The Sword of Damocles

As the Syrian civil war enters its second decade in 2021, what started as a peaceful uprising against the political administration in Syria has developed into a power struggle amongst a myriad of foreign powers in the geopolitical bedrock of the Middle East.  Syrians protested in the wake of the Arab Spring a few months after it took hold in late 2010 across the Arab states.  The protests were met with force, violence escalated, and the country descended into civil war.  Ten years on, eleven million Syrians are displaced, both internally and as refugees mainly across Europe and neighbouring countries, whilst Bashar Al-Assad remains Syria’s President.  However, his power holds sway under a sword of Damocles.  The President has his allies but their allegiance is conditional, and that, like the horse’s hair from which the sword of Damocles hangs, creates an unpredictable situation.

President Assad’s orders to his military to forcibly stop protests before they engulfed the nation in April 2011, came not long after pledges of government and social reforms.  However, Syrians had lost hope in the transformation of the nation from a socialist to a market economy through the government’s tenth five year plan, which started well and should have come to realization in 2010 but had begun to falter.   The demonstrations spiralled into armed confrontation and civil war. 

Syria was provided military support by its longstanding financial ally Iran. Substantive support began with the sending in of a contingent of 4,000 troops in 2013.  There are many reasons for Tehran’s support for Syria, a nation at the cutting edge of the Shia-Sunni divide in the Middle East. The demographic makeup of Syria is multi faceted and a point of contention. Pre war population statistics are obviously no longer valid and indeed there has in any case not been a credible census in Syria since 1963. However the NCF estimates the pre war population of Syria as being:

Sunni Arab 51% (average of all best estimates 56.5%)
Kurdish 14% (average of all best estimates 12.5%)
Christian 8.5% (average of all best estimates 12% which seems high)
Alawite 14% (average of all best estimates 14%)
Druze 3% (average of all best estimates 3%)
Others e.g. Yazidis, Jews, Turkmans, Shiite 6% (average of all best estimates 2% which seems low)

Certainly if the Kurds are numbered with the Arab Sunnis there is a Sunni majority, whilst President Bashar Al-Assad is from the Alawite minority, regarded (on a very tenuous and scarcely credible basis) by Iran’s leadership as being a sect of Shia-Islam.  Arguably the relationship began as a tactical and strategic partnership, initiated in the 1980s by both governments’ shared contempt for President Saddam Hussein during the Iraq – Iran conflict.  This alliance has been sustained for strategic reasons and perhaps reinforced by a mutual distrust of Israel. Furthermore, geographically Syria is situated on a thoroughfare between Iran and its Lebanese Shi’a militia ally Hizb’Allah. 

Iranian support for Syria has of course also been financial, and has gone beyond mere remittances. Iran has provided the Central Bank of Syria with a $4 billion line of credit.

In the early days of the war, Arab nations including Saudi-Arabia and Qatar provided financial assistance to Syrian rebel fighters.  Israel also provided assistance to Free Syrian Army rebels in 2017 and carried out air strikes, which continue today, with one of the deadliest attacks allegedly killing 57 Syrian and Iranian soldiers last week.  These attacks have escalated in the last few months in the run up to the transition of power in the White House.

Iran’s strategic reasons for retaining President Assad as an ally go way beyond mere personal interest.  A change in strategy for Iran is none the less improbable despite talk of a new “Syrian Karzai”.  Meanwhile for Iran the prospect of brokering peace with anti-Syrian government rebels, who have been in the line of Iranian fire since the infancy of this war is a taller order than supporting the current status quo. 

Despite strong Iranian support, President Bashar Al-Assad’s fight against the rebels took a new turn at the end of September 2015, when he called on Moscow to help in the fight with the rebels who were gaining strategic control of key towns in Syria.  Some say that this call for help came directly at the request of Iran’s Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, although the Institute for National Strategic Studies reports the Russia’s decision to intervene came prior to General Soleimani’s visit to Moscow.  Russia has been a long term ally of Syria. However, Putin’s willingness to keep President Bashar Al-Assad in power may be more covetous.  The war in Syria and decisions by other states have provided Putin with an opportunity, one that he has taken advantage of and which has fundamentally shaped his strategy

Russia’s strategy has been described as functional. “It constantly seeks to improve its short-term economic, military, and political advantages while reducing the short-term advantages of prospective adversaries.”  Its long-term vision is to become a global power in the region.  To achieve political hegemony, enhancing military bases in the region is critical, and the Syrian War has provided this opportunity. 

Russia is keen to orientate the Middle East towards itself and away from the US, with countries such as Iran this provides a mutual understanding, however re-orientating other regional actors, such as Turkey and the Gulf States is a greater challenge.  The crevice that Moscow regularly exploits is the sovereignty of leaders over their state, both from “external intervention and internal insurrection” by directly attributing the cause of such violations to the West’s foreign policy, demonstrated by the toppling of both Saddam Hussein and Muammar Al-Gaddaffi.  Russia’s opportunity was further enhanced with Trump’s decision to pull its troops out of Syria in October 2019, which is illustrative of the US’s lack of interest in the region, making it easier for President Putin to induce the leaders of the Arab nations to regard him as a safe bet.

War is not a cheap venture through proxies or otherwise, and both Iran and Russia have accumulated a large tab in the course of their interventions.  Iran’s costs are between $600 and $700 million a month and that doesn’t account for the human loss with boots on the ground.  Despite avoiding heavy human casualties, as Moscow’s offensive interventions have predominately been airstrikes, the cost to Moscow comes in at $4 million a day for airstrikes, this doesn’t include the heavy investment in Syria’s Armed Forces in the form of arms and training.  Despite the advantages of the intervention, such as testing new military systems, combat experience and building up its bases, the long term gain for Russia in recouping the financial costs are high.  Both of Syria’s allies are taking a stake in the country’s infrastructure.  An agreement between Damascus and Moscow a few months after the departure of US troops permitted Russian energy companies to develop three blocks of oil and natural gas.  Reconstruction deals have also been struck by both countries, although there is contention between them as to how the spoils are shared out.

The longevity of the war in Syria is also taking its toll on those loyal to the President.  With high gains in the initial years of the war, their fortunes have turned.  The Caesar sanctions imposed by the US are crippling Damascus’ financial support network, as they specifically target third-country actors with cross-border business activities with Syria.  With the loss of revenue, President Al-Assad has turned on Syrian loyalists such as his cousin Rami Makhlouf, who was Syria’s richest national with investments in telecoms, real estate and hotels.  Makhlouf expressed his discontent in futile social media posts in May 2020, as the President confidently grappled for the countries assets and unpaid taxes to replenish his coffers

The exploitation of family division has been a feature of Bashar Al-Assad’s presidency. That said, in the eyes of some it exposes the pressure that Moscow can apply on Damascus, as Makhlouf was close to Iran and involved in contracts with Iran-affiliated Syrian businessman, a point of discord with Russia.  The family division in fact runs deep as President Bashar Al-Assad has a history of arresting and imprisoning cousins that displease him, though whether it reflects allegiances to Syria’s allies is questionable.  The Syrian military remains strong and confident in its own right. The lead command of the Fourth division is Maher Al-Assad, the President’s brother who remains intensely loyal and whose commanders are advised by Tehran.  Whilst the air intelligence affiliated militia fighting for the Syrian army, The Tiger forces, led by the charismatic Suhayl Al-Hassan, have attained elite fighter status and benefit from Russian support.

The impact of not only the Ceasar sanctions, but also sanctions applied to neighbouring Lebanon and Iran by the US are also damaging President Bashar Al-Assad’s cash flow.  This along with the ongoing cost of the war is filtering down to ordinary Syrians loyal to the Syrian government.  The war has caused the Syrian pound to lose 80% of its value, Syria’s agriculture and tourism industries have been destroyed, and the flow of currency coming in from oil exports lost. Eight out of ten people live below the poverty line.  In June 2020, fresh protests by Syrians living under Damascus’ control echoed the protests of 2011.  These Syrians add to the list of those the President is struggling to please, and as a token gesture he fired his Prime Minister Hamid Khamis.

The elections for the Presidency are scheduled for June 2021, and despite the outcome being predictable, a final victory in the war in the President’s eyes would solidify his support from those around him.   Syria’s civil war that enters its tenth anniversary in March, has been dubbed the world’s worst humanitarian crisis of the 21st century, and drawn in many regional actors.  Now President Assad wishes to gain control of the final rebel strong-hold. 

Idlib a province in the North East of the country remains under Turkish backed-rebel control.  This is the area in which many civilians and rebels have escaped to after their towns came under siege from Syrian’s armed forces, including Eastern Alleppo, Homs, Darraa and East Ghouta.  Despite Syrian government supporters believing they can take military control over the area, there are many factors that make this unfavourable.  Firstly, the area has strong Turkish military support.  Turkey borders northern Syria and hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees and their repatriation will be less likely if President Assad takes control of Idlib.

To avoid an escalation, Russia met with Turkey at the Astana framework talks in April 2020 between Russia, Iran and Turkey. 

Another reason why an outright Syrian Army assault on Idlib will not be favoured by Russia, is doing so could arguably contravene UN resolution 2254 that was unanimously agreed upon by all member states including Russia, in December 2015, three months after Russia intervened in the war.  This calls for a ceasefire, constitutional revision, and new free and fair elections. 

Although this UN resolution was described by the UN Special Envoy to Syria, Geir Pedersen, as “Syrian-led, Syrian owned, credible, balanced and inclusive”, President Assad has a large swathe of influence over the committee formed to revise the constitution, as half the members are nominated by the Syrian government providing him with a de facto veto power, and those representing the Western approved factions of the opposition present seem to have little interest in progressing matters.  The ceasefires agreed to date have all collapsed and the most recent agreed through the Astana framework by Turkey, Iran and Russia in March 2020 remains perilous with incidences of violence.  The failure of these ceasefires is because these ceasefires are often used as strategic military tactics to pause the war on one front and to re-align troops to another front that is on the verge of being secured.  However more importantly, these ceasefire agreements do not initiate peace agreement talks that are inclusive of Syrians. 

Arguably further military intervention in Idlib by the Syrian government’s coalition forces would exacerbate the existing humanitarian catastrophe.  There have been grave breaches of humanitarian law throughout this war and they continue, including the targeting of civilians and torture of prisoners by all sides as reported by the UN Human Rights Council.  An assault on Idlib, that homes nearly three million people, over three times its population before the war, would be difficult for the international community to swallow, especially as there are no other humanitarian corridors that could provide protection to the Syrian refugees trapped there.  Conditions in Idlib are dire for the tens of thousands in makeshift camps, with freezing temperatures and flooding, the situation exacerbated by the spread of Covid-19.  Furthermore only one of the two remaining border crossings for humanitarian aid remains open, after the UN resolution 2533 to keep the other, Bab-Al-Salaam open was vetoed by Russia in July 2020.  Although open military assault is not currently being pursued in Idlib, humanitarian assistance is being restricted to maintain a stranglehold over the province. 

To avoid a humanitarian disaster in the region and with the agreed ceasefire in Idlib, the UN needs to use this space to secure a peace deal that sees a political settlement providing Syrians with a voice in their country’s future, and for this security is paramount in Idlib.  Setting up an administration made up of Syrians in Idlib to start negotiating a peace agreement, that includes the repatriation of Syrians could be a next step.  This could only be possible if the UN mandated a protectorate force to provide the necessary security in the region, a force that would be tolerated by the rebel forces.  

However this may not be acceptable to President Al-Assad. The end strategy will need to be carefully negotiated with Iran and Russia, who both share interests, but may reassess their allegiances as President Biden enters the Oval office in the White House. 

Edited by William Morris

Walid Al-Muallem dies

The Arab uprising that swept across the Middle East, took hold in Syria on March 28th 2011.  Ten years on, half a million have lost their lives and 13 million have become refugees, half of these internally displaced as what the UN euphemistically calls IDPs and 5.6 million refugees have fled across Syria’s borders, predominantly to the neighbouring countries of Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.  So the news of the death of Walid Al-Muallem, Syria’s foreign minister, who died on this Monday 16th November, will evoke a chasm of emotions.

Born to a Sunni Muslim family in Damascus, Mr Walid Al-Muallem’s professional career saw him work his way up through the foreign ministry.   Walid Al-Muallem was appointed Foreign Minister in 2005, at a time when Damascus was isolated by some Arab and many Western nations, as the Syrian government was accused of being behind the assassination of the Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Harriri.  This lead to Syria withdrawing its 25,000 troops from Lebanon, its small neighbour it had occupied for 29 years, initially as a peacekeeping force in the aftermath of the terrible and murderous Lebanese civil war.  Ironically that same neighbour is today home to 1.5 million Syrian refugees who have now fled the Syrian civil war. 

Though Walid Al-Muallem took the post of Foreign Minister, at a difficult time when Syria was being ostracised by many governments in the Western World, it was only six years later that he became recognised more widely, as he held regular news conferences from Damascus informing the world of his government’s position in regard to the uprising that was unfolding in the streets of Syria – soon to develop into a full blown civil war.  As the civil war escalated, Walid Al-Muallem used his considerable diplomatic experience to foster allegiances with Iran and Russia and shore up support for President Bashar Assad’s government.

Walid Al-Muallem studied in Cairo University before returning to Syria to start his diplomatic career in 1964.  His missions took him to Saudia Arabia, Madrid, London, Romania and the US.  Despite being the US attaché for nine years, Walid remained sceptical of the US role in peace talks with Israel.  The career diplomat was not been shy in berating the US for their involvement in the current crisis, accusing them of encouraging the turmoil in the country through their support for anti-government forces.

In 2015, Walid Al-Muallem became the first high ranking Syrian diplomat to say the government was prepared to talk to the opposition, in an attempt to reconcile and bring peace. 

Walid Al-Muallem, passed away on Monday, his ailing health having been a contributing factor.  The 79 year old was an openly staunch defender of Syria’s Government of which he was a part. The government has not revealed the cause of Walid Al-Muallem’s death.

As a footnote, now that Walid is no longer with us, we at the NCF can add that he was, in his years as Deputy Foreign Minister, a stalwart worker behind the scenes for a peace with Israel that would involve the return of the Golan. He was engaged in proxy discussions through the NCF’s auspices initially with Deputy Defense Ministers Silvan Shalom and Efraim Sneh c.1996. Sadly the talks came to nothing through no fault of Walid’s, nor, let it be said, of Silvan or Efraim.

Healing the Nations – Book Now!

The Next Century Foundation’s 
Healing the Nations
Summer Conference

 

The Next Century Foundation is holding a ten-day online conference over the end of July and the first week of August.

Events will be taking place covering all of the Foundation’s key nations and areas.

 
CLICK HERE FOR FULL DETAILS

To book, contact ncfmepp@aol.com with details of which sessions you are planning to attend.
 
Sessions will run in the mode of the NCF’s successful weekly meetings, mixing input from knowledgeable speakers and key players with both breakout room and round table discussions.

This conference provides a unique opportunity to take stock of the geopolitical situation in the Middle East and beyond, and gain on-the-ground insights simply unavailable in mainstream reporting.

We would be honoured if you would join us in confronting the key issues in these countries and working towards peace and positive change through constructive discussions – just have as we have for the last three decades.
 

Conference Sessions
(London BST)
   

Thursday 30 July 
11.20 am US/UK 
3 pm Lebanon

Friday 31 July
3 pm Palestine 

Saturday 1 August
3 pm Libya

Sunday 2 August
3 pm China

Monday 3 August
11.30 am Afghanistan 
3 pm Iran 

Tuesday 4 August
11.30 am Iraq
3 pm Syria 

Wednesday 5 August
11.30 am Kashmir 
3 pm Yemen

Thursday 6 August
11.30 am Israel 
3 pm Sudan

Friday 7 August
3 pm Bahrain

Saturday 8 August
3 pm Conclusions
 
 

Image: Sunrise in San’a, Yemen taken by yeowatzup / CC BY

Stagnation or Recovery: What is the Situation in Syria’s Rebel-Controlled Areas?

It wasn’t just the “availability of olive oil” that led Mahmoud Dalati to settle in Afrin. He was fleeing eastern Ghouta, re-taken by the Assad Government with the help of Russian fighters. However, in the new city, he has opened a successful soap workshop, continuing the trade of his forefathers. In North-Eastern Syria, controlled by Turkish-backed rebels since 2018, actions such as these are a collective attempt to return to a stable existence. In late February 2020, a piece in Asharq Al-Awsat reported that the “stability” of the city of Afrin has “attracted Syrians from different parts of the country […] in search of permanent employment.” The article highlights the boom in local business caused by this lull in the conflict. New establishments are springing up in the city, from a newly opened cake factory (with “20 job opportunities”) to “currency exchange shops, jewelry [sic] stores, bookstores and factories,” all exchanging Turkish liras for “local and Turkish goods.”

However, Karim Mahmoud, of the ICRC, reported on May 21st that the region has seen “shortages of water, food and medicine, a lack of electricity” and “job losses and price hikes” caused by “the economic downturn.” Mahmoud stated that these issues are likely more pressing even than the threat of Coronavirus in the area. Save the Children also highlighted reports of “hostilities along the North East Syrian border” that necessitate “an increased need for immediate humanitarian assistance” in displacement camps. The European Council on Foreign Relations has commented that “Turkey faces the risk of the ‘Gazafication’ of the area – the emergence of a militarily controlled territory that is perennially poverty-stricken and unstable.”

The problem likely stems from Turkey’s control of the region. A thriving local economy is necessary for a proper recovery to occur. Despite the admirable steps taken by citizens to start businesses and accommodate those fleeing conflict areas, if Turkey does not guarantee “citizen security” (as the UNDP calls it) then it will be hard for the area not to find itself in a Gaza-esque rut. But is any outside nation involved in the conflict willing to act for reasons other than personal point scoring? Turkey has, of course, attempted to stamp out the Kurds in the region – another brutal step in their long-running conflict. It seems likely that the Turkey is not in a position to keep peace and enable those in the region to flourish. 

Yet maybe national and humanitarian interests can coincide. If Turkey could set a successful example of post-conflict recovery in the area, it could improve lives and command global respect. The chance is there. It remains to be seen whether it will be taken.

Image – The City of Afrin in 2009: Bertramz / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)

 

Rethinking Syria

Syria – Hell on Earth?

5.6m refugees have fled Syria; 3.8m of these are in Turkey. Some of the Syrian refugees are moving on to Europe and according to the charity Syria Relief, the Turkish-Greek border is ‘Hell on Earth’. The collapse in the oil price and inflation in Syria ensure living standards will continue to plummet which will drive more toward militancy.

But what is going on behind the scenes? To hear the latest podcast on the subject from Next Century Foundation Secretary General William Morris click here.

The war in North Syria – a Syrian perspective

Turkey goes Head to Head with Russia in Syria

President Erdogan of Turkey is facing down Putin of Russia – and this time at least, Bashar al Assad is not the big factor. But the the consequence is, as ever, that the ordinary people suffer as Turkey adds to the misery as it starts to bombard Northern Syria from drones. This overview is based on feedback from Syrians on the spot. To listen to the latest podcast on this subject from William Morris, Secretary General of the Next Century Foundation, click on the link:  https://www.buzzsprout.com/529801/2897692-syria-turkey-goes-head-to-head-with-russia

Turkey backs Rebel Advance in Idlib

Forty Syrian soldiers and fifty rebel troops were killed in fighting in Idlib province this week. Car bombs and heavy fire were used in an attempt by the National Liberation Front rebel alliance to retake positions in the Maarat al-Numan area. The rebels were supplied and supported by Turkey. Meanwhile the mortars falling on Aleppo are of a hitherto unprecedented size. All this because Bashar al Assad won’t agree to Erdogan taking a lead role in peace negotiations. Can there be a way forward that brings an end to this chaos? Podcast from NCF Secretary General William Morris on this link

Turkey seeks Hegemony in Syria – but will it risk further invasion?

Mohamad Tawam, Director of Arab London Center for Political Studies and Middle Eastern Affairs, has authored this article. The views he expresses are his own and not necessarily those of the NCF: 

Turkey has supported armed groups opposed to the Syrian government since the beginning of the war in Syria in 2011, The perception of many is that the prime Turkish purpose in so doing has been the establishment of a new Ottoman Empire, with the Muslim Brotherhood as its centrepiece.

But Turkey’s attempt to enhance the authority of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria has failed. Turkey has rowed back on her ambitions. Turkey now claims its interventions in Syria are defensive, specifically to deal with Syria’s Kurdish separatists, the existence of which, Turkey claims, is threatening the territorial integrity of Turkey.

However, this Turkish claim is not in line with Turkish conduct in the field. Observe Turkish field movements and the Turkish positions in Syria and you cannot help but conclude that Turkey has its own project in Syria and is looking for opportunities to implement it regardless of any position it is publicly committed to it.

Turkey still has ambitions to redraw the borders separating it from Iraq and Syria. The Turks would like to redraw the maps of the three countries so as to allow Turkey to annex the area from southern Mosul to al-Raqqa to the south of Aleppo and to Idlib and Jisr al-Shughur. Turkey’s intention is to redistribute the population in this area and then establish a system of governance and control based on the concept of administrative decentralization and connect the region with the Turkish decision-makers in Ankara. Turkey is intensifying its intervention and is warning that it will not leave Syria until after the Syrian elections.

That is why we see the Turkish position fluctuating. Turkey’s real intention is merely to gain the time needed to implement its own project.

Which begs the question: Can Turkey implement its project and will it succeed in occupying the land to the North East of the Euphrates as it threatens?

There are three key players in the area Turkey now wishes to control: America and the Kurds and ISIS, whilst those affected by the Turkish project, other than of course the central Syrian state, are the Syrian people resident in that region, both Arabs and Kurds.

So what result can we expect of this Turkish project? And what are the ambitions of those affected?

We start with America, whose troops are currently still present on Syrian soil. Prior to President Trump’s recent hasty and perhaps rash announcement that he would withdraw those troops, they were implementing two goals for the eastern Euphrates region:

First they were supporting the Kurdish forces in their separatist project in Syria. Their stated strategy was that the presence of US troops and their support for the Kurds was largely to fight ISIS.

And the second strategic objective was to cut off the land link between the East, i.e. Iran, and the West, i.e. Syria and Lebanon.

However, this strategy undermined Turkish objectives, especially in the case of the Kurds, whose presence in Syria as a fighting force Turkey rejects, particularly on their borders and describes them as terrorists. This in part because Turkey views their  leadership as allied to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is based in Turkey and Turkey sees as a threat to its security.

Had President Trump not decided to withdraw his troops, this conflict conflict of interest might have meant a confrontation between the US and Turkish forces if Turkey had invaded the remaining area of Syria under Kurdish control.

And yet Turkey has been and remains an ally of America before and after the Kurds. If America finds that the Turkish presence will secure its strategic interests in Syria, it will not need to protect the Kurds in the entire region, a problem of itself because the USA’s widespread deployment in the Middle East requires the use of military bases in Arab nations such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and US support for the Kurds will not help to reassure the Arab population in the Euphrates region who reject Kurdish rule.

Therefore, the most the United States can do in the face of the threat of Turkish invasion is to put pressure on the Turks to prevent it, and prevent its success, and then to protect the withdrawal of the Kurds to their densely populated heartlands, which do not exceed 10% of the area they now control with American support. This would stop America sliding into war with Turkey.

America could then humour both the Kurdish and Turkish parties and maintain its alliance relations with them.

As for the position of the Kurds in the face of the potential Turkish invasion, they do not the capacity to protect the areas they now control. To do so they would need a military force ten times the strength of the one they possess today. If the Kurds think that America will fight Turkey for them, they are labour under an illusion.

The call of some Kurds to the Syrian government to intervene in order to save them may be a mistake. The Kurds are committed to a separatist project in Syria and therefore it makes no sense for the Syrian government to intervene to protect their project.

As regards ISIS, Turkey will not risk entering the rest of the small areas controlled by ISIS in the east of Syria on the border with Iraq. So Turkey, which from the beginning worked in secret with ISIS in Syria, will ensure that ISIS will not be affected by any Turkish invasion.

Therefore, Turkey may see this moment as an opportunity to implement its threat to take control of much of Northern Syria based on its perception that the three parties that control East Euphrates do not have the will to confront Turkey.

If there is an obstacle that prevents or delays Turkey’s attack, it may be that the EU has asked Turkey not to carry out the threat. Or, as both Iran and Russia confirm, that the Turkish operation, if implemented, would be contrary to the understandings reached in Astana.

But the big surprise is the decision of the United States of America to withdraw all its military forces stationed in Syria in a decision announced by President Donald Trump in his twitter.

The withdrawal of US military from Syria is expected to end within a period of 60 to 100 days. This decision was taken by US President Donald Trump, after his telephone conversations with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which took place amid Turkey’s readiness to launch a third military operation In Syria targeting Kurdish insurgents in the east of the Euphrates.

Which means that Turkey may go on a “limited” invasion of the north-east of the Euphrates in a process that will not embarrass the American forces, which will be re-positioned to serve the Turkish targets, while the Kurds will find themselves alone in the field and will return to areas determined by the Americans.

But what is the position of the Syrian government in this regard?

The Syrian government sees every unsanctioned military presence on Syrian soil as an illegal presence, if that presence is not in response to a request from Syria or with its consent. Therefore, the four mentioned above are considered, for the Syrian government, to be an aggressor, an occupier, an outlaw, a terrorist or a separatist.

I believe that the Syrian government is sticking to its list of priorities to liberate Idlib from the armed terrorist groups with Al- Nusra Front first, and to monitor what is going on in the north-east. Turkey will find that its occupation of additional territory will not make it a partner or a friend of Syrian people in the future, and therefore the Turkish invasion would be a reckless leap without practical outcome.

Will Turkey do it? Let’s wait and see.

ISIS is far from finished in Syria

The USA is to pull out of Syria leaving its Syrian Kurdish allies vulnerable to both Turkish attack and attack from the remaining ISIS forces. Tough times ahead for the Syrian Kurds. According to Stafford Clarry, the NCF’s main interlocutor on the ground in the Kurdish region of Northern Iraq, on average 75 ISIS’ attacks are occurring per month in Iraq and Syria, and there are, still, 20,000 to 30,000 ISIS combatants.

However, “We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency,” Trump has tweeted.

Who to believe? Now that’s the question.

Reflections on the saga of Eastern Ghouta

 

At an International Communications Forum / Initiatives of Change meeting on Monday night one of the issues discussed was the credibility of Mid East media with a view (on the NCF’s Secretary General’s part) to reinstating the Media Credibility Index currently defunct other than an offshoot it spawned in Pakistan.  The NCF suggested that if we were to criticise Mid-East media we must take a mirror and look at the credibility of our own media and I cited the Eastern Ghouta issue as an example. Unwise perhaps. You will remember the West bombed Syria because of the alleged use of chemical weapons in Eastern Ghouta by the Syrian Government. I was hauled over the coals, quite rightly, by one young journalist for suggesting that because the officers of the Syrian Army denied the use of chemical weapons and because The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons had failed to find any evidence of chemical weapons use in East Ghouta that might mean the story was false. After all the Russians kept everyone out of the place for a week. Or almost everyone. They allowed Robert Fisk of the Independent in but then they trust him because of his previous coverage and his acquaintance with first Hafiz and now Bashar al Assad.

I should not have made my assertion. But there were questions still to be answered and the case remained unproven. The NCF has been closely associated with East Ghouta in recent times and a little back story may help:

Prior to the last NCF delegation to Damascus back at the end of 2016 we were asked by the Kurdish community in London to raise the issue of a Kurdish Damascus University student arrested for putting up Facebook posts that were defamatory of the President. We raised the issue first with the office of the President’s wife (who were very helpful) and secondly directly with Ali Haider, the Minister for Reconciliation. The office of Asma al-Assad carried forward the issue diligently but regrettably could find no record of the boy’s name amongst the names of the inmates of Syria’s prisons. We informed the boy’s family that sadly they should come to terms with the fact that he was now dead. This story may not seem relevant but it will become so because of ramifications this case may have had as you will see if you read on.

Then the rebel held area of Aleppo fell in due course to President Bashar al Assad’s forces. Attention switched to East Ghouta. The siege tightened as the Syrian Army prepared to retake the area. We were concerned. We raised the East Ghouta issue at the United Nations in Geneva (with which the NCF is in consultative status). We promoted a deal whereby the fighters were allowed to evacuate as they had done in Aleppo. We urged that the 500 fighters from the former Gebat al Nusra group should be helped to leave the region and take refuge in the nations in the Arab World that had previously offered them support. This might be better than promoting a series of virtually useless ceasefires (which was what the UN had been doing). The full text of our statement to the UN can be found here. Our interns Jaskirat Mann, Be Sun Lee, and Memuna Hussain, personally lobbied the British, American and Syrian delegations and each and every Arab Ambassador present, one by one. We also conducted a side meeting in Geneva on 2nd March of this year in which we lobbied for the same outcome.

And in due course the policy switched and the evacuation was discussed, not because of our efforts but because there was nothing else left to do. But some of the fighters failed to cooperate. And then we had the alleged chemical weapons attack. Of course the ruthless and remorseless bombing of Eastern Ghouta combined with the collective punishment of the people there through Mediaeval style siege and consequent starvation was indefensible. But there were puzzling aspects to the chemical weapons attack. We set about investigating. We were particularly bothered by one claim that a chlorine gas canister had been dropped through a roof and fallen onto a bed (which was said to account for its remarkably undamaged state), the problem being that the bed did not align with the hole in the roof. The Bellingcat authenticated claim seemed such an obvious fraud that it troubled us. That said to be fair to Bellingcat, they just geolocated some of the open sourced videos from Ghouta and Douma, they did not verify the claims in other respects.

Still, on balance, even though some of the evidence could have been fabricated, some appeared damning and we felt that there had probably been a chemical weapons attack and concluded that if so there was a 75% probability that the Syrian Government were culpable (as opposed to this being a false flag incident).

Perhaps obviously, many friends from the opposition inside Syria were eager to see the Western bombing take place. In any event the West bombed, albeit very modestly. And the rebel fighters left Eastern Ghouta. And as the government advanced many of the male civilians of fighting age who had been unable to flee were carted off to internment camps.

We had been liaising with the civilians inside Eastern Ghouta throughout the fighting during previous months, trying to help if only by giving them another voice from outside to talk to so that they could know their appeals for help were being heard. One particular young man (name withheld) had been our key liaison. He now found himself interred with many others in a camp (name withheld) outside Damascus. It was a frightening situation. He tried to get released but could not but he still, remarkably, had his mobile phone and we could still liaise with him.

The real tragedy of Ghouta is not whether this was a genuine chemical attack but that many thousands have been needlessly traumatised and displaced from their homes.
We tried to get confirmation from friends in East Ghouta that chemical attacks had taken place. One responded, “If you are able bring me with my family to a safe country. I might be able to talk. Or provide statements. All mobile phone are monitored 24/7. Talking politics is prohibited.”

This time we intervened in a more circumspect manner, but intervene we did. And he was not only released from internment but he was allowed by the authorities to select 44 of his co-detainees for release with him. Which was remarkable. The authorities also found him a job. He was of course tremendously grateful and sent us a message to say “I sincerely want to express my gratefulness to you, the Russian officers, and (name withheld) and President Basher Al Assad for their efforts and I greatly appreciate their help to release me and 44 detainees and your help has ended my suffering and fear.”

We doubt whether it was our intervention that effected this release. It was probably the action of someone else. However, our chief interlocutor with the Syrian Military (name withheld) sent us a message at this point and said that he had been contacted directly by one of the commanders of the forces that took Ghouta and that the commander claimed in response to our enquiries that though they had indeed used chemical weapons in a prior instance they had not done so in Ghouta. Your observation might reasonably be “he would say that wouldn’t he”.

However, subsequently it became clear (as the Foreign Office and State Department will no doubt now be aware), that the video of children being doused with water much broadcast on the BBC at the time may have been falsified. There were questions with it from the beginning (the children’s eyes were not red until after they had been doused) but subsequently the little boy that featured prominently was forced to flee with his family and became a refugee and was then extensively interviewed and his story did not corroborate the video (he claimed he had been snatched off the street).

Does it matter any longer whether or not chemical weapons were used in Ghouta? The world has moved on. Possibly not. many of the people of Ghouta suffered death or displacement regardless. Were chemical weapons used? Maybe. But the perspective and judgement of our media may perhaps be clouded by their understandable sympathy for the poor miserable people of Ghouta and all they have endured. We must try hard to maintain our objectivity.

Patrick Cockburn wrote an interesting article in the Independent last week echoing a theme he has returned to again and again talking of the many lies that have changed history and stating that “fake news” has “heightened the perception that information, true or false, is always a weapon in somebody’s hands”.

We must at least be wary.

 

Idlib buffer zone: diplomacy at last?

As Syria’s seven year war ostensibly draws to a close, there is still a great deal of uncertainty over the future of Idlib in northern Syria, the country’s last remaining rebel stronghold. With nowhere else to run to, its three million inhabitants (including around 60,000 opposition fighters) are edging ever closer back into the clutches of the Syrian Government and its President, Bashar al-Assad. Although more than half of Syria’s population have already lost their homes, it is this final struggle that may prove the most costly for President Assad and his allies in humanitarian terms.

Presently, Idlib is controlled by rebel factions who, despite their common opposition to the Syrian Government, are divided amongst themselves. A large swathe of Idlib – around 60% – is controlled by the radical Islamist group, Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) that has hsitoric ties to al-Qaeda. The National Liberation Front (NLF) – an opposition group supported by Turkey – controls another substantial area.

Throughout Syria’s war Turkey has provided support for opposition groups like the NLF, while Russia and Iran have backed Bashar al-Assad. Of course it was Russia’s intervention in the war in 2015 that marked a decisive shift in favour of Assad’s forces and it now seems as though Bashar al-Assad will soon regain control over much of the rest of Syria after years of uncertainty. The Syrian Government has no qualms about a large-scale offensive on Idlib; on 8th October Assad pledged to ‘liberate’ all areas under ‘terrorist control’. Syria’s deputy foreign minister has also declared that Idlib will be captured one way or another, either peacefully or militarily. And Syria’s Foreign Minister, Walid Muallem, told the NCF directly that if Turkey failed to withdraw, Syria would go to war to regain its territory.

Despite this belligerence, foreign powers involved in the war have shown a new commitment to avert further humanitarian catastrophe. A deal reached between President Erdogan of Turkey and President Putin of Russia on September 17th in Sochi, resolved that a 15-20 kilometre buffer zone would be created around Idlib after the removal of heavy weapons and radical fighters from the area. A ceasefire agreement was also established between the opposing parties. It was created in an attempt to prevent (or postpone) a Russian led attack on Idlib and allow time for further political discussion to take place without the threat of violence.

The first stage of the agreement, which stipulated the removal of heavy weaponry from the buffer zone, was successful. The NLF promptly withdrew its weapons in what was seen as a victory for Turkey, who has taken the responsibility for negotiating with fighters inside the buffer zone. Although HTS did not initially reveal its stance on the agreement, it too seemed to withdraw its weapons in time for the 10th October deadline.

More problematic, however, was the second deadline of the 15th October for the removal of jihadists from the area. There were some early reports that HTS and al-Nusra (another jihadist organisation) had refused to withdraw from the demilitarised zone because Turkey hadn’t guaranteed their safety. And so, the deadline came and went without any sight of the rebels leaving. HTS made a public statement vowing that they would continue to fight, and that they refused to trust Russia. General Naji Mustafa of the NLF also said that Russia’s commitment to the deal could not be trusted, insisting ‘we are absolutely ready for the forthcoming battle’.

There are fears that a breakdown in the agreement will give the Syrian Government and Russia an excuse to carry out a military offensive on Idlib. This is compounded by an ominous text message received by residents in the buffer zone last Friday from the Syrian army reading ‘get away from the fighters, their fate is sealed and near’. These fears are not unfounded; both Assad’s government and Putin have demonstrated their determination to win back all Syrian territory. In the past, Russia has also cited the presence of HTS as a reason for attacking areas of Idlib.

Despite this, there are signs that Russia is remaining flexible and willing to support Turkey’s implementation of the agreement on the ground, even though the deadlines have not immediately been met. This is in the interests of both Russia and Turkey, despite their opposing sides in the conflict. Putin has already spent a vast amount on the war in Syria and does not want to take responsibility for the humanitarian disaster that could occur if there was a military assault on Idlib. Russia is also concerned with reconstruction in Syria, which could feasibly start sooner if a peace is maintained. Turkey shares a border with Idlib and wants to avoid the inevitable influx of refugees if its people are forced to escape through the north.

It is a good sign that Russia has continued to honour the Sochi agreement. Although many are understandably cynical, this may well be the last remaining hope for the safety of the three million people living in Idlib. Talking about whether such an agreement will work in the ‘long term’ for Syria seems redundant given the fast changing nature of the war. What matters for now is that both sides remain committed to a diplomatic solution for Idlib that minimises casualties and sets a course for the Syrian Government to follow.

Syrian reconstruction – the West is caught between a rock and a hard place

Bashar Al-Assad’s government has this week continued hammering settlements in South Western Quneitra and Deraa Governorates, most notably in Nawa, where at least 14 have died and over 100 have been injured in air raids, part of an offensive intended to remove the last remnants of rebel strongholds in South Western Syria. This comes just days after government forces seized al-Haara Hill, a strategic post overlooking the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights; and after Syrian rebels in Quneitra reached an agreement which, according to UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), “provides for a ceasefire, the handover of heavy and medium weapons and the return of government institutions in the area”. Focus has also been on Idlib Province in the North West, where 6,000-7,000 pro-government civilians have just been evacuated by bus from the besieged, Shia-majority towns of al-Foua and Kefraya, following a deal reached between Damascus and anti-government rebels, in return for the release of many detained in state prisons.

This week’s activity demonstrates two things: that while government forces make significant advances in the South West, the Syrian conflict is very much still in full-swing; and that such conflict continues to cause untold destruction across the country. As conflict rages on, many question how Syria will begin to reconstruct in the wake of a war with a price tag far in excess of $250 billion, the figure estimated by United Nations Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, back in November. The true cost of the war is expected to be much higher. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) also initially estimated, early in the conflict, that it would take 30 years for Syria’s economy to recover to its pre-2011 level – this would now likely take far longer. The challenge facing the Syrian government, and the international community is therefore monumental. The question is, who will foot the bill?

Syria’s Allies

It is clear that the cost of reconstruction is far beyond the capacity of President Assad’s government, and even beyond the reach of its two closest allies in the conflict, Russia and Iran. That is not to say that they are not eager to take part in the reconstruction. In fact, Russia was quick, back in early 2016, to sign infrastructure rebuilding contracts amounting to $1 billion; and this will likely only continue. Iran too has signed lucrative contracts to rebuild phone networks and the national power grid. The commercial branch of their Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has already proved a valuable force in the reconstruction effort, having lent support throughout the conflict. They are well versed in the field of post-war reconstruction, and have built a significant reputation for rebuilding within Iran, following their devastating war with Iraq in the 1980s. In April, President Rouhani further renewed state-support for the Syrian government and its rebuilding efforts, stating that Iran “stands beside the country and people of Syria and will continue to aid it in defending against the forces of evil and returning security and stability throughout the Syrian Arab Republic”. Likewise, their Lebanese allies, Hezbollah, would also seek a role in the rebuilding effort, having already offered their support to the Syrian Arab Army.

Russia and Iran are clearly keen to help, and by doing so may seek to increase their influence in the country. And this certainly fits with President Assad’s government’s intention to offer contracts to those few who have stood by Damascus throughout the conflict, and in return for continued political support. So reconstruction may present opportunities for mutual gain to both Syria and its allies. 

However support from Syria’s allies only goes so far; and what little support is given, will be allocated in line with the government’s own interests. This means selective rebuilding in areas loyal to President Assad through clientelist contractors, likely in return for short term profits. Investing in loyal areas also means investing in those areas relatively unscathed by government siege. This means significant rebuilding cannot occur in the areas most damaged, and therefore those most in need of recovery. This would lead to even deeper divisions within Syria, with wealth distributed between Damascus and those loyal to the government, and contrasted with a poorer, devastated periphery. This promises to merely exacerbate existing divisions.

China

China has maintained a slightly more impartial position in the Syrian conflict, though it maintains a cordial diplomatic relationship with Damascus. They also have clear vested interests in Syrian investment. They are likely keen to stem the flow of the some 4,000-5,000 radicalised Uighur Muslims passing between Xinjiang province and North Western Syria, where many have joined anti-government jihadist groups. Syria is also part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), their land and maritime project to foster international development and trade across Eurasia. China therefore has an obvious interest in rebuilding, particularly in areas of Northern Syria, with an eye on the next step of their grand development strategy. China, much like Iran and Russia, enjoys the ability to invest in Syrian reconstruction, due to its ongoing diplomatic relations with the Assad government; and because its investment is not conditional on any political reform, resisted by Damascus, but so strictly pursued by Western governments.

The United States

The US is unlikely to fund any long term reconstruction efforts inside Syria without some substantial political conditions. This by no means implies that the US is seeking to ignore the ongoing conflict altogether, however. By January 2018, USAID had provided nearly $7.7 billion in humanitarian assistance to Syrians and more than $875 million in “stabilization” and other non-humanitarian assistance (often distributed through rebel groups). This is alongside active support for opposition groups inside Syria, in its ongoing effort to eradicate the threat posed to its own national security by the Islamic State group. The Syrian government also continues to face tough US sanctions. Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stated emphatically in January that the United States would only encourage the normalisation of economic relations between Syria and other nations “once Assad is gone from power”. It therefore seems that a concerted US effort to rebuild parts of Syria, the damage in much of which the US itself is responsible for, through its arming of Syrian rebel groups and airstrikes on government facilities and IS strongholds like Raqqa – 80% of which has been destroyed – will not be made until real political change happens.

But this change does not seem to be coming any time soon, with Assad vowing to remain in power until at least 2021. Any election or any substantial political reform seems out of the question until this point, despite the UN Security Council’s support for free and fair elections to be held within 18 months of Resolution 2254 back in December 2015. And while the Trump-Putin Summit in Helsinki last week might have shown a degree of willingness on the part of the US to engage Syria’s ally over the conflict, details of their discussion have so far been lacking. A 2017 RAND study suggests that the longer the US boycotts reconstruction, the stronger will be the Russian and Iranian positions in the country. This implies the US does have a geopolitical interest in supporting the rebuilding effort. America’s refusal to give aid direct to the government however, means that it may instead seek to leverage influence over the World Bank, IMF and UN to offer assistance at the local level, in return for a degree of local democratic reform. 

The EU

The EU likewise has proved unwilling to offer unconditional assistance.  The European Council’s Syria strategy document produced in March 2017 “reiterates” that Europe “will be ready to assist in the reconstruction of Syria only when a comprehensive, genuine and inclusive political transition … is firmly under way.” Similar to the US, intervention by some European states has led some to question whether they have an obligation to help in the reconstruction, given their part in the destruction of some Daesh enclaves and support for anti-government rebels. 

They also have another clear motivation to engage in rebuilding; to help stem the flow of Syrian refugees towards Europe. The UNHCR had already counted roughly a million asylum applicants in Europe in mid-2017, and many others of the 5 million refugees outside Syria continue to add pressure on European governments. A comprehensive reconstruction program to rebuild homes, communities and industries back home in Syria would certainly help alleviate much of this pressure. Sadly, European governments are caught between offering support through the Assad government, or small-scale investment projects, themselves largely conditional on the will of the central government when taking place in government-held areas or working with government approved local partners.

In any case, the government does not have the luxury of rejecting bottom-up support from European governments – they are still far shy of their vast $250 billion target. A bottom-up approach would certainly be more complicated than directing assistance through the central government. However, a top-down approach would mean diverting funds solely to areas loyal to the government. Any government-led redevelopments in former opposition areas, like the Basateen al-Razi in Western Damascus – which boasts to be rehousing 60,000 residents – or Jouret al-Shayah in Homs, are viewed by some as a means of consolidating power through patronage among potential dissidents and of therefore controlling the local population.

The bottom line

The international community has two options. They can pursue reconstruction in isolation from a political solution; in a piecemeal way through small scale rebuilding initiatives in non-government-controlled areas (which are shrinking daily), while the government continues to award contracts to its allies to rebuild in less devastated, loyal areas. Or they can continue to withhold reconstruction until a political solution is reached. Once political reform, or even a change of government occurs, rebuilding may happen on physical, societal, economic and political levels. A joint statement by NRC, SAVE, CARE, Oxfam and IRC last year argued that in the absence of the “respect for human rights and protection of an independent civil society” that would come from a political solution, “a move towards reconstruction assistance risks doing more harm than good”. This may be true. The former of the two options would see reconstruction pursued slowly and inefficiently, at a time when over half of Syria’s hospitals, two-thirds of its schools and a quarter of all homes have been damaged or destroyed; while over half of Syria’s pre-war population is still in need of humanitarian assistance. It would also see the government and its allies consolidate their influence across the country. Meanwhile, Assad’s government continues to make progress and shows no sign of making the political concessions necessary for more substantial reconstruction to take place. What is certain is that Syria will take far longer than the 30 years initially predicted by the UNRWA for it to recover. Western governments have a huge responsibility on their hands, and a difficult decision to make.