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
China-US and the Iran nuclear deal
Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian met with Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi on Friday, January 14, 2022 in the city of Wuxi, in China’s Jiangsu province. Both of them discussed a gamut of issues pertaining to the Iran-China relationship, as well as the security situation in the Middle East.
A summary of the meeting published by the Chinese Foreign Ministry underscored the point, that Foreign Ministers of Iran and China agreed on the need for strengthening bilateral cooperation in a number of areas under the umbrella of the 25 year Agreement known as ‘Comprehensive Cooperation between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the People’s Republic of China’. This agreement had been signed between both countries in March 2021 during the Presidency of Hassan Rouhani, but the Iranian Foreign Minister announced the launch of the agreement on January 14, 2022.
During the meeting between Wang Yi and Hossein Amir Abdollahian there was a realization of the fact, that cooperation between both countries needed to be enhanced not only in areas like energy and infrastructure (the focus of the 25 year comprehensive cooperation was on infrastructure and energy), but also in other spheres like education, people to people contacts, medicine and agriculture. Iran also praised the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and said that it firmly supported the One China policy.
The timing of this visit is interesting, Iran is in talks with other signatories (including China) to the JCPOA/Iran nuclear deal 2015 for the revival of the 2015 agreement. While Iran has asked for removal of economic sanctions which were imposed by the US after it withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018, the US has said that time is running out, and it is important for Iran to return to full compliance to the 2015 agreement. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in an interview said:
‘Iran is getting closer and closer to the point where they could produce on very, very short order enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon’
The US Secretary of State also indicated, that if the negotiations were not successful, then US would explore other options along with other allies.
During the course of the meeting on January 14, 2022 Wang Yi is supposed to have told his Chinese counterpart, that while China supported negotiations for the revival of the Iran nuclear deal 2015, the onus for revival was on the US since it had withdrawn in 2018.
The visit of the Iranian Foreign Minister to China was also significant, because Foreign Ministers of four Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries – Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain — and Secretary General of GCC, Nayef Falah Mubarak Al-Hajraf were in China from January 10-14, 2022 with the aim of expanding bilateral ties – especially with regard to energy cooperation and trade. According to many analysts, the visit of GCC officials to China was driven not just by economic factors, but also the growing proximity between Iran and Beijing.
In conclusion, China is important for Iran from an economic perspective. Iran has repeatedly stated, that if US does not remove the economic sanctions it had imposed in 2018, it will focus on strengthening economic links with China (significantly, China has been purchasing oil from Iran over the past three years in spite of the sanctions imposed by the US. The Ebrahim Raisi administration has repeatedly referred to an ‘Asia centric’ policy which prioritises ties with China.
Beijing is seeking to enhance its clout in the Middle East as US ties with certain members of the GCC, especially UAE and Saudi Arabia have witnessed a clear downward spiral in recent months (US has been uncomfortable with the use of China’s 5G technology by UAE and the growing security linkages between Beijing and Saudi Arabia). One of the major economic reasons for the GCC gravitating towards China is Washington’s thrust on reducing its dependence upon GCC for fulfilling its oil needs. Beijing can utilize its good ties with Iran and GCC and play a role in improving links between both.
The geopolitical landscape of the Middle East is likely to become more complex, and while there is not an iota of doubt, that the US influence in the Middle East is likely to remain intact, China is fast catching up.
Egypt vis-à-vis the UAE: Who is Driving Whom?
“Being a big fish in a small pond is better than being a little fish in a large pond” is a maxim that aptly summarizes Egyptian regional foreign policy over the past few decades. However, the blow dealt to the Egyptian State in the course of the 2011 uprising continues to distort its domestic and regional politics and it has also prompted the United Arab Emirates to become heavily engaged in Middle East politics, resulting in the waning of Egypt’s dominant role in the region!
The United Arab Emirates is truly an aspirational, entrepreneurial nation! In fact, the word “entrepreneurship” could have been invented to define the flourishing city of Dubai. The UAE has often declared that as a small nation, it needs to establish alliances to pursue its regional political agenda while Egypt is universally recognized for its regional leadership, has one of the best regional military forces, and has always charmed the Arab world with its soft power. Nonetheless, collaboration between the two nations would not necessarily give rise to an entrepreneurial supremacy force!
Egypt and the UAE share a common enemy: political Islamists. Yet each nation has its own distinct dynamic and the size of the political Islamist element in each of the two countries is different. The UAE is a politically stable nation and an economic pioneer with a small population – a combination of factors that naturally immunize the nation against the spread of political Islamists across the region. In contrast, Egypt’s economic difficulties, overpopulation, intensifying political repression, along with its high illiteracy rate, constitute an accumulation of elements that serves to intensify the magnitude of the secreted, deep-rooted, Egyptian political Islamists.
The alliance formed between the two nations following the inauguration of Egypt’s President Al Sisi was based on UAE money and Egyptian power. It supported and helped expand the domestic political power of a number of unsubstantiated Arab politicians, such as Libya’s General Khalifa Haftar, Tunisia’s President Kais Saied and the Chairman of Sudan’s Transitional Sovereignty Council, Lieutenant-General Abdel-Fattah Al-Burhan. The common denominator among these politicians is that they are all fundamentally opposed to political Islamists.
Although distancing political Islamists from ruling their nations may constitute a temporary success, it certainly is not enough to strengthen the power of the alliance’s affiliates. The absence of true democracy, intensified repression by Arab rulers and the natural evolution of Arab citizens towards freedom will, for better or for worse, lead to the re-emergence of political Islamists. Meanwhile, Emirati wealth will always attract Arab hustlers ready to offer illusory political promises to cash in the money.
The UAE has generously injected substantial amounts of money into the Egyptian economy and consequently the Egyptian State has exclusively privileged Emirati enterprises with numerous business opportunities, yet the UAE has not helped Egypt with the most critical regional threat it is confronting: the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Meanwhile, Egyptian President Abdel Fatah El Sisi’s exaggerated fascination with UAE modernization has prompted him to duplicate many Emirati projects – building the tallest tower in Africa is one example.
The UAE’s regional foreign policy that hinges upon exploiting its wealth to confront the political Islamist threat is neither comprehensible nor viable. The Emirates, in essence, doesn’t have the capacity to be a regional political player, even given the overriding of Egypt’s waning power. Meanwhile, Al Sisi has been working to depoliticize Egypt completely, perceiving Egypt as an encumbrance rather than a resource-rich nation – a policy that has resulted in narrowing Egypt’s economic and political aspirations, limiting them to the constant seeking of financial aid from wealthy neighbors.
The regional mediating role that Egypt used to play prior to the Arab uprising has been taken over by European nations such France, Germany and Italy, in addition of course to the essential and ongoing role of the United States. Profound bureaucracy and rampant corruption will always keep Egypt from becoming a second UAE! Irrespective of which nation is in the driver’s seat, this partnership has proven to be unsuccessful. Egypt is definitely better off withdrawing from the alliance, even at the expense of forgoing Emirati financial support.
Kurdish Education in Turkey: A Joint Responsibility
Turkish elites often see Kurds as posing a mortal threat to their homeland’s territorial integrity. Kurdish elites often harbor pan-Kurdish dreams of their own.
Modern Turkish nationalism based its identity on statist secularism practiced by Muslims who are Turks. The secularist paradigm of a “Turkish Nation” struggled hard with accommodating Christians (Armenians, Greeks, Assyrians) and Kurdish-speaking Muslims. Kurdish coreligionists were expected to become Turks, i.e., to abandon their cultural heritage for the “greater good” of a homogenous Turkish nation.
This cultural-identity conundrum led to a century-long violent conflict, but also to genuine efforts by many Kurds and Turks to reach a common vision that would accommodate both Turkey’s territorial integrity and Kurdish cultural rights.
The rise to power of Erdogan’s Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2002 appeared to imply a watershed, bringing about a measure of cultural liberalization toward the Kurds. More Islam seemed at first to signal less nationalistic chauvinism.
IMPACT-se, a think tank focusing on peace and tolerance in school education, pointed out in “Two Languages One Country,” a 2019 report that showed liberal elements being introduced in the Turkish curriculum by the AKP government. These “included the introduction of a Kurdish language elective program, the teaching of evolution, expressions of cultural openness, and displays of tolerance toward minorities.”
And while no open debate was permitted, IMPACT-se noted “a slight improvement over past textbooks in recognizing the Kurds, although they are still generally ignored.” Yet, the name “Kurd” is no longer obliterated from the curriculum. Kurdish-language textbooks were authored as part of a wider Turkish-Kurdish rapprochement.
In June 2012, the Turkish government announced for the first time, that a Kurdish elective language course entitled: “Living Languages and Dialects” (Yaşayan Diller ve Lehçeler), would be offered as an elective language for Grades 5–7 for two hours per week.
IMPACT-se studied these textbooks (published in 2014 and 2015 in Kurmanji and Zazaki) in its report and found that the elective Kurdish-language program strengthens Kurdish culture and identity, while assuming a pan-Kurdish worldview devoid of hate against Turks. Included are Kurdish-historic places in Turkey, Iran and Iraq (but not Syria). The textbooks cover issues such as the Kurdish diaspora in Europe, the Kurdish national holiday of Newroz, with the underlying revolutionary message of uprising against tyranny. Children’s names are exclusively Kurdish. Turks and Turkey are not represented in the elective Kurdish books (but are obviously present across the rest of the curriculum).
The latter is a surprising and counter-intuitive finding. Textbooks published by Turkey’s Ministry of Education focus solely on the Kurdish side, with pan-Kurdish messaging, and no Turkish context. There could be several explanations for this, but the fact remains that Turkish-Kurdish relations are still not present in Turkey’s Kurdish language program.
The overall conclusion of IMPACT-se has been that this program is pioneering and generally excellent. There are some problems, however. One problem is that the elective program is minimalistic and does not meet Kurdish cultural needs. However, the program ignores the Turkish-Kurdish dilemma, hence projecting an inverted mirror image of the Turkish curriculum at large, which ignores the Kurdish question. There is no peace education in either curriculum. Therefore, IMPACT-se recommended enhancing the Kurdish-language program, while adding a healthy dose of pertinent peace education to the curriculum’s Turkish and Kurdish textbooks.
Sadly, the last few years have also seen broader moves by the Turkish government to quash Kurdish cultural and educational freedoms. The armed conflict between separatist groups and the Turkish military resumed in 2015, followed by the 2016 detention of high-ranking officials of the peaceful pro-minority People’s Democratic Party (HDP). By 2020, 59 out of 65 elected Kurdish mayors on the HDP ticket in previous years had been forced out or arrested by security forces.
Simultaneously, elective programs such as Kurdish have been neglected and largely replaced by religious “elective” courses, which are often mandatory. Specifically, elective Kurdish courses are being clamped down or de facto erased in certain schools (despite being originally offered in 28 cities and with an expected enrollment as high as 160,000).
And then there is the question of full education in Kurdish. Article 42 of the Turkish Constitution bans the “teaching of any language other than Turkish as a mother tongue to Turkish citizens at any institution of education.” And yet, Turkish authorities looked the other way between 2013 and 2016, as five fully Kurdish elementary private schools were opened in the southeastern provinces of Diyarbakır, Şırnak and Hakkari. The last of these schools, Ferzad Kemanger in Diyarbakır, was closed on October 9, 2016. Apparently these schools conveyed pan-Kurdish messaging (Ferzad Kemanger was an Iranian-Kurdish elementary school teacher. He was wrongly accused of being a terrorist and executed by Tehran in 2010).
There can be no Kurdish heritage without Kurdish languages, making the current situation untenable. Kurdish education should become a priority again.
But this is not enough. A common Turkish-Kurdish vision should be developed. Educationally, a serious effort should be directed toward educating both Turks and Kurds about the other’s identity, culture, shared history, commonalties, conflicts and interactions.
Two ethnicities sharing one homeland in a volatile region pose a great challenge for both. A careful educational plan can lay the groundwork for peace and prosperity. Kurdish education in Turkey should be considered a joint responsibility leading to a common vision.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect an official position of IMPACT-se.
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