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Syria: Dark and smoky tunnel

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It appeared a light, at long last, was fast appearing in the Syrian tunnel and soon peace shall be prevailing in the war torn Arab nation with plenty of energy resources. It turned out to be yet another illusion in West Asia.

Post fragile truce

Those who thought the war being waged by top world powers, USA and Russia in Syria would end soon after the fragile truce, are not once again disappointed that war is taking a new twist with Syrian forces, backed by Russia and the rebel fighters supported by USA accelerating the war in Sunni dominated Syria after having declared a ceasefire.

The fact is USA is not keen to end wars in Syria and ending war won’t give Russia anything special. The important figures in Pentagon have condemned the US-Russian cease-fire in Syria, disallowing the military to kill more Muslims. They call for the overthrow of President Bashar al-Assad, and fro which advocated a major escalation of the US-NATO intervention in Syria—arming the Islamist opposition with anti-aircraft missiles and other weapons. They argue ending the war without archiving the main objective is bad for US invasion polices in future.

For USA, short of an agenda that includes a comprehensive agreement for Bashar al-Assad to step down and allow a transition toward a non-Islamic or so-called pluralist government, no cease-fire stands a chance in that war-torn country. Without a balance of military forces on the ground in Syria, which would compel the Assad regime and its Iranian backers to seek real compromise, a genuine political settlement is not possible. In other word, what the Neocons nuts want is a perfect regime change in Syria but to which neither Assad nor his Russian supporter Putin is agreeable. Both seek status quo.

The Neocons criticize Obama for having failed to militarily exploit the concocted “poison gas” episode of 2013 to overthrow Assad and bring the opposition to power and say the truce should be used to re-arm US-backed “revolutionary” militias fighting alongside the Al Qaeda-linked Al Nusra Front. They attacked the Obama government for lacking the appetite for a major confrontation with Russia. In fact, the issue of creating a balance of forces—especially by providing the Syrian opposition with anti-aircraft missiles capable of limiting the Syrian regime’s use of air power, its main weapon of large-scale destruction—has been the principal bone of contention on Syria within the Obama government since 2012. Their “outrage” forgets the US-backed Saudi bombing and blockade in Yemen, which has killed thousands and threatens hundreds of thousands of children with starvation.

US Neocons, including the strong Jewish contingent, are least concerned about the sectarian massacres carried out by the US-backed Islamist opposition in Syria, and the bloody record of US imperialism itself—whose wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria have still claimed a far greater toll than the Kremlin’s Syrian intervention. If anyone in the region had any illusion about the democratic and humanitarian pretexts invoked by Washington in previous wars, they have lost them completely by now.

Mischief

Unlike truce, which may mean a break from hostilities, a cessation of hostilities provides a more formal designation which falls short of a formal ceasefire signed by the warring parties. It is considered as the first essential step to resolving a conflict, notably to permit the delivery of humanitarian aid. Russian efforts and subsequent Western reactions have emerged as a tragedy in contemporary international relations. Against this backdrop, the reasons behind the crisis need to be identified and the unified role of the world community should be determined.

Unfortunately, with a series of military strikes in Syria in support of their respective parties, tensions have now flared both at home in Syria and outside, giving an impression that the Syrian ceasefire plan will succumb to failure.

The efforts towards the ‘cessation of hostility in Syria’ brokered by the USA and Russia and backed by the UN, require a unified role by the regional and global powers. Without global unity, ceasefire activities must fail. The irony is that global measures to find a peaceful solution to the problem are evident, there have been concerns over the truce violations by the great regional and global powers.

For Russia, Bashar’s government is as democratic as the Saudi government. In other words, if the Saudi government can be supported by the democratic America, the Syrian government should, in principle, also be supported by them.

The US president Obama is not at all interested in ending war in Syria or elsewhere as he is now entirely focused on an ‘exit strategy’—not an exit from the Syrian crisis or West Asia in general, though, but his own exit from office. His main worry is to help Mrs. Clinton to win the presidency to prove that his legacy saved the Democratic Party. He has dutifully promoted American militarism and US imperialism.

Obama is a clever operator who often thinks several moves ahead of his domestic, though not his foreign, adversaries. US policy paved the way for Assad’s revival, Iranian and Russian success in Syria, and the massacre of up to half a million Syrians. In 2013, Iran told Obama that if he were to strike the regime of Bashar Assad following the latter’s chemical-weapons attack, the Iranians would end the talks over their nuclear program. Obama duly canceled the strike and later reassured Iran that the USA would not touch Assad. Obama’s Syria policy serves Iran’s interests.

America’s settled policy of standing by while half a million Syrians have been killed, millions have become refugees, and large swaths of their country have been reduced to rubble is not a simple “mistake”. Rather, it is a byproduct of America’s overriding desire to clinch a nuclear deal with Iran, which was meant to allow America to permanently remove itself from a war footing with that country and to shed its old allies and entanglements in the Middle East, which might also draw us into war.

A no-fly zone would have prevented much of the carnage — and presumably virtually all of carnage rained down from the air — that has occurred. But a no-fly zone would have thwarted Iran’s ambitions. Russia’s presence in the air over Syria provided Obama with an excuse for rejecting a no-fly zone. But the White House had firmly rejected such action for years before the Russians were anywhere near Syria. It seems likely that Obama welcomed Russia’s direct intervention since it served Iran’s interests and made it much easier for Obama to defend not taking military action.

Indeed, Obama sees Russia as a partner in Syria. Initially, US line was that Russia had made a tragic mistake by becoming involved in a quagmire. Now, White House officals argue that Russia holds all the cards in Syria and that our only option is to work with the Kremlin.

With an insincere USA working for peace without seriousness, Russia and Iran hold all the cards on Syria because essentially Obama allowed them to. Obama allowed them to because he wants Iran to prevail. One might admire the elegance of Obama’s “strip tease,” if not for the demise of hundreds of thousands of Syrians and the triumph of arch-enemy in Tehran.

Syria

It’s true that Syria’s internal and external factors, including economic backwardness, unemployment, inflation and corruption springing from the dictatorship of Bashar al Asad, have been responsible for its political instability. However, the much more dangerous challenge emanates from its leaders’ failure to construct the Syrian nationhood and consolidate its statehood by binding the different religious factions such as Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds into one integrated nation. Without paying attention to its eco-historical, geopolitical and anthropological construct, extreme dictatorship was imposed which worked as a major barrier to its national consolidation. Thus, on the micro sub-systemic level, Syria became highly destabilized and disorganized, while on macro systemic level, Syria remained disintegrated and fragmented.

The ethnic Sunni Muslims form the majority of Syrian population, which has been ruled by the minority Shiites. Syrian leaders failed in the grand task of national homogenization of its people comprising of different religious and ethnic groups. More dangerous than the domestic factors is the involvement of global powers in enlivening the ongoing crisis. Global powers have historically exercised influence and domination in the Arab world through their Arab stooges. Dictatorial rulers in most Arab countries have turned out to be either pro-west or pro-Russia. The USA and its western allies extend political, economic and military assistance and cooperation to Saudi Arabia and other gulf states, in order to expand their spheres of influence as the Cold war strategy and similarly, Russia sides with Syria to combat the US policy. Thus, the countervailing strategies of the erstwhile superpowers are solely responsible for the tragic incidents developing in Syria.

USA cannot end terror wars abroad as the Neocons continue calling for the escalation of US wars in the Middle East and aggression against China and Russia. Obama introduced the Asia pivot for this purpose. However, a CSIS report on nuclear war that dismissed the destruction of India and Pakistan—that is, the slaughter of hundreds of millions of people—as economically unimportant. More organizations are being integrated and recruited to play major roles in imperialist politics. The organizations and tendencies that were in the leadership of anti-war protests earlier, especially in the late 1960s and 1970s are now shamelessly pro-war. Convergence ahs occurred among various sections of political organization- left and right, for instance to support fascism, Zionism, colonialism and imperialism – resented by US led NATO.

Peace efforts, starting from the 70th General Assembly of 2015 to the present ceasefire plan upheld by the USA and Russia with UN support, are threatened by the contrasting policies of the two great powers. According to political analysts, their countervailing strategies risk plunging the West and Russia into a crisis not seen since the Cold War. Russian efforts and subsequent Western reactions have emerged as a tragedy in contemporary international relations. Against this backdrop, the reasons behind the crisis need to be identified and the unified role of the world community should be determined.

In order to end the crisis, the international community, especially the US, the EU and Russia, need to come out of this psychology of this ‘power zeal’ while framing their policies regarding the war-torn country. Both Russia and the West should find a peaceful and diplomatic way of resolving the Syrian crisis based on mutual understanding and friendship. Any effort to use force by Russia would only tickle the sleeping tigers of the cold war era, and lead the world to the verge of total destruction.

Syrian war, if not stopped is likely to turn to a complete war, involving nuclear arsenals that may even burst into a nuclear confrontation. History has laid the giant responsibility on the United Nations to bring all regional and global powers, especially the erstwhile superpowers, to work together to resolve the issue. The UN as well the global powers need to adopt sincere, transparent and pragmatic policies in order to save the world from another global devastation. The unanimity of global powers can resolve the Syrian conflict. If the UN fails in that, it falters in its mission for which it came into existence.

The West should understand the reality of Russia’s concern to defend its naval base in Tartus and strategic base in Caspian Sea from where Russian jets flew combat missions. It’s little wonder that the erstwhile superpower Russia would be adamant to protect its military base and nuclear arsenals, and that self defense would be its bottom line.

The continuous failure of a Syrian ceasefire has brought another significant question to the limelight: whether the Syrian war will at all end in the foreseeable future or the suffocating situation in the war-run country will trigger a regional cold war or a grand global war.

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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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