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Chinese and Gulf states rapprochement with Syria

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We find that throughout the years of the Syrian war, there were a number of indications of (secret cooperation) between some Arab governments in secret with the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, and accusations were also leveled indicating the involvement of other governments in supporting and arming Syrian opposition groups against the Syrian regime), especially  the Gulf countries that sought to revenge against the regime of President “Bashar Al-Assad” for Syria’s close alliance with Iran, which is the sworn enemy of countries in the Gulf region. Here we can analyze and understand the following:

The desire of the Gulf countries and the UAE to open prospects for trade with Syria, and most importantly (reducing Syria’s strategic dependence on Iran) is the most important reason for their recent attempt to rapprochement with Damascus.

The UAE rapprochement with Syria comes as part of a Gulf strategy called (the almost certain regional rehabilitation of Bashar Al-Assad). Here, we find that “the speed of the train of Arab and Gulf normalization, mainly with Syria, has increased significantly”, and what is deeper than that can be analyzed by confirming that “a number of Arab governments have not completely severed their ties with Damascus since the beginning of the events in Syria”.

The “state of Jordan” is currently considered one of the most prominent of those Arab countries that exert pressures for normalization with the capital “Damascus” as Jordan’s neighbor in terms of its northern borders, where recent indications are that (the Kingdom of Jordan is on the verge of restoring full relations with the Syrian regime). In fact, it is possible to analyze the reasons for the start of the Jordanian capital, “Amman”, as a close ally of the United States of America, to open the way for Washington’s other allies in the Gulf region to rapprochement with Syria, in order to (neutralize the Syrian regime and exert subsequent pressure on the Iranian side to accept the American conditions in the Iranian nuclear file).

On the other hand, (Lebanon needs the Syrian energy networks to help alleviate the fuel crisis that has paralyzed Beirut). We can as well identify (Syria’s situation in the strategy of supplying Lebanon with fuel as a result of the current Lebanese fuel crisis) has an important analytical aspect, especially after (Jordan’s approval on October 6, 2021, to send the surplus of Jordan’s electric power to Lebanon through the Syrian network, which indicates the American flexibility regarding  relating to the relations imposed on Damascus).

However, there are fears from a number of Lebanese forces and currents of allowing an increase in Iranian and Syrian influence in Lebanon, especially with (a previous public condemnation of Hezbollah for bringing Iranian fuel into Lebanon through Syria, describing it as a “violation of the country’s sovereignty”).  Likewise, the public positions of the Lebanese government not to visit or normalize relations with Syria without the blessing of the international community, stressing Lebanon’s desire to distance itself from conflicts in the region.

We find here (the support of the Lebanese Shiite movements in Lebanon for President Bashar Al-Assad). In particular, the “Iran-backed Hezbollah movement is the main supporter of rapprochement with Syria”, especially with (the role of Hezbollah militias in Lebanon, along with the Russian air force, in changing the course of the civil war in favor of Bashar Al-Assad inside Syria). The political bureau of the “Amal Movement in Lebanon”, the other main Shiite party in Lebanon, renewed its calls for strengthening relations with Syria in an official statement on October 4, 2021. On the other hand, there are other Lebanese political forces that have remained staunchly opposed to what they see as Syrian and Iranian interference in their country’s affairs.

Here, we find that this new shift in the UAE’s Gulf position for rapprochement with Syria is due to the visit of the Jordanian monarch (King Abdullah) to the United States of America in July 2021.  He will remain in office, and then the international community will have to deal with him one way or another.

From my analytical point of view, according to objective indicators, (King Abdullah) has obtained permission from the United States of America to resume Jordan’s commercial ties and relations with Syria, so that Jordan is excluded from the sanctions regime that targets any country that has commercial transactions with Damascus, which is known as (Caesar’s Law). A series of talks between Syrian and Jordanian officials in September 2021 led to the reopening of the (Jaber-Naseeb border crossing), and also opened the door to negotiations on October 3, 2021, related to trade, energy and agriculture, moving from mere (economic ties to fully resuming political relations between Jordan and Syria). This is in line with the desire of the capital, Amman, to (return Damascus to the Arab League before the next Arab summit, which may be held in 2022).

Here, too, the indicators point to the agreement (Jordan and Egypt with Syria) to start (rehabilitating and operating the Arab Gas Pipeline to export Egyptian gas to Lebanon via Jordan and Syria, and then to Europe via Turkey), which is mainly for the benefit of reviving the Egyptian economy, and thus encouraging Egypt to rapprochement with Damascus for economic interests.  As well as the meeting of the Egyptian Foreign Minister “Sameh Shoukry”, with his Syrian counterpart “Faisal Miqdad”, in September 2021, during his participation in the meetings of the United Nations General Assembly, and his declaration after that of his “support for the return of Syria as an active party in the Arab framework”. Also, the geopolitical considerations for the Egyptian side, driven by the network of economic interests, and Egypt’s desire to (play a role in profitable deals for the reconstruction of Syria may be an important factor for Egypt to rapprochement with Damascus).

As scholar, I have reached an important analysis here, which can be monitored through the desire of a number of Arab countries to (maintain the government of “Bashar Al-Assad as another military force in opposition to the Arab revolutions or what is known as the revolutions of the Arab Spring) may also stand behind the efforts of a number of Arab countries to normalize with the side  Syrian.

As for Iraq, the “Iraqi side has openly opposed the isolation of Syria”, and has repeatedly declared that it supports its return to the Arab League.  Iraq did not sever its ties with Syria, and in 2011 Iraq abstained from voting on a decision to expel it from the university, and Iraq kept its embassy in Damascus throughout the war. We find as well that (the Iraqi government coordinated with President Bashar al-Assad in cross-border operations against the Islamic State, or what is known as ISIS).  There are still several (Iraqi militias backed by Iran on the Syrian-Iraqi border), and some are also inside Syrian territory (in the context of efforts led by Iran to put pressure on the American forces there, to support Assad and to keep transport corridors open).

The benefits of the Syrian-Emirati rapprochement come through what the (UAE Ministry of Economy) announced that “it has agreed to strengthen economic cooperation and explore new horizons with Syria”. A few weeks after the meeting between the Emirates ministers and his Syrian counterpart in Dubai to discuss about the issue of the (reconstruction of Syria), Emirates officials stated that they hoped the situation in Syria would return “to what it was before the crisis” that erupted in 2011.

In March 2021, both the UAE and Saudi Arabia demanded the “return of Syria to the Arab fold”.  Coordination is currently underway on new horizons for Emirates and Gulf cooperation with Syria, especially in vital sectors, in order to “enhance investment partnerships”.

The Saudi indication also came that its geopolitical interests in Syria are still strong, with the statement of Crown Prince “Mohammed bin Salman” in March 2018, that:

“President Bashar Al-Assad will remain in his place, but “Bashar Al-Assad’s interests” will not be to allow the Iranians to stay to play a role, although the restoration of all diplomatic relations remains a remote possibility, the Syrian-Saudi relations are witnessing a warmth”

We find the most prominent indicators of Saudi rapprochement with Syria, representing in (the visit of the Syrian Minister of Tourism to Saudi Arabia in May 2021, which is the first visit of a Syrian government official to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia since 2011).  At about the same time, the director of Saudi intelligence met his Syrian counterpart in Damascus.

However, one of the challenges facing Riyadh is (the strong opposition within the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to the pro-Iranian Baathist regime of Damascus). We find the position of the Saudi media strongly opposing the Assad regime in Syria, with the Saudi criticism directed against the Syrian government’s actions against the Sunni majority. Knowing that this Saudi orientation was reciprocated with the Syrian regime, with previous accusations from the official Syrian media outlets loyal to the regime of President “Bashar Al-Assad” for criticizing what they described as “an active Saudi and Qatari role in provoking sectarian strife and fueling the civil war in Syria”.

But on the other hand, the Syrian-Arab consensus on a number of issues by following the (pragmatic method) in solving political and economic issues is enough to guarantee its return to the Arab League, including consensus with President “Bashar Al-Assad” on a number of issues, foremost of which are: (Syria’s steps to form a stable government agreed upon by various political forces, including the political opposition, attempts to return Syrian refugees from abroad, the urgent need for Syrian fuel for the Lebanese, and the latter restricting Iranian influence in Syria and curtailing “Bashar Al-Assad’s relations with Tehran).

    Here, in my personal analytical viewpoint and analysis of the reality, all of the above points have become important indicators to push officials in a number of Arab countries to try to (reach political understandings with their Syrian counterparts and be more openly with the dialogue).

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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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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