Russia and Iran – both members of the Caspian Five – believe they have acted as a main force for stability in the Caspian region and the Caucasus. Hidden under the waters of the Caspian Sea is a treasure trove of immense natural wealth, which both countries wish to protect at any cost for themselves.
While these riches are a potential source of conflict, both countries recognize that their efforts to cooperate must begin in the Caspian region because it gives them leverage economically and may even be the key to bolster their negotiating position in the international community writ large. For Russia, this could mean ensuring its geopolitical survival by maintaining its “sphere of special interests” across the former republics of the Soviet Union. For Iran, it could mean strengthening its respective international position and even help it progress towards being a regional kingpin, despite its unique non-Arab ‘outsider’ status.
Thus, both Iran and Russia have a keen interest in keeping the region – particularly Syria – stable and intact along a benign status quo axis. The situation in the Levant is so convoluted that it would take a long time to explain all of the different components. To stay focused on the Iranian-Russian alliance, however, it is important to understand why it is in the interest of the two countries to prop up the Assad regime. To understand why the destabilization of Syria would be devastating to the region, one only has to look at DAESH, which formed in the power vacuum left behind after Saddam’s Baathist government was dismantled. If Syria follows the same trajectory and the Bashar al-Assad regime is ousted, there will be nothing left to stop terrorist groups like al-Nusra, al-Qaeda and DAESH from consuming what is left of Syria and expanding beyond the region. If they spread their influence and ideology to other parts of the world, more countries may find themselves subjected to the same fate. While most of the West is at least peripherally concerned by this danger, countries like Iran and Russia see this in a much more direct and visceral way: to them Syria is not some far away province but a country right in their respective backyards and certainly a major component of their projected spheres of national security interests.
Within the Russian Federation, there are areas with a non-Russian and largely Muslim population in the North Caucasus – like Chechnya and Dagestan. The January 2011 suicide bombing in Moscow’s major commercial airport is evidence of the growing threat these terrorist organizations represent to Russia’s existence and have represented since the early 1990s. Iran also fears terrorist threats that lurk just outside its porous border. However, enigmatic Iran faces an additional two-pronged threat: they are a non-Arab Shiite Persian theocracy with what some consider the most Islamist, militant government in the Middle East. This not only puts them at odds with Sunni terrorist organizations, but with the governments of Iran’s Sunni neighbors that do not appreciate Tehran’s evangelistic efforts to encourage their own Shiite populations to rise up with local insurrections. Additionally, Iran is not popular among the more moderate regimes in surrounding Arab countries.
Clearly, under these circumstances, Russia and Iran believe they must strengthen their relations with each other and with other members of the anti-DAESH coalition, whoever they happen to be. These include Syria, Iraq and Lebanon’s Hezbollah. To further exacerbate the problem, the Iranian-Russian axis believes the United States has deliberately nurtured and encouraged the growth of DAESH in both Syria and Iraq, at least by its overemphasized focus on supporting groups trying to overthrow Assad. Rightly or wrongly, both Iran and Russia feel DAESH exists today as such a problem because America took its eye off the more important global security ball, instead wanting to play ‘democratizer’ in Damascus. Even China has expressed concern over this problem and many believe it could even become the next member of the coalition in Syria.
As Russia and Iran continue to intervene in Syria, many have questioned the true intentions of this alliance. In its airstrike campaigns, Russia has been accused of targeting moderate Syrian rebels – insurgents who have no affiliation with DAESH and in fact rebelled long before the Islamic State came into being. Among the areas that have been hit by Russian airstrikes are supposedly ones that accommodate groups supported by the United States and its allies. Furthermore, Russia skirted around Turkey – which is an ally of the United States and a firm opponent of Assad – to send its military equipment to Syria over the Caspian Sea (rather than the Caucasus isthmus), where the airspace rules are unclear.
While there are many theories surrounding this mystery, one thing is obvious. Relations within this triangle have been strained for a very long time. Until the 1980s, Syria was among Russia’s closest allies in the region and in fact the Baathist regime was more socialist in orientation than most Arab regimes. Syria also provided Russia its only naval base on the Mediterranean – one of its most geostrategic assets. Things got a bit more intense when Vladimir Putin came to power and insisted on maintaining good relations with Israel. But this is in keeping with Putin’s personal foreign policy of cultivating assets that can benefit Russia regardless of how those assets interact with each other. He wryly noted the United States was the other major power in the world that commonly does this.
The alliance between Syria’s pan-Arab secular regime and Iran’s Islamic theocracy was suspicious from the start. It began when Bashar’s father, Hafiz al-Assad chose to support the Iranian revolution as a sign of protest against the US-imposed world order. While Syria and Iran did cooperate with one another on several issues, both countries knew there was a deep, conflicting divergence in their ideological characteristics and regional aspirations. They both knew there would come a time when their divergent political goals would clash with one another. For example, Syria was not impressed with Iran’s backdoor dealings with the Americans and Iran was offended by Syria’s participation in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and its willingness to make concessions in regards to its territorial stability.
While Russia and Iran are clearly busy building the foundation of a new geostrategic bloc in the region, what is not evident is why Syria – despite the fact that its very survival depends on it – refuses to let go of its attitude of defiance towards the United States and its allies. It appears that Assad believes that this stance will guarantee the support of the Syrian people and ensure the survival of his regime. Unfortunately, the same tactics Assad used to build up his corrupted legitimacy within his own country is working against him now. Because Assad does not have much more than hereditary custom to offer his people as to why he should remain in power, his country has devolved into chaos. One thing is certain: Assad should not assume the Russian-Iranian axis is about propping his regime up personally. In all likelihood, it is much more about maintaining a Syrian territorial space that is open to Russian and Iranian interests and policies. WHO happens to be leading the country doesn’t really matter to these two regional giants, as long as said leader is willing to be a strategic and close partner. For now, that is Assad and Assad only. But that doesn’t mean it can only be Assad moving forward into the future.
Turkey and the time bomb in Syria
The Turkish attack on northern Syria has provided conditions for ISIS militants held in camps in the region to escape and revitalize themselves.
Turkey launched “Operation Peace Spring” on Wednesday October 9, claiming to end the presence of terrorists near its borders in northern Syria. Some countries condemned this illegal action of violation of the Syrian sovereignty.
The military attack has exacerbated the Syrian people’s living condition who live in these areas. On the other hand, it has also allowed ISIS forces to escape and prepare themselves to resume their actions in Syria. Before Turkish incursion into northern Syria, There were many warnings that the incursion would prepare the ground for ISIS resurgence. But ignoring the warning, Turkey launched its military attacks.
Currently, about 11,000 ISIS prisoners are held in Syria. ISIS has claimed the responsibility for two attacks on Qamishli and Hasakah since the beginning of Turkish attacks.
Meanwhile, Donald Trump said that Turkey and the Kurds must stop ISIS prisoners from fleeing. He urged European countries to take back their citizens who have joined ISIS.
It should be noted that the U.S. is trying to prove that ISIS has become stronger since the U.S. troops pulled out before the Turkish invasion, and to show that Syria is not able to manage the situation. But this fact cannot be ignored that ISIS militants’ escape and revival were an important consequence of the Turkish attack.
Turkish troops has approached an important city in the northeast and clashed with Syrian forces. These events provided the chance for hundreds of ISIS members to escape from a camp in Ayn Issa near a U.S.-led coalition base.
The camp is located 35 kilometers on the south of Syria-Turkey border, and about 12,000 ISIS members, including children and women, are settled there. The Kurdish forces are said to be in charge of controlling these prisoners.
Media reports about the ISIS resurgence in Raqqa, the former ISIS stronghold, cannot be ignored, as dozens of terrorists have shot Kurdish police forces in this city. The terrorists aimed to occupy the headquarters of the Kurdish-Syrian security forces in the center of Raqqa. One of the eyewitnesses said the attack was coordinated, organized and carried out by several suicide bombers, but failed.
In response to Turkey’s invasion of Syria, the Kurds have repeatedly warned that the attack will lead to release of ISIS elements in the region. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyib Erdogan denied the reports about the escape of ISIS prisoners and called them “lies”.
European officials fear that ISIS prisoners with European nationality, who have fled camps, will come back to their countries.
Kurdish forces are making any effort to confront Turkish troops in border areas, so their presence and patrol in Raqqa have been reduced.
Interestingly, the Turkish military bombarded one of temporary prisons and caused ISIS prisoners escaping. It seems that ISIS-affiliated covert groups have started their activities to seize the control of Raqqa. These groups are seeking to rebuild their so-called caliphate, as Kurdish and Syrian forces are fighting to counter the invading Turkish troops. Families affiliated with ISIS are held in Al-Hol camp, under the control of Kurdish forces. At the current situation, the camp has turned into a time bomb that could explode at any moment. Under normal circumstances, there have been several conflicts between ISIS families in the camp, but the current situation is far worse than before.
There are more than 3,000 ISIS families in the camp and their women are calling for establishment of the ISIS caliphate. Some of SDF forces have abandoned their positions, and decreased their watch on the camp.
The danger of the return of ISIS elements is so serious, since they are so pleased with the Turkish attack and consider it as an opportunity to regain their power. There are pictures of ISIS wives in a camp in northern Syria, under watch of Kurdish militias, showing how happy they are about the Turkish invasion.
In any case, the Turkish attack, in addition to all the military, political and human consequences, holds Ankara responsible for the escape of ISIS militants and preparing the ground for their resurgence.
Currently, the camps holding ISIS and their families are like time bombs that will explode if they all escape. Covert groups affiliated with the terrorist organization are seeking to revive the ISIS caliphate and take further actions if the Turkish attacks continue. These attacks have created new conflicts in Syria and undermined Kurdish and Syrian power to fight ISIS.
From our partner Tehran Times
The Turkish Gambit
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
Could Turkish aggression boost peace in Syria?
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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