Many sources think that the most significant clashes in Syria are likely to end late this year.
Probably the small clashes between the various ethnic groups and hence among their external points of reference will not end yet. The bulk of armed actions, however, will certainly finish since now the areas of influence are stabilized.
The first fact that stands out is that, despite everything, Bashar al-Assad’s forces have won.
All the international actors operating on the ground -be they friends or foes – have no difficulty in recognizing it.
Certainly neither Assad nor Russia alone have the strength to rebuild the country, but Western countries – especially those that have participated in the fight against Assad – and the other less involved countries plan to participate in the reconstruction process, with a view to influencing Syria, although peacefully this time.
The military start of Assad’s victory was the Northwest campaign of the Syrian Arab Forces from October 2017 to February 2018.
Operations against what the United States calls “rebels” -namely, in that case, Isis and Tahrir al-Sham – focused at that time on the intersection between the provinces of Hama, Idlib and Aleppo.
It is extremely difficult for a regular army to conduct operations against guerrilla organizations, but Assad’ Syrian Arab Army has succeeded to do so.
The subsequent destruction of Isis-Daesh pockets south of Damascus, in Eastern Ghouta and Idlib was decisive to later establish stable and undisputed hegemony of the Syrian forces throughout the Syrian territory – and above all in traditionally Sunni areas.
There is also the issue of Al-Rastan, the ancient town of Arethusa on the Orontes river, located on the side of the bridge uniting Hama and Homs. From the beginning of hostilities, it has been a basis for the jihadism of the so-called “rebels”.
Another military problem is the opening of the bridge and the commercial passage on the border between Syria and the Lebanon, namely Al-Nasib, which is essential for Syria’s trade with Jordan and the Gulf countries.
Conquering the Al-Nasib pass means conquering also the road between Deraa and Damascus, as well as the Syrian side of the Djebel Druze.
Between the Deraa-Damascus road and the Golan, the situation is still largely frozen thanks to the agreement reached by the Russian Federation with the United States and Israel, in which the former guaranteed to the Jewish State that Iran and Hezb’ollah would not get close – up to the limit of 25 miles (40 kilometers) – to the old ceasefire line established in 1973.
Moreover, even though the representatives of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, commonly known as Rojava, were never accepted in the negotiations between the parties in conflict, the Kurds – already abandoned by the United States – know that the territories they freed from Isis-Daesh will be returned precisely to the Sunni Arabs, but in exchange for the autonomy of the traditionally Kurdish districts of Afrin, Kobane and Qamishli.
Furthermore, since the Sochi Conference on the Congress of Syrian National Dialogue held at the end of January 2018, Russia has convinced the 1,500 participants from the various parts of Syria to accept the fact that every ethnic and religious area and every group of Syrian society must be respected and protected by the new Constitution. A break with the old Ba’athist and centralist tradition of the Syrian regime, but without reaching the Lebanese paradox, i.e. permanent civil war.
The political process envisaged by Russia is a process in which the Westerners still present in the Syrian territory had no say in the matter.
Nor will they have it in the future.
The going will be really tough when the time of reconstruction comes.
Reconstruction is the most important future lever for external influence on the long-suffering Syrian Arab Republic, where conflict has been going on for seven years.
The World Bank estimates the cost of reconstruction at 250 billion dollars.
Other less optimistic, but more realistic estimates point to a cost for Syrian national reconstruction up to 400 and even 600 billion US dollars.
Syria does not even dream of having all these capital resources, which even the Russian Federation cannot deploy on its own.
Six years after the outbreak of the conflict, in 2011, the great diaspora of Syrian businessmen met in Germany in late February 2017.
Hence the creation of the Syrian International Business Association (SIBA).
With specific reference to the great Syrian reconstruction, the Russian, Iranian and Chinese governments are already active and have already secured the largest contracts in the oil and gas, minerals, telecommunications, real estate and electricity sectors.
As far as we know, there is no similar investment by Western countries, which will still leave the economic power they planned to acquire in the hands of other countries, after having caused the ill-advised but failed “Arab Spring” in Syria.
Also the BRICS and countries such as the Lebanon, Armenia, Belarus and Serbia invest in Syria, or at least in the regions where peace has been restored and the “Caliphate” does no longer exist.
Usually collaboration takes place through the purchase of pre-existing companies in Syria – something which now happens every day- or through bilateral collaborations with Syrian companies.
With specific reference to regulations, Syria is continuously changing the rules regarding the structure of operating companies, work permits, imports and currency transfers.
State hegemony, in the old Ba’athist tradition – the old Syrian (but also Egyptian) national Socialism which, however, adapts itself to the structure of current markets.
It is estimated that Syrian companies can already provide 50% of the 300 billion US dollars estimated by the World Bank as cost for Syria’s reconstruction.
An estimate that many still think to be rather optimistic.
Nevertheless, it will take at least thirty years to bring Syrian back to the conditions in which it was before hostilities began.
With rare effrontery and temerity, the United States and the European Union are already putting pressure on the Syrian government to be granted economic and political concessions, but Assad has no intention of giving room to its old enemies.
In any case, the Syrian reconstruction will need at least 30 million tons of goods per year from sea lines, while the Latakia and Tartus airports can – at most – allow loads of 15 million tons/year.
From this viewpoint, the Lebanon is organizing a Special Economic Zone around the port of Tripoli, already adapted by China to the international transport of vast flows of goods in cargoes and containers.
Obviously the companies going to work in Syria must also take the physical safety of their workers and their offices into account, as well as the need to have constant, careful and close relations with local authorities.
Furthermore, the US sanction regime also favours President Trump’s plan to topple the Syrian regime through economic pressure, which would make also the work of European companies in Syria very difficult or even impossible.
However what is the need for destroying Syria economically? For pure sadism? The current US foreign policy is not unpredictable, it is sometimes crazy.
The US sanctions, however, concern the new investment of US citizens in Syria; the re-exporting or exporting of goods and services to Syria; the importing of Syrian oil or gas into the United States;the transactions of Syrian goods and services carried out by non-US citizens also involving a US citizen.
Other sanctions will soon be imposed by President Trump on the Russian Federation due to its “tolerance” for the increasingly alleged factories of nerve gas and materials.
Obviously the fact that the Syrian regime is the winner of military confrontation, along with Russia and Iran, is now a certainty.
Nevertheless, loyalist Syrians are still badly supplied, both at military and civilian levels, and they are severely dependent on external aid, which is decisive also for their survival and for preserving their strategic and military superiority.
Without Russia and Iran, Bashar al-Assad would have collapsed within two months since the beginning of the “Syrian spring”, when the Muslim Brotherhood organized by the United States was demonstrating in the streets violently.
Hence, in the current stability of the Syrian regime, nothing must be taken for granted: the end or decrease of Russian support and the fast return back home of the Iranian Pasdaran and Afghan Shiites organized by Iran would bring Assad’s military and civilian power back to the 2011 level.
Nevertheless Syria does no longer exist as a Soviet-style centralized State.
In Assad-led Syria the centralized economy does no longer exist, for the excellent reason that four primary military powers operate in the country, namely Russia, Iran, Turkey and the United States.
They collectively control all the Syrian resources on which the Syrian national government no longer has any power.
As can be easily imagined, the United States holds oil reserves by means of their occupation – through the Kurds – of Raqqa and the Northeastern region.
Turkey holds a nominally Syrian region of approximately 2,400 square kilometers between Aleppo and Idlib, in the area of the “Euphrates Shield” operations.
Russia and Iran already hold the majority of reconstruction contracts, while they will acquire most of the public sector to repay the military expenses they incurred to keep Bashar al-Assad’s regime in power.
Hence if no agreements are reached between Russia and the United States, each area of influence will have different reconstruction and development plans.
As early as the 1945-1958 period, Syria had been the target of expansionist designs that were anyway bound to fragment its territory.
The two Hashemite Kingdoms of Iraq and Jordan thought they could together take control of the whole Syrian State, while their eternal rivals, namely the Saudi-Egyptian axis, thwarted their designs.
Great Britain and France, still powerful in Syria, operated through their Arab points of reference.
CIA collaborated with the Syrian dictator, Husni Zaim.
Zaim was of Kurdish origin and had taken power in 1949. He had organized a regime not disliked by the Ba’ath Party – a Westernizing and vaguely “Socialist” dictatorship.
After Husni Zaim’s fall, Syria was divided as usual: the collective leadership was held by the Sunni urban elite who had fought harshly against France.
Nevertheless, the unity of the nation – which was decisive for the Sunnis themselves – found it hard to bring together the Alawites, the Druze, the Shiites and the thousands of religious and ethnic factions that characterized Syria at that time as in current times.
The nationalist union between Syria and Egypt created in 1958 and soon undermined by Syria’s defection in 1961, experienced its Ba’athist-nationalist coup in 1963, with a military take-over.
Hafez El Assad – the father of the current Syrian leader, who ruled Syria from 1963 to 2000, the year of his death – immediately emerged among the military.
Long-term instability, medium-term political stability. That is Syria, from the end of the French domination to current times.
The Turkish Gambit
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
Could Turkish aggression boost peace in Syria?
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.
Turkey and the Kurds: What goes around comes around
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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