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US, Taliban Agree on Draft of Framework for Afghan Peace Deal

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US, Taliban Agree on Draft of Framework for Afghan Peace Deal

Negotiations between the United States and the Taliban, held in Qatar last week, have led to an apparent breakthrough, potentially paving the way for an end to a 17-year conflict.

Americas envoy in Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, confirmed in an interview with The New York Times that the two sides have agreed in principle to a peace agreement, under which the Taliban must agree to enter direct talks with the Afghan government.

The framework lays out a path for the US to withdraw troops in exchange for a pledge that the Taliban would guarantee territory in the country is not used by terrorists.

We have a draft of the framework that has to be fleshed out before it becomes an agreement, Khalilzad said. The Taliban have committed, to our satisfaction, to do what is necessary that would prevent Afghanistan from ever becoming a platform for international terrorist groups or individuals.

We felt enough confidence that we said we need to get this fleshed out, and details need to be worked out, he added.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said in a nationally televised address on Monday that the process for a peace agreement must be led by the countrys government.

I call on the Taliban to [] show their Afghan will, and accept Afghans demand for peace, and enter serious talks with the Afghan government, Ghani said in a nationally televised address, per CBS news.

We want peace, we want it fast but we want it with a plan, Ghani stressed.

We should not forget that the victims of this war are Afghans and the peace process should also be Afghan-led [] No Afghan wants foreign troops to remain in their country indefinitely. No Afghan wants to face suicide attacks in hospitals, schools, the mosques, and parks. ATIMES


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Women and Children Are the Main Victims of the Israel-Hamas War With 16,000 Killed, UN says

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Women and Children Are the Main Victims of the Israel-Hamas War With 16,000 Killed, UN says
Palestinians rescue a child from under the rubble after Israeli airstrikes in Gaza City, Gaza Strip, Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2023. Israel's war on Hamas in the Gaza Strip has the Mideast simmering, raising the temperature on tensions across the region and increasing the risk that seemingly localized conflicts could spin out of control. (AP Photo/Abed Khaled, File)

Women and children are the main victims in the Israel-Hamas war, with some 16,000 killed and an estimated two mothers losing their lives every hour since Hamas’ surprise attack on Israel, the United Nations agency promoting gender equality said Friday.

As a result of the more than 100-day conflict, UN Women added, at least 3,000 women may have become widows and heads of households and at least 10,000 children may have lost their fathers.

In a report released Friday, the agency pointed to gender inequality and the burden on women fleeing the fighting with children and being displaced again and again. Of the territory’s 2.3 million population, it said, 1.9 million are displaced and “close to one million are women and girls” seeking shelter and safety.

UN Women’s executive director, Sima Bahous, said this is “a cruel inversion” of fighting during the 15 years before the Hamas attack on Oct. 7. Previously, she said, 67% of all civilians killed in Gaza and the West Bank were men and less then 14% were women.

She echoed U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ calls for a humanitarian cease-fire and the immediate release of all hostages taken captive in Israel on Oct. 7.

“However much we mourn the situation of the women and girls of Gaza today, we will mourn further tomorrow without unrestricted humanitarian assistance and an end to the destruction and killing,” Bahous said in a statement accompanying the report.

“These women and girls are deprived of safety, medicine, health care, and shelter. They face imminent starvation and famine. Most of all they are deprived of hope and justice,” she said.

The health ministry in Hamas-run Gaza says nearly 25,000 Palestinians have been killed in the conflict, 70% of them women and children. The United Nations says more than a half million people in Gaza — a quarter of the population — are starving.

In Israel, around 1,200 people were killed during the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas that sparked the war, and some 250 people were taken hostage by militants. More than 100 hostages are believed to still be held captive in Gaza.

Bahous said UN Women had heard “shocking accounts of unconscionable sexual violence during the attacks” by Hamas, and she echoed U.N. calls for accountability, justice and support for all those affected.

Despite escalating hostilities in Gaza, the agency said women-led and women’s rights organizations continue to operate. It found that 83% of women’s organizations surveyed in the Gaza Strip are at least partially operational, mainly focusing on the emergency response to the war.

But UN Women said its analysis of funding from last year’s flash appeal for Gaza found that just 0.09% of funding went directly to national or local women’s rights organizations.

Bahous said there is a need for much more aid to get to Gaza, especially to women and children, and for an end to the war.

“This is a time for peace,” she said. “We owe this to all Israeli and Palestinian women and girls. This is not their conflict. They must no longer pay its price.”

______

AP

 

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Protecting Arab Heritage from the Sands of Time

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Protecting Arab Heritage from the Sands of Time
More than four decades ago, the Arabian oryx was extinct in the wild. But today, thanks to efforts spearheaded by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, experts are citing the swell in its numbers as one of the world’s biggest conservation success stories. GETTY IMAGES

A snake temple. A dead poet’s home. Ancient rock art. The Arabian lion. These are just some of the treasures of Arabian heritage that have been destroyed, threatened, or forgotten by the incessant march of modernity – or simply lack of awareness.

In parts of the Arabian Gulf, however, heritage is finally getting its due.

For decades, natural, historical, and archaeological sites were not a priority in the Middle East, especially in countries that had economic, political, and security instability. Not surprisingly, important sites have been neglected, destroyed by conflict, looted, and even built over.

Of the 1,199 sites on the UNESCO World Heritage List, just 93 – 8 percent – are in Arab states – the lowest of any region.

Part of the reason is bureaucracy. It takes a lot of paperwork and proper documentation to have one’s heritage added to UNESCO’s international list. Many worthy sites are never recognized, as insufficient information makes verification impossible.

Yet political will is also an essential ingredient to cultural preservation. In several Gulf states, that inclination has arrived.

In recent years, Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have put significant energy into pushing for the preservation and recognition of places and traditions. National heritage-related celebrations – such as festivals for Saudi coffee and exhibitions for Emirati and Omani handicrafts – highlight the importance of regional culture far beyond national borders. 

A particularly important milestone in these efforts was celebrated in September, when Saudi Arabia registered its first UNESCO natural heritage site, the Uruq Bani Ma’arid Reserve.

“The inscription of the reserve on the UNESCO World Heritage List as the first natural heritage site in the Kingdom contributes to highlighting the importance of natural heritage on a global scale and reflects the outstanding value of the reserve,” said Prince Bader bin Abdullah bin Farhan Al Saud, the country’s culture minister.

Encompassing the western part of the Rub Al Khali, or Empty Quarter, the greatest expanse of windblown sand on Earth, the Uruq Bani Ma’arid protected area is rich with desert landscapes and wildlife habitats. It is home to iconic desert animals including the Arabian Oryx and the Arabian Sand Gazelle.

Another milestone came this month when the popular traditional dish Harees was added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list for Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Oman. Made with wheat, meat and ghee, the creamy dish is represented in folk stories and poetry.

Securing a UNESCO listing is important for many reasons. First, it helps ensure international recognition, which means more tourism, better legal protections, and conservation support from the World Heritage Fund. Listing also helps with reconstruction or rehabilitation. Many important sites in Syria and Iraq, for instance, are dependent on the attention international recognition affords. 

Being listed doesn’t guarantee safe keeping. Recent demolitions tied to construction near historic Cairo’s City of the Dead, a site listed since 1979 as “one of the world’s oldest Islamic cities,” have drawn local and international condemnation. Egypt had asked for “revisions” to the boundaries of historic Cairo so the city could carry on with demolitions. The issue is still under heated discussions. 

The country’s rationale – construction in the name of progress – is incredibly short-sighted. The story of a nation and its heritage is embodied in its artifacts, physical and figurative. Protecting them should be the rule rather than the exception.

Many recognize this. International museum repatriations are accelerating amid demands for the return of treasures looted or stolen by colonizers of African and Arab states. 

To be sure, much work remains. Thefts at museums and galleries around the world have resulted in national treasures ending up at auction, sold for millions to private collectors.

In one particularly egregious case, a Ni’isjoohl memorial pole, a hand-carved totem pole dating to the mid-19th century, was stolen in 1929 from a Canadian Indigenous community and sold to the Royal Scottish Museum (now the National Museum of Scotland). Fortunately, in that case, the artifact is now back with its rightful owners in British Columbia.

Yet many other looted artifacts remain in the hands of thieves. 

Perseveration and promotion of heritage, in all its forms, needs champions at the grassroots and national levels. Without supporters, cultural artifacts will disappear with time.

In some cases, a legend is all that is left. The lost city of Ubar, also known as Iram of the Pillars, was said to be a towered city from thousands of years ago of wealth, jewels, incense, and gold. Mentioned in the Quran and retold in the timeless tales of One Thousand and One Nights, Ubar was said to have been destroyed by God, toppled by strong winds and buried in the sand.

Excavations and archaeological finds over the years have placed the legend of Ubar in different locations; these include modern-day Oman, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and the desert of the Rub’ Al Khali. 

For now, Ubar remains a myth, lost in the sands of time. Our more tangible heritage doesn’t need to suffer the same fate.

Rym Tina Ghazal is an editor-in-chief of a cultural magazine, a peace and cultural ambassador, a thought/youth leader, documentarian, lecturer, and author for young readers.

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Israel-Hamas War’s Staggering Toll Reaches a Grim Milestone: 20,000 Dead

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Israel-Hamas War’s Staggering Toll Reaches a Grim Milestone: 20,000 Dead
Palestinians mourn relatives killed in the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip outside a morgue in Khan Younis on Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2023. (AP Photo/Mohammed Dahman)

Israel’s war to destroy Hamas has killed more than 20,000 Palestinians, health officials in Gaza said Friday, as Israel expanded its offensive and ordered tens of thousands more people to leave their homes.

The deaths in Gaza amount to nearly 1% of the territory’s prewar population — the latest indication of the 11-week-old conflict’s staggering human toll.

Israel’s aerial and ground offensive has been one of the most devastating military campaigns in recent history, displacing nearly 85% of Gaza’s 2.3 million people and leveling wide swaths of the tiny coastal enclave. More than half a million people in Gaza — a quarter of the population — are starving, according to a report Thursday from the United Nations and other agencies.

Israel declared war after Hamas militants stormed across the border on Oct. 7, killing some 1,200 people and taking some 240 hostages. Israel has vowed to keep up the fight until Hamas is destroyed and removed from power in Gaza and all the hostages are freed.

After many delays, the U.N. Security Council adopted a watered-down resolution Friday calling for immediately speeding up aid deliveries to desperate civilians in Gaza.

The United States won the removal of a tougher call for an “urgent suspension of hostilities” between Israel and Hamas. It abstained in the vote, as did Russia, which wanted the stronger language. The resolution was the first on the war to make it through the council after the U.S. vetoed two earlier ones that called for humanitarian pauses and a full cease-fire.

ISRAEL VOWS TO KEEP UP PRESSURE ON HAMAS

The U.S. also negotiated the removal of language that would have given the U.N. authority to inspect aid going into Gaza, something Israel says it must do to ensure material does not reach Hamas.

Israel’s Ambassador to the U.N., Gilad Erdan, thanked the U.S. for its support and sharply criticized the U.N. for its failure to condemn Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks. The U.S. vetoed a resolution in October that would have included a condemnation because it didn’t also underline Israel’s right to self-defense.

Hamas said in a statement that the U.N. resolution should have demanded an immediate halt to Israel’s offensive, and it blamed the United States for pushing “to empty the resolution of its essence” before Friday’s Security Council vote.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, meanwhile, reiterated his longstanding call for a humanitarian cease-fire.

Guterres said nothing can justify Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks, its taking of hostages, its rocket launches against Israel and what he called its use of civilians as human shields.

“But at the same time, these violations of international humanitarian law can never justify the collective punishment of the Palestinian people, and they do not free Israel from its own legal obligations under international law,” the secretary-general said.

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In Syria, the Politics of Climate and Conflict Coalesce

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In Syria, the Politics of Climate and Conflict Coalesce
A portrait of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad hangs amid the rubble of Aleppo in October © Magnum

As the COP28 climate conference wrapped up in the United Arab Emirates last week, international observers were focused on the outcome of the talks, with good reason. The fate of humanity hangs in the balance.

But just off stage, regional analysts were absorbed in a related issue that will hinder efforts to implement any plan to save the planet. Call it the geopolitics of climate action, and Syria was exhibit A.

With Syrian President Bashar Al Assad absent from the proceedings, Prime Minister Hussein Arnous was tasked to lead the delegation in Dubai. Syrian officials underscored their primary focus was on securing funding for climate adaptation in the war-torn country, a concern other conflict-ridden states share.

While it’s imperative to address Syria’s environmental challenges, it’s crucial to consider them in the wider context. Channeling climate funds to a regime that has exacerbated old environmental woes while creating new ones will undermine efforts to hold those responsible to account. Worse, it creates an opportunity for climate funds to be misused.

The regime’s extensively documented corruption and manipulation of aid and development funding poses a significant risk to mitigation efforts. Any climate funding allocated to Syria must come with assurances that the money won’t be redirected.

For more than 12 agonizing years, the Syrian conflict has inflicted brutal violence, economic turmoil, and widespread suffering. Concurrently, recent years have brought a surge in extreme weather events in Syria – scorching temperatures, devastating wildfires, relentless droughts, and ceaseless sandstorms.

These escalating calamities, both in frequency and ferocity, have heightened Syria’s vulnerability to the impacts of climate change. Ranked 146 out of 181 countries on the Notre Dame Global Adaptation Initiative index, Syria stands among the countries most severely affected by the climate crisis. This ranking underscores Syria’s acute vulnerability and limited resilience against the impacts of severe weather.

However, these dire circumstances must not eclipse the accountability of the Syrian regime in reaching this critical juncture. For decades, the regime’s policies directly aggravated a range of environmental challenges, including water scarcity, soil degradation, and air pollution.

The situation was further deteriorated following the peaceful uprising in 2011. A November 2023 report by former International Criminal Court judge Howard Morrison echoed these concerns, placing blame on the Assad regime for Syria’s extensive environmental devastation.

For instance, relentless bombing campaigns and the regime’s repeated use of chemical weapons have added to the ecological destruction. Today, cities remain buried under hazardous rubble that poses significant environmental and health risks.

Morrison’s report, which was released in the run-up to COP28, also underscores Assad’s targeting of the oil industry. Intentional strikes have created large oil fires and spills that ravaged cultivated land and triggered health crises, notably increased respiratory issues among affected populations.

The report also delineates how Assad’s war tactics have decimated clean drinking water supplies and polluted groundwater sources. The ravages of war have also rapidly diminished Syria’s forests, increasing flooding risks and contributing to a steep decline in biodiversity.

Extending climate financing to the Syrian regime would not only undermine efforts to hold Assad accountable but also risks yielding minimal impact.

Syria is not alone in this climate contradiction. Other countries in dire need of climate adaptation and mitigation funding – Sudan, for instance – are also embroiled in war. Indeed, climate-related challenges, like water shortages and soil degradation, are often contributing factors to conflict.

Still, Syria’s funding track record is particularly egregious. The regime has been accused of  selectively directing aid to loyalist areas, manipulating exchange rates for aid transfers, and compromising procurement procedures. Furthermore, the regime’s constraints on the operational freedom of international agencies impedes independent needs assessment and monitoring, leaving these bodies heavily reliant on data provided by regime-affiliated entities. 

Even if funders could look beyond past transgressions, structural corruption within Syrian state institutions will complicate climate financing. Entrenched corruption not only undermines the effectiveness of climate financing but also detracts from essential reforms needed to address Syria’s governance challenges.

The heightened focus on conflict and climate at this year’s COP summit, while sorely needed, will only yield results if the entities receiving support are properly vetted. Climate-related financing, like any funding directed to regime-held areas, must include assurances that mitigate corruption risks and ensure climate action without exacerbating Syria’s existing problems.

Given the technical and political challenges of coordinating with the Syrian regime, climate funding to Syria should target societal and civil society structures at the local level. These entities possess the skills and genuine interest in improving conditions in their areas.

Engaging directly with the Syrian regime, on the other hand, should be avoided whenever possible. A blank check from the international community would enable Assad to exploit yet another critical cause to secure his own political survival. We’ve already seen what Assad can do with the slightest opening of support. But this time, the repercussions of engagement have planetary consequences.

Dr. Haid Haid is a Syrian columnist and a consulting associate fellow of Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa program. X: @HaidHaid22

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Jordan Struggles to Weather the Gaza Storm

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Jordan Struggles to Weather the Gaza Storm
Smoke billows following an Israeli air strike on Gaza City, 09 October 2023. More than 700 Israelis were killed and over 2,000 were injured since the Islamist movement Hamas carried out an unprecedented attack on southern Israel on 07 October, the Israeli army said. According to Palestinian officials, more than 700 people were killed and nearly 4,000 were injured as a result of Israel’s retaliatory raids and air strikes in the Palestinian enclave. EPA/MOHAMMED SABER

The Israeli war on Gaza has placed Jordan in an increasingly delicate position as it navigates the fallout from the conflict. The kingdom is striving to maintain stability and prevent a nightmare scenario of the displacement of Palestinians across its borders. At the same time, Jordan is trying to appease its own population, which is boiling with anger against the Israeli operation.

It is proving to be a difficult balancing act. The longer the Israeli-Hamas war drags on, the more Jordan’s concerns intensify and for good reason.

More than 1.8 million Palestinians have been displaced from their homes in Gaza – the highest number since the Nakba in 1948, which led to the formation of the Israeli state. Fueled by comments from prominent Israelis and leaked plans, fears have grown that Israel is planning to drive Palestinians from Gaza into Egypt, reopening scars that run deep in the Palestinian psyche.


The specter of Palestinian refugees fleeing to the Sinai Peninsula, serves as a haunting prelude to what Jordan fears Israel could potentially do to Palestinians in the occupied West Bank.

King Abdullah has repeatedly warned against a regional spillover from the Gaza war and rejected the acceptance of refugees as a red line. “No, refugees in Jordan, no refugees in Egypt,” he said. This week, he added: “There will be no solution to the Palestinian issue at Jordan’s expense.”

A mass displacement of Palestinians to Jordan could upset the delicate demographic balance and dilute national identity. More than half of Jordan’s population are of Palestinian origin, including 2.2 million Palestinian refugees registered with the UN. The threat of a further influx poses an existential threat to the country.

Since Israel’s most right-wing and religiously conservative government took over last year, the notion that Palestinians could be expelled from the occupied territories has entered the mainstream. And Israel has set about creating the conditions that make life extremely difficult for Palestinians to continue living in the West Bank. 

While the world has focused on the shocking Palestinian death toll in Gaza, with at least 18,000 killed in the past three months, in the West Bank, 270 Palestinians have been killed by security forces or Israeli settlers during the same period. 

The escalating settler violence in the West Bank since the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel has added to Jordan’s concern over a wider conflict that could spark an exodus.

B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights organization, said Israel has intensified efforts in the West Bank to displace Palestinian communities and seize their land, using the conflict as a pretext. “State-backed settler violence against Palestinians has risen in both frequency and intensity, with soldiers and police officers fully backing the assailants and often participating in the attacks,” the group said.

Oraib Rantawi, the founder and director general of the Amman-based Al Quds Center for Political Studies told me that Jordan is working hard to prevent a wave of displacement from the West Bank to Jordan. “In response, Jordan can close its borders, deploy troops and declare a state of emergency,” he said. “When one country displaces people to another country, it’s akin to declaring war.” 

In 1994, Jordan became the second Arab country after Egypt to sign a peace deal with Israel. The agreement included an article prohibiting the forced displacement of people in a way that could harm the security of either party. While Rantawi thinks a breach of this article is unlikely for now, he said Jordan is working to avert this.

Indeed, Jordan sent tanks to the border last month in a clear message to Israel that it would not accept Palestinians being pushed into its territory.

There have also been constant provocations by Israel settlers at Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, which is under the custodianship of Jordan. The mosque experiences almost daily incursions by settlers escorted by Israeli police.

Back home in Jordan, protests persist, fueled by the distressing scenes of carnage in Gaza and resentment toward the government. Many Jordanians accuse the government of being subservient to Israel, citing the $10 billion gas deal signed with Israel in 2016. They also want Jordan to abrogate its peace treaty with Israel.

For now, Jordan has heightened its criticism against Israel. Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi has spoken against Israel repeatedly and called its aggression in Gaza a genocide.

Jordan also summoned its ambassador to Israel and asked Israel’s foreign ministry to instruct its ambassador not to return to Amman. Safadi also said Jordan would not renew an agreement to supply energy to Israel in exchange for water, a deal that was initially scheduled for ratification in October.

Those measures helped in part to placate public anger. A recent survey showed  that 27 percent of Jordanians are highly satisfied, and 31 percent are moderately satisfied with Jordan’s position toward the Gaza war.

But severing ties with Israel does not seem like an option Jordan is considering. Last month, Jordan was among several Arab countries that refused to break all diplomatic and economic relations with Israel.

Jordan must also be careful not to upset Israel’s main ally, the US, which provides Amman with $1.45 billion annually in economic and military aid under a seven-year agreement signed this year.

But as the war persists, demands increase. Incidents of violence near the Israeli embassy have been contained by Jordanian police thus far. Citizens were also given space to vent their anger and even wave Hamas flags. 

As public anger simmers and the government carefully tries to navigate the unrest pulsing from Gaza, how long can Jordan remain calm and retain its position as a nation of stability in a sea of turmoil.

Suha Ma’ayeh is a journalist based in Amman, Jordan. Her work has been published in Foreign Policy and CTC Sentinel. She also reports for The Wall Street Journal and other publications on Jordan and southern Syria.

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Gaza War Shifts Russia’s Middle East Relations

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Gaza War Shifts Russia’s Middle East Relations
This image taken from the Israeli border with the Gaza Strip on October 29, 2023, shows black smoke ascending from the Gaza Strip amid the ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas. The Israeli army has raised the number of troops fighting inside the Gaza Strip, a spokesman said on October 29, 2023, as the military stepped up its war on Hamas in the tiny Palestinian territory. Thousands of civilians, both Palestinians and Israelis, have died since October 7, 2023, after Palestinian Hamas militants based in the Gaza Strip entered southern Israel in an unprecedented attack triggering a war declared by Israel on Hamas with retaliatory bombings on Gaza. (Photo by FADEL SENNA / AFP)

From the start of the Ukraine invasion, Vladimir Putin has understood that Russia retains one immeasurable advantage: time. The sheer size of the Russian landmass, population and economy, as well as Putin’s iron grip over the country’s politics, means that the war could churn on for weeks, months or even years without causing government-altering pain in Moscow. Indeed, part of the West’s strategy in arming Ukraine so rapidly after the invasion was to force the pace against Moscow, to try to inflict a series of defeats on Russia that would force it to the negotiating table.

So it has proven. Twenty months into the invasion and another war came along, taking the political focus of the West and the wider world away from Ukraine. The Gaza war – what historians will likely call the Second October War, coming 50 years after the 1973 October War – has become an opportunity for Russia, a chance to regain the moral high ground, grandstand among the Global South, and change the country’s relationships with Middle Eastern nations.

The first has been much discussed. The carte blanche offered to Israel by the United States and other countries has been a gift from the West to Moscow.

The Kremlin and its political and media supporters have repeatedly drawn an unflattering parallel between the way the US responded to the Ukraine invasion – with threats and sanctions against Russia – and the way it has responded to Israel’s attacks on Gaza. The hypocrisy is glaring and perfectly fits Russia’s narrative that great powers behave differently and rules don’t apply to them. Why therefore, they ask, must rules apply to a great power like Russia, when it perceives a danger from Ukraine?

Related to this attempt to regain the moral high ground has been the ability to grandstand among the countries of the Global South.

Analysts have noted that the United Nations resolution introduced by Russia 10 days after the Gaza war started to bring about a ceasefire was a diplomatic failure – and it was, but only in part. Yes, the resolution failed to pass, but with China and Russia in favor and the expected Western allies of the US, the UK and France against, a message was conveyed to the court of public opinion in the Global South that the global body was biased against their interests.

Those changes are more about public image than real politics, although they do have an effect. But the Gaza war is also altering Russia’s relationship with other countries in the Middle East.

For years, Russia has tried to maintain pragmatic relations with Israel. With its strong footing in Syria, it has tried to play the role of a mediating power, allowing Israel some leeway to bomb sites inside the country, while also giving Iran room to act.

The Gaza war has shifted that. Within two weeks of the October 7 attack that started the war, Russia welcomed a Hamas delegation to Moscow, ostensibly to discuss how to safeguard Russian citizens. But since that could have been done without such an official visit – and as it was noted that Iran’s deputy foreign minister was there at the same time – the not unreasonable interpretation was that Russia was facilitating planning between the two. Since then, the relationship has soured further, and the UN envoys of both countries have traded harsh words.

For Russia, shifting away from Israel carries the possibility of gaining political support from across the Muslim world. It makes it harder for Arab states, and Turkey, to support Ukraine openly. After Volodymyr Zelensky’s open support for Israel and lack of statements on the destruction in Gaza, he will not be welcome at next year’s Arab League summit. That may have been a miscalculation on Zelensky’s part, but Moscow will capitalize on it.

The war also means that Russian-Turkey relations are getting warmer.

Long before the Ukraine invasion, the two have warily circled each other in Syria, and the Ukraine conflict has seen Turkey try to balance relations with both sides. But the Gaza war has changed that and placed them both on the same side. Both have aimed their barbs either at Israel or its principal backer the United States; both see in that a chance for a greater role. For Turkey, that would be something like the moral leadership of the Middle East; for Russia, a rival to China for leadership of the Global South.

The Gaza war has offered an opportunity to Russia to move beyond the war in Ukraine in its relations with the Middle East.

The return of Russia to the Middle East is often overstated. Russia, for all its search for ways to project influence across the Global South, appears uninterested in the extensive backing for Arab and African governments seen during the Cold War.

Instead, Russia today practices a form of “vacuum diplomacy,” rushing to fill the spaces left by a retreating America, or pushing out Western influence once it becomes unpopular, or supporting sidelined political groups. Those elements can be seen in its recent welcome of Hamas to Moscow; in the way Wagner operatives collaborate with African governments, or the way Moscow was happy to save the Syrian regime from its armed opponents.

The same is true for this Gaza conflict, which has come at an opportune time for Putin. With Western backing for Israel seemingly without conditions or limits, a space has opened for Russia to once again dive into the politics of the Middle East. It was only a matter of time.

Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa. X: @FaisalAlYafai

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