the emerging parameters of a reconfigured US commitment to security in the Middle East threaten to upend a more-than-a-century-old pillar of regional security and leave them with no good alternatives.

The shaky pillar is the Gulf monarchies’ reliance on a powerful external ally that, in the words of Middle East scholar Roby C. Barrett, “shares the strategic, if not dynastic, interests of the Arab States.” The ally was Britain and France in the first half of the 20th century and the United States since then.

Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan, the revered founder of the United Arab Emirates, implicitly recognised Gulf states’ need for external support when he noted in a 2001 contribution to a book that the six monarchies that form the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) “only support the GCC when it suited them.”

Going forward question marks about the reliability of the United States may be unsettling but the emerging contours of what a future US approach could look like they are not all bad news from the perspective of the region’s autocratic regimes.

The contours coupled with the uncertainty, the Gulf states’ unwillingness to integrate their defence strategies, a realisation that neither China nor Russia would step into the United States’ shoes, and a need to attract foreign investment to diversify their energy-dependent economies, is driving efforts to dial down regional tensions and strengthen regional alliances.

Israeli foreign minister Yair Lapid and Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, his UAE counterpart, are headed to Washington this week for a tripartite meeting with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. The three officials intend “to discuss accomplishments” since last year’s establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries “and other important issues,” Mr Blinken tweeted.

The Israeli foreign ministry suggested those other issues include “further opportunities to promote peace in the Middle East” as well as regional stability and security, in a guarded reference to Iran.

From the Gulf’s perspective, the good news is also that the Biden administration’s focus on China may mean that it is reconfiguring its military presence in the Middle East with the moving of some assets from the Gulf to Jordan and the withdrawal from the region of others, but is not about to pull out lock, stock and barrel.

Beyond having an interest in ensuring the free flow of trade and energy, the US’s strategic interest in a counterterrorism presence in the Gulf has increased following the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. The US now relies on an ’over the horizon’ approach for which the Middle East remains crucial.

Moreover, domestic US politics mitigate towards a continued, if perhaps reduced, military presence even if Americans are tired of foreign military adventures, despite the emergence of a Biden doctrine that de-emphasises military engagement. Moreover, the Washington foreign policy elite’s focus is now on Asia rather than the Middle East.

Various powerful lobbies and interest groups, including Jews, Israelis, Gulf states, Evangelists, and the oil and defence industries retain a stake in a continued US presence in the region. Their voices are likely to resonate louder in the run-up to crucial mid-term Congressional elections in 2022. A recent Pew Research survey concluded that the number of white Evangelicals had increased from 25 per cent of the US population in 2016 to 29 per cent in 2020.

Similarly, like Afghanistan, the fading hope for a revival of the 2015 international agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear programme, from which former President Donald J. Trump withdrew in 2018, and the risk of a major military conflagration makes a full-fledged US military withdrawal unlikely any time soon. It also increases the incentive to continue major arms sales to Gulf countries.

That’s further good news for Gulf regimes against the backdrop of an emerging US arms sales policy that the Biden administration would like to project as emphasising respect for human rights and rule of law. However, that de facto approach is unlikely to affect big-ticket prestige items like the F-35 fighter jets promised to the UAE.

Instead, the policy will probably apply to smaller weapons such as assault rifles and surveillance equipment, that police or paramilitary forces could use against protesters. Those are not the technological edge items where the United States has a definitive competitive advantage.

The big-ticket items with proper maintenance and training would allow Gulf states to support US regional operations as the UAE and Qatar did in 2011 in Libya, and, the UAE in Somalia and Afghanistan as part of peacekeeping missions.

In other words, the Gulf states can relax. The Biden administration is not embracing what some arms trade experts define as the meaning of ending endless wars such as Afghanistan.

“Ending endless war means more than troop withdrawal. It also means ending the militarized approach to foreign policy — including the transfer of deadly weapons around the world — that has undermined human rights and that few Americans believe makes the country any safer,” the experts said in a statement in April.

There is little indication that the views expressed in the statement that stroke with thinking in the progressive wing of Mr. Biden’s Democratic Party is taking root in the policymaking corridors of Washington. As long as that doesn’t happen, Gulf states have less to worry about.

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Reducing Middle East tensions potentially lessens sectarianism and opens doors for women

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Two separate developments involving improved relations between Sunni and Shiite Muslims and women’s sporting rights demonstrate major shifts in how rivalry for leadership of the Muslim world and competition to define Islam in the 21st century is playing out in a world in which Middle Eastern states can no longer depend on the United States coming to their defence.

The developments fit into a regional effort by conservative, status quo states, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt; and proponents of different forms of political Islam, Iran, Turkey, and Qatar; to manage rather than resolve their differences in a bid to ensure that they do not spin out of control. The efforts have had the greatest success with the lifting in January of a 3.5-year-long Saudi-UAE-Egyptian-led diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar.

The reconciliation moves also signal the pressure on Middle Eastern players in what amounts to a battle for the soul of Islam to change perceptions of the region as being wracked by civil wars, sectarian tensions, extremism, jihadism, and autocracy. Altering that perception is key to the successful implementation of plans to diversify oil and gas export dependent economies in the Gulf, develop resource-poor countries in the region, tackle an economic crisis in Turkey, and enable Iran to cope with crippling US sanctions.

Finally, these developments are also the harbinger of the next phase in the competition for religious soft power and leadership of the Muslim world. In a break with the past decade, lofty declarations extolling Islam’s embrace of tolerance, pluralism and respect for others’ rights that are not followed up by deeds no longer cut ice. Similarly, proponents of socially conservative expressions of political Islam need to be seen as adopting degrees of moderation that so far have been the preserve of their rivals who prefer the geopolitical status quo ante.

That next phase of the battle is being shaped not only by doubts among US allies in the Middle East about the reliability of the United States as a security guarantor, reinforced by America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. It is also being informed by a realisation that neither China nor Russia can (or will) attempt to replace the US defence umbrella in the Gulf.

The battles’ shifting playing field is further being determined by setbacks suffered by political Islam starting with the 2013 military coup that toppled Mohammed Morsi, a Muslim Brother and Egypt’s first and only democratically elected president and brutally decimated the Muslim Brotherhood. More recently, political Islamists suffered a stunning electoral defeat in Morocco and witnessed the autocratic takeover of power in Tunisia by President Kais Saied.

A just published survey of Tunisian public opinion showed 45 percent of those polled blaming Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of the Islamist Ennahada party, for the country’s crisis and 66 percent saying they had no confidence in the party.

The Middle East’s rivalries and shifting sands lend added significance to a planned visit in the coming weeks to Najaf, an Iraqi citadel of Shiite Muslim learning and home of 91-year-old Shiite religious authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, by Ahmed El-Tayeb, the grand imam of Al-Azhar, Sunni Islam’s foremost historic educational institution.

The visit takes place against the backdrop of Iraqi-mediated talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the two major centres of Islam’s two main strands, that are aimed at dialling down tensions between them that reverberate throughout the Muslim world. The talks are likely to help the two regional powers manage rather than resolve their differences.

The rivalry was long marked by Saudi-inspired, religiously-cloaked anti-Shiite rhetoric and violence in a limited number of cases and Iranian concerns about the country’s Sunni minority and its opting for a strategy centred on Shiite Muslim proxies in third countries and support for the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Implicit in Saudi and Iranian sectarianism was the perception of Shiite minorities in Saudi Arabia and other Sunni majority countries, and Sunnis in Iran and Iraq after the 2003 toppling of Saddam Hussein, as fifth wheels of the other.

Imam El-Tayeb’s visit, a signal of improvement in long-strained Egyptian-Iraqi relations, as well as a possible later meeting between the Sunni cleric, a Shiite cleric other than Ayatollah Al-Sistani who is too old and fragile to travel, and Pope Francis, are intended to put sectarianism on the backburner. Ayatollah Al-Sistani met with the pope during his visit to Iraq in March.

The visit takes on added significance in the wake of this week’s suicide bombing of a Hazara Shiite mosque in the northern Afghan city of Kunduz that killed at least 50 people and wounded 100 others. The South Asian affiliate of the Islamic State, Islamic State-Khorasan, claimed responsibility for the attack, the worst since the Taliban came to power in August. It was likely designed to fuel tension between the Sunni Muslim group and the Hazara who account for 20 percent of the Afghan population.

Imam El-Tayeb’s travel to Najaf is likely to be followed by a visit by Mohamed al-Issa, secretary-general of the Saudi-dominated Muslim World League. The League was long a prime vehicle for the propagation of anti-Shiite Saudi ultra-conservatism. Since coming to office, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has recast the League as a tool to project his vaguely defined notion of a state-controlled ‘moderate’ Islam that is tolerant and pluralistic.

In a similar vein, hard-line Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi took many by surprise by allowing women into Tehran’s Azadi Stadium to attend this month’s World Cup qualifier between Iran and South Korea. Iran is the only country to ban women from attending men’s sporting events. It was unclear whether the move was a one-off measure or signalled a loosening or lifting of the ban.

Mr Raisi was believed to see it as a way to rally domestic support and improve the Islamic republic’s image as much in China and Russia as in the West. No doubt, Mr. Raisi will have noted that China and Russia have joined the United States, Europe, and others in pressuring the Taliban in Afghanistan to recognize women’s rights.

To be sure, women in Iran enjoy education rights and populate universities. They can occupy senior positions in business and government even if Iran remains a patriarchal society. However, the ban on women in stadia, coupled with the chador, the head to foot covering of women, has come to dominate the perception of Iran’s gender policies.

Allowing women to attend the World Cup qualifier suggests a degree of flexibility on Mr. Raisi’s part. During his presidential campaign Mr. Raisi argued that granting women access to stadiums would not solve their problems.

It also demonstrates that the government, with hardliners in control of all branches, can shave off sharp edges of its Islamic rule far easier than reformists like Mr. Raisi’s predecessor, Hassan Rouhani, were able to do.

The question is whether that is Mr. Raisi’s intention. Mr. Raisi may be testing the waters with this month’ soccer match, only time will tell.

It may be too big a leap in the immediate future but, like Imam El-Tayeb’s visit to Najaf, it indicates that the dialling down of regional tensions puts a greater premium on soft power which in turn builds up pressure for less harsh expressions of religion.

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