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Iran’s Presence in Syria: Is It There for the Long Haul?

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Iran’s presence in Syria remains a highly irritating factor for Israel, the United States and European countries, which are not ready to finance Syria’s post-war rebuilding as long as Iranian forces maintain their positions. Iran explains its presence in Syria exclusively by the fact that it was invited there by the Syrian government, classifying its forces as “advisors” or “(Shi’ite) shrine defenders.”

Despite the critical situation surrounding the JCPOA, which further deepens Iran’s domestic political crisis, Tehran is still determined to consolidate its positions in Syria. It can do so by creating a network of loyal Shi’ite units and groups are a cause for concern for its neighbours from the point of view of possibly repeating the Lebanese scenario.

Insufficient resources make the task far more difficult, and Tehran is forced to act with regard to Russia and China’s support, given the unwillingness of European investors to invest in post-war rebuilding of Syria.

Iran could have the following response to the shortage of funds to rebuild Syria: even if resources for full-fledged rebuilding are lacking, Iran could still play a negative role in the development of the situation in the region. This is why other actors should join the process in order to prevent the situation from exacerbating at the very least. In the meantime, Iran is planning to implement the contracts it undertook, but the question remains as to what funds Iran will channel into it.

Iran’s presence in Syria remains a highly irritating factor for Israel, the United States and European countries, which are not ready to finance Syria’s post-war rebuilding as long as Iranian forces maintain their positions. Iran explains its presence in Syria exclusively by the fact that it was invited there by the Syrian government, classifying its forces as “advisors” or “(Shi’ite) shrine defenders.” The two sides once again referred to Iran’s status as “invited advisors” during Minister of Defence of Iran Amir Hatami’s visit to Syria on Saturday August 25, 2018.

The declared goals of Brigadier General Hatami’s visit were to develop cooperation in the new circumstances and discuss Syria’s progressing to a post-war stage. The agenda included both military and economic aspects, since discussions focused on Iranian contractors rebuilding Syria. Iran’s military attaché in Damascus, Brigadier General Abolqassem Alinejad, said that once the Syrian government takes control of the entire country, Syria–Iran relations will only become stronger.

The military and economic aspects of these relations are largely interconnected, since both are intended to solidify Iran’s positions in Syria, preserving Iran’s outpost in its confrontation with Israel and boosting its regional influence.

The Military and Political Agenda

Israel has repeatedly expressed its concerns about Iran’s military presence in Syria, at times rather forcefully, by striking targets that presumably belonged to Iran. The United States has also spoken about the need to liberate Syria – not so much from terrorists as from Iranian forces. For instance, National Security Advisor of the United States John Bolton noted recently that this issue is a priority for the United States, and he has repeatedly discussed it with his Russian counterparts. However, Russia has made it clear that it would be impossible to pressure Iran on that account. The greatest compromise was achieved in early August, when Iran agreed to withdraw its forces 85 kilometres from Israel’s border. Still, Iranian analysts hastened to remark that those actions only played into the hand of Iran’s strategy in Syria.

Noting the fact that Syria had been liberated from terrorists and that the government would soon take control of the north-western governorate of Idlib, Hatami called the bilateral relations strategically invulnerable to third parties. In turn, Minister of Defence of Syria Ali Ayyoub said that without the help of its “Iranian friends,” Damascus would not have held out against the terrorists. He also noted that Iran’s place of honour on the map of Syria’s foreign political relations cannot be compared to the role of “occupants,” “marauders” or “warmongers,” thus confirming Hatami’s words that enemies would fail in their attempts to drive a wedge between Iran and Syria. The negotiations resulted in the signing of a military cooperation agreement that consolidates previous arrangements. Alinejad said that Iran’s military would help Syria clear the mine fields remaining from the war and restore the production of military equipment. Negotiations were also held on supplying certain weapons, for instance, Iran’s Kosar fighter aircraft that is, in essence, a copy of the U.S. Northrop F-5 fighter.

Accompanied by the Syrian military command, Hatami visited the border zones, Aleppo and places where “shrine defenders” are deployed (this term is used to denote Iranian military units deployed in Syria since, officially, they only help protect Shi’ite Muslim shrines). Hatami specifically noted the important role of “shrine defenders” in maintaining peace and security in the region, which in essence is another confirmation of their broader functions. Since the start of the war, Iran has, according to various sources, sent thousands of soldiers and pieces of military equipment to Syria, as well as and tens of thousands of mobilized groups from Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Pakistan. During the seven years of civil war, about 1000 Iranians have been killed, including senior Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) officials. As a result, Tehran has become more open about its casualties and the justification of Iran’s presence in the combat zones.

The reinstatement of sanctions by the United States, as well as the introduction of new restrictions, following President Trump’s decision to renege on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on the Iranian nuclear programme is also partially linked to Iran’s participation in local conflicts, since charges against Tehran include participation in the Syrian and Yemeni conflicts. Iran will hardly succeed in bringing Trump back to the JCPOA in the foreseeable future, and it is certainly not ready to sacrifice its few military and strategic allies for that purpose, which makes preserving its influence in Syria virtually a matter of principle.

The military cooperation agreement that Amir Hatami signed with his Syrian counterpart Ali Ayyoub and President Bashar al-Assad essentially enshrines Iran’s long-term presence in Syria. Bolstering the “resistance axis” was also mentioned at negotiations, which apparently refers to far-reaching plans to spread joint influence in the region. Iranian officials also noted that the parties had agreed on the presence of pro-Iran forces in Syria to aid the government, although official statements still called them “advisors.”

Iran’s far-reaching plans to consolidate its presence in Syria by creating a network of loyal Shi’ite units and groups are a cause for concern for its neighbours from the point of view of possibly repeating the Lebanese scenario. For instance, Lebanon’s Hezbollah conducted operations during the war in south-western Syria, despite Russia’s objections. In 2017, The Economist wrote that Hezbollah’s potential had grown by 17 times over the last decade, and Iran has had a huge hand in this. If Tehran does succeed in preserving its presence in Syria, which subsequently strengthen the presence of Hezbollah and other loyal groups there, the end of the civil war will not eliminate another permanent hot bed of tensions on Israel’s border. Therefore, there will be no short-term settlement of the situation even after the government forces take control of Idlib.

Iran’s Economic Interests

During his visit, Hatami also discussed the post-war reconstruction of Syria with his Syrian colleagues. This is part of the economic aspect of Iran’s motivations, even though it is closely linked with the country’s military and political plans. The issue of rebuilding Syria keeps cropping up on the international agenda, but, due to clashing political interests, a clear picture has not emerged. For instance, European investors are not prepared to invest in Syria as long as pro-Iranian forces or Iran’s “advisors” are present there. Given Iran’s current economic situation and the political crisis brewing in the country, it does not have enough resources to rebuild an entire war-torn country. However, the situation around the JCPOA and the need to ensure Iran’s own interests in the region prompt Tehran to move along the path of agreements even without sufficient means to do it.

Thus, Tehran’s principal economic interest in Syria at present is to remove the need to finance the war, which is taking resources away from settling Iran’s domestic economic situation.

Reuters and other media outlets have written that, Iran opened Syria a line of credit in 2013 worth a total of $5.6 billion, most of which went on Iran’s oil deliveries. The parties also began setting up banking relations, which was the subject of negotiations between representatives of the central banks of Iran and Syria in June 2017.

During Hatami’s latest visit, he said that Iran’s private businesses were ready to participate in rebuilding Syria. At the same time, at the end of last year, Major General Ali Jafari, the Chief Commander of the IRGC, said that, since the situation in Syria is not yet entirely safe, the IRGC forces, and not private companies, had charged with rebuilding the country. Most likely, against the background of sporadic protests arising in various regions of Iran since 2017 demanding, among other things that financing expensive foreign military campaigns be stopped, the decision was made to depict Iran’s participation as an opportunity for private companies to make money on large contracts. Similarly, private businesses could create a more positive international image. In essence, Syrian contracts will go to companies with ties to the government or specifically to the IRGC.

In fact, more serious discussions of economic agreements took place about a week before Hatami’s visit. During a visit to Syria in August 2018, an Iranian delegation signed agreements assigning Iranian companies a major role in rebuilding Syria’s infrastructure. Thus, the delegation led by Deputy Minister of Roads and Urban Development Amir Amini, accompanied by Abbas Akhoundi, Head of the Iran–Syria Commission on Economic Matters, held a series of meetings with various agencies, including the ministers of economy and housing. The discussions focused, in particular, on customs and banking cooperation that could help expand trade relations between the two countries. The agenda featured, among other items, industrial and technological cooperation, collaboration in telecommunications, establishing joint small and medium-sized enterprises, rebuilding the water supply system and power supply utilities and restoring the infrastructure in general. Teymour Bashirgonbadi, International Affairs Director at the Ministry of Roads and Urban Development, said that priority is given to the work of the bilateral commission at the level of the Prime Minister of Syria and the First Vice President of Iran.

During the negotiations, Minister of Economy and Foreign Trade of Syria Samer al-Khalil spoke about the need to use national currencies in mutual payments due to the United States reinstating sanctions against Iran. The Minister mentioned cooperation in several areas, such as tax regulation in bilateral trade, housing construction and, curiously, investment in rebuilding Syria, for which Iran has no money.

Like Minister Hatami, Teimur Bashirgonbadi spoke about the indispensable role that Iran’s private business plays in developing bilateral cooperation to rebuild infrastructure facilities and restore historical monuments. The new memorandum on cooperation should cover all preceding agreements and draw a line under the principal arrangements on rebuilding the country.

It should be noted that these are not the first negotiations on economic issues. Iran and Syria have already signed an agreement on rebuilding the power infrastructure. Previously, relevant negotiations were held between Minister of Energy of Iran Sattar Mahmoudi and his Syrian counterpart in Tehran. Mahmoudi noted then that the agreements achieved were worth hundreds of millions of euros. It was assumed that Iran would rebuild the 90MW power plant in Deir ez-Zor and build a 540MW power plant in the Latakia Governorate. At that point, MAPNA Group, a company with distant ties to the IRGC, was expected to undertake initial projects.

Arrangements in telecommunications had also been previously achieved. In 2017, Syria announced that an Iranian consortium with the participation of Mobin Group would take part in establishing the country’s third mobile network operator. The same IRGC-affiliated company took part in a 2010 tender, but lost to France’s Orange and the United Arab Emirate’s Etisalat. In 2017, the company was deemed to have enough potential to carry out the work. In addition, the Syrian authorities can use the accumulated potential of Iran’s telecom companies in communications control.

***

Despite the critical situation surrounding the JCPOA, which further deepens Iran’s domestic political crisis, Tehran is still determined to consolidate its positions in Syria in the long term and, should the situation allow, partially follow the Lebanese scenario. Insufficient resources make the task far more difficult, and Tehran is forced to act with regard to Russia and China’s support, given the unwillingness of European investors to invest in post-war rebuilding of Syria. Iran also reaffirms its active political role by participating in the Astana talks; another summit od heads of state took place in Iran on September 7, 2018.

Iran could have the following response to the shortage of funds to rebuild Syria: even if resources for full-fledged rebuilding are lacking, Iran could still play a negative role in the development of the situation in the region. This is why other actors should join the process in order to prevent the situation from exacerbating at the very least. In the meantime, Iran is planning to implement the contracts it undertook, but the question remains as to what funds Iran will channel into it.

First published in our partner RIAC

Ph. D., Junior research associate at Higher School of Economics, Advisor of the PIR Center, RIAC expert

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Will Gulf States Learn From Their Success in Handling the Pandemic?

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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The economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic for Gulf states has done far more than play havoc with their revenue base and fiscal household. It has propelled massive structural change to the top of their agenda in ways that economic diversification plans had not accounted for.

Leave aside whether Gulf states can continue to focus on high-profile, attention-grabbing projects like Neom, Saudi Arabia’s $500 billion USD 21st century futuristic city on the Red Sea.

Gulf rulers’ to do list, if they want to get things right, is long and expensive without the burden of trophy projects. It involves economic as well as social and ultimately political change.

Transparency and accurate and detailed public reporting go to the core of these changes.

They also are key to decisions by investors, economists, and credit rating companies at a time when Gulf states’ economic outlook is in question. Many complain that delays in GDP reporting and lack of easy access to statistics complicates their decision-making.

Nonetheless, if there is one thing autocratic Gulf governments have going for themselves, beyond substantial financial reserves, it is public confidence in the way they handled the pandemic, despite the fact that they failed to initially recognize crowded living circumstances of migrant workers as a super spreader.

Most governments acted early and decisively with lockdowns and curfews, testing, border closures, repatriation of nationals abroad, and, in Saudi Arabia, suspension of pilgrimages.

To be sure, Gulf countries, and particularly Saudi Arabia that receives millions of Muslim pilgrims from across the globe each year, have a long-standing history of dealing with epidemics. Like Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan, they were better prepared than Western nations.

History persuaded the kingdom to ban the umrah, the lesser Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, in late February, days before the first case of a Covid-19 infection emerged on Saudi soil.

Beyond public health concerns, Saudi Arabia had an additional reason to get the pandemic right. It offered the kingdom not only an opportunity to globally polish its image, badly tarnished by human rights abuses, power grabs, and the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, but also to retain religious influence despite the interruption in the flow of pilgrims to the kingdom.

“Saudi Arabia is still a reference for many Muslim communities around the world,” said Yasmine Farouk, a scholar of Saudi Arabia at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

It also allowed Saudi Arabia to set the record straight following criticism of its handling of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in 2012 when the kingdom became the epidemic’s epicenter and in 2009 when it was hit by the H1N1 virus.

Saudi Arabia is also blamed for contributing to a public health catastrophe in Yemen with its frequent indiscriminate bombings.

A country in ruins as a result of the military intervention, Yemen has grappled for the past four years with a cholera epidemic on the kingdom’s borders.

Trust in Gulf states’ handling of the current pandemic was bolstered by degrees of transparency on the development of the disease in daily updates in the number of casualties and fatalities.

It was further boosted by a speech by King Salman as soon as the pandemic hit the kingdom in which he announced a raft of measures to counter the disease and support the economy as well as assurances by agriculture minister Abdulrahman al-Fadli that the crisis would not affect food supplies.

Ms. Farouk suggested that government instructions during the pandemic were followed because of “trust in the government, the expertise and the experience of the government [and] trust in the religious establishment, which actually was following the technical decisions of the government.”

To be sure, Ms. Farouk acknowledged, the regime’s coercive nature gave the public little choice.

The limits of government transparency were evident in the fact that authorities were less forthcoming with details of public spending on the pandemic and insight into available medical equipment like ventilators and other supplies such as testing kits.

Some Gulf states have started publishing the daily and total number of swabs but have yet to clarify whether these figures include multiple swabbings of the same person.

“It is likely that publics in the Middle East will look back at who was it that gave them reliable information, who was it who was there for them,” said political scientist Nathan Brown.

The question is whether governments will conclude that transparency will be needed to maintain public confidence as they are forced to rewrite social contracts that were rooted in concepts of a cradle-to-grave welfare state but will have to involve greater burden sharing.

Gulf governments have so far said little about burden sharing being allocated equitably across social classes nor has there been transparency on what drives investment decisions by sovereign wealth funds in a time of crisis and changing economic outlook.

Speaking to the Financial Times, a Gulf banker warned that the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman “needs to be careful what he spends on . . . Joe Public will be watching.”

Headed by Prince Mohammed, the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund has gone on a $7.7 billion USD shopping spree buying stakes in major Western blue chips, including four oil majors: Boeing, Citigroup, Disney, and Facebook. The Public Investment Fund is also funding a bid for English soccer club Newcastle United.

The banker suggested that Saudi nationals would not appreciate “millionaire footballer salaries being paid for by VAT (value added tax) on groceries.” He was referring to this month’s hiking of sales taxes in the kingdom from five to 15 percent.

The fragility and fickleness of public trust was on display for the world to see in Britain’s uproar about Dominic Cummings, a close aide to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who violated lockdown instructions for personal reasons. Mr. Johnson is struggling to fight off demands for Mr Cummings’ dismissal.

To be sure, senior government officials and business executives in the Gulf have cautioned of hard times to come.

A recent Dubai Chamber of Commerce and Industry survey of CEOs predicted that 70 percent of the United Arab Emirates’ companies would go out of business in the next six months, including half of its restaurants and hotels and three-quarters of its travel and tourism companies.

Saudi Finance Minister Mohammed Al-Jadaan warned earlier this month that the kingdom would need to take “painful” measures and look for deep spending cuts as a result of the collapse of oil prices and significantly reduced demand for oil.

Aware of sensitivities, Mr. Al-Jadaan stressed that “as long as we do not touch the basic needs of the people, all options are open.”

There was little transparency in Mr. Al-Jadaan’s statements on what the impact would be on employment-seeking Saudi nationals in a labor market where fewer migrant workers would be available for jobs that Saudis have long been unwilling to accept.

It was a missed opportunity considering the 286 percent increase in the number of Saudis flocking to work for delivery services.

The increase was fueled by an offer by Hadaf, the Saudi Human Resources Development Fund, to pay drivers $800 USD a month, as well as a newly-found embrace of volunteerism across the Gulf.

The surge offered authorities building blocks to frame expectations at a time when the kingdom’s official unemployment rate of 12 percent is likely to rise.

It suggested a public acknowledgement of the fact that well-paying, cushy government positions may no longer be as available as they were in the past as well as the fact that lesser jobs are no less honorable forms of employment.

That may be the silver lining as Gulf states feel the pressure to reinvent themselves in a world emerging from a pandemic that potentially will redraw social, economic, and political maps.

Author’s note: This story was first published in Inside Arabia

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Foreign intervention in Libya

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Since the ouster of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, Tripoli has transformed into an appalling sight of consistent injustice, rising fundamentalism and morbid law and order situation. Amidst the whirlwind of fractured institutions and failed socio political system in Libya, foreign countries have also found a suitable battleground for fighting their proxy wars. Currently, there are two governments operating in libya, each claiming to reflect the genuine mandate of Libyan people. The United Nations backed government of National Accord, under the leadership of President Fayaz al serraj is being supported by Turkey, Qatar, Italy and publically by all western democracies. Whereas, a shadow government, is being maneuvered from the eastern city of Tobruk. It enjoys the support of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, France and the United Arab Emirates.

In 2012, less than a year after NATO intervention, Libyans turned to polls, in the pursuit of voting for an efficient leadership. As a result of elections, the General National Congress or GNC came into power. It was tasked with devising a constitution within the next eighteen months. Despite, it’s full capacity, the government failed to deliver on time due to evident disorganization and post-gaddafi mayhem, which was still at large. However, Libyans again went to vote in 2014, electing a House of Representatives or HoR in power, this time. These elections were repudiated and their result was declared illegitimate by GNC, on the claims of low voter turnout and series of violence which engulfed the entire electoral process, across the country. Rejection to form government, forced HoR to flee Tripoli and establish itself in Tobruk, where they aligned themselves, with Libya’s strong man, commander Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan National Forces.

Haftar had remained a part of Libya’s political arena for as long as Muammar Gaddafi had, he joined the military in 1961 and served in its ranks until, the Chad misadventure of 1987, which not only made him fall out with Gaddafi, but also enforced him into exile in the United States. Nonetheless, Haftar returned to Libya after the war and started rebuilding his former network of loyalists who worked with him decades ago, and ended up establishing the Libyan National Forces. His forces launched “Operation Dignity”[1]in 2014, with the official intentions of relieving Libya from local militias, radical nationalism and religious fundamentalism.

Amidst the chaos of political deterioration and significant power vacuum, foreign countries started to manipulate the Libyan crisis for their own interests. Turkey is a regional player, and is severely concerned about their maritime trade route. For, being surrounded by hostile neighbors, Turkey finds it hard to trade through any other channel smoothly, except Mediterranean which it shares with Libya. Thus, it is actively vouching for a friendly government in Tripoli. Turkey’s parliament has recently passed the controversial law that has permitted the deployment of Turkish troops on Libyan soil, in order to support al Serraj’s government. Meanwhile, states like Italy and France are  interested in Libya’s oil resources, and are also supporting respective governments as per their interests. International oil companies such as Italian Eni, French Total and Russian Taftnet, along with British Petroleum are on and off, getting exploration and management contracts to tap oil resources, with the Libyan National oil corporation. Where Russian mercenaries are fighting on ground with Haftar’s forces, France has also provided covert logistical support to his forces, each interested in their own share of resources.

Furthermore, the United Arab Emirates, Cairo and Kingdom of Saudi Arabia are eagerly backing Haftar’s LNA for the sake of preventing another wave of Arab spring, to reach their borders. UAE has conducted airstrikes on Benghazi in 2014, from an Egyptian base in Libya, in order to support Haftar’s operation Dignity. They have also recently established their own base in eastern province of Al-Khadir, to support further LNA’s advances. Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has also pledged it support to Haftar under the crown prince, Muhammad Bin Salman. As, just before Haftar’s Tripoli offensive,  Riyadh promised him millions to buy tribal leader’s loyalties and to financially support the fighters in LNA.

Another reason behind Arab countries ardent sponsorship is, the question of muslim brotherhood. LNA has vowed to eliminate all the elements of religious extremism, including the muslim brotherhood. Cairo, UAE and KSA are known for their crack down on the brotherhood, while Turkey and Qatar are assumed to support the political activities of organization. Such difference in approaches has also led these countries into a state of perennial proxy war with each other.  

Recent Moscow talks and Berlin conference, in the beginning of this year, has indeed provided an opportunity for all the parties in conflict to come on the negotiating table, and draw out strategies for adherently following the Libyan arms embargo of 2011, for effective ceasefire. Yet, without a proper policy in place, which can prevent foreign interventions in Libyan domestic crisis. It will create a potential environment for Tripoli to transcend into a turmoil similar to Syria and Yemen. War in Libya, has already incited an endless cycle of unnecessary fighting, uncountable deaths and a vicious void of ills like; human trafficking and smuggling. From, exponential worth of 53.2 billion dollars in 2012 to 4.6 billion dollars in 2016, Libya’s natural revenues have shrunken conspicuously over the last decade. In addition to that, with global coronavirus pandemic still out and loose, conflicts like one in Libya have a higher potential of turning into a major confrontation. It’s a textbook example of how precarious the situation might get, if not taken sensibly, by international community.


[1] Anderson, Jon Lee. “The unravelling.” The New Yorker 23 (2015).

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The Coronavirus and Conflicts in the Middle East

Aleksandr Aksenenok

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The question of the political and socioeconomic consequences the COVID-19 pandemic will have for global development has prompted heated analytical discussions among leading politicians, economists and political scientists. The range of opinions is staggering, varying from “the world will never be the same” (Henry Kissinger) to “the pandemic will accelerate history rather than reshape it” (Richard Haass). Should we, therefore, expect radical shifts in the global leaders’ thinking or will the dangerous inertia of the last two decades ultimately come out on top?

The only thing most people agree on is that the coronavirus has plunged the world into a global, multidimensional crisis. This crisis is made particularly acute and unpredictable by the developments that predated it: the slowdown of global economic growth, the collapse of oil prices, socioeconomic differentiation, the rapid increase in military spending, protracted “unresolvable” conflicts and the growing threat of losing control amid geopolitical rivalry. There are new nuclear missiles, cyber- and biotechnologies, “hybrid wars,” and the consequences of all these trends are not yet entirely clear, which makes this rivalry far more dangerous than the USSR-US confrontation.

Thus far, it is difficult to say confidently what direction these developments will take and whether they will become a turning point. In any case (and here Russian and Western analysts agree), the statesmanship, competency and acumen of all world leaders will be put to the test, as will their ability for reasonable compromise. This “test” will be particularly relevant for those states in the greater Middle East that are involved in various conflicts and for their leaders, whose ambitions are, at this historical juncture, under powerful pressure from both within and without; this test may be even more relevant there than in other parts of the crumbling, yet interconnected world.

“Old” internal conflicts in Syria, Libya and Yemen, new-type protest movements demanding a change of the ruling elites (the “everyone means everyone” slogan) in Algeria, Lebanon and Iraq, balancing on the brink of an armed conflict in the Persian Gulf – this chronic instability constantly feeds into mutual enmity, the preference for solutions by force, and overall thinking along the lines of “winner takes all.” Regional wars remain a sore point on the Russia-West global agenda, which is already overburdened with many acute problems. At the same time, it has become apparent that domestic driving forces increasingly trump extra-regional influences such as the geopolitical rivalry between Russia and the US, between Western states (France, Italy, Germany, Greece), including Turkey, as is happening in Libya, between the regional powers themselves (Saudi Arabia, Iran, the UAE, Qatar) in Yemen, or between all of them in Syria.

The pandemic has affected Libya, Syria and Yemen to a lesser degree than the US and West European states. At the same time, the number of cases is still growing and is gradually approaching the limits of their capacities as these countries are exhausted by protracted wars and external aggressions. In that sense, they have much in common, which causes concern to the UN’s specialised agencies, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and non-governmental humanitarian organisations. The ICRC has warned in a press release that “it will be nearly impossible to fight COVID-19 in countries already devastated by conflict unless a concerted response by states and humanitarian organisations is launched immediately.”

Despite appeals from the UN Secretary-General, from Russia, the US, several leading European states and other members of the international community, military hostilities are still raging in the region; they periodically abate and then flare up again. It takes a strong state, suppressing political violence, and a legitimate authority to succeed in combating the consequences of military conflicts in the Middle East in the middle of the pandemic. In the meantime, these three regional conflict centre have still not restored their territorial integrity, the principal criterion of national sovereignty, and the prospects for a final settlement appear quite vague.

The fight for territories continues. Local administrations of those states’ constituent parts largely depend on non-state actors, various militias, including those of a terrorist persuasion. International humanitarian aid is either inaccessible in many areas or is used for political purposes. Healthcare systems have been completely destroyed or significantly undermined, transport and commercial communication lines have been interrupted, while, according to the UN, about 38.4 million people (25 million in Yemen, 11 million in Syria and 2.4 million in Libya) are in need of humanitarian aid. Until recently, the World Health Organisation had no information about Huthi-controlled areas of Yemen, including the number of COVID-19 cases. Overcrowded city centres, prisons and camps for refugees and displaced persons are seen as the source of the infection.

Syria is a special case in the general picture of Middle Eastern conflicts amid the coronavirus pandemic. The outcome of the internal confrontation will have far-reaching consequences. If compromise solutions are found, a settled Syrian conflict might serve as a precedent for the global community and as a model and a key for resolving other conflicts. Alternatively, if Damascus fails to learn the lessons of 2011, this conflict might become a powder keg under the prospects of Syria’s stable domestic development. Not should we rule out the possibility of the country being split into areas of influence with socioeconomic rehabilitation in each area carried out by external sponsors (mostly with the help of Russia, Iran and China in Damascus-controlled lands, by Turkey in the northwest, and with the support from the US and some Gulf states in the east). The latter variant, though, appears the least probable.

At the extended meeting of the government in early May, President Assad made a powerful statement similar to the one made in the summer of 2015, when the Syrian regime was on the verge of collapse, and the President acknowledged publicly for the first time the dearth of domestic military resources, emphasising the need to “preserve useful Syria.”[1]  This time, now that the regime appears to have bolstered its positions thanks primarily to Russia, Assad has again warned the Syrian public and the global community that, if the coronavirus cases spike, Syria would face a “real catastrophe.” The current relatively low level of infection (there were 47 cases at that time), he said, did not mean Syria had avoided the danger. The World Health Organisation lists Syria among high-risk countries.

The President had more than enough reasons to make this statement. In late 2019, only 64% of the country’s hospitals and 52% of its medical outposts were still operating, while about 70% of healthcare workers found themselves among refugees and displaced persons. The geographical distribution of the medical institutions that are working is highly uneven: two-thirds of them are in Damascus, in the provinces of Latakia and Tartus, while there are none in Deir ez-Zor in the country’s east. According to the Brookings Institution, there are 1.4 medical workers per 10,000 people and a grand total of 100 ventilators in Idlib. Immediately after the first coronavirus cases were recorded, food and medication prices went up 20–40% on top of the existing inflation.

Since the first coronavirus cases were recorded on 22 March, Syria’s government has been mobilising its internal capabilities in three areas:

First: preventing the spread of the infection within the area under its control. In Syria’s northeast (Afrin, Idlib), similar measures are being introduced by local authorities that are under the influence of Turkey and several groups that have been declared terrorists, and by the Kurdish administration in inner Syria east of the Euphrates. The announced administrative and legislative measures envisaged even harsher steps than international standards suggested. A curfew was imposed immediately, external borders were closed, control was stepped up over transport between provinces and between the cities within them. This was a vital step for Syria, with its close commercial ties and cross-border contacts with Lebanon, Jordan and Iran (Syria has particularly intensive contacts with the latter). As of late April, Iran accounted for 79.1% of all coronavirus cases in the Middle East; Arab states of the Persian Gulf accounted for 12.1%, and other states for 8.8%. Territorial fragmentation, however, stands in the way of coordinating the fight against the coronavirus throughout the country. It is creating serious difficulties in handing out the international aid that is coming into Syria.

Second: mitigating the socioeconomic consequences for the regime, especially because surges in protests have been recorded since last spring, including in regions with predominantly Alawite population. The government imposed state price regulation, primarily for food, medications and essential goods. Fuel subsidies were maintained and bread stamps were introduced for people in particular need. At the same time, a set of solutions was introduced to remove administrative and bureaucratic procedures for import contracts on essential goods. Syrian importers working with such goods were offered preferential currency exchange rates. The government’s emergency decisions also included exempting individual types of business from taxes for April and gradually (since the first ten days of May) lifting restrictions on work in industrial and service sectors.

Third: concentrating the fragmented financial resources within the inner circle of the President’s power. This could mean transitioning to a policy of centralised distribution of the reduced state revenues, which means the authorities intend to be more decisive in fighting corruption and the “shadow economy” (between 2010 and 2017, GDP fell from USD 60.2 bn. to USD 17 bn.). The experience of many states, including European ones, shows that enhanced financial discipline is a must at a time of crisis, especially in collecting taxes and combating illegal economic activities.

Yet, as regards Syria, Arab and Western media focused rather on looking for sensations than on providing a balanced analysis of the situation with a view to helping find ways out of the crisis that had been compounded by the threat of the coronavirus pandemic. Regrettably, the media show the latest economic steps undertaken by the Syrian government through the lens of the conflict between the President and his cousin, Syria’s wealthiest businessman, multibillionaire Rami Makhlouf.

His business empire does, indeed, span a range of key economic sectors: telecommunications, oil and gas, banking, construction, real estate, commerce, etc. The rise of Rami Makhlouf began soon after Assad came to power, during the short period of liberal economic reforms. During the war, his standing in Syria’s economy was consolidated significantly by the preferences given in exchange for charitable activities and financing militias loyal to the government. Now is the time to pay the bills and some of his assets have been frozen. The conflict peaked when the Syrian oligarch decided to publicise the economic dispute about paying Syriatel’s taxes totaling USD 180 m. He did this at a juncture that was critical for the country. Consequently, the conflict was broadly politicised and resulted in rumourmongering about a split in the presidential elites similar to the late 2017 events in Saudi Arabia (Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman had several members of the royal family temporarily detained on allegations of large financial claims against them).

Incidentally or otherwise, precisely in April and May, the western and Arab media were inundated with various speculations concerning Russia-Syria relations. Distorted interpretations were given to those articles in the Russian media and on Russian social networks that contained benign criticism of Damascus’ inflexible policies in political settlement and of the widespread corruption getting in the way of reconstruction and handling the most pressing socio-economic problems. These articles were presented as allegedly reflecting the Russian political elites’ discontent with President Assad personally.

Deliberately fake news affected even the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), whose expert materials always contain objective analysis and verified facts, whether people like it or not. At the instigation of Syrian opposition sources, citing some RIAC paper, fake news was disseminated about Russia, the US and Turkey (with possible participation by Iran) having some plan about removing Assad from power and establishing a “transitional government” consisting of representatives of the “Syrian regime,” the opposition and “Kurdish militias.” Even more regrettable is the excessively emotional response by some “members of the public” in Damascus itself, expressed in the spirit of the ideological rhetoric of the past, of the outdated black-and-white foreign policy notions. They classify members of the Russian expert community (journalists serving purely corporate interests do not count) as “those in favour” and “those against,” into “pro-Western” and “patriotic.” The former naturally strive to “undermine the allied relations” between Russia and Syria.

Meanwhile, despite the many barriers dividing the world, cooperation in fighting the coronavirus pandemic, this “common enemy” as Antonio Guterres called it, is being gradually established, but things are far more complicated in the Syrian conflict.

Besides the WHO, the International Red Cross and some other international organisations, real external aid to Syria’s government is provided only by Russia, China and, to a lesser degree, Iran, with limited aid coming from some European and Arab states. With the start of the coronavirus outbreak, Russia launched humanitarian deliveries to Syria, bringing in face masks, coronavirus testing systems, and other medications and medical equipment. Food aid has been no less important for Syrians. In April, Russian grain, which had previously been in short supply on the market, was delivered to the port of Tartus.

Although the European Union expressed its support for the UN Secretary General’s appeal to lift the sanctions off several states, including Syria, so that the needed medical and humanitarian aid could be provided, in practice, Europe’s contribution is doubtful. First, EU member states have no consensus on Syria and, second, European companies are, as in the case of Iran, extremely wary of secondary US sanctions.

The stance of the Trump Administration is, like that on several other foreign political issues, rather ambiguous, not to say hypocritical. On the one hand, they introduce all kinds of “exceptions,” “authorisations” and “special licences” for providing humanitarian aid to Syria and some other states during the fight against COVID-19. This procedure is detailed in a relevant paper by the US Department of the Treasury dated 16 April 2020 (Department of the Treasury, Washington DC, Office of foreign control, Fact Sheet: Provision of Humanitarian Assistance and Trade to Combat COVID-19). On the other hand, the US is putting “maximum pressure” on Syria, stepping up its verbal threat campaign against President Assad personally and warning those countries, including Arab states, that are willing to provide Syria with the necessary financial and material support, about the consequences. European experts believe that, even if Syria agreed to use the offer of exemptions from the sanctions, this would hardly produce any results because of the large number of duplicate sanctions imposed over the last 20 years and also the “bewildering” bureaucratic procedures.

Many statements made by official US representative for Syria Engagement James Jeffrey in recent months are just as contradictory and confused. One day, he says the US does not want to overthrow the Syrian regime and supports the launch of the Constitutional Committee; another day, he says that Assad is utterly unacceptable, which can be understood to mean that he is unacceptable even as a presidential candidate at the elections to be held under Resolution 2254. Statements about his contacts with Russian partners and unwillingness to intervene in Russia-Syria relations do not jibe with his words that the purpose of the US is to let Russia get bogged down in Syria. As for jointly fighting international terrorism, there is a certain slyness there, as well, concerning Hay’At Tahrir al-Sham, which apparently cannot really be considered quite terrorist since it has never carried out terror attacks outside Syria and only fights the Assad regime.

The reality is that the coronavirus pandemic caught Syria in the midst of an unsettled conflict and social tensions, a destroyed infrastructure, limited internal reserves and financial resources. We need to understand that in this emergency the way out of the crisis or the simple act of meeting the urgent needs of the people, regardless of their political preferences, is closely linked to the integral progress in several areas: mobilising internal economic resources and creating conditions equally favourable for the work of public-private partnerships and foreign investors; providing a safe environment for refugees to return; creating an atmosphere conducive to national reconciliation; what is required politically is for these efforts to be enshrined through specific steps taken in compliance with UN Security Council Resolution 2254, largely spearheaded by Russia.

 [1] See: A. Aksenenok. “The Syrian Crisis: A Thorny Journey from War to Peace” [in Russian] // Valdaiskie zapiski [Valdai Memoranda] No. 104, Valdai Discussion Club. P. 11.

From our partner RIAC

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