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Aleppo under siege: USA lets Russia claim diplomatic advantage

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[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] C [/yt_dropcap] onflicts in Middle East resembling a new World War launched by Bush administration to ensure energy security, are now focused on Syria where many foreign powers, led by USA one the one hand and Russia on the other, are targeting Muslims in Sunni nation ruled by a Shiite Assad who apparently wants to rule the nation of Syrians forever.

Syria has been under siege for years since the onset of Arab Spring and both the government and the Opposition forces keep claiming victories off and on but the war continues, killing and mutilating Syrians.

Bush Junior has made the US government a war machine fully engaged invasions, destabilization, destructions. US generals have demonstrated an impressive aptitude for moving pieces around on a dauntingly complex military chessboard in Islamic world. Brigades, battle groups, and squadrons shuttle in and out of various war zones, responding to the needs of the moment. The lesser theaters of conflict, largely overlooked by the American public, that in recent years have engaged the attention of US forces, a list that would include conflicts in Libya, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen. This engagement in wars have made Islamic world insecure. Saudi Arabia and Iran have been spared so far essentially for strategic reasons. The two principal conflicts of the post-9/11 era: the Afghanistan War, now in its 16th year, and the Iraq War, launched in 2003 and (after a brief hiatus) once more grinding on. Wars have helped USA control entire world.

Syria seems to have slipped out of US control and fallen into Russian orbit. Five years since the conflict began, more than 250,000 Syrians have been killed in the fighting, and almost 11 million Syrians – half the country’s prewar population – have been displaced from their homes. In 2011, what became known as the “Arab Spring” revolts toppled Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. That March, peaceful protests erupted in Syria as well, after 15 boys were detained and tortured for having written graffiti in support of the Arab Spring.

The Syrian government, led by President Bashar al-Assad, determined to stay in power at any cost, responded to the protests by killing hundreds of demonstrators and imprisoning many more. In July 2011, defectors from the military announced the formation of the Free Syrian Army, a rebel group aiming to overthrow the government, and Syria began to slide into civil war. Initially, lack of freedoms and economic woes fuelled resentment of the Syrian government, and public anger was inflamed by the harsh crackdown on protesters. Successful uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt energized and gave hope to Syrian pro-democracy activists. Many Islamist movements were also strongly opposed to the Assad’s’ rule.

Assad control of Aleppo city parts

Reports suggest that Syrian government forces have captured a key part of eastern Aleppo, splitting rebel-held territory. Both state TV and the monitoring group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said that the district of Sakhour had fallen to the Syrian army.

The Syrian army and their allies launched a major offensive to retake control of Aleppo in September. Thousands of civilians have fled rebel-held eastern Aleppo districts after a weekend of heavy fighting. Hundreds of families have also been displaced within the besieged area. Russia says its air force is active in other parts of the country, but not operating over Aleppo. While it is very difficult to find out exactly what is happening in besieged eastern Aleppo, several key districts appear to have fallen to the government, leaving very little, if any, of the northern part of the rebel-held enclave still under the rebels’ control.

There were 250,000 people in need of assistance in eastern Aleppo, 100,000 of them children. The situation on the ground in eastern Aleppo is almost beyond the imagination of those of us who are not there. State TV quoted a Syrian military source as saying that government forces “are continuing their advance in eastern neighborhoods of Aleppo”. The US led opposition had lost more than third of the area it controlled in Aleppo city during the recent advance. The east of Aleppo has been held by rebel factions opposed to President Bashar al-Assad for the past four years. In the past year, Syrian troops have broken the deadlock with the help of Iranian-backed militias and Russian air strikes. Things have turned out very differently.

Meanwhile, Russia has rejected US calls to halt bombing eastern Aleppo. Western observers have been generally impressed by Russia’s deployment in Syria, mainly reflecting a sense of disbelief that they proved to be capable of planning, executing and sustaining such a complex operation and dealing with the logistical issues involved in supplying forces at great distance from Russia.

As reports coming in, the Assad government currently controls the capital, Damascus, parts of southern Syria, portions of Aleppo and Deir Az Zor, much of the area near the Syrian-Lebanese border, and the northwestern coastal region. Rebel groups, ISIL, and Kurdish forces control the rest of the country.

Rebel groups continue to jockey against one another for power, and frequently fight each other. The Free Syrian Army has weakened as the war has progressed, while explicitly Islamist groups, such as the al-Nusra Front, which has pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda, and the Saudi-backed Islamic Front have gained in strength.

Syria under threat

In March 1971, Hafez al-Assad, an Alawite, declared himself President, a position that he held until his death in 2000. Since 1970, the secular Syrian Regional Branch has remained the dominant political authority in what had been a one-party state until the first multi-party election to the People’s Council of Syria was held in 2012.

On 31 January 1973, Assad implemented the new Constitution which led to a national crisis. Unlike previous constitutions, this one did not require that the President of Syria must be a Muslim, leading to fierce demonstrations in Hama, Homs and Aleppo organized by the Muslim Brotherhood and the ulema. They labeled Assad as the “enemy of Allah” and called for a jihad against his rule Robert D. Kaplan has compared Assad’s coming to power to “an untouchable becoming maharajah in India or a Jew becoming tsar in Russia—an unprecedented development, shocking the Sunni majority population which had monopolized power for so many centuries.” The regime survived a series of armed revolts by Sunni Islamists, mainly members of the Muslim Brotherhood, from 1976 until 1982.

In 2000, Bashar al-Assad took over as President of Syria upon Hafez al-Assad’s death. He initially inspired hopes for democratic reforms. A Damascus Spring of social and political debate took place between July 2000 and August 2001The Damascus Spring largely ended in August 2001 with the arrest and imprisonment of ten leading activists who had called for democratic elections and a campaign of civil disobedience In the opinion of his critics, Bashar Assad had failed to deliver on promised reforms.

The Assad government opposed the US invasion and occupation of Iraq. The Bush administration then began to destabilize the regime by increasing sectarian tensions, showcasing and publicizing Syrian repression of Kurdish and Sunni groups, and financing political dissidents. Assad also opposed the Qatar-Turkey pipeline in 2009. A classified 2013 report by a joint U.S. army and intelligence group concluded that the overthrow of Assad would have drastic consequences, as the opposition supported by the Obama regime was dominated by jihadist elements.

Syria is now a major war theater where foreign forces are busy killing Muslims and destroying the nation. .

In the history of Syria – a Sunni nation- many events contributed to its gradual weakening. In the recent past, a severe drought plagued Syria from 2007-10, spurring as many as 1.5 million people to migrate from the countryside into cities, which exacerbated poverty and social unrest. Although the initial protests were mostly non-sectarian, armed conflict led to the emergence of starker sectarian divisions.

In 1982, Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez, a Shiite, ordered a military crackdown on the Sunni led Muslim Brotherhood in Hama, which killed between 10,000-40,000 people and flattened much of the city.

Recently, even global warming has been claimed to have played a role in sparking the 2011 uprising.

Although most Syrians are Sunni Muslims, Syria’s security establishment has long been dominated by members of the Alawite sect, of which Assad is a member.

Having left with no alternatives, no polls Sunnis and minority religious groups tend to support the Assad government, while the overwhelming majority of opposition fighters are Sunni Muslims.

The sectarian split is reflected among regional actors’ stances as well. The governments of majority-Shia Iran and Iraq support Assad, as does Lebanon-based Hezbollah; while Sunni-majority states including Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and others staunchly support the rebels.

Foreign backing and open intervention have played a large role in Syria’s civil war. An international coalition led by the USA has bombed targets of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as IS and ISIS and there could be more to be invented by CIA and Pentagon) group since 2014.

In 2013, ISIL emerged in northern and eastern Syria after overrunning large portions of Iraq. Meanwhile, Kurdish groups in northern Syria are seeking self-rule in areas under their control. This has alarmed Turkey’s government, which fears its large native Kurdish population may grow more restive and demand greater autonomy as a result. In response to attacks within Turkey, the Turkish government has bombed Kurdish targets in Syria. Kurdish groups have also clashed with al-Nusra Front and ISIL.

It appears USA and Russia had informally decided to take opposite sides in Syrian War Theater. In September 2015, Russia launched a bombing campaign against what it referred to as “terrorist groups” in Syria, which included ISIL as well as rebel groups backed by Western states. In October 2015, the USA scrapped its controversial program to train Syrian rebels, after it was revealed that it had spent $500m but only trained 60 fighters.

Russia has also deployed military advisers to shore up Assad’s defences. Several Arab states, along with Turkey, have provided weapons and materiel to rebel groups in Syria. Many of those fighting come from outside of Syria. Lebanese members of Hezbollah are fighting on the side of Assad, as are Iranian and Afghan fighter.

Although the USA has stated its opposition to the Assad government, it has hesitated to involve itself deeply in the conflict, even after the Assad government allegedly used chemical weapons in 2013, which US President Barack Obama had previously referred to as a “red line” that would prompt intervention.

Fluid situation and enter Russia

Syrian war is a multi-sided armed conflict in Syria in which international interventions have taken place. The war grew out of the unrest of the 2011 Arab Spring and escalated to armed conflict after President Bashar al-Assad’s government violently repressed protests calling for his removal. The war is being fought by several factions: the Syrian Government and its various supporters, a loose alliance of Sunni Arab rebel groups (including the Free Syrian Army), the Syrian Democratic Forces, Salafi jihadist groups (including al-Nusra Front) who often co-operate with the Sunni rebels, and the ISIL. The factions receive substantial support from foreign actors, leading many to label the conflict a proxy war waged by both regional and global powers.

As Assad government was facing rout at the crushing attacks of US led Opposition forces, Russia came to the rescue of Assad and his rule. Russian forces, enjoying a free hand in Syria, have been operating in support of the government of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria for a year. Their impact has been significant. When they arrived, there were fears that government forces were close to collapse. This position has largely been reversed. It is the Syrian government – while still fragile – that is now on the offensive with a brutal bid to recapture the whole of the city of Aleppo. Initially seen by US analysts through the prism of recent Western military involvements in the region, many pundits were quick to dismiss the Russian effort as likely to fail. The Russian military, it was said, was not up to expeditionary warfare. Russia would quickly find itself bogged down in a Syrian quagmire.

Russia carries out its first air strikes on 30 September 2015 and Syria says it requested intervention to help in “the fight against terrorism”. On 10 November 2015 the Syrian army, aided by Russian strikes, lifts two-year-long siege by IS on the key Kuwairis airbase in eastern Aleppo province, marking its first victory against IS since the Russian intervention.

Obviously, on instruction from Washington, Turkey shot down on 24 November a Russian Su-24 fighter jet near the Turkish-Syrian border; Benefiting from Russian support, the Syrian army makes territorial gains in various parts of Syria December 2015 – January 2016 and declares Latakia province rebel-free. Syrian army 24 March 2016 backed by Russian strikes inflicts a major symbolic and strategic defeat on IS, recapturing the historic city of Palmyra. In September 2016, Russia acknowledges providing air cover to the Syrian troops in their bid to seize control of Aleppo city.

Russian goal

Russia, of course, has had a strategic relationship with Syria going back to Soviet days. It has long maintained a small naval base on the Syrian coast and has close ties with the Syrian military, being its principal arms supplier. Syria had become Moscow’s last toe-hold of influence in the region. It was the fear of this relationship unraveling that prompted President Vladimir Putin to act.

While it is Russian air power that has been the main focus of news reporting on the Russian intervention, it is as much the intensified training and re-equipping of the Syrian army that has also been a crucial factor in helping to turn around President Assad’s fortunes.

Russian and Syrian military goals are not identical. While the Syrian government insists it still wants to recapture all the territory it has lost, Moscow’s approach is very different. Unlike Syria and Iran, Russia has no interest in fighting for territory. In defending Assad, Moscow had sought to steadily destroy the moderate Syrian opposition on the battlefield, leaving only jihadist forces in play, and lock the USA into a political framework of negotiations that would serve beyond its current Democratic shelf-life. In both respects, Russia has been successful. Ultimately, the Russian goal is to lock in gains for Syria via ceasefires, while slow-rolling the negotiations to the point that true opposition to the Syrian regime expires on the battlefield, leaving no viable alternatives for the West in this conflict by 2017. Russia’s intervention, however, does not seek to minimize losses.

The Russian air force has deployed some of its most modern aircraft to Syria, though the same cannot be said for the munitions they employ. The Russian air campaign overall has relied upon the use of “dumb bombs” of various types, a major distinction with modern Western air campaigns, where almost all of the munitions used are precision-guided. Russian Special Forces and artillery have been engaged on the ground. Long-range missile strikes have been conducted from Russian warships and submarines. Even Russia’s only aircraft carrier is now on its way to the region.

The Syria operation has also provided an invaluable opportunity for Russian generals to try out their forces in operational conditions, as well as offering something of a “shop-window” for some of Russia’s latest military technology. Russian military sees this as an opportunity to test new or modern systems; experiment with network-centric warfare capability; and to present evidence of the success of military modernisation.” This helps Moscow to showcase its new combat systems for West Asia and elsewhere. .

Syria has become a kind of sampler of Russian military capabilities. Israel could be disappointed.

Russia’s air campaign: Key moments

30 September 2015 – Russia carries out its first air strikes. Syria says it requested intervention to help in “the fight against terrorism”. 10 November 2015 – The Syrian army, aided by Russian strikes, lifts two-year-long siege by IS on the key Kuwairis airbase in eastern Aleppo province, marking its first victory against IS since the Russian intervention.

24 November – Turkey shoots down a Russian Su-24 fighter jet near the Turkish-Syrian border

December 2015 – January 2016 – Benefiting from Russian support, the Syrian army makes territorial gains in various parts of Syria and declares Latakia province rebel-free

24 March 2016 – Syrian army backed by Russian strikes inflicts a major symbolic and strategic defeat on IS, recapturing the historic city of Palmyra

September 2016 – Russia acknowledges providing air cover to the Syrian troops in their bid to seize control of Aleppo city.

Diplomatic advantage

The diplomatic consequences of the Russian intervention have also been a plus for Moscow. Its active military role in the WA region has reshaped its relationships with Israel, Iran and Turkey. Indeed, Israel and Russia have developed a significant level of “understanding”. Israeli air operations against the Lebanese Shia militant group Hezbollah, for example, have not been hindered by Russian control of significant parts of Syrian air space.

Attacks on Arab Muslims by any nation are good enough for Tel Aviv seeking to weaken entire Arab world. Russian attacks in Syria are welcome in Israel

Relations between Moscow and Tehran (Syria’s only other significant ally) have developed, and even the enmity between Moscow and Ankara has been diminished, with both countries realising they have to accommodate – at least to an extent – the other’s regional aims. Arabs are slowly shedding the Americophobia.

It is US-Russia relations that have been most profoundly influenced by Moscow’s intervention in Syria. At one level, Syria can be added to Ukraine as a dossier where the USA and Russia are failing to find common ground. But Russia’s military role ensured that the Assad leadership was not going to be removed from the chessboard. This made Washington revise its own approach and pursue what has largely proved an illusory effort, to develop some kind of partnership with Russia.

The indiscriminate nature of the Russian and Syrian air campaigns – exemplified by the current struggle over Aleppo – has certainly not won Russia many friends in the West, however. Russia has been accused by several governments of barbarity and potentially committing war crimes. According to the UK-based monitoring group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, over 4,000 civilians have been killed in one year of Russian strikes. Russian casualties in Syria are difficult to estimate. Helicopters have certainly been shot down, and several members of Russia’s Special Forces are known to have been killed in combat.

Western public opinion seems largely unmoved by the struggle; perhaps to an extent a reflection of war weariness in the wake of the campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. And there has been a good level of confusion. Many in the West, sceptical about their own governments’ records, seem unwilling to get excited about what Russia is up to.

The importance of information operations was most clearly illustrated by the extraordinary concert mounted in the ruins of Palmyra after its recapture from so-called Islamic State (IS) by Syrian forces.

The Kremlin has skillfully managed how the Russian public sees this intervention. Given the woeful state of the economy, Russian leaders have always been concerned that Syria would come to be viewed as an undue burden, though victory in Syria would make Russians happy. Specialists interpret the Kremlin’s decision in March to announce a significant reduction of its air power in Syria as an attempt “to cash-out the political gains at home and recast the war in the public’s mind”.

Western expectations of political peril for President Putin have, so far, simply not been realized. Rather than a prolonged campaign, Russia’s combat operations have become the new normal. Those expecting Russian support behind Vladimir Putin to collapse, either over Ukraine, or Syria, or the economy, have thus far been proven wrong. The Kremlin is demonstrably more adept at securing public approval, or apathy, than commonly acknowledged in the West.

But the overall level of casualties appears to have been limited, and news of combat deaths (like those among Russian forces in eastern Ukraine) is restricted – another reason why there has been no domestic backlash against the Syrian adventure.

By its own standards, Russia’s intervention in Syria has been a success on several levels. The real question is whether this situation can last. Put it another way, is there any clear exit strategy for Russia that might enable it to bank its gains and end its losses?

Russia’s strategic goals are vague. The exit strategy, if there is one appears rooted in strengthening the fighting power of the Syrian army and securing some long-term political settlement that demonstrates Russia has returned as a great power. The “strategic impact” of Russia’s intervention still remains in doubt. “Such gains are readily lost and can prove illusory,” an expert says. The Syrian army remains a shambles, Iran is attached to Assad, while Russia is more interested in the grander game with the USA. And without a political settlement to secure them, these accomplishments can vaporize, as Russian patience and resources become exhausted. Russian leadership knows that this could take years and would rather cut a deal while possessing the military advantage with USA. .

Aleppo was once a place of culture and commerce, with a jewel of an old city that was on Enesco’s list of world heritage sites. Now, the five-year civil war that rages in Syria has left much of it destroyed and divided roughly in two, with President Bashar al-Assad’s forces controlling the west and the rebels the east. A month ago, government forces re-imposed a siege on the east, and launched an all-out assault to take full control of the city, accompanied by an intense and sustained aerial bombardment.

Activists say the offensive has left hundreds of civilians dead, but the government and its ally Russia have denied targeting them and blamed rebel fighters for operating in residential areas. But what about the 275,000 people who are trapped there? Where are they getting their food from? Do they have enough water and medicine?

In August, the UN Children’s Fund (Unicef) estimated that 35,000 people were internally displaced inside eastern Aleppo, some of whom were in official shelters run in abandoned buildings, others staying with family or friends, and still others sleeping outdoors in parks and streets. Not many will have been able to leave since then – and it is likely that the number of people not sleeping in their own homes has gone up. And even those who are still at home know they are not safe. People are saying there is no safe place to go. There may be many who are staying in places that they don’t consider being adequate but they’re staying anyway.

Nearly half the people who live in besieged Aleppo are under the age of 18. Many of their schools have closed or moved. Some of the buildings have been bombed, while others are being used as shelters for displaced people, or fighters in the conflict are using them for military purposes. It might be difficult to imagine any child going back to school when bombs are falling.

People are buying water from wells and privately-owned water tankers, and carrying it home in buckets. Many have reported that it tastes bad, and there is no guarantee that it is free of disease. It is hard to say whether anyone has died of hunger in the siege because with aid agencies unable to get inside, they cannot accurately diagnose the level of malnutrition.

Many doctors have fled the city as refugees or been killed in the fighting, and there are just 30 doctors remaining in eastern Aleppo. Using the UN’s estimate for the number of people trapped there – 275,000 – that means there is roughly one doctor for every 9,100 people. This in a place that is being bombed every day – at least 376 people were killed and 1,266 wounded in the first two weeks of the latest government’s assault, according to the UN.

The places where doctors work have been repeatedly targeted by government and Russian air strikes, activists and charities say. The UN says six hospitals are still operating, although they are only partially functional. Two hospitals have been almost totally destroyed in the past two weeks, and three doctors and two nurses killed. The few remaining hospitals are collapsing under a flow of hundreds of wounded lying in agony on the floors of wards and corridors.

It has long maintained a small naval base on the Syrian coast and has close ties with the Syrian military, being its principal arms supplier. Syria had become Moscow’s last toe-hold of influence in the region. It was the fear of this relationship unraveling that prompted President Vladimir Putin to act.

While it is Russian air power that has been the main focus of news reporting on the Russian intervention, it is as much the intensified training and re-equipping of the Syrian army that has also been a crucial factor in helping to turn around President Assad’s fortunes.

Russian forces have been operating in support of the government of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria for a year. Their impact has been significant. When they arrived, there were fears that government forces were close to collapse. This position has largely been reversed. It is the Syrian government – while still fragile – that is now on the offensive with a brutal bid to recapture the whole of the city of Aleppo.

Initially seen by US analysts through the prism of recent Western military involvements in the region, many pundits were quick to dismiss the Russian effort as likely to fail. The Russian military, it was said, was not up to expeditionary warfare. Russia would quickly find itself bogged down in a Syrian quagmire.

Things have turned out very differently.

Roger McDermott, senior fellow in Eurasian studies at the Jamestown Foundation – and a long-time watcher of the Russian military – says: Western observers have been generally impressed by Russia’s deployment in Syria, mainly reflecting a sense of disbelief that they proved to be capable of planning, executing and sustaining such a complex operation and dealing with the logistical issues involved in supplying forces at great distance from Russia.

But what exactly were Russia’s goals in intervening in the first place? Russia, of course, has had a strategic relationship with Syria going back to Soviet days.

Observation

USA created all problems in Syria but now Russia has all diplomatic advantages to win a powerful point over its nuclear rival America. The siege is pushing people towards starvation and serfdom.

The Syrian war is creating profound effects far beyond the country’s borders. Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan are hosting large and growing numbers of Syrian refugees, many of whom have attempted to journey onwards to Europe in search of better conditions.

Several rounds of peace talks have failed to stop the fighting. Although a ceasefire announced in February 2016 has limited fighting in some parts of Syria, recent government air strikes in Aleppo have prompted uncertainty about the ceasefire’s future. But with much of the country in ruins , millions of Syrians having fled abroad, and a population deeply traumatized by war, one thing is certain: Rebuilding Syria after the war ends will be a lengthy, extremely difficult process.

Syrian war has killed thousands, produced innumerable refugees. As Syria’s war reaches another grim milestone, refugees fleeing the 5-year conflict face greater hurdles to finding safety while international solidarity with its victims is failing to match and reflect the scale and seriousness of the humanitarian tragedy.

UNHCR provides basic and necessary humanitarian aid for Syrian refugees and helps the most vulnerable refugees with urgently needed relief – including water, food, medicine, blankets and warm clothes, household items, diapers and hygiene supplies, and jerry cans.

By its own standards, Russia’s intervention in Syria has been a success on several levels. The real question is whether this situation can last. Put it another way, is there any clear exit strategy for Russia that might enable it to bank its gains and end its losses?

Russia’s strategic goals are vague. The exit strategy, if there is one appears rooted in strengthening the fighting power of the Syrian army and securing some long-term political settlement that demonstrates Russia has returned as a great power. The strategic impact of Russia’s intervention still remains in doubt. Such gains are readily lost and can prove illusory. The Syrian army remains a shambles; Iran is attached to Assad, while Russia is more interested in the grander game with the USA. And without a political settlement to secure them, these accomplishments can vaporize, as Russian patience and resources become exhausted. Russian leadership knows that this could take years and would rather cut a deal while possessing the military advantage.

The USA was compelled not just to deal with Russia as a diplomatic equal but also to shift its own stance towards the Assad government to one – that for all the obfuscation – falls well short of its long-time insistence that President Assad had to go, as the essential pre-condition for any negotiated settlement.

Not many powers like Israel are happy that the USA has not invaded Iran to equalize its destruction efforts in Iraq- both Shiite dominated Muslim nations in West Asia.

Neither the end of war in Syria nor peace in West Asia is the major concern of USA or Russia, or UNSC.

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US: No Restitution to Syria

Eric Zuesse

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On April 22nd, an anonymous U.S. “Senior Administration Official” told a press conference in Toronto, that the only possible circumstance under which the U.S. Government will agree to pay anything for the harms (bombings of infrastructure etc.) it’s doing to Syria, would be if Syria will agree to cede, to U.S. control, a portion of its land:

QUESTION: When you say no reconstruction money for areas that are under Assad’s control, there is some reconstruction money that’s currently frozen or under question for areas that are not under Assad’s control?

MODERATOR: That’s stabilization, which is different from reconstruction, just to clarify.

“Stabilization” is the solidification of control by the U.S. Government, via its proxies (‘rebels’ trained by U.S. and financed by the Sauds) who are fighting to overthrow Syria’s Government; and the U.S. won’t pay any reconstruction unless it’s “stabilizing” that particular part of Syria. If America’s 7-year-long effort at regime-change in Syria turns out to be a total failure (grabbing no part of its territory), then the U.S. won’t pay even a cent for restoration of Syria from its 7-year-long war to control that country via installing there rulers who will be doing the bidding of the royal Saud family, Saudi Arabia’s owners, who have been America’s direct agent all along in Syria to ultimately take over its Government. (America’s other main ally demanding regime-change in Syria is Israel, which is a Jewish theocracy; and, of course, no predominantly Muslim nation would accept being ruled by Jews of any sort — nor by any Christians. Consequently, the U.S. has been using the fundamentalist Sunni owners of Saudi Arabia — the Saud family (the world’s richest family) — as its agent to fund Syria’s ‘rebels’, and to select which of the ‘rebels’ constitute, at the U.N.-sponsored peace talks for Syria, the ‘opposition’ who are negotiating against Syria’s elected Government to rule the country.) The other participants, along with the Sauds who own Saudi Arabia, are the Thanis who own Qatar, and the six royal families who own United Arab Emirates — all likewise being fundamentalist Sunnis. Syria’s Government is committedly secularist and opposed to Sharia (Islamic) law. By installing a Sunni Sharia law government, the Sauds would take effective control over Syria — the U.S. would conquer that land.

On March 16th, the Washington Post bannered “Trump wants to get the U.S. out of Syria’s war, so he asked the Saudi king for $4 billion” and reported that “In a December phone call with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, President Trump had an idea he thought could hasten a U.S. exit from Syria: Ask the king for $4 billion. By the end of the call, according to U.S. officials, the president believed he had a deal. The White House wants money from the kingdom and other nations to help rebuild and stabilize the parts of Syria that the U.S. military and its local allies have liberated from the Islamic State.” The U.S., in actual fact, had ignored ISIS in Syria until Russia on 30 September 2015, at Syria’s request, started bombing it and other jihadists there. After that, opposing ISIS became America’s excuse for its earlier and continuing demand that “Assad must go,” and America’s objective then became bombing and totally destroying ISIS’s Syrian headquarters in Raqqa so as for America and its allies to gain access to Syria’s oil-producing region. The U.S. had never bombed any of ISIS’s oil tanker trucks in Syria until it started doing that on 17 November 2015, after Russia had on September 30th begun its bombings in Syria. Ever since 1949, America’s real target in Syria has been to replace Syria’s Government, and this goes back long before ISIS even existed, anywhere; and Barack Obama had entered office in 2009 hoping to be the U.S. President who would achieve that decades-long U.S. and Saud and Israel objective. So, for the U.S. Government, Syria is to be conquered, never to be restituted unless and until, and only to the extent that, it is conquered.

On April 16th, the Wall Street Journal headlined “U.S. Seeks Arab Force and Funding for Syria: Under plan, troops would replace American military contingent after ISIS defeat and help secure country’s north; proposal faces challenges.” This report said that, “The initiative comes as the administration has asked Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates to contribute billions of dollars to help restore northern Syria. It wants Arab nations to send troops as well, officials said.” The article closed: “Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. have helped pay the stipends for the Syrian fighters the U.S. is supporting, American officials say. Administration officials are calculating Arab nations will respond more favorably to a request from Mr. Trump, who already has asked Saudi Arabia to contribute $4 billion to restore former Islamic State-held areas of Syria.”

America’s plan also includes taking control over the dams that supply water to the rest of Syria; so, the goal remains strangulation of Syria’s Government, even if outright conquest of it remains beyond reach.

On 10 June 2017, a meeting was held in Syria’s northeastern city of Qamishli, which borders Turkey, and where Syrian tribal leaders met with America’s allies and with U.S. Colonel John Dorrian (shown here holding a press briefing on a different occasion), at which, according to the Turkish newspaper reporting the event, “Representatives agreed on a pipeline route. Radical decisions were made regarding the extraction, processing and marketing of the underground wealth of the Haseke, Raqqah and Deir ez Zor regions, which hold 95 percent of Syrian oil and natural gas’ potential.” However, as of yet, Trump hasn’t been able to achieve the type of deal that he is aiming for. On April 18th, that same Turkish newspaper bannered “US to build Arab force in NE Syria as part of new ploy: The US is seeking to amass an Arab force in northeastern Syria comprised of funding and troops from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE.” So, perhaps there will be a portion of Syria that the U.S. will “stabilize” or even, just maybe, restitute for damages done in the effort to conquer it.

Whitney Webb has provided an excellent comprehensive view on which Syrian assets the U.S. Government is hoping to win.

The reconstruction costs to restore Syria were initially roughly estimated at $250 billion, but Syria’s Government now estimates it at around twice that figure.

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Saudi engagement in Iraq: The exception that confirms the rule?

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Stepped up Saudi efforts to forge close diplomatic, economic and cultural ties to Shia-majority Iraq in a bid to counter significant Iranian influence in the country appear to be paying off. The Saudi initiative demonstrates the kingdom’s ability to engage rather than exclusively pursue a muscular, assertive and confrontational policy towards the Islamic republic and its perceived allies. It raises the question whether it is a one-off or could become a model for Saudi policy elsewhere in the region.

The kingdom’s recent, far more sophisticated approach to Iraq is testimony to the fact that its multi-billion dollar, decades-long support for Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism that at times involved funding of both violent and non-violent militants had failed in Iraq. It constitutes recognition that Saudi Arabia’s absence effectively gave Iran a free reign.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Iraqi charm offensive amounts to a far more concerted and successful effort than attempts more than a decade ago by then Saudi King Abdullah to reach out to Iraqi Shiite leaders, including firebrand Muqtada al-Sadr and involving the organization of a meeting in Mecca between Sunni and Shia Iraqi religious leaders. King Abdullah’s efforts did not at the time involve a crackdown on funding by Saudi sources of a devastating Sunni Muslim insurgency.

King Abdullah’s initiative notwithstanding, Saudi policy towards Iraq for more than a decade since Iraq’s Shiite majority emerged from the shadow of Saddam Hussein’s minority Sunni Muslim rule as a result of the 2003 US invasion was one of non-engagement, sectarianism, and support of the country’s Sunni minority.

It took the kingdom 11 years to open its first embassy in post-Saddam Iraq, the kingdom’s first diplomatic presence in the country since it broke off diplomatic relations in 1990 because of Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait. Even then, relations got off to a rocky start with Iraq demanding the replacement of the kingdom’s first ambassador, Thamer al-Sabhan, after he publicly criticised Iranian involvement in Iraqi affairs and the alleged persecution of Iraqi Sunni Muslims.

The emergence in 2014 of Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi, who succeeded Nuri al-Maliki, seen by the Saudis as an Iranian pawn, coupled with the rise of Prince Mohammed and the Saudi charm offensive in the wake of the defeat of the Islamic state has produced a remarkable turnaround that holds out the prospect of the kingdom becoming an influential player in the reconstruction of war-ravaged Iraq.

Beyond the opening of the embassy, Saudi Arabia is slated to open a consulate in Basra as well as in Najaf, widely seen as Shia Islam’s third most holy city that rivals Iran’s Qom as a centre of Shiite learning. Unconfirmed reports suggest that Prince Mohammed may visit Najaf after Iraqi elections scheduled for May 12.

The two countries have reopened their Arar Border Crossing that was closed for 27 years and restored commercial air traffic for the first time in more than a quarter of a century. More than 60 Saudi companies participated earlier this year in the Baghdad International Fair.

A Saudi Arabia-Iraq Coordination Council, inaugurated last year aims to strengthen security ties as well as economic and cultural relations envisions student and cultural exchanges and Saudi investment in oil and gas, trade, transport, education, light industry, and agriculture. Saudi Arabia pledged $1.5 billion for Iraqi reconstruction at a donors’ conference in Kuwait in February.

Saudi Arabia garnered substantial brownie points in February by playing its first soccer match in Iraq in almost three decades, boosting Iraqi efforts to persuade world soccer body FIFA to lift its ban on Iraqi hosting of international matches. The kingdom subsequently promised to build a 100,000-seat football stadium in Baghdad.

In shifting gears in Iraq, Prince Mohammed appears to have broken with decades of Saudi efforts to primarily confront Iran in proxy and covert wars. It remains, however, unclear to what degree Prince Mohammed’s policy shift in Iraq is an indication of a broader move away from sectarianism and support for ultra-conservative militants and towards engagement.

The record is mixed. Saudi Shiite activists see little positive change and, if anything, assert that repression in their heartland in the kingdom’s Eastern Province has increased since Prince Mohammed’s rise.

“Bin Salman is already acting like he’s the king of Saudi Arabia. He keeps telling the West that he will reform Islam, but he keeps raiding the homes of Shia and stripping us of any political rights,” one activist said.

Nonetheless, a Saudi-funded Bangladeshi plan to build moderate mosques to counter militancy, the kingdom’s relinquishing of control of the Grand Mosque in Brussels, and the newly found propagation of tolerance and inter-faith dialogue by the government-controlled World Muslim League that for decades funded ultra-conservatism globally would suggest that Saudi money may be invested in attempting to curb the impact of the kingdom’s decades-long support of ultra-conservatism.

There are, however, also indications that Prince Mohammed is not averse to funding militants when it suits his geopolitical purpose. Saudi funds have flowed since his rise in 2015 to militant religious seminaries in the Pakistani province of Balochistan at a time that the kingdom was drafting plans to destabilize Iran by exploiting grievances and stirring unrest among Iran’s ethnic minorities, including the Baloch. Those plans have not left the drawing board and may never do so, but ultra-conservative militants figure prominently in them.

Nevertheless, the magnitude of the shifting of gears in Saudi policy towards Iraq as well as other steps that Prince Mohammed has taken to curb, redirect, and reduce, if not halt, Saudi support for militant ultra-conservatism is highlighted by the conclusions of a 2002 study of funding of political violence conducted by the New York-based Council of Foreign Relations.

Coming in the wake of the 9/11 attacks when Saudi funding and counter-terrorism cooperation with the United States was put under the magnifying glass, the study suggested that the kingdom’s global support for ultra-conservatism was woven into its fabric.

“It may well be the case that if Saudi Arabia…were to move quickly to share sensitive financial information with the United States, regulate or close down Islamic banks, incarcerate prominent Saudi citizens or surrender them to international authorities, audit Islamic charities, and investigate the hawala system—just a few of the steps that nation would have to take—it would be putting its current system of governance at significant political risk,” the study warned.

In many ways, Saudi support for the Iraqi insurgency was a textbook example of the decades-long, $100 billion Saudi campaign to confront Iran globally by promoting ultra-conservatism and sectarianism and in a minority of countries – Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bosnia Herzegovina, Iraq and Syria – funding violence.

Nawaf Obaid, a Saudi scholar with close ties to the government, said Saudi options at the height of the Sunni Muslim insurgency included supplying the insurgents with the same type of funding, arms and logistical support that Iran was giving to Shiite armed groups. Another option, he said, was to create new Sunni brigades to combat the Iranian-backed militias.

“Saudi engagement in Iraq carries great risks — it could spark a regional war. So be it: The consequences of inaction are far worse,” Mr. Obaid said in 2006.

US and Iraqi officials at the time suspected Saudi Arabia of covertly supporting sectarian Sunni jihadist insurgents opposed to the US military presence in the country and the rise of a Shia-dominated government. While there was no evidence of government assistance, the lines between the actions of private citizens and authorities were and remain often blurred in the kingdom.

An Iraq Study Group report in 2006 at the height of the Sunni Muslim insurgency concluded that “funding for the Sunni insurgency comes from private individuals within Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.”

Without identifying them, Iraqi officials asserted that funds were also flowing from Saudi charities that often operated as governmental non-government organizations. They said some of the funds had been channelled through Saudi clerics who decided who the beneficiary would be.

Truck drivers at the time described transporting boxes of cash from Saudi Arabia that were destined for insurgents. The transports frequently coincided with pilgrimages to Mecca.

“They sent boxes full of dollars and asked me to deliver them to certain addresses in Iraq. I know it is being sent to the resistance, and if I don’t take it with me, they will kill me,” one driver said. He said he was instructed to hide the money from authorities at the Iraqi border.

One official said $25 million was sent by a Saudi religious scholar to a senior Iraqi Sunni cleric who bought Russian Strela shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles on the black market in Romania.

Baath Party loyalists claimed at the time that a US Air Force F-16 jet that crashed while flying in support of American soldiers fighting insurgents in Anbar province had been downed by a Strela. The US military denied the claim.

“We have stockpiles of Strelas and we are going to surprise them (the Americans),” a spokesman for the party, said.

The Iraqi cleric involved in the purchase of the missiles was suspected to be Sheikh Harith Sulaiman al-Dhari, a tribal chieftain dubbed “the Spiritual Leader of the Iraqi Resistance” with a lineage of opposition to foreign rule dating back to the killing in 1920 of a British colonel by his father and grandfather. Iraqi authorities issued an arrest warrant for Mr. Al-Dhari in late 2006, who has since passed away, on charges of inciting sectarian violence after he visited Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia’s approach to Iraq has come a long way since the days of the insurgency. The question is whether the kingdom will draw a lesson from its success in the way it manages its regional rivalry with Iran. So far, there is little indication that Iraq is more than the exception that confirms the rule.

Said political analyst Hussein Ibish in a just published study of Saudi-Iraqi relations: “Iraq is the only major regional battleground at present in which Saudi Arabia is relying almost entirely on carrots rather than sticks. Yet, arguably, more has been accomplished by Riyadh over the past year in Iraq than, for example, in either Yemen or Lebanon… Saudi Arabia’s outreach in Iraq, particularly in 2017, belies the stereotype of a rash, reckless, and uncontrolled new major regional actor, showing instead that Saudi Arabia can be deft and delicate when it wants to. That’s an important lesson for the rest of the world, but also for Saudi Arabia itself, to ponder.”

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Middle East

Syria’s future

Giancarlo Elia Valori

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Many sources think that the most significant clashes in Syria are likely to end late this year.

Probably the small clashes between the various ethnic groups and hence among their external points of reference  will not end yet. The bulk of armed actions, however, will certainly finish since now the areas of influence are stabilized.

The first fact that stands out is that, despite everything, Bashar al-Assad’s forces have won.

All the international actors operating on the ground -be they friends or foes – have no difficulty in recognizing it.

Certainly neither Assad nor Russia alone have the strength to rebuild the country, but Western countries – especially those that have participated in the fight against Assad – and the other less involved countries plan to participate in the reconstruction process, with a view to influencing Syria, although peacefully this time.

The military start of Assad’s victory was the Northwest campaign of the Syrian Arab Forces from October 2017 to February 2018.

Operations against what the United States calls “rebels” -namely, in that case, Isis and Tahrir al-Sham – focused at that time on the intersection between the provinces of Hama, Idlib and Aleppo.

It is extremely difficult for a regular army to conduct operations against guerrilla organizations, but Assad’ Syrian Arab Army has succeeded to do so.

The subsequent destruction of Isis-Daesh pockets south of Damascus, in Eastern Ghouta and Idlib was decisive to later establish stable and undisputed hegemony of the Syrian forces throughout the Syrian territory – and above all in traditionally Sunni areas.

There is also the issue of Al-Rastan, the ancient town of Arethusa on the Orontes river, located on the side of the bridge uniting Hama and Homs. From the beginning of hostilities, it has been a basis for the jihadism of the so-called “rebels”.

Another military problem is the opening of the bridge and the commercial passage on the border between Syria and the Lebanon, namely Al-Nasib, which is essential for Syria’s trade with Jordan and the Gulf countries.

Conquering the Al-Nasib pass means conquering also the road between Deraa and Damascus, as well as the Syrian side of the Djebel Druze.

Between the Deraa-Damascus road and the Golan, the situation is still largely frozen thanks to the agreement reached by the Russian Federation with the United States and Israel, in which the former guaranteed to the Jewish State that Iran and Hezb’ollah would not get close – up to the limit of 25 miles (40 kilometers) – to the old ceasefire line established in 1973.

Moreover, even though the representatives of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, commonly known as Rojava, were never accepted in the negotiations between the parties in conflict, the Kurds – already abandoned by the United States – know that the territories they freed from Isis-Daesh will be returned precisely to the Sunni Arabs, but in exchange for the autonomy of the traditionally Kurdish districts of Afrin, Kobane and Qamishli.

Furthermore, since the Sochi Conference on the Congress of Syrian National Dialogue held at the end of January 2018, Russia has convinced the 1,500 participants from the various parts of Syria to accept the fact that every ethnic and religious area and every group of Syrian society must be respected and protected by the new Constitution. A break with the old Ba’athist and centralist tradition of the Syrian regime, but without reaching the Lebanese paradox, i.e. permanent civil war.

The political process envisaged by Russia is a process in which the Westerners still present in the Syrian territory had no say in the matter.

Nor will they have it in the future.

The going will be really tough when the time of reconstruction comes.

Reconstruction is the most important future lever for external influence on the long-suffering Syrian Arab Republic, where conflict has been going on for seven years.

The World Bank estimates the cost of reconstruction at  250 billion dollars.

Other less optimistic, but more realistic estimates point to a cost for Syrian national reconstruction up to 400 and even 600 billion US dollars.

Syria does not even dream of having all these capital resources, which even the Russian Federation cannot deploy on its own.

Six years after the outbreak of the conflict, in 2011, the great diaspora of Syrian businessmen met in Germany in late February 2017.

Hence the creation of the Syrian International Business Association (SIBA).

With specific reference to the great Syrian reconstruction, the Russian, Iranian and Chinese governments are already active and have already secured the largest contracts in the oil and gas, minerals, telecommunications, real estate and electricity sectors.

As far as we know, there is no similar investment by Western countries, which will still leave the economic power they planned to acquire in the hands of other countries, after having caused the ill-advised but failed “Arab Spring” in Syria.

Also the BRICS and countries such as the Lebanon, Armenia, Belarus and Serbia invest in Syria, or at least in the regions where peace has been restored and the “Caliphate” does no longer exist.

Usually collaboration takes place through the purchase of pre-existing companies in Syria – something which now  happens every day- or through bilateral collaborations with Syrian companies.

With specific reference to regulations, Syria is continuously changing the rules regarding the structure of operating companies, work permits, imports and currency  transfers.

State hegemony, in the old Ba’athist tradition – the old Syrian (but also Egyptian) national Socialism which, however, adapts itself to the structure of current markets.

It is estimated that Syrian companies can already provide 50% of the 300 billion US dollars estimated by the World Bank as cost for Syria’s reconstruction.

An estimate that many still think to be rather optimistic.

Nevertheless, it will take at least thirty years to bring Syrian back to the conditions in which it was before  hostilities began.

With rare effrontery and temerity, the United States and the European Union are already putting pressure on the Syrian government to be granted economic and political concessions, but Assad has no intention of giving room to its old enemies.

In any case, the Syrian reconstruction will need at least 30 million tons of goods per year from sea lines, while the Latakia and Tartus airports can – at most – allow loads of 15 million tons/year.

From this viewpoint, the Lebanon is organizing a Special Economic Zone around the port of Tripoli, already adapted by China to the international transport of vast flows of goods in cargoes and containers.

Obviously the companies going to work in Syria must also take the physical safety of their workers and their offices into account, as well as the need to have constant, careful and close relations with local authorities.

Furthermore, the US sanction regime also favours President Trump’s plan to topple the Syrian regime through economic pressure, which would make also the work of European companies in Syria very difficult or even impossible.

However what is the need for destroying Syria economically? For pure sadism? The current US foreign policy is not unpredictable, it is sometimes crazy.

The US sanctions, however, concern the new investment of US citizens in Syria; the re-exporting or exporting of goods and services to Syria; the importing of Syrian oil or gas into the United States;the transactions of Syrian goods and services carried out by non-US citizens also involving a US citizen.

Other sanctions will soon be imposed by President Trump on the Russian Federation due to its “tolerance” for the increasingly alleged factories of nerve gas and materials.

Obviously the fact that the Syrian regime is the winner of military confrontation, along with Russia and Iran, is now a certainty.

Nevertheless, loyalist Syrians are still badly supplied, both at military and civilian levels, and they are severely dependent on external aid, which is decisive also for their survival and for preserving their strategic and military superiority.

Without Russia and Iran, Bashar al-Assad would have collapsed within two months since the beginning of the  “Syrian spring”, when the Muslim Brotherhood organized by the United States was demonstrating in the streets violently.

Hence, in the current stability of the Syrian regime, nothing must be taken for granted: the end or decrease of Russian support and the fast return back home of the Iranian Pasdaran and Afghan Shiites organized by Iran would bring Assad’s military and civilian power back to the 2011 level.

Nevertheless Syria does no longer exist as a Soviet-style centralized State.

In Assad-led Syria the centralized economy does no longer exist, for the excellent reason that four primary military powers operate in the country, namely Russia, Iran, Turkey and the United States.

They collectively control all the Syrian resources on which the Syrian national government no longer has any power.

As can be easily imagined, the United States holds oil reserves by means of their occupation – through the Kurds – of Raqqa and the Northeastern region.

Turkey holds a nominally Syrian region of approximately 2,400 square kilometers between Aleppo and Idlib, in the area of the “Euphrates Shield” operations.

Russia and Iran already hold the majority of reconstruction contracts, while they will acquire most of the public sector to repay the military expenses they incurred to keep Bashar al-Assad’s regime in power.

Hence if no agreements are reached between Russia and the United States, each area of influence will have different reconstruction and development plans.

As early as the 1945-1958 period, Syria had been the  target of expansionist designs that were anyway bound to fragment its territory.

The two Hashemite Kingdoms of Iraq and Jordan thought they could together take control of the whole Syrian State,  while their eternal rivals, namely the Saudi-Egyptian axis, thwarted their designs.

Great Britain and France, still powerful in Syria, operated through their Arab points of reference.

CIA collaborated with the Syrian dictator, Husni Zaim.

Zaim was of Kurdish origin and had taken power in 1949. He had organized a regime not disliked by the Ba’ath Party – a Westernizing and vaguely “Socialist” dictatorship.

After Husni Zaim’s fall, Syria was divided as usual: the collective leadership was held by the Sunni urban elite who had fought harshly against France.

Nevertheless, the unity of the nation – which was decisive for the Sunnis themselves – found it hard to bring together the Alawites, the Druze, the Shiites and the thousands of  religious and ethnic factions that characterized Syria at that time as in current times.

The nationalist union between Syria and Egypt created in 1958 and soon undermined by Syria’s defection in 1961, experienced its Ba’athist-nationalist coup in 1963, with a military take-over.

Hafez El Assad – the father of the current Syrian leader, who ruled Syria from 1963 to 2000, the year of his death – immediately emerged among the military.

Long-term instability, medium-term political stability. That is Syria, from the end of the French domination to current times.

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