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The “ceasefire” in Syria

Giancarlo Elia Valori

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The previous two Syrian “ceasefires” of February and September last were substantial failures. Mediated by too diverging interests, they were bogged down in a zero-sum game among the irregularities committed by all the groups involved.

At strategic and geopolitical levels, many sources still speak of a “tripartite” option for Syria’s future, which could be based precisely on the three agreements of December 30, 2016.

One of them is between the Syrian government and the jihadist “rebels”; then there is a list of mechanisms to monitor the agreement and finally the Astana agreement ends with a letter of intent between the parties so as to begin – after the “ceasefire” – the negotiations which will lead to the end of the conflict.

The agreement signed in the Kazakh capital comes after Assad’ Syrian Arab Army maintaining and sometimes expanding its recent positions, while the jihadists have lost control of half of Aleppo, by also losing the suburbs of Damascus and some large areas in the Idlib province.

The first and most evident political goals are that the Russian Federation wants to capitalize on its new role as Middle East power broker, graciously presented to it by the foolishness of the United States and its European allies, and that Assad also aims at keeping and strengthening his recent positions to soon achieve peace and, above all, the unity of his country.

The maps of the Syrian Chiefs of Staff show that, after this truce, the Syrian attacks will go deep into the centre of the areas still in the hands of the various rebel groups and Daesh, starting from the Mediterranean coast and the border areas between Syria and the Lebanon.

Turkey, which has signed the “ceasefire” along with Russia and Iran, wants to limit the great damage caused to it by the conflict, with the masses of refugees – as many as 2 million people – who are already in Turkey with the other Syrian populations.

Those who would come after Assad’s regime conquering Idlib – as is likely.

Obviously, Turkey hopes that its new role in Syria will be noticed by Bashar al-Assad’s regime and that hence the Kurdish issue will not materialize in a State built by the YPG between Syria and Iraq, which can lap the Turkish Kurdish areas to its border.

On the other hand, an autonomous and independent Kurdistan in Northern Syria could become a sort of geopolitical buffer that would enable Russia, Iran and other powers to have a right of way in the great Middle East region, which would certainly change all the games we have so far experienced in that area and in the Mediterranean.

An essay of the ”Russian National Institute for Research on Global Security” works on the assumption that there is a US primary interest in a great “Sunnistan” at the core of future Syria and Western Iraq.

With a corresponding “Shiite State” in Southern Syria.

It is still the old attempt to extend the pipeline going from Qatar up to Turkey’s Mediterranean border, without touching the Iranian-Shiite areas.

It is the old ethnic federalism, detrimentally experienced for the Balkans, which still inspires the US “line” in the region.

A model derived from the analyses – far more refined than we may think – developed at the time by Samuel Huntington.

Russian, Syria and Turkey do not want this – albeit up to a certain extent.

Russia does not want to military ruin itself for a united Syria; Turkey does not want insecure borders in Northern Syria, while Iran only wants to cover its area of influence to the border with Syria.

If the Syrian war became too long or too expensive, or strategically useless, the Three Powers of Astana’s last “ceasefire” may also accept “federalism” in the region of Bashar al-Assad’s current regime.

Federalism, however, designed by them – certainly not from the United States, which would not even have a proxy State to do the dirty work.

At that juncture, the United States could resort to the strategy of “bloody borders” – as the US analyst Ralph Peters called them – to reshape the local strategic potentials according to its interest.

And hence manage its competitors’ resources with a “long war”.

The confidential documents quoted by our sources speculate that – according to US plans – Bashar may be replaced by a “less polarizing” Alawite presidential candidate and that Iran – given the new and scarcely friendly Trump’s Presidency in the offing – may want to immediately solve the Syrian issue, by gaining control of its border areas and its ethno-religious enclaves.

It is worth recalling, however, that currently at least 70% of the Syrian people want Bashar al-Assad’s regime and only 30%, including Kurds, show they like other options.

Let us revert to the “ceasefire” of December 30, 2016, to be mostly considered a sort of Putin’s personal initiative.

If it holds for the month of formal validity, Turkey and Russia will sponsor the peace talks between Bashar al-Assad’s government and the seven major Syrian jihad organizations, except for Daesh and the Al-Nusra Front – that is Al Qaeda – which have already signed the “ceasefire” in Astana, the Kazakh capital.

The signatory organizations are relevant, even militarily.

They include Feilak al Sham, a jihadist organization sponsored by Turkey, with 19 detachments and 4,000 operational militants.

The second jihadist group is Ahrar al-Sham, or Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiya, with 80 hit squads and a potential of 16,000 jihadists active in all the strategic sites of the Syrian war: Damascus, Homs, Latakia, Hama, Daraa and Idlib.

The signatories to the “ceasefire” in Astana also include Jaish al-Islam, with as many as 64 hit squads and a total of 12,000 armed jihadists.

There is also the jihadist group of Tuwar al-Sham, with eight battalions totaling about 3,000 militants operating in Aleppo, Idlib and Latakia.

Another group that has signed the ceasefire is Jaish al-Mujahideen, with 13 operating centers and 9,000 active militants.

Then there is also Jaish Idlib, obviously operating mainly in the Idlib region, with three great battalions totaling 6,000 fighters.

Finally, in Astana there were also the plenipotentiaries of Jabhat al-Shamiya, a group with 5 battalions in Aleppo, Idlib and Damascus and an estimated force of 3,200 operational militants.

Hence if Bashar al-Assad’s government, which is really supported by its citizens, should think of some sort of territorial autonomies, Russia and even Turkey would recommend quiet local autonomism as opposed to US-style “federalism”.

A system in which also the small and large groups which have signed the ceasefire in Astana may reinvent themselves as local militias, while their old funders leave with their tail between their legs.

For the record, during negotiations Turkey asked to remove the Iranian and Hezbollah forces from the Syrian territory, that obviously denied to the Russian Foreign Minister, Lavrov, that free favour to Turkey and, indirectly, to Saudi Arabia.

Moreover, Ahrar al-Sham, belongs to Al Qaeda – hence to the al-Nusra Front – and initially Turkey did not agree to include the group among the signatories to the Astana ceasefire.

Nevertheless it was precisely Saudi Arabia to directly oblige Ahrar al-Sham to adhere to the Astana Agreement.

The agreement envisages, inter alia, the stop of the Syrian Air Force’s raids against the Syrian “rebels” – air war actions which, where necessary, may be carried out only by Russia.

The signatory groups are required to leave their positions – indicated in the text of the Agreement – which allows to more easily identify and neutralize the Daesh and Al-Nusra Front emplacements.

The text of the Agreement includes a statement providing support by the powers present in Syria to a strong territorial unity of the Syrian government – so that Turkey will not have the Kurdish State, in which not even Russia is interested, and this will remain one of the many US broken promises in the region.

None of the signatories can try to gain more territory while the “ceasefire” is in force.

Finally none of the signatories has insisted on overthrowing Bashar al-Assad.

Furthermore, all signatories shall permit the delivery of humanitarian aid throughout the part of Syria not controlled by the groups excluded from the “ceasefire”.

It is explicitly written in the text of the “ceasefire” agreement that all forces shall withdraw from Aleppo’s Castle Street.

Hence the Turkish attack on Kurds has only been postponed, with or without the naive support of the United States, which will certainly leave that glorious Indo-European tribe to its fate.

The jihadist groups, hit in their Saudi and Qatari “leadership”, will not be as dangerous as they are today.

Not even Saudi Arabia wants to die for Syria.

If Saudi Arabia and Qatar have some territorial or financial reason to cease support for the Syrian jihadists, they will slacken off and loosen their grip.

Russia has won across the board. It has wiped the United States out of the Middle East and it has put together two historical opponents, namely Turkey and Iran, into a credible geopolitical project.

Iran is another winner of the Astana Agreement.

Once ensured the security of its borders, it can fully play the new game of the gas pipelines it will operate after the end of the conflict.

The Iraqi army is already at the gates of Raqqa – the eradication of Daesh is only a matter of time.

In short, if the “ceasefire” holds, the whole Syrian and Middle East strategic scenario will change completely.

Also the Kurds are taking Raqqa, with the usual and effective harshness.

Assad’s Army has conquered the outskirts of Wadi Barada, previously held by the jihadists of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham.

The remaining pockets in Homs and Aleppo will be reduced and later Assad’s Army will conquer the primary areas of the territory, currently held by Daesh.

If, as is likely, the truce works and the jihad that signed the Astana Agreement is reduced significantly, for Syria the fight will only be against Daesh, with the help of its strategic supporters.

In this case there will be no escape, no way out.

Advisory Board Co-chair Honoris Causa Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is an eminent Italian economist and businessman. He holds prestigious academic distinctions and national orders. Mr. Valori has lectured on international affairs and economics at the world’s leading universities such as Peking University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Yeshiva University in New York. He currently chairs “International World Group”, he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group. In 1992 he was appointed Officier de la Légion d’Honneur de la République Francaise, with this motivation: “A man who can see across borders to understand the world” and in 2002 he received the title “Honorable” of the Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France. “

Middle East

Turkey and the time bomb in Syria

Mohammad Ghaderi

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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

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Middle East

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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Middle East

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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