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Lebanon: A welcoming land weakened by the Syrian crisis

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Syria is going through its third autumn of civil war, where the indiscriminate brutality from both sides is matched only the complexity of the geopolitical stakes beyond the Syrian context.  The whole region seems to be held hostage, with the people of Syria and its neighbours on the frontline.

Bound by its geographical proximity to its conflicted neighbour, and the inextricable social, societal and economic ties, Lebanon finds itself, again, a prisoner.

Since the beginning of the crisis in March 2011, almost a million refugees have flowed through the open border between Lebanon and Syria. Lebanon’s population, estimated at around 4 million prior to the crisis, has swollen to such an extent that it is estimated that Syrian nationals now account for a almost a fifth of the current inhabitants.

Lebanon has long served as a harbour for those displaced by territorial disputes or conflicts in the region, and has sought to treat those seeking refuge with humanity and a sense of brotherhood. Although it has been shaken by chaotic events in its recent history, deep-rooted ties run between these countries – not least a widespread shared family heritage between many Syrian and Lebanese families.

Yet in recent weeks a crisis has emerged to which the international community cannot stay numb.

Lebanon occupies a delicate equilibrium between disparate religious sects and communities, a position achieved in no small part due to two years of mediation by the caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati. The influx of many hundreds of thousands of displaced Syrians places this balance in jeopardy, and threatens to collapse a number of uneasy alliances.

Deciding to interact with Hezbollah was no easy decision for Mikati’s government, and demonstrates the political influence and clout this faction possesses within the Lebanese political arena. It is this leverage which Iran wishes to retain within the Syrian conflict. [The Iranian position was reiterated as Iran has opened to the USA, UK, France and the international community in general since the new Iranian President, Hassan Rohani, was elected in June 2013.

In economic terms, the World Bank estimated in a recent report that the Syrian crisis has resulted in direct losses to Lebanon of over €5.5 billion since 2012. The government’s income is thought to have decreased by nearly €880 million in 2013, its third consecutive year of budgetary contraction. Conversely, public spending has increased by 28% to provide emergency medical services and public service. This unsustainable deficit has led, amongst other things, to an exceptionally high tax burden on Lebanon’s working population.

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The influx of many hundreds of thousands of displaced largely Sunni Syrians places this balance in jeopardy, and threatens to dangerously destabilise the entire country

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First and foremost however, the consequences are disastrous in terms of the fragile social and religious cohesion which emerged from the Taef agreements of October 1989. These ended a 15 year long civil war that decimated Lebanon between 1975 and 1990, a conflict that has many painful parallels with the current tragic events in Syria.

There is a significant risk that the precarious balance between Shi’as and Sunnis (59.7%% of the population) and Maronite Christians (39%) will collapse if the national unity that the coalition government has been pursuing since previous Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned in 2011, fails. The influx of many hundreds of thousands of displaced largely Sunni Syrians places this balance in jeopardy, and threatens to dangerously destabilise the entire country.

Crime has doubled – even possibly tripled in certain areas of Lebanon; and more and more Lebanese nationals are forced to leave their country due to the increasing cost of living.

Education is the best example of the challenges Lebanon is currently facing. The 330,000 Lebanese children in education are dwarfed by the 500,000 Syrian children, who have sought refuge in Lebanon with their parents, in need of school places. Access to education is a fundamental entitlement for these children, and their greatest hope of overcoming the traumatic and inhumane war they are victims of. But Lebanon’s educational infrastructure is fast approaching a point where it can no longer support these children.

Unlike some of its neighbours, Mikati’s government has deliberately chosen to ascribe the Syrians as ‘displaced people’ and not as ‘refugees’. Beyond this symbolic measure, the priority for the Lebanese Prime Minister is now to reach out to its European partners, especially Germany, the UK and France, and emphasise that the issue is now beyond Syria’s immediate neighbours.

France has decided to welcome 500 refugees and Germany 5000. The difference is sizeable, and it demonstrates that Berlin realises the vast challenges encountered by the Lebanese government better than Paris. The Lebanese Prime Minister recently reiterated to the United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon, that the security and stability of his country will be key to the peaceful resolution of the Syrian crisis.

The Geneva II Conference, originally due at the end of this month, but now not likely to take place before the end of year, will be, if it goes ahead, a crucial opportunity to address the Syrian refugee crisis, and the profound socio-economic this humanitarian crisis has had on Syria’s neighbours. There are now more than 550,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan and 600,000 in Turkey, 125,000 in Egypt, and 202,000 in Iraq, whilst the latest estimations suggest an influx of at least 800,000 registered refugees in Lebanon and an additional 300,000 non-registered.  

The main players of the Geneva II Conference preparing Syria’s peaceful future: Iran, the USA and Russia should also include this issue on their agendas, as it is a prerequisite in the process of national and regional reconciliation that has been so damaged in the last two and a half years of turmoil.

As we are left speculating on the strategic divergences, consequences and disillusions arising from the Arab Spring, the emergence of a ‘new Lebanon’ could be used as an example for its neighbours. This transition relies on the closure of past wounds and would be a model of quiet transition in the Middle East and North Africa region.

Moreover, time is giving credence to Najib Mikati’s adherence to the concept of “dissociation”, so that the burden of the Syrian crisis does not weaken the already fragile Lebanese State. Nonetheless one cannot ignore the fact that these countries’ future depend on each other, and that Lebanon shares much more with Syria than a communal border.

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The Turkish Gambit

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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The only certainty in war is its intrinsic uncertainty, something Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan could soon chance upon.  One only has to look back on America’s topsy-turvy fortunes in Iraq, Afghanistan and even Syria for confirmation.

The Turkish invasion of northeastern Syria has as its defined objective a buffer zone between the Kurds in Turkey and in Syria.  Mr. Erdogan hopes, to populate it with some of the 3 million plus Syrian refugees in Turkey, many of these in limbo in border camps.  The refugees are Arab; the Kurds are not.

Kurds speak a language different from Arabic but akin to Persian.  After the First World War, when the victors parceled up the Arab areas of the Ottoman Empire, Syria came to be controlled by the French, Iraq by the British, and the Kurdish area was divided into parts in Turkey, Syria and Iraq, not forgetting the borderlands in Iran — a brutal division by a colonial scalpel severing communities, friends and families.  About the latter, I have some experience, having lived through the bloody partition of India into two, and now three countries that cost a million lives.   

How Mr. Erdogan will persuade the Arab Syrian refugees to live in an enclave, surrounded by hostile Kurds, some ethnically cleansed from the very same place, remains an open question.  Will the Turkish army occupy this zone permanently?  For, we can imagine what the Kurds will do if the Turkish forces leave.

There is another aspect of modern conflict that has made conquest no longer such a desirable proposition — the guerrilla fighter.  Lightly armed and a master of asymmetric warfare, he destabilizes. 

Modern weapons provide small bands of men the capacity and capability to down helicopters, cripple tanks, lay IEDs, place car bombs in cities and generally disrupt any orderly functioning of a state, tying down large forces at huge expense with little chance of long term stability.  If the US has failed repeatedly in its efforts to bend countries to its will, one has to wonder if Erdogan has thought this one through.

The Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 is another case in point.  Forever synonymous with the infamous butchery at Sabra and Shatila by the Phalange militia facilitated by Israeli forces, it is easy to forget a major and important Israeli goal:  access to the waters of the Litani River which implied a zone of occupation for the area south of it up to the Israeli border.

Southern Lebanon is predominantly Shia and at the time of the Israeli invasion they were a placid group who were dominated by Christians and Sunni, even Palestinians ejected from Israel but now armed and finding refuge in Lebanon.  It was when the Israelis looked like they were going to stay that the Shia awoke.  It took a while but soon their guerrillas were harassing Israeli troops and drawing blood.  The game was no longer worth the candle and Israel, licking its wounds, began to withdraw ending up eventually behind their own border.

A colossal footnote is the resurgent Shia confidence, the buildup into Hezbollah and new political power.  The Hezbollah prepared well for another Israeli invasion to settle old scores and teach them a lesson.  So they were ready, and shocked the Israelis in 2006.  Now they are feared by Israeli troops.   

To return to the present, it is not entirely clear as to what transpired in the telephone call between Erdogan and Trump.  Various sources confirm Trump has bluffed Erdogan in the past.  It is not unlikely then for Trump to have said this time, “We’re leaving.  If you go in, you will have to police the area.  Don’t ask us to help you.”  Is that subject to misinterpretation?  It certainly is a reminder of the inadvertent green light to Saddam Hussein for the invasion of Kuwait when Bush Senior was in office. 

For the time being Erdogan is holding fast and Trump has signed an executive order imposing sanctions on Turkish officials and institutions.  Three Turkish ministers and the Defense and Energy ministries are included.  Trump has also demanded an immediate ceasefire.  On the economic front, he has raised tariffs on steel back to 50 percent as it used to be before last May.  Trade negotiations on a $100 billion trade deal with Turkey have also been halted forthwith.  The order also includes the holding of property of those sanctioned, as well as barring entry to the U.S.

Meanwhile, the misery begins all over again as thousands flee the invasion area carrying what they can.  Where are they headed?  Anywhere where artillery shells do not rain down and the sound of airplanes does not mean bombs.

Such are the exigencies of war and often its surprising consequences. 

Author’s Note:  This piece appeared originally on Counterpunch.org

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Could Turkish aggression boost peace in Syria?

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On October 7, 2019, the U.S. President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of American troops from northeast Syria, where the contingent alongside Kurdish militias controlled the vast territories. Trump clarified that the decision is connected with the intention of Turkey to attack the Kurdish units, posing a threat to Ankara.

It’s incredible that the Turkish military operation against Kurds – indeed the territorial integrity of Syria has resulted in the escape of the U.S., Great Britain, and France. These states essentially are key destabilizing components of the Syrian crisis.

Could this factor favourably influence the situation in the country? For instance, after the end of the Iraqi war in 2011 when the bulk of the American troops left the country, the positive developments took place in the lives of all Iraqis. According to World Economics organization, after the end of the conflict, Iraq’s GDP grew by 14% in 2012, while during the U.S. hostilities the average GDP growth was about 5,8%.

Syria’s GDP growth should also be predicted. Not right away the withdrawal of U.S., French, British, and other forces, but a little bit later after the end of the Turkish operation that is not a phenomenon. The Turkish-Kurdish conflict has been going on since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire when Kurds started to promote the ideas of self-identity and independence. Apart from numerous human losses, the Turks accomplished nothing. It is unlikely that Ankara would achieve much in Peace Spring operation. The Kurds realize the gravity of the situation and choose to form an alliance with the Syrian government that has undermined the ongoing Turkish offensive.

Under these circumstances, Erdogan could only hope for the creation of a narrow buffer zone on the Syrian-Turkish border. The withdrawal of the Turkish forces from the region is just a matter of time. However, we can safely say that the Turkish expansion unwittingly accelerated the peace settlement of the Syrian crisis, as the vital destabilizing forces left the country. Besides, the transfer of the oil-rich north-eastern regions under the control of Bashar Assad will also contribute to the early resolution of the conflict.

It remains a matter of conjecture what the leaders of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Russia agreed on during the high-level talks. Let’s hope that not only the Syrians, but also key Gulf states are tired of instability and tension in the region, and it’s a high time to strive for a political solution to the Syrian problem.

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Turkey and the Kurds: What goes around comes around

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Turkey, like much of the Middle East, is discovering that what goes around comes around.

Not only because President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appears to have miscalculated the fallout of what may prove to be a foolhardy intervention in Syria and neglected alternative options that could have strengthened Turkey’s position without sparking the ire of much of the international community.

But also because what could prove to be a strategic error is rooted in a policy of decades of denial of Kurdish identity and suppression of Kurdish cultural and political rights that was more likely than not to fuel conflict rather than encourage societal cohesion.

The policy midwifed the birth in the 1970s to militant groups like the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), which only dropped its demand for Kurdish independence in recent years.

The group that has waged a low intensity insurgency that has cost tens of thousands of lives has been declared a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union.

Turkish refusal to acknowledge the rights of the Kurds, who are believed to account for up to 20 percent of the country’s population traces its roots to the carving of modern Turkey out of the ruins of the Ottoman empire by its visionary founder, Mustafa Kemal, widely known as Ataturk, Father of the Turks.

It is entrenched in Mr. Kemal’s declaration in a speech in 1923 to celebrate Turkish independence of “how happy is the one who calls himself a Turk,” an effort to forge a national identity for country that was an ethnic mosaic.

The phrase was incorporated half a century later in Turkey’s student oath and ultimately removed from it in 2013 at a time of peace talks between Turkey and the PKK by then prime minister, now president Erdogan.

It took the influx of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Kurds in the late 1980s and early 1990s as well as the 1991 declaration by the United States, Britain and France of a no-fly zone in northern Iraq that enabled the emergence of an autonomous Iraqi Kurdish region to spark debate in Turkey about the Kurdish question and prompt the government to refer to Kurds as Kurds rather than mountain Turks.

Ironically, Turkey’s enduring refusal to acknowledge Kurdish rights and its long neglect of development of the pre-dominantly Kurdish southeast of the country fuelled demands for greater rights rather than majority support for Kurdish secession largely despite the emergence of the PKK

Most Turkish Kurds, who could rise to the highest offices in the land s long as they identified as Turks rather than Kurds, resembled Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, whose options were more limited even if they endorsed the notion of a Jewish state.

Nonetheless, both minorities favoured an independent state for their brethren on the other side of the border but did not want to surrender the opportunities that either Turkey or Israel offered them.

The existence for close to three decades of a Kurdish regional government in northern Iraq and a 2017 referendum in which an overwhelming majority voted for Iraqi Kurdish independence, bitterly rejected and ultimately nullified by Iraqi, Turkish and Iranian opposition, did little to fundamentally change Turkish Kurdish attitudes.

If the referendum briefly soured Turkish-Iraqi Kurdish relations, it failed to undermine the basic understanding underlying a relationship that could have guided Turkey’s approach towards the Kurds in Syria even if dealing with Iraqi Kurds may have been easier because, unlike Turkish Kurds, they had not engaged in political violence against Turkey.

The notion that there was no alternative to the Turkish intervention in Syria is further countered by the fact that Turkish PKK negotiations that started in 2012 led a year later to a ceasefire and a boosting of efforts to secure a peaceful resolution.

The talks prompted imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan to publish a letter endorsing the ceasefire, the disarmament and withdrawal from Turkey of PKK fighters, and a call for an end to the insurgency. Mr. Ocalan predicted that 2013 would be the year in which the Turkish Kurdish issues would be resolved peacefully.

The PKK’s military leader, Cemil Bayik, told the BBC three years later that “we don’t want to separate from Turkey and set up a state. We want to live within the borders of Turkey on our own land freely.”

The talks broke down in 2015 against the backdrop of the Syrian war and the rise as a US ally of the United States in the fight against the Islamic State of the PKK’s Syrian affiliate, the People’s Protection Units (YPG).

Bitterly opposed to the US-YPG alliance, Turkey demanded that the PKK halt its resumption of attacks on Turkish targets and disarm prior to further negotiations.

Turkey responded to the breakdown and resumption of violence with a brutal crackdown in the southeast of the country and on the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).

Nonetheless, in a statement issued from prison earlier this year that envisioned an understanding between Turkey and Syrian Kurdish forces believed to be aligned with the PKK, Mr. Ocalan declared that “we believe, with regard to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the problems in Syria should be resolved within the framework of the unity of Syria, based on constitutional guarantees and local democratic perspectives. In this regard, it should be sensitive to Turkey’s concerns.”

Turkey’s emergence as one of Iraqi Kurdistan’s foremost investors and trading partners in exchange for Iraqi Kurdish acquiescence in Turkish countering the PKK’s presence in the region could have provided inspiration for a US-sponsored safe zone in northern Syria that Washington and Ankara had contemplated.

The Turkish-Iraqi Kurdish understanding enabled Turkey  to allow an armed Iraqi Kurdish force to transit Turkish territory in 2014 to help prevent the Islamic State from conquering the Syrian city of Kobani.

A safe zone would have helped “realign the relationship between Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and its Syrian offshoot… The safe-zone arrangements… envision(ed) drawing down the YPG presence along the border—a good starting point for reining in the PKK, improving U.S. ties with Ankara, and avoiding a potentially destructive Turkish intervention in Syria,” Turkey scholar Sonar Cagaptay suggested in August.

The opportunity that could have created the beginnings of a sustainable solution that would have benefitted Turkey as well as the Kurds fell by the wayside with Mr. Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from northern Syria.

In many ways, Mr. Erdogan’s decision to opt for a military solution fits the mould of a critical mass of world leaders who look at the world through a civilizational prism and often view national borders in relative terms.

Russian leader Vladimir Putin pointed the way with his 2008 intervention in Georgia and the annexation in 2014 of Crimea as well as Russia’s stirring of pro-Russian insurgencies in two regions of Ukraine.

Mr. Erdogan appears to believe that if Mr. Putin can pull it off, so can he.

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