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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

Middle East

Saudi Arabia and Iran cold war

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After almost seven decades, the cold war has reached the middle east, turning into a religious war of words and diplomacy. As Winston Churchill says that “diplomacy is an art of telling someone to go to hell in such a way that they ask for the direction”. So, both the regional powers are trying to pursue a policy of subduing the adversary in a diplomatic manner. The root of the conflict lies in the 1979, Iranian revolution, which saw the toppling of the pro-western monarch shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi and replaced by the so-called supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei. From a Yemini missile attack to the assassination of the supreme commander QassimSoleimani, the political, ideological and religious differences between Iran and Saudi Arabia are taking the path of confrontation. The perennial rivalry between the two dominant Shiite and Sunni power house ins an ideological and religious one rather than being geo strategic or geo political. Back to the time when Saudi Arabia supported Saddam Hussain against the united states of Americathe decline of Saddam and his authoritarian regime was made inevitable and with this, Iran and Saudi Arabia rosed as the powerful, strategic and dominant political forces in the middle east.it was from here that the quest for supremacy to be the prepotent and commanding political powercommenced. The tensions escalated or in other words almost tended to turn into scuffles when in 2016, the Iranians stormed the Saudi embassy as a demonstration of the killing of a Shia cleric. The diplomatic ties were broken and chaos and uncertainty prevailed.

This cold war also resembles the original one., because it is also fueled by a blend of ideological conviction and brute power politics but at the same time unlike the original cold war, the middle eastern cold war is multi-dimensional and is more likely to escalate .it is more volatile and thus more prone to transformation. This followed by several incidents with each trying to isolate the other in international relations. The Saudis and Iranians have been waging proxy wars for regional dominance for decades. Yemen and Syria are the two battlegrounds, fueling the Iran-Saudi tensions. Iran has been accused of providing military assistance to the rebel Houthis, which targets the Saudi territory. It is also accused of attacking the world naval ships in the strait of Hormoz, something Iran strongly denies.  This rivalry has dragged the region into chaos and ignited Shia-Sunni conflict across the middle east. The violence in the middle east due to this perennial hostility has also dire consequences for the economy of the war-torn nations. In the midst of the global pandemic, when all the economic activities are at halt, the tensions between the two arch rivals will prove hazardous and will yield catastrophic results. The blockade of the shipping and navigation in the Gulf, attacks on international ships, and the rising concerns of the western powers regarding this issue has left Iran as an isolated country with only Russia supporting her.

A direct military conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran will have dire consequences for the neighboringcountries. A direct military confrontation might not be a planned one, but it will be fueled due to the intervention of the other key partners, who seek to sought and serve their personal and national intrigues. Most importantly middle east cannot afford a conflict as it is a commercial hub for the world. The recent skirmishes in Iraq sparked fears of wider war when Iraq retaliated for killings of QassimSoleimani. If the US president had not extended an olive branch, the situation might have worsened. The OIC, which is a coalition of 57 Muslim countries has also failed in bringing measures to deescalate the growing tensions. The OIC, where the Saudi Arabia enjoys an authoritarian style of dominance has always tried to empower her own ideology while rising the catch cry of being a sacred country to all the Muslims. Taking in account, the high tensions and ideological and the quest for religious dominance, the international communities such as UN and neighboring countries should play a positiveand vital role in deescalating these tensions. Bilateral trade, communications between the two adversaries with a regional power playing the role of mediator and extending an olive branch to each other will yield better results and will prove fruitful in mitigating the conflict if not totally subverting it.

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First Aid: How Russia and the West Can Help Syrians in Idlib

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Authors: Andrey Kortunov and Julien Barnes-Dacey*

The next international showdown on Syria is quickly coming into view. After ten years of conflict, Bashar al-Assad may have won the war, but much is left to be done to win the peace. This is nowhere more so than in the province of Idlib, which is home to nearly 3 million people who now live under the control of extremist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) with external Turkish protection and humanitarian assistance from the United Nations.

The question of humanitarian access into Idlib is now emerging as a central focus of new international politicking. In so doing, this small province could be pivotal to the future of the larger stalemate that has left the United States, Europe, and Russia locked in an unwinnable status quo.

Russia has said that it plans to veto an extension of cross-border UN aid delivered from Turkey, authorised under UN Security Council resolution 2533, which is up for renewal in July, potentially depriving the population of a vital lifeline amid desperate conditions. Moscow says that all aid should be channelled from Damascus via three new government-controlled crossing points to the northern province. Western governments, to say nothing of the local population, are sceptical, given the Syrian government’s hostility towards the province’s inhabitants. For its part, the UN says that cross-lines aid cannot compensate for a closure of cross-border access.

As ever, the two dominant players—the US and Russia—are talking past each other and are focused on countering each other’s moves—to their mutual failure. It is evident that US condemnation and pressure on Russia will not deliver the necessary aid, and also evident that Russia will not get its wish for the international recognition of the legitimacy of the Syrian government by vetoing cross-border access. While these will only be diplomatic failures for the US and Russia, it is the Syrian people who will, as ever, pay the highest price.

But a mutually beneficial solution to Idlib is still possible. Russia and the US, backed by European states, should agree to a new formula whereby Moscow greenlights a final one-year extension of cross-border aid in exchange for a Western agreement to increase aid flows via Damascus, including through Russia’s proposed cross-lines channels into Idlib. This would meet the interests of both sides, allowing immediate humanitarian needs to be met on the ground as desired by the West, while also paving the way for a transition towards the Damascus-centred international aid operation sought by Moscow.

This imperfect but practical compromise would mean more than a positive change in the humanitarian situation in Idlib. It would demonstrate the ability of Russian and Western actors to work together to reach specific agreements in Syria even if their respective approaches to the wider conflict differ significantly. This could serve to reactivate the UN Security Council mechanism, which has been paralysed and absent from the Syrian track for too long.

To be sure the Syrian government will also need to be incentivised to comply. Western governments will need to be willing to increase humanitarian and early recovery support to other parts of government-controlled Syria even as they channel aid to Idlib. With the country now experiencing a dramatic economic implosion, this could serve as a welcome reprieve to Damascus. It would also meet Western interests in not seeing a full state collapse and worsening humanitarian tragedy.

The underlying condition for this increased aid will need to be transparency and access to ensure that assistance is actually delivered to those in need. The West and Russia will need to work on implementing a viable monitoring mechanism for aid flows channelled via Damascus. This will give Moscow an opportunity to push the Syrian regime harder on matters of corruption and mismanagement.

For its part, the West will need to work with Moscow to exercise pressure on Ankara to use its military presence in Idlib to more comprehensively confront radical Islamists and ensure that aid flows do not empower HTS. A ‘deradicalisation’ of Idlib will need to take the form of a detailed roadmap, including that HTS comply with specific behaviour related to humanitarian deliveries.

Ultimately this proposal will not be wholly satisfactory to either Moscow or the West. The West will not like that it is only a one-year extension and will not like the shift towards Damascus. Russia will not like that it is an extension at all. But for all sides the benefits should outweigh the downsides.

Russia will know that Western actors will respond to failure by unilaterally channelling non-UN legitimised aid into the country via Turkey. Russia will lose the opportunity to slowly move Idlib back into Damascus’s orbit and the country’s de facto partition will be entrenched. This outcome is also likely to lead to increased instability as aid flows decrease, with subsequent tensions between Moscow’s allies, Damascus and Ankara.

The West will need to acknowledge that this approach offers the best way of delivering ongoing aid into Idlib and securing greater transparency on wider support across Syria. The alternative—bilateral cross-border support—will not sufficiently meet needs on the ground, will place even greater responsibility on Turkey, and will increase the prospect of Western confrontation with Russia and the Syrian regime.

Importantly, this proposal could also create space for wider political talks on Idlib’s fate. It could lead to a renewed track between Russia, the US, Turkey and Europeans to address the province’s fate in a way that accounts for Syria’s territorial integrity and state sovereignty on the one hand and the needs and security of the local population on the other hand. After ten years of devastating conflict, a humanitarian compromise in Idlib will not represent a huge victory. But a limited agreement could still go a long way to positively changing the momentum in Syria and opening up a pathway for much-needed international cooperation.

* Julien Barnes-Dacey, Middle East and North Africa Programme Director, European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR)

From our partner RIAC

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Iran’s Impunity Will Grow if Evidence of Past Crimes is Fully Destroyed

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No reasonable person would deny the importance of preventing a nuclear-armed Iran. But that issue must not be allowed to continue overshadowing Iran’s responsibility for terrorism and systematic human rights violations. These matters represent a much more imminent threat to human life, as well as longstanding denials of justice for those who have suffered from the Iranian regime’s actions in the past.

The Iranian people have risen multiple times in recent years to call for democratic change. In 2017, major uprisings broke out against the regime’s disastrous policies. Although the ruling clerics suppressed those protests, public unrest soon resumed in November 2019. That uprising was even broader in scope and intensity. The regime responded by opening fire on crowds, murdering at least 1,500. Amnesty International has reported on the torture that is still being meted out to participants in the uprising.

Meanwhile, the United Nations and human rights organizations have continued to repeat longstanding calls for increased attention to some of the worst crimes perpetrated by the regime in previous years.

Last year, Amnesty International praised a “momentous breakthrough” when seven UN human rights experts demanded an end to the ongoing cover-up of a massacre of political prisoners in the summer of 1988.

The killings were ordered by the regime’s previous supreme leader Khomeini, who declared that opponents of the theocracy were “enemies of God” and thus subject to summary executions. In response, prisons throughout Iran convened “death commissions” that were tasked with interrogating political prisoners over their views. Those who rejected the regime’s fundamentalist interpretation of Islam were hanged, often in groups, and their bodies were dumped mostly in mass graves, the locations of which were held secret.

In the end, at least 30,000 political prisoners were massacred. The regime has been trying hard to erase the record of its crimes, including the mass graves. Its cover-up has unfortunately been enabled to some degree by the persistent lack of a coordinated international response to the situation – a failure that was acknowledged in the UN experts’ letter.

The letter noted that although the systematic executions had been referenced in a 1988 UN resolution on Iran’s human rights record, none of the relevant entities within that international body followed up on the case, and the massacre went unpunished and underreported.

For nearly three decades, the regime enforced silence regarding any public discussion of the killings, before this was challenged in 2016 by the leak of an audio recording that featured contemporary officials discussing the 1988 massacre. Regime officials, like then-Minister of Justice Mostafa Pourmohammadi, told state media that they were proud of committing the killings.

Today, the main victims of that massacre, the principal opposition Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), are still targets of terrorist plots on Western soil, instigated by the Iranian regime. The most significant of these in recent years was the plot to bomb a gathering organized near Paris in 2018 by the MEK’s parent coalition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI). The Free Iran rally was attended by tens of thousands of Iranian expatriates from throughout the world, as well as hundreds of political dignitaries, and if the attack had not been prevented by law enforcement, it would have no doubt been among the worst terrorist attacks in recent European history.

The mastermind of that attack was a high-ranking Iranian diplomat named Assadollah Assadi. He was convicted in a Belgian court alongside three co-conspirators in February. But serious critics of the Iranian regime have insisted that accountability must not stop here.

If Tehran believes it has gotten away with the 1988 massacre, one of the worst crimes against humanity from the late 20th century, it can also get away with threatening the West and killing protesters by the hundreds. The ongoing destruction of mass graves demonstrates the regime’s understanding that it has not truly gotten away with the massacre as long as evidence remains to be exposed.

The evidence of mass graves has been tentatively identified in at least 36 different cities, but a number of those sites have since been covered by pavement and large structures. There are also signs that this development has accelerated in recent years as awareness of the massacre has gradually expanded. Unfortunately, the destruction currently threatens to outpace the campaign for accountability, and it is up to the United Nations and its leading member states to accelerate that campaign and halt the regime’s destruction of evidence.

If this does not happen and the 1988 massacre is consigned to history before anyone has been brought to justice, it will be difficult to compel Tehran into taking its critics seriously about anything, be it more recent human rights violations, ongoing terrorist threats, or even the nuclear program that authorities have been advancing in spite of the Western conciliation that underlay 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

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