By Raghida Dergham
China has no strategy, but it has a
policy. This is what Chinese experts have said in the course of
explaining – or justifying – Chinese policy toward the countries
of the Middle East. Russia is clinging to its policy because it is a state
that understands strategy and
what makes a strategy, from geography to natural resources. Russian experts speak in this manner,
sometimes condescendingly, with
their Arab counterparts. The Europeans are fragmented and they
confess to their disunity. Their
strategy is tactical in nature. For
their part, the Americans take turns
in refusing to blame the United
States on the one hand, and in admitting their tactical mistakes, on
the other. When it comes to a longterm U.S. strategy, most American experts almost deny its existence, arguing instead that U.S. policy is the policy of respective presidents and administrations.
This is some of the most prominent impressions that came out
of the Abu Dhabi Strategic Debate
forum, organized by the Emirates
Policy Centre (EPC), in collaboration with the Foreign Affairs Ministry in the UAE earlier this week.
The goal of the event is to reach a
common understanding among international and regional actors
about tendencies of regional and
international powers, as well as
enhance efforts of policy-making
among those actors. EPC is headed by Dr. Ebtisam Al Qutbi, the
first woman to ever head a thinktank in the UAE.
Going into the details of the
topics addressed by the meeting,
including the impact of hotspots
on Gulf countries, as the conference put it, the international actors seem to have brought interesting insights with them to the
Middle East region, deserving
pause for the sake of a better understanding of current regional and
international developments.
UAE policy
In the opening session, Emirati Minister of State for Foreign
Affairs Dr. Anwar Mohammad
Gargash identified the main outlines of UAE policy, calling for a
“clear vision,” a “comprehensive
strategy,” and “coordinated efforts” regionally and internationally to tackle challenges including,
but not limited to, ISIS.
Gargash considered war on
extremist groups a necessity because extremists “were not amenable to moderation” and urged a
clampdown on the flow of money
and fighters to where these groups
are, and also called for promoting
education, culture, and openness.
Concerning Syria and Iraq,
Gargash blamed sectarian and exclusionary policies. He expressed
“cautious hope” in recently nominated Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar
al-Abadi but described his comments on the statements made by
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden attacking the UAE and Saudi Arabia
by saying: “Unfortunately, they
undermine the willingness to turn
the page on the past” and raise
Egypt represents the “cornerstone of stability in the region,” as
per UAE foreign policy, Gargash
said. He stressed that Egypt must
regain its historical and key position in the region and the world.
Iran is a neighbor with whom
warm relations should be sought,
Gargash also said, but he stressed
that there was a difference between
Iran as a state and society and Iran
as an expansionist foreign policy.
Iran’s policy has provoked sectarian wars, exacerbated instability
and promoted chaos in Iraq, Syria,
Bahrain and Yemen. As for nuclear
negotiations, the Gulf countries
want them to lead to an airtight
agreement. Otherwise, these countries will have to think about what
better suits their interests.
Gargash stressed that the
UAE had no ambitions for a greater regional role, preferring to be a
model for “moderation” in the region that refused attempts to
“change our world through extremist movements.”
The first intervention came
from Dr. Vitaly Naumkin, director
of the Institute of Oriental Studies
and a professor at the faculty of
global policy at the University of
Moscow. Russia and Middle East
He said that the Middle East
is not high up on the list of priorities and strategic interests of the
Russian Federation, albeit it remains of interest to the Russians.
Naumkin stressed that the oil and
gas factor is extremely important
to Moscow, indicating that there
are a lot of conspiracy theories involving Russia and the Gulf. In
particular, he referenced an article
by American journalist Thomas
Friedman in which he wrote that
there was a U.S.-Saudi conspiracy
against Russia behind the dramatic fall in oil prices in the past few
There have been voices saying
falling oil and gas prices were part
of a new strategy to harm Russia,
being one of the world’s top exporters of oil and gas. It has also
been said that one of the goals of
this strategy was to push Iran to
show more flexibility in nuclear
negotiations, which, if successful,
would lead to lifting the sanctions
on Tehran.
Russia is committed to the alliance with Iran in the Middle East
and this was clear through all the
Russian interventions made at the
Abu Dhabi Debate. The Russian
participants were almost in complete agreement in the main topics
of their interventions, which did
not diverge much from official
Russian policy.
What is frustrating about a
large number of interventions made
by the Russians, whether by
speakers behind podiums or in the
course of their comments on the
sidelines of the meeting, was the
extent of arrogance and condescendence they displayed toward Arab
attitudes and interventions. There
was a kind of contempt and ridicule of the Arab character and not
just of the various opinions expressed by the participating Arabs. The goal of the forum, which
invited more than 10 Russian figures, was to open the door for interaction and exchange of experiences.
Unfortunately, the Russian
presence was characterized by
mocking Arab “sentimentality”
and by belittling the Arab positions, which insist in their majority on independent decision-making within the Arab region, away
from Iranian meddling in Arab countries.
The Russian comments – including the ones made by Dr. Elena Suponina, director of the Middle East and Asia Center, Russian
Institute for Strategic Studies –
stressed that Iran is not only a key
player in solving the problems of
the Arab countries but must also
be a leading player in solving the
Arab-Israeli conflict.
Suponina downplayed Arab
roles and leaders, and suggested
that the UAE follow Russia in lifting the sanctions on Iran, given that
the UAE has the highest trade volume with Iran in the region.
Suponina completely ignored Arab
objections to Iran’s military roles
in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen.
Russia’s order of precedence
Dr. Ekaterina Stepanova, head
of the peace and conflict studies
unit at the Institute of the World
Economy & International Relations (IMEMO), Moscow,
summed up the conditions that
govern whether or not a given issue is seen as important in Russian foreign policy as follows:
First, the issue has to be a source
of concern for society, such as the
Afghan refugees and the situation
in Ukraine. Second, it has to be
linked to energy because Russia is
affected by the state of oil and gas.
Third, it must be linked to the issue of extremism and terrorism
because Russia assigns great importance to the impact of ISIS and
extremism in general on Russian
Back to Naumkin, he said that
Russia was willing to cooperate in
the fight against ISIS as part of a
joint comprehensive strategy that
he said “has not been adopted
Naumkin called for including
Tehran and Damascus in this strategy as a condition. He said that
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad
wants to participate in the U.S.led coalition against ISIS and that
Russia “is willing to support his
efforts in the fight against terrorism.”
The fact of the matter is that
there is no change in Russian policy in terms of the centrality of its
alliance with Iran and its commitment not to backtrack from supporting Tehran’s regional ambitions in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and
Yemen. There is no change in Russian policy in terms of supporting
Assad’s bid to remain in power.
Moscow is pleased to have the
members of the anti-ISIS coalition
wage a war on its behalf to a certain extent. If the war against ISIS
were confined to within Syria, this
would most likely affect Russia and
Iran more than others. Hence, practically and realistically, Russia and
Iran are not in a hurry to take part
in the coalition against ISIS. They
are both satisfied by the developments in the war, because it relieves some pressure on them,
even if provisionally.
This does not mean, from an
American perspective, that Syria
is no longer a quagmire for Russia
and Iran’s own “Vietnam.” There
are still those who insist on the
theory regarding the long-term U.S.
strategy that sees the developments in Syria as an opportunity
for U.S. interests, first because
Russia “winning over” a Syria in
ruins, a Syria that is torn apart,
and a Syria that is overrun by terrorism and extremism is not a strategic victory. Second, Iran’s “victories” in Syria pave the way for a
broader and deeper immersion for
Iran and its regional ambitions in a
bloody war like the one raging in
Here, returning to the issue of
the difference between strategy
and policy, i.e. tactic, the United
States appears to have a strategy,
while the policies of the administration governing it appears to be
a tactic. For this reason, the majority in the Arab region are convinced that everything that is happening is part of a U.S. plot. U.S.
experts reject this view and accuse
its proponents of conspiratorial
China and Middle East
In the context of the equation
of strategy versus tactics, the Chinese participants voiced some interesting opinions during the Abu
Dhabi event. The first surprise
came in an intervention by Dr. Chen
Yiyi, head of the Center for Middle East Peace Studies at Shanghai
He said: “China has no strategy or a vision on the Middle East.”
He said he asked himself how China wronged Syria in the context of
the argument that no one is innocent in what happened in Syria,
but was not convinced by the answers. He spoke about the negative perception of China in the
context of the rift with the Gulf
countries. He talked about the U.S.
policy based on not sending U.S.
troops to the battlefield, and said
that the “Israelization” of the United States has reached a peak. Yiyi
declared that China does not believe in quick change because it
runs the risk of failure, saying that
China had no experience in building institutions but had a unique
experience in building an administration for a large number of people and was determined to press
ahead with economic development
as the mainstay of its policy.
For his part, Dong Manyuan,
senior research fellow specialized
in Middle East studies, China Institute of International Studies
(CIIS), Beijing, stressed the core
constant principles in Chinese
policies related to absolute respect
for countries’ sovereignty.
He said that China is working
to strengthen its relations with
Arab countries and at the same time
to maintain relations with Iran. He
defended the triple Chinese veto
in the Syrian issue at the Security
Council and said: “Arabs wanted
a different stance from China in
the Security Council, but China
adheres to the principles of international relations such as non-interference.”
When he was confronted with
some tough questions, he ignored
them completely and made a passionate and combative speech on
the Palestinian issue instead, in a
deliberate move to outmaneuver the
Arabs at the conference.
His colleague Dr. Jisi Wang,
president of the Institute of International and Strategic Studies, Peking University, Beijing, called on
the United States and the Arab
countries concerned to abandon
their demand for Bashar al-Assad
to step down. He diagnosed the
practical aspect of Chinese policy
on the basis that China has no welldefined policies, and instead relies
on policies related to the needs of
the market.
As is known, China has enhanced and developed its economic ties with Iran and military ties
with Israel simultaneously, even as
Chinese experts were engaging in
one-upmanship over Palestine and
defending the veto without any
attempt to understand Arab criticisms.
Because China and Russia are
allies of Iran – and also have advanced relations with Israel – it is
perhaps worthwhile to note the
Iranian interventions at the event
by Dr. Seyed Hossein Mousavian, associate research scholar at the
Program on Science and Global
Security at Princeton University’s
Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, and
Dr. Mohsen Milani, professor of
politics and chair of the department of government and international affairs at the University of
South Florida in Tampa.
Iran’s objectives in region
Mousavian called on the Arabs to alter their strategy and refrain from supporting continued
sanctions on Iran because a nuclear agreement would be good for the
region and said that there was a
need to promote regional cooperation to achieve stability in oil pric-
es. Mousavian said agreeing to consider ISIS the largest threat was a
good beginning for fostering cooperation between Iran and the Arab
Gulf countries, calling for the creation of a new regional security
system (practically replacing the
Gulf Cooperation Council).
Mousavian also said that IranianGulf negotiations must take place
without preconditions, which include for example the demand that
Iran withdraw from Iraq and Syria, and so on.
Milani summed up Iran’s major objectives in the region, including maintaining a good relationship
with Iraq; managing the mini-cold
war with Saudi Arabia that has
been raging for years; and agreeing
on regional security arrangements
to maintain the security of the region and to ensure the continued
flow of energy supplies.
Milani challenged the accusations against Iran of pursuing sectarian policies, saying that Iran
acts as a state based on its interests, though it may use sectarianism as a tool like any other. Milani
said it was important to contain
sectarianism, especially since Shiites do not account for more than
20 percent of the population in the
region. Interestingly, Milani criticized the Arab objection to Iranian
intervention in the affairs of Arab
countries when Iran is not an Arab
nation, considering this to be “discrimination.”
It was very useful to listen to
Iranian, Chinese, and Russian opinions, though it would have been
better if the messages were expressed with less arrogance. The
goal of such conferences, in part,
is for experts to influence one another and convey a useful gist that
would help shape policies, be they
tactical or strategic in nature. Hopefully, the next round will see less
patronization and more attentive
engagement. Dr. Ebtisam al-Qutbi
did well to design a forum that highlighted the importance of international roles in the Middle East,
beginning with Russia and China,
and not ending with Europe and
the United States.
Raghida Dergham is Columnist
and Senior Diplomatic Correspondent for the London-based alHayat, the leading independent
Arabic daily, since 1989. She
writes a regular weekly strategic
column on International Political
Affairs. This article was seen at Al
Arabiya News.
it will not be an obstacle to the
reconstruction and agreed that the
Palestinian unity government will
oversee the reconstruction of Gaza
Strip. It is true that some people
may look at that as political concessions, but at the same time it
shows the flexibility and political
skill of the leaders of Hamas. Indeed, if the government of national unity has succeeded, Hamas certainly will incur part of the praise
because it was involved in the formation of that government. While
if the government fails, Hamas will
certainly shift the blame on the
shoulders of the Palestinian Authority, Israel and the international community. This situation accurately described by Nathan
Brown, a professor at George
Washington University, who said:
“The balance between the pro- and
anti-Hamas assistance might shift,
but Hamas cannot be entirely
avoided, nor can it be in complete
control.” Hamas cannot ignore
what is happening in the region,
especially the American war on
ISIS. Hamas is fully aware that
Israel might exploit the situation
in the region to its advantage, thus
it is necessary to wait until the
picture becomes clear in the Middle East. Or, as the Arab proverb
says “bend until the storm passes.” More importantly, Hamas
knows that calm and economic recovery in Gaza is in the interest of
both Egypt and Israel. The Egyptian government is fighting a war
in the Sinai against Ansar al-Bayt
al-Maqdis, who pledged allegiance
to ISIS, consequently it’s not in
Cairo’s interest to see the situation in Gaza deteriorating to dangerous levels. Perhaps Benny
Gantz, the chief of staff of Israeli
Defense Forces, was more candid
and put it bluntly: “At the end of
the day, 1.8 million Palestinians
live there, and the quiet is also dependent on the trend of creating
economic hope there.” No disarmament Perhaps most importantly, Hamas did not pledge any commitments to disarmament, or resolve any of its military apparatus. Indeed, Israel has failed to link
international aid for the reconstruction of Gaza to its central demand
that the Islamic movement must
disarm. This situation could provide Hamas with the opportuni-
ties to re-arm and make up for what
they lost during the summer’s war
with Israel. This dilemma is
summed up by Khaled Abu
Toameh, a distinguished senior fellow at the Gatestone Institute :
“From now, the PA will be working toward rebuilding the Gaza
Strip while Hamas will use its own
resources to smuggle in additional
weapons and prepare for the next
war with Israel.”
Hamas itself needs a period of
quiet to reassess its military strategy and compensate for what it
lost of human cadres and military
equipment in the war with Israel.
In that regard, the existence of a
national unity government will certainly increases its focus on the
development of its own capabilities and removes the heavy burden of managing nearly two million people. Without a doubt the
Islamic movement has gained great
popularity in the recent war with
Israel, in addition to that the Hamas still holds invaluable “cards”
which may play an important role
to strengthen its political prestige.
One of them is a prisoner exchange
deal between Hamas and Israel,
where it is believed that the movement retains the remains of two
Israeli soldiers killed during the
summer war in Gaza.
The situation for the Palestinian Authority may be more complicated as they are required to
fulfill the Palestinians political aspirations, to oversee the reconstruction of Gaza, at the same time
provide for the economic needs of
the millions of Palestinians. In the
event of failure, it is very likely
that the Palestinians will blame the
PA and its’ President Mahmoud
Abbas, not Hamas.
Dr Naser al-Tamimi is a UKbased Middle East analyst, and
author of the book “China-Saudi
Arabia Relations, 1990-2012:
Marriage of Convenience or Strategic Alliance?” He is an Al Arabiya regular contributor, with a
particular interest in energy politics, the political economy of the
Gulf, and Middle East-Asia relations. The writer can be reached
at: Twitter: @nasertamimi and
email: [email protected]
How Britain fell from grace as a global military power
By Peter Oborne
Britain’s 13-year stay in Afghanistan is over. Camp Bastion, in
Helmand Province — UK troops’
main Afghan base since 2006 —
was handed over to Afghan control yesterday. The courage and
fighting spirit displayed by our
servicemen and women has been
beyond praise and a matter of permanent national pride.
Some 453 soldiers have died,
while many hundreds of others
have lost limbs or been mutilated
in other life-changing ways. They
will always carry Afghanistan with
them. Maybe this heroism and
blood sacrifice has held the rest of
us back from analysing our Afghan
By contrast, the Iraq war has
already been the subject of four
official investigations. The fifth and
longest such study, the Chilcot
Inquiry, now looks almost certain
to be published early in the new
year, and thus before the next general election.
There are some sound reasons
for this contrast. The case for invasion in Iraq was quickly tainted
by claims of lying and fabrication,
augmented by doubts about the
integrity of the government information machine. There have been
far fewer accusations of bad faith
in Afghanistan. In addition, voters
have tended to see Afghanistan,
unlike Iraq, as a relatively virtuous conflict.
Nevertheless there are important questions that now scream to
be asked. These do not, as a whole,
concern the original invasion of
Afghanistan in the immediate aftermath of the destruction of the
Twin Towers in 2001. This was a
brilliant and cleanly executed operation. The questions concern
what followed.
Specifically, why was there no
serious attempt to rebuild Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban?
This failure created the power vacuum that British forces sought to
fill when they took charge in Helmand five years later. In retrospect,
it is obvious that neither the politicians nor the generals who reported to them knew what they were
Britain had no serious knowledge or understanding of southern
Afghanistan. As a result, we were
blind to the difficulties which we
were about to confront, and did
not send in nearly enough troops.
This fundamental ignorance was
well expressed when John Reid,
as defence secretary, notoriously
stated that Britain’s involvement
in Helmand was about reconstruction and that he would be happy if
we left without firing a shot.
Disastrous inkspot strategy
Britain started out with an
“inkspot” strategy. We hoped to
concentrate our efforts in a tiny
area between Camp Bastion and
the provincial capital of Lashkar
Gah. This was doomed to failure
and soon we were sucked into the
problems of the entire province,
meaning that British forces were
far too thinly spread, and became
This weekend, Afghanistan:
The Lion’s Last Roar, a series of
BBC films, broke the culture of
relative silence that has surrounded the military presence in Afghanistan. I have had a preview of this
fascinating and complex study,
which exposes a great deal of the
muddled thinking that fatally undermined the decision to send
troops to Helmand.
The film establishes that as
early as 2004, the British presence
in Afghanistan had surprisingly little to do with what was going on
within the country itself. Our presence there was determined by pow-
erful external considerations. The
first of these was the Iraq war,
which by 2006 the British military detested.
Our troops were bogged down
and surrounded in Basra, and the
generals wanted an escape route.
The politicians, however, were
determined to maintain the visceral British partnership with the US
— the mountains of Afghanistan
appeared to offer a far more romantic situation than the urban
squalor of Iraq.
A second consideration was
even more significant. British generals were terrified of budget cuts.
In their quest to avert them, they
needed to prove to politicians that
the Army was useful. The BBC
film strongly suggests that senior
military figures may have played
down the risks of the Helmand
entanglement as a result. One crucial piece of evidence concerns the
small reconnaissance team that was
sent into Helmand ahead of the
main body of troops.
The BBC obtained an interview with the official in charge,
Mark Etherington, who tells viewers: “We found a tremendously
backward province largely lawless,
corruption was endemic. The chief
of police was illiterate, and I seem
to remember the director of education was also illiterate. There was
a single tarmac road, the areas were
vast, it was clearly an extremely
challenging environment.”
After two weeks there, Etherington bleakly concluded that the
British objectives of establishing
security, good governance and economic regeneration “were not going to be substantially possible”.
But this warning was ignored. He
suggests this was because the British Army didn’t want to listen. He
recalls being told by one officer:
“Don’t raise too many issues, or
they won’t let us come.”
Support polio vaccination drive
The second round of polio vaccination drive was kicked off this week. It covers more than eight million
under five years old children countrywide. Positive cases of polio have surged in Afghanistan this year.
Insecurity is the main reason behind this problem. Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria are the three
countries where polio still remains as an endemic. I have some suggestions for
the government to eradicate polio in Afghanistan. These suggestions include
boosting up security all over the country and as well as raising awareness
campaigns through media outlets. Religious scholars can play an important
role in this regard particularly in remote areas of the country. They can
encourage people in their communities to let the health workers apply two
drops of polio vaccine for their children.
Jamal Khan, Hese Se Khairkhana, Kabul
Letter to editor will be edited for policy, content and clarity. All
letters must have the writer’s name and address. You may send your
letters to: [email protected]
This view is confirmed by Ed
Butler, former head of the SAS,
who commanded British forces in
Helmand: “My view was that the
train had already left the station.”
General David Richards, head
of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in 2006 and
later Chief of the Defence Staff,
remembers that: “We were actually hoping for the best and planning for the best.”
To sum up: British forces were
ill-equipped, underprepared and,
at the most senior strategic level,
atrociously led. The men themselves were nevertheless brave as
lions. The conflict in Helmand will
be remembered for centuries as a
shining example of astonishing heroism combined with pointless sacrifice. The province is now formally under the control of the Afghan
army (ANA). Those who have
been there recently, though, tell me
that “the ANA are in charge during
the day, but the Taliban are in control during the night.”
It is doubtful that British generals bear all the blame. Neither
Tony Blair nor John Reid, defence
secretary when the deployment
was made, agreed to be interviewed for the BBC programme. I
suspect they were very sensible.
Blair’s wars, which have dominated the first decade of this century,
have collectively been a disaster.
They even failed in their key strategic objective of maintaining our
alliance with America.
Basra and Helmand have
caused the United States to lose
faith in the capability of the British Army. It may very well be that
historians will look back on Helmand and conclude that it marked
the moment when Britain’s ability
to act as a global military power
came to an end.
They will marvel, too, at the
stoicism, patience, resource and
raw courage of ordinary British
soldiers, doing their best in the face
of appalling odds. Let’s always
remember those who have died and
let’s always acknowledge the terrible scars, both mental and physical, which must be borne by those
who have survived.
Let’s also remember the Afghans themselves, so many of
whom have been entirely innocent
victims of the dreadful conflict of
the past 13 years. Have we made
their lives better? It is still impossible to say.
Dr. Naser al-Tamimi
After more than seven years of
complete control of the Gaza
Strip, Hamas appears to be on its
way to allowing the Palestinian
national unity government, which
was formed about four months ago
to run the Strip especially the border crossings, to function. This
shift in the position of Hamas raises
an important question: What are
the real reasons that prompted
Hamas to adopt new policies?
At the beginning we can say
that the national unity government
can be considered for both sides,
the Palestinian Authority (PA) and
Hamas as a “mandatory corridor.”
From the standpoint of the PA,
the negotiations reached an impasse, it’s legitimacy has begun to
erode as the time passes by, and
maybe it’s time to put the “house
in order” to prepare for the next
steps. Meanwhile, Hamas might
consider the situation as a “warrior repose” and waiting for a new
round of conflict.
Hamas has realized that the
Palestinian people are desperate
for a period of tranquility Dr. Naser al-Tamimi Hamas realized (and
rightly so) that it cannot alone rebuild the impoverished Gaza Strip,
which was subjected to vast destruction, besides economic blockade. The U.N. secretary-general,
Ban Ki-moon in his recent visit to
Gaza captured the gravity of the
situation, when he described the
destruction in Gaza as “beyond description” and a source of “shame
to the international community.”
Within this context, many experts indicate that Hamas has
weakened and some of them predict the movement might negotiate with Israel. There is no doubt
that Hamas has suffered a severe
blow during the recent war with
Israel, however you can argue that
the recent developments will not
compel Hamas to negotiate with
Israel and the Islamic movement
will be able to cope with new developments. In fact, the situation
may turn into a win- win for Hamas. Political skills
Hamas has realized that the
Palestinian people are desperate
for a period of tranquility and to
start working on reconstruction
projects. Hamas has stated clearly
The views and opinions expressed in the articles are those of the author(s)
and do not reflect the views or opinions of the Afghanistan Times.
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