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Israel and the war in Syria

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There is fundamental point which needs to be studied carefully: the war in Syria – after the entry of the Russian Federation into the region – implies a connection between Russia and Iran that is supremely dangerous for Israel. In fact, many of the Russian air raids on the Syrian soil come from the Iranian base of Hamadan, 175 miles south of Tehran – the historical tomb, inter alia, of Esther and Mordechai, the traditional pilgrimage of Iranian Jews.

If Russia really wants to avoid traditional Western powers managing again the equilibriums of the Great Middle East, it must favour the strengthening of a “Shiite crescent” stretching from Iran to the Alawite region in Syria up to the Southern Lebanon of the “Party of God”, namely Hezbollah.

However, if Russia leaves the whole work in the hands of Iranians and their allies, it must rely on a strong Israel enabling it to stay in the game throughout the Syrian territory.

Moreover, Putin wants to block every Western temptation to conduct other “Arab Springs” in the Middle East or riots in the streets that, as the Russian leader knows all too well, would sooner or later be used against his regime within the Russian Federation.

Putin has blocked any possibility of “indirect strategy” on the part of Westerners – and this is already one of his significant victories.

In fact, with Crimea’s annexation on March 18, 2014 and the counter-revolution in Ukraine, Putin has stabilized Russia’s power projection from the South, so as to cover its main networks for the distribution of oil and gas to the West and the Mediterranean.

Russia’s conquest of Syria – hence of the whole Greater Middle East – is the necessary “second circle” of this new security policy.

Russia focuses on countries, while Westerners, and especially Americans, focus on ethnic groups, religious groups and tribal areas.

And this is also a strength for Russia.

This is the reason why the continuous fragmentation of the clash fronts has not led to US hegemony, but to the now definitive US defeat in the Middle East.

Therefore Russia is certainly interested in the new expansion of Iran’s economy and geostrategic influence, but Iran still wants Bashar al-Assad as Syria’s leader.

The Russian Federation, however, still wants Assad to stay in power because this allows the maximum security and safety of its maritime bases in the Syrian Mediterranean.

Conversely Iran intends to keep Assad and the Shiite regime in power because they enable it to have the maximum strategic continuity with Lebanese Hezbollah.

Obviously Israel has no interest in entering the Syrian conflict.

The presence of the Jewish State would catalyze an alliance between Sunnis and Shiites against Jerusalem and would not play into the hands of Russia or Israel itself.

Moreover Israel has provided humanitarian and medical aid to the Syrian wounded people who reached the borders of the Golan Heights and has authorized the passage of humanitarian convoys across its borders.

However, the Israeli armed forces have hit individual targets within the Syrian territory during the conflict and the Jewish State’s military planning assumes that, even with the Russian support, there can never be strategic continuity between Bashar al-Assad’s forces and the Lebanese Shiites’ “Party of God”.

Russia has so far shown interest in the protection of Israeli borders for a number of important reasons.

Firstly, the Jewish State is home to over a million Russian citizens of Jewish religion.

In the Russian orthodox and nationalistic culture Slavophilia applies also to Russian Jews.

Furthermore the economic link between Russia and Israel is of primary interest, also and especially for Russians.

Currently the economic relations between Russia and Israel are worth approximately 4 billion US dollars – a much higher amount than trade between Russia and Egypt.

And this trade regards almost always high-tech goods.

Moreover, currently Putin could be the best broker for serious and final negotiations between Israel and Palestine.

Now Obama’s America does no longer want to deal directly with the Middle East and in the United States there is an increasingly tense climate towards Israel, its internal political lobby and its strategic interest in the region, which does not coincide with the US policy of uncontested support for the Gulf monarchies.

Americans have entrusted the Sunnis with the protection of their interest in the Middle East – a risky and dangerous move.

Also in this case, the US decision-making mechanisms have been ambiguous.

While, on the one hand, March 2016 saw the signing of a US-Israel military agreement worth 38 billion US dollars over ten years, with some Israeli political concessions to the Palestinians, on the other hand, never as during Obama’s era there has been steady conflict between Washington and Jerusalem.

Conversely Putin and Netanyahu have reached an agreement for the mutual exchange of strategic information during the war in Syria, which is working well and could be the first step for a stable political-military exchange between the two countries.

Do the Americans want so? And how could they counteract the growth of Russia as Israel’s broker in the Arab and Islamic world?

Moreover, if Israel wants to count in a future redesign of Syria, it is only with Russia that it shall negotiate, considering that Westerners still fiddle with “moderate” jihadists and, although not counting at all on the ground, they want the regionalization of a future pacified Syria.

Furthermore, without the Western allies present in the Syrian region, Israel cannot avoid dealing with the only credible non-Islamic power, namely Russia.

Moreover, if we see how the crisis points of the Israeli deployment of forces have changed, we realize that the war in Syria has made the Lebanon very dangerous and the Gaza Strip even more unstable, but it has completely changed the military and political structure of the Golan Heights.

For over 40 years, the Golan Heights – conquered by the Syrians during the 1967 War – have been the quietest Israeli border.

UNDOF, the UN peacekeeping force in the region, collaborates in stabilizing the border, along with Israeli and Syrian forces located in the rear.

However, the Druze and the Israelis living in the Golan Heights are over 40,000.

The front between Israel and Syria is very dynamic and it has already witnessed Daesh/Isis operations and attacks on the Golan Heights areas closer to Jordan.

Assad has no interest in awakening Israel’s lion; the jihadists do not want to pay the price of very harsh reactions by the Israeli forces and in no way Israel wants to be involved in the Shiite-Sunni conflict.

There are two real strategic dangers: a Shiite or Sunni action going deep only into the Golan Heights or a correlation of forces between the front of the Golan Heights, the Southern Lebanon and the Gaza Strip.

In fact, before the outbreak of war in Syria, the strategic debate among the Israeli decision-makers was simple: it would be good for Israel if Sunnis defeated Assad’s forces, which would break the link between the Syrian regime’s Alawites and Iran.

Or would the Sunnis build a strategic corridor from Turkey to the Golan Heights, with the support of Qatar and Saudi Arabia?

A prospect which would bring Daesh or the various jihadist “fronts” on Israel’s borders.

Better “the devil we already know” or a new form of the same dangerous presence?

Moreover, Assad, who is a shrewd man, has never directly attacked the Israeli forces on the Golan Heights, for fear of the predictable and powerful response actions. However he has smuggled Iranian arms to Hezbollah by using his Southern border with Israel.

For the time being the Jewish State’s rejection to follow one of two options, so as to manage a favourable equilibrium with the Russian winner, has proved to be the right choice.

Hence it must avoid exciting and rousing both the Turks and the Russians in the region, even though – pending the Syrian war – Israel has decided to support some Sunni groups on its Syrian border to prevent the stabilization of Hezbollah positions immediately behind its own defence lines.

Sunni groups that, however, are supported by Saudi Arabia and not by Turkey, always in front of the Golan Heights.

As from January 2015 to date, the Israeli attacks have always been tough and accurate and targeted to the Iranian officials and the leaders of the Lebanese “Party of God” operating on the Golan border.

The Lebanese Shiites’ activities, however, have become more difficult since Russia supplied Syria with its advanced radar and anti-aircraft missiles S-400.

In fact, at that juncture, the agreement between Israel and Russia was immediate, thus showing the relevance that the Jewish State has for Russia.

Iran could not supply Hezbollah with advanced weapons and, if it had done so, Israel would have been entitled to immediately respond militarily in Syria.

Always referring to the debate among the Israeli strategic decision-makers, there are many signs that Israel is allegedly changing its assessment of the clashes in Syria.

If the conflict continues – as everything currently make us predict – the Syrian forces will be a mere shadow of what they were, while the Lebanese “Party of God” must strongly support its ally, Assad, thus reducing its pressure on Israeli targets.

Therefore, for many Israeli analysts, a war definitely exhausting all the Jewish State’s Northern enemies is the optimal strategic equation.

On the other hand, there is the danger that, with a view to preventing the victory of Bashar al-Assad’s Alawites, supported by Russia, Israel may have a sort of US-style “conditioned reflex”, thus starting to support – against Assad – Iran and Hezb’ollah, the famous Sunni “rebels” so dear to the Western strategic foolishness.

The latter, after having received support, would turn immediately against those who have protected them.

Does the story of Daesh/Isis foundation teach us nothing?

A rational alternative for the Jewish State would be to support the Kurds or, in a wider perspective, the splitting up of the Syrian State, namely its “cantonization”.

Nevertheless we can also think of the great geopolitical opportunities that the Russian intervention opens up for Israel.

For Russia, rescuing Assad means marginalizing the United States in the whole Middle East and becoming a global strategic actor.

Furthermore, the secondary objective of this Russian operation is to maintain the key ally in the region, namely Assad, but above all to eliminate any possibility of radical Islamization of the Sunni areas and, hence, prevent Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia – three powers close to the United States – from having a marked presence in Syria.

Therefore Russia may want three different things – and we do not know yet what Russia will choose.

A very small and united Syria – an Alawistan to protect the Russian military zones on the Mediterranean – a less little Syria with Assad reigning over Aleppo, Homs, Hama and Damascus or, finally, a greater Syria without Assad.

For Israel, the alternatives could be those of silently supporting the Russian actions in Syria and simultaneously resume relations between the Jewish State and some Sunni countries, so as to make them oppose Iran’s hegemonic expansion between Iran and Southern Lebanon.

Or Israel could negotiate directly with Russia a deployment of forces in Syria which would substantially allow to defuse and avert the Iranian-Shiite danger in the Golan Heights.

But what will be the bargaining chip with Russia and the other regional players, considering that the United States are no longer present in that region?

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. “

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Middle East

Erdogan’s Calamitous Authoritarianism

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Turkey’s President Erdogan is becoming ever more dangerous as he continues to ravage his own country and destabilize scores of states in the Middle East, the Balkans, and North Africa, while cozying up to the West’s foremost advisories. Sadly, there seems to be no appetite for most EU member states to challenge Erdogan and put him on notice that he can no longer pursue his authoritarianism at home and his adventurous meddling abroad with impunity.

To understand the severity of Erdogan’s actions and ambitions and their dire implications, it suffices to quote Ahmet Davutoglu, formerly one of Erdogan’s closest associates who served as Minister of Foreign Affairs and subsequently Prime Minister. Following his forced resignation in May 2016 he stated “I will sustain my faithful relationship with our president until my last breath. No one has ever heard — and will ever hear — a single word against our president come from my mouth.”

Yet on October 12, Davutoglu declared “Erdogan left his friends who struggled and fought with him in exchange for the symbols of ancient Turkey, and he is trying to hold us back now…. You yourself [Erdogan] are the calamity. The biggest calamity that befell this people is the regime that turned the country into a disastrous family business.”

The stunning departure of Davutoglu from his earlier statement shows how desperate conditions have become, and echoed how far and how dangerously Erdogan has gone. Erdogan has inflicted a great calamity on his own people, and his blind ambition outside Turkey is destabilizing many countries while dangerously undermining Turkey’s and its Western allies’ national security and strategic interests.

A brief synopsis of Erdogan’s criminal domestic practices and his foreign misadventures tell the whole story.

Domestically, he incarcerated tens of thousands of innocent citizens on bogus charges, including hundreds of journalists. Meanwhile he is pressuring the courts to send people to prison for insulting him, as no one can even express their thoughts about this ruthlessness. Internationally, Erdogan ordered Turkish intelligence operatives to kill or smuggle back to the country Turkish citizens affiliated with the Gülen movement.

He regularly cracks down on Turkey’s Kurdish minority, preventing them from living a normal life in accordance with their culture, language, and traditions, even though they have been and continue to be loyal Turkish citizens. There is no solution to the conflict except political, as former Foreign Minister Ali Babacan adamantly stated on October 20: “… a solution [to the Kurdish issue] will be political and we will defend democracy persistently.”

Erdogan refuses to accept the law of the sea convention that gives countries, including Cyprus, the right to an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) for energy exploration, while threatening the use of force against Greece, another NATO member no less. He openly sent a research ship to the region for oil and gas deposits, which EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell called “extremely worrying.”

He invaded Syria with Trump’s blessing to prevent the Syrian Kurds from establishing autonomous rule, under the pretext of fighting the PKK and the YPG (the Syrian Kurdish militia that fought side-by-side the US, and whom Erdogan falsely accuses of being a terrorist group).

He is sending weapons to the Sunni in northern Lebanon while setting up a branch of the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA) in the country—a practice Erdogan has used often to gain a broader foothold in countries where it has an interest.

While the Turkish economy is in tatters, he is investing hundreds of millions of dollars in the Balkans, flooding countries with Turkish imams to spread his Islamic gospel and to ensure their place in his neo-Ottoman orbit. Criticizing Erdogan’s economic leadership, Babacan put it succinctly when he said this month that “It is not possible in Turkey for the economic or financial system to continue, or political legitimacy hold up.”

Erdogan is corrupt to the bone. He conveniently appointed his son-in-law as Finance Minister, which allows him to hoard tens of millions of dollars, as Davutoglu slyly pointed out: “The only accusation against me…is the transfer of land to an educational institution over which I have no personal rights and which I cannot leave to my daughter, my son, my son-in-law or my daughter-in-law.”

Erdogan is backing Azerbaijan in its dispute with Armenia (backed by Iran) over the breakaway territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is inhabited by ethnic Armenians and has been the subject of dispute for over 30 years.

He is exploiting Libya’s civil strife by providing the Government of National Accord (GNA) with drones and military equipment to help Tripoli gain the upper hand in its battle against Khalifa Haftar’s forces. Former Foreign Minister Yasar Yakis said in February 2020 that “The unclear Turkish foreign policy by Erdogan may put Turkey in grave danger due to this expansion towards Libya.”

He is meddling in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in an effort to prevent them from settling their dispute unless Israel meets Palestinian demands. He granted several Hamas officials Turkish citizenship to spite Israel, even though Hamas openly calls for Israel’s destruction.

He betrayed NATO by buying the Russian-made S-400 air defense system, which seriously compromises the alliance’s technology and intelligence.

He is destabilizing many countries, including Somalia, Qatar, Libya, and Syria, by dispatching military forces and hardware while violating the air space of other countries like Iraq, Cyprus, and Greece. Yakis said Turkey is engaging in a “highly daring bet where the risks of failure are enormous.”

Erdogan supports extremist Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, and an assortment of jihadists, including ISIS, knowing full well that these groups are sworn enemies of the West—yet he uses them as a tool to promote his wicked Islamic agenda.

He regularly blackmails EU members, threatening to flood Europe with Syria refugees unless they support his foreign escapades such as his invasion of Syria, and provide him with billions in financial aid to cope with the Syrian refugees.

The question is how much more evidence does the EU need to act? A close look at Erdogan’s conduct clearly illuminates his ultimate ambition to restore much of the Ottoman Empire’s influence over the countries that were once under its control.

Erdogan is dangerous. He has cited Hitler as an example of an effective executive presidential system, and may seek to acquire nuclear weapons. It’s time for the EU to wake up and take Erdogan’s long-term agenda seriously, and take severe punitive measures to arrest his potentially calamitous behavior. Sadly, the EU has convinced itself that from a geostrategic perspective Turkey is critically important, which Erdogan is masterfully exploiting.

The EU must be prepared take a stand against Erdogan, with or without the US. Let’s hope, though, that Joe Biden will be the next president and together with the EU warn Erdogan that his days of authoritarianism and foreign adventurism are over.

The views expressed are those of the author.

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Middle East

Syrian Refugees Have Become A Tool Of Duplicitous Politics

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Syrian refugees in Rukban camp

Since the beginning of the conflict in Syria the issue of Syrian refugees and internally displace has been the subject of countless articles and reports with international humanitarian organizations and countries involved in the Syrian conflict shifting responsibility for the plight of migrants.

The most notorious example of human suffering put against political games is the Rukban refugee camp located in eastern Syria inside the 55-km zone around Al-Tanf base controlled by the U.S. and its proxies.

According to official information, more than 50,000 people, mostly women and children, currently live in the camp. This is a huge number comparable to the population of a small town. The Syrian government, aware of the plight of people in Rukban, has repeatedly urged Washington to open a humanitarian corridor so that everyone can safely return home. However, all such proposals were ignored by the American side. U.S. also refuse to provide the camp with first aid items. Neighbouring Jordan is inactive, too, despite Rukban being the largest of dozens other temporary detention centres in Syria, where people eke out a meager existence.

At the same time, the problem is not only refugee camps. Syria has been at war for a decade. The country’s economy has suffered greatly over this period, and many cities have been practically grazed to the ground. Moreover, the global coronavirus epidemic didn’t spare Syria and drained the already weakened economy even more. However, Damascus’ attempts of post-war reconstruction and economic recovery were undermined by multiple packages of severe sanctions imposed by the U.S. At the same time, U.S.-based human rights monitors and humanitarian organizations continue to weep over the Syrian citizens’ misery.

The situation is the same for those refugees who stay in camps abroad, especially in countries bordering on Syria, particularly Jordan and Turkey. Ankara has been using Syrian citizens as a leverage against the European states in pursuit of political benefits for a long time. No one pays attention to the lives of people who are used as a change coin in big politics. This is equally true for Rukban where refugees are held in inhuman conditions and not allowed to return to their homeland. In those rare exceptions that they are able to leave, refugees have to pay large sums of money that most of those living in camp are not able to come by.

It’s hard to predict how long the Syrian conflict will go on and when – or if – the American military will leave the Al-Tanf base. One thing can be said for sure: the kind of criminal inaction and disregard for humanitarian catastrophe witnessed in refugee camps is a humiliating failure of modern diplomacy and an unforgivable mistake for the international community. People shouldn’t be a tool in the games of politicians.

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Middle East

Is Syria Ready For Second Wave Of COVID-19?

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©UNICEF/Delil Souleiman

Despite a relative calm that has been holding on the front lines of the Syrian conflict since the beginning of the year, Syria had to face other equally – if not more – serious challenges. The spread of COVID-19 virus in the wake of a general economic collapse and a health care system battered by nine years of war threatened Syria with a death toll as a high as that of resumed military confrontation. However, the actual scale of the infection rate turned out to be less than it was expected considering the circumstances.

Although Syria did not have much in resources to mobilize, unlike some other countries that were slow to enforce restrictions or ignored them altogether, the Syrian authorities did not waste time to introduce basic measures that, as it became obvious in hindsight, proved to be the most effective. A quarantine was instituted in the areas controlled by the government, all transportation between the provinces was suspended, schools and universities were temporarily closed and face masks were made obligatory in public spaces.

As a result, official data puts the number of people infected with COVID-19 in the government areas at modest 4,457 while 192 people died of the infection. In turn, the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria announced that 1,998 people contracted the virus. The data on the infection rate in the opposition-controlled areas in Idlib and Aleppo is incomplete, but the latest number is 1,072. Compared to the neighboring Turkey with  9,000 of deaths of COVID-19, Syria seems to be doing relatively well.

Tackling the virus put the already embattled health care system under enormous strain. Syrian doctors are dealing with an acute shortage of medicines and equipment, and even hospital beds are in short supply. Over 60 medical workers who treated COVID-19 patients died.

The situation is worsened even further by the economic hardships, not least due to the sanctions imposed on Syria by the U.S. and the European states. Syrian hospitals are unable to procure modern equipment necessary for adequate treatment of COVID-19, most importantly test kits and ventilators.

The economic collapse exposed and aggravated many vulnerabilities that could have been easily treated under more favorable circumstances. A grim, yet fitting example: long queues in front of bakeries selling bread at subsidised prices, that put people under the risk of catching the virus. Many Syrians are simply unable to avoid risking their health in these queues, as an average income is no longer enough to provide for a family.

Moreover, despite a nation-wide information campaign conducted with the goal of spreading awareness about means of protections against COVID-19 like social distancing and mask-wearing, for many Syrians the disease is still stigmatized, and those who contracted it are often too ashamed to go to a hospital or even confess to their friends. As consequence, a substantial number of cases goes unreported.

With the second wave of COVID-19 in sight, it is of utmost importance that the work of health care professionals is supported, not subverted by the citizens. Otherwise Syria – and the world – may pay too high a price.

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