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Idlib: The Final Stage through End of War

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On the last week, there was a summit in Tehran failed to come up with a keen solution between Russia, Iran, and Turkey on the circumstances of Syria’s Idlib province, the final stage of the Syrian armed opposition.

A ceasefire indicated by Turkish President Erdogan was disapproved and a well-developed government offensive now seems loom, in what is anticipated to be Syria’s bloody warfare yet.

Idlib region is the final stage fence standing between the Syrian government and its military defeat against an insurgency ISIS that began seven years ago.

The northwestern area boundary Turkey was one of the four “de-escalation region” approved by Turkey, Iran, and Russian in May 2017 during the 4th Round of the Astana talks, which had been started earlier that year to seek a political resolution to Syria’s Issue.

Step by step, the three other de-escalation regions – Homs, Eastern Ghouta, and Quneitra and Deraa – were seized and secured by Syrian government forces and their allies. As Damascus grabbed back opposition-held territory, more than thousands of civilians and rebel fighters from those regions were moved to Idlib, waiting for evacuation.

During unchanged condition, the three spots are likely to come up in Idlib: A massive aggression, tremendous onslaught across the region, a protracted offensive, or disagreement among rebels followed by a settlement deal with Damascus. But whatever happens, it will be the civilians directly captured in the extremely populated region that will pay the unexpected war cost. So, the questions that come into Idlib’s spot is what countries are involved and what are their goals?

Yet, Five key actors are likely to determine what is going to be happening next in Idlib: the Syrian government and its allies Russia and Iran, as well as Turkey and the United States.

The President Bashar al-Assad, who has frequently declared to repeal “every inch” of Syria, is seeking a “military solution” to the conflict. His aim is to reclaim back entire control to escape having to make concessions to the Syrian opposition.

Taking whole control of Idlib would signify that the opposition has no territorial involvement or presence and as result no influence in any future negotiation process.

During the short-term, the Syrian government needs to build up control over two main highways – the M4, which links the seaport city of Latakia to Aleppo, Raqqa and oil-rich Deir Az Zor; and M5, which connects Damascus to Aleppo, and finally to the trade road to Turkey and Europe.

Tehran has no primary strategic interest in Idlib, especially since the Act of an evacuation process in the two Shia towns of Foua and Kefraya in July.

Even so, Iran partakes Damascus’ aim of removing and defeating the armed opposition and is supporting the offensive with its militias. Iran’s military support goes hand-in-hand with its efforts to impact its presence forever in Syria despite pressure and tension from the US, Israel, and Russia to withdraw.

Russia, like Damascus and Iran, also wishes Idlib seized but would prefer to have the opposition giving up and integrate into the Syrian military divisions under its control like the “Fifth Division” rather than go on in fighting.

It wishes that the size of the rebel stronghold would push Turkey, the European Union, and the US to negotiate a positive political solution, as well as give it more authority in talks on the removal of US sanctions and a resolution in Ukraine.

Turkey, For its part, Idlib’s guaranty power under the Astana agreement – is keen to stop an offensive on the region and sustain its control over it. Already hosting over three million Syrians refugee, Ankara terrifies about a serious crisis in northwest Syria would bring the influx of several refugees into its land and further tension its affected humanitarian capabilities.

At the Tehran conference, the top leaders of Turkey, Russia, and Iran declared opposing views about the way out forward in Idlib, but in a joint statement restated that the Syrian issue can only achieve a final resolution through a “negotiated political process”.

The United States, at the same time, has no mutual strategic interest in Idlib and has pointed out that it does not argue a limited offensive on Idlib. It also wants the HTS (Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), one of the two major armed group controlling Idlib) removed and has already targeted a number of its key leaders towards drone attacks.

After all, US has warned a military reaction if the Syrian government uses chemical weapons. On September 3, US President Donald Trump cautioned in a post on Twitter that al-Assad “must not carelessly attack Idlib”, adding that it would be “a serious humanitarian mistake” for Russian and Iran to “take part in this potential human tragedy”.

Washington fears about Tehran’s involvement in Syria and has notified several times that Iranian forces and militias withdraw. The Trump administration, which earlier examined a withdrawal of its boots from Northeast Syria: territory under the control of US-allied Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, has now made anticipations for their improbable stay.

Does Idlib become a ‘headquarter for extremists in Syria?

Idlib region is subdued by two main armed groups: HTS and al-Jabha al-Wataniya lil-Tahrir (the National Liberation Front, NFL).

Over the past few months, Russian officials have been informing for the removal of HTS.

“This is the final headquarter of terrorists who are attempting to figure out on the region’s status as a de-escalation region, who are willing to keep the civilian population hostage as human shields,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said recently.

HTS, officially named as al-Nusra Group, has an important influence and involvement in Idlib city and other areas in the province.

Al-Nusra Group emerged in 2012 as al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria but, in July 2016, it rejected its pledge of loyalty and changed its name to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. Last year, after it attacked other rebel groups in Idlib, it merged forces with a number of more hardline factions and named itself into to HTS.

According to some surveys, HTS has some more than 10,000 fighters in Idlib, the majority of whom are foreigner fighters. But Ahmad Abazeid, a Turkey-based Syrian analyst, says that number is an exaggeration and the fighters number only a few thousand.

Additionally to HTS, there is also the fewer and more hardline al-Hizb al-Turkestani: the Islamic Party of Turkestan made up mainly of Uighur fighters and Heras al-Din (the Guardians of Religion, a splinter of HTS).

How much estimation will chemical weapons be used in Idlib warfare?

In addition to the danger of conventional battling, civilians also face the fear of a chemical weapons attack -a call made by the United Nations, as well as several sides to the conflict.

The United States has cautioned the Syrian government repeatedly against using chemical weapons in Idlib.

As the White House stated in a statement earlier in September. “Let us be clear, it remains our firm stance that if President Bashar al-Assad chooses to again use chemical weapons, the United States and its Allies will respond swiftly and appropriately,”

Marine General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told news reporters on September 7 that the US armed forces and the White House are promoting a plan with “military alternatives” in case chemical weapons are used in Idlib region.

Currently, Syrian and Russians officials have refused the US claims and suggested that “staged” chemical weapons attacks are being planned to prompt Western intervention.

While, a “diversified provocateurs, including extremists are calling themselves the White Helmets :”volunteer rescue groups operating in rebel-held parts of Syria”, who are well known for putting on chemical weapons attacks and blaming them on the Syrian government, in order to give the western countries with an excuse to finalize attacks on Syria,” Lavrov told reporters last week.

In accordance with Kabalan, these statements point out that the Syrian government might be planning to use chemical weapons.

In the previous times, he said, the government notice it necessary to use chemical weapons in some areas where conventional arms, including aerial campaigns, were not adequate to make much progress in the battlefield. In particular, the presence of underground shelters and channels has been a huge challenge to Syrian government forces.

“The only way they operate to smoke people out of the channels is by using chemical weapons. Why did al-Assad forces use chemical weapons in Ghouta – because that was the only way to win,” said Kabalan.

During the past three years, rebels have been establishing channels across Idlib’s urban areas. In the lead-up to the potential offensive, amidst expanding fears of possible chemical attacks, more channels have been dug and supported.

If Idlib falls, what is next for Syrian government?

At the Tehran summit, Russia, Iran, and Turkey called to look for a “negotiated political plan” through the Astana diplomatic trail.

Despite that, it sustains unsure what an upcoming political resolution would entail.

Russia and Iran have maintained that Assad President keeps in power. The United States, for its side, has claimed that he cannot be part of a government acceptable to all Syrians.

With the key political opposition bloc performed ineffectively in negotiating on behalf of the Syrian people, those who oppose al-Assad are left without any representation.

It is also unsure whether Syrian refugees will be able to go back again.

While Russia has encouraged and supported returns, SNHR’s Abdulghani believes those who decide to do so will not necessarily find safety back home.

“These refugees will danger detention, torture and will be subject to forced disappearances by the regime,” he said.

There is also a probability that refugees would have no homes to return to. In April, the Syrian government passed the so-called Absentee Property Law, or Law Number 10, which would give citizens 30 days to register their property with the ministry of local administration.

The constitution, which has not yet been realized could see more than 12 million displaced Syrians – either within the Syria or oversea -exposed of the rights to their property.

The move of millions and the death of at least half a million Syrians have also deepened the country’s sectarian divides.

According to Kabalan, while Syria is unlikely to have another outbreak, security will not return to the country yet.

Alternatively, Syria will observe an unstable security circumstance similar to the one in Iraq following the 2003 US invasion. Without a just political solution, Syria will destabilize arena.

To the end, the time of sending off the military strike by the Syrian-Russian army is decided by the time taken to deal with the mentioned scenarios, and all key players will just play the roles imposed on them by the Russian-American accord, this dispute is proved by CNN’s claims that Moscow informed Washington of the possibility of military attack by Russian and Syrian forces on the regions Where the US boots safeguard the militants, and Washington’s reply by warning Moscow from endangering the US military bases in Syria.

Jamal Ait Laadam, Specialist in and North African Studies and Western Sahara Issue, a Ph.D. fellow in Jilin University School of Public Affairs

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The fallacy of soccer’s magical bridge-building qualities

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Imagining himself as a peacemaker in a conflict-ridden part of the world, FIFA President Gianni Infantino sees a 2022 World Cup shared by Qatar with its Gulf detractors, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, as the magic wand that would turn bitter foes into brothers.

It may be a nice idea, but it is grounded in the fiction that soccer can play an independent role in bringing nations together or developing national identity.

The fiction is that soccer has the potential to be a driver of events, that it can spark or shape developments. It is also the fiction that sports in general and soccer in particular has the power to build bridges.

Mr. Infantino’s assertion that if foes play soccer, bridges are built is but the latest iteration of a long-standing myth.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Soccer is an aggressive sport. It is about conquering the other half of a pitch. It evokes passions and allegiances that are tribal in nature and that more often than not divide rather than unite.

In conflict situations, soccer tends to provide an additional battlefield. Examples abound.

The 2022 World Cup; this year’s Qatari Asian Cup victory against the backdrop of the Gulf state’s rift with the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt; the imprint the Palestinian-Israeli conflict puts on the two nations’ soccer; or the rise of racist, discriminatory attitudes among fans in Europe.

The Bad Blue Boys, hardcore fans of Dinamo Zagreb’s hardcore fans, light candles each May and lay wreaths at a monument to their comrades who were killed in the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s. They mark the anniversary of a riot during the 1990 match against Serbia’s Red Star Belgrade, their club’s most controversial match, as the first clash in the wars that erupted a year later and sparked the collapse of former Yugoslavia.

Fact of the matter is that sports like ping pong in Richard Nixon’s 1972 rapprochement with China or the improvement of ties between North and South Korea in the most recent Summer Olympics served as a useful tool, not a driver of events.

Sports is a useful tool in an environment in which key political players seek to build bridges and narrow differences.

The impact of soccer in the absence of a conducive environment created by political not sports players, is at best temporary relief, a blip on an otherwise bleak landscape.

The proof is in the pudding. Legend has it that British and German soldiers played soccer in no-man’s lands on Christmas Day in 2014, only to return to fighting World War One for another four years. Millions died in the war.

Similarly, Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites poured into the streets of Iraqi cities hugging each other in celebration of Iraq’s winning in 2007 of the Asia Cup at the height of the country’s sectarian violence only to return to killing each other a day later.

Soccer’s ability to shape or cement national identity is no different. In other words. football can be a rallying point for national identity but only if there is an environment that is conducive.

The problem is that soccer and the formation of national identity have one complicating trait in common: both often involve opposition to the other.

That is nowhere truer than in the Middle East and North Africa where soccer has played and plays an important role in identity formation since it was first introduced to the region in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Qatar has been in some ways the exception that proves the rule by plotting its sports strategy not only as a soft power tool or a pillar of public health policy but also as a component of national identity. That element has been strengthened by the rift in the Gulf and bolstered by this year’s Asian Cup victory.

Qatar’s efforts to strengthen its national identity benefits from the fact that the Gulf state no longer operates on the notion that Gulf states have to hang together. Today its hanging on its own in a conflict with three of its neighbours.

Soccer’s role in identity formation in the Middle East and North Africa was often because it was a battlefield, a battlefield for identity that was part of larger political struggles.

Clubs were often formed for that very reason. Attitudes towards the country’s monarchy in the early 20th century loomed large in the founding of Egypt’s Al Ahli SC and Al Zamalek SC, two of the Middle East and North Africa’s most storied clubs.

Clubs in Algeria were established as part of the anti-colonial struggle against the French. Ottoman and Iranian rulers used sports and soccer to foster national identity and take a first step towards incorporating youth in the development of a modern defense force.

Zionists saw sports and soccer as an important way of developing the New Jew, the muscular Jew. To Palestinians, it was a tool in their opposition to Zionist immigration. And finally, soccer was important in the shaping of ethnic or sub-national identities among Berbers, Kurds, East Bank Jordanians and Jordanian Palestinians.

In other words, soccer was inclusive in the sense of contributing to the formation of a collective identity. But it was also divisive because that identity was at the same time exclusionary and opposed to an other.

The long and short of this is that soccer is malleable. Its impact and fallout depend on forces beyond its control. Soccer is dependent on the environment shaped by political and social forces. It is a tool that is agnostic to purpose, not a driver or an independent actor.

Edited remarks at Brookings seminar in Doha: Lessons from the 2019 Asian Cup: Sports, Globalization, and Politics in the Arab World

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Syrian Coup de Grâce

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The Middle Eastern land has a diverse blend of history with conflicts and developments in knowledge. Where on one hand Baghdad was considered as the realm of knowledge on the other hand Constantinople was a symbol of power and domination. But now it seems that all has been shattered completely with conflicts.

The Middle Eastern landscape is facing its worst time ever: a phase of instability and misery. The oil ridden land is now becoming conflict ridden, from Euphrates to Persian Gulf; every inch seems to be blood stained nowadays.  The region became more like a chess board where kings are not kings but pawns and with each move someone is getting close to checkmate.

Starting from the spring which brought autumn in the Middle Eastern environment, now the curse is on Assyrian land where blood is being spilled, screams have took over the skies. The multi facet conflict has caused more than 400,000 deaths and 5 million seeking refuge abroad whereas 6 million displaced internally.

What began with a mere peaceful civil uprising, has now become a world stage with multiplayers on it. Tehran and Moscow are playing their own mantra by showing romance with Assad while Washington has its own way of gambling with kings in their hand. Involvement of catchy caliphate from 2014 is worsening the complexities of the Syrian saga. The deck is getting hot and becoming more and more mess, chemical strikes, tomahawk show, carpet bombing, stealth jets and many more, Syrian lands is now a market to sell the products exhibiting fine examples of military industrial complex. While to some, Syrian stage seems to be a mere regional proxy war, in reality it seems like a black hole taking whole region into its curse. One by one every inch of the country is turned into altar as the consequence of war. A country is now ripped into different territories with different claimants, but the question still remains as “Syria belongs to whom?”

The saga of Syrian dusk has its long roots in past and with each passing moment it is becoming a spiral of destruction. What is being witnessed in current scenario is just a glimpse of that spiral. It has already winded the region into it and if not resolve properly and maturely it can spread like a contagious disease that can take whole Middle East into its chakra.

With recent development in Iran nuclear deal which left whole world into shock; and house of Sauds forming strong bond with western power brokers and Israel, to counter Tehran (because kings of holy desert have so much engraved hatred towards shiaits, that they prefer to shake hands with Jews and establish an unholy alliance) is making matters worse. This all has the potential to push the region into further more sectarian rifts. With Syrian stage already set. The delicacy of the situation is not secluded from the palette of the world.

Despite the condemnations from across the globe, humanitarian watch remains blind and failed to address the issues in Syria leaving Syrians in long lasting agony and despair The symphony of pain and suffering continues in the Middle Eastern region while world watches like a vicious sadist, the region becomes a playground for major powers as ‘Uncle Sam” has their own interests in engaging, Kremlin have their own concerns same goes for every single actor who is party to the conflict.

The panacea to the Arabian pain is simple “a sincere determined approach” to the disease. Even if every party with draws from the conflict the situation can get worse due to the generated power vacuum and can make Syria a replica of Iraq. The Syrian grieve needs to be addressed through proper management skills, if not the curse is upon whole region.

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The battle for leadership of the Muslim world: Turkey plants its flag in Christchurch

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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When Turkish vice-president Fuat Oktay and foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu became this weekend the first high-level foreign government delegation to travel  to Christchurch they were doing more than expressing solidarity with New Zealand’s grieving Muslim community.

Messrs. Oktay and Cavusoglu were planting Turkey’s flag far and wide in a global effort to expand beyond the Turkic and former Ottoman world support for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s style of religiously-packaged authoritarian rule, a marriage of Islam and Turkish nationalism.

Showing footage of the rampage in Christchurch at a rally in advance of March 31 local elections, Mr. Erdogan declared that “there is a benefit in watching this on the screen. Remnants of the Crusaders cannot prevent Turkey’s rise.”

Mr. Erdogan went on to say that “we have been here for 1,000 years and God willing we will be until doomsday. You will not be able to make Istanbul Constantinople. Your ancestors came and saw that we were here. Some of them returned on foot and some returned in coffins. If you come with the same intent, we will be waiting for you too.”

Mr. Erdogan was responding to an assertion by Brenton Tarrant, the white supremacist perpetrator of the Christchurch attacks in which 49 people were killed in two mosques, that Turks were “ethnic soldiers currently occupying Europe.”

Messrs. Oktay and Cavusoglu’s visit, two days after the attacks, is one more facet of a Turkish campaign that employs religious as well as traditional diplomatic tools.

The campaign aims to establish Turkey as a leader of the Muslim world in competition with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and to a lesser degree Morocco.

As part of the campaign, Turkey has positioned itself as a cheerleader for Muslim causes such as Jerusalem and the Rohingya at a moment that Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other Muslim nations are taking a step back.

Although cautious not to rupture relations with Beijing, Turkey has also breached the wall of silence maintained by the vast majority of Muslim countries by speaking out against China’s brutal crackdown on Turkic Muslims in the troubled north-western province of Xinjiang.

Mr. Erdogan’s religious and traditional diplomatic effort has seen Turkey build grand mosques and/or cultural centres across the globe in the United States, the Caribbean, Europe, Africa and Asia, finance religious education and restore Ottoman heritage sites.

It has pressured governments in Africa and Asia to hand over schools operated by the Hizmet movement led by exiled preacher Fethullah Gulen. Mr. Erdogan holds Mr. Gulen responsible for the failed military coup in Turkey in 2016.

On the diplomatic front, Turkey has in recent years opened at least 26 embassies in Africa, expanded the Turkish Airlines network to 55 destinations in Africa, established military bases in Somalia and Qatar, and negotiated a long-term lease for Sudan’s Suakin Island in the Red Sea.

The Turkish religious campaign takes a leaf out of Saudi Arabia’s four decade long, USD 100 billion effort to globally propagate ultra-conservative Sunni Islam

Like the Saudis, Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) provides services to Muslim communities, organizes pilgrimages to Mecca, trains religious personnel, publishes religious literature, translates the Qur’an into local languages and funds students from across the world to study Islam at Turkish institutions.

Turkish Muslim NGOs provide humanitarian assistance in former parts of the Ottoman empire, the Middle East and Africa much like the Saudi-led World Muslim League and other Saudi governmental -non-governmental organizations, many of which have been shut down since the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington.

Saudi Arabia, since the rise of crown prince Mohammed bin Salman in 2015, has significantly reduced global funding for ultra-conservatism.

Nonetheless, Turkey is at loggerheads with Saudi Arabia as well as the UAE over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi; Turkish support for Qatar in its dispute with the Saudis and Emiratis; differences over Libya, Syria and the Kurds; and Ankara’s activist foreign policy. Turkey is seeking to position itself as an Islamic alternative.

Decades of Saudi funding has left the kingdom’s imprint on the global Muslim community. Yet, Turkey’s current struggles with Saudi Arabia are more geopolitical than ideological.

While Turkey competes geopolitically with the UAE in the Horn of Africa, Libya and Syria, ideologically the two countries’ rivalry is between the UAE’s effort to establish itself as a centre of a quietist, apolitical Islam as opposed to Turkey’s activist approach and its support for the Muslim Brotherhood.

In contrast to Saudi Arabia that adheres to Wahhabism, an austere ultra-conservative interpretation of the faith, the UAE projects itself and its religiosity as far more modern, tolerant and forward looking.

The UAE’s projection goes beyond Prince Mohammed’s attempt to shave off the raw edges of Wahhabism in an attempt to present himself as a proponent of what he has termed moderate Islam.

The UAE scored a significant success with the first ever papal visit in February by Pope Francis I during which he signed a Document on Human Fraternity with Sheikh Ahmad al-Tayeb, the grand imam of Egypt’s Al-Azhar, the revered 1,000-year-old seat of Sunni Muslim learning.

The signing was the result of UAE-funded efforts of Egyptian general-turned-president Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi to depoliticize Islam and gain control of Al Azhar that Sheikh Al-Tayeb resisted despite supporting Mr. Al-Sisi’s 2013 military coup.

To enhance its influence within Al Azhar and counter that of Saudi Araba, the UAE has funded  Egyptian universities and hospitals and has encouraged Al Azhar to open a branch in the UAE.

The UAE effort paid off when the pope, in a public address, thanked Egyptian judge Mohamed Abdel Salam, an advisor to Sheikh Al-Tayeb who is believed to be close to both the Emiratis and Mr. Al-Sisi, for drafting the declaration.

“Abdel Salam enabled Al-Sisi to outmanoeuvre Al Azhar in the struggle for reform,” said an influential activist.

The Turkey-UAE rivalry has spilt from the geopolitical and ideological into competing versions of Islamic history.

Turkey last year renamed the street on which the UAE embassy in Ankara is located after an Ottoman general that was at the centre of a Twitter spat between Mr. Erdogan and UAE foreign minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan..

Mr. Erdogan responded angrily to the tweet that accused Fahreddin Pasha, who defended the holy city of Medina against the British in the early 20th century, of abusing the local Arab population and stealing their property as well as sacred relics from the Prophet Muhammad’s tomb,. The tweet described the general as one of Mr. Erdogan’s ancestors.

“When my ancestors were defending Medina, you impudent (man), where were yours? Some impertinent man sinks low and goes as far as accusing our ancestors of thievery. What spoiled this man? He was spoiled by oil, by the money he has,” Mr. Erdogan retorted, referring to Mr. Al-Nahyan.

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