GLOBALIST | 19 AUGUST, 2018
Turkey role decried
Syrian President Bashar Al Assad’s grit, bolstered by Russian and Iranian support, had enabled him to trounce the rebels in almost the entire country except for an enclave in the northwest around Idlib. The region housed hundreds of thousands of his opponents who had relocated under evacuation agreements as other parts of the country fell to pro-government forces backed by Russia and Iran.
The Americans seemed to have given up their effort to remove him from power. US President Donald Trump’s administration had said that ousting Assad was no longer a priority. According to US media reports no one in the Trump administration—not President Trump, not Defense Secretary James Mattis, neither freshly installed National-Security Adviser John Bolton nor Secretary of State-designate Mike Pompeo—had expressed interest in removing the Assad regime by force and rebuilding the Syrian nation, the way the U.S. overthrew Saddam Hussein in Iraq.
President Trump had ended the clandestine American program to provide arms and supplies to Syrian rebel groups and Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said the US did not want to get involved in Syria's civil war, and would offer protection only in areas where the Syrian Democratic Forces were fighting Islamic State.
Regarding the future of Iraq the US had started taking the line, echoing the long held Russian position, that President Assad’s future would be decided by the Syrian people. Nikki Haley, the US Ambassador to the United Nations had said that Washington would focus on working with powers such as Turkey and Russia to seek a political settlement to the conflict , rather than focusing on Assad.
The changed US position was criticized by the opposition’s chief negotiator Nasr al-Hariri, who accused the United States of complicity in Assad’s southwest offensive, saying American silence could only be explained by “a malicious deal”.
The Israelis and Turkey were both concerned with the current military situation in Syria. Israel was worried that Assad might defy a 1974 de-militarisation deal on the Golan Heights or allow his Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah allies to deploy there. The Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu had rejected a Russian offer that it would be ensured that Iranian forces were kept 100 kms away from the border with Israel.
Netanyahu, who had been complaining of the presence of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and pro-Iran Hezbollah near his country’s borders, had asked both the President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin to help in moving the Iranians completely out of Syria. The Iranian approach was articulated by Ali Akbar Velayati, the Special Envoy of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamanei, who said that the Iranians could leave Syria if Damascus wanted it.
Israel had escalated its aerial forays into Syria using aircraft and missiles targeting air bases radar installations and ammunition dumps with a salvo in May termed the heaviest of the conflict. Tensions had increased with Assad swearing to recapture the area bordering Jordan and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights in the south west, threatening a “de-escalation” zone agreed upon by the United States and Russia last year. Jordan’s efforts to broker a deal between the rebels and Russia, acting on behalf of the Syrian Government, in the southwest had floundered as, while some rebel groups agreed to reconciliation with the government groups like the Nusra Front and those allied to Islamic State, refused to accept the terms set by the Russians that they hand over heavy weapons to the army.
Despite American and UN warnings Assad’s army and its allies had managed to take control of Daraa, the fountainhead of the anti Assad movement, and Quneitra and tighten the regime’s hold on the Syriansector of the Golan Heights. The Israeli government reportedly said it would not impede the Syrian army presence in Quneitra as long as it kept away from the demilitarized zone. But Israel would continue to escalate attacks along its frontier and elsewhere in Syria where it suspected Iranian-backed forces were stationed. Israel had warned that it would “eliminate” Syrian President Bashar Assad if he continued to let Iran operate from his country’s territory.
Turkey’s strategic interests were likely to clash with those of the Syrian leader as Syrian forces began focusing on areas like Idlib in the northwest. A “National Army” was being set up by Syrian rebels with Turkey’s help to prevent President Bashar al-Assad’s securing the northwest where the Turkish-backed opposition governed a strip of territory that formed part of the last big rebel stronghold in Syria. Turkish President Erdogan had said that diplomatic and military efforts in Syria’s Idlib province, where Turkey had set up a dozen military observation posts, had been accelerated to avoid a “catastrophe”.
Assad had made it clear that having restored control over all areas surrounding the capital Damascus and in the southwest, which had been an early hotbed of the uprising against him, he would not hesitate to use force to secure the entire country from the rebels. The Syrian army had dropped leaflets over Idlib province telling people the seven year war was nearing its end.
At the 10th round of talks hosted by Russia in Sochi, with Turkey, Iran, Russia, the Syrian government and representatives of the opposition participating, Syrian Ambassador Bashar Ja’afari had condemned the presence of the Turkish troops in Syria. He said the government remained determined to regain control over all of Syria and would not tolerate the long-term presence of Turkish troops, saying “we will expel them.”
Turkey said that the Idlib truce was a “main component” of its agreements with Russia and Iran, and “its functionality must be preserved.” Turkish President Erdoğan had suggested a meeting on Syria in Turkey; which could take place between the leaders or foreign ministers of Turkey, Russia, France and Germany, possibly in early September.
Discussions had reportedly taken place between representatives of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Council, the political front of the American backed Syrian Democratic Forces, comprising Kurds and Arabs, and the Syrian government. The SDF was formed in 2015 to defend Syria's northeastern region from Islamic State. The SDC had mostly avoided direct conflict with the Syrian army and wanted autonomy in a decentralised state, while Assad wanted to ensure complete central control.
The Americans had avoided making any political promises to the Kurds and opposed their autonomy ambitions. Conflicting U.S. statements over Syria had put the SDC on guard and Kurdish officials were said to have signaled that their fighters could join any future Syrian offensive against rebels holding Idlib province bordering Turkey, and cooperate more widely against Turkey. Assad had made it clear that if negotiations with the SDF did not provide a satisfactory solution he would not hesitate to use force to retake the areas held by them.
What next? Assad, confident of remaining in power, identified a set of people who would form a committee to review the national constitution. The list had been handed to the Russian and Iranian ambassadors in Damascus. Control over the constitutional process had been a key point of conflict between the government and the international community and Syrian opposition. Assad had said his government would only consider amendments to the current constitution, in defiance of a U.N. initiative to have the government, opposition, and independents draft a new document.
On the military front, with just the Idlib area remaining under the control of rebels and with Turkish troops present in the region, any major onslaught by Assad’s forces could lead to a major conflagration with Turkey. The Russians who had been wooing Turkey could advise against a major offensive and might prefer a diplomatic solution. In the southwest with Israel poised to retaliate if Iranian troops came close to the border, it was a moot question whether Assad would risk a war with Israel by allowing an Iranian presence on the Golan Heights something that would be of great strategic interest to Iran. Assad would most likely prefer to err on the side of caution.
Even if the civil war ends soon as Assad has been predicting, the regime would be faced with a massive reconstruction and rehabilitation effort. A donors conference in Brussels with 86 governments, aid groups and financial and regional institutions , had managed to raise only Us $ 4.4 billion in emergency aid well below the figure set by the UN for 2018. The shortfall was primarily because the Americans, who had been giving 1 billion dollars each year for Syria and the region, had cut foreign aid. 200 million dollars meant for Syria had been frozen by Trump in April 2018 after he saw a Wall Street Journal report about the funds.
In a move condemned by Syria, Saudi Arabia had now pledged to give $100 million to reconstruct areas of northeastern Syria formerly held by the Islamic State group. The kingdom said the 88-million-euro contribution would go towards a US-backed campaign to stabilize the one-time IS bastion and to help ensure the jihadists could not re-emerge as a threat. Assad’s government had called the contribution "morally unacceptable".
Reuters had reported that a closely guarded communications channel had been used by Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the Russian military’s General Staff to send a letter to U.S. Marine General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff seeking American cooperation to rebuild Syria and repatriate refugees. According to the report the proposal which said that the Syrian regime lacked the equipment, fuel, other material, and funding needed to rebuild the country in order to accept refugee returns, had not been endorsed by the US Administration. The United States had said that reconstruction assistance should be tied to a process that included U.N.-supervised elections and a political transition in Syria.
Syria’s future was quite likely to be influenced by US President Donald Trump’s mood. At the moment he was occupied with Iran-setting up a special Iran Action Group to teach the Iranian regime to behave- and with crippling Turkey’s economy and alienating America’s Nato allies as well as China on the trade front. Syria seemed to be off his radar for the moment and he had in fact said American troops should soon leave Syria now that Islamic State had been defeated.
His military officers had prevailed citing the continuing presence of Islamic State in Syria and Iraq which the UN had put at 20 to 30 thousand militants. Islamic State had undertaken attacks including one in southwestern Syria killing 200 people and in Palmyra where 30 Syrian army troops and Iranian-backed militiamen were killed at a military outpost.
The one main action taken by the US in conjunction with the UK and France was a missile attack designed to destroy Syria’s chemical warfare infrastructure. The attack came after Assad’s regime was accused of using chemical weapons in Douma. A shift in Trump’s radar focus, possibly because of persuasion by Israel and Saudi Arabia, could see more trouble for Assad in the coming months if there was effective manipulation of Trump and his advisors’ anti Iran sentiment.