After the meeting of last April, Iranian President Rouhani, Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin met again in Teheran (and in Tabriz) on September 6-7, within the now usual setting of the Astana talks.
The specific aim of these last negotiations was to normalize the Syrian situation in the long term, as well as to further promote the eradication of international terrorism and the stabilization of the infra-Syrian political process and finally to create the necessary conditions for a return of Syrian displaced people and refugees abroad.
There are now innumerable peace meetings for war in Syria, which has been going on for about seven years.
In this case everything stems from the foreseeable failure of the “six-point peace plan for Syria” proposed by Kofi Annan in 2012, with the authorization of the Arab League and the United Nations.
The first point of the peace plan proposed by Annan envisaged the commitment “to work for an inclusive Syrian-led political process to address the legitimate aspirations and concerns of the Syrian people” – and here I confine myself to quoting the text, whatever it may mean.
Secondly Annan called for the commitment “to stop the fighting and achieve urgently an effective UN supervised cessation of armed violence in all its forms by all parties to protect civilians and stabilise the country”. And what if sometimes weapons were needed to defend civilians?
At that juncture, the former UN Secretary-General asked the Syrian government to “immediately cease troop movements towards, and end the use of heavy weapons in, population centres, and begin pullback of military concentrations in and around population centres.” What about light weapons? Another ambiguous sentence. In Annan’s six-point peace plan, however, no mention was made of the rebels’ military operations, i.e. the huge amount of at least 56 groups, including the openly or not overtly jihadist groups that even today form the large-mesh net of the “Syrian Democratic Forces”.
However, the UN Envoy who drafted the “six-point peace plan” should have sought, above all, the agreement of the “opposition” – hence of jihadists, Kurds and Isis at the same time, as well as the other “holy war” groups connected directly to the Caliphate.
Nevertheless, obviously we do not know how he could have achieved an “effective cessation of armed violence”. What should he have given in return? With which operating limits? Mystery of abstract idealism also in the very concrete field of foreign policy.
The third point of Annan’s peace plan asked to “ensure timely provision of humanitarian assistance to all areas affected by fighting”. However, how could these areas be reached? Possibly unarmed as little angels?
The fourth point urged “to intensify the pace and scale of release of arbitrarily detained persons, including especially vulnerable categories of persons”. Once again we cannot understand how the safe return of detained persons (1,3 million people) and displaced ones (currently 6.1 million people) can be ensured without weapons.
The fifth point urged “to ensure freedom of movement throughout the country for journalists” – journalists, who are often agents in disguise.
Finally the six point called for “respecting freedom of association and the right to demonstrate peacefully as legally guaranteed”.
This plan -better suited to Presbyterian Churches rather than to those who have read the classics of politics – was at the basis of the UN resolutions calling for very harsh sanctions against the Syrian regime – obviously only against the Syrian regime – in the period between 2011 and 2012. Idealistic sanctions that were reasonably and rightly blocked by Russia and China in the Security Council.
At that juncture, in April 2012, Kofi Annan definitively stepped down as UN-Arab-League mediator and the UN Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS) was dismantled.
Furthermore, after Annan’s failure, Obama’s Administration stated that Assad could not “reasonably” remain President of Syria.
Hence was Daesh-Isis a better option? We will never know. We know all too well, however, to what extent Saudi Arabia and other Sunni and non-Sunni countries supported Al-Baghdadi’s Caliphate. At that time, Putin spoke about 14 countries that used the services of the old Isis but, for example,the then spokesman of the Caliphate, Al-Adnani, revealed in a speech of May 2014 that their “forces and Al Qaeda’s forces had been ordered not to attack the lines of communication between Iran and the Lebanon”. Not to mention the large body of evidence demonstrating the vast infiltration of Assad’ Syrian forces into the Caliphate’s jihad and the Turkish, Saudi and Qatari operations within the wide range of jihadist organizations opposing Assad.
At that juncture, both Syria and other international actors, including some jihadist resistance groups, participated in the Geneva Talks, but failed to form a transitional government with all the warring parties, which was precisely the goal of the Geneva Talks.
Hence in January 2014 the so-called Geneva II phase started, with the aim of creating the conditions for new more effective talks – and nothing else.
Nevertheless, neither the Kurds nor the various jihad groups participated in Geneva II. Not even Assad participated directly, given Obama’s warning on his staying in power.
At that point, the ISIS operations between Iraq and Syria began and, at the same time, the United States created a “global” coalition of 79 States to hit the Caliphate, in particular.
The rest of the story is well-known: the Russian Federation intervened directly in the Syrian war. Hence, in November 2015, the International Syria Support Group with twenty States and international organisations, including Iran, was established within the UN framework, with a view to drawing up a draft agreement to be submitted to the future Vienna Conference.
Here Churchill’s memorable witty remark springs to our mind: “Ambassadors should be silent in at least six different languages”.
The final proposal of the Group was included in UN Security Council Resolution No. 2254, with a “Road Map for the Peace Process in Syria and the definition of a Timetable for further Talks”.
Resolution No. 2254 envisaged a maximum period of six months for negotiations between the Ba’athist government and the opposition – without further details and specifications on the latter – hence indirectly accepting at the negotiating table the Caliphate that as many as 79 nations should fight together with the United States. It also envisaged further political elections (with which parties or lists?) within that six-month period.
In December 2015 Saudi Arabia offered to organize a High Negotiations Committee(HNC) by its own, with most of the jihadist groups operating at the time in Syria and also in Russia, as well as with the major countries of the region.
The HNC included 33 members from the following political and military opposition organizations: 9 members of the “National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces”; other members of the Kurdish National Council, who withdrew after a short lapse of time; 5 members of the “National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change”; a bunch of 13 Syrian left parties, with others that later disappeared thanks to Assad’s intelligence services and after an eventful meeting in China.
The HNC also declared that it wanted “religious and political pluralism” and, for that reason, was often hosted by the British government.
In that case the primary issue was the Syrian Kurds, who were excluded from negotiations thanks to Turkish pressure alone.
Later even Geneva III began, which immediately failed due to the Russian and Iranian military initiatives on the Syrian territory.
Finally, a new Geneva IV phase started, which hosted other talks between Bashar el Assad’s government and the aforementioned High Negotiations Committee. Nevertheless, also the Astana Talks began – an indirect series of Talks between the Syrian Ba’athist regime and Russia and later Iran and Turkey, which were anyway sponsors of the negotiations. With a range of jihadists, who participated in the talks held in Kazakhstan with unusual attention.
In the first meeting held in the capital of Kazakhstan, the Head of the HNC of the time – who was the leader of the jihadist group Jaish al-Islam – defined the Syrian government as a “terrorist entity”.
Although characterized by unimaginable offenses and insults, the Astana talks managed to reach a truce between the fighting parties.
In fact, in late October 2017, four de-escalation zones were established between the States and the Syrian jihad.
They included the city of Idlib and the surrounding countryside, in addition to the provinces of Latakia and Aleppo; the Northern Homs countryside; Eastern Ghouta and parts of Deraa and Quneitra. Almost all areas which, apart from Idlib, have already been currently conquered by the Syrian government on a permanent basis.
Hence they were zones defined by agreements – especially bilateral agreements – between Russia and the jihadist groups operating in the region.
In fact, Russia signed an agreement with the so-called “Southern Front”, so as to keep Iran out of Deraa, while Russia replaced the militia of the allied countries with its Chechen and Dagestan police.
Russia also reached a specific agreement with the jihadist group Jaish al-Tawhid, directly in Cairo – an agreement that is known to be very costly for the Russian State budget.
Meanwhile, Iran was working to strengthen its connection and communication line between Tehran, the Iraqi Shiite military areas and, finally, the Lebanon.
It is Iran’s primary project in Syria – the idea of finally closing Israel strategically, which would currently find a far more solid defence than the Syrian one in the Golan Heights and on the border of the Litani River with the Lebanon.
Therefore only Russia is currently playing its role as great broker and mediator for the whole Syria, after having de facto won on the ground.
Hence what results have the three governments reached at the last meeting in Tehran, which is, however, part and parcel of the “Astana process”?
Iranhas recorded the undoubted success of being part of the winning coalition, in Syria, together with Turkey and Russia – a highly useful relationship, just when the United States and Saudi Arabia are doing their utmost to marginalize Iran on the international scene.
The Islamic Republic of Iran wants to be part of the great and rich reconstruction program for Syria, thus ensuring its presence on the ground.
In fact, there had been various and contradictory news about the upcoming US military pressure to reduce only the Iranian presence in Syria.
Currently the United States will try to organize a harassment guerrilla warfare to keep the Russian, Iranian and Syrian forces on the ground beyond the limit; to increase the Russian, Iranian and Syrian military spending and finally create the peripheral destabilization of the new Assad’s Ba’athist State.
With or without the collaboration of old and new jihadist groups, having anyway relations with Saudi Arabia, which would like to harass Iran so as to reduce the Shiite pressure on the Houthi rebels of Yemen.
Iran was very cautious in providing significant and steady support to the Turkish government during and after Erdogan’s repression of the coup staged in August 2016 – the most vulnerable phase of the Turkish system, which is very subtle and careful, a “deep state” system built around Erdogan’s AKP Party and the Sunni destruction of the previous initiatory-Masonic-Kemalist Ergenekonsect in April 2011.
Hence any monetary, tax or political tension between Trump’s USA and Turkey, which is NATO’s second largest Army, is music toIran’ Shi’ite ears.
Another aspect to be underlined is the good and new economic relations – through the tripartite commitment in Syria – between Russia, Turkey and Iran, which are essential to create a sort of “replacement or substitution economy” during the period of the sanctions imposed on Iran by the United States and some European countries.
Particularly in the Iranian oil system, but also in the banking sector.
Furthermore, Erdogan wants a sound military agreement with Iran for a targeted approach on Idlib.
In Erdogan’s plans, the Turkish intelligence services (MIT) shall eliminate the Al Qaeda network in Idlib, while leaving the Sunni opposition untouched – a favour to Assad but, above all, to Iran.
Iran cannot certainly afford the destruction of its relations with the Sunni majority in Syria, which occupies precisely the territories of its future networks uniting Iran, Iraq and the Lebanon.
Just while Turkey held two US citizens and was subjected to a “money-laundering operation” through foreign operations abroad on its Lira and the new US tariffs on aluminium and steel, Erdogan played all his anti-American cards betting on the success of the Astana talks, so as to recover – to the East – the power that was now forbidden to the West.
For Assad and his Russian allies, the only way to put an end to the war is to take effective, and above all, quick action in Idlib.
An action which is, by majority, still organized by Hayat Tahrir Al Sham, the Syrian faction of Al Qaeda.
As we will see at a later stage, the United States is fully opposed to the final operations on Idlib.
Russia, however, wants to attack Idlib so as to avoid keeping – on the border with Turkey – a pocket of jihadists who, by now, would immediately be out on the market for sale to the highest bidder, be it Western or Sunni.
Moreover, the liberation of the Kurdish city of Idlib would be an excellent calling card to deal with the three main Kurdish Armed Forces, which already actively cooperate with Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Hence Turkey wants to convince Russia to accept its new influence in the region, so as to conquer the city’s terrorist bases at first and later protect the inhabitants.
Conversely Russia wants to keep full control and command over the process for eradicating jihadist terrorism in Syria, which is still the necessary basis for the upcoming jihad in the Islamic republics of Southern Russia.
This is the reason why Russia has significantly increased its maritime presence on the Syrian coast.
Syria will soon accept considerable support from Russia, China, Iran and all the countries that will be at the top in the list of countries having the possibilities for investing in the deal of the century: the full reconstruction of Syrian cities and infrastructure after a bloody and ferocious war.
A deal from which the countries that have accepted an ambiguous, naive and inconsistent diktat will be excluded.
Erdogan’s Calamitous Authoritarianism
Turkey’s President Erdogan is becoming ever more dangerous as he continues to ravage his own country and destabilize scores of states in the Middle East, the Balkans, and North Africa, while cozying up to the West’s foremost advisories. Sadly, there seems to be no appetite for most EU member states to challenge Erdogan and put him on notice that he can no longer pursue his authoritarianism at home and his adventurous meddling abroad with impunity.
To understand the severity of Erdogan’s actions and ambitions and their dire implications, it suffices to quote Ahmet Davutoglu, formerly one of Erdogan’s closest associates who served as Minister of Foreign Affairs and subsequently Prime Minister. Following his forced resignation in May 2016 he stated “I will sustain my faithful relationship with our president until my last breath. No one has ever heard — and will ever hear — a single word against our president come from my mouth.”
Yet on October 12, Davutoglu declared “Erdogan left his friends who struggled and fought with him in exchange for the symbols of ancient Turkey, and he is trying to hold us back now…. You yourself [Erdogan] are the calamity. The biggest calamity that befell this people is the regime that turned the country into a disastrous family business.”
The stunning departure of Davutoglu from his earlier statement shows how desperate conditions have become, and echoed how far and how dangerously Erdogan has gone. Erdogan has inflicted a great calamity on his own people, and his blind ambition outside Turkey is destabilizing many countries while dangerously undermining Turkey’s and its Western allies’ national security and strategic interests.
A brief synopsis of Erdogan’s criminal domestic practices and his foreign misadventures tell the whole story.
Domestically, he incarcerated tens of thousands of innocent citizens on bogus charges, including hundreds of journalists. Meanwhile he is pressuring the courts to send people to prison for insulting him, as no one can even express their thoughts about this ruthlessness. Internationally, Erdogan ordered Turkish intelligence operatives to kill or smuggle back to the country Turkish citizens affiliated with the Gülen movement.
He regularly cracks down on Turkey’s Kurdish minority, preventing them from living a normal life in accordance with their culture, language, and traditions, even though they have been and continue to be loyal Turkish citizens. There is no solution to the conflict except political, as former Foreign Minister Ali Babacan adamantly stated on October 20: “… a solution [to the Kurdish issue] will be political and we will defend democracy persistently.”
Erdogan refuses to accept the law of the sea convention that gives countries, including Cyprus, the right to an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) for energy exploration, while threatening the use of force against Greece, another NATO member no less. He openly sent a research ship to the region for oil and gas deposits, which EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell called “extremely worrying.”
He invaded Syria with Trump’s blessing to prevent the Syrian Kurds from establishing autonomous rule, under the pretext of fighting the PKK and the YPG (the Syrian Kurdish militia that fought side-by-side the US, and whom Erdogan falsely accuses of being a terrorist group).
He is sending weapons to the Sunni in northern Lebanon while setting up a branch of the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA) in the country—a practice Erdogan has used often to gain a broader foothold in countries where it has an interest.
While the Turkish economy is in tatters, he is investing hundreds of millions of dollars in the Balkans, flooding countries with Turkish imams to spread his Islamic gospel and to ensure their place in his neo-Ottoman orbit. Criticizing Erdogan’s economic leadership, Babacan put it succinctly when he said this month that “It is not possible in Turkey for the economic or financial system to continue, or political legitimacy hold up.”
Erdogan is corrupt to the bone. He conveniently appointed his son-in-law as Finance Minister, which allows him to hoard tens of millions of dollars, as Davutoglu slyly pointed out: “The only accusation against me…is the transfer of land to an educational institution over which I have no personal rights and which I cannot leave to my daughter, my son, my son-in-law or my daughter-in-law.”
Erdogan is backing Azerbaijan in its dispute with Armenia (backed by Iran) over the breakaway territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is inhabited by ethnic Armenians and has been the subject of dispute for over 30 years.
He is exploiting Libya’s civil strife by providing the Government of National Accord (GNA) with drones and military equipment to help Tripoli gain the upper hand in its battle against Khalifa Haftar’s forces. Former Foreign Minister Yasar Yakis said in February 2020 that “The unclear Turkish foreign policy by Erdogan may put Turkey in grave danger due to this expansion towards Libya.”
He is meddling in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in an effort to prevent them from settling their dispute unless Israel meets Palestinian demands. He granted several Hamas officials Turkish citizenship to spite Israel, even though Hamas openly calls for Israel’s destruction.
He betrayed NATO by buying the Russian-made S-400 air defense system, which seriously compromises the alliance’s technology and intelligence.
He is destabilizing many countries, including Somalia, Qatar, Libya, and Syria, by dispatching military forces and hardware while violating the air space of other countries like Iraq, Cyprus, and Greece. Yakis said Turkey is engaging in a “highly daring bet where the risks of failure are enormous.”
Erdogan supports extremist Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, and an assortment of jihadists, including ISIS, knowing full well that these groups are sworn enemies of the West—yet he uses them as a tool to promote his wicked Islamic agenda.
He regularly blackmails EU members, threatening to flood Europe with Syria refugees unless they support his foreign escapades such as his invasion of Syria, and provide him with billions in financial aid to cope with the Syrian refugees.
The question is how much more evidence does the EU need to act? A close look at Erdogan’s conduct clearly illuminates his ultimate ambition to restore much of the Ottoman Empire’s influence over the countries that were once under its control.
Erdogan is dangerous. He has cited Hitler as an example of an effective executive presidential system, and may seek to acquire nuclear weapons. It’s time for the EU to wake up and take Erdogan’s long-term agenda seriously, and take severe punitive measures to arrest his potentially calamitous behavior. Sadly, the EU has convinced itself that from a geostrategic perspective Turkey is critically important, which Erdogan is masterfully exploiting.
The EU must be prepared take a stand against Erdogan, with or without the US. Let’s hope, though, that Joe Biden will be the next president and together with the EU warn Erdogan that his days of authoritarianism and foreign adventurism are over.
The views expressed are those of the author.
Syrian Refugees Have Become A Tool Of Duplicitous Politics
Since the beginning of the conflict in Syria the issue of Syrian refugees and internally displace has been the subject of countless articles and reports with international humanitarian organizations and countries involved in the Syrian conflict shifting responsibility for the plight of migrants.
The most notorious example of human suffering put against political games is the Rukban refugee camp located in eastern Syria inside the 55-km zone around Al-Tanf base controlled by the U.S. and its proxies.
According to official information, more than 50,000 people, mostly women and children, currently live in the camp. This is a huge number comparable to the population of a small town. The Syrian government, aware of the plight of people in Rukban, has repeatedly urged Washington to open a humanitarian corridor so that everyone can safely return home. However, all such proposals were ignored by the American side. U.S. also refuse to provide the camp with first aid items. Neighbouring Jordan is inactive, too, despite Rukban being the largest of dozens other temporary detention centres in Syria, where people eke out a meager existence.
At the same time, the problem is not only refugee camps. Syria has been at war for a decade. The country’s economy has suffered greatly over this period, and many cities have been practically grazed to the ground. Moreover, the global coronavirus epidemic didn’t spare Syria and drained the already weakened economy even more. However, Damascus’ attempts of post-war reconstruction and economic recovery were undermined by multiple packages of severe sanctions imposed by the U.S. At the same time, U.S.-based human rights monitors and humanitarian organizations continue to weep over the Syrian citizens’ misery.
The situation is the same for those refugees who stay in camps abroad, especially in countries bordering on Syria, particularly Jordan and Turkey. Ankara has been using Syrian citizens as a leverage against the European states in pursuit of political benefits for a long time. No one pays attention to the lives of people who are used as a change coin in big politics. This is equally true for Rukban where refugees are held in inhuman conditions and not allowed to return to their homeland. In those rare exceptions that they are able to leave, refugees have to pay large sums of money that most of those living in camp are not able to come by.
It’s hard to predict how long the Syrian conflict will go on and when – or if – the American military will leave the Al-Tanf base. One thing can be said for sure: the kind of criminal inaction and disregard for humanitarian catastrophe witnessed in refugee camps is a humiliating failure of modern diplomacy and an unforgivable mistake for the international community. People shouldn’t be a tool in the games of politicians.
Is Syria Ready For Second Wave Of COVID-19?
Despite a relative calm that has been holding on the front lines of the Syrian conflict since the beginning of the year, Syria had to face other equally – if not more – serious challenges. The spread of COVID-19 virus in the wake of a general economic collapse and a health care system battered by nine years of war threatened Syria with a death toll as a high as that of resumed military confrontation. However, the actual scale of the infection rate turned out to be less than it was expected considering the circumstances.
Although Syria did not have much in resources to mobilize, unlike some other countries that were slow to enforce restrictions or ignored them altogether, the Syrian authorities did not waste time to introduce basic measures that, as it became obvious in hindsight, proved to be the most effective. A quarantine was instituted in the areas controlled by the government, all transportation between the provinces was suspended, schools and universities were temporarily closed and face masks were made obligatory in public spaces.
As a result, official data puts the number of people infected with COVID-19 in the government areas at modest 4,457 while 192 people died of the infection. In turn, the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria announced that 1,998 people contracted the virus. The data on the infection rate in the opposition-controlled areas in Idlib and Aleppo is incomplete, but the latest number is 1,072. Compared to the neighboring Turkey with 9,000 of deaths of COVID-19, Syria seems to be doing relatively well.
Tackling the virus put the already embattled health care system under enormous strain. Syrian doctors are dealing with an acute shortage of medicines and equipment, and even hospital beds are in short supply. Over 60 medical workers who treated COVID-19 patients died.
The situation is worsened even further by the economic hardships, not least due to the sanctions imposed on Syria by the U.S. and the European states. Syrian hospitals are unable to procure modern equipment necessary for adequate treatment of COVID-19, most importantly test kits and ventilators.
The economic collapse exposed and aggravated many vulnerabilities that could have been easily treated under more favorable circumstances. A grim, yet fitting example: long queues in front of bakeries selling bread at subsidised prices, that put people under the risk of catching the virus. Many Syrians are simply unable to avoid risking their health in these queues, as an average income is no longer enough to provide for a family.
Moreover, despite a nation-wide information campaign conducted with the goal of spreading awareness about means of protections against COVID-19 like social distancing and mask-wearing, for many Syrians the disease is still stigmatized, and those who contracted it are often too ashamed to go to a hospital or even confess to their friends. As consequence, a substantial number of cases goes unreported.
With the second wave of COVID-19 in sight, it is of utmost importance that the work of health care professionals is supported, not subverted by the citizens. Otherwise Syria – and the world – may pay too high a price.
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