The conflict and resulting destruction in Syria has been going on since 2011 and no foreseeable end is in sight.
Over a quarter million deaths have occurred and half of the entire population has been displaced, with millions of refugees travelling to other countries, from regional neighbors to various European countries, driven asunder by ISIS. Various state actors have their own personal agendas and each posits a solution unique to its own interests. Is there a way out of this quagmire and how feasible is it to implement it?
The United States and Western Europe have no desirable options in combatting ISIS, nor for that matter do they have a comprehensive plan outside of an adherence to a parochial binary platform in which a thriving democracy must somehow be implemented and all the undesirable factions removed. Not only is this at best problematic, it is not working. The United States insists that the only solution is to remove Assad from power, that his continued presence makes it difficult, if not impossible to end the civil war. Washington has made their position on Assad clear with President Obama reiterating policy by recently stating, “Let’s remember how this started, Assad reacted to peaceful protest by escalating repression and killing and in turn created the environment for the current strife.” Assad’s violent reaction against a democratic movement, one of the ideological cornerstones of American core values and a lynchpin in directing American foreign policy, further eroded what little legitimacy he had with Washington thus necessitating his removal in their eyes.
The insistence by the White House that Assad needs to be removed from power in order to facilitate the destruction of ISIS is short-sighted at best and realistically counter-productive. The air campaign led by the Americans has done very little to stop the ISIS advance within Syria. Current gains within Syria in the last few weeks show this to be the case. Since ISIS captured Palmyra in central Syria this summer they have progressed in their advance on Damascus. Recently they captured the town of al-Qaratayn which now extends their reach considerably and places their forces within 30 kilometers of the M5, the arterial highway that links Damascus with those other parts of Syria still under government control. In the case of Palmyra, they captured it fairly easily because of the Americans refusal to engage ISIS with a single munition because the area was defended by government forces. American reluctance was surely increased by their recognition that Palmyra was a place in the past associated with severe repression by the Assad regime, its notorious prison there was the site for hundreds of executions of political dissidents and accounts of brutal torture still echo within the Syrian community that surrounds the region. That fact aside, witness American involvement in defending the Kurdish city of Kobani, in which at least one thousand air strikes were conducted to defend the city, helping the Kurds to eradicate ISIS forces that were besieging the city at the time.
While there is continued American reluctance to assist the forces of Assad in any way, the following scenario is realistically possible. If ISIS is able to sever the M5 or even control a stretch of the highway it will most certainly cut off the only arterial connection that Damascus has in logistically supporting the other areas in Syria that it currently controls. If this happens it will most likely lead to the collapse of the regime. The impending collapse of the Assad government will remove the primary combatant against ISIS who will then seize Damascus. ISIS, whose efficiency at wholesale destruction resembles that of a plague of locusts, will waste no time in eradicating whole swaths of the population they identify as government supporters, apostates and other categorical definitions deemed incompatible with ISIS ideology. Up to 20 million people presently live in government controlled areas and the collapse of the government would lead to a refugee crisis that will dwarf the current one underway in Europe, with potentially up to five million more people fleeing across the Syrian border.
For months the U.S. has focused on the training of a moderate force which can counter ISIS gains or at least impede further progress by the barbaric organization. This is simply wishful thinking. Recently it was announced by Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, Christine Wormuth, that there are only four or five fighters left from the first group of 54 Syrian fighters that had been trained by the U.S. as part of a $500 million program to combat ISIS with only one hundred lined up for additional training. Half a billion dollars and the immediate result is less than half a dozen fighters. After reports of U.S. trained rebels defecting and turning over their U.S. supplied equipment to hostile factions such as al- Qaeda, the Pentagon suspended the program to train and equip Syrian opposition forces in September of this year.
While there are certain parallels with the American intervention in Iraq in the past decade, the difference with Syria is that the stakes are higher, not only for regional players but on the worldwide stage as well. Weapons of mass destruction (primarily those of a chemical composition such as sarin) will be the most coveted spoils of the collapsed state. A recent French intelligence report concluded that Syria most likely possessed more than one thousand tons of various chemical agents that could be, or were already, militarized for use. International consensus is that Syria has employed the use of chemical weapons on its enemies and also that captured stockpiles have been utilized by ISIS as well in counter-strikes. The fact that the dispersal range for chemical weapons invariably harms more of the civilian population that its military target is irrelevant to both sides. If Syria falls, it will be up to those states which have the means to destroy or eradicate the chemical stockpiles, a procedure that is both at times unreliable as well as fraught with danger. The only semblance of order comes from the hated Assad regime, but order it is nonetheless and the prospects for its internal collapse leading to a bloody and protracted civil war involving a myriad of players are great.
But what would happen if Assad was ousted by force, either through direct intervention by the Coalition forces formed against him or by succumbing to ISIS and other rebel factions? There will be a security vacuum. We have seen this before in other failed states, both as a result of outside intervention and in those with internal collapse.
If Assad is ousted a plethora of scenarios are possible, none of them appealing save some isolated regional imbalances of power that will favor one state over the other. The possibilities are as follows. The collapse of the regime will result in a Syria that is overrun by extremists. Even if the extremists left behind along with ISIS (such as the al-Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham) end up in conflict with one another, the fact remains that ideologically they share the same goals; the various factions will eventually merge, either through combat or through assimilation and ISIS will be in a better position to exert its will. The most likely scenario is a protracted civil war reminiscent of the one experienced by Lebanon’s sectarian conflict in the 1980’s which lasted well over a decade and involved multiple actors both politically, ideologically, and religiously motivated. Such a protracted conflict could produce hundreds of thousands of casualties. The inherent danger in this potential scenario, however, is much greater here than it was in Lebanon. Because the civil war in Syria is divided among Sunni-Shiite lines (along with other manifested hostilities to minority classifications such as Christians, Kurds, etc.), the possibility of the conflict spreading to other neighboring countries (Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and possibly even Turkey) with the same sectarian demographic is certainly worryingly possible. The consequences of such an inter-regional conflagration could be catastrophic to both the U.S. and Europe’s long term strategic and economic interests and would lead to massive regional instability.
The possibility of such a scenario does have a potential silver lining in that it would make Iran more susceptible to American demands because of the distinct possibility of the erosion of the Hezbollah-Syria-Iran axis if Assad falls. However, the United States so far have refused to recognize this possibility and insists on negotiating on issues that simply are more important to them than they are to Iran (the much maligned nuclear deal for example). As Iran and its various proxies groan under the mounting casualties and loss of equipment, Washington could use these setbacks as leverage to keep Iran somewhat more compliant during future negotiations.
There is one regional actor, however, whose fortune could improve if said scenario develops; Israel will lose no sleep if Hezbollah is weakened significantly, certainly possible if Assad falls and Iran loses its key political and geographical intermediary between them and Lebanon. Hezbollah has already lost hundreds of fighters in its attempt to bolster the Baathist regime, and has refocused strenuous efforts to prevent penetration into Lebanon from ISIS and other rebel forces such as the al-Nusra Front, which have penetrated into Lebanon on several occasions.
Israel is in a unique position in that there are indeed a few scenarios that may be advantageous in regards to their own security. Although current thinking within Israeli leadership is that the devil you know is better than the one you don’t, based on the assumption that they know Assad realizes the limits to imposed aggression against the Israeli state while ISIS doesn’t, the possibility exists that a collapse of Syria will bring about a more stable security on their Northern border with Lebanon. Syrian collapse, coupled with weakening Iranian support, will inevitably result in a weakened Hezbollah. Compounding the problem is that Hezbollah is already engaged with ISIS and other numerous rebel factions and has suffered hundreds of casualties. The concern that ISIS would further encroach into Lebanon is not held as being realistically probable because of the current Israeli belief that the present international coalition against ISIS would increase substantially if such a takeover was even possible. Indeed, it is one of the few instances in which the major Sunni powers in the Middle East, Russia, and the United States would be united in stopping further ISIS encroachment. Furthermore, those areas in which Syria has an active role in encouraging international condemnation of Israel, primarily the return of the Golan Heights, would effectively cease. Most likely this would result in Israel’s permanent claim to the Golan Heights going widely unchallenged in light of a fractured and collapsing Syrian state.
It could even be rationally argued that an ISIS presence within Lebanon would be easier for the Israelis to deal with that Hezbollah, which has the backing and logistical support provided by both Syria and Iran and whose actions are primarily decided upon by Tehran. Key differences also include the regional aspirations of ISIS as opposed to Iran’s sweeping objective to incorporate Hezbollah into their goal in becoming a major actor within the Middle East. This isn’t to say that Israel would prefer ISIS, whose irrational actions, cruelty, and opposition to adhere to even the slightest diplomatic protocol, make them difficult to predict and as a result very dangerous. One thing is for certain – ISIS doesn’t have the extensive capabilities that Hezbollah is afforded as a result of being backed by moderately strong state (Iran).
The Russian argument that Assad should stay in power for the time being is fast becoming the only valid argument in play. Russian entry into the conflict changes the dynamics of the current crisis considerably. Russia and Syria have had a bilateral relationship dating back to a non-aggression pact signed in April of 1950. With the advent of the Cold War, the ties between the two countries deepened both economically and militarily in reaction to the various wars and conflicts that erupted across the region over the last several decades, to the point that the Syrian port of Tartus was Russia’s only Mediterranean naval base until the widening civil war resulted in Russia evacuating its naval personnel from the region. The United States has been using Syrian air space to lead a campaign of air strikes against ISIS, and an increased Russian presence raises the prospect of the Cold War superpower foes encountering each other on the battlefield – something that neither side relishes for obvious reasons.
The Kremlin has made no secret of its disdain in removing “legitimate institutions” via the imposition of democratic reform backed by American support. Putin, who in his recent U.N. address cited Iraq and Libya as prime examples of the dangers of forced democratization, stated that, “Rather than bringing about reforms, an aggressive foreign interference has resulted in a flagrant destruction of national institutions and the lifestyle itself. Instead of the triumph of democracy and progress, we got violence, poverty, and a social disaster.” Addressing “those who’ve caused the situation,” specifically those in the West who tried to export democracy through “revolutions,” Putin said he’s temped to ask, “Do you realize now what you’ve done?” To Putin the power vacuum created in several countries of the Middle East and North Africa has led to anarchy with growing numbers of extremists eager to radicalize areas outside of their borders including those countries where they originated from.
There are no “rational actors” in this conflict, and none that could even remotely be considered as providing reasonable expectations in participating in peace negotiations should Assad fall. In addition, the Kremlin has steadfastly maintained that at least Assad is more predictable than non-state actors, especially considering the fact that most of the rebel factions (those relevant outside of ISIS) don’t have a reasonable hierarchy in which one spokesman can represent and control the multi-tentacled factions.
Putin has ulterior motives as well, motives that he believes (with some merit) are a distinct possibility, that the jihadists fighting in Syria would inevitably spread their militant ideology to the soft underbelly of Russia, from the predominantly Muslim regions under direct Russian control to the secular but overwhelmingly Muslim republics. Russia has long had problems with Islamic insurgencies, dating back centuries, and the Kremlin is keen on removing any possibility of incubation via returning jihadists. This is especially true with the increasing number of Chechnyans who are fighting with ISIS and have made no secret of their desire to attack Russia and “liberate” Chechnya and the Caucasus from Russian influence. Omar al-Shishani, Isis’ Chechen military commander, has repeatedly stated that Russia is their next target. The Kremlin is also acutely aware that the majority of ISIS fighters from non-Middle East countries are from Russia. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Oleg Syromolotov announced recently that over 2000 Russians are currently fighting with the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL/IS) terrorist group. Calling the figures “alarming,” Syromolotov added that they are constantly monitoring growing calls by ISIS leaders to carry their jihad to the Northern Caucasus and in Central Asia.
Russian’s sudden demonstrative action in getting directly involved in Syria will have the intended effect of giving them even greater leverage within the Middle East, something that has not been attainable for the Kremlin since Egypt abandoned them for the Americans in the late seventies. In the eyes of those in the Middle East, the Russian desire to actively engage the crisis in a way that the Americans are not willing to do has increased their presence substantially. Since taking on a larger role, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Jordan’s King Abdullah II, and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi have all met with Putin. In essence, Middle East leaders are detecting America’s regional decline and Moscow’s rise – and are planning accordingly.
While both Washington and Moscow have repeatedly stated that their primary enemy is ISIS, Russia steadfastly supports Assad, while the Americans state that his continued (though diminished) rule is untenable and makes the current situation worse. Oddly enough, both the United States and Russia have the same goal in mind, changing the balance of power on the ground, they just happen to be backing different sides. As both sides continue to pour in material and support (complete with corresponding air campaigns), there is a chance that the combatants will grow exhausted and some sort of compromise acceptable to both sides will occur. But before that point is reached, hundreds of thousands will have to die, as neither side is willing to entertain any idea of stopping the fighting short of their respective goals.
Meanwhile the slaughter continues.
Iranians Will Boycott Iran Election Farce
Iran and elections have not been two synonymous terms. A regime whose constitution is based on absolute rule of someone who is considered to be God’s representative on earth, highest religious authority, morality guide, absolute ruler, and in one word Big Brother (or Vali Faqih), would hardly qualify for a democracy or a place where free or fair elections are held. But when you are God’s rep on earth you are free to invent your own meanings for words such as democracy, elections, justice, and human rights. It comes with the title. And everyone knows the fallacy of “presidential elections” in Iran. Most of all, the Iranian public know it as they have come to call for an almost unanimous boycott of the sham elections.
The boycott movement in Iran is widespread, encompassing almost all social and political strata of Iranian society, even some factions of the regime who have now decided it is time to jump ship. Most notably, remnants of what was euphemistically called the Reformist camp in Iran, have now decided to stay away from the phony polls. Even “hardline” former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad realizes the extent of the regime’s woes and has promised that he will not be voting after being duly disqualified again from participating by supreme leader’s Guardian Council.
So after 42 years of launching a reformist-hardliner charade to play on the West’s naivety, Khamenei’s regime is now forced to present its one and true face to the world: Ebrahim Raisi, son of the Khomeinist ideology, prosecutor, interrogator, torturer, death commission judge, perpetrator of the 1988 massacre of political prisoners, chief inquisitionist, and favorite of Ali Khamenei.
What is historic and different about this presidential “election” in Iran is precisely what is not different about it. It took the world 42 years to cajole Iran’s medieval regime to step into modernity, change its behavior, embrace universal human rights and democratic governance, and treat its people and its neighbors with respect. What is shocking is that this whole process is now back at square one with Ebrahim Raisi, a proven mass murderer who boasts of his murder spree in 1988, potentially being appointed as president.
With Iran’s regime pushing the envelope in launching proxy wars on the United States in Iraq, on Saudi Arabia in Yemen, and on Israel in Gaza and Lebanon, and with a horrendous human rights record that is increasingly getting worse domestically, what is the international community, especially the West, going to do? What is Norway’s role in dealing with this crisis and simmering crises to come out of this situation?
Europe has for decades based its foreign policy on international cooperation and the peaceful settlement of disputes, and the promotion of human rights and democratic principles. The International community must take the lead in bringing Ebrahim Raisi to an international court to account for the massacre he so boastfully participated in 1988 and all his other crimes he has committed to this day.
There are many Iranian refugees who have escaped the hell that the mullahs have created in their beautiful homeland and who yearn to one day remake Iran in the image of a democratic country that honors human rights. These members of the millions-strong Iranian Diaspora overwhelmingly support the boycott of the sham election in Iran, and support ordinary Iranians who today post on social media platforms videos of the Mothers of Aban (mothers of protesters killed by regime security forces during the November 2019 uprising) saying, “Our vote is for this regime’s overthrow.” Finally, after 42 years, the forbidden word of overthrow is ubiquitous on Iranian streets with slogans adorning walls calling for a new era and the fall of this regime.
Europe should stand with the Iranian Resistance and people to call for democracy and human rights in Iran and it should lead calls for accountability for all regime leaders, including Ebrahim Raisi, and an end to a culture of impunity for Iran’s criminal rulers.
Powershift in Knesset: A Paradigm of Israel’s Political Instability
The dynamics of the Middle East are changing faster than anyone ever expected. For instance, no sage mind ever expected Iran to undergo a series of talks with the US and European nations to negotiate sanctions and curb its nuclear potential. And certainly, no political pundit could have predicted a normalization of diplomacy between Israel and a handful of Arab countries. The shocker apparently doesn’t end there. The recent shift in Israeli politics is a historic turnaround; a peculiar outcome of the 11-day clash. To probe, early June, a pack of eight opposition parties reached a coalition agreement to establish Israel’s 36th government and oust Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. While the political impasse has partly subsided, neither the 12-year prime minister is feeble nor is the fragile opposition strong enough to uphold an equilibrium.
Mr. Netanyahu currently serves as the caretaker prime minister of Israel. While the charges of corruption inhibited his drive in the office, he was responsible to bring notable achievements for Israel in the global diplomatic missions. Mr. Netanyahu, since assuming office in 2009, has bagged several diplomatic victories; primarily in reference to the long-standing conflict with Palestine and by extension, the Arab world. He managed to persuade former US President Donald J. Trump to shift the American embassy from Tel Aviv to the contentious city of Jerusalem. Furthermore, he managed to strike off the Palestinian mission in Washington whilst gaining success in severing US from the nuclear agreement with Iran. To the right-wing political gurus, Mr. Netanyahu stood as a symbolic figure to project the aspirations of the entire rightest fraction.
However, the pegs turned when Mr. Netanyahu refused to leave the office while facing a corruption trial. What he deemed as a ‘Backdoor Coup Attempt’ was rather criticized by his own base as a ruse of denial. By denying the charges and desecrating the judges hearing his case, Mr. Netanyahu started to undercut the supremacy of law. While he still had enough support to float above water, he lost the whelming support of the rightest faction which resulted in the most unstable government and four inconclusive elections in the past two years.
While Mr. Netanyahu was given the baton earlier by President Reuven Rivlin, he failed to convince his bedfellow politicians to join the rightest agenda. Moreover, Mr. Netanyahu probably hoped to regain support by inciting a head-on collision with the Palestinians. The scheme backfired as along with the collapse of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the tremors overtook Israel’s own Arab-Jewish cities resulting in mass chaos. The burning of Mosques and local Synagogues was hardly the expectation. Thus, both the raucous sentiment pervading the streets of Israel as well as the unstable nature of the Netanyahu-government led the rightest parties to switch sides.
As Mr. Netanyahu failed to convince a coalition government, the task was handed to Mr. Yair Lapid, a centrist politician. While the ideologies conflicted in the coalition he tried to forge, his counterparts, much like him, preferred to sideline the disputes in favor of dethroning Netanyahu. Mr. Lapid joined hands with a pool of political ideologies, the odd one being the conservative Yamina party led by the veteran politician, Mr. Naftali Bennett. While Mr. Lapid has been a standard-bearer for secular Israelis, Mr. Bennett has been a stout nationalist, being the standard-bearer for the rightest strata. To add oil to the fire, the 8-party coalition also includes an Arab Islamist party, Raam. A major conflict of beliefs and motivations.
Although the coalition has agreed to focus on technocratic issues and compromise on the ideological facets, for the time being, both the rightest and the leftish parties would be under scrutiny to justify the actions of the coalition as a whole. Mr. Bennett would be enquired about his take on the annexation of occupied West Bank, an agenda vocalized by him during his alliance with Mr. Netanyahu. However, as much as he opposes the legitimacy of the Palestinian state, he would have to dim his narrative to avoid a fissure in the already fragile coalition. Similarly, while the first independent Arab group is likely to assume decision-making in the government for the first time, the mere idea of infuriating Mr. Bennett strikes off any hope of representation and voice of the Arabs in Israel.
Now Mr. Netanyahu faces a choice to defer the imminent vote of confidence in Knesset whilst actively persuading the rightest politicians to abandon the coalition camp. His drive has already picked momentum as he recently deemed the election as the ‘Biggest Fraud in the History of Israeli Politics’. Furthermore, he warned the conservatives of a forthcoming leftist regime, taking a hit on Naftali colluding with a wide array of leftist ideologies. The coalition is indeed fragile, yet survival of coalition would put an end to Netanyahu and his legacy while putting Naftali and then Lapid in the office. However, the irony of the situation is quite obvious – a move from one rightest to the other. A move from one unstable government to a lasting political instability in Israel.
The Gaza War
On May 22, 2021, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei’s website, posted a congratulatory message from one of the Hamas group’s leaders, Ziad Nakhaleh. In his message, Ziad Nakhaleh addresses Khamenei and says, “Qasem Soleimani’s friends and brothers, especially Ismail Ghani (Iran’s IRGC commander) and his colleagues, led this battle and were present with us during our recent conflict with Israel. … We pray for the preservation of the Islamic Republic of Iran and its brave soldiers.”
Since the regime’s establishment 42 years ago, Iran has been instrumental in inflicting war and chaos regionally. When Iran finds itself cornered and entangled with its internal problems or facing an impasse, a war or bloody conflict gets ignited by the regime to divert the Iranian people’s attention. This undeclared policy of the Iranian regime frees itself from the most pressing internal issues, even temporarily.
Today’s Iranian society is like a barrel of gunpowder ready to ignite. Last year, the Iranian parliament declared that more than 60 percent of Iranians live below the poverty line. According to the media close to the regime, close to 80% of the population below the poverty line this year. It is worth mentioning that Iran is one of the top 10 wealthiest countries globally, despite the challenges of the current sanctions.
This poverty is mainly the result of rampant institutionalized government corruption. According to Qalibaf, the current speaker of Iran’s parliament, only 4 percent of the population is prosperous, and the rest are poor and hungry. The two uprisings of 2017 and mid-November 2019 that surprised the regime were caused mainly by extreme poverty and high inflation. The regime survived the above widespread uprisings by opening direct fire at the innocent protestors, killing more than 1500 people. There is no longer any legitimacy for the regime domestically and internationally.
The explosive barrel of the Iranian discontent is about to burst at any given moment. To delay such social eruption, Khamenei banned the import of COVID-19 vaccines from the US, Britain, and France, hoping the people will be occupied with the virus and forget about their miserable living conditions.
On the other hand, the Iranian regime is in the midst of new negotiations with the western countries regarding its nuclear program. These negotiations may force the regime to abandon its nuclear plans that have cost billions of dollars, its terrorist activities in the region, and its ballistic missiles stockpile. This retreat will inevitably facilitate the growth and spread of the uprisings and social unrest across Iran.
The Deadlock of the Regime
The regime is facing an election that could ignite the barrel of gunpowder of the Iranian society. In 1988, when Khamenei wanted to announce Ahmadinejad as the winner of the presidential ballot boxes but faced opposition from former Prime Minister Mousavi. Widespread demonstrations were ignited. The same scenario is repeating itself in this year’s presidential election, where Khamenei intends to announce Raisi as the next president of Iran. There is a legitimate fear that demonstrations will ignite once again.
To avoid the happening of the same experience, Khamenei is forced to make an important decision. Like any other dictator, he pursues a policy of contraction during these challenging and crucial times, deciding to favor those loyal to him and his policies. Khamenei needs a uniform and decisive government to exert maximum repression on the Iranian people.
By disqualifying the former president (Ahmadinejad), the current vice president (Jahangiri), and most importantly, his current adviser and speaker of the two parliaments (Larijani), he has cut loose a large part of his regime. One way or another, Khamenei’s contraction policy is going to weaken his grip on power.
On the other hand, the Iranian regime must comply with the West’s demand for nuclear talks. In 2021, the political landscape is entirely different from 2015 in the balance of regional and global forces. The regime’s regional influence in Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria has been severely weakened.
There is an explosive situation inside Iran. The resistance units spread throughout Iran after the 2019 uprising and have rapidly increased in recent months. They are spreading the message of separation of religion from the government, plus equality between men and women in a society where women do not have the right to be elected as president or a minister. The resistance units call themselves supporters of Maryam Rajavi, the Iranian regime’s sworn enemy. These units can direct a massive flood of people’s anger towards the Supreme Leader’s establishments with every spark and explosion.
Khamenei wanted to force the West to lift all sanctions and demonstrate a show of force within Iran and the region by initiating the Gaza war. The Gaza war was intended to divert the attention from Khamenei’s decisions on Iran’s presidential election. In this situation, the regime wanted to break its presidential deadlock by firing rockets through Hamas and carrying out a massacre in Israel and Palestine.
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