Globalities is shifting for a while to releasing its new content in audio format. What follows is the text of the podcast episode I released April 7. ~HC
Today is April 7, 2023. In today’s episode I’m going to present my review of the key shifts in the global balance that we’ve seen over the past week:
NATO-Russia contest in Ukraine
If we start by looking at the ongoing contest between NATO and Russia over Ukraine, there have been two main developments there: Finland was finally admitted to NATO, which brought to an end a lengthy period in which there has been increasingly close military cooperation between Finland and NATO and then, the year-long process of Finland’s accession to the alliance. The big change with its final admission to NATO is that Finland now receives protection under Article 5 of NATO’s charter which states that an attack on any full member of NATO is considered an attack on all of NATO, and that other NATO states will then assist it to repel the attack using any means deemed necessary, including the use of force.
Finland’s entry into NATO roughly doubles the length of the direct border between NATO states and Russia. It has been described by Russian commentators as considerably increasing the encirclement of Russia from the west. Previously, Russia’s only direct borders with NATO members were a mid-length one with Turkey to the south and a very short one with Norway up in the Arctic Circle.
The other notable aspect of the NATO-Russia contest this week has been something that didn’t happen, or anyway has not happened yet: Namely, the long-promised Ukrainian counter-attack against the Russian forces in Eastern Ukraine. Ukraine is not, of course, a member of NATO, but as we know NATO members have given strong support to Ukraine’s war effort, including by sending arms.
A new report that seems to have been leaked recently from Ukrainian sources states that U.S. estimates of deaths in the 13 months of war so far have been at the level of roughly 16,000 on the Russian side and 73,000 on the Ukrainian side. These numbers are both much lower than the usually cited “casualties” that are regularly reported in Western media, but that term includes woundings as well as deaths.
More significantly, though, the newly leaked numbers now show very much higher losses on the Ukrainian side than on the Russian side. To many military commentators this seems quite realistic. But it has come as a shock to many in the Western media who throughout the war in Ukraine have been pegging Russia’s casualty numbers much higher than Ukraine’s and even using those estimates to predict the imminent collapse of the Russian military.
So now, let’s leave that continuing conflict in the Black Sea coastal regions of Eurasia and look at the week’s big news from elsewhere in that same landmass. The big themes here fall under two headlines: an explosion of diplomacy in Beijing and an eruption of deadly conflict in West Asia. Let’s look at Beijing’s diplomatic calendar first since one part of what’s been happening there has also greatly affected the balance in West Asia.
China and ‘Old Europe’
Diplomatically, the two big events in Beijing this week were the lengthy visit that French President Emmanuel Macron and Ursula von der Leyen, who’s the president of the European Commission, have made there… and also the meetings that the Chinese capital hosted this week between the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia and Iran.
First, the visit of Macron and von der Leyen. It seems the impetus in pushing for this visit came from President Macron, though it’s very significant that he took President von der Leyen with him. Her presence endowed their trip to Beijing with a strong aura of EU backing. Also, Pres. von der Leyen is from Germany, where she was a longtime political ally of former Chancellor Angel Merkel. So the presence of the two of them in Beijing indicates that China is eager to maintain and build its links with the two powers at the heart of “Old Europe”, that is the European Union as it existed before the EU’s post-Cold-War push to extend its boundaries into Eastern Europe. Notable, too: That France and Germany are generally considered the two foundational pillars of the whole EU
This has several implications. One is that in pushing its ever more hawkish policies against Russia, the United States has found its strongest allies not in those countries of “Old Europe” but in the “New Europe”, that is, the countries of Eastern Europe such as Poland which have long harbored their own strong grudges against Russia. By welcoming Macron and von der Leyen to Beijing, China’s rulers are, at one level, indicating that they too can plan play the intra-European diplomatic game.
This European-Chinese relationship has impact on both geo-economics and geopolitics. At the level of global economics, Macron and von der Leyen have both been stressing to their Chinese hosts that they are eager to maintain and develop the economic ties Europe has built with China over the past two decades—and this, at a time when Washington has been working hard to erect ever-tighter geo-fences around China’s massive economy.
And at the level of geopolitics, we should note that President Macron has been the NATO member who’s shown himself the most eager, several times throughout the past year, to actively explore the possibilities for a speedy end to the conflict in Ukraine. In a statement that was issued in Guangzhou in southern China earlier today, Macron and Chinese President Xi Jinping, expressed their joint support for, “all efforts to restore peace in Ukraine on the basis of international law and the purposes and principles of the United Nations Charter” and called for “all parties to the conflict to scrupulously observe international humanitarian law.”
That language was very anodyne. No public mention was made of any deeper conversations the two men may have had about Ukraine, a conflict regarding which China issued its own peace plan six weeks ago. But the two men have a number of lengthy conversations together during Macron’s visit. They also and agreed to “deepen the dialogue” between their two countries’ naval forces in the Asia-Pacific region.
In Beijing, Macron went noticeably further than President von der Leyen in trying to show some daylight between himself and Washington on international affairs. It’s not clear whether this will help or harm him back home in France, where he’s been facing a lengthy series of large-scale protests for his economic and domestic policies.
For the Chinese side, this week’s very visible signs of Beijing’s active political engagement with these two significant leaders from the far end of the Eurasian landmass has doubtless been very welcome. It underlines that Washington cannot command all of West Europe’s leaders to bow to its will on current issues as easily as it has seemingly been able to with, for example, Germany’s current Chancellor, Olaf Scholz. And over the longer term, the Macron and von der Leyen visit helps Beijing to push forward its project for the multi-level economic integration of all of Eurasia.
By the way, I wrote about exactly that topic on Globalities on March 31.
The Iranian-Saudi rapprochement continuing
And also featured in Beijing this week: the ground-breaking meeting of the foreign ministers of long-feuding Saudi Arabia and Iran. I had written on Globalities on March 11 about the diplomatic coup China’s top diplomat achieved on March 10, when he and high-level negotiators from those two West Asian countries jointly unveiled a Chinese-mediated reconciliation agreement between them. One of the most notable aspects of that diplomatic breakthrough was that, though the Saudi and Iranian negotiators had been working together in Beijing for a full week prior, no-one in the intelligence services of either the United States or Israel had had a clue about what was being happening there.
In the March 10 agreement, Iran and Saudi Arabia agreed to resume full diplomatic relations between them within two months. The meetings that the two countries’ foreign ministers held in Beijing this week presumably helped them push that process forward.
But the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement has already started to have a number of other notable effects in West Asia, as well. One is in Yemen, where the chances for winning a negotiated end to that country’s super-destructive, eight-year-long civil war have been greatly increased. Just today, there has been news that Saudi Arabia has released a comprehensive peace plan that is reportedly also co-sponsored by the United Nations. The plan and is said to cover three phases to end this conflict that has killed some 400,000 Yemeni people through direct and indirect causes since 2015, in great part by creating the world’s worst humanitarian crisis there.
The great West-Asia-based news site The Cradle reported that the first phase of this new Saudi plan would include a nationwide ceasefire, the reopening of all land, air, and sea routes, the merger of the central banks, and full prisoner exchanges. The parties would then hold direct negotiations to establish how Yemenis of all persuasions envision a state that would work for all of them, followed by a transitional period to implement their vision.
Implications for Syria
The new rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia has numerous significant supporters in the West Asian region. Before China’s diplomats came in to finalize the March 10 agreement, diplomats from both Oman and Iraq had reportedly helped to prepare the way for that step.
Back when the March 10 agreement was announced, I was already speculating that it would likely have strong effects in the area of Syria-Lebanon-Palestine-Israel, that the Arabs of that area call “the Mashreq”. To understand why this is so, we need to understand the strong connection between the sectarian hatreds that were whipped up over the past 12 years—often with the active help of U.S. propaganda—in and around Syria and the regionwide contest between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
In Syria, the government of President Bashar al-Asad has for a long time had a pretty close relationship with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Part of this stemmed from the fact that both government are dominated by adherents of different streams of Shi-ite Islam, and part from the fact that Israel has for many decades had both of them in its crosshairs.
Back in 2011, when anti-government protests broke out in Syria, initially, many people of the protest movement called for democracy. But those voices soon got drowned out by the voices—and guns—of extremist Sunni-Muslim fighting groups who turned what had started out as pro-democracy street protests into an outright armed rebellion. Much of the funding for that rebellion came from Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Muslim countries in the Gulf, and most of the weapons came from the United States and from Turkey. Do you remember Hilary Clinton raucously insisting that “Asad must go”?
The conflict that has engulfed Syria since 2011 has had numerous horrific consequences, inside and outside the country. We at Just World Educational explored some of those consequences in a project we ran in 2020, which you can find in the Resources section on our website. Today, Syria has three significant regions that have burdened for some years now by hostile occupations from foreign military forces: In Golan, it’s Israel. In the northwest, it’s Turkey. And in the northeast a well-armed detachment of U.S. forces controls and exploits a chunk of Syrian territory, oil wells, and croplands. But President Asad remains in power in the capital; and the Saudis, Emiratis, Qataris, and other rich Arab states that used to support his toppling have been coming to the conclusion that they should find a way to reconcile with him, rather than continuing their previous, expensive and very destructive war against him.
Saudi Arabia’s rapprochement with Iran will certainly strengthen the chances of reconciliation within Syria. And it is also having another very visible effect on Israel’s ability to dominate the whole Mashreq. Back before the civil war erupted in Syria, the militant Palestinian resistance group Hamas had a strong working relationship with Hizbullah in Lebanon, the only organization in the whole Mashreq that has ever fought the Israeli military to a standstill. (Actually, they did it twice.)
Back before 2011, Hamas and Hizbullah both used to have a strong presence in Syria. Hizbullah is a majority Shi-ite organization ththat at is very deeply rooted in Lebanon. Its, leaders have long religious and political connections with Iran, and Syria was a vital gateway for them to be able to stay in touch with Iran. Hamas meanwhile has always been a strongly Sunni-Muslim organization. But for its leaders, prior to 2011, having good ties with the Syrian government was important because it helped them keep in touch with the large numbers of Palestinian refugees in Syria. And the Hamas leaders also maintained close political and operational ties with Hizbullah in both Syria and Lebanon.
But then came 2011 and the the sharp sectarian cleavages that that year brought to Syria and its region. After 2011, as the pro-democracy movement in Syria got swept aside by Sunni-Muslim fundamentalists who were allied to Al-Qaeda and then also to IS, the Islamic State, the Hamas delegates in Damascus were forced to take sides. And when they did not side with the government, the government abruptly closed all the Hamas offices in Damascus. And with sectarian hatreds between Sunnis and Shi-ites swirling around the region, the operational ties between Hamas and Hizbullah were also cut.
So as the reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Iran continues, guess what we saw happening in Beirut last week? We saw Hamas political bureau chief Ismail Haniyeh sitting down for lengthy meetings with Hizbullah head Hasan Nasrallah and other leaders of Hizbullah… Which, by the way, is far and away the largest and best organized of all the political groupings within Lebanon’s chaotic political system right now.
Sharp new tensions in West Asia
Into this rapidly changing political situation in West Asia, now enters Israel, with its new government in which settler maximalists today have more power than ever before. We are currently half way through the Muslim holy month of Ramadan; and two days into the eight-day Jewish observance of Passover. During Ramadan, Palestinian Muslim worshipers in the Greater Jerusalem region traditionally hold congregate prayer sessions every morning and evening in the Al-Aqsa Mosque in the walled Old City of Jerusalem… which has been under Israel’s military occupation for 56 years now. For each of the past two years, Israeli security forces have tried to corral and suppress these prayers.
This year, so far, the oppression of worshippers during Ramadan has been the worst ever. Francesca Albanese, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory has noted that on Wednesday evening Israeli forces violently entered Al-Aqsa Mosque, where they used stun grenades and tear gas, fired sponge-tipped bullets, and indiscriminately beat Muslim worshippers – including elderly people and women – with batons and rifle butts.
At least 450 Palestinian men were arrested. You may have seen photos of long lines of them forced to lie down on their faces on the floor of the mosque with their wrists zip-tied behind their backs.
After some of the militant Palestinian groups in Gaza and Lebanon saw videos of the violence engulfing Al-Aqsa, they shot off some of their (fairly primitive) rockets against Israel, where they caused only small damage. Israel responded with aerial bombs and missiles. Israeli spokesmen notably did not blame Hizbullah for the mid-week rockets. Thus far, the cross-border violence has been contained though the violence of Israel’s ongoing oppression of Palestinian resistance in East Jerusalem and the rest of the occupied West Bank still continues…
Of course, the re-eruption of tensions between a heavily armed and US-backed Israel and the Palestinians, still stateless, dispersed, and oppressed until today, underlines the hypocrisy of U.S. leaders who shout endlessly about the need for international law to be observed in Ukraine while continuing to provide their active support to Israel… including to its annexations of Golan and East Jerusalem and to all the other grave crimes it commits in the lands it has held under military occupation since 1967.
U.S. support for Israel and its continuing determination to enact harsh punishments on countries with which it disagrees, like Syria or Iran, will likely continue to inflict grave harms on the people of West Asia for some time to come. But the era of Washington’s unilateral hegemony over the whole global system is now coming to an end.
I’ve found it heartening, since I started the Globalities project back in January, to have been tracking the erosion of that hegemony and the emergence of an ever more self-confident and capable system of globe-girdling multipolarity. The People’s Republic of China, with its vast economic, diplomatic, and other soft-power capabilities, has played a big part in this shift. And it’s been intriguing to see the extent to which, in today’s world, these non-military tools have been proving more powerful in effecting real political change—and generally, change for the good!—in the global arena, than the traditional tools of hard, military power on which the United States and its allies have increasing come to rely.
So those are some of the big trends I’ll be following in the Globalities project going forward. I hope you can support this project, which you can do by visiting Just World Ed’s website, and clicking the Donate button there.