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Peace In Syria: A Political Chimera

Arhama Siddiqa in this article takes a thorough look at the Syrian situation and how the regional and global players like Iran, Israel, China, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Russia and the United States are shaping the destiny of the war torn country.

“President Trump has just made history…he did it again,”[1] declared a jubilant Israeli Prime Minister on the 21st of March as the United States’ President Donald Trump tweeted on the same day his recognition of the legitimacy of Israeli control of the Golan Heights.[2]

However, the announcement recognising Israel’s control over Golan Heights was just a cog in the wheel that Syrian crisis has become. When on March 23, Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) declared victory over the Islamic State (IS), many marked it as the beginning of the end of the nearly eight-year war.[3] Few had anticipated that this was a precursor to much more carnage in what was left of the already war ridden country.

Syrian Government’s Advance

Since April 2019, the Syrian military with the help of Russian forces has been on a campaign to retake territory held by militants, particularly the jihadist alliance Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) – previously known as the al-Nusra Front. At the moment the focus is on Idlib – home to around 3 million people.[4] In September, Ankara and Moscow agreed to establish de-escalation zones in Idlib, with Turkey agreeing to shoulder the responsibility of keeping rebel groups there under control.

Turkey has been criticised for failing to do its part of the agreement. In fact, in order to slow down Russian advances, Turkey has been helping the rebels by providing them with vehicles and heavy weapons, in the process straining the Ankara-Moscow relations.[5] The bloody campaign has already destroyed the infrastructure almost completely, including schools and medical centres. It is also anticipated that there will be a new wave of Syrian refugees as a result of the fighting.

Golan Heights: A Diplomatic Chimera

There has been no stopping the Israeli airstrikes in Syria targeting mainly the Iranian bases in the country. President Trump’s declaration regarding Israel was met with much criticism with world leaders who termed the move “invalid.”[6] Even the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres stated that Israel’s annexation of the Golan did not hold “international legal effect.”[7] Rebutting it, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called these assertions baseless.[8]

Israel captured the Golan Heights in 1967 and then annexed them in 1981. Even though most nations do not recognise Israeli occupation, the latter has continued to control the territory. The forgotten piece of occupied territory now has a thriving Jewish population – an estimated 20,000 people.[9]

Syrians in opposition to Assad blame the president for the continued occupation since he has done nothing to liberate the Heights. Since there is no negotiation taking place currently, it is unlikely that Israel will withdraw even in the distant future. Even if it was brought before the Security Council, the United States would veto any move that might hurt Israeli interests.

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War Crimes By Assad

Recently, a detailed New York Times report exposed the secret network of prisons operated by President Assad. These are akin to execution centres.[10] It is reported that almost 128,000 people are still being held and nearly 14,000 have been ‘killed under torture’.[11] Moreover, a group of Syrians called “document hunters”, has taken great risks to gather evidence detailing the war crimes committed by the Assad forces.[12]

Refugees

According to the United Nations, more than 920,000 people are internally displaced within Syria while neighboring countries such as Turkey and Lebanon are taking measures to prevent an influx of refugees, despite the risks these people face in their own country.[13]

In fact many are forced to sign “voluntary repatriation” forms according to a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report.[14] In Lebanon alone, the topic of refugees has created discord. The refugees are being blamed for the poor economic conditions of the country.

The incident at Deir al-Ahmar where a fire in a refugee camp resulted in the displacement of 600 refugees revealed the local apathy towards those seeking refuge.[15] It must not be forgotten that refugees who take the chance of returning to their home country face persecution. In essence, it is a die and die situation.

Chemical Weapons

Throughout the course of the Syrian War, the regime has been blamed for using chemical weapons. Recently, the United States accused the Assad government of employing chlorine and sarin nerve agent in the northwest region of the country and stated that quick and appropriate measures need to be taken against it.[16] Of course, the accusations hold weight because of Syria’s continued resistance to OPCW officials entering the county. They are being denied the visas by the Syrian authorities.

It must be noted however that to date the United States has found no concrete evidence to back the claims. In fact a document from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) found that the 2018 alleged chemical attack in Dourma was in all probability staged in order to delegitimise the Assad regime.[17]

The Iran Factor

Since the start of Syria’s civil war in 2011, Russia and Iran have built a strong military presence in support of the Assad regime. However, now there is some discord between the two sides. There are reports that Russian military police conducted an assault against Iran-backed military men who had been deployed at Aleppo International Airport.[18] Several Iranian militia leaders were also arrested.

There is no danger of these tensions amounting to anything however, since Russia still depends upon Iranian ground forces to provide manpower. On the other hand, Iran has been engaging in trade with Syria. The two sides have also agreed to boost cooperation through the implementation of new development projects aimed at satisfying the merchandise and food sectors in both countries.[19]

Furthermore, in its first shipment to Syria since 2018, despite the sanctions, Iranian tankers transported crude oil to the Syrian port of Baniyas in May 2019.[20] It must be noted that Syria also regards Iran as an important ally, which is quite clear after how it rejected the final communiqué of the 14th summit of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) held in Makkah in May 2019.

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A New Player in Syria

After President Trump’s announcement to withdraw from Syria, hundreds of US congressmen and senators have signed a letter to President Trump urging him not to pull out of the country.[21] In the aftermath, the Trump administration agreed that a residual force comprising of 400 personnel would remain inside Syria.[22] It is an open secret that their main task would be to provide a security cover to Israel while keeping an eye on Iran and, now, China.

As the US gears up for reducing its presence in Syria, China may be looking to fill the void. Beijing eyes not only economic benefits in the war torn country but also the global expansion of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Moreover, Syria’s Tartus port is a likely point of interest to China – a fact that was bolstered by the 2018 statement from the Chinese embassy in Damascus which confirmed the port’s importance to Beijing.[23] Since European countries and the US have shown little interest in reconstruction efforts, China faces no competition in realising its plans.

Steps have already been taken in this regard. At the 2017 Trade Fair on Syrian Reconstruction Projects in Beijing, China agreed on spending $2 billion to set up an industrial estate in Syria which could accommodate as many as 150 companies.[24]

The Syrian government too holds China in high regard. At the Second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in April 2019, a key member of the Syrian regime stated that “The Silk Road is not a silk road if it does not pass through Syria, Iraq and Iran.” [25]

Conclusion

All in all, without a clear deal protecting the Kurds – who were the US’ most efficient foot soldiers, the US must not completely withdraw, since the Islamic State will continue to exist in one form or another. Lest we forget, Baghdadi is still at large. Regarding the European citizens who had previously joined IS, even though the Syrian authorities have been asking Western countries to take back their citizens, only a few of them are willing to do so.

President Assad’s display of barbarity during the war has left only a handful in the region still willing to side with him. Coupled with this is the fact that at present, without exception, all Arab countries are willing to be partners with Israel.

Moreover, the decline in their respective economies and domestic uprisings has forced many Arab countries to focus on calming their stormy waters instead. Hence, the world is witnessing a bend towards ‘normalisation’ of Israel within the region.

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The Syria war has left the country fragile. There are very few in the international community who still care about what happens to Syria or its people. At this point it is only wise for the Assad regime to focus on reconstruction and rehabilitation and join hands with willing partners – in this case China. Syria has indeed become the model example of where the international community has failed to execute its own regulations.


[1] “In Golan Heights, Trump Bolsters Israel’s Netanyahu but Risks Roiling Middle East,” The New York Times, March 21, 2019.

[2] “Golan Heights: Trump Signs Order Recognising Occupied Area as Israeli,” BBC News, March 25, 2019.

[3] “International Reaction to Fall of ISIL’s Last Bastion,” Syria News | Al Jazeera, March 23, 2019.

[4] “Assad Just Raised the Stakes for Catastrophe in Syria. Trump Is Silent,” The Washington Post, May 17, 2019.

[5] Ibid.

[6] “Israeli Prime Minister Cuts Short White House Visit,” Voice of America, March 25, 2019.

[7] “U.S. Golan Recognition Proves Israel Can Retain Occupied Territories, Senior Israeli Official Says,” Haaretz, March  27, 2019.

[8] Michael R. Pompeo and David Friedman, “Opinion | International Law Backs The Trump Golan Policy,” The Wall Street Journal, May 14, 2019.

[9] “Golan Heights Profile,” BBC News, March 25, 2019.

[10] “Inside Syria’s Secret Torture Prisons: How Bashar Al-Assad Crushed Dissent,” The New York Times, May 11, 2019.

[11] Ibid.

[12] “How ‘document Hunters’ Spirited Thousands of Government Files out of Syria,” CNN, May 28, 2019.

[13] “Refugees,” United Nations, May 2019.

[14] “Lebanon: Syrians Summarily Deported from Airport,” Human Rights Watch, May 24, 2019.

[15] “Lebanon’s Deir Al-Ahma: How an Incident Displaced 600 Refugees,” News | Al Jazeera, June 09, 2019.

[16] “US Investigating Possible Assad Chemical Attack in Syria,” The Guardian, May 22, 2019.

[17] “What Happened in Douma? Searching for Facts in the Fog of Syria’s Propaganda War,” The Intercept, February 09, 2019.

[18] “Friction Growing between Russia and Iran | Article,” Asia Times, May 31, 2019.

[19] “Iran, Syria Shaping up Mideast with ‘strategic’ Deal,” Press TV, January 29, 2019.

[20] “Iran Appears to Be Restarting Oil Shipments to Syria as Trump Turns up Pressure,” CNBC, May 09, 2019.

[21] “Senate Rebukes Trump Over Troop Withdrawals From Syria and Afghanistan,” The New York Times, January 31, 2019.

[22] “400 American Troops Can’t Do Anything,” Foreign Policy, March 06, 2019.

[23] “Lebanese Port Eyes China as It Sells Itself as Hub for Syria,” Financial Times, January 03, 2019.

[24] Ibid.

[25]“Syria Wants to Play a Role in China’s Belt and Road Initiative,” The Jerusalem Post, April 27, 2019.

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Arhama Siddiqa

The author is a LUMS and University of Warwick alumnus, and regularly contributes to various local and foreign publications.

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