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Hezbollah and the war in Syria

Giancarlo Elia Valori

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[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] T [/yt_dropcap]he war in Syria against Assad’s Alawites and his post-Baathist State began with the people’s uprising of March-April 2011. Mass demonstrations in the traditional Sunni areas of Hama and Homs, to which the pro-government organizations responded with rallies supporting Bashar al-Assad and his regime.

It was the usual pattern of the Arab Springs: civil unrest, mass and non-violent uprising, to which the regime was bound to react violently, thus leading to radicalization in which the jihad “foreign legion” set in.

This should happen after the old Rais leaving and after the international organizations certifying it is a “democratic fight”.

Gaddafi’s fall was triggered off by a small revolt of some prisoners’ relatives in Benghazi.

Later the Libyan militants of the “League for Human Rights” came – of whom there was no trace before – and shortly after a submarine of the French Navy arrived, bringing weapons and trainers.

Again in 2011, in Tahrir Square, Cairo, also the sister of Al Zawahiri, the leader of Al Qaeda, participated in the demonstrations, while the team of stewards for controlling the crowd in those more or less spontaneous demonstrations was provided by the armed wing of the Muslim Brotherhood.

At the time, one of the books recommended by the Ikhwan of the Muslim Brotherhood was exactly “The Politics of Nonviolent Action” by Gene Sharp, the founder of the Albert Einstein Institution, a real handbook for organising non-military and non-violent subversion.

That text and that technique had already been found in the techniques used by the OTPOR network in Serbia, a group opposing Milosevic’s regime.

OTPOR was a group of young people trained in the US Diplomatic Mission to Budapest, Hungary.

In fact, after the crisis of the Syrian regime following the 2011 events, the barbed wire was removed from the sensitive borders and Sunni jihadists began to arrive in Syria from Jordan and Turkey, who immediately settled on the border between Syria and the Lebanon – or better between Al Qusayr and the Ghouta region – to seal and hold Damascus as if in a vice.

It is also worth recalling that, even before rising to power, Bashar al-Assad was directly responsible for the Lebanese dossier and, hence, for the close and direct relations between the Syrian regime and Hezbollah.

The situation changed with the bombing of the Syrian intelligence headquarters in Rawda Square on July 18, 2012, in which the following people died: the Syrian Defence Minister; Bashar’s cousin and Defence Deputy-Minister, Asef Shawkat; the Deputy-President of the Republic, Hassan Turkmani, and finally the Head of the intelligence services, Hafez Makhlouf.

It has not been ascertained yet whether the attack was perpetrated by a suicide bomber or was carried out with explosives detonated remotely.

They were explicitly mentioned, as “brothers” and “martyrs”, by the Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, in his speech of May 25, 2013 expressing the Lebanese Shiite group’s full military and operational support to Assad.

Hezbollah had already intervened with its “shadow armies”, in the first phase of the clashes between the Alawite leader’ Syrian Arab Army and the Sunni and jihadist forces, but only on the narrow border line between Syria and the Lebanon.

Hence, the “resistance axis” between Iran, Hezbollah and Assads’ Syria was created by means of weapons – an “axis” that the Syrian and the Shiite Lebanese propaganda had been spreading for years.

The Iranian, Syrian and Hezbollah policy line was opposed to a Sunni but, more explicitly Saudi, project to conquer Syria, marginalize the Alawites and confine them only on the Mediterranean coast and later come to a clash or to Iran’s regionalization.

The first slogans of the pro-Assad protesters, in 2011, were mainly against the Saudi king and sometimes against the Jordanian one.

Certainly, today the presence of Hezbollah in the Syrian conflict has proved to be decisive in the defeat of the various organization of the Sunni jihad and the Free Syrian Army – born from a split of Assad’s Armed Forces, again in 2011, and later turned into an instrument for projection of the Turkish force, especially in Northern Syria.

The losses of the Lebanese “Party of God” are supposed be at least 1,500 soldiers, while Israel has not yet decided how to move in Syria, except for the defence of the Golan Heights, thus waiting for its various enemies to destroy one another.

With one exception, made explicit precisely by Prime Minister Netanyahu in June 2013: we need to evaluate and respond to the new and disturbing presence of Hezbollah in Syria.

Moreover, in addition to the “resistance axis” between Iran, Syria and the Lebanese “Party of God”, we must also consider Hamas in the Gaza Strip, which resumed its official relations with Iran in July 2016, with Iran providing economic aid and military support while – as stated, at the time, by Hamas political bureau – “Saudi Arabia made our proposals fade away”.

It should be noted that, in the Yemenite war, Hamas – the political-military arm of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood – had defended President Mansour Hadi against the Houthis, namely the Shiite followers of the Seventh and Last Imam, supported by Iran.

Yemen is clearly the bridgehead for controlling Saudi Arabia and having access to the Persian Gulf but also, indirectly, to the Suez Canal.

It is also strange that the EU dependence on international trade has not led the European decision-makers to think that whoever controls that region holds in his hands the jugular vein of the whole Eurasian peninsula’s maritime trade.

Currently, however, the European decision-makers’ strategic culture and sensitivity is virtually zero.

Moreover, the presence of the “Party of God” in Syria allows a wide deployment and dislocation of forces, as well as a sort of Syria’s “colonization” by Iran in exchange for its strong support to Hezbollah just inside the Lebanon .

Hezbollah has become hegemonic in the Lebanon and hence can be turned into a kind of “Middle East army” for the entire Shiite world gravitating around Iran.

Between Iran and the Lebanon, thanks to the Shiite “Party of God”, a series of “demographic gaps” between Syria and Iraq towards the Lebanon can be created – and this is already happening today.

The poles of this new Iranian Shiite demographics are the areas of Kefraya and Fuah, from where the residents – mostly Shiites – have been directed to the West Damascus neighbourhood – characterized by a Sunni majority – while the latter will settle in Kefraya and Fuah, in the areas vacated by the Shiites, if the international agreements on the “Four cities” still apply.

Therefore Iran wants full continuity with the Lebanon and this is the reason why it is planning a real population exchange between Northern and Southern Syria.

This also implies Shiite control of the Turkish-Syrian border – and hence of NATO.

Furthermore Hezbollah will settle in Madaya and Zabadani, the cities it has contributed to defend from the “takfiri” (the Sunni apostates) and from “terrorists” – just to use the terminology of the Lebanese Shiite propaganda.

In Daraa, 300 Iraqi Shiite families have already settled in the areas vacated by the Sunni forces after the “ceasefire” of last September.

We can easily understand what this means for the Jewish State’ security.

A pincer-shaped movement between North and South, between the border with Southern Lebanon, dominated by the “Party of God”, and the South, with Hamas which is armed and trained by Iran, is one of the worst possible scenarios for Israel.

Only a new relationship with Egypt and Jordan could strategically counterbalance this threat.

As President Trump has already stated, currently the United States does not necessarily want a Syria without Assad, because “it is up to the Syrian people to choose” and, in any case, “Assad is better than the jihadists”.

Furthermore, the Syrian President responds to President Trump’s advances assuming that “Syria and the United States can be natural allies”.

In more explicit terms, Assad wants to be part of the new alliance “against terrorism” in the region, but the problem is that the United States will never accept strategic continuity from Tehran to the Roman temples of Baalbek on the Lebanese coast, nor strategic closure towards Israel.

A good possibility of solving the issue lies in the Russian presence in the region.

Russia has every interest in supporting the Jewish State and an equal need to stay and control Syria so as to prevent Iranian pressures on its military bases in Tartus and the control of its communication lines in the Syrian territory.

Obviously President Trump does not want Iran standing in his way in the future Middle East “anti-terror League” – and certainly he does not want to have to deal with Ansar Allah of the Houthi rebels in Yemen, with the Fatemyoun Division of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, created in Afghanistan by Shiites who fought in Syria, and with the Zaynaboyoun Brigade of the over one thousand Pakistani Shiites, as well as – of course – with Hezbollah.

In the plans of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, the “Shiite highway” goes from Iran to Iraq up inside Syria; it enters north of Aleppo up to the West-Mediterranean coast and then turns south into the Lebanon up to its border with Israel, in Naquora Maron el-Ras.

However, the tension between Russia and Iran, which could favour a new presence of the United States in the region, is already visible.

Vladimir Putin clearly wants Hezbollah to leave the Syrian territory soon.

Obviously Iran has no interest in pressing the “Party of God” to go back into the Lebanese ranks – Hezbollah is essential to control the above-mentioned “Shiite highway”.

Moreover, Bashar al-Assad is too experienced not to understand that delivering much of his country to the Iranians and to the Lebanese Shiite will push him politically into a corner and will deprive him of the essential Russian support for his freedom of manoeuvre with Iran.

The US Congress and the six countries of the Gulf Security Council also require the implementation of the above stated ”Agreement of the Four Cities”, namely Madaya, Al Fuah, Kafariya and Zabadani, the cities “punished” both by the Shiite and the Sunni jihadist forces.

The Agreement, reached at the same time as the Astana ceasefire, envisages that sick people and other people at risk be evacuated and medicines and food be delivered to the residents.

However, as you may expect, clearing out a city means to conquer it.

As stated before the US Congress, the best way to weaken Hezbollah is to block the Iranian arms shipments reaching the Lebanon through Syria.

A great Sunni bloc in Central Syria would avoid the strategic continuity between Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolution Guards, thus enabling Bashar al-Assad to rule a territory large enough to have credible power in the 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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The Turkish Gambit

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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The only certainty in war is its intrinsic uncertainty, something Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan could soon chance upon.  One only has to look back on America’s topsy-turvy fortunes in Iraq, Afghanistan and even Syria for confirmation.

The Turkish invasion of northeastern Syria has as its defined objective a buffer zone between the Kurds in Turkey and in Syria.  Mr. Erdogan hopes, to populate it with some of the 3 million plus Syrian refugees in Turkey, many of these in limbo in border camps.  The refugees are Arab; the Kurds are not.

Kurds speak a language different from Arabic but akin to Persian.  After the First World War, when the victors parceled up the Arab areas of the Ottoman Empire, Syria came to be controlled by the French, Iraq by the British, and the Kurdish area was divided into parts in Turkey, Syria and Iraq, not forgetting the borderlands in Iran — a brutal division by a colonial scalpel severing communities, friends and families.  About the latter, I have some experience, having lived through the bloody partition of India into two, and now three countries that cost a million lives.   

How Mr. Erdogan will persuade the Arab Syrian refugees to live in an enclave, surrounded by hostile Kurds, some ethnically cleansed from the very same place, remains an open question.  Will the Turkish army occupy this zone permanently?  For, we can imagine what the Kurds will do if the Turkish forces leave.

There is another aspect of modern conflict that has made conquest no longer such a desirable proposition — the guerrilla fighter.  Lightly armed and a master of asymmetric warfare, he destabilizes. 

Modern weapons provide small bands of men the capacity and capability to down helicopters, cripple tanks, lay IEDs, place car bombs in cities and generally disrupt any orderly functioning of a state, tying down large forces at huge expense with little chance of long term stability.  If the US has failed repeatedly in its efforts to bend countries to its will, one has to wonder if Erdogan has thought this one through.

The Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 is another case in point.  Forever synonymous with the infamous butchery at Sabra and Shatila by the Phalange militia facilitated by Israeli forces, it is easy to forget a major and important Israeli goal:  access to the waters of the Litani River which implied a zone of occupation for the area south of it up to the Israeli border.

Southern Lebanon is predominantly Shia and at the time of the Israeli invasion they were a placid group who were dominated by Christians and Sunni, even Palestinians ejected from Israel but now armed and finding refuge in Lebanon.  It was when the Israelis looked like they were going to stay that the Shia awoke.  It took a while but soon their guerrillas were harassing Israeli troops and drawing blood.  The game was no longer worth the candle and Israel, licking its wounds, began to withdraw ending up eventually behind their own border.

A colossal footnote is the resurgent Shia confidence, the buildup into Hezbollah and new political power.  The Hezbollah prepared well for another Israeli invasion to settle old scores and teach them a lesson.  So they were ready, and shocked the Israelis in 2006.  Now they are feared by Israeli troops.   

To return to the present, it is not entirely clear as to what transpired in the telephone call between Erdogan and Trump.  Various sources confirm Trump has bluffed Erdogan in the past.  It is not unlikely then for Trump to have said this time, “We’re leaving.  If you go in, you will have to police the area.  Don’t ask us to help you.”  Is that subject to misinterpretation?  It certainly is a reminder of the inadvertent green light to Saddam Hussein for the invasion of Kuwait when Bush Senior was in office. 

For the time being Erdogan is holding fast and Trump has signed an executive order imposing sanctions on Turkish officials and institutions.  Three Turkish ministers and the Defense and Energy ministries are included.  Trump has also demanded an immediate ceasefire.  On the economic front, he has raised tariffs on steel back to 50 percent as it used to be before last May.  Trade negotiations on a $100 billion trade deal with Turkey have also been halted forthwith.  The order also includes the holding of property of those sanctioned, as well as barring entry to the U.S.

Meanwhile, the misery begins all over again as thousands flee the invasion area carrying what they can.  Where are they headed?  Anywhere where artillery shells do not rain down and the sound of airplanes does not mean bombs.

Such are the exigencies of war and often its surprising consequences. 

Author’s Note:  This piece appeared originally on Counterpunch.org

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Could Turkish aggression boost peace in Syria?

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On October 7, 2019, the U.S. President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of American troops from northeast Syria, where the contingent alongside Kurdish militias controlled the vast territories. Trump clarified that the decision is connected with the intention of Turkey to attack the Kurdish units, posing a threat to Ankara.

It’s incredible that the Turkish military operation against Kurds – indeed the territorial integrity of Syria has resulted in the escape of the U.S., Great Britain, and France. These states essentially are key destabilizing components of the Syrian crisis.

Could this factor favourably influence the situation in the country? For instance, after the end of the Iraqi war in 2011 when the bulk of the American troops left the country, the positive developments took place in the lives of all Iraqis. According to World Economics organization, after the end of the conflict, Iraq’s GDP grew by 14% in 2012, while during the U.S. hostilities the average GDP growth was about 5,8%.

Syria’s GDP growth should also be predicted. Not right away the withdrawal of U.S., French, British, and other forces, but a little bit later after the end of the Turkish operation that is not a phenomenon. The Turkish-Kurdish conflict has been going on since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire when Kurds started to promote the ideas of self-identity and independence. Apart from numerous human losses, the Turks accomplished nothing. It is unlikely that Ankara would achieve much in Peace Spring operation. The Kurds realize the gravity of the situation and choose to form an alliance with the Syrian government that has undermined the ongoing Turkish offensive.

Under these circumstances, Erdogan could only hope for the creation of a narrow buffer zone on the Syrian-Turkish border. The withdrawal of the Turkish forces from the region is just a matter of time. However, we can safely say that the Turkish expansion unwittingly accelerated the peace settlement of the Syrian crisis, as the vital destabilizing forces left the country. Besides, the transfer of the oil-rich north-eastern regions under the control of Bashar Assad will also contribute to the early resolution of the conflict.

It remains a matter of conjecture what the leaders of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Russia agreed on during the high-level talks. Let’s hope that not only the Syrians, but also key Gulf states are tired of instability and tension in the region, and it’s a high time to strive for a political solution to the Syrian problem.

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Turkey and the Kurds: What goes around comes around

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Turkey, like much of the Middle East, is discovering that what goes around comes around.

Not only because President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appears to have miscalculated the fallout of what may prove to be a foolhardy intervention in Syria and neglected alternative options that could have strengthened Turkey’s position without sparking the ire of much of the international community.

But also because what could prove to be a strategic error is rooted in a policy of decades of denial of Kurdish identity and suppression of Kurdish cultural and political rights that was more likely than not to fuel conflict rather than encourage societal cohesion.

The policy midwifed the birth in the 1970s to militant groups like the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), which only dropped its demand for Kurdish independence in recent years.

The group that has waged a low intensity insurgency that has cost tens of thousands of lives has been declared a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union.

Turkish refusal to acknowledge the rights of the Kurds, who are believed to account for up to 20 percent of the country’s population traces its roots to the carving of modern Turkey out of the ruins of the Ottoman empire by its visionary founder, Mustafa Kemal, widely known as Ataturk, Father of the Turks.

It is entrenched in Mr. Kemal’s declaration in a speech in 1923 to celebrate Turkish independence of “how happy is the one who calls himself a Turk,” an effort to forge a national identity for country that was an ethnic mosaic.

The phrase was incorporated half a century later in Turkey’s student oath and ultimately removed from it in 2013 at a time of peace talks between Turkey and the PKK by then prime minister, now president Erdogan.

It took the influx of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Kurds in the late 1980s and early 1990s as well as the 1991 declaration by the United States, Britain and France of a no-fly zone in northern Iraq that enabled the emergence of an autonomous Iraqi Kurdish region to spark debate in Turkey about the Kurdish question and prompt the government to refer to Kurds as Kurds rather than mountain Turks.

Ironically, Turkey’s enduring refusal to acknowledge Kurdish rights and its long neglect of development of the pre-dominantly Kurdish southeast of the country fuelled demands for greater rights rather than majority support for Kurdish secession largely despite the emergence of the PKK

Most Turkish Kurds, who could rise to the highest offices in the land s long as they identified as Turks rather than Kurds, resembled Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, whose options were more limited even if they endorsed the notion of a Jewish state.

Nonetheless, both minorities favoured an independent state for their brethren on the other side of the border but did not want to surrender the opportunities that either Turkey or Israel offered them.

The existence for close to three decades of a Kurdish regional government in northern Iraq and a 2017 referendum in which an overwhelming majority voted for Iraqi Kurdish independence, bitterly rejected and ultimately nullified by Iraqi, Turkish and Iranian opposition, did little to fundamentally change Turkish Kurdish attitudes.

If the referendum briefly soured Turkish-Iraqi Kurdish relations, it failed to undermine the basic understanding underlying a relationship that could have guided Turkey’s approach towards the Kurds in Syria even if dealing with Iraqi Kurds may have been easier because, unlike Turkish Kurds, they had not engaged in political violence against Turkey.

The notion that there was no alternative to the Turkish intervention in Syria is further countered by the fact that Turkish PKK negotiations that started in 2012 led a year later to a ceasefire and a boosting of efforts to secure a peaceful resolution.

The talks prompted imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan to publish a letter endorsing the ceasefire, the disarmament and withdrawal from Turkey of PKK fighters, and a call for an end to the insurgency. Mr. Ocalan predicted that 2013 would be the year in which the Turkish Kurdish issues would be resolved peacefully.

The PKK’s military leader, Cemil Bayik, told the BBC three years later that “we don’t want to separate from Turkey and set up a state. We want to live within the borders of Turkey on our own land freely.”

The talks broke down in 2015 against the backdrop of the Syrian war and the rise as a US ally of the United States in the fight against the Islamic State of the PKK’s Syrian affiliate, the People’s Protection Units (YPG).

Bitterly opposed to the US-YPG alliance, Turkey demanded that the PKK halt its resumption of attacks on Turkish targets and disarm prior to further negotiations.

Turkey responded to the breakdown and resumption of violence with a brutal crackdown in the southeast of the country and on the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).

Nonetheless, in a statement issued from prison earlier this year that envisioned an understanding between Turkey and Syrian Kurdish forces believed to be aligned with the PKK, Mr. Ocalan declared that “we believe, with regard to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the problems in Syria should be resolved within the framework of the unity of Syria, based on constitutional guarantees and local democratic perspectives. In this regard, it should be sensitive to Turkey’s concerns.”

Turkey’s emergence as one of Iraqi Kurdistan’s foremost investors and trading partners in exchange for Iraqi Kurdish acquiescence in Turkish countering the PKK’s presence in the region could have provided inspiration for a US-sponsored safe zone in northern Syria that Washington and Ankara had contemplated.

The Turkish-Iraqi Kurdish understanding enabled Turkey  to allow an armed Iraqi Kurdish force to transit Turkish territory in 2014 to help prevent the Islamic State from conquering the Syrian city of Kobani.

A safe zone would have helped “realign the relationship between Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and its Syrian offshoot… The safe-zone arrangements… envision(ed) drawing down the YPG presence along the border—a good starting point for reining in the PKK, improving U.S. ties with Ankara, and avoiding a potentially destructive Turkish intervention in Syria,” Turkey scholar Sonar Cagaptay suggested in August.

The opportunity that could have created the beginnings of a sustainable solution that would have benefitted Turkey as well as the Kurds fell by the wayside with Mr. Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from northern Syria.

In many ways, Mr. Erdogan’s decision to opt for a military solution fits the mould of a critical mass of world leaders who look at the world through a civilizational prism and often view national borders in relative terms.

Russian leader Vladimir Putin pointed the way with his 2008 intervention in Georgia and the annexation in 2014 of Crimea as well as Russia’s stirring of pro-Russian insurgencies in two regions of Ukraine.

Mr. Erdogan appears to believe that if Mr. Putin can pull it off, so can he.

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