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China- Russia alliance and the failure of the American-backed Arab Spring revolutions

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China realizes the Syrian regime’s need for it, and thus relies on it to achieve its political and economic goals in the Levant region, including the accumulation of regional influence at the expense of the United States of America.  Accordingly, China can achieve its goals in the Middle East through Syria, through:

China seeks to create opportunities for its companies and investments in order to participate in the reconstruction in Syria, and the Chinese Special Envoy to Syria (Shi Xiaoyan), affirming that:

 “China is confident that it will form part of the reconstruction process after the end of the war in Syria, and Chinese has a long-term goal of expanding its economic power and establishing military bases in the region”

Here, we find that at the international and regional political level, (Syrian geography is one of the fields of international scramble between China, Russia and Iran, in the face of the West led by the United States of America). Given its proximity to all spheres of influence in the Middle East. Here, we find that (Syria’s distinguished geopolitical position) has reinforced the increasing presence of China in the Middle East through Syria as a strategic goal for Beijing’s sphere of influence. Here, Beijing views the Assad’s regime as a (factor of stability facing the expansion of religious extremism).

In addition, the increase in Chinese tensions with the United States, due to Washington’s creation of defense and economic alliances directed against China in the heart of its areas of influence, such as: (the Quad Alliance and the Aukus Defense Alliance), was an urgent motive for China to be near the areas of American influence in the region.  Therefore, (China sought to integrate the Syrian regime with the (Belt and Road initiative), and tried to take advantage of the urgent reconstruction needs in Damascus, to establish a Chinese foothold in the heart of the Levant, and to strengthen its influence in the Middle East through Syria.

China’s arrival in (the Syrian ports of Tartus and Latakia, overlooking the Mediterranean), is an attractive opportunity for the Chinese “Belt and Road initiative”, to link the Eurasia region with Syria and its extensions to the People’s Republic of China. Thus, it will be completed by (Beijing’s foothold in the Greek port of Piraeus and Israeli ports, such as: “Haifa and Ashdod”), and this link highlights Syria’s position on the Silk Road, according to the Chinese vision. Therefore, (Syria was included in a large number of railways that China is building in the region).

Here, it is expected that China will move more to (benefit from the American withdrawal from Syria, as part of Beijing’s greater efforts to expand its presence in the Arab Gulf and Middle East regions).  China has also become more willing to access (the region’s markets and the shores of the Mediterranean close to the Syrian border, with the aim of consolidating its economic project for the Belt and Road), by promoting Chinese investments and delivering them to the world.

China and Russia were also keen to create (international political consensus in Syria), through (their efforts made at the United Nations to protect the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad, and to confront Western and American influence in the region). We find here that the Chinese actions come partly within the framework of (a cover for its broader Middle Eastern ambitions), and the Chinese presence in Syria can be analyzed by identifying the main goal of China regarding (its desire to obtain a military foothold in Syria, despite Washington’s knowledge of the Chinese plan). But, it didn’t seek a real confrontation with Chinese influence.

This brings us to an important point, which is (arms sales to expand Chinese influence), considering that the Middle East is a region of “intensive competition between the great powers, at a time when the United States of America is trying to adjust its position in the region, and perhaps change its strategy and reduce its presence as well”, that I have announced beforee, so both (Russia and China tried to take advantage of the vacuum behind the gradual US withdrawal from Syria).

In the context of (the new Russian-Chinese security and defense strategy in Syria), and here Russia began launching a campaign of harassment against the American and Western forces affiliated with the “international coalition” in Syria, with a long-term goal that leads to the expulsion of the United States from Syria.  Skirmishes increased with the American side to force it to withdraw gradually from Syria, especially with (the Russian forces stopping the American military convoy in northeastern Syria, and returning it to its place of departure, considering that it violated the “disengagement” agreement, an agreement concluded by Russia and the United States of America, since the beginning of the conflict and their operations in Syria in 2015), the aim of which is to prevent any accidents between the forces of the two countries, but the “US Pentagon” refused to comment on this incident.

We find that Sino-Syrian cooperation extends to joint security and diplomatic fields. China has stood by Syria in the Security Council, and China has not hesitated to (use its veto several times with Russia to support the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad). Beijing is also coordinating with Damascus in the field of (fighting extremism and eliminating terrorism and its extensions inside China in the Xinjiang region, especially after the participation of more than five thousand Uyghur Muslim fighters in the Syrian war alongside ISIS).

Here, the Chinese and Russian influence in Syria and the expulsion of the United States of America from it paves the way for activating the (Iranian plan to establish a corridor to the Mediterranean through Syrian ports), and emphasizing the importance of this Iranian corridor to the Chinese Silk Road Initiative, especially as it passes through Syria, Iraq and Iran. Therefore, the Chinese interest in developing the Syrian railways and ports comes as a prelude to linking them with regional neighboring countries, such as: (Lebanon, Iraq and Iran), which (contributes to reconstruction and economic development).

Hence, Beijing and Damascus signed cooperation agreements in several fields, and (Chinese investments in Syria find an outlet in Iran’s ports, through the arrival of the “Silk Road” to the Khorramshahr region in Iran), and from here China plans  for (linking its investments in Iraq and transferring it to Syria and vice versa, then to the rest of the countries in the region and its ports on the Mediterranean or through railway networks and highways that connect everyone).

The construction of a railway between Iran, Iraq and Syria with Chinese support began in November 2018, as part of the (reconstruction of the Middle East funded by China and Russia, and eventually linked it to the Syrian port of Latakia, as a hub on the Mediterranean Sea, emphasizing that “the railway system  In Iran, it is linked to railways in Central Asia, China and Russia), and if the Shalamcheh-Basra railway line is built with a length of 32 km, Iraq can transport goods and passengers to Russia and China and vice versa. This line will form the first stage, and the second stage is scheduled to be a 1545 km long railway and a highway to the Syrian port.

Therefore, China seeks to be present in (Syria’s ports to link it with Chinese maritime influence in general in the Middle East and Mediterranean countries), where (China is actually present in three actual ports on the Mediterranean, which are ports: Haifa and Ashkelon in Israel, and Mina Piraeus in Athens, Greece). And here, it should be pointed out that the (American pressures that is being put on Israel to prevent Beijing from using the port of Haifa). Israel had previously rejected a contract worth one and a half billion dollars offered by China to build a power plant after the United States of America warned its other allies in the Middle East against accepting Chinese investments, so China has chosen the other (countries that aren’t aligned with the United States of America to invest in, most notably Syria).

China is looking for “investment in the Syrian ports of Latakia and Tartus, and is looking for more maritime influence in Syria on the borders of the Mediterranean, after its fears of losing its maritime influence in the Israeli port of Haifa due to American pressure on Israel”. In October 2018, China provided assistance in the form of electric power generators to the Syrian port of Latakia, which indicates its desire to invest there, to ensure a position of maritime influence overlooking the Mediterranean ports.  Therefore (China is keen to invest in the ports of Lebanon, especially Beirut, not for its direct financial returns, but to complement the “Silk Road” project, and to secure an outlet for it on the Mediterranean coast, by linking Syrian ports with their Lebanese counterparts).

Therefore, (China’s regional participation between Iran, Iraq and Syria on the broader “New Silk Road” is of great importance to link them all together through port and railway networks), especially since Iraq had previously signed a memorandum of understanding in September 2019, to join the  “Belt and Road Initiativ”  as a part of a new oil-for-infrastructure program. This plan includes (China’s rebuilding of the war-torn region under a multi-stage program of hard infrastructure, like: railways, roads, power and water projects, and soft infrastructure, such as: hospitals, schools, cultural centers on the Iraqi side).

Also (the “Four Seas” strategy, which was first announced by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in 2004, and was sabotaged by the Arab Spring revolutions), has finally returned to work, after 7 countries signed to join it, by 2010. This maritime strategy entails (connecting all four major water systems “the Mediterranean / Caspian Sea / Black Sea / Persian Gulf” with each other through railway corridors and infrastructure as a motive for the win-win cooperation of the Syrian, Iraqi, Iranian and Chinese sides with the countries of the region and the Middle East), according to Chinese planning. Once these four seas are connected (Syria will become is the main intersection point in investments and transportations) in the region.

The most important point here is the assertion of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad that (the Syrian military, security, political and economic decision has become dependent on the Russians, Iranians and Chinese), with the Syrian regime aspiring to greater interests to gain through a greater strengthening of the Chinese presence in Syria. Therefore, China sought to prove its presence in the Middle East through the Syrian gate, and to prove (the failure of the US-backed Arab Spring revolutions). Therefore, Chinese economic support has become an outlet for the Syrian regime to support it, as well as strengthening the Chinese alliance with both (Russia and Iran) through Syria.

    Based on the previous analysis, we can understand that the reasons for Chinese support when Syrian President “Bashar Al-Assad” assumed the presidency position of the Syrian Republic for a new term in May 2021, at a time when “Bashar Al-Assad” exaggerated the Chinese-Syrian relationship as a way to prove that he is not politically isolated, and that he has a number of (potential partners to support reconstruction efforts in Syria), with China’s continued efforts since the start of the Syrian revolution in providing various forms of humanitarian aid and financial grants, and China’s support for the Syrian regime to confront the Corona virus pandemic (Covid-19), through medical aid and vaccines against the virus.

Associate Professor of Political Science, Faculty of Politics and Economics / Beni Suef University- Egypt. An Expert in Chinese Politics, Sino-Israeli relationships, and Asian affairs- Visiting Senior Researcher at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies (CMES)/ Lund University, Sweden- Director of the South and East Asia Studies Unit

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Middle East

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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Vienna Talks: US-Russia-China trilateral and Iran

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Talks between Iran and other signatories to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) 2015/Iran Nuclear deal regarding the revival of the deal resumed at Vienna on November 29, 2021 after a hiatus of five months (the talks which began on April 2021 have been stalled since June 2021). The US has not been participating directly in these talks.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi who won the June 2021 election has not been opposed to engaging with other signatories to the JCPOA, including the US, but has repeatedly stated, that Iran would only return to full compliance to the 2015 agreement, if its key demands are addressed favorably, and would give precedence to its national interest.

 EU political director, Enrique Mora sounded optimistic with regard to the resumption of the talks, and while talking to reporters said:

‘I feel positive that we can be doing important things for the next weeks’

Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Ali Bagheri Kani, also the country’s chief nuclear negotiator,  said that the US is adopting a ‘maximum pressure’ approach (referring to economic sanctions) which would not help in achieving any genuine results.

Ali Bagheri Kani’s statement underscores the fact that any significant headway with regard to the Iran nuclear deal is likely to be an uphill task.  Iran has increased its uranium enrichment and uranium stockpile, away above the limits agreed upon during the 2015 agreement, and has also restricted access of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors to it’s nuclear program. Tehran has also made it clear, that if the US lifts all economic sanctions, it will get back to full compliance to the agreement of 2015. Tehran is also seeking a guarantee from the US, that in future it would not withdraw from an agreement, as Donald Trump had done.

 The Biden Administration too has been adopting a more aggressive stance vis-à-vis Iran in recent months (Iranian officials have gone to the extent of saying that Biden’s Iran policy is no different from that of Trump). The US seems to be unwilling to remove all sanctions against Iran. US has also been saying that if diplomacy fails it will need to explore other options against Iran and would not refrain from exerting more pressure . On Monday, a US State Department spokesman categorically stated that ‘If Iran demands more or offers less than a mutual return to compliance, these negotiations will not succeed,’.

US-Russia-China trilateral and Iran

In recent weeks, Washington has made efforts to reduce tensions with Beijing and Moscow, sending out a message that it is keen to work with both countries on certain issues – especially Afghanistan, Climate Change and Iran.

Both Moscow and Beijing have adopted a different stance from Washington on the Iran issue. Washington’s decision to host a Democracy Summit (December 9-10, 2021) has not gone down to well with either especially Beijing.

 During a video conversation on November 24, 2021 with Iranian Foreign Minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi not only supported Tehran’s demands with regard to the JCPOA, but also criticized the Summit For Democracy saying that it will only create further divisions globally.  Russia’s Ambassador to Tehran, Levan Dzhagaryan, also supported Tehran’s demands saying some of them were pertinent. In a newspaper interview he said:

‘For example, they, the Iranian side, want to guarantee, let’s say, in future Americans wouldn’t repeat the same step as they did before.  The Iranian side also needs some guarantees from the European businesses to fulfill and to implement all that contract. It is quite logical’

US President, Joe Biden while seeking to have a working relationship with China and Russia has also been trying to work together with democracies, and also send out a message that democracies can deliver (hours before his conversation with Chinese President Xi Jinping on November 14, 2021, Biden signed into law an ambitious 1.2 trillion USD infrastructure package). The Summit for Democracy was aimed at greater coordination with other democracies, especially US allies, on important global issues, but it remains to be seen if the Summit will raise tensions between Washington and Beijing and Moscow, and thus indirectly act as an impediment to further progress on talks related to the Iran nuclear deal.

While Biden’s emphasis on democracies working together, and the need to check China’s growing clout is legitimate, it is important that he does not make the same mistakes as Trump and does not compel Iran to become an appendage of China (imposition of further sanctions at a time when Iran’s economy is in the doldrums will only increase the Anti-US sentiment in Iran). It is also important that the US works closely with its allies on the Iran issue. France, Germany and UK should be playing a more pro-active role in the revival of JCPOA and should not be quiet bystanders. Iran on its part also needs to demonstrate flexibility and pragmatism.

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