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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.

Dr. Jamal Ait Laadam, Specialist in North African and Western Sahara Issue, at Jilin University School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA).

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The 25-year China-Iran agreement

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On March 27, 2021, a document entitled “Comprehensive Document of Iran-China Cooperation” was signed by Javad Zarif, Iran’s Foreign Minister, and his Chinese counterpart. The Iranian regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei had previously called “the agreement between the presidents of Iran and China correct and wise.” However, the Iranian people have widely criticized it as entirely against their national interests. Iranian officials have not even publicized the document’s contents yet probably because it is highly contentious.

In 2019, excerpts from this document were revealed by the Economist Petroleum news site. The details included:

  • China invests $460 billion in Iranian oil and transportation sectors. China will get its investment back from the sale of Iranian crude during the first five years.
  • China buys Iranian petroleum products at least 32% cheaper.
  • The Chinese can decide before other companies whether to participate in completing all or part of a petrochemical project.
  • 50,000 Chinese security personnel will be deployed to protect Chinese projects in Iran.
  • China has the right to delay the repayment of its debts for up to two years in exchange for Iranian products’ purchase.
  • At least one Russian company will be allowed to participate in the Tabriz-Ankara gas pipeline design together with the Chinese operator.
  • Every year, 110 senior Revolutionary Guards officers travel to China and Russia for military training. 110 Chinese and Russian advisers will be stationed in Iran to train Revolutionary Guards officers.
  • Development of Iranian military equipment and facilities will be outsourced to China, and Chinese and Russian military aircraft and ships will operate the developed facilities.

Even some circles within the regime have criticized the agreement. The state-run Arman newspaper wrote, “China has a 25-year contract with Iran and is investing $460 billion in Iran. It is somewhat ambiguous. Presently, China is holding the money it owes us and blames it on the U.S. sanctions. How can we trust this country to invest $460 billion in Iran?”

Last year, Iran and China had the lowest trade in the previous 16 years, and according to statistics, by the end of 2020, the volume of trade between Iran and China was about $16 billion, which, including undocumented oil sales, still does not reach $20 billion.

Jalal Mirzaei, a former member of Iran’s parliament, said: “If in the future the tensions between Tehran and Washington are moderated, and we see the lifting of some of the sanctions, China can also provide the basis for implementing the provisions of this document, but if the situation continues like today, Beijing will not make any effort to implement the document, as it is essentially unable to take concrete action on the ground because of the sanctions.”

China’s objectives

Iran is vital to China in two ways, through its geopolitical location and its geo-economic importance. China knows that it does not have enough natural resources and is currently having a hard time supplying them from Russia and Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia supplies its energy needs from oil giant Aramco, half of which is owned by the United States. That is why China is looking for a safe alternative that the United States will not influence, and the only option is Iran. They may also have a two-pronged plan in Iran, which involves using Iran’s profitable market and making Iran into a lever of pressure against the United States for additional concessions.

The Iranian regime’s objectives

The deal could deepen China’s influence in the Middle East and undermine U.S. efforts to isolate the Iranian regime. While the international dispute over the Iranian regime’s nuclear program has not been resolved, it is unclear how much this agreement could be implemented. The regime intends to make it a bargaining chip in possible future nuclear negotiations. However, some of Iran’s top authorities believe that China and Russia cannot be trusted 100 percent.

Due to the sanctions, the regime has a tough time to continue providing financial support to its proxy militias in the region. The regime also faced two major domestic uprisings in 2017 and 2019. Khamenei’s regime survived the widespread uprisings by committing a massacre, killing 1,500 young protesters in the 2019 uprising alone, according to the Iranian opposition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) and later confirmed by the Iranian regime’s Interior Ministry officials. Now with the coronavirus pandemic, Khamenei has been able to delay another major uprising.

Iran’s economy is on the verge of collapse. Khamenei must bow to western countries’ demands regarding the nuclear issue, including an end to its regional interventions and its ballistic missile program. Khamenei will struggle to save his regime from s imminent uprisings and a deteriorating economy that will undoubtedly facilitate more protests by the army of the unemployed and the hungry at any moment.

Unlike the 2015 JCPOA, the Iranian regime in 2021 is in a much weaker position. In fact, by many accounts, it is the weakest in its 40-year history. By signing the recent Iran-China agreement and auctioning Iranian resources, Khamenei wants to pressure the United States to surrender and restore the 2015 JCPOA as quickly as possible. But in the end, this pivot will not counteract domestic pressures that target the regime’s very existence.

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China-Arab Relations: From Silk to Friendship

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China and the Arabs have a long and rich economic and cultural history, and this distinguished relationship still exists today, with a promising future. This bilateral relationship between the two nations is based on the principles of respect and non-interference in internal affairs or foreign policies. Therefore, China’s relationship with the Arabs as well as with other nations is unique and a model to be followed. If you meet a Chinese person, the first phrase will be “Alabo” or an Arab in Mandarin, and he/she will welcome you. The Chinese state’s dealings with its counterparts can be measured based on the model of this Chinese citizen. China deals with the Arabs on the basis of friendship and historical ties.

The history of Sino-Arab relations goes back to the Tang Dynasty, and these relations developed with the flourishing of trade between the two nations. Since China was famous for its high quality silk, this trade route was called the “Silk Road”. Baron Ferdinand Freiherr von Richthofen, better known in English as Baron von Richthofen, was a German traveller, geographer, and scientist. He is noted for coining the terms “Seidenstraße” and “Seidenstraßen” = “Silk Road” or “Silk Route” in 1877.

Chinese-Arab relations have developed in contemporary history. In 1930, China established official relations with the Arab Republic of Egypt and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. A library in China was named the “Fouad Islamic Library”, after the late Egyptian king, “Fuad the First”. In 1956, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser cut ties with China and established relations with the Communist People’s Republic of China and inaugurated an embassy in Egypt. In the same year, the Arab League established relations with the People’s Republic of China. By the year 1990, all Arab countries cut their relations with the Republic of China and established diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China.

In 2004, the China-Arab Cooperation Forum was established, and today it is considered a milestone for the Sino-Arab relationship. At its inauguration, Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing delivered a speech stating:“The Arab world is an important force on the international scene, and that China and the Arab countries have enjoyed a long friendship. Our similar history, our common goals and our broad interests have been credited with enhancing cooperation between the two sides; no matter how the international situation changes, China has always been the sincere friend of the Arab world”. The China-Arab Cooperation Forum was officially established during the visit of Chinese President Hu Jintao to the headquarters of the League of Arab States in January of 2004.

Hu Jintao indicated at that time that the formation of the forum is a continuation of the traditional friendship between China and the Arab world. The Chinese president said at the time, “The establishment of the forum is conducive to expanding mutual cooperation in a variety of fields. He added that China had made four proposals; First, maintaining mutual respect, fair treatment and sincere cooperation at the political level. Second, strengthening economic and trade relations through cooperation in the fields of investment and trade, contracted projects, labor services, energy, transportation, communications, agriculture, environmental protection and information. Third, expand cultural exchanges. Finally, conducting training for the employees.”

During the second session of the forum in Beijing in 2006, China showed its sympathy for the issues of the Arab world and its interest in the peace process between Palestine and Israel, since China is a peace-loving country; it presented the idea of “a nuclear-free Middle East”. China is the best friend of the Arab countries today. Although some Arab countries have strong relations with the West whose policy does not match the Chinese policy, but all Arab countries agree on friendly and good relations with the People’s Republic of China.

The Arab citizen is not interested today in the foreign policy of the US, the deadly weapons of the US and Russia, or European culture, but rather the livelihood and economy, and this is what China provides through its wise economic policy. In 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping launched the Belt and Road Initiative, or New Silk Road, which will restore glow to China-Arab relations; as the Arab world is in a strategic location on the initiative map. Thus, the Arab countries are an important partner for China in the initiative. Although the volume of trade exchanges between China and the Arab countries exceeded 200 billion US dollars, which increased 10 times over the past decade, there was no commercial and institutional arrangement to facilitate trade between the two sides.

China, as a peaceful and non-invasive country, aims to promote economic cooperation with Arab region on an equal basis because it considers the Arab world a historic partner. The historical experience of the Arabs with the Chinese through the Silk Road has confirmed that China differs from the nations of colonialism and imperialism, which consider the Arab region a place rich in natural resources only. In his historic speech at the Arab League, Chinese President Xi stressed that China will not seek to extend influence and search for proxies in the Middle East. The Chinese initiatives will contribute to establishing security and stability through economic development and improving the people’s livelihood, in line with the post-2015 development agenda and the aspirations of the Arab people for a better life, as the Chinese experience proves that development is the key to digging out the roots of conflicts and extremism in all its forms.

China is a neutral country and does not favor the use of violence. During the Syrian crisis, for example, the Chinese envoy to the Security Council raised his hand three times, meaning that China, with its wise diplomacy, supported the Syrian regime without entering the military war. During the recent Chinese military parade, Chinese President Xi Jinping revealed some Chinese military capabilities and thus sent a message to the enemies that China will always be ready if a war is imposed on it, and a message of support to China’s allies. The Arab region today needs a real partner who possesses economic and military power and international political influence, such as China; to ensure the success of the Belt and Road Initiative, and to consolidate the China-Arab relations and raise it to the level of a strategic alliance.

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The analysis of developments in relations between Turkey and Israel

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The fear of Biden’s Administration, the concern over the Abraham Accords (see below), the positioning of the geopolitical status in the Middle East, and the safeguarding of interests in Israel are the main factors through which Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan seeks to improve relations with Israel which, however, he connects to the Palestinians.

The statements made by Turkish President Erdoğan’s on developments in relations with Israel have confirmed media reports of his repeated attempts to reach an understanding on several controversial issues, as well as paving the way for the re-establishment of diplomatic relations. The statements made by President Erdoğan, as well as other Turkish officials, have stressed the connection between the change in Turkish-Israeli relations and Israel’s policy towards the Palestinian issue.

The “linking principle” connecting the two issues has been a key factor in Turkish foreign policy since the 1950s, and it operates in the range between words and deeds, which at times have also led to severe crises in the relations between the two countries.

At the time Turkey opposed the partition plan, but recognised Israel and maintained diplomatic relations with it. Relations were suspended after the second Arab-Israeli war in 1956, when Turkey recalled its diplomatic representative from Tel Aviv, announcing he would not return there “until a just solution to the Palestinian issue was found in accordance with UN Resolutions”.

After rising to power, President Erdoğan has developed the aforementioned “linking principle”. Against the backdrop of Israel’s actions with the Palestinians, Turkey has increased its political and economic support for its Muslim brethren and caused crises.

President Erdoğan’s recent statements have been made against the backdrop of this policy: on the one hand, the Turkish President has expressed his country’s desire to improve relations with Israel and continue intelligence cooperation; on the other hand, he has maintained that Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians is “unacceptable”.

It is important to note that Turkey will not relinquish the “linking principle”, which differs from the principle of the new Arab normalisation, based on the separation between the Palestinian issue and relations with Israel. The so-called Abraham Accords, such as the recognition of the State of Israel by the United Arab Emirates in September last year: the third Arab country to formally recognise Israel, after Egypt and Jordan; the fourth one if we considers Mauritania’s “frozen” recognition.

The policy implemented by President Erdoğan is not only shaped by foreign relations, but is also a Turkish internal issue in which public opinion plays a key role. It seems that until elections are held in Turkey (scheduled for June 25, 2023), there will be no complete normalisation with Israel. The majority of the Turkish population supports the Palestinians and their rights, feels full solidarity for them and opposes the Israeli presence.

Moreover, President Erdoğan regards the Palestinian issue as an important factor in building a renewed Turkish Muslim national identity. These stances increase his popularity and strengthen people’s support for him and his party, as well as his authority and prestige in the Muslim world.

At the same time, however, this policy also has pragmatic implications: President Erdoğan is not severing ties with Israel, but merely creating actions that lead to symptoms of “diplomatic” crises.

Despite this wait-and-see attitude, economic ties between Turkey and Israel are flourishing. According to official data, in 2018 exports from Turkey to Israel were worth 6.5 billion dollars and imports 1.9 billion dollars (excluding diamond trade and tourism).

Following the crisis in relations and the expulsion of the Israeli Ambassador from Turkey (May 2018), exports had fallen to 4 billion dollars in 2019 and imports to 1.7 billion dollars. Although declining, there are still deep economic ties.

Trade relations, however, are not the decisive factor in determining the nature of Turkey-Israel relations. There are four issues that are believed to have led Turkey to review its relations with Israel:

1. Turkey has welcome the new U.S. President, Joe Biden, with caution and fear that he will oppose Turkish activities in the region. The U.S. leader may also be very tough on security, armaments and minority rights in Turkey. Some believe that improved relations with Israel will calm down the situation with President Biden, and the U.S. Congress and the Zionist lobby will be able to contribute to this result. It is not known, however, whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be as good a mediator with Biden as he was with Donald Trump.

2. Turkey is seeking to remove the isolation imposed on it due to the distribution of marine economic zones in the Eastern Mediterranean area, and is trying to bring Israel on its side to develop a joint stance and oppose such subdivisions. According to Israeli sources, Turkey has made Israel a generous offer to expand its area of control over the marine economic zones, in exchange for Turkey’ siding with Greece, Cyprus and Egypt. Israel has reacted cautiously, both because it much weighs President Erdoğan’s intentions and because it is actually interested in strengthening its relations with the above stated countries.

3. Turkey is worried about the Abraham Accords for normalisation with Israel, particularly the aforementioned one with the United Arab Emirates, and Turkey aims at limiting their influence and status as a further “undertaking” of Arab rivals. Turkey endeavours to dismantle a rising alliance between the Arab countries and Israel. After all, we wonder why Turkey is not instead trying to improve its ties with Arab countries to achieve the same goal. Could it still be because of history and traditional mutual dislike?

4. Turkey is trying to relieve the pressure on its activities in Israel and Palestine as a result of the possible improvement in relations with Israel. Turkey funds important projects in Jerusalem and Israel is trying to contain and restrain it. Conversely, an improvement in Israeli-Turkish relations could release the Israeli brake.

To date, no official Israeli response has been provided to Turkish statements. Israel’s media speak of suspicion and coldness in response to the Turkish rapprochement, with fears that President Erdoğan is preparing a ploy, a trick aimed not at improving his relations with Israel, but at sabotaging Israel’s relations and contacts with other countries.

However, leaks from senior Israeli officials indicate that their country has set conditions for restoring relations, which include ending Turkey’s ties with Hamas and transferring Turkish projects to Jerusalem through Israeli channels, as well as abstaining from voting against Israel in international organisations and adopting a balanced position between Israel and the Palestinians.

It is not yet clear what the fate of Turkey-Israel relations will be in the coming months, with President Biden in the White House and after the Israeli elections held on March 23, 2021. It is important to note, however, that Turkey will not give up the “linking principle”, which differs from the new principle of Arab normalisation, based on the separation between the Palestinian issue and relations with Israel.

The Turkish “linking principle” is a real need for Turkey- hence the Palestinian leadership must work with Turkey to maximise common goals, especially with regard to Jerusalem, the Al-Aqsa Mosque and Gaza.

Not easy steps to make, but not impossible either.

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