Idlib: The Final Stage through End of War
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.
Iranian Strategic Patience: Israel and the Soft Wars
Unfortunately, by tracking the pattern of strategies of many countries based on exaggerated interest in human rights, women’s and democracy issues in Iran (such as the case of the death of the Iranian girl Mahsa Amini), it is no longer possible to ignore the extent of the political, security and cultural exploitation that is taking place. This pattern was adopted previously in Syria, which led to its entry into the quagmire of war since 2011. Therefore, based on the presence of Iran in the same political direction, the same pattern was followed, as the issue is linked primarily to confronting Iran’s rising power.
In principle, there is a strategy that has become clear and known, it is based on cultural backgrounds whose main goal is to fragment societies from within (soft wars). As many countries (Israel in particular) cannot accept at all the reality of Iran’s presence as a major regional power. Where, despite all the sanctions policies pursued to isolate and marginalize Iran during the past 45 years, Iran was able to build its own strength and consolidate its regional influence.
Consequently, those countries that are hostile to Iran have no choice but to move towards exploiting some controversial issues within Iranian society related to human rights, women and democracy, in order to destabilize and weaken it. Accordingly, these countries moved towards the option of soft war through:
- Cultural penetration within Iranian society to tear apart its political structure.
- Supporting terrorist movements, including trying to reproduce a new ISIS.
In this context, there is a lot of evidence confirming these external interventions aimed at plunging Iran into internal conflicts and wars, including but not limited to:
- Seizing arms shipments coming from abroad, which coincided with the internal riots.
- Dismantling terrorist cells that were planning to assassinate figures of Arab origin and carry out terrorist operations in religious places in order to ignite a civil war.
- Arresting terrorist groups linked to foreign intelligence working to smuggle weapons.
Based on these facts, it seems that the main goal is to destroy the societal structure, exaggerate political polarization, and undermine security stability. So that Iran becomes more fragile and subject to division. Practically, the Iranian Republic is facing a hybrid war, whose political goal is based on confronting Iranian influence, where this influence is based on:
– Sticking to the nuclear program.
– Supporting the resistance movements in their confrontation with the Israeli occupation of Palestine.
– Being present in Syria and assisting the Syrian army in its war against terrorist movements.
– Supporting the Houthis in Yemen permanently.
– Consolidate influence in Iraq at all levels.
– Strategic rapprochement with both Russia and China.
Here, it must be recognized that the internal Iranian tensions are a winning card that the United States and Israel have tried to exploit to incite the Iranian people against the regime and clash with it. This new situation or challenge required the Iranian government to adopt a different vision on how to deal with such developments. Where the Iranian government and its security institutions followed a policy of restraint and not taking any provocative step that might lead to a clash. On the contrary, work has been done to:
1- Absorbing the anger of the people and allowing demonstrations.
2- Closely monitoring the security situation and controlling terrorist cells.
3- Revealing to Iranian society the dirty policies of mobilization and media incitement.
4- Evidence that many opposition movements are linked to the agenda of foreign countries.
5- Linking the internal events with the pattern based on the implementation of the Syrian model in Iran.
In this context, and regardless of the extent of the Iranian government’s ability to confront these soft wars, there are very serious political, cultural and internal security challenges that can no longer be ignored, and they require a reconsideration of many policies that were thought to have become axiomatic, including:
– It is no longer possible to pursue a policy that is based on holding Iranian governments accountable and neutralizing the Supreme Leader of the Revolution or the institution of the Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist(Guardianship of the Faqih), from any responsibility.
– The existence of radical changes linked to security threats, which are no longer confined to the Israeli threat, but have extended to include terrorist movements.
– Increasing the complexities associated with foreign plans that seek to undermine the foundations of the Iranian state.
– Internal crises appear to be the most dangerous, and may lead to making strategic concessions at the level of the nuclear file, the Palestinian cause, and the relationship with Syria and the resistance movements.
In sum, the exaggerated interest in human rights issues comes in the context of the pressures that Iran has been exposed to for decades, to achieve geopolitical goals. However, according to how Iran faced the previous challenges, it seems that it is able to overcome the current difficulties, as the pillars of the state are still solid at all levels.
Furthermore, Iran’s ability to reassess its foreign relations should not be underestimated, based on the equation that Iran’s security is linked to the security of the region. Iran has many options that enhance this equation. There are multidimensional entitlements linked to the Iranian reality, whether in terms of the nuclear program or an increase in the intensity of the collision with Israel or energy security. For example, it is no longer possible to always rely on Iran’s continued restraint in Yemen, the resulting regional and global strategic repercussions, at least on the level of global energy security balances.
Not to mention that if Iran’s strategic patience runs out, it is not at all unlikely that Iran will directly target Israeli interests. Perhaps at some point the confrontation may be direct within occupied Palestine itself. As Iran is fully aware that all attempts to destabilize it cannot be separated at all from the reactions of Israel, which faces an existential danger after losing all its wars with the axis of resistance that is fully and unlimitedly supported by the Iranian Republic.
From our partner RIAC
Resumption of Saudi-Iranian relations, motives, and repercussions on the Middle East region
After 7 years of diplomatic estrangement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, recently announced in a joint statement between Tehran, Riyadh and Beijing that the two countries agreed to turn the page on their differences and normalize relations that have witnessed many tensions over the past decade. The two sides agreed to respect the sovereignty of states and not to interfere in their internal affairs, to resume relations and to reopen their embassies within a maximum period of two months. Tehran and Riyadh also agreed to the activation of their 2001 security cooperation agreement as well as their 1998 general agreement for collaboration in the areas of economy, commerce, business, technology, science, culture, sports, and youth.
The Saudi-Iranian agreement is considered the most important diplomatic event in the region during the past years, if it is adhered to, and it will have many repercussions and indications on the conflict-ridden Middle East region. After numerous unresolved rounds in Iraq and Oman in the years 2021–2022, the announcement of the agreement from Beijing is an unparalleled success for Chinese diplomacy, with significant repercussions on the international and regional arena. The agreement is a change in China’s strategy and foreign policy and an important geopolitical breach in the Gulf region, which will enable it to play an important and major strategic and pivotal role with the decline of the American role, which was the main player in the region.
Iran and Saudi Arabia have grown more aware of the necessity of a diplomatic resolution at this time and are more willing to do so, especially after the entry of China with its comprehensive strategic relations with the two parties, which played a significant role in bringing the parties’ differing points of view closer together following years of protracted negotiations. Each of the parties has its own reasons for reaching this diplomatic agreement. On the Iranian side, Iran is now in need of easing the external international isolation and calmed the situation inside Iran after the deterioration of the situation and the demands of the people to overthrow the regime there. Iran also felt the danger approaching after the halt of nuclear talks with the US side and the constant Israeli threat of a possible military strike to stop its nuclear program, and it is now trying to neutralize the Gulf side and relieve the increasing pressure on it.
On the other hand, Saudi Arabia wanted to get out of this dilemma and having any role in the event that Iran will be targeted, which might make it and the rest of the Gulf countries vulnerable to danger. As a result, many Arab and Gulf countries declared their refusal to join any armed alliance against Iran prior to Biden’s visit to the Kingdom.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has also recently realized the failure of the United States to fulfill its promises to secure the Kingdom, especially in the wake of the attacks that targeted various important infrastructures in the Kingdom over the past few years. While it was anticipated that Washington would respond forcefully and firmly, Washington removed the Patriot batteries from the Kingdom and demonstrated that it had lost the ability to do anything to stop Iran and its arms in the region, despite the repeated targeting during the administrations of both American parties under Trump and Biden. Therefore, it is possible that Saudi Arabia tried playing it differently and went for a political deal that would spare it the negative effects of the conflict with Iran and the betrayal of its allies.
The relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia is clearly deteriorating, and the gap has grown since Riyadh recently refused to increase oil production despite Biden’s visit to the Kingdom, which Washington interprets as Saudi support for Russia in financing its war on Ukraine.
There has also been a discernible shift in Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy, favoring negotiation over conflict and emphasizing economic growth. As a result, Saudi Arabia has tried to improve ties with the majority of its regional rivals recently, as was the case with Turkey. The political solution with Iran may have been reached after all other options had been exhausted, the most recent of which was direct involvement in Yemen to assist the Yemeni government in its fight against the Iranian-backed Houthis.
It is obvious that there will be many shocks in the days to come. The decline in US-Saudi ties and Saudi Arabia’s openness to China and Russia could change the balance of power in the region and the world. The Iranian-Saudi deal, which was supported by China, was also a serious setback for the United States of America and its ally Israel, which may force the United States to change its foreign policy and rearrange its cards again to restore its influence in the region, after it witnessed a major shift towards East Asia, away from the Middle East and the Arabian Gulf.
The Iranian-Saudi deal, if it is upheld and carried out by both parties, will have great and positive repercussions on the Middle East region, which has been enflamed by conflicts for many years, and will mark the beginning of a political solution to many heated and crisis files in the region such as, the Yemeni, Syrian, and Lebanese crises.
This agreement between the two major regional players in the region will not be the end of all of their conflicts, but it is an important step towards developing common visions for thorny issues in a way that contributes to resolving the internal crises of many countries in the region, which may need a long time to be resolved, due to the lack of trust between the two sides, as well as the existence of International and regional countries which are not satisfied with the agreement and will try hard to thwart it.
The commitment of the two parties to the deal and the impact it will have on the regional and international situation will become more clear in the coming months, as well as whether it will result in stability and security in the region or spark new, more complicated confrontations.
Saudi sports blitz encounters headwinds
Saudi Arabia’s sports blitz is encountering headwinds.
Activists, athletes, and the soccer associations of Australia and New Zealand will celebrate their thwarting of world football body FIFA’s plans to accept Saudi Arabia’s tourism authority as a sponsor of this year’s Women’s World Cup.
FIFA president Gianni Infantino admitted as much at a news conference convened this week shortly after he was re-elected unopposed for a third term, even if he belittled it as “a storm in a teacup.”
Nevertheless, the thwarting sent a rare message that money can buy a lot but not everything.
It constituted the first setback in a string of successful Saudi bids to sponsor or host everything under the sporting sun.
Despite its abominable and worsening human rights record, Saudi Arabia has secured hosting rights for the Asian Football Confederation’s 2027 AFC Cup, the Olympic Council of Asia’s 2029 Asian Winter Games, and the 2034 Asian Games.
A regional human rights group, ALQST for Human Rights, has asserted that at least 47 members of the Howeitat tribe in Saudi Arabia have been arrested for resisting eviction to make way for Neom, a US500 billion futuristic science fiction-like region under development on the Red Sea.
Trojena, a mountainous part of Neom, is where the Winter Games are scheduled to be held.
Saudi Arabia is also bidding to host the 2026 AFC Women’s Asian Cup, and, together with Greece and Egypt, the 2030 World Cup.
The World Cup, like this year’s women’s tournament, is likely to produce headwinds. Not only because it involves not one, but two of the world’s most serious violators of human rights, but also because it will encounter stiff competition.
A joint bid by Morocco, Spain, and Portugal could prove to be a serious challenge on multiple fronts to the Saudi-led effort.
It represents a trans-continental bid that, unlike the Saudi-led proposition, is not designed to circumvent FIFA’s practice of spreading out the tournament across continents.
On its own, Saudi Arabia, as a Middle Eastern state, would not stand a chance so short after last year’s World Cup in Qatar.
The circumvention element is borne out by the kingdom’s willingness to fund all of Greece and Egypt’s World Cup-related expenses in exchange for the right to host three-quarters of the tournament’s matches in Saudi Arabia.
Moreover, the Moroccan-Spanish-Portuguese bid is likely to spark less controversy than its Saudi-led competitor.
While Qatar demonstrated that human and migrant rights criticism need not put a serious dent in the reputational benefits of hosting a sporting mega-event, it also showed that once a focal point of attention, always a focal point of attention.
Three months after the Qatar World Cup final, one million people signed a petition demanding the Gulf state compensate workers and/or their families who had been injured or died or suffered human rights abuse while working on tournament-related projects.
For Morocco, winning the bid would have special significance. Coming on the back of its darling status during the Qatar World Cup, a win would amount to payback for Saudi opposition to Morocco’s failed effort to secure the 2026 tournament hosting rights.
Saudi Arabia supported the winning US-Canadian-Mexican bid as a way of punishing Morocco for its refusal to back the 3.5-year-long UAE-Saudi-led diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar. The boycott was lifted in early 2021.
Perhaps the strongest headwinds the kingdom’s sports effort has encountered emanate from its controversial creation of LIV Golf, a US$405 million, 14-tournament league, to compete with PGA Tour, the longstanding organizer of the sport’s flagship events.
LIV Golf is “an exercise in public relations. A foreign government’s dollars are being used to enhance that government’s brand and positioning here in the United States,” US Congressman Chip Roy, a Texas Republican, said.
Even worse, circumvention was at the core of a ruling last month by a US federal judge ordering Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, the Public Investment Fund (PIF), to answer questions and produce evidence as part of the discovery process in a legal battle between LIV and PGA. The PIF funds LIV Golf.
The discovery could cast a spotlight on the secretive fund’s decision-making. The fund’s powerful governor, Yasir Al-Rumayyan, is a Cabinet-level official.
Judge Susan van Keulen’s ruling rejected an attempt by the PIF and Mr. Al-Rumayyan to evade turning over information connected to the courtroom battle because they allegedly enjoyed sovereign immunity as a state institution and official.
Earlier, US District Court Judge Beth Labson Freeman, an avid golfer, ruled that the PIF and Mr. Al-Rumayyan fell under a commercial exception to US laws on sovereign immunity.
Some analysts suggest that Mr. Roy’s comment and the judges’ rulings could lead to LIV Golf being deemed a foreign influence campaign.
This would mean that its employees in the United States would have to register as foreign agents under the Foreign Agent Registration Act, or FARA.
The rulings call into question assurances provided in 2021 to England’s Premier League to assuage concerns that the PIF’s acquisition of England’s Newcastle United Football Club would put it under the control of the Saudi state.
The League’s chief executive, Richard Masters, said at the time that the Premier League had been given “legally binding assurances that essentially the state will not be in charge of the club” and that if there was “evidence to the contrary, we can remove the consortium as owners of the club.”
The League has so far refrained from taking the PIF to task in the wake of the US rulings because the Newcastle agreement stipulated that the Saudi state would not exercise control over Newcastle, not that it would not have the ability to do so.
Lawyers for Newcastle said there would only be a case if the Saudi state used its power to intervene in the club’s affairs.
“There’s an unmistakable irony in the sovereign wealth fund declaration emerging in a dispute about another arm of Saudi Arabia’s growing sports empire, but the simple fact is that Saudi sportswashing is affecting numerous sports, and governing bodies need to respond to it far more effectively,” said Peter Frankental, an Amnesty International executive.
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