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Syria: In the Middle of a Long Cycle

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On 6 March 2011, the local security services in the small town of Daraa, southern Syria, detained fifteen teenagers painting anti-government graffiti on fences and buildings. During the subsequent interrogations, the teens were allegedly subjected to unjustifiably cruel treatment and even torture. Since all the detainees were born to prominent local families, their relatives and friends soon came to the police station to demand their release. The police were not ready to deal with street protests and opened fire on the crowd, shooting to kill; three people were killed on the spot and another died later of injuries. Next day, a mass rebellion against the central government broke out in Daraa to quickly spread to neighbouring towns and villages.

Had I been told back then, in March 2011, that the civil war in Syria would still be raging ten years later, I would not have believed it. The mid-19th century American Civil War lasted four years; the 20th century civil wars in Russia and Spain stretched to five and three years, respectively. Not ten years, though! Yet, as we have seen a number of times, 21st century conflicts follow their own logic and dynamics: they can drag on for decades, alternatively flaring up and dying down, without ending in a decisive victory for either side. In this respect, the Syrian case is no exception—rather, yet another attestation to the rule already proven in Afghanistan, Somalia, Colombia, and many other places.

What would have happened to Syria had the political opposition, back in March 2011, succeeded in quickly overthrowing President Assad’s regime and destroying the “top-down structures” of the ruling Alawi clans in Damascus? Had Barack Obama gone the whole nine yards and warranted a massive US military intervention? Had Vladimir Putin remained neutral? Would Syria have been something like Tunisia, a country conventionally regarded as epitomizing a successful transition from authoritarianism to democracy in the Arab world? Or would Syria have been in the throes of Libya’s fate which, following Gaddafi’s overthrow, is hopelessly mired in an endless civil war and has effectively lost its statehood?

We shall never have unequivocal answers to these questions. Picturing Syria’s successful transition from authoritarianism to democracy in 2011 requires a great stretch of the imagination, especially given the country’s ethnic and religious heterogeneity and the scale of the problems accumulated by that time. Assad’s overthrow would most likely have resulted in Syria becoming not a second Libya but a second Iraq, which, for nearly two decades, has been trying to recover from the consequences of the “liberating” intervention undertaken by the US and its allies in 2003.

Nonetheless, the sad anniversary of the tragic events of March 2011 is good reason to take preliminary stock of the Syrian conflict. Who are the winners and losers in the ten-year-long military confrontation?

The primary loser is Syria itself. As the Arabs say, “Egypt is the head of the Arab world, while Syria is its heart”. Taking this analogy further, we can say that the Syrian conflict was like a heart attack for the Arab world. About half a million dead. Over seven million refugees and displaced persons. The economy and the basic infrastructure almost totally destroyed. Syria was once one of the region’s most successful states but has now been transformed into a magnet for political extremists and international terrorists, into a universal fight cage for Iranians and Israelis, Turks and Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis, Russians and Americans.

The West is a loser, too. The attempts to effect a regime change in Damascus and maintain the liberal democratic sentiments amongst the Syrian opposition have proven equally unsuccessful. The regime has withstood military pressure and economic sanctions, isolation within the Arab world and condemnation by the international community. As years go by, the opposition, on the other hand, has drawn increasingly closer to Islamist radicals, who have nothing in common with the Western values. Ten years after the conflict broke out, the US maintains a largely symbolic military presence in Syria’s northeast regions, while the European Union is plainly unable to settle on a new strategy in Syria.

Should Russia be considered a winner? Tactically—yes. Russia’s successful and relatively low-budget military operation quickly made Moscow the principal external actor in Syria. As far as we can see, though, Moscow has failed to design any exit strategy over the five years of its immediate involvement in the Syrian conflict. The degree of Russia’s influence on the Damascus regime is also an open question. Is the dog wagging the tail or is the tail wagging the dog?

Could Turkey be the principal beneficiary? Establishing buffer zones in Idlib and in Syria’s northern provinces is Erdogan’s unquestionable achievement. Yet to what degree is Ankara really in control of the situation in Idlib? This continuously festering abscess, right on Turkey’s border, could burst any moment and spill its contents into the neighbouring Turkish regions.

There may well be more grounds for declaring the Islamic Republic of Iran the winner. Iran has a strategic long-term presence in Syria and, during the war, this has been elevated to a whole new level. There is now a corridor linking Iran with Lebanon and with the Mediterranean Sea; Iran’s ability to support Hezbollah and put pressure on Israel has expanded. Yet, no Iranian presence in Syria will change the obvious fact that the latter remains a mostly Sunni state where the Shiite Iran will have essentially restricted opportunities.

The past ten years have not brought Syria the long-awaited peace. What should we expect from the next ten years? What kind of Syria would we like to see and might we see by March 2031?

Let us start with what is most likely not going to happen in the foreseeable future.

First, given the impasses in Idlib and the Kurdish north-east (never mind the Golan Heights annexed by Israel), Syria’s territorial integrity will hardly be restored. This certainly does not mean that the issue of Syria’s territorial integrity is off the table. No matter how the events unfold, Syria’s ultimate partitioning must be prevented. This would have unpredictable, yet highly negative consequences for Syria’s neighbours in particular and for the Middle East in general.

Second, the seven million refugees and displaced persons will not all return. A significant proportion of them will remain where they currently live, in the Middle East and Europe. Before our very eyes, a new diaspora is emerging, comparable to that of Palestinian refugees. It will certainly have a major influence on political life in the Middle East, hampering the process of re-integrating Syria.

Third, no large-scale Syrian reconstruction plan worth USD 100–200 bn will be implemented. Given the pandemic and the economic crisis that has not been fully overcome by far, neither Europe nor the Gulf have the requisite financial resources. The financial status of potential donors is likely to deteriorate further; additionally, they will have new priorities (such as facilitating reconstruction in Yemen). No golden rain will fall on Damascus even if Mr Assad disappears from the political arena.

Fourth, the Assad regime will continue to demonstrate survival miracles against the backdrop of mounting economic problems, new sanctions and a continuing power struggle in Damascus itself. Hopes for a breakthrough or even progress in Geneva are slim; the Syrian regime feels quite confident and does not deem it necessary to make concessions to the opposition and the West, which is behind the Syrian opposition. It is quite possible that the regime will subsist fairly unchanged even after Assad leaves the stage.

If that is so, Syria has two goals for the near future.

The minimum goal is to prevent further escalation of the conflict, more casualties and greater destruction of the country. That will require the Astana process to be preserved just as well as reinvigorated, not because it is perfect but simply because the international community has nothing else. Preserving the status quo does not sound too impressive but a mediocre peace is, in any case, better than a glorious war.

The maximum goal is to motivate Damascus to initiate careful reforms, even if they remain purely economic so far. After all, Moscow and Tehran are equally interested in cutting the costs of their Syrian presence, which is impossible without improving the efficiency of the Syrian economy, without consistently countering corruption, without restructuring Syria’s judicial system. Conditions favorable to exerting the required pressure might emerge following the presidential elections in Syria this summer.

Economic reforms may be followed by controlled political liberalization or at least by consistent countering of particularly egregious outrages committed by Syria’s security forces. In turn, the West could additionally incentivize Damascus by making its economic sanctions against Syria more flexible.

From our partner RIAC

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Middle East

The Absence of Riyadh in the Turbulent Afghanistan

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As the situation in Afghanistan becoming increasingly turbulent, the NATO allies led by the United States are fully focused on military withdrawal. As this has to be done within tight deadline, there have been some disagreements between the United States and the European Union. Josep Borrell, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security, publicly accused the U.S. military in Afghanistan, which was responsible for the internal security of Kabul Airport, of deliberately obstructing the EU evacuation operations.

China and Russia on the other hand, are more cautious in expressing their positions while actively involving in the Afghanistan issue. This is especially true for Russia, which after both the Taliban and the anti-Taliban National Resistance Front of Afghanistan (NRF) led by Ahmad Massoud have pleaded Russia for mediation, Moscow has now become a major player in the issue.

Compared with these major powers, Saudi Arabia, another regional power in the Middle East, appears to be quite low-key. So far, only the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Saudi Arabia has issued a diplomatic statement on the day after the Taliban settled in Kabul, stating that it hopes the Taliban can maintain the security, stability and prosperity of Afghanistan. Considering the role that Saudi Arabia has played in Afghanistan, such near silent treatment is quite intriguing.

As the Taliban were originally anti-Soviet Sunni Jihadists, they were deeply influenced by Wahhabism, and were naturally leaning towards Riyadh. During the period when the Taliban took over Afghanistan for the first time, Saudi Arabia became one of the few countries in the international community that publicly recognized the legitimacy of the Taliban regime.

Although the Taliban quickly lost its power under the impact of the anti-terror wars initiated by the George W. Bush administration, and the Saudis were pressured by Washington to criticize the Taliban on the surface, yet in reality they continuously provided financial aid to the Taliban and the Al-Qaeda organization which was in symbiotic relations with the Taliban.

However, after 2010, with the Syrian civil war and the rise of the Islamic State, the Riyadh authorities had decreased their funding for their “partners” in Afghanistan due to the increase in financial aid targets.

In June 2017, after Mohammed bin Salman became the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia and took power, Saudi Arabia’s overall foreign policy began to undergo major changes. It gradually abandoned the policy of exporting its religious ideology and switched to “religious diplomacy” that focuses on economic, trade and industrial cooperation with main economies. Under such approach, Saudi Arabia’s Afghanistan policy will inevitably undergo major adjustments.

With the reformation initiated by the Crown Prince, Saudi Arabia has drastically reduced its financial aid to the Taliban. In addition, Riyadh also further ordered the Taliban to minimize armed hostilities and put its main energy on the path of “peaceful nation-building”. This sudden reversal of the stance of Saudi Arabia means that Riyadh has greatly weakened the voices of the Taliban in the global scenes.

In recent years, the Taliban have disassociated with Saudi Arabia in rounds of Afghanistan peace talks. After Kabul was taken over by the Taliban on August 19, a senior Taliban official clearly stated that the Taliban does not accept Wahhabism, and Afghanistan has no place for Wahhabism. Although this statement means that Al-Qaeda’s religious claims will no longer be supported by the Taliban, it also indicates that the Taliban has reached the tipping point of breaking up with Riyadh.

Under such circumstance, for the Riyadh authorities under Mohammed bin Salman, the most appropriate action is probably wait-and-see as Afghanistan changes again.

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Gulf security: It’s not all bad news

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Gulf states are in a pickle.

They fear that the emerging parameters of a reconfigured US commitment to security in the Middle East threaten to upend a more-than-a-century-old pillar of regional security and leave them with no good alternatives.

The shaky pillar is the Gulf monarchies’ reliance on a powerful external ally that, in the words of Middle East scholar Roby C. Barrett, “shares the strategic, if not dynastic, interests of the Arab States.” The ally was Britain and France in the first half of the 20th century and the United States since then.

Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan, the revered founder of the United Arab Emirates, implicitly recognised Gulf states’ need for external support when he noted in a 2001 contribution to a book that the six monarchies that form the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) “only support the GCC when it suited them.”

Going forward question marks about the reliability of the United States may be unsettling but the emerging contours of what a future US approach could look like they are not all bad news from the perspective of the region’s autocratic regimes.

The contours coupled with the uncertainty, the Gulf states’ unwillingness to integrate their defence strategies, a realisation that neither China nor Russia would step into the United States’ shoes, and a need to attract foreign investment to diversify their energy-dependent economies, is driving efforts to dial down regional tensions and strengthen regional alliances.

Israeli foreign minister Yair Lapid and Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, his UAE counterpart, are headed to Washington this week for a tripartite meeting with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. The three officials intend “to discuss accomplishments” since last year’s establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries “and other important issues,” Mr Blinken tweeted.

The Israeli foreign ministry suggested those other issues include “further opportunities to promote peace in the Middle East” as well as regional stability and security, in a guarded reference to Iran.

From the Gulf’s perspective, the good news is also that the Biden administration’s focus on China may mean that it is reconfiguring its military presence in the Middle East with the moving of some assets from the Gulf to Jordan and the withdrawal from the region of others, but is not about to pull out lock, stock and barrel.

Beyond having an interest in ensuring the free flow of trade and energy, the US’s strategic interest in a counterterrorism presence in the Gulf has increased following the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. The US now relies on an ’over the horizon’ approach for which the Middle East remains crucial.

Moreover, domestic US politics mitigate towards a continued, if perhaps reduced, military presence even if Americans are tired of foreign military adventures, despite the emergence of a Biden doctrine that de-emphasises military engagement. Moreover, the Washington foreign policy elite’s focus is now on Asia rather than the Middle East.

Various powerful lobbies and interest groups, including Jews, Israelis, Gulf states, Evangelists, and the oil and defence industries retain a stake in a continued US presence in the region. Their voices are likely to resonate louder in the run-up to crucial mid-term Congressional elections in 2022. A recent Pew Research survey concluded that the number of white Evangelicals had increased from 25 per cent of the US population in 2016 to 29 per cent in 2020.

Similarly, like Afghanistan, the fading hope for a revival of the 2015 international agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear programme, from which former President Donald J. Trump withdrew in 2018, and the risk of a major military conflagration makes a full-fledged US military withdrawal unlikely any time soon. It also increases the incentive to continue major arms sales to Gulf countries.

That’s further good news for Gulf regimes against the backdrop of an emerging US arms sales policy that the Biden administration would like to project as emphasising respect for human rights and rule of law. However, that de facto approach is unlikely to affect big-ticket prestige items like the F-35 fighter jets promised to the UAE.

Instead, the policy will probably apply to smaller weapons such as assault rifles and surveillance equipment, that police or paramilitary forces could use against protesters. Those are not the technological edge items where the United States has a definitive competitive advantage.

The big-ticket items with proper maintenance and training would allow Gulf states to support US regional operations as the UAE and Qatar did in 2011 in Libya, and, the UAE in Somalia and Afghanistan as part of peacekeeping missions.

In other words, the Gulf states can relax. The Biden administration is not embracing what some arms trade experts define as the meaning of ending endless wars such as Afghanistan.

“Ending endless war means more than troop withdrawal. It also means ending the militarized approach to foreign policy — including the transfer of deadly weapons around the world — that has undermined human rights and that few Americans believe makes the country any safer,” the experts said in a statement in April.

There is little indication that the views expressed in the statement that stroke with thinking in the progressive wing of Mr. Biden’s Democratic Party is taking root in the policymaking corridors of Washington. As long as that doesn’t happen, Gulf states have less to worry about.

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Reducing Middle East tensions potentially lessens sectarianism and opens doors for women

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Two separate developments involving improved relations between Sunni and Shiite Muslims and women’s sporting rights demonstrate major shifts in how rivalry for leadership of the Muslim world and competition to define Islam in the 21st century is playing out in a world in which Middle Eastern states can no longer depend on the United States coming to their defence.

The developments fit into a regional effort by conservative, status quo states, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt; and proponents of different forms of political Islam, Iran, Turkey, and Qatar; to manage rather than resolve their differences in a bid to ensure that they do not spin out of control. The efforts have had the greatest success with the lifting in January of a 3.5-year-long Saudi-UAE-Egyptian-led diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar.

The reconciliation moves also signal the pressure on Middle Eastern players in what amounts to a battle for the soul of Islam to change perceptions of the region as being wracked by civil wars, sectarian tensions, extremism, jihadism, and autocracy. Altering that perception is key to the successful implementation of plans to diversify oil and gas export dependent economies in the Gulf, develop resource-poor countries in the region, tackle an economic crisis in Turkey, and enable Iran to cope with crippling US sanctions.

Finally, these developments are also the harbinger of the next phase in the competition for religious soft power and leadership of the Muslim world. In a break with the past decade, lofty declarations extolling Islam’s embrace of tolerance, pluralism and respect for others’ rights that are not followed up by deeds no longer cut ice. Similarly, proponents of socially conservative expressions of political Islam need to be seen as adopting degrees of moderation that so far have been the preserve of their rivals who prefer the geopolitical status quo ante.

That next phase of the battle is being shaped not only by doubts among US allies in the Middle East about the reliability of the United States as a security guarantor, reinforced by America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. It is also being informed by a realisation that neither China nor Russia can (or will) attempt to replace the US defence umbrella in the Gulf.

The battles’ shifting playing field is further being determined by setbacks suffered by political Islam starting with the 2013 military coup that toppled Mohammed Morsi, a Muslim Brother and Egypt’s first and only democratically elected president and brutally decimated the Muslim Brotherhood. More recently, political Islamists suffered a stunning electoral defeat in Morocco and witnessed the autocratic takeover of power in Tunisia by President Kais Saied.

A just published survey of Tunisian public opinion showed 45 percent of those polled blaming Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of the Islamist Ennahada party, for the country’s crisis and 66 percent saying they had no confidence in the party.

The Middle East’s rivalries and shifting sands lend added significance to a planned visit in the coming weeks to Najaf, an Iraqi citadel of Shiite Muslim learning and home of 91-year-old Shiite religious authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, by Ahmed El-Tayeb, the grand imam of Al-Azhar, Sunni Islam’s foremost historic educational institution.

The visit takes place against the backdrop of Iraqi-mediated talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the two major centres of Islam’s two main strands, that are aimed at dialling down tensions between them that reverberate throughout the Muslim world. The talks are likely to help the two regional powers manage rather than resolve their differences.

The rivalry was long marked by Saudi-inspired, religiously-cloaked anti-Shiite rhetoric and violence in a limited number of cases and Iranian concerns about the country’s Sunni minority and its opting for a strategy centred on Shiite Muslim proxies in third countries and support for the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Implicit in Saudi and Iranian sectarianism was the perception of Shiite minorities in Saudi Arabia and other Sunni majority countries, and Sunnis in Iran and Iraq after the 2003 toppling of Saddam Hussein, as fifth wheels of the other.

Imam El-Tayeb’s visit, a signal of improvement in long-strained Egyptian-Iraqi relations, as well as a possible later meeting between the Sunni cleric, a Shiite cleric other than Ayatollah Al-Sistani who is too old and fragile to travel, and Pope Francis, are intended to put sectarianism on the backburner. Ayatollah Al-Sistani met with the pope during his visit to Iraq in March.

The visit takes on added significance in the wake of this week’s suicide bombing of a Hazara Shiite mosque in the northern Afghan city of Kunduz that killed at least 50 people and wounded 100 others. The South Asian affiliate of the Islamic State, Islamic State-Khorasan, claimed responsibility for the attack, the worst since the Taliban came to power in August. It was likely designed to fuel tension between the Sunni Muslim group and the Hazara who account for 20 percent of the Afghan population.

Imam El-Tayeb’s travel to Najaf is likely to be followed by a visit by Mohamed al-Issa, secretary-general of the Saudi-dominated Muslim World League. The League was long a prime vehicle for the propagation of anti-Shiite Saudi ultra-conservatism. Since coming to office, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has recast the League as a tool to project his vaguely defined notion of a state-controlled ‘moderate’ Islam that is tolerant and pluralistic.

In a similar vein, hard-line Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi took many by surprise by allowing women into Tehran’s Azadi Stadium to attend this month’s World Cup qualifier between Iran and South Korea. Iran is the only country to ban women from attending men’s sporting events. It was unclear whether the move was a one-off measure or signalled a loosening or lifting of the ban.

Mr Raisi was believed to see it as a way to rally domestic support and improve the Islamic republic’s image as much in China and Russia as in the West. No doubt, Mr. Raisi will have noted that China and Russia have joined the United States, Europe, and others in pressuring the Taliban in Afghanistan to recognize women’s rights.

To be sure, women in Iran enjoy education rights and populate universities. They can occupy senior positions in business and government even if Iran remains a patriarchal society. However, the ban on women in stadia, coupled with the chador, the head to foot covering of women, has come to dominate the perception of Iran’s gender policies.

Allowing women to attend the World Cup qualifier suggests a degree of flexibility on Mr. Raisi’s part. During his presidential campaign Mr. Raisi argued that granting women access to stadiums would not solve their problems.

It also demonstrates that the government, with hardliners in control of all branches, can shave off sharp edges of its Islamic rule far easier than reformists like Mr. Raisi’s predecessor, Hassan Rouhani, were able to do.

The question is whether that is Mr. Raisi’s intention. Mr. Raisi may be testing the waters with this month’ soccer match, only time will tell.

It may be too big a leap in the immediate future but, like Imam El-Tayeb’s visit to Najaf, it indicates that the dialling down of regional tensions puts a greater premium on soft power which in turn builds up pressure for less harsh expressions of religion.

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