Wednesday, 16 August 2017
Sam Charles Hamad:
'It’s something of an understatement to say Syria is a ‘multifaceted’ war – often discerning the dynamics of different microeconomic and macroeconomic struggles is half the battle. But as counter-revolution sweeps across the land, the ‘geopolitical’ shifts that will affect the lives of all Syrians continue to change.
The most prominent of these happenings has not just been the abandonment of the anti-Assad rebels by their self-declared allies, a process which began years ago, but rather a battle over the narrative of who was to blame for the catastrophe that has engulfed the Syrian revolution.
There’s something much bigger at stake than the fate of mere Syrians in the mind of these actors: an attempt to curtail and ideologically condition the trajectory of the Arab spring.
One could roughly split the sides in this struggle into two main blocs, though there are nuances and areas of disagreement between the two, namely the Saudi Arabia-UAE-US bloc and the Qatar-Turkish bloc. In many ways, this is an old struggle made new – one must never forget the divide that defined the calamity of the original attempts to set up coherent opposition.
To cut multiple long stories short, Saudi Arabia refused to arm rebel forces or back opposition outfits connected to the Muslim Brotherhood or any force that wasn’t sufficiently supportive of Saudi interests, while Qatar and Turkey had a more open approach to arming and aiding groups. This is essentially the main dynamic of the divide – Saudi Arabia and the UAE are determined to ensure that democratic Islamist forces, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, are not allowed to triumph, not just in Syria but across the region.
The contours of this clash are hardly difficult to discern. We’ve seen the Saudi and UAE-led ‘siege’ on Qatar. We’ve seen Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s own counter-revolutionary rampage across the region, most notably their support in Egypt for Abdel Fattah El Sisi’s brutal counter-revolution against the democratically elected Mohamed Morsi, of the Brotherhood-affiliated Freedom and Justice Party. In addition to this, the UAE, and to a lesser but not insignificant degree, Saudi Arabia, have ploughed their resources into backing the hugely destructive anti-Muslim Brotherhood crusade of Khalifa Haftar in Libya.
This was the spirit that lurked behind a recent op-ed in the UAE newspaper The National, which sought to pin the blame firmly on Turkey for the current plight of the Syrian rebels. The article somewhat briefly and irresolutely mentions that Saudi Arabia has allegedly called for the Syrian opposition, or its chief negotiating body the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), to accept the rule of Bashar al-Assad as a precondition for any negotiations with Assad and his allies.
The author also attempts to casually exonerate Riyadh for what has been a clear shift in its policy towards the Syrian rebels since the arrival of Donald Trump in the White House, claiming that it ‘considered lifting pressure from the regime in Damascus as a way to reduce its need for Iran’, before going on to say that Turkey’s alleged policy shift has been ‘most damaging’.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE love nothing more than to justify everything they do by conjuring up the spectre of Iran, but there is absolutely no doubt that the rationale behind Saudi’s veritable abandonment of the Syrian rebels has everything to do with it falling behind Trump’s policy towards the Syrian revolution, as well as it being congruent with their specific stance against liberty in the region. Riyadh went out of its way to accommodate Trump, and while one calculation might be Trump’s rhetorically hawkish stance against Iranian expansionism, the reality is that the policy casually dismissed by the author above has been far more destructive than anything Turkey has done.
The policy that the author claims is a way to force Assad to reduce his reliance on Iran has meant, in concrete terms, the announcement of the end of the, to quote Trump himself, ‘dangerous and wasteful’ not-so-secret CIA arms and funding programme for anti-Assad rebels. One must understand that though this programme was never even remotely adequate or even geared towards allowing rebel forces to overthrow Assad (though it did wield successes), the main function of the CIA in it was to ‘vet’ rebel brigades and ensure that weapons got over the border with Jordan – the weapons themselves were provided by Saudi Arabia.
In other words, one of the last lifelines to the rebels, no matter how paltry, was cut off to some rebels and, far from it being a US decision alone, it was very much a joint decision by Saudi and the US. However, it was just a public confirmation of what has been a reality in Syria for two years – Saudi aid to rebels dried up.
As per the anti-Brotherhood agenda of Saudi when it came to arming rebels, this briefly changed in 2015, following the death of King Abdullah and the assumption of the throne by Salman. Salman decided that Abdullah’s policy towards groups like the Muslim Brotherhood had been too harsh, which saw the Army of Conquest, which was led by the anti-Saudi moderate Islamist force Ahrar al-Sham, as well as groups like the MB-affiliated democratic Islamist force Sham Legion, receive Saudi-sourced TOW anti-tank missiles.
This was in June 2015, but, after Russia intervened decisively on behalf of Assad and the US turned towards focussing solely on fight against the Islamic State group (IS), the aid to the anti-Assad rebels dried up and the momentum gained by this influx of weaponry was stalled and reversed. It was at this moment that Iranian-led pro-regime forces, buoyed by the Russian air force, began to solidify their semi-occupation of Syria.
The author of course mentions none of this. Instead, he ironically blames Turkey for shifting its focus away from anti-Assad rebels to ‘focussing on disrupting Kurdish expansion’, adding that Turkey ‘has since worked closely with Iran and Russia … politically … and ‘militarily on the ground’.
There’s little doubt that Turkey’s general anti-Kurdish separatist agenda fuels its current policy in Northern Syria (and liberty in Syria’s revolution ought to have no ethnic or sectarian limits), but Turkey isn’t trying to take Rojava proper – it is aiding rebels to take back villages and towns near the Turkish border that have been occupied by IS, or which the YPG grabbed under the cover of deadly Russian airstrikes.
The YPG have imposed their rule on these areas and, in places that are not needed to cement their one-party state, have occupied the cities or handed-back control to the Assad regime. Moreover, as was the case in Aleppo and Manbij, we’ve seen the YPG directly aid the Iranian-led militias that the author accuses Turkey of working with.
Unlike the YPG, the rebel forces that fight with Turkey remain committed to fighting Assad and refugees are able to be resettled – this and ensuring genuine ceasefires is the main calculation behind Turkey’s role in the Astana process, which contrary to the author’s sentiments, Turkey has never said was an alternative to Geneva.
But while the author wants to paint a picture of Turkey ‘collaborating’ with Assad, Russia and Iran, and while it’s certainly true that Turkey has good relations with both, its role in Syria, while flawed, is nowhere near as destructive as the current US or Saudi policy. Look, for example, at the Saudi/US-backed Southern Front of the Free Syrian Army, which has been transformed from one of the most efficient anti-Assad coalitions to a mere shell that would, under pain of losing its funding and backing, look the other way as Iranian-led pro-Assad forces murdering Syrians to fight only IS.
The author also tries to put the blame of the current triumph of the fascist counter-revolutionaries of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS – al-Qaeda’s franchise in Syria) in Idlib, claiming that ‘Turkey also stood idly by as HTS weakened and fragmented Ahrar Al Sham … and forced it to give up control of a border crossing.’. It’s perfectly true that Turkey hasn’t done enough to support rebel forces in Idlib an that its policy has been conditioned by US pressure to focus solely on IS, but these are the same rebels that Saudi Arabia and the US have now officially abandoned.
The author also misses the fact that Turkey sent rebel forces it funds into Idlib to bolster moderate forces against HTS, as well as providing medical services to injured rebels.
Turkey, as with all other states, will ultimately put its own interests first. But this does not mean that the interests of all states are as equally cynical when it comes to Syria. Turkey did its very best to get the US to implement a no-fly zone over areas of Syria being hit by Assad, while the US wouldn’t even entertain it.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia and the UAE use their powerful airforces only to commit hugely destructive war crimes in Yemen, a situation they created due to their fear of the MB-affiliated Al-Islah gaining power in a post-Saleh democracy.
Syrians have always been let down by their allies, but with the US, Saudi and UAE allegedly on their side, they don’t need enemies.'
Sunday, 13 August 2017
'Despite a cease-fire agreement for southern Syria that was brokered by the Trump administration and Russia, the Iranian-backed, pro-Assad coalition continues to capture areas in the border region with Jordan, the Sunni Arabic newspaper Asharq al-Awsat reported Friday.
This happened despite the presence of a Russian observer force which is supposed to safeguard the cease-fire and prevent the presence of Iranian proxies in the border regions in southern Syria.
“The Syrian regime-linked Team 15, in addition to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and members of Lebanon’s Hezbollah, have already reached the Syrian-Jordanian borders and control the areas of Bi’r Saboun-Tal Assada, reaching the entire Abu Sharshouh border crossing and border posts,” the newspaper Asharq al-Awsat wrote, citing a report by an unknown German news agency.
The report was confirmed by the Syrian Observatory For Human Rights, which reported the pro-Assad coalition’s new advances ended the presence of rebel groups along the Jordanian border in the Syrian Suweida Province, which is home to a large Druze community.
“With this advancement, the factions are now left with no external access east and southeast of Syria, except for a border strip on the southeast border of the Damascus countryside with Jordan, in addition to a border strip with Iraq extending over the provinces of Damascus countryside and Homs, which includes al-Tanf border crossing between Syria and Iraq,” according to the SOHR.
The Asharq al-Awsat report will no doubt raise concerns in Israel about the encroachment of Iranian-backed forces on the border area at the Golan Heights.
Israel strongly opposed the cease-fire arrangement, which aimed to establish de-conflicting zones along the Israeli and Jordanian border with Syria.
Last month, Israeli officials held secret talks about the cease-fire plan with their American and Russian counterparts in an unknown European capital and the Jordanian capital of Amman.
During these talks, Israel presented the U.S. and Russia with numerous objections to the agreement, claiming the two regional superpowers were not paying enough attention to the Iranian attempts to use the chaos in Syria for advancing its imperialistic aspirations, which include the “liberation” of the Israel Golan Heights.
The U.S. and Russia see the cease-fire as a means to neutralize the threat of the Jihadist organizations Islamic State and the former Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, which control much of the border region along the Israel and Jordanian border.
High-ranking Israeli diplomats, however, told their American and Russian counterparts they should consider the situation from a long-term strategic perspective and focus on the emerging Iranian threat in Syria.
The Israelis reportedly demanded that the agreement include a provision banning the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and their local Shiite proxies like Hezbollah from entering a 15-mile-wide buffer zone along the Israeli border, but to no avail.
The government in Jerusalem was shocked to find out the draft version of the agreement ignored almost all of Israel’s reservations and even contradicted Israel’s position on the issues discussed in Amman and the European capital.
Israeli officials later revealed that the agreement didn’t even mention Iran or Hezbollah and said the draft text led Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu to publicly voice his opposition to the agreement July 16 while visiting Paris.
The Israeli PM the agreement not only condones, but effectively perpetuates, Iran’s presence in Syria.
Netanyahu’s criticism led Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to reassure Israel over its security concerns, while Secretary of State Rex Tillerson later announced the U.S. would not continue its cooperation with Russia in Syria if the Iranian backed-forces wouldn’t be expelled from the country.
“The direct presence of Iranian military forces inside of Syria, they must leave and go home, whether those are Iranian Revolutionary Guard forces or whether those are paid militias, foreign fighters, that Iran has brought into Syria in this battle,” Tillerson told reporters in Washington last week.
The message may have come too late, however.
By concentrating too much on the threat Islamic State poses for the West and the U.S. in particular, the previous and current U.S. administrations enabled the rise of Iran in Iraq and Syria.
For example, the U.S. is currently helping the Iranians cleansing the Syrian-Lebanon border region from Sunni Islamist rebels and their families by assistingthe Lebanese army, which has been turned into an Iranian proxy. The U.S. is also not confronting Hezbollah, which is Iran’s major ally in the attempt to turn Syria in a new client state of the Islamic Republic.
The lack of a clear American anti-Iran policy in Iraq and Syria “worries Israel … because it casts doubt over the depth of American commitment, the ability of the Americans to deliver, or the relevance of the ‘Art of the Deal’ to the Middle East and international politics,” wrote Yossi Kupperwasser, former Director General of the Israel Ministry of Strategic Affairs and head of the Research Division of IDF Military Intelligence, wrote last week.
The Trump administration, however, is plagued by internal division on the strategically important issue of Iran and its hegemonic drive in the Middle East.
Tillerson and most of Trump’s advisers on issues related to Iran appear to have adopted a strategy of non-confrontation toward Iran and its regional allies. Trump, meanwhile, indicates he wants to confront Iran over its lack of adhering to what Trump calls the “spirit” of the nuclear deal.
On Thursday, for example, the president told reporters at his golf retreat in New Jersey that Iran “wasn’t living up to the spirit of the agreement,” and warned for serious consequences.
“I think you’ll see some very strong things taking place if they don’t get themselves in compliance,” the president said after he made clear the nuclear deal had enabled Iran to push its destabilizing agenda for the Middle East.
The State Department, however, sings a different tune when it comes to the developments in Syria and the cooperation between dictator Bashar al-Assad and the Iranians. Brett McGurk the U.S. envoy for the war in Iraq and Syria, said last week that soft power must be used to oust Assad, who has become Iran’s straw man in the devastated country.'