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Restoration of Syria: Words and deeds

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On July 1st leaders of Russia, Turkey and Iran gathered for the next summit on Syrian settlement. Given the pandemic, the summit was held on-line, in the format of a video conference.

In their closing statement the leaders of the three countries – Vladimir Putin, Hassan Rouhani and Recep Tayyip Erdogan – underscored the importance of complying with the principles of sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity of Syria and condemned any attempts to create “a new reality, …..including illegal initiatives to establish self-rule” in some areas, namely, in the territory off the Euphrates River.

The participants in the conference discussed efforts to be taken to restore the country. Fortunately, the conditions for it were ripe, Vladimir Putin said: «The level of violence in Syria has declined considerably, life is gradually coming to normal, and the most important thing is that there are all prerequisites for a sustainable political and diplomatic settlement on the basis of Resolution 2254 of the Un Security Council». Considering this, the presidents of three countries “urged the international community, particularly the UN and its humanitarian agencies, to boost their assistance to all Syrians without discrimination, politization or preliminary conditions».

Restoration of war-ravaged Syria acquires an ever greater urgency, for a successful political settlement is unachievable without rebuilding the country’s economy and infrastructure. As the conflict continues, the volume of resources needed for the country’s reconstruction is all but growing. According to the United Nations, the cost of restoration will amount to some 250 billion dollars, which is four times more than Syria’s annual GDP before the war. Two years ago Bashar Assad, in turn, estimated the amount needed at 400 billion.

Hypothetical investors comprise the European Union and the rich Arab countries. But neither the former nor the latter is rushing to invest heftily, limiting their assistance to moderate humanitarian aid. Both western and Arab investors prefer de facto independent Trans-Euphratia, which, naturally, finds no understanding with Damascus.

As for Syria as a whole, Europeans make the assistance conditional on cessation of military operations, and, first of all, on the much-needed political reforms. Unlike before, when the West insisted on a change of political regime, now they talk about its greater democratization in line with European standards. Whether such a change of political paradigm is practicable amid  the ongoing war with terrorism is unclear. What is meant is yet again the removal of Bashar Assad from the country’s political landscape.

The position of the United States on Syria is particularly tough and aggressive. Washington continues to believe that the tactic of exerting maximum pressure will work well, both in the case of Tehran, and with Damascus.  The United States will render humanitarian assistance to the destroyed areas of Syria that are under control of the central government only after the launch of irreversible political reforms,  US Special Representative for Syria James Jeffrey said in November 2019, adding that the US will continue to work with the allies so that they pursue an identical policy.

In the middle of June Washington, following the standard pattern, tightened economic sanctions yet again, as part of the Syria Civilian Protection Act, known as the Caesar Act. A total of 39 physical and legal persons in Syria, including the country’s president, fell under the sanctions. In addition, from now on restrictive measures can be introduced against companies and business people that cooperate with Syria, and with Russian and Iranian commercial organizations operating on the territory of Syria.

China has described the new US sanctions as “inhuman” while Russia’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Vasily Nebenzya, said that the Caesar Act is aimed at overthrowing Syria’s legitimate authorities. But when did Donald Trump listen to what is said? As a result, experts of analytical group Stratfor conclude: «The newly introduced American sanctions against the Syrian government are set to prevent Damascus from getting the support of such potential partners as China and the United Arab Emirates. After the coming into force of tougher American sanctions, countries that signaled readiness to render support to Syria are unlikely to find participation in the restoration of the war-torn country an attractive option».

Israel is playing its game. Jerusalem de facto associates with western capitals but pursues its own motivation. According to Israel’s former Military Intelligence Chief Amos Yadlin, the Israeli government wants Damascus and Moscow to understand that restoration of the war-devastated Syrian infrastructure is impossible as long as pro-Iranian units deployed in Syria “threaten Israel”.

Arab monarchies think along the same lines: they do not want pro-Iranian Syria. Not surprisingly, Riyadh has been trying to establish relations with Syrian Kurds, regarding them as a buffer against the spread of Iranian and Turkish influence in the region. At the end of last year Saudi Aramco got down to prospecting for oil reserves in Deir ez-Zor province.

In turn, UAE Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash is urging Arab nations to “face towards Syria”, or it will fall under the influence of Iran, Russia, Turkey and the United States. Meanwhile, Syria is building relations with a whole number of countries of the Middle East and Maghreb – Iraq, Lebanon, Algeria, Oman, Egypt, Jordan. But apparently, these countries are unsuitable for the role of investors.

As for Turkey, it is restoring only the Turkish-occupied Syrian regions where they have set up a local administration, introduced the Turkish lira, and opened Turkish post offices, which also perform the function of credit organizations.  Ankara is in  no hurry to participate in the reconstruction of the rest of the country’s territory, particularly since it has no potential to do so.

Not long ago Erdogan advised the Russian president to sell Syrian oil and use the money in order “to get devastated Syria back to its feet” (and simultaneously create a solvent market for Turkish construction companies – A.I.). In the opinion of the Turkish leader, the project should be financed by the Russian side.

Damascus views Ankara’s initiative as an attempt to assume control of Syrian natural resources without any permission from appropriate authorities. Turkey will not be given permission to engage in oil exploration in Syria, the Syrian Ambassador to Russia Riyad Haddad said. Bashar al-Assad made it clear two years ago that Syria was planning to revive «at the expense of its own resources and assistance from friends».

One of these (if not the main one) is Russia. In 2016 Russia and Syria signed an agreement on the restoration of Syrian war-devastated infrastructure. The total volume of investments needed for that was estimated at 850 million euros. Later, the two sides came to agreement on  a few dozen investment projects, mainly in oil and gas production, energy generation, transport. It is also a known fact that Moscow has been making efforts to raise the resources of third countries for the reconstruction of Syria. According to Crisis Group experts, while doing so Russia «suggests that European leaders stop clinging to an illusion that playing the sanctions and restoration card could still lead to a change of regime», which they failed to achieve by using force».

Iran has announced readiness to contribute to the reconstruction of Syria. Many lay hopes of restoration projects on China, which invested billions of dollars in the Syrian oil industry before the war and which has no intention to part with its investments.

As time passes, an aggravation of economic situation in the country will be accompanied by a rising number of refugees. Syrian migrants, sooner or later, will become yet another destabilizing factor in the region, along with  Palestinian refugees. Inside Syria proper, the conflict may escalate again, causing a revival of terrorism, which has both ideological and social and economic roots.

Given the situation, the Russian president warned in 2018: «Of course, the world community, first of all, Europe, if it does not want an influx of migrants, should think about it, should shake off phobias and just help the Syrian people irrespective of political affiliations».

But the United States is following its own logic – the measures Washington is taking towards Syria pose an obstruction. The US does not want Syria to become attractive for Kurds, who, the Americans think, should play the role of a buffer in their geopolitical games against the spread of Iranian (and along with it, Turkish) influence in the region. Syrian Prime Minister Imad Khamis is quite right saying that  «the purpose of the hot phase of the war was destruction of the Syrian state with the help of military and political instruments. But the state managed to hold out. So the foes started an economic war…».

And naturally, the foreign policy paradigm of the present Washington administration is unthinkable without anti-Russian sentiments.  The US Special Representative for Syria James Jeffrey acknowledges: «My mission is to make Russia bog down in Syria». There are no doubts that one of the ways to see this mission through is to force Moscow to pay for the restoration of Syria.

The fact that this causes a lot of suffering to the people of Syria is, apparently, no one’s concern.

From our partner International Affairs

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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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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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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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