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Greater Middle East may force China to project military power sooner rather than later

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China may have no short-term interest in contributing to guaranteeing security in parts of a swath of land stretching from Central Asia to the East coast of Africa, but that does not prevent the People’s Republic from preparing for a time when it may wish to build on long-standing political and military relationships in various parts of the world to project power and maintain an economic advantage.

Determined to exploit the principle of allegedly win-win relationships that are underwritten by economics, trade, and investment as the solution to problems, China has so far delayed if not avoided bilateral or unilateral political and military engagement in conflicts beyond its borders.

The question is how long it can continue to do so.

China took a first baby step towards greater power projection with the creation in 2017 of its first overseas military base in the East African state of Djibouti, a rent-a-base nation that hosts multiple military facilities for among others the United States, France, and Japan and potentially Saudi Arabia. The base signals the importance China attributes to regions like the Gulf and the Horn of Africa.

A recent article in a Chinese military publication sheds further light on Chinese preparations for a day when it may have to project military might in different parts of the world. The article laid out Chinese thinking about the virtues of offering Middle Eastern, Asian, and African militaries and political elites training and educational opportunities.

“Students who can study in China are mostly local military and political elites or descendants of notable families. After they have studied and returned to their country, they have a high probability of becoming the top military and political leaders of the local country. This is very beneficial for China to expand its overseas influence and corresponding armaments exports,” the publication, Military Express, said.

The publication asserted that Chinese military academies were more attractive than their Western counterparts that impose “political conditions,” a reference to students having to hail from countries aligned with the West.

“Chinese military academy does a better job in this regard. There are no political conditions attached here. Foreign military students here learn Chinese strategies and tactics and learn to operate Chinese weaponry by themselves,” the publication said.

The publication failed to mention that China unlike Western producers also refrains from attaching political conditions to its arms sales like adherence to human rights.

Recent months have not been necessarily kind to Chinese aspirations of remaining aloof to conflict beyond its borders, suggesting that reality on the ground could complicate China’s strategic calculations.

The US withdrawal from Afghanistan threatens to put an ultra-conservative religious regime in power on the border with Xinjiang, the north-western province where China is attempting to brutally Sinicize Turkic ethnic and religious identity.

Recent Taliban military advances have already bolstered ultra-conservative religious sentiment in neighbouring Pakistan that celebrates the group as heroes whose success enhances the chances for austere religious rule in the world’s second-most populous Muslim-majority state.

Our jihadis will be emboldened. They will say that ‘if America can be beaten, what is the Pakistan army to stand in our way?’” said a senior Pakistani official.

Nine Chinese nationals were killed last week in an explosion on a bus transporting Chinese workers to the construction site of a dam in the northern mountains of Pakistan, a region more prone to attacks by religious militants than Baloch nationalists, who operate from the province of Balochistan and are responsible for the bulk of attacks on Chinese targets in the South Asian nation.

It was the highest loss of life of Chinese citizens in recent years in Pakistan, the largest recipient of Chinese Belt and Road-related infrastructure and energy investments. China’s sees Pakistan as a key to the economic development of Xinjiang and part of its effort to Sinicize the region.

Indicating Chinese concern, China last month advised its citizens to leave Afghanistan and last week evacuated 210 Chinese nationals on a chartered flight. China last week delayed the signing of a framework agreement on industrial cooperation that would have accelerated implementation of projects that are part of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

Complicating Chinese calculations is the fact that both Russia and Turkey are maneuvering for different reasons to strengthen Turkic identity in the Caucasus that potentially would be more sympathetic to the plight of the Uighurs and other Turkic Muslims.

Turkey moreover may see Afghanistan as another stepping stone towards recreating a Turkic world. Turkey has reportedly asked Azerbaijan, whom Ankara supported in last year’s Caucasus war against Armenia, to contribute forces to a Turkish contingent that would remain in Afghanistan after the US and NATO withdrawal to secure Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport.

Turkish influence among Afghanistan’s Turkic minorities has been bolstered by the operation of Turkish schools, an increased number of Turkish scholarships, training of Afghan military and police personnel, the popularity of Turkish movies and television series, and efforts to mediate an end to conflict in the country.

The Taliban have rejected the continuation of a Turkish military presence that for the past six years was part of the NATO-led Resolute Support Mission. The Taliban insisted that Turkish soldiers were “occupiers in Afghanistan” who should leave with NATO and US forces even if they were also representatives of a “great Islamic nation.”

In anticipation of a threatening development in Afghanistan, China quietly established a small military post in 2019 in the highlands of Tajikistan, a stone’s throw from where Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor meets Xinjiang.

More recently, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Ji advised his interlocutors during a visit last week to Central Asia that going forward Chinese private military companies would play a greater role in securing Belt and Road-related strategic infrastructure projects.

Some analysts suggested that the Chinese companies would also be employed to train Central Asian militaries – a domain that was until now largely a Russian preserve.

In a similar vein, France’s withdrawal of its forces from West Africa steps up pressure on China to defend its overseas nationals and interests. Three Chinese construction workers were among five foreigners kidnapped by gunmen this weekend in southern Mali. No group has so far claimed responsibility for the kidnapping.

All of this leaves aside the question of how long China will feel that it can rely on the US defence umbrella in the Gulf to secure the flow of energy and much of its trade against the backdrop of a reconfigured US regional commitment and increasingly strained relations between Washington and Beijing.

It also does not consider China’s ability to manage expectations of the People’s Republic’s willingness to engage, in some cases not only politically or militarily, but also economically.

That was evident during Mr. Wang’s most recent visit to the region, and particularly Syria, which for much of its civil war was home to Uighur jihadists who distinguished themselves in battle.

It was Mr. Wang’s second visit to the Middle East and North Africa in four months. Furthermore, Mr. Wang last week discussed Afghanistan and Gulf security with his Saudi counterpart on the sideline of  a regional cooperation meeting in Uzbekistan.

Syrian officials have for domestic and foreign policy reasons long touted China as the imaginary white knight that would come to the rescue in the reconstruction of the war-ravaged country.

China is far less interested in Syria than Syria is in China… Syria has never been a priority in China’s economy-driven approach to the Middle East,” noted scholars Andrea Ghiselli and Mohammed Al-Sudairi.

The scholars cautioned however that “the significant potential impact of narratives created by local actors in the context of international politics,” a reference to Syria’s projection of China as its saviour, cannot be ignored.

Implicit in the scholars’ conclusion is the notion that Chinese policy may in future increasingly be shaped as much by decision-making in Beijing as developments on the ground in a world in which powers compete to secure their interest and place in a new world order.

Ultimately, the fundamental question underlying all these push factors is, according to Financial Times columnist Gideon Rahman, whether China has not only the capability and aspiration to become a superpower but also the will.

“If China is unwilling or unable to achieve a global military presence that rivals that of the US, it may have to find a new way of being a superpower – or give up on the ambition,” Mr. Rahman argues.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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Iraq and the ‘Blind Gordian Knot’

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After its occupation by the United States in 2003, Iraq fell into the double trap of the United States and Iran and became an insoluble problem. Similar to the legendary ‘Gordian’ knot, which Gordias, the king of Phrygia, tied so tightly that it was said that no one could untie it; Until ‘Alexander the Great’ came and cut it in half with one stroke of the sword and the knot was opened.

The trap that America set for Iraq was the constitution that it drafted for this country after the occupation. In this constitution, America removed Iraq’s Arab identity and imposed a two-thirds majority to elect the president, paving the way for the use of a ‘suspended one-third’.

At the same time, he set the conditions for amending this article and all the articles of the first chapter of the constitution so difficult that it was practically impossible to amend it. This constitution divided the power between Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds, as a result of which, the Iraqi society was subject to chaos and fragmentation, and the army that was created based on it collapsed in front of ISIS in Mosul. Now let’s skip the destructive role that Nouri al-Maliki had as the prime minister in this story.

But the trap that the Islamic Republic of Iran set for Iraq was that it formed armed groups affiliated with the Quds Force and gave them legitimacy under the umbrella of ‘The Popular Mobilization Forces, which resulted in the monopoly of power in the hands of the Shiites.

So far, all efforts to free Iraq from this double trap have failed. The popular revolution of 2019 in Baghdad, Karbala, and other southern cities did not reach anywhere with its anti-Iranian slogans, nor did the government of Mustafa al-Kazemi solve the problem with its patriotic government project, nor did the recent efforts of the Sadr movement under the leadership of prominent cleric Moqtada Sadr bear fruit.

The Sadr movement, which won the majority in the elections, tried to form a national majority government in an agreement with the coalition of the Sunni ruling party and the Kurdistan Democratic Party, but the coordination framework was dependent on Iran, using the one-third weapon, defeated the efforts of the Sadr movement.

In Iraq, there is no ‘Alexander the Great’ who will rise up and open the blind Gordian knot with one stroke of the sword and save Iraq from the crisis. No random event occurs. Now, the land between the two rivers is caught in deep-rooted and growing corruption and has lost its way among various Arab, Iranian, Eastern, and Western trends. Even Moqtada’s plan for the formation of a national government, which was put forward recently with the slogan ‘Neither East, nor West”, is also facing many difficulties and obstacles.

Of course, expecting the formation of a democratic system with the management of armed sectarian parties that advance politics based on religious fatwas and the force of destructive war missiles and drones is a futile thing, and talking about a national government in which power is in the hands of religious parties affiliated with the neighboring religious government is gossip and superstition.

Apart from that, according to the current laws of Iraq, the main power is in the hands of the Prime Minister and the Council of Ministers, and the powers of the President are limited and few, as a result, Shiite parties and organizations, especially their larger organizations, get more privileges, and the main power is exclusive to the Shiite community.

In addition, the organization that will be called the largest and the majority based on the political Ijtihad of the Supreme Court of Iraq will actually be the same organization that the Islamic Republic of Iran creates within the Iraqi parliament, not the organization that will receive the most votes in the elections. As we saw in the last parliamentary elections, the Sadr movement won the majority of votes and tried to form a majority government in an agreement with the Sunni ruling coalition and the Kurdistan Democratic Party, but the groups affiliated with the Islamic Republic of Iran stood against it under the name of the coordination framework. And they made his efforts fruitless.

It is for this reason that it has been almost a year since the Iraqi parliamentary elections were held, but the parliament has so far been unable to form a government and elect a new president.

Of course, this is the nature of totalitarian systems. Although the Iraqi system is a democratic system according to the constitution, in reality, the ruling system in Iraq is a totalitarian system. Just like the ruling systems in the Soviet Union and China, where power rotates among the leaders of the Communist Party; Both the rulers were members of the Communist Party, and the political opponents were imprisoned or executed. Because in Iraq, all the pillars of political power are in the hands of the Shiites; Both the factions that are actually in power are the Shiites, and the factions that lead political struggles and protests as opponents are Shia parties. Even the revolution of 2019 was actually a revolution of the new generation of Shiites who had risen against the influence of Iran and America and their supporters.

The fact is that with this situation, Iraq will never be able to free itself from the American-Iranian double trap and untie the blind Gordian knot. Rather, it can only do so when all the Iraqi national and patriotic parties and groups come together under the umbrella of a democratic, national, independent, non-sectarian coalition that is not dependent on foreign countries, and form a strong national government that, while being independent, is in touch with the outside world and establish good relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran, Arab countries, and Eastern and Western countries.

The bottom line is, when the minds that have produced destructive thoughts cannot produce liberating thoughts, Iraq needs those thinkers and new political figures who will establish a correct, solid, and independent political system in Iraq. The current situation is rooted in the incorrect political structure, the foundation of which was laid in 2003. But it is a pity that only a clear understanding of the crisis is not enough to solve it.

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The end of political Islam in Iran

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Nothing in Iran will be the same again. The uprising of the majority of big and small cities in Iran after the killing of Mahsa Amini by the “Morality Police” of the Islamic Republic of Iran has a new social structure. Because in the contemporary history of Iran, we have not witnessed such social forces that have been strongly influenced by the women’s movement.

The social structure of the uprising

During the era of Reza Shah Pahlavi, women were allowed to study in law and medical schools, or during the era of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, women were organized to implement the White Revolution ideology as soldiers. This means that at that time, women were “allowed” and “organized”, but all these freedoms were given to women based on men’s power, state power, and non-democratic methods, and the women’s movement did not play an active role in these actions. For this reason, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi said in one of his interviews: Women are schemes and evil, women have not even had first-class scientists throughout history, women may be equal to men before the law but they have not had the same abilities as men. They are not, women have not even produced a Michelangelo, Johann Sebastian Bach, or a good cook. It was not only Mohammad Reza Shah who had a misogynist view, but Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of the Islamic Revolution of Iran, was against giving women the right to vote and considered the entry of women into the National Assembly, municipality, and administrations as a cause of paralysis in the affairs of the country and government. In a letter to Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, he requested the abolition of women’s right to vote.

It can be said that the Iranian revolution (1979) was one of the biggest revolutionary movements that was completely “made“ by a mass social movement in the history of the 20th century, and women played a very active and prominent role in it. But the women in that revolutionary movement not only for themselves and the issues of women’s rights but under the framework of Islamic and communist parties and groups such as the Tudeh Party of Iran, Organization of Iranian People’s Fedai Guerrillas, People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, and Muslim People’s Republic Party tried to solve the problems of Iranian women. That is, in that mass revolutionary movement, various communist, Islamic and guerilla ideologies were higher, more important, and more preferable than the women themselves, and women tried to find their answers with the help of these revolutionary ideologies to solve the general problems of the country and women’s issues.

But in recent developments, women have not been “allowed” through the reforms of the Pahlavi government, nor have they been “organized” through the ideologies of the revolutionary parties before and after the victory of the Iranian revolution. Rather, in the strict sense of the word, they have become the locomotive of the revolutionary upsurge of contemporary Iran and have given “allowed” and “organization” to other social and ethnic forces in the geography of Iran. From now on, women in Iran are the creators of social and revolutionary changes based on the women’s movement.

Discourse analysis of the uprising

After the June 2009 presidential election and the protest against election fraud, large protests started in other cities, especially in Tehran. In that rebellion, we witnessed the loss of the unity of the elites, the crisis of legitimacy, and the crisis of the efficiency of the Islamic Republic regime. After those protests, the Shiite Islamist ideology of the Islamic Republic faced illegitimacy and the unity of the elites of the ruling class was lost. On the other hand, the government faced a crisis of inefficiency after those incidents and could not meet the crisis economic, cultural, political, and civil liberties, and women’s demands. Therefore, in the demonstrations of 2018, tens of thousands of people rose up against economic policies, high prices, and unemployment, and with the spread of these protests, the ideological foundations and legitimacy of the regime were protested by the demonstrators. With a 50% increase in the price of gasoline in 2019 and a 35% inflation, unemployment and an increase in the price of basic goods and food, a new wave of protests in many cities of Iran faced the government of Hassan Rouhani with a major social and economic crisis. In those protests, women played an active role and chanted against the mandatory hijab.

Contrary to all these widespread protests and social riots in Iran’s contemporary history, in the recent revolutionary uprising, the cause of the uprising is the murder of Mahsa Amini, the defense of women’s rights, and opposition to the mandatory hijab. The overwhelming majority of Iranian women have declared their separation with the slogan of “women, life, freedom” from the movement of reformers, monarchists of the Pahlavi regime, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, fundamentalists of the Islamic Republic, utopias and communist, Islamist, totalitarian, anti-woman, and false ideologies.

It is very important in the recent revolutionary uprising, the cooperation of Turks men and women in the cities of Iran with the protests. Because the Turk social-political movement did not declare solidarity with the protesters of other cities of Iran due to the neglect of the right to education in the mother tongue, the right to self-determination, and the realization of economic, political, cultural, and environmental rights in the uprisings of 2009, 2018 and 2019. The slogan of “freedom, justice, and national government” of the Turks of different cities of Iran, also shows the existence of different and yet common demands of the majority of ethnic groups living in Iran.

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Public opinion surveys challenge the image Arab leaders like to project

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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.

Yet, paradoxically, 73 per cent felt that religion plays too big a role in the Middle East, while 77 per cent believed that Arab religious institutions should be reformed.

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.

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