John Kerry with Foreign Ministers of the Gulf Cooperation Council in Riyadh last week.
Fehim Tastekin

-Analysis-

ISTANBUL â€" The Geneva process for the Syrian crisis was launched with a stated commitment from Russia and the United States to find a political solution. But it will go nowhere if it can't overcome the clashing desires of the various fighting interests.

Certain international actors penned a temporary road map in Vienna back in November to establish a transition process in Syria. The United Nations expected the Syrian government and the opposition forces to sit at the negotiation table on Jan. 1, to form a transitional government within six months and hold elections within 18 months. But the sides have yet to even begin, as the start of talks has been pushed back until Friday.

What's blocking a solution is the issue of representation. Everybody wants their own representative at the table. Syria, Iran and Russia insist that organizations in Syria backed by Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey â€" such as Ahrar al Sham or the Army of Islam â€" should be on the terrorism list.

Saudi Arabia, in particular, wants the Army of Islam at the table across from Bashar al-Assad's Syrian government. The Saudis have already gathered allied opposition groups in Riyadh in December, forming a negotiation mission with Army of Islam Commander Mohammad Alush as the chief negotiator. This particular anti-Assad group has maintained that it should be only opposition force to sit at the negotiation table.

Kurdish questions

Another regional actor is Qatar, but its profile on the Syrian stage has been diluted since the throne passed from father to son. For now, it's doing little more than expressing its position. Turkey, which has formed a strong alliance with Qatar in the last five years, has been trying to force its own agenda, much like Saudi Arabia.

Turkey too wants the organizations it supports to be at the table, and it has also marked a line in the sand: No Kurds Allowed. As a nod to Turkish sensitivities, Saudi Arabia did not invite the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) or its militant People Protection Units (YPG) to the gathering in Riyadh. It's also rumored that Turkey threatened to boycott talks in Geneva if YPG and PYD were invited. The political actors in Western Kurdistan, or Rojava, have formed an alternative negotiation council by gathering the opposition groups that were not invited to Riyadh. This council, known as the Syrian Democratic Parliament, features leftist figures as well.

U.S. Secretary of the State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov are trying to find a common solution. The U.S. seems to be closer to the Russian stance on the issue of including the PYD, which has been neglected at the first and second Geneva conferences. The Americans are already coordinating with the YPG in combating ISIS. The U.S. role is convincing Turkey and Saudi Arabia to soften their stance on the Kurds. If not, the only ground that allows the Americans to set foot in Syria may drift to the Russians.

Meanwhile, the Russians are keeping the PYD and YPG close in order to prevent the U.S. from becoming the chief Kurdish ally in the region, and to keep the 50 temporary military personnel in Rojava from becoming a permanent base.

YPG unit in June 2015 â€" Photo: VOA

The most critical move Russia could make to affect Kurds in Syria would be to guarantee recognition of Rojava's democratic autonomy in Syria's next constitution. Russia is silent about this at the moment, partially because of its state policy for not intervening in allies' regimes and democratic affairs and partially because the resistance they expect from Assad's government. Vice President Joe Biden's visit to Istanbul and his meetings with Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and President Recep Tayyip ErdoÄŸan also failed to find common ground. Turkey insisted on its position that the Kurdish parties are terror organizations just like ISIS.

Awkward position

Many international actors have invested in this war, and nobody wants to leave the bloody poker game with empty pockets. Saudi Arabia has been financing dirty deeds, coup preparations and undercover operations from Asia to the Middle East and from Africa to Latin America since the 1970s. It financed the training and arming of the mujahedin in Afghanistan against the Soviets after 1979. The CIA has opened a bank account with no interest (because interest is a sin), which the Saudis bankrolled to buy guns for the mujahedin. Al-Qaeda and the Taliban are the ugly heritage of this collaboration.

Top Saudi Intelligence Bander Bin Sultan has long been involved in secret operations, including the arming of Syrian opposition since 2011. Bender was an ambassador in Washington and was among the exposed players in the Irangate scandal. The Saudis continued the money flow via a Cayman Islands bank after the U.S. Congress cut his budget.

Money from the Saudis and guns from the CIA has been put to work again during the Syrian crisis. President Obama granted permission to arm the Syrian opposition in 2013, but in fact the U.S. regional allies â€" Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia â€" have already been arming them for a year.

The New York Times has recently reported that Saudi Arabia and Qatar spent billions of dollars to train and equip CIA programs. The CIA bought weapons in Croatia, and Saudi Arabia paid the bill. Thousands of AK47s and millions of bullets were transported from Eastern Europe. Qatar bought shoulder rockets made in China and transported them to Syria. But Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia went too far by arming al-Qaeda affiliated groups, or those that operate like it.

Disagreement with regional partners took on new meaning when the U.S. changed course from fighting Assad to a war on ISIS. That's when the Saudi-Qatar-Turkey partnership became part of the problem for the U.S. Another problem later turned out to be the U.S. demand for Syrian ally Iran to get involved in the negotiations, as Saudi Arabia has already been upset that U.S. and Iran were working toward an accord on Tehran's nuclear program.

So now, after all of the funding it has provided to the CIA over the decades, it's Saudi Arabia's turn to raise its voice. The Saudi dynasty is at odds with the U.S. for the first time, demanding loyalty to their dirty alliance. The weakness displayed by the Obama administration comes from this alliance's terrible record. That's why they agree with Russia behind closed doors, then turn around and agree with Turkey and Saudi Arabia in public.

What can be expected from the Geneva talks in this atmosphere? With the start of the conference already postponed until Friday, the summit may not end the war. But if Moscow and Washington can at least figure out who is sitting at the table, they may earn a ticket out of Syria.

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Society

Why Chinese Cities Waste Millions On Vanity Building Projects

The so-called "White Elephants," or massive building projects that go unused, keep going up across China as local officials mix vanity and a misdirected attempt to attract business and tourists. A perfect example the 58-meter, $230 million statue of Guan Yu, a beloved military figure from the Third Century, that nobody seems interested in visiting.

Statue of Guan Yu in Jingzhou Park, China

Chen Zhe


BEIJING — The Chinese Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development recently ordered the relocation of a giant statue in Jingzhou, in the central province of Hubei. The 58-meter, 1,200-ton statue depicts Guan Yu, a widely worshipped military figure from the Eastern Han Dynasty in the Third century A.D.

The government said it ordered the removal because the towering presence "ruins the character and culture of Jingzhou as a historic city," and is "vain and wasteful." The relocation project wound up costing the taxpayers approximately ¥300 million ($46 million).

Huge monuments as "intellectual property" for a city

In recent years local authorities in China have often raced to create what is euphemistically dubbed IP (intellectual property), in the form of a signature building in their city. But by now, we have often seen negative consequences of such projects, which evolved from luxurious government offices to skyscrapers for businesses and residences. And now, it is the construction of cultural landmarks. Some of these "white elephant" projects, even if they reach the scale of the Guan Yu statue, or do not necessarily violate any regulations, are a real problem for society.

It doesn't take much to be able to differentiate between a project constructed to score political points and a project destined for the people's benefit. You can see right away when construction projects neglect the physical conditions of their location. The over the top government buildings, which for numerous years mushroomed in many corners of China, even in the poorest regional cities, are the most obvious examples.

Homebuyers looking at models of apartment buildings in Shanghai, China — Photo: Imaginechina/ZUMA

Guan Yu transformed into White Elephant

A project truly catering to people's benefit would address their most urgent needs and would be systematically conceived of and designed to play a practical role. Unfortunately, due to a dearth of true creativity, too many cities' expression of their rich cultural heritage is reduced to just building peculiar cultural landmarks. The statue of Guan Yu in Jingzhou is a perfect example.

Long ago Jinzhou was a strategic hub linking the North and the South of China. But its development has lagged behind coastal cities since the launch of economic reform a generation ago.

This is why the city's policymakers came up with the idea of using the place's most popular and glorified personality, Guan Yu (who some refer to as Guan Gong). He is portrayed in the 14th-century Chinese classic "The Romance of the Three Kingdoms" as a righteous and loyal warrior. With the aim of luring tourists, the city leaders decided to use him to create the city's core attraction, their own IP.

Opened in June 2016, the park hosting the statue comprises a surface of 228 acres. In total it cost ¥1.5 billion ($232 million) to build; the statue alone was ¥173 million ($27 million). Alas, since the park opened its doors more than four years ago, the revenue to date is a mere ¥13 million ($2 million). This was definitely not a cost-effective investment and obviously functions neither as a city icon nor a cultural tourism brand as the city authorities had hoped.

China's blind pursuit of skyscrapers

Some may point out the many landmarks hyped on social media precisely because they are peculiar, big or even ugly. However, this kind of attention will not last and is definitely not a responsible or sustainable concept. There is surely no lack of local politicians who will contend for attention by coming up with huge, strange constructions. For those who can't find a representative figure, why not build a 40-meter tall potato in Dingxi, Gansu Province, a 50-meter peony in Luoyang, Shanxi Province, and maybe a 60-meter green onion in Zhangqiu, Shandong Province?

It is to stop this blind pursuit of skyscrapers and useless buildings that, early this month, the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development issued a new regulation to avoid local authorities' deviation from people's real necessities, ridiculous wasted costs and over-consumption of energy.

I hope those responsible for the creation of a city's attractiveness will not simply go for visual impact, but instead create something that inspires people's intelligence, sustains admiration and keeps them coming back for more.

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