I will focus on Syria in several articles, considering the importance the country has had in international relations for centuries.
Ten years ago, a civil war broke out in Syria. What is special about this conflict? What is currently happening in the country? How are Syrians living and what are they experiencing? Is there any prospect of achieving peace?
On March 15, 2011, one of the first major protests against Bashar al-Assad’s regime took place in Damascus. At that juncture, the strength of the remotely controlled “Arab Spring” put on the table the probability that a relatively young Bashar al-Assad (at the beginning of the crisis he was 45 years old, eleven of them spent as President of the country) would not remain in power. However, the reality turned out differently, given the traditional strength of Syrian Arab secularism, an opponent of Islamist terrorism from time immemorial – along with Algeria, Egypt, the Lebanon, Tunisia, Iraq and Libya at the time.
As a result, the war in Syria has become the deadliest conflict of the 21st century. In 2021 the death toll has reached an estimated 600,000 people and several million Syrians have become refugees. Considering the conflicts of the second half of the last century in terms of casualties, the Syrian war is still surpassed by the first Iranian-Iraqi Gulf War, which caused some 700,000 deaths from 1980 to 1988.
The migration of refugees has significantly changed the internal political situation in the countries where they have been forced to seek refuge: mainly Turkey, the Lebanon and Jordan, as well as the European Union’s Member States, including Germany which has shrewdly grabbed the intellectual elite of refugees while, as usual, Italy is lagging behind like a third wheel.
Syria has become a territory of open rivalry between world and regional powers: Russia, Iran, Turkey and the United States of America openly keep their troops on its territory. Dozens of countries are involved in the war through various paramilitary and political groups supporting the various factions.
For ten years the conflict has gone through several phases. From 2013 to 2017 Syria became the territory in which the first “Caliphate” was created since March 3, 1924. The civil war, with other countries’ participation, was complemented by a war with terrorists – in the beginning supported by the usual suspects – whose permanence in Syria caused not only thousands of new victims, but also the destruction of cultural monuments of world value.
Once one of the most successful countries in the region and a beacon of Islamic secularism, Syria has become a centre of gravity for political extremists and international terrorists – a test case in relations between Iranians and Israelis, Turks and Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis, as well as Russia and the USA. This war has described a mixed picture of conflict.
The duration of the war is not accidental but entirely natural. From the beginning, there was a strong presence of external forces and players in the country, which predetermined everything.
On July 15, 2011, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) announced that it considered the internal political situation in Syria a civil war and demanded that international humanitarian law be respected in the country.
On July 29, the rebels already had an army financed by the usual suspects: Syrian officers disloyal to the regime, led by Colonel Riyad Assad, announced the creation of the so-called Free Syrian Army.
Almost from the very beginning, the interests of the countries in the region and of the world powers were manifested in the conflict. In 2014, fighters from the Islamic State terrorist group (ISIS) began to infiltrate from neighbouring Iraq. In the autumn of 2015, the terrorists were at the gates of Damascus.
In 2014 the United States, which was leading the counter-terrorism coalition, began targeting their positions in Syria. In October 2015, Russia began its own counter-terrorist operation. In late 2017 Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the defeat of the terrorists and the United States of America also acknowledged the ISIS defeat.
At that juncture, the military forces of Assad’s legitimate government began to restore control over the country’s territory.
The attempts to resolve the conflict peacefully have so far failed. The basis for the agreement are the principles adopted in Geneva in 2012: the creation of a transitional government with all stakeholders’ participation; the holding of Presidential and Parliamentary elections; the creation of new authorities. One of the elements of the agreement should be the adoption of a new Constitution: on October 30, 2019, the Syrian Constitutional Committee began its work. However, its participants (gathered in Geneva) have not yet begun to directly draft the new text. Therefore, the Presidential elections (held on May 26, 2021) were held according to the current legislation, and saw the victory of Bashar al-Assad with 95.19% of the votes – i.e. 13,540,860 Syrians (including refugees abroad), with their vote, rejected the attempts of those from abroad who were trying to change the political system of their country.
Ten years after the start of the war, most of the country is back under the control of traditional Syrian institutions.
It should be noted that general elections were held in July 2020, which brought the following 250 representatives to the People’s Assembly: 167 seats for the (transnational) Arab Baath Socialist Party; 50 seats for the Independents not aligned with the Syrian government; 17 seats for the Independents aligned with the Syrian government; 3 seats for the Syrian Arab Socialist Union Party (Nasserites); 3 seats for the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (Grand Syrians); 2 seats for the National Covenant Party (Nationalists); 2 seats for the Syrian Socialist Unionist Party (leftist Nasserites); 2 seats for the (anti-revisionist) Syrian Communist Party-Bakdash; 2 seats for the Syrian Communist Party-Unified (Gorbachevians); 1 seat for the Syrian Democratic Union Party (Nasserites); 1 seat for the Arab Democratic Unionist Party (Nasserites); 1 seat for the Democratic Socialist Unionist Party (Nasserites).
Nevertheless, large areas in the North along the border with Turkey are currently controlled by pro-Turkish forces: Turkey ‘s three military operations have created a buffer zone on the border. Turkey is building hospitals and medical schools, as well as opening branches of universities and disconnecting power lines from its territory in order to supply the region with electricity (at a price of 0.09 dollars per kilowatt).
Along the border closest to Iraq there is the area of responsibility of the Kurds, who historically live there but opposed Assad during the war. They are supported by the United States of America, which maintains bases in Syria, including the protection of oil fields. In fact, the areas controlled by Russia and the USA are larger because of their use of aviation.
Two other areas remain under terrorist control: in Idlib, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra) and ISIS. The areas in the south-west (Deraa and Quneitra Provinces) are controlled by several armed opposition groups that have reconciled with Assad’s government.
Syria has been under US sanctions since December 1979. Currently, along with Syria, the US list of countries sponsoring terrorism includes Cuba, Iran and North Korea. These countries are not eligible to receive financial assistance from the United States of America and are also subject to a ban on the export of dual-use goods and to financial restrictions. Later the USA imposed further restrictions, which were tightened after the outbreak of the war in 2011. The Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) threatened restrictions on individuals and organisations providing financial assistance to the Syrian government.
Before the outbreak of the war, however, Syria was one of the richest countries in the region. In the period from 2011 to 2018, the country’s annual GDP fell by almost two-thirds, from 55 billion to 20 billion US dollars. During the war years, the lives of 80% of Syrians fell below the poverty line and the average life expectancy was reduced by 20 years. The country suffers from a shortage of doctors and nurses, teachers, technicians and skilled civil servants.
During the war years, centres of influence and shadow structures were created, which were not interested in the transition to peaceful development, although in the Syrian society, in the economic circles of the real economy sectors and among some civil servants, a demand for political reforms was emerging. In an atmosphere of constant fear, however, dialogue does not seem to be opening up.
This year may be one of the most difficult for Syria: the budget is lower than in any year of the conflict. In Syrian lira, its volume has increased, but it is only 3.36 billion US dollars, 10% less than in the previous year. The main problems are the following: the depreciation of the Syrian lira (before the conflict, the exchange rate was 45 Syrian lira for a dollar, this year it has reached an all-time low – 1,257.86 lira for a dollar – and on the black market it can reach four thousand lira); the increase in food prices (for many products, prices have doubled); the lack of oil and gas. The UN World Food Programme estimates that 60% of Syrians (about 12.4 million people) are at risk of hunger. For example, a vegetable seller in Damascus with a family of nine children earns five dollars a day. Two of his children do not go to school because he cannot afford to pay for it. One of his children leaves for Germany and tries to support them. Another child spends three to five hours a day queuing for bread, the prices of which are subsidised by the State. Without the subsidy, six loaves cost 0.35 dollars: six times the price of State-subsidized bread. Due to a shortage of flour, however, many State-subsidised bakeries operate intermittently.
Israel-Palestine: Risk of ‘deadly escalation’ in violence, without decisive action
With violence continuing daily throughout the Occupied Palestinian Territory, the Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process urged the Security Council on Tuesday to adopt a more coordinated approach to the region.
Tor Wennesland told Council Members that “recent developments on the ground are worrying”, pointing out the situation in the West Bank and Gaza and the challenges faced by the Palestinian Authority.
“I therefore emphasize again the importance of concerted efforts by the parties to calm things on the ground. I am concerned that if we do not act quickly and decisively, we risk plunging into another deadly escalation of violence”, he warned.
He informed that, in the last month, violence resulted in the death of four Palestinians, including two children, and injuries to 90 others – including 12 children – due to action by Israeli Security Forces.
One Israeli civilian was killed in the same period, and nine civilians, including one woman and one child, and six members of ISF were injured.
Mr. Wennesland said that a severe fiscal and economic crisis is threatening the stability of Palestinian institutions in the West Bank.
At the same time, he added, “ongoing violence and unilateral steps, including Israeli settlement expansion, and demolitions, continue to raise tensions, feed hopelessness, erode the Palestinian Authority’s standing and further diminish the prospect of a return to meaningful negotiations.”
In Gaza, the cessation of hostilities continues to hold, but the Special Envoy argued that “further steps are needed by all parties to ensure a sustainable solution that ultimately enables a return of legitimate Palestinian Government institutions to the Strip.”
The Special Coordinator also said that “settler-related violence remains at alarmingly high levels.”
Overall, settlers and other Israeli civilians in the occupied West Bank perpetrated some 54 attacks against Palestinians, resulting in 26 injuries. Palestinians perpetrated 41 attacks against Israeli settlers and other civilians, resulting in one death and nine injuries.
Mr. Wennesland highlighted a few announcements of housing units in settlements, reiterating that “that all settlements are illegal under international law and remain a substantial obstacle to peace.”
Meanwhile, Israeli authorities have also advanced plans for some 6,000 housing units for Palestinians in the occupied East Jerusalem neighbourhood of al-Issawiya and some 1,300 housing units for Palestinians living in Area C (one of the administrative areas in the occupied West Bank, agreed under the Oslo Accord).
The Special Envoy welcomed such steps but urged Israel to advance more plans and to issue building permits for all previously approved plans for Palestinians in Area C and East Jerusalem.
Humanitarian aid delivered
Turning to Gaza, the Special Envoy said that humanitarian, recovery and reconstruction efforts continued, along with other steps to stabilize the situation on the ground.
He called the gradual easing of restrictions on the entry of goods and people “encouraging”, but said that the economic, security and humanitarian situation “remains of serious concern.”
The Special Envoy also mentioned the precarious financial situation of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), which still lacks $60 million to sustain essential services this year.
The agency has yet to pay the November salaries of over 28,000 UN personnel, including teachers, doctors, nurses and sanitation workers, many of whom support extended families, particularly in the Gaza Strip, where unemployment is high.
Saudi religious moderation is as much pr as it is theology
Mohammed Ali al-Husseini, one of Saudi Arabia’s newest naturalized citizens, ticks all the boxes needed to earn brownie points in the kingdom’s quest for religious soft power garnered by positioning itself as the beacon of ‘moderate,’ albeit autocratic, Islam.
A resident of Saudi Arabia since he had a fallout with Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Lebanese Shiite militia, Mr. Al-Husseini represents what the kingdom needs to support its claim that its moderate form of Islam is religiously tolerant, inclusive, non-sectarian, pluralistic, and anti-discriminatory.
More than just being a Shiite, Mr. Al-Husseini is the scion of a select number of Lebanese Shiite families believed to be descendants of the Prophet Mohammed.
Put to the test, it is a billing with as many caveats as affirmatives – a problem encountered by other Gulf states that project themselves as beacons of autocratic interpretations of a moderate strand of the faith.
Even so, Saudi Arabia, despite paying lip service to religious tolerance and pluralism, has, unlike its foremost religious soft power competitors – the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Turkey, Iran, and Indonesia, yet to legalise non-Muslim worship and the building of non-Muslim houses of worship in the kingdom.
Similarly, the first batch of 27 newly naturalized citizens appeared not to include non-Muslims. If it did, they were not identified as such in contrast to Mr. Al-Hussein’s whose Shiite faith was clearly stated.
The 27 were naturalized under a recent decree intended to ensure that Saudi Arabia can compete with countries like the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Singapore in attracting foreign talent. About a quarter of the new citizens, including Mr. Al-Husseini and Mustafa Ceric, a former Bosnian grand mufti, were religious figures or historians of Saudi Arabia.
In doing so, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman linked his economic and social reforms that enhanced women’s rights and catered to youth aspirations to his quest for religious soft power and leadership of the Muslim world. The reforms involved tangible social and economic change. Still, they refrained from adapting the ultra-conservative, supremacist theology that underlined the founding of the kingdom and its existence until the rise of King Salman and his son, the crown prince, in 2015.
Prince Mohammed’s notion of ‘moderate’ Islam is socially liberal but politically autocratic. It calls for absolute obedience to the ruler in a deal that replaces the kingdom’s long-standing social contract in which the citizenry exchanged surrender of political rights for a cradle-to-grave welfare state. The new arrangement expands social rights and economic opportunity at the price of a curtailed welfare state as well as the loss of political freedoms, including freedoms of expression, media, and association.
A series of recent op-eds in Saudi media written by pundits rather than clerics seemingly with the endorsement, if not encouragement of the crown prince or his aides, called for top-down Martin Luther-like religious reforms that would introduce rational and scientific thinking, promote tolerance, and eradicate extremism.
Mamdouh Al-Muhaini, general manager of the state-controlled Al-Arabiya and Al-Hadath television networks, spelled out the top-down process of religious reform that would be led by the crown prince even though the writer stopped short of identifying him by name.
“There are dozens, or perhaps thousands, of Luthers of Islam… As such, the question of ‘where is the Luther of Islam’ is wrong. It should instead be: Where is Islam’s Frederick the Great? The King of Prussia, who earned the title of Enlightened Despot, embraced major philosophers in Europe like Kant and Voltaire and gave them the freedom to think and carry out scientific research, which helped their ideas spread and prevail over fundamentalism after bitter clashes. We could also ask where is Islam’s Catherine the Great…? Without the support and protection of these leaders, we would have likely never heard of these intellectuals, nor of Luther before them,” Mr. Al-Muhaini said.
Messrs. Al-Husseini and Ceric represent what Saudi Arabia would like the Muslim and non-Muslim world to take home from their naturalization.
A religious scholar, Mr. Ceric raised funds in Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Malaysia during the Bosnian war in the 1990s and defended issues close to Saudi Arabia’s heart even if his own views are more liberal.
Mr. Ceric argued, for example, that opposition to Wahhabism, the kingdom’s austere interpretation of Islam that has been modified since King Salman came to power, amounted to Islamophobia even if the cleric favoured Bosnia’s more liberal Islamic tradition. The cleric also opposed stripping foreign fighters, including Saudis, of Bosnian citizenship, granted them for their support during the war.
To Saudi Arabia’s advantage, Mr. Ceric continues to be a voice of Muslim moderation as well as proof that Islam is as much part of the West as it is part of the East and the hard to defend suggestion that being a liberal does not by definition entail opposition to ultra-conservatism.
Referring to the fact that he is a Shiite, Mr. Al-Husseini said in response to his naturalisation by a country that was created based on an ultra-conservative strand of Islam that sees Shiites as heretics: “The glowing truth that cannot be contested is that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is open to everyone…and does not look at dimensions of…a sectarian type.”
Beyond being a Shiite Muslim cleric, Mr. Al-Husseini is to have been a Hezbollah insider. A one-time proponent of resistance against Israel, Mr. Al-Husseini reportedly broke with Hezbollah as a result of differences over finances.
He associated himself on the back of his newly found opposition to Hezbollah with the Saudi-backed March 14 movement headed by Saad Hariri, a prominent Lebanese Sunni Muslim politician.
As head of the relatively obscure Arabic Islamic Council that favoured inter-faith dialogue, particularly with Jews, Mr. Al-Husseini ticked off another box on the Saudi checklist, particularly given the kingdom’s refusal to establish diplomatic relations with Israel without a clear and accepted pathway to a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
While Mr. Al-Husseini’s history fits the Saudi bill, his impact appears to be limited. He made some incidental headlines in 2015 after he used social media to urge Muslims, Jewish, and Christian clerics to downplay religious traditions that call for violence.
Mr. Al-Husseini spoke as the tension between Israel and Lebanon mounted at the time after Hezbollah killed two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border attack.
Earlier, Mr. Al-Husseini seemingly became the first Arab Shiite religious figure to address Israelis directly and to do so in broken Hebrew.
“We believe that not all Jews are bad [just as] not all Muslims are terrorists. Let us cousins put our conflicts aside and stay away from evil and hatred. Let us unite in peace and love,” Mr. Al-Husseini told an unknown number of Israeli listeners.
Mr. Al-Husseini’s presence on social media pales compared to that of the Muslim World League and its head, Mohammed Al Issa. The League, the one-time vehicle for Saudi funding of Muslim ultra-conservatism worldwide, and its leader, are today the main propagators of Prince Mohammed ’s concept of moderate Islam.
The League has 2.8 million Twitter followers in English and 3.4 million in Arabic in addition to 662,000 in French and 310,00 in Urdu. The League boasts similar numbers on Facebook. The League’s president, Mr. Al-Issa, has 670,000 followers on Twitter and 272,000 on Facebook.
Vienna Talks: US-Russia-China trilateral and Iran
Talks between Iran and other signatories to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) 2015/Iran Nuclear deal regarding the revival of the deal resumed at Vienna on November 29, 2021 after a hiatus of five months (the talks which began on April 2021 have been stalled since June 2021). The US has not been participating directly in these talks.
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi who won the June 2021 election has not been opposed to engaging with other signatories to the JCPOA, including the US, but has repeatedly stated, that Iran would only return to full compliance to the 2015 agreement, if its key demands are addressed favorably, and would give precedence to its national interest.
EU political director, Enrique Mora sounded optimistic with regard to the resumption of the talks, and while talking to reporters said:
‘I feel positive that we can be doing important things for the next weeks’
Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Ali Bagheri Kani, also the country’s chief nuclear negotiator, said that the US is adopting a ‘maximum pressure’ approach (referring to economic sanctions) which would not help in achieving any genuine results.
Ali Bagheri Kani’s statement underscores the fact that any significant headway with regard to the Iran nuclear deal is likely to be an uphill task. Iran has increased its uranium enrichment and uranium stockpile, away above the limits agreed upon during the 2015 agreement, and has also restricted access of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors to it’s nuclear program. Tehran has also made it clear, that if the US lifts all economic sanctions, it will get back to full compliance to the agreement of 2015. Tehran is also seeking a guarantee from the US, that in future it would not withdraw from an agreement, as Donald Trump had done.
The Biden Administration too has been adopting a more aggressive stance vis-à-vis Iran in recent months (Iranian officials have gone to the extent of saying that Biden’s Iran policy is no different from that of Trump). The US seems to be unwilling to remove all sanctions against Iran. US has also been saying that if diplomacy fails it will need to explore other options against Iran and would not refrain from exerting more pressure . On Monday, a US State Department spokesman categorically stated that ‘If Iran demands more or offers less than a mutual return to compliance, these negotiations will not succeed,’.
US-Russia-China trilateral and Iran
In recent weeks, Washington has made efforts to reduce tensions with Beijing and Moscow, sending out a message that it is keen to work with both countries on certain issues – especially Afghanistan, Climate Change and Iran.
Both Moscow and Beijing have adopted a different stance from Washington on the Iran issue. Washington’s decision to host a Democracy Summit (December 9-10, 2021) has not gone down to well with either especially Beijing.
During a video conversation on November 24, 2021 with Iranian Foreign Minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi not only supported Tehran’s demands with regard to the JCPOA, but also criticized the Summit For Democracy saying that it will only create further divisions globally. Russia’s Ambassador to Tehran, Levan Dzhagaryan, also supported Tehran’s demands saying some of them were pertinent. In a newspaper interview he said:
‘For example, they, the Iranian side, want to guarantee, let’s say, in future Americans wouldn’t repeat the same step as they did before. The Iranian side also needs some guarantees from the European businesses to fulfill and to implement all that contract. It is quite logical’
US President, Joe Biden while seeking to have a working relationship with China and Russia has also been trying to work together with democracies, and also send out a message that democracies can deliver (hours before his conversation with Chinese President Xi Jinping on November 14, 2021, Biden signed into law an ambitious 1.2 trillion USD infrastructure package). The Summit for Democracy was aimed at greater coordination with other democracies, especially US allies, on important global issues, but it remains to be seen if the Summit will raise tensions between Washington and Beijing and Moscow, and thus indirectly act as an impediment to further progress on talks related to the Iran nuclear deal.
While Biden’s emphasis on democracies working together, and the need to check China’s growing clout is legitimate, it is important that he does not make the same mistakes as Trump and does not compel Iran to become an appendage of China (imposition of further sanctions at a time when Iran’s economy is in the doldrums will only increase the Anti-US sentiment in Iran). It is also important that the US works closely with its allies on the Iran issue. France, Germany and UK should be playing a more pro-active role in the revival of JCPOA and should not be quiet bystanders. Iran on its part also needs to demonstrate flexibility and pragmatism.
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