KABUL LIKE SAIGON, SYRIA AND LEBANON ON THE BRINK OF COLLAPSE, NO PEACE FOR BELARUS

From Afghanistan to the Middle East and Belarus, it is a summer of high tension that raises great concern and once again highlights the weakness of the US and the West on the international stage.

 

The torch arrived in Paris, the birthplace of the Enlightenment Revolution whose motto remains the emblem of France (liberté, égalité, fraternité), but in the light of that torch too many shadows were reflected against the backdrop of the Olympic Games. If the Olympics won the challenge with the COVID, they did not win it for the yearning for participatory freedom that is now too often denied in several countries. Claims for political asylum are back, as they were during the Cold War.

 

While the USA leads the medal table ahead of China, Russia, with its acronym ROC, took part in these Olympics without being able to play or sing the anthem, an almost paradoxical situation for the Russian team, which in fact fielded an undersized team. It is around these three players in the Olympics, in sport as in geopolitics, that a new world balance is taking shape, in which Biden, the US President, tried to turn the tables during the G7 with a frontal attack on China and a decidedly more moderate tone towards Russia.

 

Foreign policy is Biden’s Achilles heel (as it was for Obama). If the mantra is to reduce the presence in the Middle East and conquer Asia in order to break Chinese dominance, the President has probably misjudged COVID, which has offered authoritarian regimes the possibility of making restrictive pandemic policies subservient to the personal interests of the dictator through social control, that is easily manipulated and much more difficult to manage in modern democracies. Thus, we have gone from trade wars to vaccine wars over areas of relevance, and to the resumption of territorial conflicts. China, further pressed by US positions, has strengthened its commercial ties with Iran and Russia to preserve the efficiency of the management of the New Silk Road. Russia continues to emphasize its transversal diplomatic positioning, from the Syrian theatre of war to the Doha conciliation tables for Afghanistan.

 

AFGHANISTAN, KABUL LIKE SAIGON

 

The Americans left the Afghan base of Bagram at night and unceremoniously at the beginning of this month, and now with bombers and drones from the Qatari bases they are trying to support the government and pro-government militias, a back-and-forth that reflects a situation in which the Taliban boarding has now conquered three main cities and more than ten provincial capitals. According to US military sources, the Taliban will arrive in Kabul in 90 days, but their arrival seems imminent.

 

The meeting between the Taliban representative, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar and the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs shows how many economic interests are at stake in Afghanistan, where the Taliban draw economic resources not only from the duties charged at the borders and imposed on the land they have conquered (or rather violently wrested from the resident population), but also from the exploitation of energy resources. Dialogue with the Chinese has been going up and down for more than five years, ever since a Memorandum was signed to include Kabul on the New Silk Road. In this way, a series of loans have been launched to lay the foundations for rail and air links between the two countries for commercial traffic, so much so that Afghanistan has become a member of China’s multilateral bank, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

 

It is crucial for China to make the extractive and commercial rights on precious and rare minerals (copper and lithium, but also oil) operative, also to settle definitively in a country where the need for infrastructures is enormous. The Chinese companies already present are still few and they are only the tip of a large front of investments that the Chinese are willing to concentrate to strengthen their dominance in Central Asia, as they have already done in Africa. Moreover, the railway corridor will draw the map of the alliance by crossing Afghanistan towards both Iran and Pakistan.

 

SYRIA AND LEBANON ON THE BRINK OF COLLAPSE, HOT SEASON FOR THE MIDDLE EAST

 

If the defeat of the USA, but more generally of the West, is evident in Afghanistan, it is also evident in Syria, 10 years after the beginning of the civil conflict. Once again, the EU will have to worry about migratory flows that are intertwined with the pandemic emergency.  Meanwhile, Russia is leading the diplomatic axis, sharing the negotiating table with Iran, Turkey, and President Assad. The US now seems to have settled for having defeated ISIS and has also been the protagonist of a certainly obscure withdrawal in Syria.  American demobilization has allowed the Turks to create buffer zones to the detriment of the Kurds and to continue to use the weapon of financial blackmail with the EU against the displaced Syrians.

 

The Syrian government is also trying to suppress the last resistance in Idlib and Daraa to fully implement the agreement signed in 2018, but the pandemic has further worsened the economic situation in the country, where food and consumer goods are in short supply.

 

The economic situation has also worsened in Lebanon, a year after the terrible explosion at the port of Beirut, where more than 200 people died and 6,500 were injured, and where so far, no culprits have been found, although everyone was aware of the danger of the situation.

 

The immeasurable damage was added to the economic damage caused by the default of the Lebanese Central Bank in March 2020 and the banking crisis that directly affected savers. The International Monetary Fund’s rescue packages, which came to more than USD 10 billion, were to no avail.

 

One only has to look at the performance of the local currency (which has lost 95% of its value and is currently trading on the black market at 22,000 against the dollar, i.e. 15 times the official exchange rate of 1,500) to understand the seriousness of a situation that has collapsed, with a lack of medicines, gas, electricity and basic necessities.

 

The World Bank speaks of the worst financial crisis in Lebanon for over 150 years. The total absence of political decisions to curb the looming humanitarian catastrophe remains incomprehensible. More than half the population lives below the poverty line, according to the Crisis Observatory of the American University of Beirut. The cost of food has risen by 700% and even primary goods such as tampons and nappies are unobtainable, except at very high prices.

 

At the table of the international conference in Riyadh led by France and the United Nations, every effort is being made to find a solution. Saudi Arabia, the USA and France are ready to support the Lebanese army to prevent the country from falling into civil chaos, where Hezbollah’s armies would have the upper hand if not contained. Once again, however, the intervention of US Secretary of State Blinken has proved to be late and unfair in the face of the resignation of Prime Minister Hariri, opposed by President Aoun, directly linked to the radical Islamist movement Hezbollah, defined as a terrorist group by many countries (but not by the EU) and with one of its militants guilty of the murder of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, in turn supported in every way by Iran.

 

In nine months, the outgoing government has done nothing and the political vacuum weighs on the consciences of a West distracted by the COVID, but nevertheless guilty of an error of underestimation of the dynamics of the area, where all these situations of instability will lead to big trouble for the Middle East.

 

Biden administration wants reassurances from a new government to release International Monetary Fund funds, but the social bomb threatens to explode. Just think that in Lebanon the supply of vaccines is now managed by private individuals.

 

It was only two years ago that President Aoun was playing up to American and Russian diplomacy to secure his land and sea borders with Israel and seek a negotiating space on the dispute over oil and gas reserves off its coast. A chess game aimed at securing access to the offshore hydrocarbon deposits that would have definitively enriched Lebanon.

 

The Russians, on the strength of their diplomatic victory in Syria, were already ready to play a leading role in the mediation with Israel in exchange for investments in transport infrastructure, including the expansion of the port of Tripoli. It is therefore not surprising that only last May the Russian Foreign Minister announced an agreement with Hezbollah to resolve both the government crisis in Lebanon and the territorial disputes in Syria. However, the political situation has become even more complicated.

 

Amidst the pandemic and economic chaos, Hezbollah has extended its area of influence in the country thanks to the support of funds from Iran and has thus been able to exacerbate the political clash, blocking international aid. Here too, if the internal political compromise is difficult to solve, the Chinese variable comes into play to complicate the diplomatic picture: Beijing talks with Hezbollah in an anti-US key. The recent rocket attacks on Israel certainly do not augur well for a short-term solution.

 

BELARUS REDUCED TO SILENCE

 

Russia remains a protagonist not only in the Middle East but also in Eastern Europe. A year after the start of the civil protest, born as a response to the sixth contested re-election of Alexandr Lukashenko, the efforts of the expected winner of those elections, Svetlana Tsikanouskaya, to strengthen the sanctions by the international community continue. However, there is a deafening silence surrounding the trials of students and all possible opponents or presumed opponents of the regime because repression is extremely harsh and demonstrations are increasingly weak. In Belarus more than 35,000 people have been arrested, not to mention the closure of regional radio stations and media, in a trickle of voices increasingly isolated and weakened by an unprecedented repression. Sanctions by the British – in coordination with Canada, the US, and the EU – have been further tightened recently.

 

Last May, two Belarusian fighter planes forced a Ryanair civilian plane to land between Athens and Vilnius. As a pretext, the regime invented the story of an alleged bomb on board, but the real objective of Lukashenko’s police was to arrest one of the passengers: Roman Protasevich, a dissident journalist aged just 26. This was unprecedented in the history of post-war civil aviation.

 

However, the country is only economically viable thanks to financial support from Russia, which has reinforced government resources with new loans, including for the security apparatus. Despite this, the deficit has grown out of all proportion, returning to the crisis levels of 1990, and the banking system and state-owned companies remain immobilized by a lack of financial liquidity, with NPLs exceeding the 15% mark.

 

After last year’s 1.9% drop in the economy, the dispute with Russia has certainly taken its toll, drastically reducing the country’s oil supplies and causing a contraction of the industrial sector, which is mostly in government hands and accounts for two thirds of GDP. Exports have also been penalized by the fall in the price of fertilizers, which account for 20% of the country’s exports. This has doubled the trade deficit, due to the weight of imports, which have become increasingly expensive due to the devaluation of the currency. In 2020, the Belarusian rouble had already lost 34% against the euro and 22% against the US dollar. With such deteriorating purchasing power and average salaries of between USD 500 and USD 600 per month, it is easy to understand the difficulties faced by families, exacerbated by the pandemic situation and the strikes and protests that have dramatically affected the world of work. It is hardly surprising that corporate bankruptcies have soared, and manufacturing profits have plummeted by 40%.

 

Bearing in mind that 50% of exports go to Russia, it can be said that the latter keeps Belarus under strict control, with a total amount of financing disbursed that has exceeded USD 100 billion, of which more than half in the last 10 years, according to analysts. With the Chinese on the sidelines and the isolation provided by the sanctions, the regime is now close to economic collapse and is also seeing its currency reserves dwindle. The hypothesis of annexation to Russia has not been ruled out, even though this is already being foreshadowed by an economic link that has become vital for the only European country where the death penalty is still in force.

 

CONCLUSION

 

The next Winter Olympics will be held in six months’ time in Beijing and China, although in a second-rate Olympics compared to the summer ones, will try to show off its meticulous organization, also for the media apparatus that will be made available to Xi Jinping, a fantastic showcase for his politics and for Chinese products. Moreover, Olympic interests for certain nations, as is well known, are well matched with nationalism and authoritarianism and see atavistic clashes intersect in sports competitions, as was already well perceived in Tokyo.

 

In the meantime, during these six months, the civil and humanitarian crises described will have to be contained because geopolitical balances, even if they cast their shadow over these global sporting events, remain the priority for those populations for whom medals count for no more than survival and a future jeopardized by too many interests that seem to be taking advantage of the COVID emergency without mercy or respect for civil rights.

 

About the author, valentina.attanasio@gltfoundation.com

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