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The current situation in Syria

Giancarlo Elia Valori

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Syria is the great rotating platform of the Middle East. Paraphrasing the statement by Mackinder, the well-known British geopolitician of the early twentieth century, “who rules Syria commands the Middle East, who rules the Middle East controls Europe and Africa”.

This is the profound meaning of the “war between the wars”, as Israel once defined its air operations in Syria.

Israel, in particular, does not want Iran to be hegemonic in Syria.

This is the reason why, first and foremost, it tends to achieve a clear balance with the Russian Federation, which will certainly not leave Syria completely in Iran’s hands.

In fact, in November 2018 Israel started new bombings of the Iranian business districts, such as Kiswah, near Damascus, or Harfa, a strong Hezbollah position near the Golan Heights.

In Syria Bashar el Assad’s forces are pressing the jihadist positions in the Idlib region, as well as the cities of Lahaya and Masasnah in the Northern Province of Hama.

The anti-Bashar groups, i.e. the Free Syrian Army, Tahrir al-Sham, also known as al-Qaeda in Syria, and Jaish al-Izza, a jihadist group affiliated with the Free Syrian Army, with armaments supplied by the United States, but operating mainly in the areas near Hama, faced the Shiite forces’ attack very well and still hold a large part of Idlib.

Idlib is, in fact, the most important corridor for de-escalation, as established by the Astana Agreement, but it is also the city in which Syria connects to Turkey and, hence, to the primary lines heading for Europe.

Turkey has so far taken control of the Murak pass, in the Northern Hama province, while Tahrir al-Sham, that previously held that region, has repositioned itself in Kafr Zeita, again in the Northern Hama province.

In the Western part of the Idlib province, the group led by al-Qaeda in Syria, namely Tahrir al-Sham, has negotiated a “ceasefire” with the other jihadist groups, which allows it to keep control of six villages in the Ghab Plain.

Meanwhile, Assad’ Syrian Arab Army, with the elite forces of the 42ndDivision, dubbed “Ghait Forces”, and the 4th Armoured Division, is moving from Southern Syria to the Northern region of the Latakia province.

It should be remembered that all Syrian fighting Corps also have powerful Russian advisors.

The Iraqi Shiite militants, led by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, have moved to Hama’s Northern province, while the Fifth Corps of Assad’s Army – again with Russian support – carries out reinforcement and backup actions between the North of Aleppo and Hama and Latakia’s Northern region.

Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, i.e. the Syrian “section” of al-Qaeda, destroyed all the bridges of Al Eys, in the Southern Aleppo Province.

Hence the Aleppo-Idlib Northern axis is the centre of gravity of this war, while the South is becoming essential  for covering and protecting the Northern regions, which are now decisive for the solution of the Syrian war.

The jihadist group, however, has currently positioned itself on the side of the demilitarized zone of Idlib, which is controlled by Russia, Turkey and Iran.

Meanwhile, some groups – probably linked to Daesh-Isis, which is far from having been “eliminated”, as the Western press propaganda maintains – fight against the al-Qaeda-linked groups in the Idlib region.

This region is the centre of gravity of the war. Operations attributable to ISIS have also been carried out in Aleppo.

Meanwhile, the YPG Kurds effectively fight the jihadist groups surrounding the Kurdish city of Afrin, which is currently controlled by the Turkish troops.

In the meantime, Russia has put its anti-missile defence batteries back into operation in the Western province of Hama.

Hence what does Iranians want from Syria? Initially Iran used the Damascus corridor almost exclusively to transfer arms to the Lebanon.

Currently, however, weapons are manufactured directly in that country. In fact, Hezbollah has approximately 150,000 rockets, missiles and mortar shells, which are produced  both in Iran and in Syria.

The ferocious anti-Zionist policy of current Iran is based above all on Hezbollah’s remarkable ability to attack Israel.

According to Israeli intelligence, one in four buildings is a military base of the Shiite group in Southern Lebanon.

In 2017, however, the Israeli air force began to hit hard on the weapon landline stretching from Teheran to Beirut.

Hence Syria has become a sort of second Lebanon, with the current establishment and deployment of an Iran-led army on the field, in addition to the normal maintenance of the lines for transferring weapons from Iran to Southern Lebanon.

Hence this transformation of Israel’s operational logic has led to a change of Iran’s tactics.

On the basis of the agreement signed between Iran and  Assad’s regime on August 26, instead of operating solely on Syrian territory,  the Shiite Islamic Republic will merge almost entirely with the Syrian armed forces, while Iran’s  war industries will be integrated with those of the Baathist regime.

In all likelihood, Iran wants to replace the fallen soldiers of Assad’s army with its own.

Nevertheless Iran is increasingly using Iraq as a storage area for missiles and it also wants to use the Iraqi Shiite militias in the future.

The fact remains that Iran is increasingly standing out as a regional winner in the Syrian conflict.

Russia is certainly not happy about it.

After the US quick withdrawal from Syria, which enables Assad’s regime to stand as the sole protector of the Kurdish groups of Rojava, the Russian Federation is developing a new strategy.

Together with Iran to the Syrians, the Russians are moving to the middle Euphrates river valley, so as to later cross that river and conquer the areas previously occupied by the US forces and their Syrian allies, namely the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), that fought mainly against Isis-Daesh.

The aforementioned region is rich in oil, but Russia and Syria are mainly trying to prepare for the offensive of the Turkish Army on the city of Manbiji, one of the symbols of the Kurdish independence movement.

Considering the US withdrawal, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), however, are dealing with Assad and the Russian forces to grant passage on the territory they previously conquered.

Moreover, with a view to securing the border between Iraq and Syria, the Iraqi regime is actively collaborating with the Russian-Iranian coalition.

Nevertheless, at economic level, things are not going so well for the Syrian-Iranian and Russian coalition.

In eight years of war, however, Assad’s forces have lost control of most Syrian oil wells and natural gas fields.

The phosphate reserves and the agricultural production areas have also fallen into enemy hands.

Syria has reserves worth 2 billion oil barrels – and Bashar al-Assad’s regime stopped light oil production in 2012 and  heavy oil production in 2013.

Before the war, Syria produced an average of 385,000 barrels a day.

Currently, according to official sources, Assad’s regime extracts only 20,000 barrels a day.

In its action against the jihadist groups, however, the Syrian regime has recently reconquered – one after the other – the most important oil areas, namely Shaar, al-Hayl, Arak, Hayan and finally the area of Al-Mahr, in the region of Palmira.

Meanwhile, the Kurds – already supported by the United States – keep control of their oil fields and gas deposits in Eastern and North-Eastern Syria.

The areas controlled by the Kurds – currently in contact with Assad’s forces  – account for 30% of the Syrian territory.

The Kurdish forces have conquered approximately 1,000 wells, some of which are in good condition and can easily start production.

The Kurdish wells, controlled only by the forces of Rojava, are enough for the consumption of the whole area. Probably the Syrian government secretly bought oil from the Kurds so as to resell it at a higher price, since the Kurdish oil had  a much lower price than the one charged on the international market.

As to natural gas, the largest well is the old Conoco, in the Eastern region of Deir Ezzour, which is still controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

One of the old axes of the US presence in Syria.

A well that before the conflict produced 21 million cubic meters a day, as against the current 8.5 million cubic meters, while the Syrian government maintains that it currently produces 16.5 million cubic meters a day.

Obviously the cost of gas for Syrian citizens has multiplied by ten during the war, which is still continuing.

With specific reference to phosphates, of which Syria was one of the top exporting countries, in all likelihood the over 2 billion tons of  Syrian reserves will be spoils of war for both Russia and Iran.

The largest production area is again in the region of Palmira. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps took full control of the region in 2015.

In 2017 Syria also signed an agreement on phosphates with Russia, thus leaving Iran aside.

Only Russia, however, does invest in the Syrian phosphate extraction areas.

As to olive oil, the main Syrian agricultural resource, before the conflict Syria was the top Arab producer, with 100 million olive trees and 1.2 million tons of olive oil a year.

As a result of war, production has fallen by 300%.

The provinces of Aleppo and Idlib were the major olive oil production areas.

Let us now analyse the behaviour of Turkey, which is the other great army operating in Syria.

Turkey’s army – the second largest within NATO – which also seems to be strangely not interested in the Syrian war, has carried out extensive and effective operations in Northern Syria.

Apart from some obscure operations – such as the one of Tell Rifaat, where the Russians immediately gave in to the Turkish forces surrounding the country – the somehow  hidden and secret alliance between Turkey and the Russian Federation seems to be increasingly clear.

Why? Probably because Russia wants to prevent Turley from siding too much with the United States.

Moreover, after the Turkish shooting down of a Russian fighter aircraft in 2015, and after President Erdogan’s official apologies to Russia, it seems that the Turkish-Russian-Iranian axis is strengthening, above all to define and control the “de-escalation zones”.

There are four de-escalation zones: 1) the Idlib province, as well as the North-Eastern areas of Latakia province, the Western areas of Aleppo province and Northern areas of Hama province. There are over one million inhabitants in this zone, dominated by an alliance of al-Qaeda-linked jihadist groups.

2) the Rastan and Talbisehenclave in Northern Homs province. There are approximately 180,000 inhabitants in this zone and its wide network of rebel groups includes al-Qaeda-linked fighters.

3) Eastern Ghouta in the Northern Damascus countryside. Controlled by Jaish al-Islam, a powerful rebel faction that was participating in the Astana talks, it is home to about 690,000 civilians.

4) The rebel-controlled South along the border with Jordan that includes parts of Deraa and Quneitra provinces. As many as 800,000 civilians live there.

The agreement envisages that the jihadist rebels and government forces should halt hostilities for six months.

Russia will continue to fly over the areas, but refrain from conducting air raidsto bomb enemy positions.

In short, Turkey is siding with Russia and the latter is interested in having Turkey as a key ally in Syria, with a view to breaking NATO’s Middle East strategy and having a strong army operating in Assad’s territory, as well as reducing its engagement and hence the cost of the Russian mission to Syria.

Advisory Board Co-chair Honoris Causa Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is an eminent Italian economist and businessman. He holds prestigious academic distinctions and national orders. Mr. Valori has lectured on international affairs and economics at the world’s leading universities such as Peking University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Yeshiva University in New York. He currently chairs “International World Group”, he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group. In 1992 he was appointed Officier de la Légion d’Honneur de la République Francaise, with this motivation: “A man who can see across borders to understand the world” and in 2002 he received the title “Honorable” of the Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France. “

Middle East

China-Iran Deal and its implication for the region

Ashish Dangwal

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From the past few years, the increasing partnership between China and Iran has raised major concerns among many countries. Sinking economy and the recent COVID crisis pushed Iran into the corner and China timely manifested itself as a perfect partner for Iran. The diplomatic ties between these two countries were established in 1971 and over the years China’s demand for energy and Iran’s isolation from the international community brings them together. The recent investment and security pact covered almost every sector from Telecom, banking, ports, railways and dozens of other projects. Though the secret details of the pact were leaked but soon rejected by Iranian officials.

In 2016, Xi Jinping made a state visit to Iran and then laid the structure of this deal. Soon after in 2019, China announced its plan to invest $ 400 billion. Iran’s economy is suffering greatly because of the U.S.A sanctions and needs a lifeline to revive their domestic market. Where one side, most of the companies from different nations pulled out their businesses from Iran, On the other hand, Chinese investment can play a significant role in Iran’s survival. This partnership between these two nations directly challenges U.S.A efforts to cut off Iran from the international market arena. China’s ever-growing aspirations to increase its involvement in the Middle East perfectly sync with the geostrategic location of Tehran. However, Iran’s ambition to become a regional power needs huge investment in its domestic market. That’s where both countries see themselves as an emerging partner. 

China-Iran Economic Relationship

As a growing economy, China dependence on Iran’s oil is quite reasonable. Though this relationship is not just based on the energy, but even on the many different aspects. After 2016, China and Iran were agreed to increase their trading relations to $600 billion in the upcoming 10 years. The agreement was concordant with One Belt, One Road framework. A total of 17 agreements were signed, including one which relates to the Iran nuclear programme. The Chinese will help connect Tehran with Mashhad via their high-speed rail technology.  After the sanctions levied by the USA and other western countrieson Iran, its dependence on China increased in recent years. The trading relationship is not only limit to purchase of crude oil but even China’s involvement inIran’s upstream and downstream production processes through major investments.From 2005, both countries signed seven upstream production agreement with each other. All these agreements involve the state-owned Chinese companies, which shows the significant presence of China in Iran.

China-Iran-Syria Nexus

In December 2019, Syrian president while giving an interview to a Chinese media expressed his willingness to join the BRI project and projected Syria as a perfect partner for the Chinese investment. Syria suffered a lot because of the decades of war and wanted to start the reconstruction activities in their country. Iran and China identified themselves as the ally of Syria and they even wanted to make a strategic nexus between these countries. For the reconstruction process, China is helping Syria from Port of Tripoli by setting up it as a logistic base for the reconstruction process. China wanted to link this port with Syria’s “Four sea strategy” and connect the BRI project to the eastern Mediterranean area. This whole economic bloc could challenge the American hegemony in the region. Iran and Syria are already strategic allies in this region and by adding China in this situation, it would promote the autocratic rule in the region to counter America.

The implication for the Region

Trump administration’s ‘maximum pressure’ policy towards Iran pushed many countries like India and Japan to cut off the trading ties with Tehran. This was seen as the major diplomatic blunder made by the U.S.A because of the one very simple reason that these countries could play a major role to find the middle ground for the talks between Iran and the west.As claimed by the reports, China will increase its partnership to build the ports too, getting a port in the Persian Gulf will provide the major boost to Chinese strategic plans. If China successfully expands its presence in Iran then it will lead to the major conflict between the U.S.A and China. Though China has already invested heavily on the Gwadar port, it will not hesitate to gain an upper hand in the Persian Gulf. From where Beijing can keep its eye on U.S.A movements in the region. India’s investment progress in Iran was slow and that’s the reason recently Iran started the railway track construction work on its own.

The growing instability in the region will further escalate, as the partnership will grow between these countries. China’s ambitions to expand its BRI projects and Syria’s “Four seas strategy” can become a foundation for future projects in the whole region. Syrian President Bashar Assad has promoted this four seas strategy since 2009 that would transform the Damascus into a major trading hub. Syria wanted to form an economic space between Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria that will shape a new bloc of nations in the region. This plan includes the four seas of the region from the Mediterranean, Caspian, Black Sea, and the Persian Gulf, which makes easy for these nations from investment to transportation. 

The expanding partnership will lead to the architecture of a security structure between these three countries and will directly undermine the U.S.A presence in the region. The gradual consolidation of powers based on Anti-American and Anti-west sentiments can even form a proper security alliance where the inclusion of Turkey would be a possible scenario shortly. All these countries kind of having the same political regime one way or another, so for them it will be a great strategy to stop America’s presence from their domestic issues. If U.S.A wants to stop China’s involvement in the region, it needs to involve its key Asian partner, so that there will be some major power players in the region to maintain stability. 

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Middle East

Are The U.S. And Its Partners Losing The Grip On Syria’s North East?

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The oil-rich province of Deir Ezzor located in Eastern Syria has witnessed another escalation between the local Arab populace and the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Unexpectedly for the SDF and the U.S. military, the protesters have established control over a number of towns, and it seems they are willing to go further.

Sources close to the SDF initially reported that the protesters limited their demands by requesting a solution to a number of minor issues, but soon enough it became evident that it was not the case and the issue – and a major one – was the presence of SDF in the area. The demonstrators were quick to turn from chanting slogans to taking control of towns: in a single day they captured all of Shuhayl, Al-Hawayej, Diban and forced the SDF members to leave before blocking the roads.

The protests were sparked by a series of assassinations of influential leaders of Al-Aqidat and Al-Baqara tribes. Three Deir Ezzor sheikhs were killed in less than a week: Sheikh Suleiman Khalaf al-Kassar from Al-Aqidat was shot in Busayra village July 30. The next day Sheikh Suleiman Al-Weis who belonged to Al-Baqara was shot in the head by two gunmen on a motorcycle in Al-Dahla. Finally, Sheikh Muttshar al-Hamoud al-Hifl was shot in the outskirts of Al-Hawayej on Sunday, August 2. His relative Sheikh Ibrahim al-Hifl was also wounded in the incident but survived.

In a peculiar coincidence, a few weeks before the assassinations the tribal leaders were invited to a meeting with the SDF Commander Mazloum Abdi with the U.S. servicemen also present. The agenda reportedly included co-operation between the tribes and the SDF. It was reported that at least one of the victims, Muttshar al-Hifti, declined to participate and to engage with the Americans.

An insight into the details of these meetings can be gained through the reports about an oil deal allegedly struck by the SDF and a little known American oil developer Delta Crescent LLC. Delta Crescent was granted exclusive rights for production, refinement and export of the oil from Deir Ezzor fields potentially bringing the participants annual profit of hundreds of millions dollars, according to statements made by U.S. officials. The deal was met with harsh response from the Syrian government who labeled it a “deal between thieves”.

According to sources on the ground, the implication is that those who fell victim to the assassinations shared this view and opposed the deal. Their removal, however, has clearly failed to deliver the results intended by the masterminds behind their deaths, yet another time when the Kurds were thrown to the wolves by the U.S. who is accustomed to making their allies bear the consequences of the reckless pursuit of the American interests.

Meanwhile the SDF started to amass forces in the vicinity of the areas shaken by the unrest. The reinforcements sent from Al-Shadadi, Al-Sousa and Baghuz are gathering at the US military base near Al-Omar oil field. Moreover, two US Apache attack helicopters were spotted patrolling the area. These developments combined with lack of report on any negotiations between the protesters and the SDF leadership paint a grim picture, indicating that the SDF likely intends to use force to disperse the protests.

It is not the first time the SDF resorts to the use of force when faced with the discontent of the local populace in north-eastern Syria, although this approach had never brought the desired result. All areas affected by the protests have been subjected to dozens of raids of the SDF and the US special forces. Reports on these operations unfailingly mentioned arrests of ISIS terrorists. They failed to mention, however, what the Pentagon files under the category of “collateral damage” – deaths of civilians killed in the result of the actions of the US military and their allies.

The upheaval in Deir Ezzor is yet another evidence that the SDF, initially an independent movement, has degraded to a tool or a lever of American influence in Syria, and now finds itself fighting consequences instead of locating the root cause of the unrest – widespread corruption among the officials of the Kurdish administration and dramatic deterioration of the living conditions.

The regional turbulence created by Washington’s constantly shifting stance – or rather a lack of stance – on Syria has grown so strong it finally turned against the American interests. The latest escalation in Deir Ezzor should be considered nothing but a byproduct of this ill-designed policy and, perhaps, marks a beginning of the end of the US and SDF hegemony in Syria’s North East.

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Middle East

The Looming Disaster of the Safer Oil Tanker Moored off the Coast of Yemen

Amb. Sahar Ghanem

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Amidst the raging conflict in Yemen, the challenge of the Safer Oil Tanker emerges as one of the most hazardous risks to the environment safety in the Red Sea as a result of the potential oil spillage in the Red Sea at any moment.

Following expressing deep alarm, the United Nations Security Council called on 29 June,2020, to immediately grant unconditional access for the United Nations technical experts to assess the tanker’s condition without overdue to prevent growing risk of possible rupture, explosion or even spillage.

The threat of the floating Oil Tanker, moored off the coast of Yemen, does not only impose challenges to the geopolitical and strategic importance of the Red Sea, but it rather represents a huge challenge that threatens the environment safety, leading to one of the largest environmental hazards in the world, after the unforgettable 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill disaster in Siberia – Russia.

On 18 July 2019, the United Nations Humanitarian Affairs Coordinator Mr. Mark Lowcock informed the UN Security Council of the growing threats of the deserted Safar Oil Tanker, warning of possible explosion or leakage of its loads [1.14 M barrels of crude oil]. In his briefing on the humanitarian situation in Yemen, he pointed out that such an incident would result to a disastrous crisis to the marine life in the Red Sea and maritime in the straits of Bab-Al Madeb and Suez Canal which are two significant water corridors to the world.

It is known that the Red Sea is home for some scarce invertebrates such as corals and 600 species of fish. Unless preventative measures are taken now and immediately to prevent oil spill or possible tanker explosion, we will concretely witness a disastrous incident leading to severe effect on the Red Sea marine environment, and on both biodiversity and livelihoods starting from Yemen and extending north to Suez Canal through Jobal strait and the Gulf of Suez and south through Bab-Al Madeb strait reaching even Hormoz strait through the Arabian sea.

Environment experts’ projections expect that 115 islands are vulnerable to the risk of oil pollution; 126,000 fishermen will lose their source of income, among them 76,000 fishmen are in Al Hodeidah governorate; 850 tons of fish stocks will be exposed to the danger of contamination and death in Yemen, in the Red Sea and in Bab Al-Mandam; more than 500 fish species are at high risk of disappearing; and 300 corals will certainly disappear as a result.

The problem emerged following the takeover of the Capital Sanaa on 21 September 2014, when Houthi militias implemented unilateral actions inter alia dissolving parliament and taking over Yemen’s government institutions, which have seriously escalated the situation, leading to illegitimate seizure of power “coup d’etat”, and eventually leading to current conflict in Yemen.

The floating storage and its connected offloading terminals have not been inspected or maintained since 2015 after Houthis militias took control of the area including port of Ras Isa to which the floating tanker is connected by terminals extending 9km off the coast of Yemen.

Yemen’s internationally-recognized government has warned in many letters of evident corrosion and lack of maintenance, creating the conditions for serious environmental disaster. The Yemeni government made an urgent call for the UN to send inspection team to scale the risks.

Unfortunately, the UN inspection team was denied access to the floating tanker by the Houthi militias many times. The UN inspection team is tasked with the mission to provide the necessary inspection and put recommendations for the needed maintenance and continuing to create obstacles will refrain the team from reaching the tanker and delivering the urgent inspection.

Lately, the Government of the Republic of Yemen repeated asserting the urgent emergency of the imminent catastrophe of the floating “Safer Oil Tanker”. The government confirmed that “given the critical nature of the aging floating tanker’s situation, on 27 May 2020 leaks have been reported in the tanker causing water leaked into the tanker’s operational machineries raising the possibilities of the tanker rupturing, sinking or even exploding.

Despite urgent fixing of leaking occurred, the deteriorating situation of the tanker threatens continuing eroding. As a result, on 15 July 2020, the UNSC held a session to debate latest urgent developments and called for urgent response to be taken by the Houthi militias as required by the inspection team. It is worth mentioning that the Houthis always show willingness to accept the inspection team just like the assurances made by the Houthis in August 2019 only to be withdrawn right before the inspection team was due to board the tanker.

The Yemeni government has always approved all relevant initiatives recommended by the UN to allow addressing the serious matter and proposing necessary urgent solutions to the Safer oil tanker, as part of the responsibility to the humanitarian and economic measures proposed by the office of the UN Special Envoy Mr. Martin Griffiths and as part of its responsibility to building and sustaining environment safety; however, the Houthi militias continue refusing to allow permissions to the UN inspection team to visit the oil tanker, noting that the situation of the Safer oil tanker is becoming extremely critical more than ever, causing increasing threats of possible oil spillage, tanker sinking and explosion at any moment.

In conclusion, the Safer Oil Tanker is a floating time-bomb and allowing inspection and maintains is the only possible means that will stop a serious catastrophe from happening. If incidents of explosion or even oil spill occur, that will lead to one of the worst man-made environmental disasters in the Red Sea. Action must be taken immediately while we have in hand an opportunity to protect the environments and spare the lives of millions of people in Yemen and the region from a looming tragedy.

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