Following Syria’s diplomatic recognition of Abkhazia in 2018, Abkhazia opened its embassy in Damascus in October 2020, attesting to the strengthening of relations between the two sides. For Abkhazia, a territory partially recognized by the international community and diplomatically supported by Russia, this recognition opens new perspectives for enhancing its military and economic relations with the Middle East. Furthermore, it attests to a progressive opening up of the territory, as it is now recognized by a growing number of countries, in contrast to others that are struggling to achieve the same results, such as Transnistria and Nagorno-Karabakh.
The future of Abkhazia remains questionable, and the Abkhazia-Syria relations are more of a diplomatic victory for Moscow than for Sukhum (the de facto capital of Abkhazia). Nevertheless, this diplomatic advance marks a turning point and raises new challenges, notably that of a domino effect and the recognition of Abkhazia by other countries allied to the Kremlin, notably by Belarus and by North Korea.
Foreign policy of Abkhazia
At the time of the break-up of the Soviet Union, the Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic of Abkhazia, part of Soviet Georgia, became de facto independent and benefited from Moscow’s support to survive in a fast-changing post-Soviet space. Although reluctant to acknowledge this new country from 1992 to 2008, Moscow proclaimed the recognition of Abkhazia as a full-fledged country in 2008, in retaliation to the U.S. and some EU member states decision to recognize Kosovo.
As a result, the recognition of Abkhazia is rooted in the interests of the Kremlin rather than in respect for the Montevideo Convention, and the subsequent countries that recognize Abkhazia seem to do the same, wishing to show their support for Moscow rather than out of interest in Abkhazia.
Recognition by Nauru, Nicaragua, Venezuela, as well as unrecognized countries such as Transnistria followed, but all these states are of minor interest to the authorities in Sukhum, who, due to the location of Abkhazia, must continue to rely on neighboring Russia.
In this context, Syria’s recognition in 2018 marks a turning point as it ends an absence of recognition by new states since 2009 (Venezuela) and pushes Abkhaz authorities to consider the re-opening of the Sukhum International Airport.
The consequences of the Syrian recognition in 2018 are significant, and two other countries have begun a rapprochement with Abkhazia—North Korea and Belarus—in part because of the Syrian initiative.
Although Abkhazia does not necessarily wish to be recognized by North Korea, which would hamper its chances of gaining recognition by the Western world, relations between the two countries are growing, paralleling the Syria-North Korea relations.
In December 2017, the North Korean Chamber of Commerce contacted the then Abkhazian Prime Minister Gennadi Gagulia to discuss the possible settlement of North Korean workers in Abkhazia. Subsequently, an Abkhazian delegation visited Pyongyang (August 2018) and a North Korean delegation visited Sukhum (November 2018), thus strengthening the relationship between the two nations. According to the director of international affairs of the North Korean Chamber of Commerce, enterprises in the construction sector, food and textile industry, and logistics companies are interested in working with Abkhazia. In 2019, about 400 North Korean workers have settled in Abkhazia. This rapprochement suggests that recognition is increasingly likely.
Belarus has consistently refrained from recognizing the territory, claiming that it is of little economic interest. But recent tensions between the West and Lukashenko suggest that Minsk may recognize Abkhazia to satisfy the Kremlin’s demands and to allow Belarusian citizens to travel to Abkhazia more easily if they have limited travel options in the future. As such, a train connection between Minsk and Sukhum is possible, providing an alternative to international flights.
Recognition of Belarus is an option to consider, and it would follow a similar pattern to Syria, a few years after Damascus.
The Sukhum Babushara Airport
The growing number of countries recognizing Abkhazia is pushing for the reopening of the international airport to welcome more tourists and strengthen trade relations. Since 1992, the airport has been dedicated to military activities but most of these are now at the Gudauta military airport, which has undergone significant changes since the 2008 recognition by Russia, and therefore Sukhum airport could re-open to international flights. Such initiative would allow tourists from countries with no direct border, such as Venezuela, Nicaragua, Nauru and Syria, to come to Abkhazia, considering the territory is a well-known tourist destination.
This could be a tremendous advantage for Abkhazia, as it would also mean that tourists from all over the world could come and have a stopover in a country that recognizes Abkhazia, like Russia. In effect, Chinese, Americans and French could now travel to Abkhazia via the countries that recognize the territory.
In July 2019, the leadership of Abkhazia issued a decree to open the “Vladislav Ardzinba Sukhum International Airport” for international flights.
Inside Syria’s relations with Abkhazia
Although Syria only recognized Abkhazia in 2018, relations between the two entities stretch back centuries, but have increased in 2008 when Syrian president Bashar al-Assad said that Damascus agrees “with the essence of the Russian position” regarding the Abkhaz conflict. In 2013, Abkhazia appointed a Representative of the Abkhaz Foreign Ministry in Syria, then in 2015, the Abkhaz Foreign Minister met the Syrian Ambassador to Russia, Riad Haddad, in Moscow to say that his government believes Syria will recognize Abkhazia as a sovereign country in the future.
The entente between the two sides was reinforced during the refugee crisis, when some Syrians of Abkhaz origin were allowed to travel to Abkhazia (500 Syrians remigrated to Abkhazia). This decision was in the interest of both Damascus and Sukhum, as Damascus was not able to ensure the safety of some Syrian citizens, and for Abkhazia as newcomers are welcome to compensate for the demographic decline in Abkhazia which has had a weak birth rate for several decades.
As a symbol of this rapprochement, in December 2016, the first match in freestyle wrestling between Abkhazia and Syria was held in Sukhum, and Abkhazia provided humanitarian assistance to Syria in August 2017.
This rapprochement culminated in November 2017 with a free trade agreement between Damascus and Sukhum, which led to the possibility of recognition the following year. Unlike other countries, the Syria-Abkhazia relations are more profound, with a physical proximity. Indeed, despite being recognized by Venezuela, for example, almost nobody from that part of the world have visited Abkhazia, while more than 500 people of Syrian origin are present in the territory. Moreover, there are numerous exchanges and bilateral meetings. In May 2021, the Abkhaz president Aslan Bzhania visited Syria on a state visit and met with Bashar al-Assad.
This friendly atmosphere can be explained by several factors, other than Moscow’s wish, and notably by the fact that Abkhazia is a country at the intersection of the Muslim and Christian worlds. As such, the Abkhaz flag symbolizes this union with white for Christianity and green for Islam, and the Abkhaz society integrates Muslims and their practices, which makes it a bridge between the Orthodox and Muslim worlds, allowing for the rapid integration of Syrians.
Russia’s involvement in the Syria-Abkhazia relations
The Kremlin was the main actor to support the recognition of Abkhazia by Syria, since this served its diplomatic interests, and continues to do so in many respects. In this respect, Russia’s military presence remains strong in Abkhazia, notably with the two bases of Ochamchire which provides for the activities of the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB) and the Gudauta base for the operations of the 7th Military Base.
While the Ochamchire facility is not of interest in the context of the Abkhazia-Syria relations, the Gudauta facility is different in that, due to the non-recognition of Abkhazia by Western countries, limited international supervision is possible on equipment coming from abroad or leaving the Gudauta airport. Therefore, if Moscow wishes, it can receive and send as much as it wants from this strategic point without having to justify it but to the Abkhaz authorities.
The secrecy surrounding the activities of the station in Gudauta and its connection with Syria is reinforced by the fact that a billboard depicting the good relations between Abkhazia and Syria is displayed near the military premises. There is also a significant amount of work carried out on the base, including the modernization of a football stadium, new fences, a well-mown lawn around the base, and careful management of the site, similar to that of the French Navy base at Seine-port in France. It is impossible to visit the base, nor to approach it via the land paths or the beach, the only vantage point is from the tall abandoned Soviet buildings in the nearby town. Unlike Ochamchire, where a conversation with the soldiers is possible in the vicinity of the barracks, the Gudauta site has a higher level of security, with the nearby restaurant being the only place to meet the soldiers who prefer not to talk about their duties.
While it is unclear to what extent the Kremlin interacts with Syria via the Gudauta facility, the presence of posters on the relationship between Abkhazia and Syria suggests that a connection exists.
In conclusion, the Syria-Abkhazia relations are born of Moscow’s determination, but are deeper than those between Venezuela and Abkhazia for instance. Furthermore, the recognition in 2018 opens the door to possible recognition by North Korea and Belarus, but more importantly to a resumption of international flights to Sukhum airport. If such a reopening were to take place, it would mean access to Abkhazia not only for the countries that recognize it, but also for all travelers willing to transit via Moscow, Caracas, Damascus or Managua. The opening-up of Abkhazia thus seems to be becoming a reality and leads to new questions, notably that of the position to be adopted by Western countries if they wish to continue to support Georgia and defend their approach in the South Caucasus.
From our partner RIAC
The Absence of Riyadh in the Turbulent Afghanistan
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.
Gulf security: It’s not all bad news
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.
Reducing Middle East tensions potentially lessens sectarianism and opens doors for women
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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