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The current geopolitical shifts in the Middle East

Giancarlo Elia Valori

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Syria’s three-party strategic system, with the minor addition of the United States and its now remote allies on the field, is undergoing a radical transformation.

This is also due to the clear signs that the United States is sending to everyone that concern, in particular, their quick leaving Syria.

President Trump is not entirely wrongly when he says that Syria “has always been an old friend” of Russia and hence the Syrian issue is in Russia’s traditional area of interest.

This is true but, if we all thought this way, in the mid-nineteenth century China would have been reduced to its  coastal regions only.

In geopolitics we do not talk with the logic of a golf club.

However, if the United States does no longer care about Syria, said country and its equilibria will still deal with the United States.

In fact, the United States will soon be bottled up in its  CENTCOM of Tampa, which could no longer operate directly and effectively in Northern Africa (with the jihad going on in Central Africa and in Mediterranean Africa),nor in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the play has gone too far with the agreement between the US contingents and the Taliban.

Exactly the Taliban, the Islamic “students” that the Pakistani allies, apparently very loyal to the United States, trained with their excellent intelligence services and sent to fight against the United States.

At the time, however, the United States was a close ally  of India and hence prevented Pakistan from having the  strategic depth it absolutely needed to oppose the first Indian nuclear salvo and respond to the second one.

And not even the United States could now use the Al Udeid Command located in Qatar, the CAOC that the United States itself  has put in difficulty, by following Saudi Arabia against the “terrorist” Qatar and hence – with a great leap in logic –  “Iran’s friend “. What about Saudi Arabia?

Hence the Americans have also been bottled up in their   beautiful and very recent Al Udeid base, controlled by all the Arab forces on the field as if they were hyperactive children.

Therefore, by now, the game in Syria involves only three countries, namely Iran, Israel and Russia.

While the reborn “Syrian-Iraqi Caliphate” is reconquering some areas around Deir Ezzor and is directly threatening  the Kurdish areas and the major Syrian cities of the region.

Another crazy variable, which could bring the United States back into play and prolong the time needed for the stabilization of the Syrian territory, which is exactly what the “Caliphate” wants.

Meanwhile, however, the two Kurdish groups have allied with the Syria led by Bashar al-Assad and now know that the real player of US interests in Syria is Turkey.

Iran, Israel and the Russian Federation. This is the starry sky above Syria. Hence much closer negotiations than in the past on the control of the Syrian territory between Israel and the Russian Federation, the only real regional actors interested in controlling the whole Syrian territory.

Here Iran’s intelligence and security policy comes into play, with good technical knowledge and the ability to play its political weight well.

The weight of Iranian intelligence services is lower than others’ in Syria, but it is certainly not negligible.

Clearly Russia does not care much that Iran takes its continuous line of connection between Iran and the Lebanese Central and Southern coasts.

However, that was an idea of the past. Currently the issue is much more complex. Today the Russian Federation cannot fail to put Israeli interests at the core of its strategic Middle East choices.

Nevertheless, if Iran takes its advanced control network on the border of the Bekaa-Golan Valley – that Israeli  re-conquered in 1975 – Russia will no longer hold Syria, which will have an immense territory – covered by Iranian lines southwards – to free itself from the Russian Federation’s control and then fall into Iran’s hands.  Exactly what Iran is waiting for.

Iran must not have stable bases or buffer areas in Syria. This is also in Russia’s interest. It would be a trouble for Russia and Israel altogether, if that happened.

Nor should we forget the level of pressure that the Lebanese-Iranian axis over (and inside) the Bekaa-Golan region could exert on the Russian bases of Latakia and Tartus, in the Mediterranean, in addition to Iran’s tension on the Russian facilities of Humeinim, on an airport, and finally on the T4 base (Thiyas) in the Homs Governorate, east of Palmira.

Let us not even forget the Russian base of Sharyat, at the 50th Air Brigade in the Homs area.

The “corridor” – as the Iran’s “Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps” currently calls it – runs from Iraq to Syria, precisely to DeirEzzor.

It is a real and powerful strategic target for Iran that has not -but absolutely wants-an outlet to the Mediterranean, under its full control and not under the now irrelevant organization of Lebanese security.

It goes up to the Southern Lebanese coasts, obviously passing not only through the capital city, but also through Deir Qanun, Kafra and, finally, the Litani river.

However, with a parallel connection between Beirut and the Hezbollah command of the Litani area.

Hence, the Russian strategic thinking is currently simple: to prevent Iran’s further expansion to Syria, as well as to mainly avoid the persistence of the conflict in that area, and to maintain good relations with Israel.

In fact – and this is particularly interesting to us – the Russian Federation has partially deactivated its S-300 missile defenses that operate in Syria and will also do so in the future.

The S-300s are a sequence of long-range surface-to-air missiles manufactured by Russia.

As clearly seen in Syria, they operate very effectively against aircraft, cruise ships and ballistic missiles.

Its radars are capable of chasing over 100 targets simultaneously, since they can engage in battle 24-36 of them at the same time.

The missile range of the S-300sis between 150 and 200 kilometers, with fully automatic operation.

Hence what does Iran want?

Firstly, it wants Russia not to selectively deprive the S-300 systems in the case of aircraft, missiles and carriers arriving in the corridor or the Bekaa-Golan region from Israel.

In addition, some experts of the Iranian intelligence services have noted a strong correlation between the organization of the Israeli attack forces and the timing and positions of the new Hezbollah and Pasdaran launching points.

In fact, in mid-January, Russia announced that the training of Syrian troops for using the S-300s would be completed in March, when the S-300 batteries should become operational.

But they will probably be “operated” selectively and, in any case, always under the immediate and active control of the Russian Supreme Command.

Iran, however, hopes for a miracle, i.e. that the weapons of a quasi-ally of Israel – namely Russia that is currently in Syria – become the best defense against Israel’s attacks on the Iranian-Lebanese “corridor”.

For Iran, the optimal target would be the dual and simultaneous attack between the Bekaa-Golan region and the Litani river, coordinated by actions south of the Israeli border supported by the Palestinian Islamic jihad.

We will talk about it later.

In fact, we should not forget the many small organizations of the radical Palestinian universe, which can no longer be connected with the Sunni axis that, indeed, does no longer wants to annoy Israel.

This happens precisely against Iran. It is a broad political-military axis mainly orphan of Hamas, which is now a criminal-business organization still devoted to raise funds among the most gullible and naïve Western “democrats”.

Or even worse.

Two Islamist Norths and a South, with a new master, namely Iran, simultaneously allied against the Jewish State.

This is the strategic dream of the Shiite Republic of Iran.

Russia, however, still wants to carry out joint actions with Iran, but always outside Syria.

Moreover, since the beginning of the Russian conflict in Syria, in 2015, it has been openly recognizing the central role played by Israel.

In fact, Russia wants its cake (the common interests with Iran, especially in the oil sector) and eat it, too (the full and reliable alliance with Israel).

Russia still wants to do much business with Iran in Venezuela, where both actors operate with great care.

Russia, however, also wants to collaborate with Iran for the Arab League’s recent and future peace initiatives, which should create a new climate of stability throughout the Greater Middle East.

It would be nice to believe it.

Conversely, also based on the official documents of the meetings with Russia, Iran immediately wants to use the “corridor” for a diagonal attack against Israel and later acquire Syria as large part of a Shiite territory. It also wants to operate as an ally of Russia – only and always in oil terms – between Qatar, Bahrain and the Emirates, which are areas in which the Russian Federation has been working very well in recent years. Iran, however, is working worse there.

Hence Iran could strengthen its positions in Syria, especially to force Russia to surrender there, as well as to also force it into a harsher position towards Israel.

Nevertheless, should Iran do so, it could lead to the strong tendency – in agreement between Russia and Israel – to immediately and harshly close the “corridor” and quickly get rid of the massive presence of Pasdaran and Hezbollah.

Hence, also Iran must consider its strategic equation well.

Moreover, reverting to the positions on the ground, Russia is taking additional five months to train the Syrians to use the S-300s.

With ongoing connections of the equipment both with the Humeinym base in Syria, but above all with the Russian Central Air Command in Moscow.

Putin will leave not even his field knife uncontrolled on the Syrian territory.

We have already seen the results of Russia’s very strict tactical and operational control of the Syrian forces, which would have certainly not achieved these excellent and quick results if they had not had patient and constant guardians from Moscow.

Obviously Russia does not want any relationship between its weapons on the Syrian territory and any attack against Israeli targets.

This implies that Russia wants to be absolutely sure that no Syrian and Iranian force, whether airborne or not, can use the S-300s against the Jewish State.

This approach has always been part of the Russian “Grand Strategy”, unlike the relationship between Russia and Iran that has been cold and only technical throughout the development of the Syrian wars.

Who knows what could happen if the Hezbollah bases on the Mediterranean were to prevent or harm the Russian operations between Latakia and Tartus.

Russia knows all too well it cannot trust Iran, but it will still try to make it carry out operations outside its great unitarian and Mediterranean Shiite dream-although this will certainly be very difficult.

What would happen if the Israeli aircraft, searching for Iranian targets on the Galilee-Bekaa-Golan line, bombed an S-300 or something else and created a severe dispute with Russia?

What would happen if all this could also trigger a short-term struggle between Shiite powers, in the North, in addition to local Syrian populations, also hit by the “Zionist entity”?

This, too, would be the incident preferred by the Shiite Republic of Iran, which is now trying to unleash a great all-out clash, on Syrian Southern borders, to lay all the blame on Israel. This would make Hezbollah and Pasdaran shift from the guerrilla warfare phase to the “people’s war” phase, which is more suitable for them.

Or we could also think of a mediation in which the bases of the precision-guided missiles brought from the “corridor” to Northern Lebanon and the Bekaa region are destroyed by Israel’s quick operations, which eliminate them all, while the S-300s around Damascus are still silent.

Clearly time is pressing.

Everything still depends on Russia’s ability to blackmail Iran, which – indeed -is fading ever more.

A possible solution could be a strong demonstration action by Israel on the skies of the advanced Hezbollah missile positions, not envisaging the use of S-300s, thus also allowing to reduce risks significantly.

While the “corridor” – which annoys both Russia and Israel – would be well closed in the meantime.

All this can only be done by the end of March.

Another option could be a bilateral operation between the North and the South, between Russia and Israel, but only on the “corridor”, which isolates the batteries of Hezbollah missiles and makes it clear to the “Party of God” that the missiles are no longer needed. It should also make clear that the missiles will not be repaired or “fueled” and that their communications with Iran will be very problematic.

Obviously if the United States does not fully leave Syria, there will be no argument that will make Iran go away from Bashar al-Assad’ Syria.

It is their favourite counterargument.

Like two blind people, lost in their dream of the great Shiite region or the even greater Middle East “democracy”, Iran and the United States justify each other, but without being able to do much any longer.

Furthermore, in a few choice words, Russia asked Netanyahu to use his influence on President Trump to immediately make the remaining US troops – that are there without a precise strategic idea – withdraw from Syria.

Inter alia, the demand to the Israeli Prime Minister implied the Russian request to make the American soldiers withdraw also from the Al Tanf base.

It is a large base located on the border between Syria and Iraq, in the Homs Governorate.

Clearly for the Russians who operate much in that area, the Al Tanf base –  the old headquarters of a “coalition against terrorism” organized by the United States and later left to the “Free Syrian Army”, which is now an umbrella of terrorist groups that is currently self-named  “Revolutionary Commando Army” – is a constant danger.

It is also obvious that this old base is only a remnant – however currently jihadist, albeit certainly “moderate” – of an old set of US forces in Syria.

The request for Netanyahu to put pressure on President   Trump, with a view to putting an end to these two issues, had been made to Israel about six months ago, in late September, but without results. Clearly Israel does not fully trust Russia yet. And Russia does not want other “godfathers” for Israel in the global world, since the United States has now been “branded” or blocked outside the Middle East.

Also upon Russia’s explicit direct requests, President Trump has not yet clarified the issue of the Al Tanf base, thus being vague about its possible future use, although associating the timing for its closure with that of the now certain evacuation of all US troops from Syria.

Both Israel and Jordan, however, have made an explicit request to the United States to keep the Al Tanf base open.

Why?

Simply because this position is excellent to prevent Russia (and probably also Iran) from closing a base where also Jordanian illegal forces operate, since Al Tanf is right on Jordan’s border.

Israel does not want to be sealed in that important region  by a base in Russian hands, with dangerous friends, while it does not even want to deprive its friendly country, namely Jordan, of a very useful base for possible bilateral operations.

Nevertheless, if Israel were to accept Russian pressure for the Al Tanf base – which is only an annoying mirage for it -Russia could make a nice gift to Israel.

In fact, it could prevent pro-Iran forces from slipping between the Jordanian and Israeli borders, thus recreating, elsewhere, another more artisanal and less sophisticated “corridor”.

Hence, Israel will ask Putin for some things before scrapping the Al Tanf base: firstly, to create an effective, controllable and real distance of at least 80 kilometers between the Iranian and pro-Shiite lines and Israel’s Northern borders.

How? Currently the control systems are manifold and very accurate, but the point is that we must be able to react before the start of the operation and 80 kilometers are always too few.

However, if the Russian Federation could guarantee an effective and armed line of control between its Iranian allies and the Israeli border, the negotiations could be made. Basically, it would be convenient also for Russia.

Hence, how can we convince Putin? Reminding him that being fooled by an ally is certainly not the best way to become the hegemonic country of the Greater Middle East.

Others did the same and we saw how they ended up.

Israel’ second request to Russia is to stop arms trafficking, by air, from Iran to Syria and Hezbollah.

So far Russia has never accepted this.

It must also be made clear, however, that if Russia does notget carried away by Iran in Syria, there could be a successful diarchy between Israel and the Russian Federation in the future, with all the allies they have in common in the Gulf, and no power outside the region could bother them.

For Russia the message could also be persuasive – and even credible.

Finally Israel wants the factories near the Syrian-Iranian bases on the Syrian territory, which usually produce   precision materials for Hezbollah missile launches, to be completely and permanently scrapped.

Easier said than done. Iran could re-establish them elsewhere, in Jordan or in the Lebanon, or even in Iraq.

In that case, however, they could easily be checked in due time, even for a future targeted attack.

Here, probably, an agreement could easily be reached.

Not even Russia likes this production of weapons, which it cannot fully control.

And here comes Russia’s trump card: if no global negotiations with Iran are made, there will be no military operation on the Syrian skies that will enable Israel to have peace.

This is true – but it is also true that the Israeli air operations give Russia the strong power to be credible with Iran.

There is no way out. Either we make Iran understand that its “corridor” does not work or cannot work – and hence it can only give few and not even effective missiles to the Shiite Lebanese – or nothing can be done about it.

This is a possible agreement of convenience between Israel and Russia.

Furthermore, in any case, the missile operations of the Lebanese Shiites could be used not only for a real war, but above all to terrorize, change and distort the behaviour of the Israeli population and government.

As already mentioned, the leaders of the Palestinian Resistance Committees, operating south of the Israeli border, were cheerfully hosted by Hezbollah in Beirut on January 30 last.

Hence the issue here would be to have -from the Palestinian Resistance Committees and before the elections scheduled in Israel on April 9 – a series of missile attacks, especially in the Gaza Strip, a perfect point for the real attack, but also for distracting Israel in relation to a strong action from the North.

The timing gap between the two is essential for the success of the Iranian-Shiite-Palestinian operation.

Furthermore, the Palestinian Resistance Committees are small organizations in Hamas’ hands.

This means that Hamas has become Hezbollah’s direct counterpart in the South.

In this case, the issue lies in avoiding – with the usual intelligence operations – mass missile attacks, which should take place about three weeks before the elections. The right psychopolitical timing.

We could also envisage, however, a quick and surgical attack by Israel on Hamas before their operations, with a view to belittling them vis-à-vis their funders and associate the fate of Hamas with that of these new pro-Shiite groups.

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. “

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Middle East

Erdogan’s Calamitous Authoritarianism

Dr.Alon Ben-Meir

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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.

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Middle East

Syrian Refugees Have Become A Tool Of Duplicitous Politics

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Syrian refugees in Rukban camp

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.

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Middle East

Is Syria Ready For Second Wave Of COVID-19?

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©UNICEF/Delil Souleiman

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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