Turkey, like much of the Middle East, is discovering that what goes around comes around.
Not only because President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appears to have miscalculated the fallout of what may prove to be a foolhardy intervention in Syria and neglected alternative options that could have strengthened Turkey’s position without sparking the ire of much of the international community.
But also because what could prove to be a strategic error is rooted in a policy of decades of denial of Kurdish identity and suppression of Kurdish cultural and political rights that was more likely than not to fuel conflict rather than encourage societal cohesion.
The policy midwifed the birth in the 1970s to militant groups like the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), which only dropped its demand for Kurdish independence in recent years.
The group that has waged a low intensity insurgency that has cost tens of thousands of lives has been declared a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union.
Turkish refusal to acknowledge the rights of the Kurds, who are believed to account for up to 20 percent of the country’s population traces its roots to the carving of modern Turkey out of the ruins of the Ottoman empire by its visionary founder, Mustafa Kemal, widely known as Ataturk, Father of the Turks.
It is entrenched in Mr. Kemal’s declaration in a speech in 1923 to celebrate Turkish independence of “how happy is the one who calls himself a Turk,” an effort to forge a national identity for country that was an ethnic mosaic.
The phrase was incorporated half a century later in Turkey’s student oath and ultimately removed from it in 2013 at a time of peace talks between Turkey and the PKK by then prime minister, now president Erdogan.
It took the influx of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Kurds in the late 1980s and early 1990s as well as the 1991 declaration by the United States, Britain and France of a no-fly zone in northern Iraq that enabled the emergence of an autonomous Iraqi Kurdish region to spark debate in Turkey about the Kurdish question and prompt the government to refer to Kurds as Kurds rather than mountain Turks.
Ironically, Turkey’s enduring refusal to acknowledge Kurdish rights and its long neglect of development of the pre-dominantly Kurdish southeast of the country fuelled demands for greater rights rather than majority support for Kurdish secession largely despite the emergence of the PKK
Most Turkish Kurds, who could rise to the highest offices in the land s long as they identified as Turks rather than Kurds, resembled Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, whose options were more limited even if they endorsed the notion of a Jewish state.
Nonetheless, both minorities favoured an independent state for their brethren on the other side of the border but did not want to surrender the opportunities that either Turkey or Israel offered them.
The existence for close to three decades of a Kurdish regional government in northern Iraq and a 2017 referendum in which an overwhelming majority voted for Iraqi Kurdish independence, bitterly rejected and ultimately nullified by Iraqi, Turkish and Iranian opposition, did little to fundamentally change Turkish Kurdish attitudes.
If the referendum briefly soured Turkish-Iraqi Kurdish relations, it failed to undermine the basic understanding underlying a relationship that could have guided Turkey’s approach towards the Kurds in Syria even if dealing with Iraqi Kurds may have been easier because, unlike Turkish Kurds, they had not engaged in political violence against Turkey.
The notion that there was no alternative to the Turkish intervention in Syria is further countered by the fact that Turkish PKK negotiations that started in 2012 led a year later to a ceasefire and a boosting of efforts to secure a peaceful resolution.
The talks prompted imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan to publish a letter endorsing the ceasefire, the disarmament and withdrawal from Turkey of PKK fighters, and a call for an end to the insurgency. Mr. Ocalan predicted that 2013 would be the year in which the Turkish Kurdish issues would be resolved peacefully.
The PKK’s military leader, Cemil Bayik, told the BBC three years later that “we don’t want to separate from Turkey and set up a state. We want to live within the borders of Turkey on our own land freely.”
The talks broke down in 2015 against the backdrop of the Syrian war and the rise as a US ally of the United States in the fight against the Islamic State of the PKK’s Syrian affiliate, the People’s Protection Units (YPG).
Bitterly opposed to the US-YPG alliance, Turkey demanded that the PKK halt its resumption of attacks on Turkish targets and disarm prior to further negotiations.
Turkey responded to the breakdown and resumption of violence with a brutal crackdown in the southeast of the country and on the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).
Nonetheless, in a statement issued from prison earlier this year that envisioned an understanding between Turkey and Syrian Kurdish forces believed to be aligned with the PKK, Mr. Ocalan declared that “we believe, with regard to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the problems in Syria should be resolved within the framework of the unity of Syria, based on constitutional guarantees and local democratic perspectives. In this regard, it should be sensitive to Turkey’s concerns.”
Turkey’s emergence as one of Iraqi Kurdistan’s foremost investors and trading partners in exchange for Iraqi Kurdish acquiescence in Turkish countering the PKK’s presence in the region could have provided inspiration for a US-sponsored safe zone in northern Syria that Washington and Ankara had contemplated.
The Turkish-Iraqi Kurdish understanding enabled Turkey to allow an armed Iraqi Kurdish force to transit Turkish territory in 2014 to help prevent the Islamic State from conquering the Syrian city of Kobani.
A safe zone would have helped “realign the relationship between Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and its Syrian offshoot… The safe-zone arrangements… envision(ed) drawing down the YPG presence along the border—a good starting point for reining in the PKK, improving U.S. ties with Ankara, and avoiding a potentially destructive Turkish intervention in Syria,” Turkey scholar Sonar Cagaptay suggested in August.
The opportunity that could have created the beginnings of a sustainable solution that would have benefitted Turkey as well as the Kurds fell by the wayside with Mr. Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from northern Syria.
In many ways, Mr. Erdogan’s decision to opt for a military solution fits the mould of a critical mass of world leaders who look at the world through a civilizational prism and often view national borders in relative terms.
Russian leader Vladimir Putin pointed the way with his 2008 intervention in Georgia and the annexation in 2014 of Crimea as well as Russia’s stirring of pro-Russian insurgencies in two regions of Ukraine.
Mr. Erdogan appears to believe that if Mr. Putin can pull it off, so can he.
The current situation in Syria
Syria’s current prospects are no longer a return – albeit a laborious one – to an old pre-2015 unitary State, but the persistence of a very fragmented territory. This, however, responds to a logic of various countries’ future participation in the great reconstruction business.
The war operations on the Syrian territory are currently prerequisites for the various strategic players’ future presence for reconstruction. They are not only mere war actions for reconquering a specific territory, but also actions to achieve a “post-national” hegemony.
In this regard, as early as 2005, in his article entitled War is Peace: on Post-National War, Ulrich Beck spoke about the relationship between post-national and cosmopolitan responsibility, currently typical of the West, when war is decided in a specific place of cosmopolis.
War is waged – often an unending war as the United States is currently doing – but then a new war is waged to isolate the type 1 conflict from the rest of the global system.
Certainly, as we well know, the motivations of the various players that started the war in Syria were much more immediate and earthly. However, if the West decides a war in its periphery, it must always justify it globally, because this is now its code of action and the justification it must “sell” to its public.
Ever more laboriously, indeed.
The East must not justify its wars. It just wages them. Also China and Russia, however, are very careful not to spread the effects of a regional conflict to the rest of the international equilibria system like wildfire.
Israel is continuing its air strikes in Syria, especially to avoid friction between Hezbollah, Iran, some Syrian units and its key positions in the Golan Heights.
On September 11, the Israeli Air Force and missiles hit the missile construction stations at al-Safirah, near Aleppo, probably in Hezbollah’s hands.
In that case, sources of the Syrian regime stated that most of the Israeli missiles were shot down by Syrian anti-aircraft forces.
The Israeli Air Force also attacked the T-4 base, in the Homs province, with a probable departure of Israeli jets from the U.S. base of Al-Tanf on the Iraqi-Jordanian border.
Moreover, some military logistics analysts state that Israel’s targeted attacks on the Hezbollah missile stations in Syria and on the Golan Heights have now completely inhibited Iran from transporting weapons, both within the Tehran-Beirut line and from that line to the Golan Heights.
Other Israeli attacks have been recorded in Al-Mayadin and Abu Kamal, but in total there have been six Israeli attacks, at least since the beginning of September 2020.
There was also an ammunition depot in Abu Kamal.
Pending the attacks, but also the current reconstruction of the “Caliphate”, all this is matched by Bashar el Assad’s request for closer relations with Russia, with a meeting held on September 7 last between Bashar el Assad, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov and Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, where the two countries reaffirmed their common fight against “terrorism”, but underlined their efforts for Syria’s reconstruction.
Russia is more interested in achieving hegemony and benefiting from the reconstruction business than in militarily supporting Assad for him to fully reconquer the whole Syrian territory both against the jihad and the various other forces, always linked to external players. An operation which is unlikely and anyway future and very expensive.
The “Caliphate” is currently present in various parts of the Syrian central desert.
There were already some ISIS suicide attacks to take some territories back after the “Battle of Baghouz” of March 2019, which also put an end to the Caliphate’s grip on Iraq.
By what means? Much of the money that was in Raqqah, the capital of the aforementioned ISIS, is still held by the various regional leaders who, however, still have an obscure, but probably strong military and political link between them.
Initially the flow of money was above all from Raqqah to Abu Kamal, the ISIS last outpost before the supreme, but not final defeat. Currently, however, the “Caliphate” is attacking Deir-ez-Zor, Raqqah, Homs and Shaddadi, south of Hasakah, hitting both Bashar el Assad’s army and the Syrian Democratic Forces. Only a few days ago the Russian forces reconquered the gas deposits and wells of Doubayat, south of Sukhnah, in the Homs province.
There were also other ISIS attacks against the Shiite militias west of the Euphrates.
Nevertheless, the most important one was the attack of various (Sunni) tribes, gathered by the leaders of the Aqidat tribe, against the Kurdish troops and especially against the Syrian Democratic Forces.
This happened after the clashes in Jajsh Aqidat, but there was also a threat – not even too veiled – from the Baghouz Coordination to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), so as to force them to apologize for their behaviour in the region, especially with regard to the many citizens of Baghouz currently interned in the camps organized by the Kurdish-led FDS.
Tribes really count, “foreign” armies less.
It is the logic of the old Bedouin proverb: “I against my brother. I and my brother against my cousin. I, my brother and my cousin against the stranger”.
Meanwhile, the Iranian Al Qods Forces support, even materially, the Shiite or non-Shiite defections of elements already belonging to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), without any Western supporters of the SDF raising the problem.
The main Kurdish tribes are currently seven, with religious affiliations of various origin, including Yazidis, Yarsanis (the oldest Kurdish religion),Alevis and obviously Sunnis.
In the Kurdish tradition, however, there is also a considerable Shiite minority, the FailiKurds – about 1.5 million people – who are found between the Zagros mountains and the two Syrian and Iraqi borders, but now also live in Baghdad, Diyala, Wasit, Missan and Basra.
They have always had little affinity with the Ba’ath Party. They are often rich and hold important positions in the commercial communities of the cities where they live, but they have played a significant role in the creation of Kurdish nationalism.
There are also the Shabak, mainly Iraqi Kurds, who speak an Iranian dialect and live in religious communities (ta’ifa) in the Nineveh area.
The ancestors of the Kurdish Shabak were almost all followers of the Kurdish mystic Saif-ad-Din Ardabili.
As a man linked to the Sufi order of Zahed Gilani, the Zahedieh, Ardabili created a mystical tradition largely linked to the Kurdish identity, although no Sufi order really bonded with these “appearances”.
If we do not study the development lines of Islamic mysticism, but also Alawite (which is a modern expansion of Shiite Sufism) and Christian mysticism, we do not understand anything about Middle East’s Arab factionalism and the true “incense route” that currently separates the various territories of the Greater Middle East and not only them.
The Sufi, Sunni and Shiite Tariqat connect areas which are very far one another: the Horn of Africa connects to Iran, from Sudan to the Amazigh of the Maghreb desert, from India to Egypt.
It should be recalled that in Turkey the Sufi orders were banned by Atatürk in 1925, but they went ahead with little legal trouble.
The Albanian Bekhtashi were tolerated and, indeed, they became powerful even under Enver Hoxha’s regime.
Currently the greatest Sufi order is the Qadiriyyah, linked to the tradition of the first Sufi recognized by the Islamic tradition, Abd Al Qadir al Jilani, who was probably Kurdish. It was our year 1000 in Baghdad.
It is a very rich order – thanks to the Arab informal finance channels – and operates everywhere.
In Sudan there is also the Khatimiyyah, namely the Mirganiyah, not to mention the Mahdi sect.
Also Omar al Mukhtar, well known to the Italian occupying forces in Libya, was a Qadiriyyah, a Sufi order from which the secret society of Tijanijah originated and developed. It expanded especially among the Amazigh, in our 18th century, and had many Sufi traits.
There are even the Fulani, who also love jihad very much, but in a different way from Al Qai’da al-Sulbah and other very recent similar organizations.
If, instead of studying how to fatten up the Islamic goose to make it addicted to the mystical Western ritual of the ballot in a box, we had studied the esotericism – even the political one – of the seven Sufis and the various confraternities and brotherhoods, we would have had much fewer political and terrorist problems.
As an old Afghan Sufi “master” told me, “do not send us mobile phones and computers. We already have them and we know how to use them better than you. Just send us a holy manand we will listen to him with respect”.
Materialistic secularism destroys, above all, its worshippers.
But let us revert to Syria.
In Syria, ISIS is continuing its assassinations against both Assad’s and the Syrian Democratic Forces’ soldiers.
General Talal Qassem, an officer linked to Assad, was assassinated, as well as two officers of the 4th Division, supported and armed by Iran, and Muhammad Jamal al-Jamal, very close to Russia and leader of the Deraa Committee. The jihadists also killed Muhammad Qasimal-Yunis, recruiter of the Iranian Al Quds Forces in Deraa.
Hence a significant level of Caliphate’s territorial intelligence, which makes us assume that much more relevant operations will be made in the future.
Since 2019 the “Caliphate” has been reorganizing itself, from al-Sukhna in the province of Homs,al-Mayadin, in the area of Deir-ez-Zor, to Ma’adan near Raqqa, towards the desert of Al-Suwaida, the one of Al-Buqamal, of Al-Mayadin, al-Salamiya and al-Zakf, in the Western area of the Anbar desert.
The Caliphate’s primary triangle is currently the one between Al-Sukhna, al-Mayadin and Ma’adan that is supposed to count 45,000 militants approximately.
Talking again about Ba’athist generals, Firas Al-Nasaan, executive of the Syrian Air Force Intelligence Service, the real core of Syrian intelligence, and other leaders of Assad’s Intelligence Service, were also killed.
This implies a dangerous penetration of Syrian structures by the jihad, which not even Russia has been able to avoid.
There were clashes – very dangerous politically – between Assad’s 8th Brigade, in the hands of the Russian forces (like all the Syrian army operational corps),and some Bedouin tribes in the Deraa province.
Clearly this province is already an area of Caliphate’s deep penetration, but also of its financial, political and religious networks which, apparently, are currently not an evident part of ISIS.
This intelligence and military porosity of Assad’s regime is therefore extremely dangerous and could thwart both the pax russica and, above all, the already defined projects of investment in the “New Syria”, mainly by China. It is therefore clear to understand who is behind it, if anyone.
In the meantime, the United States is sending mainly drones, which killed two commanders of “Hurras al-Din“, also known as the Guardians of Religion, an organization affiliated to Al Qa’eda, but also opposed to the other traditional subsidiaries of Bin Laden’s network in Syria. The two commanders were Sayyaf al-Tunisi and Abu Hamza Al-Yamani.
War with remote control, namely strategic zapping. It will not be enough.
The two U.S. operations were recorded by Russia in the Idlib area, but it is likely that the contrast between this Qaedist organization and the other traditional ones did not favour Haya’tTahrir Al-Sham and the subsequent Bin Laden’s networks.
The Hurras al-Dinnetwork, however, is known to have stable relations with the Turkish Intelligence Services.
In 2018 it operated to mediate between the Syrian Liberation Army, in the Aleppo area, and Ayat Tahrir al-Sham.
The above-mentioned pro-Turkish group has recently operated in the Hama area and, sometimes, in Idlib.
The Russian Federation has operated successfully in Syria but, mainly and indirectly, by organizing the Army structures of Bashar el Assad, thus controlling him closely.
The factionalism of the Syrian Ba’athist army is well known. In 2018-2019, Bashar el Assad’s Chief of Staff directly controlled only 25,000-30,000 soldiers and officers out of a total of over 200,000.
Hence the usefulness of the non-Syrian Shiite militias, such as the Lebanese Hezbollah; the Iraqi and Pakistani Ali Zulfikar, originating directly from the Islamist efforts of the Bhutto family; the Abu Fadl al Abbas Brigade, born in Syria mainly to prevent jihadist activities of desecration of Shiite mosques (and Christian churches), as well as, obviously, the Al Quds Brigade of the Iranian Pasdaran, and finally the Afghan Shiite Fatimiyoun and the members of the Pakistani Zeinabiyoun Brigade.
Russia strongly needs to have Iran present in Syria, but it certainly does not want to leave the Syrian future in Iran’s hands.
Quite the reverse. Many intelligence signals tell us that Russia knew about some operations of other regional players against the Pasdaran and the other forces led by Iran, but did not lift a finger.
The Russian plan is therefore to have a mobile and very centralized Ba’athist force, with a significant share of Special Corps and relative autonomy from Russia, especially in the Southern and Eastern Syrian territory, with reference to both jihadist operations and operations by more or less regular forces led by regional or global players.
As early as 2015 Russia had created the 4th Syrian Corps, with a core of Bashar el Assad’s old army and a unit of the National Defence Forces led by Iran, as well as some brigades of the Ba’ath Party.
It is therefore obvious that, in Syria, the second opponent of Russia is an ally, namely Iran.
Putin has therefore correctly calculated his strategic equation: the West could not materially oppose his intervention in Syria.
Part of his intervention in that country was aimed at deterring the West.
Hence many Anti Access-Denial Area (A2AD) operations and full control of the airspace, as well as – particularly today – Russia’s continuous use of Private Military Companies (PMCs), which allow greater flexibility in the use of force and also to “do politics” on the territory.
There is also the oil problem, which can never be neglected.
At the end of June 2020, the U.S. company Delta Crescent Energy signed a contract with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, but also with a guarantee from the Kurdish leadership that Russia could benefit from the agreement, and with possible future opportunities for Russia to explore and extract local oil.
Erdogan, too, offered Russia the opportunity to modernize the Deir-ez-Zor oil fields, in view of reinvigorating the Syrian economy.
The Mercury company, owned by Yevgheni Prigozhin, an entrepreneur who is Putin’s personal friend, already operates in Eastern Syria but, in the meantime, Russia’s operatives are permanently dealing with the Syrian Tribal Council, as well as with the pro-Iranian Nawaf al-Bashir tribes.
Unlike other countries, Russia knows that the Middle East States are mobile compositions of tribes that are the real basic political entity.
This happens while the United States is leaving the Syrian buffer zone, i.e. the Peace Corridor, or the Security Mechanism placed on the Syrian side of the Syrian-Turkish border, and hence China is entering the scene.
China’s humanitarian aid to Bashar el Assad began in August 2016, but obviously China always stresses the principle of non-interference in conflicts and in the internal affairs of other States.
It should also be recalled, however, that China has shown a cold attitude also towards Russia’s missile and air operations in Syria, although it is an open ally and friend of Bashar el Assad’s regime.
Iran has often sought Chinese support for its engagement in Syriaand it is also trying to enter the system of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).
This Chinese support will continue also during the likely future offensive by Assad’s forces on Idlib.
The Case For Israel- Book Review
The Case For Israel by Alan Dershowitz, John Wiley & Sons, Inc.2003
In his book, ‘The Case For Israel’, Professor Alan Dershowitz, sets out a “proactive defence for Israel” (p.1) and he does so in a manner that addresses the core and more fundamental premise that, Israel and its citizens have the right to exist in peace and security. With this focus, Professor Alan, sets out the narrative in the form of 32 key accusations against the state of Israel, which he then sets out to answer/defend. Interpreting facts and drawing conclusions as only a lawyer can, Alan does not hesitate to draw parallels with American Colonists seeking separation from the state of England, when he refers to the Israeli Declaration of Independence. Having worked on this book from the year of 1967, with the first publication in 2003, the defence is unarguably exhaustive and honed with great skill and there is no dearth of historical references being used to state his case. All this assumes even greater importance when one acknowledges the growing Anti-Semitic sentiments in present day Europe and even the United States of America(Leff). Truly and unfortunately, not much seems to have changed since the inception of this book in 1967 and now, as far as the need to justify the existence of the state of Israel is concerned.
It may be said that the chief strength of this book lies in the fact that it rejects extremist claims of both sides, i.e. the Palestinians and the Israelis, just as the Peel Commission did in 1937 and most of the world does today. Professor Dershowitz in a sense carries forward the premise as acknowledged by the UN (and the Peel Commission) that both the Palestinians and the Jews had valid but irreconcilable claims with partition being the most realistic solution given the “two intense nationalisms” (p.65).
In order to buttress his advocacy for a two state solution (which to him is the premise of the book), he points to the emergence of several Islamic states through a process of partition. Consequently, Alan Dershowitz, repeatedly drives home the point that, the Palestinians repeatedly rejected the Two State Solution, with not just Yasser Arafat’s’ contrarian’ (p.72) comments to Arab leaders at Stockholm after the Oslo Declaration(U.S Govt Office of the Historian) but also the failed Clinton driven initiative at Camp David (2001)where Yasser Arafat walked away without even making a counter proposal given his rejection of the proposed plan. Undeniably, as cited by Alan Dershowitz, and voiced by Prince Bandar, in his interview to the New Yorker Magazine, when he said (off the record)that Arafat’s refusal was “a tragic mistake- a crime really”(Walsh). Arafat’s refusal and consequent escalation in terror attacks even though ultimately engineered to win Palestinians world sympathy, were none the less, acts of terror.
In Alan’s words the world including the UN seemed to reward Palestinians for their acts of terror. According to AD, Israel on the other hand has repeatedly been subjected to double standards when it comes to judging its response to acts of terror at the hands of Palestinians. He is utterly convincing in this regard when he points out that while Israeli soldiers are governed by a rigid code of conduct, Palestinians, eschew any such binding and routinely employing children, young adults and even women for committing acts of terror.
It would do us well to understand at this point that in the background of Alan’s defence for the state of Israel, is the recurring theme that the Jews of the First Aliyah of 1882 had legitimately and continuously bought land (mostly un arable) from absentee landlords (Arabs), often at exorbitant prices. In addition, AD also posits the premise that the problem of Arab refugees is a deliberate act emanating from actions of Arab Rulers and a factor perpetuated by the Palestinians as they kept demanding that the 4 million Palestinians should be allowed to return to from where they fled. Clearly, in the not so distant past there was an exchange of population which took place when 850,000 ‘Arab Jews’ living in Arab countries landed up becoming refugees while correspondingly, the 1948 war waged by Arab rulers against Israel saw Arabs migrate outwards from what is now Israel. What is pertinent in this regard is the fact that the ‘Arab Jews’ were attempted to be absorbed by present day Israel, the Arab leaders were not interested in absorbing these Arab refugees, choosing to mostly let them fester in camps instead of integrating them in to their more homogenous population.
In a sense, as pointed by AD, Arabs are more interested in denying the right of existence to Israel than they are in the formation of the State of Palestine. In fact, the words of Bey Abdul-Hati, a prominent Palestinian leader as addressed to the Peel Commission in 1937 “There is no such country ……Palestine is a term Zionists invented ……” (p.7), underscore the fact that Palestinians, historically, always, wanted to be a part of Syria. If this had not been so, and if nothing else, the most generous terms of settlement as offered by Barak in 2001as a part of the Clinton initiative. would have settled matters once and for all. A corollary to this is Alan’s admission that even Israel faltered when it did not implement the Alon Plan(ATLANTA JEWISH TIMES) which would have given the population centres of the West Bank to the Arabs, while retaining some unpopulated strategic areas.
A possible criticism of this book certainly lies in the fact that, Professor Alan has unilaterally chosen the (possible) accusations and his defence is one without adjudication of any sort. Hence, in such a situation, it is the reader who must sit in judgment and decide for himself/herself as to the merits and the validity of the evidence presented on behalf of the defendant- The State of Israel. Again, given the fact that Palestinians choose not to acknowledge or care for historical facts, we should not ‘crucify’ Israel even when historical and other facts (as cited in the book) speak in its favour. Given that we live in a less than perfect world, this “Jew Among Nations” (p.222), needs to be given its due as the only democracy and least theocratic state in the Middle East and should be judged by a yardstick that is not too different from the one used for its comparable ‘peer’ nations like, France England, USA and Canada when it comes to issues like morality and ethics. What better proof can there be, of democracy in Israel, given Joint Arab List’s splendid performance in the recent Israeli elections.
Russia and Syria: Nuances in Allied Relations
The foreign policy strategy of any state includes a certain set of means and ways to ensure the practical achievement of its goals. Searching for allies or temporary partners that will help serve a specific purpose has always been an essential part of this strategy. In the past, the belief was that this was primarily the concern of “smaller” states interested in forging an alliance with a strong patron. However, the sharp imbalance that has emerged in international relations in the decades since the collapse of the USSR has shown that large states that are engaged in global politics are just as interested in building various types of alliances and partnership as “smaller” states. Sometimes even more so. Recent diplomatic practice has demonstrated that keeping such relations on an even keel demands that the parties delicately balance their understanding of the limits to their mutual concessions and constantly check that they are “on the same page.” The latter is done to preserve confidence in rapidly changing circumstances that are often beyond their control and, most importantly, to ensure they do not present each other with an impossible choice, which is something that happened between the United States and Turkey within NATO, and quite recently in the Union State of Russia and Belarus.
Metamorphoses of U.S. politics from Clinton to Trump demonstrate how the benefits from allied relations may transform into a tarnished image. Having failed to adapt to a world in which it has lost its global dominance, the United States under Obama and particularly under Trump chose to neglect traditional diplomacy, which involves finding ways to align the possibly diverging interests of allies. In regard to Europe, this policy was encapsulated in the withdrawal from multilateral trade partnership agreements, the use of NATO to exert pressure on allies, the introduction of sanctions, and the employment of other methods of gaining unilateral economic and political advantages.
The Middle East is even more indicative in this respect. Within a very short period of time, U.S. foreign policy in the region has oscillated between extremes. America’s allies in the Gulf were alarmed when Obama, looking to be “on the right side of history,” rapidly withdrew support for Mubarak when the protests in Egypt broke out (in February 2011) and when the United States effectively gave in to Iran in the struggle for influence in Iraq. Trump’s demonstrative turn towards Saudi Arabia, coupled with the U.S. withdrawal from the multilateral agreement on the Iranian nuclear programme and the subsequent policy of applying “maximum pressure” on Iran, negatively affected U.S.–EU relations, caused a split in the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf and failed to allay their concerns regarding the reliability of the United States as an ally. Finally, the concessions to Israel, which no U.S. President had dared make before (no matter how their Middle East policies zigged and zagged), added new wrinkles to the issue. As a result, the Trump administration approaches the 2020 presidential elections with an unprecedented burden of problems in its relations with its North Atlantic allies, in an almost complete isolation owing to its illegal actions in the UN Security Council concerning the lifting of the Iranian sanctions, and having generally lost its moral and political prestige.
In the same period of time following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia had failed to fit into the architecture of pan-European security and was faced with a choice: given NATO’s territorial expansion and the ineffectiveness of such collective mechanisms as the CIS and OSCE, what policy should it pursue moving forward? Does Russia see its future self as an independent centre of power with a free hand? Or does it want to be an influential actor within new alliances and integration unions? The answers to these questions are more or less clear today.
Russia is steering its own course in relations with the West, acting in its own interests, yet not shutting the door on an equal dialogue designed to search for points of contact on the most conflict-ridden problems. At the same time, Russia has made efforts to build a sub-system of inter-country alliances to counterbalance the NATO–EU pairing. These efforts have led to multilateral diplomacy guided by the principle of “going as far the other party is prepared to go.” These efforts have resulted in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in the military–political arena, the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) alliance in the geopolitical arena, and the Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEC) and the Customs Union in the trade and economic arena. Compared with western alliances that entail transferring part of one’s sovereignty to supra-national bodies, members of these unions are more free in their commitments, although they share Russia’s stance on the key issues of global politics.
Following a brief hiatus in the 1990s, Russia returned to the Middle East, no longer shackled by ideological clichés. The very paradigm of Russian–Arab relations had changed. They were no longer characterized by unilaterality and were developing over a wide spectrum. Pride of place was given to such foreign political landmarks as the achievement of national security in the face of new threats emanating from the chronic instability in the region, the support for Russian businesses, and the measures to counteract external intervention aimed at regime change for the sake of political expediency (in extreme cases, this would be done by force, but mostly it would be done by establishing networks based on coinciding interests). These were the landmarks that Russia used to guide itself post-2011, when the Middle East entered a protracted era of reconstruction. This pragmatic approach was largely responsible for preserving business partnership relations with Egypt, Iraq and Algeria, all of which experienced regime changes, as well as for building coherent relations with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, where existing differences on conflict settlement do not get in the way of bilateral cooperation in trade and economy and coordinating policies on the global energy markets.
Russia gains certain benefits from its ability to maintain business partnership ties with all the regional and non-regional actors in the Middle Eastern conflicts, including Turkey, the Kurds, Hezbollah, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the Palestinian authorities in Ramallah and Gaza. At the same time, it is clear that this situation and, in particular, the widespread concept of Moscow as an “impartial mediator” or “honest broker,” is with increasing frequency being used for unseemly purposes, such as shifting the responsibility for the actions or inactions of other parties in the region or outside it onto Moscow. In today’s new multi-layered conflicts, no single actor is capable of holding all the settlement threads in its hands.
Russia and Syria: Questions of War and Peace
Russia and Syria have gradually become allies since the civil war broke out in the Middle East state in 2011. The leaders of both countries have said as much, and it is taken as a given in the West and the other countries in the region.
At the same time, the complicated entanglements of relations both in and around Syria have prompted certain questions from our colleagues and institutional partners in the Damascus Center for Research and Studies. Most of them are quite logical and do indeed need to be discussed at the expert level to begin with.
Russia and Syria have a long history of cooperation in many areas, and the countries were particularly close during the presidency of Hafez al-Assad, the outstanding statesman who enjoyed worldwide respect. A Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation was signed back then, but it was more of a framework document that did not impose any specific international legal commitments on either party. These were relations of trust that withstood the test of the war with Israel in 1973 in the Golan Heights and the Civil War in Lebanon (1975–1989), where Syrian troops fought and Soviet military advisors participated indirectly. There were also disagreements on the situation in the Palestinian movement and the attitude to Yasser Arafat personally. Yet these differences were resolved through regular trust-based dialogue at the highest level and through close military-political consultations.
In the 1990s and the early 2000s when Russia, burdened by its domestic problems, “withdrew” from the Middle East, Russia–Syria relations were in decline. After being elected president, Bashar al-Assad steered a course for Europe, for Jacques Chirac’s France in particular, viewing it as a centre for containing the United States, which had accused Syria of supporting the Iraqi resistance to the American occupation . Bashar Al-Assad’s first visit to Russia took place in 2005. The agreements achieved at the highest level covered a wide range of issues in military-technical and economic cooperation in the context of Syria fully settling its debt, and they gave a new impetus to developing bilateral relations in the changing geopolitical circumstances.
In 2011, the civil conflict in Syria transformed into an armed confrontation. Since then, Russia–Syria cooperation has been dominated by its military component. Russia directly intervened in the conflict at the request of President Bashar al-Assad, a fact that was accounted for by the intergovernmental agreements between the two countries, which, unlike the largely for-show agreements concluded with a number of Arab states in the past, set out specific commitments for both parties. The relations were thus given a new quality. All efforts were channelled into repelling the terrorist threat and saving Syria’s statehood. In the run-up to the decisive intervention of the Russian Aerospace Forces, most military experts around the world agreed that the “terrorist international” had made it as far as the suburbs of Damascus, and that regime change was imminent, even though Iranian units and Lebanese Hezbollah were fighting in Syria.
Five years later, the military and administrative infrastructure of Islamic State has been destroyed, the armed opposition is weakened, and the remaining pockets of resistance no longer posit a real threat to the al-Assad regime .
Back then, the objectives were clear and, naturally, there were no questions as to what the Syrian people expected from Russia. Why did Moscow and Damascus experience an upsurge of information attacks along the lines of “who needs whom more”? What are the reasons for the “uncertainties” and “doubts” that Syrian political analysts ponder in a friendly manner, wondering whether or not Russia intends “to give up on Syria and leave the regime to deal with the increasing pressure” from the United States? What changes have happened now that the active phase of the conflict has ceased?
The official statements from the Russian side leave no doubts as to its principled stance. Keeping air force and naval bases in the Mediterranean is a strategic move, meaning that Russia does not have any “withdrawal scenarios.” According to the Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation, materiel support for the Syrian operation does not exceed the funds budgeted for defence. It is flexible and generally tends to shrink as military action deescalates.
Legitimizing “entry” is another matter entirely, both from the point of view of legal documents concluded between Russia and Syria and on a broad international scale. And it is something that does not depend on Russia alone. Fundamentally, it should be in the interests of Damascus itself. That is, the two countries are effectively doomed to find a balance of power in the long term, both in a war that cannot last indefinitely, and during the post-war period. Our point here is clear: using political realism as a stepping stone, Russia and Syria need to properly balance common strategic goals and search for optimal ways to deal with possible tactical differences.
A Hierarchy of Priorities
It is noteworthy that, in his analytical article, my esteemed colleague Aqeel Mahfoud describes the current situation in Syria as a war with “no end in sight” and asks Russia such questions as: What is the “middle ground” between “‘high costs’ and ‘low returns’ … between ‘retreating’ from Syria and ‘continuing’ the course?” It is thus clear that certain “misunderstandings” have emerged, and in order to properly analyse the prospects, we need to jointly access the essence of the point in time we arrived at after five years of allied cooperation.
Our general assessments are essentially the same. The challenges and threats that Syria currently faces are economic, a destructive effect of the sanctions, and the U.S. “Caesar Act” in particular, with the coronavirus pandemic making the situation worse. The reality is that there are virtually no prerequisites for implementing major post-war reconstruction projects in Syria. Most Syrians are fighting for survival in the face of growing prices, food, power and fuel shortages and a destroyed living infrastructure. The Syrian government is mobilizing its limited financial resources to mitigate the socioeconomic consequences for the regime, focusing on supporting business activities and preserving the system of subsidies. At the same time, it is quite clear that resolving the problem of the economy’s uninterrupted functioning cannot be solved without urgent outside assistance. It is also obvious, however, that, unlike in the case of Lebanon, the sources of such assistance for Syria are very few.
The Russian government, in turn, is doing everything possible to provide real aid to the people of Syria (urgent deliveries of grain, pharmaceuticals and equipment in the form of grants or through contracts; reconstructing civil infrastructure facilities, communication lines; providing humanitarian aid, etc.). The government is encouraging Russian businesses to cooperate with Syrian companies more actively through public-private partnerships and by granting them most favoured nation status. It should be said, though, that the method of “giving commands” has little effect in the Russian economy compared with Soviet times. Russia expects the Syrian government to take further steps to set up both central and local governance systems that would ensure corruption is dealt with, offer preferences to foreign investors, make sure that laws are obeyed and that the “military economy” would give way to normal trade and economic relations as speedily as possible. President Bashar al-Assad’s address to the members of the newly formed government can be seen as a major step in this direction.
It should be noted in this connection that the article published by the Damascus Center for Research and Studies focuses on Russia, and most questions are addressed to Moscow as if it holds some kind of a “magic key” to resolving all the problems. At the same time, practical advice and friendly criticism are perceived as “pressure” and “interference.” As for the negative dynamics, what is Damascus’ attitude to the fact that after the active military phase was over, little changed aside from the strengthening of “psychological pressure” and tightening of the “economic noose” on Syria? And regarding the positive dynamics, what conclusions should the Syrians themselves draw concerning the balance of power and political steps that should be taken? These important aspects slid under the radar of our Syrian colleagues. We would like to understand what is meant by the phrase “returning to the ‘requirements’ of UN Security Council Resolution No. 2254 […] would bring us back to March 2011.”
Russia’s position on the issue of the Syrian settlement, President Vladimir Putin has said on numerous occasions, proceeds from the premise that a military solution is impossible. At the talks held with Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Syria Geir Pedersen in Moscow on September 3 (which took place only a few days after the session of the Constitutional Committee’s Drafting Commission in Geneva), Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation Sergey Lavrov confirmed that Russia supports Pedersen’s efforts to help the Syrian people come to an agreement themselves on constitutional reform in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 2254 as a sovereign state and one of the guarantors of the Astana process. This stance has been approved by the “Astana Troika,” it is known to the Syrian leadership and does not prompt open objections.
Some Russian political analysts that are in the know expect Syria, and probably President Bashar al-Assad himself, to spearhead some major initiatives that will jumpstart the Geneva process – not as a return to the 2011 status quo, but as a means of restoring Syria’s territorial integrity and bolstering the country’s statehood on the inclusive foundation of national accord. A flexible approach on the part of Damascus and a better understanding of its intentions would certainly help Russia, giving it more solid ground in its contacts with western and Arab partners. In the current reality, Syria can hardly be “rehabilitated” economically without coordinated international efforts. This is the kind of convergence of interests that would make it possible to bring together external aid and progress in the intra-Syrian dialogue into a single stabilization package.
Another important set of issues raised by our Damascus partners pertains to Russia being “an ally for Syria, Israel, Iran and Turkey” in the continuing conflict and to what the nature of Russia–U.S. contacts is.
It is no secret that the foreign political services of both countries have always maintained a working exchange of current information. This is particularly true of the current situation. My many years of experience in the diplomatic service (in Syria among other states) allow me to state confidently that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation regularly informs the Syrian leadership about its talks with its western and regional partners on issues that concern Syria. If there is any “uncertainty” within the Syrian public or the Syrian expert community about this fact, it might rather be explained by Russia being excessively guarded about sensitive information that concerns its relations with its allies, or by Russian media’s inability to demonstrate any kind of subtlety when it comes to foreign political steps in this area and properly explain Russia’s intentions to the world at large. Incidentally, Syria itself is far more guarded and “secretive” in its media coverage of its relations with Russia – and this coverage is often, quite frankly, far more tendentious.
Most Russian experts view Russia–Syria relations on the matters of war and peace as a relationship of “twins” connected by “kindred threads.” Their western colleagues share this point of view, indicating that the United States and Europe no longer tie compliance with UN Security Council Resolution 2254 with Assad’s “removal.” Instead, they adopted the concept of constitutional reform and democratic elections under the UN’s supervision. It is natural for allies in protracted and convoluted conflicts to have some misunderstandings. Aqeel Mahfoud notes that “the Syrian people understand […] that Russia does not approach the issue from a Syrian perspective.” The main thing is that if strategic “constants” are in place, which is undoubtedly the case, then periodical tactical differences should be resolved in a timely manner, on the basis on openness and trust.
At the level of government and opposition forces, the Syrian people should take into account the fact that Russia has its own global interests that do not always coincide with those of the Middle East. Russia–Syria relations cannot be equated with relations with influential regional actors, which are based on different considerations. But one thing brings them together: a common history, coinciding interests in regions outside Syria and mutually beneficial cooperation, including in the military area. It is thus wrong to posit an “either/or” question.
On the other hand, a realist assessment of the situation “on the ground” reveals that the existence of particular situational arrangements with Israel and Turkey is something that benefits Syria itself. Let us take, for example, agreements on southern Syria, in which Israel unofficially participated. It was these agreements that allowed Syria to regain control of its southern provinces, provided that it complied with the terms that did not breach its sovereign rights. Russian officials did not hide the fact that it meant withdrawing Iranian and pro-Iranian military units from the 80-kilometre security zone and using national reconciliation principles to form local authorities. Russia is entitled to expect Syria to comply with these conditions.
Or let us take the agreements reached between the presidents of Russia and Turkey on March 4, 2020, concerning Idlib and which were achieved as part of the implementation of the de-escalation zone agreement developed by the “Astana Troika” with Syria’s participation. This development makes it possible to avoid the worst-case scenario, which would not have been in the interests of Syria, Russia and Turkey. In no way does it change the attitude towards the Idlib problem as part of the principled approach to restoring Syria’s territorial integrity and the joint fight against terrorism.
As for U.S.–Syria relations, Russia is pursuing a realistic policy here aimed at preventing incidents that could result in an armed clash, and at the same time is searching for opportunities to interact in those areas where the interests of Russia and the United States may coincide without detriment to the “strategic constants” of Russia’s relations with its Syrian ally. Recently, tensions in northeast Syria, where the U.S. military presence is concentrated, have increased noticeably, which makes further developments less predictable. Consequently, the parties focus specifically on the “de-conflicting channel” and simultaneously draw “red lines” that should not be overstepped. Politically, Russia endeavours to promote understanding between Damascus and the Kurds on their constitutional status, which increases the chances of restoring Syria’s territorial integrity as part of the post-conflict settlement.
Memories of the Future
They say that “it is difficult to make predictions, particularly about the future.” The issues outlined by our Syrian partners for the “strategic dialogue” are so broad that it is impossible to cover everything. In conclusion, I would like to make a few brief remarks.
The Syrian people are known to hold different views of the country’s situation and of Russia’s role in Syria’s affairs. Part of civil society is currently outside Syria, and they are by no means terrorists or Russophobes. Consequently, as it supports Bashar al-Assad, Russia emphasizes an intra-Syrian agreement on a model of Syria’s future state that would ensure the country against bloody civil wars. Clearly, there can be no return to 2011, and the Syrian people themselves should decide how to reform their state and society. During the protracted wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Balkans, the United States was engaged in social engineering and state-building, but these tasks proved too much for them. Russia also had its own regrettable experience in Afghanistan, since every war has its own logic that sooner or later outweighs politics.
As the summer 2021 presidential elections approach, a feeling of hopelessness and anxious expectation is engulfing the international community and Syrians of various political persuasions. Numerous scenarios, largely pessimistic, are being developed – as far as the “Balkanization” of Syria or even a clash between the United States and Russia or between Russia and Turkey on Syrian soil.
There is thus only one thing we can say: if compromise solutions are found, the settlement of the Syrian conflict could serve as a precedent for the global community and a key to undoing other conflict knots. Alternatively, if the right conclusions are not drawn from the lessons of 2011, Syrian settlement may turn into a time bomb for Syria’s sustainable domestic development.
Kleib, Sami. The Destruction of Syria or the Departure of Assad? Moscow: Biblos Konsulting Publ., 2018. pp. 66–70.
Islamic State (IS) is a terrorist organization banned in Russia.
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