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Ten years of war in Syria and the current situation: Russia and China

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In Syria, after the decade-long and still unfinished war, the energy shortage resulting from the loss of control over the main oil fields in the East was replenished mainly by Iran and through smuggling from the Lebanon and Iraq. Nevertheless, due to a collapse in oil prices, increased sanctions and military pressure on Iran, the delivery programme was interrupted.

Another blow to the Syrian economy came from the financial crisis in the Lebanon: about a quarter of the deposits in Lebanese banks belong to Syrian companies, including those associated with the government. The introduction of currency restrictions in the Lebanon slowed down transactions for the import of essential goods, including the purchase of wheat, disrupted the supply chain for spare parts and components and led to a sharp increase in prices.

Under these conditions, the Syrian government can only print money, rely on Iranian loans and force Syrian businessmen to help the State directly. Earlier this year, a banknote of 5,000 Syrian Pounds (about 3.98 US dollars) was put into circulation, while the previous maximum denomination was 2,000 Syrian Pounds.

In 2011, Syria ranked 33rd in terms of oil production, after South Sudan and ahead of Vietnam. While in 2011 its production share was 0.4% of the world volume, in 2012 that figure dropped to 0.25% (BP Statistical Review of World Energy calculations).

In the Middle East, the Syrian share before the outbreak of armed clashes was also very small: 1.2% of all production in the region in 2011 and 0.75% in 2012 (BP Statistical Review of World Energy calculations).

The level of oil production in Syria in 2010 was 386,000 barrels per day. With the onset of the crisis in 2011, production fell to 333,300 barrels, and in 2012 it was already almost half the volume of 2011, i.e. 182,000 barrels. In the autumn of 2015, Russia intervened with military means in the Syrian conflict: upon Bashar al-Assad’s initiative, Russian military advisers were deployed in the West of the country. This changed the entire course of the conflict: it enabled Assad to remain in power and made Russia a major political player in the region. At that time, Russia’s relations with Western countries were in deep crisis due to the return of Crimea to its traditional borders and the outbreak of war in the Donbass. The intervention in the Syrian conflict changed the dynamics of Russia’s contacts with the international community: In particular, cooperation between the Russian military and the United States of America intensified and relations with Israel reached a new level (the Jewish country has recently opened a new consulate in Yekaterinburg).

From a tactical viewpoint, Russia can be considered one of the beneficiaries of the conflict. The successful, relatively low-budget military operation quickly turned Russia into a key external player in the Syrian arena. As far as can be judged, however, in six years of direct involvement in the Syrian conflict, Russia has not developed an exit strategy. The extent of Russia’s influence on the Syrian regime also remains an open issue.

The active phase of the Russian military operation in Syria lasted 804 days, from September 30, 2015 to December 11, 2017. As a result of the Russian air force attacks, over 133,000 terrorist facilities were destroyed, including illegal oil refineries; 865 gang leaders were eliminated and over 133,000 followers were neutralised (4,500 came from Russia and other countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States).

In December 2017, during a visit to the Khmeimim air base, President Vladimir Putin ordered the withdrawal of most Russian troops from the country.

According to the Defence and Security Committee of the Council of the Russian Federation, as of September 2018 Russian casualties in Syria since the start of the operation have amounted to 112 people – almost half in the crash of the An-26 transport plane (39 people) and of the Il-20 one shot down by anti-government Syrian forces’ anti-aircraft (20 people).

Furthermore, Bloomberg and Reuters reported that hundreds of Russian mercenaries were killed in Syria. The Russian Defence Ministry, however, did not confirm those figures.

At the same time, Russia has two points of presence in the Syrian Arab Republic. The aforementioned Khmeimim air base, where an air group is deployed, which, in 2018, included 28 combat aircraft of the Russian air force, and ten transport and special aircraft and nine helicopters.

Moreover, the naval logistics centre is located in the port of Tartus. In December 2019, Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov, who oversaw the defence industry, said that over the following four years it was planned to invest 500 dollars million in the modernisation of Tartus, the management of which had been entrusted to the Russian Prime Minister.

The precise number of Russian military and civilian personnel in these two sites is unknown. According to the Central Electoral Commission, in 2020 in Syria, 6,424 Russians took part in the vote on amendments to the Russian Constitution.

The combat experience gained by the Russian officer and non-commissioned officer corps is also relevant. During the period of counter-terrorist operations in the North Caucasus, the control, planning, financing and supply centres were located outside Russia – hence the operation in Syria was necessary from a political-military viewpoint. If the ISIS pseudo-State with all the resources of that country had emerged on the Syrian territory, it would have posed a deadly threat to neighbouring States, starting with the Western European ones, by financing and swelling the ranks of terrorists. We can thank Russia and certainly not the United States, which has begun to destabilise Syria as the final stop on the Chinese Silk Road.

In fact, neither the European Union nor the United States of America have imposed full sanctions against Russia due to the conflict in Syria, but only some partial ones. The US personal restrictions apply to twelve individuals and seven Russian companies: Tempbank, AKB RFA Bank, Rosoboronexport, Russian Financial Corporation, Global Concept Groups, Promsyryeimport, Maritime Assistance.

Russian companies do not yet carry out large-scale activities in Syria. Earlier, the Financial Times wrote that Stroytransgaz’s subsidiary, Stroytransgaz Logistics, associated with the family of billionaire Gennady Timchenko, obtained permission from the Syrian authorities to extract phosphates, as well as a contract to manage the port of Tartus for deliveries abroad.

Timchenko, however, is already subject to US sanctions and the EU does not ban the supply of phosphates. The media also wrote about businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin’s interests in Syria. It was claimed that in 2019 the Syrian Parliament approved the conclusion of contracts for oil exploration, development and production with two Russian companies – Vilada and Mercury Limited. Novaya Gazeta wrote that both companies were connected to Prigozhin’s facilities, to which the media had previously related the activities of Wagner’s Private Military Company (PMC). The businessman himself denied the existence of such a connection. Prigozhin, however, is already subject to sanctions by both the EU and the USA.

Nevertheless, the sanctions are hampering Russian companies’ wider participation in the Syrian economy. During Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s visit to Abu Dhabi, UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan complained that the law “on the protection of Syria’s civilian population” – the

“Caesar Act”, adopted in the United States of America and in force since June 2020, which strengthens the existing restrictions on Syria’s allies and expands them – complicates the country’s relations with Syria and interferes with the establishment of a dialogue. The Russian Foreign Ministry called this a serious interference with the provision of even humanitarian aid to the country.

What is the prospect of a political solution in the country? Turkey, the United States and their other sponsors maintain their interests in the region, which means they cannot be taken for granted. Syria has lost its sovereignty and decisions are often taken without it by Russia, Turkey and Iran. We can therefore say that Assad won the war, but did not achieve peace, and the opposition lost the war, but did not lose peace. Moreover, many Syrians do not live in the territories controlled by the regime.

Assad’s regime will continue to give proof of miracles of survival against the backdrop of growing economic problems, new sanctions and the ongoing power struggle in Damascus itself. In the near future, the country surely expects neither the full restoration of territorial integrity, nor the return of thousands of refugees and internally displaced persons, nor a large-scale plan for post-conflict reconstruction. Neither European nor Gulf countries have the financial resources to do this.

At the same time, the Chinese government is strongly opposing the use of force to resolve the Syrian issue and has advocated a political solution to the internal issue. In the process of rebuilding Syria, China has put forward the idea of developing the Silk Road Initiative and post-conflict reconstruction, and it has received a positive and proactive response from the Syrian government. The connection between the Silk Road and post-conflict reconstruction is a historic opportunity for the two countries to achieve interconnectedness. The current internal situation in Syria, however, is still subject to many uncertainties and the current security risks need to be carefully examined, as noted above.

The friendship between China and Syria has a long-standing tradition and the ancient Silk Road is a symbol of this mutual feeling. After the founding of the People’s Republic of China, Syria was one of the first Arab countries to recognise and establish diplomatic relations with China.

In the aftermath of the outbreak of the Syrian crisis in 2011, the Chinese government took the UN Charter and the basic rules of international relations as the principles and fundamental steps to deal with the Syrian crisis and firmly opposed the military solution, which was aimed precisely at breaking the Silk Road.

In 2018, the focus of Sino-Syrian relations began to shift from the Syrian civil war to the country’s post-conflict reconstruction. With the gradual improvement of the internal situation in Syria and the stabilisation of security, the Chinese government readily suggested to Syria it wished to participate in the post-war reconstruction process, thus resuming to restore and strengthen the Silk Road, which hetero-directed terrorism from the West had tried to disrupt. The Chinese government not only adheres to a policy of impartial political resolution of the Syrian issue and actively participates in the UN-led multilateral peace process negotiations on the Syrian issue, but also provides a large amount of free humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people for free.

The Silk Road in Syria is of great importance geopolitically and strategically. Infrastructure construction, energy and industrial cooperation, as well as seaport construction projects are key areas of China’s participation in Syria’s reconstruction. At the same time, China should also address the uncertain risks of Syria’s internal security situation and the influence of political games between the major powers.

Here lies Syria’s tragic recent past, and a desirable future of peace and prosperity.

Advisory Board Co-chair Honoris Causa Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is an eminent Italian economist and businessman. He holds prestigious academic distinctions and national orders. Mr. Valori has lectured on international affairs and economics at the world’s leading universities such as Peking University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Yeshiva University in New York. He currently chairs “International World Group”, he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group. In 1992 he was appointed Officier de la Légion d’Honneur de la République Francaise, with this motivation: “A man who can see across borders to understand the world” and in 2002 he received the title “Honorable” of the Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France. “

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Middle East

International Solidarity Day with the people of Palestine

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Since 1948, the people of Palestine were suffering due to Israeli oppression and aggression. Despite several resolutions on Palestine passed by the United Nation, Israel has not implemented either of them. Despite the struggle from all peace-loving nations, in various forms, the Palestinian people have not yet been given the right of self-determination, or self-rule, and are yet, forced to leave their land, homes and stay in refugee camps or migrate to foreign countries to live a miserable life. After failure from all aspects, the United Nations desp[erately declared to mark International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People.

In 1977, the General Assembly called for the annual observance of 29 November as the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People (resolution 32/40 B). On that day, in 1947, the Assembly adopted the resolution on the partition of Palestine (resolution 181 (II))

In resolution 60/37 of 1 December 2005, the Assembly requested the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People and the Division for Palestinian Rights, as part of the observance of the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People on 29 November, to continue to organize an annual exhibit on Palestinian rights or a cultural event in cooperation with the Permanent Observer Mission of Palestine to the UN.

The resolution on the observance of the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People also encourages the Member States to continue to give the widest support and publicity to the observance of the Day of Solidarity.

The government and the people of Pakistan join the world community in observing the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People (29 November).

The commemoration of this day is a reminder to the international community that the question of Palestine remains unresolved and the Palestinian people are yet to realize their inalienable right to self-determination as provided in various resolutions of the United Nations. It is also an occasion to reiterate our support and solidarity for the Palestinian people who continue to wage a just struggle against the illegal and brutal occupation.

On this day, Pakistan reaffirms its consistent and unstinted support for the Palestinian people and the Palestinian cause, which has always been a defining principle of Pakistan’s foreign policy.

The international community must shoulder its responsibility to protect the lives and fundamental rights of the Palestinian people, and play its rightful role in promoting a just and lasting resolution of the Palestinian question per international legitimacy in the interest of durable peace and stability in the Middle East. The international community should also ensure accountability for the widespread violations of international human rights and humanitarian law in the occupied territories.

We renew our call on this day for a viable, independent, and contiguous Palestinian State, with pre-1967 borders, and Al-Quds Al-Sharif as its capital being the only just, comprehensive and lasting solution of the Palestinian question, under the relevant United Nations and OIC resolutions.

The purpose of marking this day is to remind the whole world that the people of Palestine deserve your attention and your time to think about their sufferings. It is to remind that the whole world should understand the issue and try their best to solve it according to the UN resolutions. Those who believe in justice, may raise their voice in favor of the Palestinian people and condemn Israeli barbarism and atrocities. This Day invites all of you to join the [peaceful struggle of Palestinian people for their legitimate rights. Irrespective of your profession, social status, or your religion or race, you may support the Palestinian cause for justice on humanitarian grounds and keep your struggle till the people of Palestine gets their legitimate status and rights on equal footings according to the UN resolutions.

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Israel-Palestine: Risk of ‘deadly escalation’ in violence, without decisive action

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photo: UNOCHA/Mohammad Libed

With violence continuing daily throughout the Occupied Palestinian Territory, the Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process urged the Security Council on Tuesday to adopt a more coordinated approach to the region.  

Tor Wennesland told Council Members that “recent developments on the ground are worrying”, pointing out the situation in the West Bank and Gaza and the challenges faced by the Palestinian Authority.  

“I therefore emphasize again the importance of concerted efforts by the parties to calm things on the ground. I am concerned that if we do not act quickly and decisively, we risk plunging into another deadly escalation of violence”, he warned. 

He informed that, in the last month, violence resulted in the death of four Palestinians, including two children, and injuries to 90 others – including 12 children – due to action by Israeli Security Forces. 

One Israeli civilian was killed in the same period, and nine civilians, including one woman and one child, and six members of ISF were injured.  

Challenges 

Mr. Wennesland said that a severe fiscal and economic crisis is threatening the stability of Palestinian institutions in the West Bank. 

At the same time, he added, “ongoing violence and unilateral steps, including Israeli settlement expansion, and demolitions, continue to raise tensions, feed hopelessness, erode the Palestinian Authority’s standing and further diminish the prospect of a return to meaningful negotiations.” 

In Gaza, the cessation of hostilities continues to hold, but the Special Envoy argued that “further steps are needed by all parties to ensure a sustainable solution that ultimately enables a return of legitimate Palestinian Government institutions to the Strip.” 

Settlements 

The Special Coordinator also said that “settler-related violence remains at alarmingly high levels.” 

Overall, settlers and other Israeli civilians in the occupied West Bank perpetrated some 54 attacks against Palestinians, resulting in 26 injuries. Palestinians perpetrated 41 attacks against Israeli settlers and other civilians, resulting in one death and nine injuries.  

Mr. Wennesland highlighted a few announcements of housing units in settlements, reiterating that “that all settlements are illegal under international law and remain a substantial obstacle to peace.” 

Meanwhile, Israeli authorities have also advanced plans for some 6,000 housing units for Palestinians in the occupied East Jerusalem neighbourhood of al-Issawiya and some 1,300 housing units for Palestinians living in Area C (one of the administrative areas in the occupied West Bank, agreed under the Oslo Accord). 

The Special Envoy welcomed such steps but urged Israel to advance more plans and to issue building permits for all previously approved plans for Palestinians in Area C and East Jerusalem. 

Humanitarian aid delivered 

Turning to Gaza, the Special Envoy said that humanitarian, recovery and reconstruction efforts continued, along with other steps to stabilize the situation on the ground. 

He called the gradual easing of restrictions on the entry of goods and people “encouraging”, but said that the economic, security and humanitarian situation “remains of serious concern.” 

The Special Envoy also mentioned the precarious financial situation of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), which still lacks $60 million to sustain essential services this year. 

The agency has yet to pay the November salaries of over 28,000 UN personnel, including teachers, doctors, nurses and sanitation workers, many of whom support extended families, particularly in the Gaza Strip, where unemployment is high.  

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Saudi religious moderation is as much pr as it is theology

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Mohammed Ali al-Husseini, one of Saudi Arabia’s newest naturalized citizens, ticks all the boxes needed to earn brownie points in the kingdom’s quest for religious soft power garnered by positioning itself as the beacon of ‘moderate,’ albeit autocratic, Islam.

A resident of Saudi Arabia since he had a fallout with Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Lebanese Shiite militia, Mr. Al-Husseini represents what the kingdom needs to support its claim that its moderate form of Islam is religiously tolerant, inclusive, non-sectarian, pluralistic, and anti-discriminatory.

More than just being a Shiite, Mr. Al-Husseini is the scion of a select number of Lebanese Shiite families believed to be descendants of the Prophet Mohammed.

Put to the test, it is a billing with as many caveats as affirmatives – a problem encountered by other Gulf states that project themselves as beacons of autocratic interpretations of a moderate strand of the faith.

Even so, Saudi Arabia, despite paying lip service to religious tolerance and pluralism, has, unlike its foremost religious soft power competitors – the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Turkey, Iran, and Indonesia, yet to legalise non-Muslim worship and the building of non-Muslim houses of worship in the kingdom.

Similarly, the first batch of 27 newly naturalized citizens appeared not to include non-Muslims. If it did, they were not identified as such in contrast to Mr. Al-Hussein’s whose Shiite faith was clearly stated.

The 27 were naturalized under a recent decree intended to ensure that Saudi Arabia can compete with countries like the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Singapore in attracting foreign talent. About a quarter of the new citizens, including Mr. Al-Husseini and Mustafa Ceric, a former Bosnian grand mufti, were religious figures or historians of Saudi Arabia.

In doing so, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman linked his economic and social reforms that enhanced women’s rights and catered to youth aspirations to his quest for religious soft power and leadership of the Muslim world. The reforms involved tangible social and economic change. Still, they refrained from adapting the ultra-conservative, supremacist theology that underlined the founding of the kingdom and its existence until the rise of King Salman and his son, the crown prince, in 2015.

Prince Mohammed’s notion of ‘moderate’ Islam is socially liberal but politically autocratic. It calls for absolute obedience to the ruler in a deal that replaces the kingdom’s long-standing social contract in which the citizenry exchanged surrender of political rights for a cradle-to-grave welfare state. The new arrangement expands social rights and economic opportunity at the price of a curtailed welfare state as well as the loss of political freedoms, including freedoms of expression, media, and association.

A series of recent op-eds in Saudi media written by pundits rather than clerics seemingly with the endorsement, if not encouragement of the crown prince or his aides, called for top-down Martin Luther-like religious reforms that would introduce rational and scientific thinking, promote tolerance, and eradicate extremism.

Mamdouh Al-Muhaini, general manager of the state-controlled Al-Arabiya and Al-Hadath television networks, spelled out the top-down process of religious reform that would be led by the crown prince even though the writer stopped short of identifying him by name.

“There are dozens, or perhaps thousands, of Luthers of Islam… As such, the question of ‘where is the Luther of Islam’ is wrong. It should instead be: Where is Islam’s Frederick the Great? The King of Prussia, who earned the title of Enlightened Despot, embraced major philosophers in Europe like Kant and Voltaire and gave them the freedom to think and carry out scientific research, which helped their ideas spread and prevail over fundamentalism after bitter clashes. We could also ask where is Islam’s Catherine the Great…? Without the support and protection of these leaders, we would have likely never heard of these intellectuals, nor of Luther before them,” Mr. Al-Muhaini said.

Messrs. Al-Husseini and Ceric represent what Saudi Arabia would like the Muslim and non-Muslim world to take home from their naturalization.

A religious scholar, Mr. Ceric raised funds in Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Malaysia during the Bosnian war in the 1990s and defended issues close to Saudi Arabia’s heart even if his own views are more liberal.

Mr. Ceric argued, for example, that opposition to Wahhabism, the kingdom’s austere interpretation of Islam that has been modified since King Salman came to power, amounted to Islamophobia even if the cleric favoured Bosnia’s more liberal Islamic tradition. The cleric also opposed stripping foreign fighters, including Saudis, of Bosnian citizenship, granted them for their support during the war.

To Saudi Arabia’s advantage, Mr. Ceric continues to be a voice of Muslim moderation as well as proof that Islam is as much part of the West as it is part of the East and the hard to defend suggestion that being a liberal does not by definition entail opposition to ultra-conservatism.

Referring to the fact that he is a Shiite, Mr. Al-Husseini said in response to his naturalisation by a country that was created based on an ultra-conservative strand of Islam that sees Shiites as heretics: “The glowing truth that cannot be contested is that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is open to everyone…and does not look at dimensions of…a sectarian type.”

Beyond being a Shiite Muslim cleric, Mr. Al-Husseini is to have been a Hezbollah insider. A one-time proponent of resistance against Israel, Mr. Al-Husseini reportedly broke with Hezbollah as a result of differences over finances.

He associated himself on the back of his newly found opposition to Hezbollah with the Saudi-backed March 14 movement headed by Saad Hariri, a prominent Lebanese Sunni Muslim politician.

As head of the relatively obscure Arabic Islamic Council that favoured inter-faith dialogue, particularly with Jews, Mr. Al-Husseini ticked off another box on the Saudi checklist, particularly given the kingdom’s refusal to establish diplomatic relations with Israel without a clear and accepted pathway to a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

While Mr. Al-Husseini’s history fits the Saudi bill, his impact appears to be limited. He made some incidental headlines in 2015 after he used social media to urge Muslims, Jewish, and Christian clerics to downplay religious traditions that call for violence.

Mr. Al-Husseini spoke as the tension between Israel and Lebanon mounted at the time after Hezbollah killed two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border attack.

Earlier, Mr. Al-Husseini seemingly became the first Arab Shiite religious figure to address Israelis directly and to do so in broken Hebrew.

“We believe that not all Jews are bad [just as] not all Muslims are terrorists. Let us cousins put our conflicts aside and stay away from evil and hatred. Let us unite in peace and love,” Mr. Al-Husseini told an unknown number of Israeli listeners.

Mr. Al-Husseini’s presence on social media pales compared to that of the Muslim World League and its head, Mohammed Al Issa. The League, the one-time vehicle for Saudi funding of Muslim ultra-conservatism worldwide, and its leader, are today the main propagators of Prince Mohammed ’s concept of moderate Islam.

Mr. Al-Husseini’s 47,00 followers on Twitter and 10,200 on Facebook pale against his Saudi counterparts who propagate a message similar to his.

The League has 2.8 million Twitter followers in English and 3.4 million in Arabic in addition to 662,000 in French and 310,00 in Urdu. The League boasts similar numbers on Facebook. The League’s president, Mr. Al-Issa, has 670,000 followers on Twitter and 272,000 on Facebook.

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