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.
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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