As the Russian naval expert Captain Anatoly Ivanov has pointed out: “From the coast of Syria, there is an opportunity to control not only the eastern part, but the entire Mediterranean Sea.” Since time immemorial, whichever empire dominated the Mediterranean — the Phoenicians, the Greeks, the Romans, classical Arab civilization, colonialist Europe — enjoyed universal supremacy and vast wealth.
Wrangling for influence in Syria between the new “Axis of Evil” states — Russia, Iran, Turkey and China — is thus part of a wider struggle for supremacy through the Central Asian “Silk Road” into the Mediterranean basin. “The Silk Road is not a silk road if it does not pass through Syria, Iraq and Iran,” according to senior Assad adviser Bouthaina Shaaban — an apparent expression of her regime’s receptiveness to being trampled underfoot by powers seeking to dominate this corridor.
While Russia has a head start with expansive naval facilities at Latakia, China is also seeking access to the Tartus and Latakia seaports via multibillion-dollar investments in infrastructure, telecommunications and energy, complementing Beijing’s existing presence in Greek and Israeli ports. Vladimir Putin is furthermore pursuing expansion of the 2015 accord governing Moscow’s naval presence in Tartus, increasing the volume of shipping and guaranteeing Russian presence for decades to come.
Investments along the Lebanese coast, including the possible upgrading of Tripoli’s seaport, would allow China greater freedom to maneuver than in Russia-dominated Syria. The Hezbollah-backed Lebanese government is considering numerous Chinese proposals for financial and infrastructural support as a golden ticket for severing Beirut’s longstanding ties with the West. Most Lebanese vociferously reject this eastward turn, and refuse to accept becoming a Sino-Persian satellite state.
No less a figure than the Russian ambassador in Beirut has argued that embracing trade with Iran, China, Syria, Iraq and Moscow was the solution to Lebanon’s economic woes, – despite the mostly dreadful state of those economies. Tehran and Hezbollah likewise advocate a trading bloc of “resistance” states, impervious to foreign sanctions and blockades.
When civilized nations withdraw from the world, illiberal, anti-democratic opportunists ruthlessly take advantage.
For these axis powers the ideal solution for neutralizing Western sanctions is a vast trans-Asian bloc trading exclusively with each other, bartering arms, oil and gas to avoid resorting to dollars. Vast, opaque financial institutions and industrial conglomerates with no connections with the West can’t be targeted by US sanctions. With the US currently pursuing legislation targeting Chinese banks connected to the crackdown against Hong Kong, such sanctions-avoiding tactics are just getting started.
Beijing and Tehran are negotiating an agreement whereby China will invest $400 billion over 25 years on Iranian petrochemical and infrastructure projects, in return for access to Iranian oil at bargain basement prices. Is this a geopolitical game-changer, or just a warning shot to the Trump administration? It isn’t clear whether China itself has yet decided. However, such an arrangement would be a major step toward a Beijing-dominated trans-Asian trading axis.
Iran’s regime has seized this prospect like a drowning rat clinging to a floating log. The Chinese military may gain control over substantial port facilities, with 5,000 Chinese security personnel protecting such installations. Iranian sources wistfully suggest that China would conduct joint military exercises, develop weapons, and share intelligence with Tehran.
Experts are nevertheless skeptical about the $280 billion pledged for Iran’s energy sector and $120 billion for manufacturing and transport infrastructure – noting that this is far greater than Beijing’s total annual overseas spend, which itself has been shrinking amid China’s stuttering growth and the coronavirus pandemic. Iran’s leaders have been touting this deal as the solution to all their problems, but Beijing is not a charity and Chinese officials stress that investments will be judged on their compatibility with Chinese national interests.
China perceives Iran’s influence in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon as a Trojan horse for Beijing’s own trans-continental ambitions — Iran becoming the jewel in the crown of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, with shiny new roads and railways creating a corridor to Europe, the Arab world, the Black Sea region and Africa.
China would face international opprobrium for making itself overlord of the world’s No1 terrorist state, but Beijing already plays a similar role with North Korea, shielding Pyongyang from efforts to curtail its nuclear and ballistic weapons programs.
Such deals are reminiscent of treaties signed by Iran’s 19th century Qajar shahs, enriching themselves personally while squandering territory, sovereignty and trading concessions. If the ayatollahs follow their usual practice of cannibalizing cash windfalls for overseas militancy, Iranians will derive no benefit from remortgaging their birthright natural resources and national infrastructure to China. As Iranian commentators noted, revolutionary Iran didn’t end decades of dependence on America to become a Chinese protectorate.
Trump’s predilection for lobbing sanctions at whoever the chosen enemy is during a particular news cycle, with no apparent strategy, has brought these axis powers closer together while driving away America’s traditional allies. Axis states are now looking beyond Trump, knowing that Western nations remain by far the most powerful bloc on the global stage when they act in concert. The Arab world, likewise, scarcely knows its own strength when it summons the wherewithal to act decisively.
Russia gained a foothold in Syria only after a failure of muscular multilateral diplomacy in enforcing a solution. Russia is gaining supremacy in one African state after another in the absence of any engaged community of nations. Unless fragile states are supported by benevolent, wealthier nations, the predators, parasites and pariahs swarm in to carve them up for their own ends.
Countries that desire to participate in the global community of trading and peace-loving nations must voluntarily abide by shared rules against external aggression and internal oppression. Meanwhile, the UN Security Council isn’t fit for purpose while habitual violators of international law wield a veto; Bush and Blair’s illegal invasion of Iraq is a case in point. We need an international system rooted in effective multilateralism, in which UN dithering can’t serve as an excuse for self-serving adventurists to go it alone.
The past four years offer ample proof that when civilized nations withdraw from the world, illiberal, anti-democratic opportunists ruthlessly take advantage, placing the pluralist, tolerant ideologies of Western democracies under threat.
The Axis of Evil is ascendant only because there has been no community of nations dedicated to championing the causes of justice and peace. The world is stable, civilized and prosperous only when we intervene to make it so. When we fail, we discover that we are a few short steps from anarchy.
- Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state