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middle east

Stabalizing Iraq and Syria

After years of war, it appears that Iraq and Syria are gradually stabilizing. The government forces supported by the US and Russia respectively are restoring their control over the two countries, and the self-proclaimed Islamic State has lost virtually all of its territory. Yet, this may just be an ephemeral peace. The social and economic foundations of the two states remain shaky at best, and many issues are still unsettled; notably the role of Sunni Arabs and the future of the Kurds. Without a comprehensive action to solve such questions, peace in Iraq and Syria will not be achieved on a solid basis.

I’m your host Kasim, welcome to another KJ Vid. In this video we will discuss the future of Iraq and Syria. Just before we begin, we would like to invite you to our Patreon account where you can get the full reports and other perks for our content. Supporting us on Patreon helps to keep our channel independent and create more videos.

Iraq and Syria in chaos

Iraq has been ravaged by conflict with practically no interruption since the US invasion in 2003. The fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime destabilized the country and resulted in a long insurgency against the occupying American forces. Progress in state-building was slow and limited in scope. The US ultimately withdrew its troops from the country in 2011 by a decision of then-President Barack Obama; but Iraq was still too weak to ensure the authority of the central government over all of the territory. In the same year, the Arab Spring broke out all over the Middle East. In Syria, it rapidly degenerated into a violent civil war opposing the loyalists to President Bashar al-Assad and the rebels; a broad term indicating various armed groups of different affiliation, ranging from those who favoured Western-like democracy and jihadist groups.

Things got more complicated in 2014 with the rise of a Sunni extremist group that would later become known as Islamic State. Exploiting the chaos that reigned in Syria due to the civil war and the power vacuum caused by the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, it took control of large swathes of lands in the northern parts of the two countries. In particular, it seized important facilities such as oil fields and dams in Iraq and it even threatened Baghdad. This prompted the US to organize a multinational coalition to support the Iraqi government in its fight against the terrorist group by deploying special forces and by conducting air strikes. Soon, they also started operating in Syria, where the conflict was about to turn into a major international matter involving various foreign powers that supported the government or the rebels to pursue their own interest.

Russia intervened actively since 2015 to sustain Bashar al-Assad, its main ally in the area. Western powers assisted the rebels and bombed facilities to punish the loyalists for allegedly using chemical weapons against civilians. Turkey, who opposed the al-Assad government, became directly involved in 2016 with the main objective of preventing the formation of some kind of Kurdish territorial entity. As a matter of fact, the Kurds had rapidly proved to be an effective combat force in fighting the IS, and received support from the American-led coalition. This allowed them to take control over a large strip of territory at the border with Turkey, who feared the area would become independent or at least a rear base for Kurdish fighters operating against its territory. As such, it conducted several military operations to secure the lands along its borders and expel Kurdish forces. Iran also took part to the war by sending weapons and troops in support of al-Assad on the basis of the common Shia faith and of converging geopolitical interest. To counter its growing influence, Israel also carried out airstrikes in Syria against Iranian outposts.

Now, it seems that the two intertwined conflicts are about to end. In Syria the government is slowly restoring its authority and the Islamic State has lost almost all of the territory it controlled there and in Iraq. Yet, many issues remain unresolved, notably the role of Sunni Arabs and the Kurdish question.

Sunni Arabs: excluded from power

Sunni Arabs belong to the largest of the two main branches of Islam, the other being the Shias. But even though they are a majority in the Ummah as a whole, their situation in Iraq and Syria is particular.

For what concerns the former, Sunnis are indeed a minority. Most Iraqis are Shias, which also means that they are politically closer Iran, the main centre of Shiism. Yet, Sunnism had its glorious days in the country. During the Middle Ages, Baghdad was the heart of the mighty Abbasid Caliphate, from which today’s Islamic State took many symbols. More recently, Sunni Arabs formed the ruling elite in Iraq during the years of Saddam’s rule. His Ba’athist regime was dominated by Sunnis, which meant that in Iraq a minority was ruling over the majority. But the situation was reversed after Saddam was overthrown following the US invasion in 2003. Since Sunnis had formed the backbone of Saddam’s dictatorship, they were removed from their posts and largely excluded from power to the benefit of the Shias. At that point, the Sunni Arab community became the main pool of recruitment for the anti-American insurgency and then for the Islamic State. The situation has improved since then, but properly integrating Sunnis in Iraqi political life remains a central matter to stabilize the country.

The situation of Sunnis in Syria is the opposite and resembles that of Iraq under Saddam, albeit inverted. Sunni Arabs form the majority of Syria’s population, but the governing elite belongs to the Alawite movement, which is a sect of Shia Islam. This generated much resentment among Sunnis, who felt politically emarginated. As a result, many of them joined the ranks of the rebels when the uprising started in 2011. Now, the government seems close to prevailing, but it will have to establish a more inclusive form of governance to ensure peace in the long term.

The Kurds: a stateless people

In the case of the Kurds, the problem is slightly different. Here, it is not about a religious divide, but rather an ethnic and linguistic one. The Kurds are mostly Sunni and speak their own separate language, and as a single people they count around 40 million individuals. They live in a region located at the crossroad of Syria, Turkey, Iran and Iraq. Yet, their demands for an independent state have systematically been frustrated, and today they remain a stateless nation with little prospects of getting their own independent country.

Yet, they play an important political role. The lands where they live include the oil-rich areas of northern Iraq. The Kurdistan’s Workers Party, or PKK, has been waging a decade-long insurgency against Turkey to obtain independency or at least autonomy for Kurdistan; but Ankara has always firmly opposed their demands without hesitating to use violence and there is no indication that things will change anytime soon. In Iraq, several tens of thousand Kurds were killed by Saddam’s regime during the ‘80s in what is known as Anfal genocide. Later on, Iraqi and Syrian Kurds became America’s most effective on-the-ground allies in the fight against the Islamic State. But this angered Turkey out of fear that Kurdish-controlled territory could turn into an independent state or a base for operations on Turkish soil. As such, Ankara dispatched its military several times to secure Kurdish areas along its borders. However, this has led to a clash with the US, in a moment when bilateral relations are already strained. Washington has been supporting the Kurds and needs to reward them somehow; but any concession implying autonomy would upset Ankara, who is also an important ally. At the same time, Turkey cannot defy the US because the political and possibly economic retaliation might be too harmful. This has resulted into a stalemate that remains unresolved.

As in the case of Sunni Arabs, solving the Kurdish question will be of central importance for ensuring a long-lasting peace in Iraq and Syria, but finding a common agreement is even more difficult in this case: it is not a mainly domestic matter, but a transnational one involving various stakeholders, which makes finding a solution an even more complex endeavour.

Conclusion: ensuring inclusivity

As we have seen, conflict resolution in Iraq and Syria demands to integrate both Sunni Arabs and Kurds in the social and political life of the two countries. This is essential for granting peace in the long term: if Sunnis are not adequately represented, the Islamic State or a similar organization may soon rise again; while the Kurds may take arms and start a large-scale insurgency that would be difficult to tackle. Unfortunately, actually doing so is not easy. Both groups have powerful enemies and are internally fragmented, and other players can exploit these divisions for their own interests. As a matter of fact, major powers like the US, Russia, Iran and Turkey all have their own interests in the area; which is another complicating factor. In addition, given the large number of tribes, parties, armed factions, ethnic groups that live in Iraq and Syria, finding an agreement that satisfies everyone is extremely difficult. But to prevent the emergence of new jihadist groups or a new violent phase of the Turkish-Kurdish conflict and to ensure the stabilization of Iraq and Syria, a solution must be found in this sense.

That’s all for today guys, thanks for watching another KJ Vid. What are your views on CPEC, is it a good thing or bad thing for Pakistan? Is it likely to succeed or fail? We would love to hear your views in the comments below.

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The Ottoman Dynasty – Rise of Muslims Episode 6

Based entirely on the book by Ali Mahmood titled “Muslims” –

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The Ottoman dynasty governed the Muslims and built one of the largest empires the world has ever seen

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Iran’s Toughest Sanctions

Why is the United States imposing the “toughest sanctions in history” on Iran?

In 2018 November the United States re-imposed full sanctions on the Islamic Republic of Iran following Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear accord back in May. The US has vowed to impose and maintain the “toughest sanctions in history” on Iran.

For its part, the Iranian president Hassan Rouhani has struck a defiant tone vowing to “break” the sanctions. But the reality is Iran is facing an economic siege which threatens to create instability with potentially far-reaching social and political consequences.

Realistically, there are three potential scenarios at this stage. First is that Iran hunkers down to manage the embargo by using innovative ways to evade some of the sanctions. The Iranians will be hoping to out-last Trump, whose first term expires in January 2021. However, this strategy falls apart if (as it looks increasingly likely) Trumps secures a second term in office.

The second scenario is that Iran caves in and agrees to negotiate a new deal on Trump’s terms. As Trump has repeatedly made clear the US is seeking a new deal which not only radically renegotiates the terms and conditions of the existing deal – known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – but expands it to include restrictions on Iran’s ballistic missiles programme and changes to its regional policy.

The third (and worst) scenario is that tensions do not remain at the sanctions or economic level, but that they escalate, leading to indirect and possibly even direct clashes between Iranian and American forces in the Middle East. In this scenario the provocative actions of Washington’s key allies, notably Israel and Saudi Arabia, is crucial. Iran may strike these countries directly if it perceives an intolerable provocation or it comes to believe it can force an American retreat by striking at its allies.

But how did we get to this place in the first place?

History of Iran-US relations

Prior to the 1979 Iranian revolution, the United States and Iran were allies and Washington looked to Iran to maintain peace and stability in the Persian Gulf arena. But following the revolution the new revolutionary regime in Tehran found itself at odds with the US and relations rapidly deteriorated.

The climax came with the seizure of the US embassy in Tehran by revolutionary students in November 1979 under the pretext that the embassy was a “den of espionage” and to that end it was actively working against the Iranian revolution.

The real reason relates to the US decision to grant entry to the former Shah of Iran whom the revolutionaries wanted extradited to stand trial in Tehran. There was a real fear back then that the US would attempt to reinstall its former ally by overthrowing the Iranian revolution.

This fear brought back memories of the August 1953 coup (orchestrated by the CIA and Britain’s MI6) which overthrew Iran’s first democratically elected government – led by the nationalist Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaadegh – and reinstalled the Shah who had fled to Rome (Italy).

The August 1953 coup which overthrew Mossadegh was a pivotal moment in Iran’s modern history. Mossadegh was not only democratically elected but more importantly he was an icon of Iranian nationalism and was admired by nationalists across the region and beyond. It was Mossadegh’s decision to nationalise Iran’s oil industry – which had hitherto been in the clutches of the British “Anglo-Iranian Oil Company” (later renamed British Petroleum) – which had set him on a collision course with the Western powers led by Britain.

Mossadegh’s overthrow, followed by the instalment of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi as Shah, set the stage for the Iranian revolution 25 years later. It was based on this history – i.e. the US role in reinstalling the Shah and helping him to consolidate his rule for the next quarter of a century – that the Iranian revolutionaries staked out an oppositional stance vis-à-vis the United States.

Following the seizure of the US embassy in November 1979 bilateral relations were severed and the US began the long process of sanctioning virtually every aspect of the Iranian economy. The first sanctions targeted Iranian imports into the US. In addition, the US government froze $12 billion in Iranian assets. Hitherto these funds remain frozen and Iran not only seeks their return but also wants 40 years of interests to be taken into account as well.       

The next round of big sanctions came into effect 15 years later during the presidency of Bill Clinton. The latter sanctioned Iran’s oil industry by preventing US companies from investing in the Iranian oil and gas sector. A year later in 1996 the US congress went further by passing a law targeting foreign firms which invested more than $20 million a year in the Iranian energy sector.

This was the first time the US was using its clout to target non-US entities who did business with Iran. As such it was a significant escalation in America’s economic war against Iran and in hindsight it prepared the groundwork for today’s far-reaching sanctions regime.

The next round of sanctions was multilateral in nature in so far as they were prompted by United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions targeting specific features of Iran’s nuclear programme, notably uranium enrichment. The UNSC imposed its first round of sanctions – mostly targeting the nuclear sector – in December 2006.

But the US imposed additional sanctions on top and used the opportunity created by international concerns over Iran’s controversial nuclear programme to widen and deepen its own sanctions regime against the Islamic Republic.

Indeed, in October 2007, the US directly sanctioned Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) by designating its expeditionary wing, known as the Qods (Jerusalem) force as a terrorist organisation.

Moreover, in June 2010, the US exploited the international climate following the UNSC’s imposition of the fourth round of sanctions on Iran, to further target Iran’s energy and banking sectors. Then in January 2012 Washington went a step further by sanctioning Iran’s central bank.

Following the signing of the landmark nuclear deal in July 2015, much of the complex web of unilateral and multilateral sanctions that had been imposed on Iran since December 2006 were gradually eased but never fully lifted. However, the US kept in place its non-nuclear related unilateral sanctions, including wide-ranging sanctions against the IRGC on account of its alleged support for “terrorism”.

By withdrawing from the nuclear deal, the US is not only seeking to reimpose full sanctions, but is in fact going a step further by pledging to reduce Iranian oil exports to “zero”. This is a massive provocation and if the US comes anywhere near to achieving its goal then a confrontation with Iran is guaranteed.

Do Iran and America talk directly?   

In view of this bitter 40-year history, viewers would be excused in thinking that Iran and the United States rarely (if ever) talk directly. Whilst it is true that the two powers broke off diplomatic relations in late 1979 and have had no direct diplomatic representation on each other’s soils, nevertheless direct talks and even deals have materialised intermittently.

The best early example was the “Iran Gate” scandal of 1986 when the US government illicitly sold arms to Iran (in violation of its own arms embargo on the Islamic Republic) so as to secure the release of US hostages in Lebanon. The scandal had an additional illicit layer as the funds from the deal were transferred to the “Contras” rebels in Nicaragua who were fighting the leftist Sandinista government led by Daniel Ortega.

More recently Iran and the US engaged in secret talks in Muscat (Oman) in 2013 on finding a way out of the impasse presented by Iran’s nuclear programme. These secret meetings soon gave way to direct bilateral meetings between Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and his former US counterpart John Kerry.

It is also worth noting that Iranian and US envoys met directly in Baghdad in July 2007 to agree to a de-escalation in the Iraqi arena. At the time Iran was accused by the US of arming anti-American militants who were resisting the US-led occupation. Although this meeting didn’t produce a breakthrough, nevertheless it showed that even under the most adverse circumstances – when Iran and the US are fighting each other indirectly via proxies – they can still meet with a view to de-escalation.

Why talks are unlikely now

Donald Trump has called for direct talks with Iranian leaders, notably President Hassan Rouhani, on several occasions. On each occasion the Iranians have publicly rebuffed his outreach on the grounds that it is spurious and insincere.

Iran’s position is clear: namely that the current nuclear deal (JCPOA) is fit for purpose and consequently Iran will not be forced to renegotiate its terms and conditions. Moreover, the 12 list of demands issued by the US secretary of state Mike Pompeo back in May are effectively a call for surrender as compliance would mean Iran effectively giving up its independent foreign policy.

Amongst other demands, Pompeo wants Iran to fully withdraw from Syria, stop supporting Hezbollah and cease playing a role in the Yemen conflict. Clearly the Iranians will never agree to these terms and to that end Pompeo’s list of demands was an incitement to confrontation as opposed to a credible negotiating position.

Will Iran and the US go to war?

To many observers it is surprising that given the depth of hostility between Iran and the US, as reflected by the events of the past four decades, the two sides have not gone to war yet. It is worth noting that the two sides have clashed militarily but stopped short of declaring war.

The most intense clash occurred in April 1988 when in the course of one day – during Operation Praying Mantis – the US destroyed a quarter of the Iranian navy. This operation was part of a broader US effort to pressure Iran into accepting a ceasefire with Iraq in the long-running Iran-Iraq War.

The power differential between the US and Iranian militaries is one of the factors that military analysts cite to explain Iran’s reluctance to engage the US militarily. But Iran has come a long way since the late 1980s and the Iranian armed forces – in particular the IRGC – have developed a wide range of asymmetric capabilities and tactics which could be used to great effect against superior military powers.

Iran’s asymmetric capabilities – in addition to the Islamic Republic’s extensive reach and influence across the Middle East – makes the US reluctant to engage Iran militarily for fear of unintended consequences.

Nevertheless, despite both sides’ reluctance to go to war, a conflict could still break out either as a result of the cumulative effect of tensions or a mistake or misunderstanding which escalates suddenly and without warning.

The next two years are the most crucial yet in the 40-year standoff between Iran and America.               

 

Why is Israel cultivating ties with Oman?

In late October the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Oman, the sleepy Sultanate on the south-eastern edge of the Arabian Peninsula. Whilst the visit is consistent with Israel’s thawing relationship with a number of Arab countries, including Egypt and the Gulf states, nevertheless the visit to Muscat took observes by surprise.

That is mainly because Oman has been traditionally close to Iran, a deep-rooted relationship which tends to get stronger when Iran comes under severe pressure, as it is now with the re-imposition of tough and far-reaching US sanctions.

Therefore, by embracing Israel, Oman is risking its strong and fruitful ties to Iran, a political and strategic risk which Oman can ill afford in the long term.

The Geopolitics of Oman

Unlike some of her Gulf neighbours Oman has a long and proud history. Back in the 18th century the Sultanate of Oman successfully competed with Britain, Portugal and Iran for influence in the Persian Gulf, the Gulf of Oman and the Indian Ocean. The country has been more or less independent since the middle of the 16th century.

From a political point of view, the country is distinctive by the fact that it was ruled for a long time by an Imamate system based on the al-Ibadiyyah school of Islam. A derivative of the original Khawarij tendency, the al-Ibadiyyah survives only in Oman and small pockets in North Africa, notably Algeria.

Oman’s Ibadi identity is central to the country’s geopolitical profile. It sets Oman firmly apart from her Gulf neighbours which to varying degrees, and at an official level, follow a Wahhabi interpretation of Islam. It also sets it apart from Yemen and the Iranian Shia giant across the Gulf.

The Ibadi faith has also had a profound impact on Oman’s domestic politics and associated socio-economic and cultural institutions. In the popular imagination Oman is often characterised as a sleepy, benign and insular society. Regular travellers to Oman would likely attest to this description of the Sultanate.

Oman’s Foreign Policy

The guiding principles of Oman’s foreign policy was set down firmly in the 1970s. Up to that point and for much of the 20th century Oman was too consumed by internal division and strife to formulate and implement an effective foreign policy. This was a far cry from Oman’s role in previous centuries as a small empire on the edge of the Arabian Peninsula.

The turning point in the late 20th century came in the form of the so-called Dhofar rebellion (referencing the Omani province by that name) spearheaded by Marxist-Leninist rebels. The embattled Omani state finally managed to defeat this determined rebellion primarily with the help of British and more importantly Iranian military support (more on this later).

The most important point about the Dhofar conflict and its aftermath is that it forced the Omani ruling system to undertake deep and far-reaching structural and institutional reforms to elevate it to a level consistent with 20th century standards. For the first six decades of the 20th century Oman was essentially stuck in the past and barely functioning under the burden of obsolete institutions and associated policies.

The defeat of the rebellion in 1976 heralded the emergence of a unified and coherent Omani state which had both the confidence and the means to play an important role in its immediate external environment.

At that point Oman’s ruler Sultan Qaboos bin Said al-Said chose to adopt a balancing and mediatory role in regional and foreign policy. By all credible accounts, Sultan Qaboos is a wise and far-sighted leader who has expertly mobilised the resources of his small country to exert maximum influence in the regional environment, notably in relation to Yemen, Saudi Arabia, the wider Gulf region and Iran.

Broadly speaking, there are three important strands to Oman’s foreign policy, namely its membership of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), relationship with Iran and enduring ties to the United Kingdom. To understand Muscat’s place in the world it is vital that we undertake an in-depth examination of these three important dimensions of Omani foreign policy.

Oman and GCC: a reluctant member?

Oman joined the GCC at its inception in 1981 and has been an active member of its various branches and committees since. But this active participation does not necessarily mean full acquiescence to the general thrust of GCC policies. As it is now widely known the GCC has been reduced to essentially a vehicle for the promotion of Saudi Arabia’s, and to a lesser extent, the United Arab Emirates’, positions and interests in the Persian Gulf region.

But Oman dissents from this Saudi-UAE driven agenda in three important respects. Foremost, Oman is opposed to Saudi’s hostile policy on Iran and does not want the GCC to be used as a forum to push this agenda.

Second, Oman is officially neutral in the spat between the GCC (plus Egypt) and Qatar. But privately Oman harbours sympathy for Doha’s position and supports its balancing role vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia. Just like Qatar, Oman has much to lose if Saudi Arabia achieves its goal of establishing primacy in the Gulf region.

Third, Oman is opposed to the Saudi-UAE led war on Yemen both on humanitarian and geopolitical grounds. Oman shares a border with Yemen and stands to be deeply affected if Yemen disintegrates altogether. In order to blunt the effectiveness of the Saudi-Yemeni led war, Oman has reportedly gone to the extent of facilitating arms transfers to the Ansarullah movement, also known as the Houthis.

Oman and Iran: A Special Relationship

As stated earlier, Iran intervened militarily in the early and mid-1970s to help Oman defeat the Marxist-Leninist rebellion in Dhofar. This intervention was made by the former Shah of Iran whose goal was to act as the policeman of the Persian Gulf at the behest of America.

The Shah was overthrown in the 1979 Iranian revolution but the Omani ruler, Sultan Qaboos, never forgot Iran’s decisive military intervention in the Dhofar conflict. The Sultan knew very well that absent that intervention Oman would have likely disintegrated as a cohesive state and he would have lost his crown.

For this reason, Oman continued to maintain warm ties with revolutionary Iran thus qualifying as the only regional state whose relations with Iran were not upset or altered as a result of the Iranian revolution.

Oman’s simultaneously good ties with Iran and the West has enabled it to play a mediating role, particularly between Iran and the United States. For instance, Oman hosted secret talks between Iran and the US in 2013 on Iran’s nuclear programme. These talks sowed the seeds which eventually bloomed into the landmark nuclear accord of 2015.

Oman’s deep links with Britain  

In the modern period British influence in Oman was consolidated by the Treaty of Seeb (1920) which formalised Oman’s partition into two distinct regions, a coastal state and an autonomous interior.

The British continued to maintain influence in the latter part of the 20th century as demonstrated by the UK military intervention in the Dhofar conflict. At that point the British army struck up an enduring partnership with its Omani counterpart. This is foremost embodied by the “Swift Sword” series of manoeuvres, with the latest held in October 2018.

The British influence over Oman’s armed forces is the clearest indicator that ultimately Oman looks to the West for safety, security and survival.

Oman’s ties with Israel

Whilst Netanyahu’s visit to Muscat caught observers by surprise, it is important to note that Oman has had important contacts with Israel for more than two decades. The late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin visited Oman in late 1994, setting off a diplomatic engagement which produced an “agreement” just over a year later.

Moreover, Netanyahu’s visit was preceded by Israeli officials’ visit to Abu Dhabi and Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, leading the BBC to celebrate the “warming up” of Israeli-Arab ties after a “long deep freeze”.

Whilst the symbolism of Netanyahu’s visit to Muscat is important – in so far as it further erodes the taboo surrounding Israel in the Muslim world – in practical terms the Israeli Prime Minister was pursuing a narrow agenda during his eight-hour stop in the Omani capital. Most likely much of the content of his meeting with Sultan Qaboos revolved around Israel’s arch-foe Iran.

Israel is agitating for a full-frontal diplomatic, political, economic and potentially military assault on Iran. Israeli pressure played a decisive role in the Trump administration’s decision to abandon the landmark nuclear accord and by extension to re-impose harsh sanctions on Iran.

Beyond the US-led sanctions regime, Israel is trying to align more and more with Saudi Arabia with a view to creating a regional block against Iran. Oman stands in the way of that potential coalition.

Whilst Netanyahu cannot hope to turn Oman against Iran, but at minimum he aspires to enlist Oman’s help in thwarting Iran’s sanctions busting activities. As sanctions begin to bite Iran traditionally turns to friendly countries to help it evade certain sanctions or act as intermediaries with countries and entities who cannot afford to be seen to be doing direct business with the Islamic Republic.

Oman’s geographic position at the mouth of the Arabian Peninsula and the gateway to the Persian Gulf makes it critical to Iranian sanctions-busting activities, particularly in relation to the sale of oil and other petroleum products.

Conclusion: will Oman cave into Israeli pressure?

The Omani ruler and his inner circle probably view their outreach to Israel as part of their balancing and mediation role in the region. These are the guiding principles of Oman’s foreign policy. Based on these principles, Oman strives to be on good terms with all regional powers.

But the Omani leadership also places a premium on loyalty and longevity. Oman’s special relationship with Iran is nearly fifty years old and as stated earlier the Omani ruler continues to feel deeply indebted to Iran for that country’s decisive role in safeguarding Oman’s territorial integrity and sovereignty back in the 1970s.

Furthermore, the Omani ruler is known to take the long view, a feature cemented by his nearly 50-year rule. It is plausible that he thinks that eventually Iran and the United States are going to strike a “grand bargain” to begin the process of normalisation. In view of its established role as a mediator Oman hopes to play a big role in that reconciliation process.

In the final analysis, leaving Iran aside, there is no getting away from the symbolic importance of Netanyahu’s visit. The symbolism assumes even greater significance when set against the backdrop of Rabin’s visit to Muscat twenty-four years ago. On current trajectory Oman is on course to develop full-fledged ties with the Jewish state.  

Can India become a global power?

India is a country that is expected to play a central role in the 21st century. Having a large and fast-growing economy, it is also strengthening its military and is well positioned to dominate South Asia and extend its influence beyond it. But it must also face notable challenges, both domestically and geopolitically.

THE GEOGRAPHICAL BASES OF INDIA’S POWER

To understand India’s current international role and to anticipate the one it will have in the coming decades, it is necessary to analyse the geographic fundamentals of its power.

The first thing to consider is its dimension. India is a vast state and this has several positive and negative implications. On the one hand, this means that India can benefit from a notable strategic depth, but on the other it also means that connecting all the parts of its territory is a difficult endeavour.

This must be considered along with India’s configuration. Its territory presents a wide range of environments and climatic areas. Far to the north there are the towering mountains of Himalaya, a formidable geographic barrier that separates it from China. This is important, considering the complicated relations between the two powers.

Then, there are the fertile valleys of the Ganges and other rivers, which are vital sources of water and useful communication lanes that have favoured agriculture, industrialization and energy production.

The Deccan Plateau that occupies the southern part of the Peninsula is another notable geographic feature, also because of its mineral resources.

India holds quite abundant ore deposits that have helped its industrialization. In terms of energy, while it has its own production of oil and other fossil fuels, this is not sufficient to meet the country’s large and expanding needs.

Other areas include jungles, arid deserts and tropical shores; which all present both advantages and challenges: for instance, the Thar desert between India and Pakistan is a useful buffer zone, but is also a problem for economic development.

Finally, in terms of position India occupies most of South Asia, and its location favours both defence and power projection. As seen before, it benefits from good natural barriers to the north, but at the same time its neighbours are not friendly.

To the north-east, China is getting everyday more powerful and its geopolitical ambitions are a matter of concern for India.

To the north-west lays Pakistan, which apart from being India’s arch-nemesis since the 1947 partition has also built close ties with the PRC. But while the situation to the north is very challenging for India, its southern borders are very favourable.

There, the coast extends for thousands of kilometres on the open Ocean. This means three things: first, that there are no hostile powers at the border that threaten India’s security; even though it does not see positively China’s activities in that maritime area.

Second, this grants India an easy access to offshore resources and most importantly to sea trade. This is also favoured by the fact that India is located mid-way between East Asia and Europe, two of the world’s richest economic areas, plus to the Middle East and its energy resources. Third, this enables India to project its power with little effort, notably through its Navy.

Yet, there are also challenges deriving from India’s position, notably linked to climate change. Having a typical monsoon climate characterized by cycles of abundant rainfalls and dry periods, South Asia is extremely exposed to its effects, as demonstrated by the seriousness and frequency of recent phenomena like drought, floods, and violent storms. Moreover, this also favours the spread of pests and disease. All such factors bear enormous costs both in the form of direct damage and of prevention efforts, and is a notable obstacle to India’s development.

India’s economic and military power

The rise of India as a major power largely lays on its economic development. In 2017, its GDP rose by 6.7% and today it is the world’s fourth in terms of Purchasing Power Parity. Its economy is diversified and several Indian firms have become major players in global business. Financially, India is generally stable, even though it experienced some troubles in recent years.

But the country is not yet fully developed. Infrastructures remain insufficient, and inefficiency exist in various sectors. While unemployment is low (less than 9% in 2017), larger shares of the population continue to live below the poverty line, and traditional agriculture still absorbs a considerable portion of the workforce. Income inequality remains strong, with large differences in wealth distribution between upper and lower classes and between different regions.

In the demographic dimension, India has a population of around 1.28 billion people, making it the second largest in the world just behind China, and it is expected to surpass it in the coming years. Most Indians are young, which is positive for its economic development. But at the same time having a big population also brings several challenges: achieving food and energy security becomes more difficult, as well as providing public services such as a healthcare.  Moreover, this raises the problem of overcrowding and pollution, especially in large cities. Finally, the differences in wealth distribution can result in to social tensions: most of the population lives in the north, where a considerable Muslim minority is also present, but these areas are poorer than the southern parts of the country. In this regard, it should be noted that India has been fighting for decades against the insurgency of a Maoist group called the Naxalites.

Nevertheless, India continues its rise, also in military terms. It can field a large force that regularly participates to international exercises, and over the past few years it has been spending around 2.5% off its GDP in defence expenditures to modernize its armed forces. The Navy holds a particular importance, as it represents the mean to project its power across the Indian Ocean. As of today, the Indian Navy operates a large fleet that includes an aircraft carrier, a nuclear-powered attack submarine and several other units. In cooperation with Russia, India is also developing the BrahMos hypersonic cruise missile. Finally, it must not be forgotten that India is a nuclear power with an estimated stockpile of more than 100 warheads.

India’s geopolitics and foreign policy

For decades, India has maintained a nonaligned policy, of which it has been one of the leaders. But non-alignment does not mean neutrality.  As a matter of fact, India has pursued its own national interests and has been involved in several conflicts.

Its oldest rival is of course Pakistan. Immediately after the partition in 1947, the two fought a major war, followed by another two in 1965 and 1971, plus series of skirmishes. Today, the relations remain tense, but the conflict remains frozen because both states have developed a nuclear strike capacity.

The main point of the divergence is Kashmir, which remains divided between India, Pakistan and China (who controls the Aksai Chin since the 1962 war with India). Apart from having become a symbol of the Indo-Pakistani rivalry, Kashmir also has a strategic importance for these powers.

Ruling it allows to control the flow of water along the Indus valley, with all the consequences for human and economic development. For India, Kashmir is the gateway towards Central Asia as well as a region to control in order to prevent Pakistan from cooperating with its powerful Chinese ally.

On the other hand, for Pakistan dominating it is necessary to have more strategic depth and to preserve its connection with China, especially now that they are working together to develop the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), an ambitious infrastructure project to connect the two countries and that Islamabad considers fundamental to boost its economy, even though there are concerns over the debts its completion will bring.

This makes it clear that Pakistan is not India’s only strategic problem, and not even the main one. In recent years, China has become the prominent national security concern for India. One reason is the former’s close ties with Pakistan, but there also direct disputes between Beijing and New Delhi, namely over the aforementioned Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh. The latter belongs to India, but is claimed by the PRC, and it represents a unique strategic challenge for New Delhi. As a matter of fact, it is connected to the rest of India only via a narrow passage chocked between China and Bangladesh and known as the “chicken neck”.  India fears that in case of a conflict the Chinese will rapidly overtake the Arunachal Pradesh by attacking this passage and cutting it from the rest of its territory.

In addition, Beijing and New Delhi are engaged in a geopolitical competition in South Asia. In 2017, the two powers faced each other in a military standoff over the Doklam Plateau, a strategic territory belonging to Bhutan (traditionally close to India) but claimed by the PRC; and since then they have been building up their military forces along the border.

China is also establishing ties with Nepal, raising concerns that the country me fall under its control, which would allow it to directly threaten Northern India. New Delhi has similar concerns over Bangladesh, because if it were to adopt a pro Chinese stance, the “chicken neck” would become even more vulnerable.

But the Sino-Indian rivalry is not limited to South Asia. The two are also competing in Indochina, where each of them is promoting its own economic and political projects. New Delhi is doing so on the basis of its “Look East Policy” launched in the 90s, whereas the latter considers this region an important element of its broader “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) strategy. In this regard, it is notable that India has refused to cooperate with China in this ambitious project.

Another country where their interest collide is Iran. India considers it a potentially precious ally, because it would allow to take Pakistan between two fires. Moreover, it is also a source of oil. But for these very same result and to counter the U.S., China is also interested in building a partnership with Iran.

Last but not least, there is the maritime dimension. Beijing is fostering its ties and establishing a greater presence in the Indian Ocean, in the optic of developing its Maritime Silk Road to connect its territory with Europe and the Middle East and by sea. But New Delhi considers this as “its own” Ocean and as an essential area for its plans to extend its influence on a global scale. Therefore, it is concerned by Beijing’s initiatives; notably in countries like Sri Lanka and the Maldives. In regard to the letter, the political turmoil that has affected the archipelago was largely to be interpreted in the optic of the Sino-Indian rivalry; and the recent electoral victory of Mohamed Solih seems to have marked a point in favour of India.

As a consequence of its rivalry with Beijing, New Delhi is also developing closer ties with other capitals that share similar security interests. The most notable trend is the gradual rapprochement with Washington. Even though it was never openly opposed to the US, during much of the Cold War India sympathized with the USSR and its relations with America were rather cold. But now that both are concerned over China’s rise, they are gradually establishing more cooperation, notably in security terms. India is following a similar policy with Japan and Australia, two other powers that are worried over the initiatives of the PRC. Together, these four states form the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, an informal framework to ensure stability in the Indo-Pacific.

Two other noteworthy partners for India are Israel and the EU. The relations with the former are complicated by India’s tilts towards Iran, but the Jewish State remains an important partner as an arms supplier and for technological cooperation. On its part, the EU has a central role for India’s trade. Lastly, it should also be mentioned that New Delhi is increasing its economic cooperation with Africa as well.

Conclusion: India at the crossroad

This overview allows to draw some conclusion on India’s current and future role. The country finds itself at a crossroad. It has all the potential to emerge as a major world power, but to achieve this objective it must successfully solve the multiple challenges it is facing. Only time will tell to what extent it will manage to, but what is sure is that India is a power to monitor, and that in any case it will have a considerable impact in world affairs in the coming years.

This article was originally commissioned and first published by KJ Vids. It was written by Alessandro Gagaridis. You can visit his website at www.strategikos.it. Please request permission to info@kjvids.co.uk before re-posting.

Does America need Saudi Arabia?

America is pretty much less dependent on Saudi oil now, but why does it still need Saudi Arabia?

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Trump on Jerusalem – 10 Days On

Violence, protests and arrests have followed US President Donald Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Donald Trump made the announcement on December 6 and said the US would begin the process of moving its embassy to the city from Tel Aviv. In this video we take a look at five key developments since his announcement.

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Amazon Creeps to Middle East Market

Earlier this year in March 2017. Amazon confirmed that it has acquired Souq.com, an e-commerce marketplace serving the Middle East based out of Dubai, which was already commonly described as “the Amazon of the Middle East.” Amazon did not disclose the price in a short statement announcing the deal, although rumours are that it was valued around $650 million.

Souq.com launched the Amazon Global Store on Sunday to allow UAE consumers to tap the US online store for more than one million American-offered products. Online shoppers in the UAE will have the option to purchase items ranging from apparel, shoes and handbags to home goods and watches, the company said on Monday.

Ronaldo Mouchawar, co-founder and chief executive of Souq.com, told The National that the company would add more selection and inventory. “Today we’ve started with more than one million products, but this is only Day 1,” he said.

Amazon’s acquisition of Souq marks the company’s first move into serving the Middle East region, which covers a total of some 50 million consumers across several countries, as well as a relatively untapped market: only about two percent of all retail spend today is made online, according to a report from McKinsey.

“Amazon and SOUQ.com share the same DNA – we’re both driven by customers, invention, and long-term thinking,” said Russ Grandinetti, Amazon Senior Vice President, International Consumer, in a statement. “SOUQ.com pioneered e-commerce in the Middle East, creating a great shopping experience for their customers. We’re looking forward to both learning from and supporting them with Amazon technology and global resources. And together, we’ll work hard to provide the best possible service for millions of customers in the Middle East.”

The acquisition of Souq is the latest move from Amazon to expand in the general region. Up to now, many of its moves in neighboring markets have been organic — that is, Amazon building its international operations from the ground up rather than through acquisitions.

Saudi-Israel: A Desperate Alliance to cling on to America’s Hegemony of the Middle East

On 16th November 2017, The chief of staff of Israel’s military (IDF) said that his country is ready to share intelligence on Iran with Riyadh.

“With [US] President Donald Trump, there is an opportunity for a new international alliance in the region and a major strategic plan to stop the Iranian threat,” Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF)

This announcement coincided with the 40th anniversary of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s historic visit to Jerusalem.
Sadat shocked the Middle East and the entire world when he announced in 1977, without any prior warning, that he was prepared to board a plane to Jerusalem and address the Knesset.

Now, the covert relationship that Israel has with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states is no longer a secret.

Talking to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, a senior source in Israel said that following Eizenkot’s interview, “it is obvious that the relationship between Israel and Saudi Arabia will be made public in the long term. It may not be built on the Egyptian model of full peace. It may be more like ‘Moroccan-style,’ with the relationship kept on a low burner. It may not be official, but beneath the surface, it will flourish.”

Although Saudi officials remained silent on underhanded relations, their Israeli counterparts have made no efforts to hide that meetings between the two countries have taken place, with invitations for future visits.

Last week, Israeli Communications Minister Ayoub Kara invited Saudi’s Grand Mufti Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh to visit Israel, and two days later, Israel’s chief-of-staff Gadi Eizenkot gave the first-ever official interview to Saudi news outlet Elaph, saying that Israel is ready to share intelligence with Saudi Arabia on Iran.

The recent domestic upheaval in Saudi Arabia, which saw the arrest of princes, ministers and high-profile businessmen carried out by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was seen as a sign to crush dissent under the banner of cracking down on corruption.

“The political changes in Saudi Arabia and the desire to consolidate power is the main reason why these relations with Israel were opened,” said Mahjoob Zweiri, an associate professor with the Gulf Studies Program department at Qatar University.

“These Arab states are motivated by the survival of their regimes, and that is what pushes them to the stronger state in the region,” he added. Khalil Shaheen, a political analyst based in the West Bank city of Ramallah. It is clear that Washington is playing in the convergence between two of its oldest and closest Mideast allies.

Days before Ibn Salman’s crushing of dissent, Jared Kushner — Trump’s son-in-law was in Saudi Arabia. He reportedly spent late nights talking with Prince Mohammed

As US power declines in Middle East, it is relying on it’s two proxies Israel and Saudi Arabia to balance Iran which has been strengthened following the Iraq war.

The recent events indicate the desperation of America in retaining hegemonic control of the Middle East and Saudi Arabia’s desperate attempts for regime survival.

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Assad appears on Syrian currency for first time

Read original article by Tom Perry and Mark Potter on the Reuters or read below;

  1. President Bashar al-Assad has appeared on the Syrian currency for the first time, his portrait printed on a new 2,000-pound banknote that went into circulation on Sunday.
  2. Central bank governor Duraid Durgham said the 2,000-pound note was one of several new notes printed years ago but the decision to put it into circulation was delayed “due to the circumstances of the war and exchange rate fluctuations”.
  3. The new note is equal to around $4 (£3.07) at current exchange rates. The currency has plunged in value since the conflict began in 2011, from 47 pounds to the dollar in 2010 to around 500 pounds to the dollar at present.
  4. Citing wear and tear of the existing notes, Durgham said the time was right to put the new note into circulation, the state news agency SANA reported.
  5. Previously, the highest denomination of Syrian banknote was 1,000 pounds. Assad’s father, the late President Hafez al-Assad who died in 2000, appeared on coins and on an older version of the 1,000 pound note, which is still in circulation.
  6. Durgham said the new note was put into circulation “in Damascus and a number of the provinces”.After years of war estimated to have killed hundreds of thousands of people, Assad appears militarily unassailable thanks in large part to direct military support from his allies Russia and Iran.
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