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Remembering Syria: Iran struggles with potentially explosive environmental crisis

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Iranian leaders are struggling, three months after anti-government protests swept the Islamic republic, to ensure that environmental issues that helped sparked a popular uprising in Syria in 2011 leading to a brutal civil war don’t threaten the clergy’s grip on power.

Like Syria, Iran has been confronting a drought that has affected much of the country for more than a decade with precipitation dropping to its lowest level in half a century. Environmental concerns have figured prominently in protests in recent years, often in regions populated by ethnic minorities like Azeris, and Iranian Arabs.

Unrest among ethnic minorities, who account for almost half of Iran’s population, takes on added significance with Iran fearing that Saudi Arabia’s activist crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, and the Trump administration’s antipathy towards the Islamic republic bolstered by the appointment of a hardliner, John Bolton, as the president’s national security advisor.

Mr. Bolton has called for regime change in Iran, aligning himself with a controversial exile opposition group, while Prince Mohammed is believed to have tacitly endorsed thinking about stirring unrest among Iran’s ethnic minorities even if he has yet to decide whether to adopt subversion as a policy.

Iran has repeatedly accused Saudi Arabia in the past year of supplying weapons and explosives to restive groups like the Baluch and the Kurds.

Yet, concern about environmental degradation and its potential political fallout goes beyond fear that it could facilitate interference by external powers. Demonstrators in the province of Isfahan last month clashed with security forces after they took to the streets to protest water shortages. The protest occurred some three months after Iran was wracked by weeks of anti-government demonstrations.

The protest was the latest in a series of expressions of discontent. Anger at plans in 2013 to divert water from Isfahan province sparked clashes with police. The Isfahan Chamber of Commerce reported a year later that the drying out of the Zayandeh Roud river basin had deprived some 2 million farmers or 40 percent of the local population in the Zayandeh-Roud basin of their income.

“Over 90% of (Iran’s) population and economic production are located in areas of high or very high water stress. This is two to three times the global average in percentage terms, and, in absolute numbers, it represents more people and more production at risk than any other country in the Middle East and North Africa,” Al-Monitor quoted Claudia Sadoff, director general of the Sri Lanka-based International Water Management Institute, as saying.

A panel of retired US military officers noted in December that “since the 1979 revolution, the per capita quantity of Iran’s renewable water supplies has dropped by more than half, to a level commonly associated with the benchmark for water stress. Even more troubling, in large swaths of the country, demand for fresh water exceeds supply a third of the year. Fourteen years of drought have contributed to the problem, as has poor resource management, including inefficient irrigation techniques, decentralized water management, subsidies for water-intensive crops like wheat, and dam building. As a result, parts of the country are experiencing unrest related to water stress.”

By identifying water as one of the country’s foremost problems, the government recognized that mismanagement leading to acute water shortages risks becoming a symbol of its inability to efficiently deliver public goods and services.

The government has sought to tackle the issue by promoting reduced water consumption and water conservation, halting construction of dams, combatting evaporation by building underground water distribution networks, introducing water metres in agriculture, encouraging farmers to opt for less water-intensive crops, multiplying the number of treatment plants, and looking at desalination as a way of increasing supply.

With agriculture the main culprit in Iran’s inefficient use of water, Iranian officials fear that the crisis will accelerate migration from the countryside to urban centres incapable of catering to the migrants and, in turn, increase popular discontent.

A US study suggested in 2015 that decades of unsustainable agricultural policies in Syria; drought in the north-eastern agricultural heartland of the country; economic reforms that eliminated food and fuel subsidies; significant population growth; and failure to adopt policies that mitigate climate change exacerbated grievances about unemployment, corruption and inequality that exploded in 2011 in anti-government protests in Syria.

The Syrian government’s determination to crush the protest rather than engage with the protesters sparked the country’s devastating war, currently the world’s deadliest conflict<.

“We’re not arguing that the drought, or even human-induced climate change, caused the uprising. What we are saying is that the long-term trend, of less rainfall and warmer temperatures in the region, was a contributing factor, because it made the drought so much more severe.” said Colin Kelley, one the study’s authors.

“The uprising has…to do with the government’s failure to respond to the drought, and with broader feelings of discontent in rural areas, and the growing gap between rich and poor, and urban and rural areas during the 2000s, than with the drought itself,” added Middle East water expert Francesca de Chatel.

Adopting a different emphasis, Ms. De Chatel argued that demonstrations in Syria, despite the drought, would not have erupted without the wave of protests that by then had already swept the presidents of Tunisia and Egypt and subsequently toppled the leaders of Libya and Yemen.

She asserted further that the protest movement-turned-war in Syria would not “have persisted without input and support from organised groups in Syria who had been planning for this moment for years and certainly since before 2006 or the start of the drought.”

For Iranian leaders, the threat is real irrespective of the difference in emphasis between Mr. Kelly and Ms. De Chatel. Former Iranian agriculture minister Issa Kalantari warned in 2015 that left unresolved the water crisis would force 50 million Iranians to migrate in the next 25 years.

In other words, the environmental crisis that drives migration and unemployment and fuels discontent risks political upheaval. Similarly, multiple groups and external powers have for years contemplated regime change in Tehran.

The issues that were at the core of the initial protests in Syria in 2011 – unemployment, corruption and inequality – were at the heart of Iranian anti-government demonstrations in December and January.

Despite a renewed focus on the water crisis, the government’s Achilles Heel could prove to be the fact that its response has included shooting the messenger who bears the bad news as environmentalists increasingly find themselves in the firing line.

Authorities arrested in January Kavous Seyed-Emami, a dual Iranian-Canadian nation who directed the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation, and six other environmentalists. It asserted two weeks later that Mr. Seyed-Emami had committed suicide in jail after confessing to being a spy for the United States and Israel.

Three more environmentalists were arrested a month later while Mr. Seyed-Emami’s wife was prevented from leaving Iran.

State TV subsequently reported that Mr. Seyed-Emami and his colleagues had told Iran’s enemies that the country could no longer maintain domestic agriculture production because of water shortages and needed to import food.

Said Saeed Leylaz, a Tehran-based economist and political analyst: “Public opinion has become sensitized to environmental issues. So the government may see the organizations and institutions who work on environmental issues as problematic.”

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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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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