Who benefits from a chemical attack such as the one reported to have taken place in Douma last weekend? Is it Russia or Syria? Hardly. It was already clear that any such attack would provoke a tough response from the US and its allies — direct military involvement in Syria with the aim of punishing Bashar Assad, his forces and allies, and ultimately toppling the regime.

The alleged attack raises many questions, the most important being the timing; there was no reason for the Assad regime to carry it out. The Syrian and Russian armies had recaptured most of Eastern Ghouta. Russia was in talks with the militant group Jaish Al-Islam over a deal to allow their fighters to leave Ghouta for Idlib. Civilians trapped in Ghouta had been released. 

Videos reporting the supposed attack do not stand up to scrutiny. One shows a reporter filming as he goes down into the shelter where it took place, but without taking any precautions or wearing any protection. Later, another White Helmet appears with a mask, and says the place is full of gas. Is this logical? Then the White Helmet puts on a mask, but with his bare hands, in ordinary clothes and with his neck uncovered. If there was a chemical attack, how is this possible? 

The White Helmets also reported that most of the victims of the attack were in an underground shelter. But Assad was accused of dropping barrel bombs filled with toxic gas. If this were true, most of the victims would have been at ground level. In addition, Russian military personnel in Douma were not affected by any kind of chemical poisoning, and an investigation by the Russians found no traces of chemical weapons. 

An investigation should be carried out first by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and other independent international bodies. The stakes are enormous because for Assad to carry out such such an attack would be to commit suicide. He is surely not naive enough to fall into this trap.

There are genuine concerns about what happens next. Any military retaliation without a detailed investigation, on the sole basis of reports from the White Helmets, would be an attempt to change the course of recent developments in Syria, and deprive Russia and Turkey of their achievements on the ground.

The ramifications are enormous, and the price of military intervention may be too much to bear. The examples are clear: The military intervention in Iraq cost hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives, and led to the emergence of Daesh. The operations to liberate Mosul and Raqqa also cost thousands of civilian lives. We can hardly calculate how many lives would be sacrificed if the West’s aggressive declarations were followed through, or how long that road to hell would be. 

A full-scale attack, as was the case with Libya, would lead to terrorist and extremist gangs spreading all over Syria and the region, leading to chaos and anarchy. Furthermore, we would stand on the brink of a direct confrontation between two nuclear powers, Russia and the US. Nobody would be able to count the innocent victims of such a confrontation.

Article published in Arab News: http://www.arabnews.com/node/1283061

Photo credit: Anadolu

Published in Tribune

From March 25 to 28, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un paid a sudden visit which surprised the world; however, some world leaders and heads of states have lauded the visit as a step towards defusing tension between North Korea and the US. The United Nations hailed the trip: “The latest positive developments are the beginning of a longer process of sincere dialogue, leading to sustainable peace and denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula, while the White House said: “We’re going to be cautiously optimistic, but we feel like things are moving in the right direction.”

Whether the trip was a signal to the Americans or not, the coming few weeks will reveal that North Korea will not talk about its ballistic capabilities and nuclear powers at a time Washington imposes new taxes on China. The talks are mere political to give the US a signal not to tamper with the current trade status between Washington and Beijing as the key to Kim is in China and not in the US. The general picture of Chinese-North Korean leaders’ talks have left no qualm that Beijing has mediated between Pyongyang and Washington.

 Signals of Kim-Xi meeting

Observers do believe that the talks between Kim and the Chinese President People’s Republic of China Xi Jinping aimed to give Washington a signal that only Beijing’s efforts can bring peace to the Korean Peninsula as China has the upper hand for the projected meetings with the leaders of South Korea (end of April) and the US (in May).

Regardless of the North Korean desire for denuclearization, the Chinese have benefitted from the timing of the visit to give various messages to the US and to the West that only China can have an influence on Kim and that whoever seeks to negotiate with him should first talk to China. The visit has helped China to have a leverage in a sense on the North Korean issue. This is clear when Xi proposed talks about some points during his meeting with Kim to settle the issue on the Korean Peninsula.

The first point which was proposed by Xi was that diplomacy is the breakthrough of the American-North Korean conflict. Beijing has been insisting to bring all talks under the United Nations Security Council’s umbrella and to bring the parties concerned to the negotiations table. As both considered this option, the pivotal role China is playing regarding the denuclearisation is based on what Kim has pledged if the Americans and South Koreans respond positively to his initiative with good will.

The second is that China and North Korea agreed to resume their long-time traditional relationship, including state-to-state and party-to-party ties, giving American side that the Chinese can proceed further to cement their ties with the North Korean if the US fails to accept the Chinese proposal to settle the issue peacefully. To improve the Sino-U.S. relations, Beijing finds a way to solve the issue between Washington and Pyongyang in peaceful means and to disarm North Korea from its nuclear technology.

Though the Americans did not copiously appreciate what the Chinese are doing as they don’t like others to twist their arm, especially Beijing which attributes to itself the laurels of convincing Kim to reconsider peace talks with South Korea and with the Americans to avoid any nuclear escalation in the region, the Chinese are cautiously addressing means to exercise excessive pressure on North Korea, which Beijing uses as a card against Washington, Japan and other enemies in the region.

The visit of the North Korean leader comes at a time the American President Donald Trump reshuffled some leading positions at his administration which included the appointments of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton to reinforce the hawkish stance against China and Russia. The Xi-Kim meeting demonstrates that China is forming stronger ties with North Korea, demonstrating that any meeting between Trump and Kim will be a meeting with a North Korean president backed by China.

In other words, the US will not be able to deprive Pyongyang of its most lethal weaponries because both Pyongyang and Beijing will ask for serious guarantees that the Americans will not deceive them. Thus, both will ask for concessions from the American administration first and after that they will consider disarming North Korea from its strategic weapons gradually. Russia, of course, backs China and North Korea in their demands.

The impact of Pyongyang-Washington scenario on Tehran

The North Korean status quo would have also an impact on the Iranian weaponry and ballistic missiles as well. Iran is expecting that Trump will rip up the nuclear deal in May; the North Koreans are also watching closely to see how the Americans are dealing with their deals with other countries and how this would affect any future deal between Pyongyang and Washington to settle the military threat North Korea poses on other countries.

Despite the fact that the Americans are still a key player in the Pacific Ocean, the Chinese are the only ones who can have the big say on Kim to dissuade him from his nuclear ambitions by militarily securing North Korea from external threats. What applies to North Korea applies to Iran. The only guarantor to the security and stability of Iran will be its allies: Russia and China. Thus, the talk about another deal with Iran goes through Moscow and Beijing before it goes to Tehran.

The issue of North Korea is its proximity to the American territory and its Pacific fleet at a time China considers North Korea as one of its provinces. Iran is deemed another threat as it has the North Korean ambitions which are a source of threat to the stability of the Greater Middle East. In both cases, China has a big say.

Article published in Geostrategic media: http://geostrategicmedia.com/2018/04/05/the-impact-of-pyongyang-washington-talks-on-tehran/

Published in Tribune

Sino-Russian relations have been historically quite close, as the countries have shared the same vision of the need for multipolarity and diversity while looking to counter US dominance. Facing increasing competition from the US, China considers promoting regional economic partnerships as a key strategic priority. Moreover, the improvement of China’s recent ties with its regional partners has added extra assets to its economic integration. Meanwhile, Russia is also looking to counter US dominance by constructing a multipolar world of equals and fair play. And here the two countries have “found” each other.

China’s proposed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which is aimed at further opening up to other countries and speeding up domestic reforms, is deemed an effective approach to integrating into the global economy. The partnership with the 10 ASEAN countries — Brunei, Myanmar, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam — as well as India, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand would give China the flexibility to counter the American trade measures against its economy.

China views the American shift toward the Pacific region — as Washington increases its influence through economic activities and through military and political cooperation, in addition to a rise in anti-China rhetoric — as a major threat to its sovereignty.

The history of China’s dreams of ending US dominance started in the late 1990s with a book, “Unrestricted Warfare,” written by Chinese generals Liang Qiao and Wang Xiangsui. The main idea is that China can defeat the US, despite it being technologically superior and a more developed country, by avoiding traditional means of warfare. It proposed a variety of means that could be used to defeat the US, including lawfare, economic warfare, and network warfare. The book had a big impact in the US and, nearly 20 years after its publication, we can see that America and its Western allies have adopted many ideas of unrestricted warfare, developing them in accordance with new opportunities, technological breakthroughs and the peculiarities of the modern world.

The trade war launched by the Trump administration is being used as leverage and an instrument of exercising power, rather than for protectionism of the American economy. The aggressive rhetoric against China and exchange of tariff hikes on certain products and goods are raising the heat in bilateral relations between Beijing and Washington. The US is officially considering China a threat to its national interests. In keeping with Asian traditions, China is keeping its door open for talks until the very last moment, but it is unlikely this generosity will be appreciated by the US. 

Taking into account that the two powers have the same perceptions of how the world must be shaped, their alliance is promising to be fruitful and will cause many headaches in Washington.

– Maria Al Makahleh (Dubovikova) 

Understanding that the US has practically declared war on China using non-military means will bring Russia and China closer together. Taking into account that the two powers have the same perceptions of how the world must be shaped, their alliance is promising to be fruitful and will cause many headaches in Washington. Both China and Russia have repeatedly declared that they are trying not to mix politics and economics, but are trying to form a new kind of relations. There is therefore an urgent need to reset relations and establish permanent channels of communication based on the interests of both countries.

Russia and China have in recent years demonstrated agreement in the UN on many issues, including Syria, to the great disappointment of the US. But Sino-Russian cooperation in Syria goes far beyond the hall of the UN Security Council, as they successfully cooperate on the ground. China has deployed its limited special forces contingency to back the Syrian army and is active on many fields nowadays without the need for pompous announcements on its philosophy and foreign policy approaches.

China and Russia oppose the deployment of the US missile defense system on the Korean Peninsula, as it is deemed to be jeopardizing their national security and damaging the strategic balance in the region. The decision to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system is part of the global anti-missile shield that Washington wants to serve US superiority. The move, which was said to be for protecting South Korea from North Korea, is undoubtedly directed against both China and Russia. At the same time, Russia and China have merged their satellite tracking systems into one global navigation giant.

Russia now awaits a visit by the Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi, who postponed a trip to Moscow last week. In the framework of the growing US-China tensions, this visit will boost Sino-Russian cooperation. The agenda promises to be huge and will cover most fields of bilateral and global interest. China’s new Defense Minister Gen. Wei Fenghe is already in Moscow and has declared that the visit by the Chinese delegation is aimed at showing the US the strength of bilateral ties and cooperation between Moscow and Beijing. He explained that he made Russia his first port of call in his new role to demonstrate China’s will to deepen the strategic cooperation between the two countries’ militaries. Wei also stressed that China is ready to show full-scale agreement with Russia on most of the issues on the global agenda.

Russia and China, despite their differences, are now moving closer together to counter the US and reshape the world.

Article published in Arab News: http://www.arabnews.com/node/1279186/columns

Published in Tribune

The recent series of firings and appointments in the American administration have come quicker than expected. After the sudden dismissal of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, US President Donald Trump appointed conservative politician and hardliner John Bolton as national security adviser, triggering mixed reactions. Bolton’s appointment as successor to H.R. McMaster has created an earth-shaking outcome worldwide, especially as the US government was already heading in a hawkish direction with the appointment of Mike Pompeo as Tillerson’s replacement.

From the beginning of the Trump era, Bolton was named as a candidate for foreign affairs or national security. Although he was previously ruled out by Trump, the president had many times voiced his appreciation of Bolton’s approach to Iran and North Korea. While Trump’s foreign policy remains motivated by his “America First” motto, Bolton’s appointment came after Pompeo had already bolstered the hawkish pro-war neocon camp in the White House.

Are these appointments indicating a strike against North Korea? Are they a signal for ripping up the nuclear deal with Iran? Both Bolton and Pompeo favor a hard line approach to Pyongyang, possibly even a pre-emptive strike, and are for cancelling rather than amending the Iran deal.

The selection of Bolton means that the US is probably seeking to impose more sanctions on Russia following President Vladimir Putin’s election victory. Pompeo, US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley and Bolton are all similar in their attitude toward Iran. They call on ending the pact with Tehran and even toppling the regime as they see no prospect of reforming the nuclear deal, which is deemed a strategic disaster for the US. 

Thus, the three recent changes in the American administration — including the appointment of Gina Haspel as Pompeo’s successor as director of the CIA — means three hawkish officials will be dealing with North Korea and Iran in a harsh manner. All of this means the serious rise in tensions between Moscow and Washington in the Middle East and globally will continue. The three partisans all support US military involvement in conflicts, adopting regime change in rival countries, and the use of hawkish rhetoric.

It is important to remember that Bolton served as under secretary of state under George W. Bush, was the US ambassador to the United Nations between 2005 and 2006, and was one of the signatories to a letter sent to Bush shortly after 9/11, which publicly called for the US to launch a unilateral war to remove Saddam Hussein from power. Despite the disastrous outcome of that intervention, Bolton continues to boast that the Iraq War a right step.

With neocon hawks such as Bolton and Pompeo in place, the White House will be far less careful in its foreign policy decisions, potentially endangering the world by escalating conflicts and further destabilizing war zones.

– Maria Al Makahleh (Dubovikova)

Both Pompeo and Bolton reject the nuclear deal with Iran. Last August, Bolton presented a plan to rip up the agreement and to blacklist the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps for its terrorist activities. Thus, the three new appointments will support Iranian opposition forces in bringing about regime change, and will back imposing comprehensive sanctions that cripple the Iranian economy.

The views from Iran about these appointments are that the US seeks to humiliate an arch-enemy. However, this may have negative repercussions if Iran seeks Russian and Chinese support, leading to limited regional clashes that could lead to international involvement in the region on a larger scale.

The American appointments are considered an enhancement of its security approach, with Washington set to become more extreme and less rational. With the new White House team, there is a growing belief that the administration will not endorse the Iran agreement and will renew all US sanctions on Tehran, meaning Iran will likely act on its threat to resume the production of highly enriched uranium within five days of the deal being revoked. This will drive the whole region to a nuclear arms race.

Britain, France and Germany had proposed new EU sanctions on Iran over its ballistic missile program and its role in the Syrian war in order to ensure the US will not revoke the nuclear deal or impose any further sanctions. This means further concessions from Iran, which Tehran will not accept.

The scene is generally viewed as being set for further tension. The US announced last December that it was working to build an international coalition to counter Iran’s behavior, calling on all countries to join it in facing down the Iranian threat and indicating that the international community should act before Iran becomes like North Korea.

Surprisingly, Russian reaction to the appointment of these hawkish figures in the White House has been quite reserved, with Moscow asserting that it is ready for constructive dialogue. Furthermore, during a question and answer session on an official visit in Hanoi, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov shared his personal views regarding the personality of Bolton. Lavrov characterized him as “a professional” and “a tough diplomat and politician.” Lavrov added that “after he resigned (as ambassador to the UN), he remained active in politics and we called each other from time to time.”

Russia continues to hope that the US might start constructive dialogue with Moscow on the burning issues of the international agenda, but current trends show that the process is moving in the opposite direction. With neocon hawks such as Bolton and Pompeo in place, the White House will be far less careful in its foreign policy decisions, endangering the world by escalating conflicts and further destabilizing war zones. The chances of a Russia-US confrontation will increase significantly as the issues surrounding Syria, Iran and North Korea are less likely to be settled though dialogue as the US administration closes the door on talks.

Article published in Arab News: http://www.arabnews.com/node/1274436

Photo credit: Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg / Getty

Published in Tribune

Article by Shehab and Maria Al Makahleh

US President Donald Trump will host Gulf leaders separately in a bid to pave the way for American-Gulf summit scheduled for next spring, albeit in May in Camp David. This year’s meeting is different than those in previous years as almost a one-year rift between Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain with Qatar still exists without being resolved in spite of all endeavors and shuttle missions of American officials to the region. The meetings this year with Trump will not help solve the issue as it is structural that requires Qatar to break its ties with the Muslim Brotherhood and to deport its leaders from Doha.

Gulf leaders are preparing for the "pilgrimage" to the United States in March and April to discuss the possibility to hold a US-Gulf summit, which has become an annual tradition, since the first meeting of this kind at Camp David, the American presidential resort in 2015.

While it is not clear whether the upcoming talks will result in the summit being held in its fourth edition after the last summit held in Riyadh, on May 21, 2017, it sounds that both sides of the Gulf conflict are preparing to gather as many power cards as possible to go to the White House, voicing hope to strengthen their attempts to gain the administration’s advocacy and support at the expense of the other side at a time Washington is not ready to resolve the dispute in favor of any of its four allies.

According to information provided by senior US officials two days ago, the first to arrive to the White House will be Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman on March 19, 2018 after a stopover in London where he is expected to meet with British Prime Minister Theresa May. His agenda hasn’t yet been revealed, but he will head from London to New York, Washington, San Francisco and Texas for talks on energy, technology, politics, industries, capital markets and education. Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Zayed will visit Washington two days later, followed by Emir of Qatar Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani who will visit the White House in April.

Will Washington succeed to end the conflict?

Many argue that the US administration will not be able to reunite the Gulf allies because the US is benefitting more once they are not united. However, the constant focus in the coming meetings will be on counterterrorism as Trump will call on Qatar to take "more advanced" steps in this area and reward Doha for "obedience" to a series of agreements signed during the US-Qatar Strategic Dialogue last January. Washington would succeed in bringing together Gulf leaders under the banner of countering terrorism with the aim of reaching a symmetrical views to enhance effectiveness on many fronts as Secretary of Defense, James Matisse, said earlier.

Qatari Foreign Minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani announced his country's readiness to participate in the US-Gulf summit, expressing his belief that "the situation will be under control in the end," stressing "Qatar is sparing no effort in fighting terrorism, and all countries can do more." The UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Anwar Gargash, said that "Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE should be given the credit as all the Qatari previous policies which include funding and financing extremism and terrorism have decreased. Qatar would not have conceded in this regard without such pressure form the three states, according to Gargash.

In spite of this, the dispute between the Gulf states has started to have other political dimensions that the US administration may not be interested to deal with, leaving a regional mediator, Kuwait, to play the role to bring the parties together. However, Kuwait feels now it is targeted in a way or another, driving it to call the British to have a military base in Kuwait, fearing military escalation.

Saudi Foreign Minister Adil Al-Jubeir said last week in Brussels that "Qatar is a small issue if compared to other important issues in the region”. However, Qatar continues its efforts by running media propaganda and diplomatic war to serve its own interest and to clarify its own stand at the international level.

Article published by Valdai Club: http://valdaiclub.com/a/highlights/gulf-leaders-annual-pilgrimage-to-washington/

Photo credit: Evan Vucci/AP

Published in Tribune

The paradoxes between the strategic priorities of global and regional powers are an inherent trait of Middle Eastern conflicts. This was clear when Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Abadi said last month: “The priorities of Western countries are contrary to those of the countries of the region. Therefore, the process of finding solutions to the crises of the region has not been possible; the clear examples are the Syrian, Libyan and Yemeni crises.”

It is well known that the West, led by the United States, is serious in its fight against terrorism in Syria and Iraq. However, Western countries build their alliances not with governments but with specific groups, ethnicities or minorities — this prolongs the war on terrorism. On the other hand, the priority of some European and Middle East states, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, is to remove the Muslim Brotherhood’s influence. On the contrary, Sudan, Turkey and Qatar support the group. This conflict of priorities has led to the escalation of crises and prolonged regional wars.

The changes that have taken place within Western countries, mainly after the rise of populist trends in America and Europe, have led to radical shifts in their policies toward the Middle East. For instance, shortly after US President Donald Trump was sworn in, he changed American foreign policy regarding the Middle East, ending the approach of former President Barack Obama, who preferred a state of non-interference.

The last seven years have witnessed an expansion of the influence of regional forces threatening Western powers’ interests. This has been a result of erroneous policies adopted by Western countries, such as the change of the political system in Iraq and the support extended to the Arab Spring, which has led to security and political vacuums in some countries, allowing terrorist organizations to emerge. The priorities of the international community have turned from changing political regimes to fighting terrorism. Though the terrorist threat has not yet ended, but has rather cloned into other forms, the focus has moved to how to counter Iran’s influence in the Middle East. 

Only Middle Easterners should have a say in solving their issues and avoiding sectarian wars — the international players should just monitor and help the Arab world achieve a positive solution.

– Maria Al Makahleh (Dubovikova)

The contradictory agendas of international and regional powers will not lead to a solution to the conflicts in the Middle East but rather will lead to complicating them, helping them reach a state of deadlock; causing further arms races, more bloodshed and anarchy. The Middle East is currently witnessing rapid change, with zero-sum outcome wars and inevitable conflicts between several international and regional actors. What people in the Middle East ignore or pretend is not true is that the world at present is not the world before 2011. The foundations of the global political and military systems have changed within a structure that enshrines control and exclusivity of power within the US, Russia and China, who delegate some regional powers to act on their behalf. History does not repeat itself, but events are the same.

The most important outcome of this game is to build the foundations of an era of collective security. All means are available in this risky game because the most important thing is a Middle East with no sectarian war. Iran is a major political influence in the region and it is also a military power, so much so that even superpowers make careful considerations before taking action against its army. Where would a regional war take place? Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, or anywhere else in the region?

Are we in the midst of a new Marshall Plan for rebuilding the Middle East? The inevitable outcome of this game is a comprehensive peace that will be followed by strategic and psychological variables that will allow Middle Eastern countries to develop political stability and peace with more moderate and open cultural and political concepts.

In the 20th century, the “sick man” was the Ottoman Empire, and in the 21st century it is the turn of the Arab world. Arab interests are at stake because of structural weakness and disintegration, which comes as a result of the fall of Iraq in 2003 under the US-led invasion. Since then, the Arabs have lost their compass and can’t find their way.

Middle Eastern political actors are striving to have a say in the future of the region, to have a seat for the journey and to turn from being paradigms into effective models. For this purpose, it is important to note that China is pushing to achieve its One Belt One Road Initiative at the same time as the Century Deal led by Washington and Riyadh. To what extent these two projects will succeed without colliding or clashing, only the next few months will reveal.

The chaos the Middle East is undergoing will lead to more losses. Only Middle Easterners should have a say in solving their issues and avoiding any sectarian wars that could destroy everything. The international powers should just monitor and harmonize the players to reach a positive solution and avert any destructive repercussions.

Article published in Arab News: 

Published in Tribune
Thursday, 15 March 2018 23:16

Major powers step up battle for Africa

Rex Tillerson’s final overseas visit before Donald Trump fired him as US Secretary of State was to Africa, where many global and regional powers are coming into direct competition. Tillerson’s trip came within the framework of the American administration’s bid to secure its influence in Africa following the humiliation caused by President Donald Trump’s alleged comments, which badly affected Africa-US relations. Tillerson’s visit was also to compete with the Chinese and Russian influence in Africa, as the continent becomes like a tart that should be divided among these powers and some other less-developed regional players such as Turkey, Iran and some Middle Eastern countries.

Visits to the continent by Tillerson, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov all came just a few weeks before the African Union announces the huge Continental Free Trade Area, which is expected in April and will make the African economy and its markets a global economic bloc that all countries should take into consideration. The continent’s Gross Domestic Product will amount to about $3.5 trillion annually and the population is estimated to reach 1.3 billion by the end of 2018. Many African countries are also working hard to counter terrorism and eradicate corruption.

Statistics issued by the World Bank forecast that Africans will make up 40 percent of the world’s population and 30 percent of its workforce by 2100. Africa will also continue to be a major natural resources and raw materials reserve. Economic and political experts believe that whoever controls Africa controls the world — after all, Africa is the bridge between America, Europe and Asia.

The visits of Russian, American, Turkish and Chinese officials to Africa stem from their readiness to help African states fight terrorism. This is one of the pillars Tillerson relied on in his tour. He wanted first to beautify the image and reputation of the US in Africa and to neutralize Russia and China on the continent, as many governments are geared toward enhancing economic as well as trade ties with Moscow and Beijing. This explains why Tillerson warned African governments not to ink arms deals with China or approve any military assistance from Moscow. 

Conflict and political rifts between the US, China and Russia are shifting to the fast-growing continent, where many new geopolitical and economic opportunities are available.

– Maria Al Makahleh (Dubovikova)

Tillerson also tried during his tour to erase, which was cut short by a day so he could return to Washington and face the music, to erase the tensions caused by Trump’s alleged remarks on African countries two months ago. He voiced his country’s commitment to supporting development and democracy, and to building bridges of trade and investment relations with the continent.

Over 30 percent of Chinese firms in Africa are in industrial fields, compared to only a small fraction of the American businesses operating there. However, 90 percent of American businesses in Africa are oil-related.

China has supported development in Africa without enforcing terms and conditions that would turn Beijing into a political dictator or an economic authoritarian. In short, the Chinese have adopted an approach that focuses on the establishment and development of infrastructure and transport projects across the continent. China’s projects include funding a $3.2 billion railway network in Kenya, which was inaugurated last year, and the construction of the African Union headquarters in the Ethiopian capital. This was fully built by the Chinese and handed over to the AU as a gift in 2012.

It is not only Ethiopia that the three great powers fight over, it is also Djibouti, where China has built a 750-kilometer railway connecting the coast with Addis Ababa. Security-wise, China has begun to expand its military presence in the Horn of Africa, specifically in Djibouti, to support anti-piracy efforts in East African waters. Beijing has also deployed 3,000 peacekeepers in Africa under the flags of the UN and the AU.

China’s growing presence in Africa prompted the now-fired Secretary of State to warn African leaders during his tour that, while welcome to accept Beijing’s assistance, they should “not forfeit any elements of your sovereignty as you enter into such arrangements with China.”

Turkey has also regarded Africa as an area open to expanding its interests, which are ambitious, but not up to the level of Chinese, American and Russian dreams. Turkey’s attitude toward Africa has been palpable in meetings between the sides since 2011, and has been crystallized in a military base in Somalia. Since 2003, Erdogan has undertaken many trips to Africa, the most recent of which last month saw him take in four major countries: Mali, Senegal, Mauritania, and Algeria. Turkey has greatly increased its embassies in Africa, while Turkish Airlines reaches nearly 50 destinations on the continent. Significantly, at the end of 2017, Ankara and Khartoum announced cooperation to rehabilitate the Sudanese island of Suakin — a former Ottoman era base on the Red Sea.

For Russia, Africa is a buffer zone against America's expansionist policies. Last week, Lavrov made a state visit to Zimbabwe as Moscow searches for an African foothold following the overthrow of former President Robert Mugabe. Lavrov began his African tour on March 6, Tillerson two days later. The Russian minister’s schedule included five sub-Saharan countries — Angola, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia, and Ethiopia — while the American took in Ethiopia, Djibouti, Kenya, Nigeria, and Chad.

It seems that conflict and political rifts between the three major world powers is shifting to Africa, and that new geopolitical and economic interests are on the rise. This may ultimately ignite a new world war, but this time on the African chessboard.

Article published in Arab News: http://www.arabnews.com/node/1266261

Published in Tribune
Thursday, 15 March 2018 23:09

Jordan’s new regional role

Article by Shehab and Maria Al Makahleh

It is significant for a Syrian opposition member to take a photo with a top American official. When the US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson held a meeting in Jordan’s capital, Amman, with the head of the Syrian Negotiations Commission, Nasr al-Hariri, and an accompanying delegation on February 14, the photo, which went viral, signaled how Jordan is set to play a major role in the outcome of ongoing conflicts in the tumultuous Middle East. Indeed, the meeting suggested that Amman is emerging as an increasingly influential actor following the decision made by US President Donald Trump last year to recognize Jerusalem as the Israeli capital.

Thus, the American official’s visit to Amman was well-received in the Hashemite Kingdom where the leadership is eyeing a new role in Syria. This new role is in line with Jordan’s current one in the American-Russian pact vis-à-vis the de-escalation zones. Washington sent Tillerson days after US Vice President Mike Pence’s visit to Amman. King Abdullah II voiced Jordan’s concerns and trepidations about the ramifications of Trump’s policies vis-à-vis the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which many Jordanians fear will undermine stability in the Hashemite Kingdom.

The Jordanian monarch’s message reached Washington, which sent Tillerson to Jordan for primarily three main reasons. The first was to strengthen US-Jordan relations in a host of domains from security to economics and mil-mil cooperation. The second was to signal support for Amman’s new role in the Syrian crisis as a host of the moderate Syrian opposition which embraces the idea of finding a political solution to the seven-year conflict. The third was to back Jordan’s role in talks between the Palestinians and Israelis.

Although Tillerson’s message to the Jordanians (and other Arabs too), which he made through his meeting with the King of Jordan, was that the Trump administration’s position on Jerusalem is not currently effective and will take years to crystallize. Yet the top American diplomatic chief’s message failed to assuage King Abdullah II’s concerns as the monarch’s fears pertain to the loss of Hashemite custodianship of the holy sites in Jerusalem.

In an effort to persuade Washington to embrace a different position toward Jordan, Amman has had to pursue two goals. The first has been to grow closer to Muslim countries that oppose the US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, chiefly Turkey, and to a lesser extent Qatar and Iran as well. The second has been to accept America’s decision but secure assurances from Washington that Jordan remains a key partner of the US in the Arab world. Thus, Amman is seeking to diversify its alliances vis-à-vis deeper relations with Ankara, Doha, and Tehran without burning any bridges with America.

As Jordan is undergoing a tough economic crisis, the Jordanian government’s image has suffered at a sensitive juncture in the Hashemite Kingdom’s history. Unquestionably, the renewal of American financial and military support to Amman came at an opportune time, offering Jordan’s political leadership an opportunity to salvage its reputation. The Trump administration’s support for Jordan will help American foreign policy decision-makers approach complicated and multifaceted conflicts in the Middle East in which Amman’s diplomatic efforts will prove valuable.

Tillerson’s visit to Amman was on the eve of King Abdullah’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. While meeting with America’s chief diplomat, Jordan’s monarch conveyed his understanding that Putin holds the key for resolving the Syrian crisis. King Abdullah II, who has the American backing, talks to the Russians in his capacity as a liaison between regional powers and Russia.

By hosting such a meeting with Tillerson and the moderate Syrian opposition, Jordan is carefully treading the Middle East’s geopolitical fault lines. Amman seeks to reward Turkey for its stance on the status of Jerusalem without crossing any ‘red lines’ in terms of moving to close to Iran and/or Lebanese Hezbollah while still keeping some options open with respect to Jordanian-Iranian relations within the context of Jordan’s understanding that Tehran is an actor to contend with in the future of Syria and the region at large. In sum, Amman is looking East without sacrificing its alliances with Western powers, chiefly the United States. At this juncture, Amman has found itself dealing with four key actors in Syria: Russia, the Syrian opposition, Turkey, and the United States.

Yet what remains to be seen is how Amman’s embrace of these four actors impacts Amman-Damascus relations. Most likely, this role that Jordan plays will undermine the prospects for any rapprochement between Jordan and Syria with Jordan’s northern border likely remaining closed until further notice. Another important variable worth observing is how much the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states choose to financially support Jordan amid this period of economic stress in the Hashemite Kingdom. By turning to Turkey for a closer relationship, Jordan is unquestionably angering the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and other Arab states that have a negative perception of Turkey’s increasingly bold foreign policy in the region.

Without any oil and beset by the destabilizing effects of different conflicts on its borders, Jordan remains highly vulnerable to the impact of continued warfare in Syria and pressures from many actors that are vested in pressuring Amman to play different roles in the Middle East. Cautiously, the Jordanian leadership is keen to avoid aligning too closely with any coalition or axis for fear that Amman will lose flexibility as developments unfold quickly in the region.

Article published in International Policy Digest: https://intpolicydigest.org/2018/03/13/jordan-s-new-regional-role/

 

Published in Tribune

The situation in Syria is heating up, as the international powers play an expanding geopolitical game on the Syrian chessboard. The sequence and timings of recent events raise many questions. The situation in Eastern Ghouta is developing in the same way it has for the past several months without attracting much attention from the international community. However, following continuous violations of the de-escalation zone by militants, targeting residential neighborhoods in Damascus, both Russia and Syria have intensified operations in the area.

The situation is aggravated by the presence of Al-Qaeda-linked groups and militants using civilians as human shields; a common tactic in civil wars.

The media reaction was started by activists on the ground, reporting through text messages and WhatsApp about the calamitous situation in Eastern Ghouta. However, it seems nobody was paying attention to the fact that Damascus is also populated by civilians, and the constant shelling of the city is causing death and destruction. It seems as if not all lives matter to the international community.

The international coverage of Eastern Ghouta shows how biased and subjective media coverage is compared to what Afrin is undergoing at present; just because Turkey, a Western ally and a NATO member, is acting against the Kurds, whom Ankara labels as terrorists. Thus, it is apparent that the West needs Ankara right now more than Turkey needs the West. This justifies why the latter does not denounce what the Turkish army is doing in Afrin, while blaming the Russian and Syrian armies for their role in Ghouta. Turkey looks the potential winner in the tug-of-war between Russia and the West, as both need Ankara in the war against terrorism. The losers here are the Kurdish people, as they appear to be mere pawns in the geopolitical game.

The entire international community bears responsibility for the conflict as, instead of solving the crisis, all the players prefer to engage in geopolitical games using their pawns on the ground.

– Maria Dubovikova

After long debates at the United Nations Security Council, the members unanimously voted for a resolution requesting a one-month armistice in Syria. As expected, the armistice is not working. The international media reported a probable chemical attack in the suburbs, after which the UK threatened to strike Damascus, as if Western powers have the right to strike any country they want. When the British and Americans invaded Iraq in 2003 after suspecting that Iraqis were producing biological and chemical weapons and long-range missiles, the reports were proven to be false. Launching such strikes on Syria now could bring about the same result.

The UK and the US are picky in their reporting. They forget how many people have been killed in Iraq or how many were killed recently in Deir Ezzor. They channel their news coverage to serve their own interests by distorting the image of other nations.

Attempts to ease the humanitarian status have been disrupted by militants. It is common knowledge that Ghouta is suffering from starvation and illnesses, and civilians, spending most of their time in basements, want to get out from the suburb. However, the militants do not let them out, forcing families (who reach the checkpoints, seeking to leave Ghouta for safety) to return. The rebels are using the civilians in their own media game and abuse them as human shields.

British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson laid responsibility for the disastrous situation in Syria on Russia. His tone was clear, and the direction everything is now moving is becoming clear as well. It seems that American procrastination over a political settlement in Syria is aimed at partitioning the country. This violates the US-Russian agreement and thus Moscow will be forced to counter US efforts to divide Syria and will play the game until the end, including not allowing the Americans to have a base there.

Meanwhile, the risk of a clash between the US and Russia over Syria is on the rise. The consequences of such a scenario are hard to calculate, but Russia is undertaking diplomatic measures to avoid such risky developments. Moscow is calling on the Western powers to use their influence on the rebel groups. Russian demands are simple: Once the rebels stop shelling the city, the strikes will be stopped. The terrorist groups should also leave the area, as there is no way they will be accepted as a part of cease-fire talks or any agreement. Had this been achieved already, humanitarian missions could have gained access to the affected areas sooner. All of this can be achieved through international cooperation and the proper exercise of pressure on the militants on the ground.

The entire international community bears responsibility for the Syrian war, as all countries prefer to play geopolitical games instead of solving the crisis, using their pawns on the ground regardless of how many people are killed. All countries should stop being Machiavellian in their deeds and decline the motto “the end justifies the means.”

Article published in Arab News: http://www.arabnews.com/node/1263946

Published in Tribune

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, deputy premier and minister of defense’s visit to the US is very indicative at this time as it is the first for him as crown prince and it paves the way for proceeding ahead with economic plans in pursuance of Vision 2030.

The crown prince arrives in Washington DC with five agendas: economic, political, military, technology transfer and financial investments. He will tour New York, Washington DC, Seattle, California’s Silicon Valley, Houston and Boston with the aim of improving Saudi-American relations.

Investment cooperation

The United States and Saudi Arabia have a common vision on international issues. Given the changing geopolitical scene, the two countries have utmost interest to maintain strong ties and sustain friendly relations. The Crown Prince’s US tour will include a planned meeting with US President Donald Trump and his advisers.

He will pay visits to Wall Street in New York and to the Silicon Valley in California and Seattle for heavy industries. He is expected to tour Houston for gas and oil talks and in Boston for higher education cooperation. This is their first meeting since last May 21, 2017 when Trump visited Riyadh.

The Crown Prince is also set to hold talks with Apple and Amazon executives to open outlets and data centers in Saudi Arabia, in a bid to redirect the Saudi economy to be knowledge-oriented and technology-based, benefitting from American expertise to turbo-charge his plans to turn the kingdom into a new Silicon Valley Hub in the Middle East. There is a historic alteration in the nature of economic relations between Washington and Riyadh, from oil to economic development and financial and technological investments.

Saudi Arabia is eager to cement political, economic and military ties with the US through major deals that would change the nature of cooperation into win-win equation

– Shehab Al-Makahleh

The slated agreements to be signed will shape the nature of future economic partnership between both countries as the pacts will enhance investments through joint ventures, through American backing of investments in Saudi Arabia or through supporting Saudi investments in the US treasuries or through offering Aramco shares the New York Stock Exchange as Trump is vying with London to host the stock market listing of Aramco which is estimated at $1.5 trillion.

Since last May, such huge agreements which are expected to be signed in the US could not have been achieved without a colossal modification in the nature of Saudi economy that albeit determines the relationship between Riyadh and Washington as the latter has pushed Saudi for more modernization for full capacity of cooperation to support Saudi Vision 2030.

The Crown Prince’s visit is promising to launch a new era of relations between the two countries with qualitative changes in strategic relations for a long term strategic and economic partnership through diversification of the kingdom’s economy.

Thus, the visit does not stand at the traditional basis, and is different from previous Saudi officials’ visits to the US because it opens the door to major financial and investment firms and corporations in the US and in Saudi Arabia to launch joint ventures and investments after an American greenlight for domestic foundations to set up projects in Saudi Arabia.

The visit sends a series of messages to key players at the regional and international levels. According to some experts, the visit is slated to witness a greater inflow of international investments into the Saudi economy, mainly in technological fields. The Crown Prince seeks from his tour to New York to gain further support of Riyadh as a global industrial and financial center in the Middle East through new qualitative partnerships with leading American companies.

Political synchronization

Both Saudi and US leaders have sharp anti-Iran positions, which brings the current US administration closer to Riyadh. The Obama administration had seen unbridled rigidity and uninhibited pressure in the relationship between the US and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) because the former president ignored Iran’s orientations and actions in the region at the expense of Arab Gulf state’s interests.

This was part of the process of restructuring US foreign policy toward the Middle East and rapprochement with Iran, with the aim of strengthening what Obama considered moderate wing in Tehran, leading to 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia last year was aimed to restore these relations and build on them for a sustainable peace in the Middle East.

The upcoming visit of the Crown Prince aims to rebalance US policy toward the region as former American administration has adopted policies against the region’s interests, which allowed Russia and China to return to the region as key players by formulating alliances, mainly with Iran and Turkey.

Among the topics on the Crown Prince’s visit are combating terrorism and extremist factions as well as efforts to counter Iranian interference in Arab affairs. The two sides are also likely to discuss the war in Yemen and Syria, mainly the current developments in Eastern Ghouta.

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is on top of the agenda of the Crown Prince as his visit comes few days after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Washington and his talks with American officials regarding the final settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The Crown Prince will try to convince Trump to postpone moving the American embassy to Jerusalem until final settlement is reached.

Nuclear deals

Trump will open talks with the Crown Prince on a potentially lucrative nuclear power agreement, indivisibly connected to an Obama-era atomic agreement with Iran, with promises of billions of dollars in contracts for American firms. Saudi sources believe that Riyadh, in less than a month, will unveil the names of companies winning the tender for the construction of two nuclear power reactors, scheduled to start at the end of this year 2018, in a move Riyadh aims to enter the nuclear club for the first time in its history.

Under the framework of the Saudi National Atomic Energy Project, Saudi Arabia aims to build 16 nuclear reactors over the next 20-25 years, which are to be under the supervision of the King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy and are aimed at enabling the country to benefit from the peaceful uses of nuclear power.

The idea to construct nuclear reactors in Saudi Arabia is not new; however, it has gathered momentum in the past two years. New motives for Riyadh have crystallized to proceed with the construction of nuclear reactors, particularly in the aftermath of the pact signed with Iran during Obama’s administration, which hampered negotiations between Riyadh and Washington. Some analysts in the White House believe that the deal with Iran “made it difficult to force Saudi Arabia to abide by Law 123.”

Trump knows that American companies are competing with Korean, Chinese and Russian. If he seeks to support the American companies in this deal, he has to give green light when he talks to the Crown Prince. Thus, Trump has to abandon certain controls that restrict nuclear proliferation. Therefore, if Saudis reach agreement without any restrictions, it would be a remarkable shift in US nuclear policy since 50 years.

Saudi Arabia is eager to cement political, economic and military ties with the US through major deals that would change the nature of cooperation into win-win equation. Major focus, however, will also be on the “Century Deal” to end the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict.

Article published in Al Arabiya: https://english.alarabiya.net/en/views/news/middle-east/2018/03/13/Denotations-of-Saudi-Crown-Prince-s-visit-to-the-US.html

Published in Tribune
Page 1 of 5