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Friday, July 12, 2024

Norway navigates Mid-East crossfire

Norway, which has long sought peace in the Middle East, has both rejected and defended the recent US attacks on Yemen, Syria and Iraq while continuing to call for a ceasefire in Gaza. Norwegian Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide was heading this weekend for Beijing, where Chinese officials also want a ceasefire in Gaza to keep the Red Sea open for shipping, before he travels on to Washington.

Norwegian Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide (second from right) is in the midst of intense negotiations over the latest crises in the Middle East. He’s photographed here at a recent meeting on Gaza, and is now heading for more talks in both China and the US, just after the US attacks on Yemen, Syria and Iraq. PHOTO: UD/Killian Munch

It’s an increasingly complicated and stormy situation, in which the Norwegian government is keen to play a role as a relatively neutral party. Eide, who just regained the post of foreign minister last fall, is trying hard to navigate his way and restore Norway’s role as a peace broker.

That’s not easy when Norway itself calls the US its “most important ally” yet the two countries are now at odds over Israeli aggression towards the Palestinians. Norway agrees that Israel had every right to defend itself after being attacked by the radical Palestinian organization Hamas on October 7, but also thinks Israel’s ongoing bombing of Gaza that since has killed more than 27,000 Palestinians is excessive and must stop.

So do the Houthis in Yemen, who support Palestinians and started attacking ships believed to have ties to Israel that were sailing along Yemen’s coast in the Red Sea. When the US launched an effort along with several other countries to defend the ships, Norway as a major shipping nation joined in, but only by providing 10 unarmed officers as advisers. Newspaper Klassekampen reported just before the weekend that Norway, in an unusual move, turned down a US request to join attacks on Houthi targets in Yemen.

“Norway was asked to back US-led attacks against Houthi targets in Yemen,” confirmed Andreas Motzfeldt Kravik in an email to Klassekampen. Norway, however, has direct contact with the Houthis itself and prefers to use its diplomatic channels to lower the conflict level and try to keep it from spreading.

“It was therefore not natural for us to back the American authorities’ declaration about the situation in the Red Sea,” Kravik wrote, since it threatened reprisals  against the Houthis that were later carried out. US forces backed by several other allies of Norway including Denmark, Canada, Germany and the Netherlands started bombing Houthi targets in Yemen. Denmark, for example, is also sending a frigate to the Red Sea as part of what the US calls “Operation Prosperity Guardian” despite protests from within its own parliament. “Denmark should not take part in warfare and become part of a conflict in a tense region,” the foreign policy spokesperson for the left-wing party Enhedslisten told Klassekampen.

Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide making a point to the Dutch foreign minister, Hanke Bruins Slot. The Netherlands later joined the US attacks on Yemen, while Norway declined to do so. PHOTO: UD/Killian Munch

The Houthis, meanwhile, have vowed to halt their attacks if the US and Great Britain “stop the genocide in Gaza.” Norway also wants Israel to end its incessant bombing of Gaza, as does China, which can explain why Norwegian foreign ministry announced last week that Espen Barth Eide was bound for Beijing just after whirlwind weeks at the UN in New York, in Cairo and Northern Norway.

The official reasons for the trip cited “cooperation between Norway and China, global issues including the climate and environment and human rights,” but also current international issues incuding Russia’s war on Ukraine and “the situation in the Middle East.” Eide will meet China’s foreign minister Wang Yi and other Chinese authorities  in Beijing along with Norwegian business leaders and students in Shanghai.

“It’s important to have regular dialogue with China,” Eide stated, referring to the country as “one of the most important players within international politics and the global economy.” He added that the visit was also a “good opportunity to discuss issues of common interest and put forth issues that are important for Norway.”

The US has also reportedly asked China to take part in resolving the shipping crisis in the Red Sea that’s already sending most vessels around Africa instead of through the Suez Canal, leading to delays and sharply higher shipping costs likely to be passed on to consumers. China, however, claims the Red Sea crisis can’t be solved independently of Israel’s war on Gaza and wants Israel’s bombing to stop.

That’s a position in line with Norway’s, after years of diplomatic conflicts between China and Norway over everything from human rights abuses in China to China’s own aggression towards Hong Kong and, more recently, Taiwan. Now China and Norway may find common ground on issues in the Middle East.

On Sunday, however, Norway’s Foreign Minister Eide defended US attacks on targets in Syria and Iraq, in retaliation for a drone attack on an American military unit in Jordan that killed three Americans and wounded 30 others. The attack is believed to have been launched by an Iranian-backed Islamic organization in Iraq. The US response reportedly killed at least 39 people, many of them civilians.

There were also reports during the weekend that other militia groups had attacked bases in the Middle East where both US and Norwegian soldiers were located. Both the Norwegian and US defense departments denied any such attacks, however.

Eide, a longtime politician for Norway’s Labour Party, also served as foreign minister when NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg was Norwegian prime minister. He’s pictured here in Jordan in 2013, during the Syrian refugee crisis. PHOTO: Utenriksdepartementet

“This is a serious development we’re now seeing,” Eide stated on Sunday. “We understand the US’ need to respond to the attack.” He added, as he headed to China, that “it’s important that everyone now contributes towards calming down the situation and avoiding further escalation.”

After spending Monday and Tuesday in China, Eide was flying back to the US for meetings in Washington DC on Wednesday and Thursday with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, members of the US Congress and “think tank experts.”

Eide stressed that the US “is our most important ally” and that at time of “great geopolitical tension,” it’s important to meet with politicians and others in the US who “set the tone” regarding the situation in the Middle East, Ukraine and cooperation within NATO. Eide disagrees with the US’ current tone that still supports Israel’s war on Gaza that’s setting off more conflicts all over the region.

Eide’s visit to Washington immediately follows that of his former boss, the Norwegian secretary general of NATO Jens Stoltenberg. He was on what Norwegian media have called “a charm offensive” intent on retaining US assistance and funding for Ukraine as it keeps fending off Russia’s invasion nearly two years ago. Norway remains one of the world’s largest financial and military contributors to the Ukrainians’ defense.

NewsinEnglish.no/Nina Berglund

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