By Ramzy Baroud
On 1 September, the Lebanese group Hizbullah, struck an Israeli military base near the border town of Avivim. The Lebanese attack came as an inevitable response to a series of Israeli strikes that targeted four different Arab countries in the matter of two days. The Lebanese response, accompanied by jubilation throughout that country, shows that the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, may have overplayed his cards. However, for Netanyahu it was a worthy gamble, as the Israeli leader is desperate for any political capital that could shield him against increasingly emboldened contenders in the country’s 17 September general elections.
A fundamental question that could influence any analysis of the decision to strike Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Gaza is whether the strategy originated from the Israeli government or the limited personal calculations of Netanyahu himself. I contend that the latter is true.
Israel has already violated the sovereignty of all of these states and territories, bombing some of them hundreds of times in the past; but striking all at once is unprecedented. Since neither Israel nor its US allies offered any convincing military logic behind the campaign, there can be no other conclusion than that the objectives were entirely political. One obvious sign that the attacks were meant to benefit Netanyahu, and Netanyahu alone, is the fact that the Israeli prime minister violated an old Israeli protocol of staying mum following this type of cross-border assault. It is also uncommon for top Israeli officials to brag about their country’s intelligence outreach and military capabilities. Israel, for example, has bombed Syria hundreds of times in recent years, yet has rarely taken responsibility for any of these attacks.
Compare this with Netanyahu’s remarks following the two-day strikes of 24-25 August. Only minutes after the strikes, he hailed the army’s ‘major operational effort’, proudly declaring that ‘Iran has no immunity anywhere’. Regarding the attack in the southeast region of Aqraba in Syria, Netanyahu went into detail, describing the nature of the target and the identities of his enemy.
Two of the Hizbullah fighters killed in Syria were identified by the Israeli army, which distributed their photographs while allegedly travelling on the Iranian airline, Mahan, ‘which Israel and the United States have identified as a major transporter of weaponry and materiel to Hezbollah and other Iranian proxies in Syria and Lebanon,’ according to the Times of Israel.
Why would Israel go to this extent, which could surely help the targeted countries to uncover some of Israel’s intelligence sources? The Economist revealed that ‘some…in Israel’s security and political establishments are uncomfortable’ with Netanyahu’s tireless extolling of ‘Israel’s intelligence-gathering and operational successes in surprising detail.’
The explanation lies in one single phrase: the 17 September elections.
In recent months, Netanyahu has finally managed to wrestle the title of israel’s longest-serving prime minister, a designation that the Israeli leader has earned, despite his chequered legacy dotted with abuse of power, self-serving agendas and several major corruption cases that implicate netanyahu directly, as well as his wife and closest aides.
Yet, it remains unclear whether Netanyahu can hang on for much longer. Following the 9 April elections, the embattled Israeli leader tried to form a government of like-minded right-wing politicians, but failed. It was this setback that resulted in the dissolution of the Israeli Knesset on 29 May and the call for a new election. While Israeli politics is typically turbulent, holding two general elections within such a short period of time is rare, and, among other things, demonstrates Netanyahu’s faltering grip on power.
Equally important is that, for the first time in years, Netanyahu and his Likud party are facing real competition. Their rivals, led by Benjamin Gantz of the Blue and White (Kahol Lavan) party, are keen to deny Netanyahu every possible constituency, including his own pro-illegal settlements and pro-war supporters.
Despite Gantz’s attempt to project his party as centrist, his statements in recent months are hardly consistent with the presumed ideological discourse of the political centre anywhere. The former Chief of General Staff of the Israeli army is a strong supporter of illegal Jewish settlements and an avid promoter of war on Gaza. Last June, Gantz went as far as accusing Netanyahu of ‘diminishing Israel’s deterrence’ policy in Gaza, which, he said, ‘is being interpreted by Iran as a sign of weakness’. In fact, the terms ‘weak’ and ‘weakness’ have been ascribed repeatedly to Netanyahu by his political rivals, including top officials within his own right-wing camp. The man who has staked his reputation on tough personal or unhindered violence in the name of Israeli security is now struggling to protect his image.
This analysis does not in any way discount the regional and international objectives of Netanyahu’s calculations, leading among them being his desire to stifle any political dialogue between Tehran and Washington, an idea that began taking shape at the G7 summit in Biarritz, France. But even that is insufficient to offer a rounded understanding of Netanyahu’s motives, especially because he is wholly focused on his own survival, as opposed to future regional scenarios.
However, the ‘Mr Security’ credentials that Netanyahu aimed to achieve by bombing multiple targets in four countries might not yield the desired dividends. Israeli media is conveying a sense of panic among Israelis, especially those living in the northern parts of the country and in illegal Jewish settlements in the Occupied Golan Heights. This is hardly the strong and mighty image that Netanyahu was hoping to convey through his military gamble. None of the thousands of Israelis who are currently being trained to survive Lebanese retaliations are particularity reassured regarding the power of their country.
Netanyahu is, of course, not the first Israeli leader to use the military to achieve domestic political ends. The late Israeli leader, Shimon Peres, did so in 1996 and failed miserably, but only after killing over 100 Lebanese and United Nations peacekeepers in the Southern Lebanese village of Qana.
The consequences of Netanyahu’s gamble might come at a worse price for him than simply losing the elections. Opening a multi-front war is a conflict that Israel cannot win; at least, not any more.
Ramzy Baroud is a journalist, author and editor of The Palestine Chronicle. His latest book is The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story, and his forthcoming book is These Chains Will Be Broken: Palestinian Stories of Struggle and Defiance in Israeli Prisons. Baroud has a PhD in Palestine Studies from the University of Exeter. His website is www.ramzybaroud.net
When Donald Trump was elected the forty-fifth president of the USA in November 2016, the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was among the first world leaders to congratulate him. His congratulatory phone call echoed Erdogan’s ambition to strengthen US-Turkish relations, which had gone cold over the US Syria policy under Barack Obama. On 17 May 2017, Trump hosted the Turkish president in the first official meeting between the two leaders. Before the meeting, both leaders were still in honeymoon mode, despite diplomatic tensions, such as the US decision to support Kurdish militias in Syria and the unresolved matter of the Turkish request for the extradition of Fethullah Gulen. The honeymoon quickly ended as waves of diplomatic spats drastically changed the relationship.
The USA introduced sanctions on Turkey in 2018 over the detention of a US pastor, Andrew Brunson, indicating rapidly escalating tensions between two countries that had had a complicated history of diplomatic relations. While tensions calmed somewhat after Brunson’s release, Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 air defence system significantly ruptured the relationship between the two North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) allies, with the crisis likely to deteriorate over other tensions pertaining to Syria. In August, Turkey’s refusal to cancel the S-400 deal saw the USA freezing the Turks out of its F-35 joint strike fighter programme. Despite this, a US delegation was sent to Ankara early August to help set up a ‘safe zone’ in north-eastern Syria. Both Turkish and US commitment to create the safe zone appears to have staved off a Turkish military campaign against Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) fighters, who are aligned to and supported by the USA. Despite making some headway in terms of Syria, Turkey’s improving relations with Russia, exemplified by the S-400 deal, and the Turkish request to extradite Gulen from the USA present ongoing sticking points in this long-standing and complicated diplomatic relationship.
History of USA-Turkey relations
The USA and Turkey have enjoyed several decades of diplomatic relations on the political, economic and military fronts. Soon after the creation of the Turkish Republic in 1923, Turkey established relations with the USA by signing the Economic and Technical Cooperation agreement in 1947. In 1952, Turkey was admitted as a member of NATO, forging a closer relationship with the USA on military and political-diplomatic fronts. Bilateral relations remained relatively smooth until April 1975, when the US Congress pushed to recognise the mass killings of Armenians in 1915 as a genocide. Turkey protested, but failed to convince US lawmakers to rescind the decision.
When the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came into government in Turkey in 2002, US-Turkish relations were on shakier ground than ever before. During the first years of the AKP government, diplomatic relations moved from friendly, with the US president, George W Bush, hailing the AKP as a ‘powerful voice in the Muslim world’, to moderately hostile following the USA-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Souring relations led Turkey to refuse a US request to allow US forces to use Turkish territory to open a front against Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Despite the NATO alliance, the two countries saw relations deteriorate, eventually taking a turn for the worse at the start of the MENA uprisings in 2011, quickly followed by the Syrian civil war. USA-Turkey hostilities escalated after July 2016, when Ankara blamed a failed coup attempt on Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, who lives in self-imposed exile in the USA.
Gulen and the Gulenist split with AKP
Fethullah Gulen is a Turkish Muslim cleric and businessperson who enjoys a large support base in Turkey and previously shared a close relationship with the AKP. Gulen’s following is estimated to be between three and six million people worldwide, with charities, schools and businesses in many countries, including the USA,. Now a staunch critic of Erdogan and the AKP, Gulen had close relations with Erdogan and later with the AKP after its founding in 2001. Both men opposed the secular Kemalist forces in Turkey, and the Gulenists (or Hizmet, as they call themselves) quickly supported the AKP’s rise to power. Gulen has significant influence, that has been nurtured over decades, in the Turkish police force and judiciary, and his supporters are believed to have been behind the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer investigations and trials. These looked into alleged plots to overthrow the AKP government and Erdogan in 2003, and resulted in mass arrests of police officers and military officers – most of whom were eventually freed in 2014. The cases were part of Gulen’s power struggle with Erdogan. In 2016, a court found that Gulenists within the judiciary had fabricated evidence, and dismissed all charges against the suspects.
The relationship between Erdogan and Gulen began to fray after the Mavi Marmara incident in 2010. The ship, owned by the Turkish Humanitarian Aid Foundation (IHH), was part of the Freedom Flotilla that was headed to the besieged Gaza Strip in Palestine. The IHH vessel was forcefully boarded by Israeli forces, leading to the death of nine Turkish activists, including one with dual USA-Turkey citizenship. Gulen criticised Erdogan’s harsh response to Israel following the incident, signalling a growing rift between the two. Erdogan and Gulen again clashed over negotiations, on Erdogan’s instructions, between a senior Turkish intelligence official and jailed Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) leader, Abdullah Ocalan. Gulen and his supporters argued that Erdogan should not have negotiated with PKK ‘terrorists’. Gulen also disapproved of Erdogan’s chief negotiator in the matter, Hakan Fidan, who was close to Erdogan and who Gulen accused of secretly profiling his supporters in government institutions. The Gulen-Erdogan conflict reached its apex in 2013, when corruption allegations were levelled against Erdogan’s cabinet ministers and his son Bilal. Erdogan blamed the allegations on Gulen supporters in the police force and judiciary and accused Gulen of trying to form a parallel state in Turkey. He began a purge in government institutions of officials suspected to be Gulen loyalists and closed schools and charities linked to Hizmet. The impasse continued as several National Intelligence Organisation investigations were conducted against Gulen and his supporters.
Soon thereafter, Gulen’s supporters faced major crackdowns by the AKP-led government, and the relationship broke down irretrievably. This culminated in the attempted coup in 2016, with the AKP blaming the Gulenists for orchestrating. The failed July 2016 coup attempt was carried out by elements within the Turkish military that mobilised air and ground forces to seize political power. The attempted coup exacerbated an already polarised political climate in Turkey and led to the mass dismissal of members in the judiciary, public officials and journalists, all accused of having links to the Gulen movement. Gulen denied allegations that he played a part in the coup attempt, after Turkey called on the USA to extradite him to Turkey to face charges.
Since then, Gulen has remained an obstacle in USA- Turkey relations. Turkey has officially filed papers and applied diplomatic pressure for Gulen’s extradition over the attempted coup, but the USA has refused to comply, worsening diplomatic ties. Under Obama, the USA referred the extradition issue to the Treaty on Extradition and Mutual Assistance in Criminal Matters of 1980, which both countries signed. The treaty required Turkey to submit compelling supporting evidence for Gulen to be extradited and tried in Turkey for the alleged crimes. In August 2016, Erdogan said Turkey had sent about seven boxes of evidence to show Gulen was implicated in activities to undermine the state. Despite Turkey’s efforts, the USA has not acceded to their demands, with US officials insisting there was insufficient evidence supporting Turkish claims. After a serious diplomatic row over the release of a US pastor in 2018, Trump told Erdogan he would look into the issue of Gulen’s extradition, but has since remained mum in spite of ongoing Turkish requests.
US pastor Andrew Brunson
Erdogan’s diplomatic efforts to convince the USA to extradite Gulen continued under the Trump administration. In the 2018 case of US pastor Andrew Brunson, Turkey sought to exchange Brunson for Gulen, despite Trump’s calls to release the detained pastor. Brunson had been imprisoned by Turkey on terrorism charges relating to the July 2016 attempted coup. Turkey accused Brunson of having links with both the PKK and the Gulen movement, but he denied all accusations and called for the USA to intervene on his behalf. In late 2018, Trump called on Ankara to release Brunson, and when Turkey refused, the USA applied economic sanctions on Turkey, sending its economy into chaos. Soon thereafter, in October 2018, a Turkish court ordered the Brunson’s release in what was perceived to be Ankara’s attempt to rescue its economy. Despite Turkey releasing Brunson, the USA refused to engage Ankara on the issue of Gulen’s extradition, even after numerous appeals by Erdogan. Diplomatic relations between the two countries had already suffered immensely amidst contradictory positions regarding YPG fighters in Syria.
Syrian civil war and Kurdish fighters
After the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, Obama’s policy sat uncomfortably with the Turks and this strained ties in 2012, when the USA turned down an appeal for military intervention in Syria after Syria’s violation of Obama’s self-proclaimed ‘red-line’. Turbulent diplomatic relations between Ankara and Washington took a further dive when Obama rejected Erdogan’s proposal for humanitarian intervention and the introduction of a no-fly zone in northern Syria to protect fleeing refugees. The rejection of efforts to alleviate the Syrian crisis became a cocktail of tensions when Obama announced that the Kurdish YPG in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) were America’s best option to defeat the Islamic State group (IS). US support for Kurdish fighters in the Syrian conflict, which continues to this day, has seen the two NATO allies on opposite sides of the fence. Turkey sees the YPG as an affiliate of the PKK, which has waged an insurgency against Turkey since 1984 and has been declared a terrorist organisation by both the USA and Turkey. Thus, US support to the YPG is seen as an affront by Turkey, which has launched several attacks against YPG fighters in Syria and PKK in neighbouring Iraq.
Since the start of the Syrian war, Turkey launched two cross-border campaigns into Syria. Both focused on Turkey’s fight against the YPG from areas inside Syria bordering Turkey. Starting with Operation Euphrates Shield along the eastern bank of the Euphrates River in August 2016, Ankara launched a military campaign aimed at clearing out IS and YPG fighters from Syrian areas bordering Turkey. The campaign took the border town of Jarablus on the Euphrates river and an area stretching 100 kilometres from the border, moving south to Al-Bab village. Turkey’s operations angered the USA, which had already begun supporting Kurdish fighters against IS. In January 2018, Turkey announced it would undertake a military campaign, Operation Olive Branch, in Syria’s Afrin province against the YPG, after receiving permission to use Syrian airspace from Russia. Although the operation again angered the USA, they did not intervene, despite calls from YPG fighters who felt that their allies were abandoning them under Turkish bombardment. Following this escalation, talks between the USA and Turkey quickly followed and the two sides agreed on a roadmap, including the creation of a buffer zone between YPG fighters in Manbij, northern Syria, and Turkish troops.
Despite agreements for military patrols in Afrin and Manbij, Turkey still presses for US implementation of a roadmap, already agreed to in June 2018, to disarm the YPG once the fight against IS has been completed. Recognising US hesitancy, Turkey’s strategy appears to be to pressure the USA to coordinate ‘safe-zones’ in northern Syria, which would become Turkish areas of control to maintain security. This strategy was already visible in Afrin, where Turkey transferred its allied fighters to operate as a security force, and where Turkey financially invested in rebuilding houses, schools, and hospitals. This strategy seems to be Turkey’s new export to northeastern Syria via a recent cooperation agreement with the USA to establish a safe-zone in Syrian areas bordering Turkey along the eastern Euphrates.
Recent talks between US and Turkish officials appear to have yielded some mutual gains for Ankara and Washington, although the lack of agreement on details quickly casts a shadow over the possibility of a way forward. Following the August talks, the USA has averted a Turkish attack against the YPG east of the Euphrates in northern Syria. The announcement of the agreement implies that Washington will acquiesce to some of Ankara’s demands.
Despite disagreement on intricate details, both the USA and Turkey have taken steps to set up joint coordination centres in Urfa and Ankara. This coordination will see the establishment of a peace corridor stretching from the Turkish border with Syria into areas of northeastern Syria, although there is disagreement about the size of the corridor. Turkish drones have been spotted in Syrian areas along the east Euphrates since the arrival of a US delegation in southern Turkey on 13 August. Although no timeline has been set for the coordination, a recent statement by the head of the YPG-led SDF, Mazloum Kobani, welcoming the deal for a buffer zone in northeastern Syria shows that Turkey might make gains in this process. The YPG’s acceptance of the safe zone deal between Turkey and the USA is largely due to the YPG’s concern that it might lose areas under its control if a military clash with Turkey were to erupt.
Playing the ball to Turkey is a US strategy to avoid losing allied forces on the ground ahead of their troop withdrawal from northern Syria that was announced by Trump earlier this year. There is a general fear that a Turkish military campaign against the YPG might allow an IS resurgence, eradicating US gains in eliminating the group from large parts of Syria. Although a safe zone is intended to be a corridor of safety in conditions of war, the USA-Turkey safe zone in northeastern Syria will have adverse effects, as seen in Afrin, where the operation saw a major displacement of civilians and numerous causalities. The northeastern Syria operation too is likely to lead to the displacement of people already suffering under dire humanitarian conditions caused by the eight-year-long Syrian conflict.
S-400 deal with Moscow
A more recent, and, arguably, more serious, dispute between Ankara and Washington is over the former’s purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defence system in 2018. The USA opposes the purchase, stating that the S-400 clashes with the Lockheed Martin F-35 programme used by NATO allies. Further, the USA fears that F-35 technology could be accessed by Moscow through the S-400, a claim Erdogan denies. In July, Turkey received its first shipment of S-400 parts from Russia, with the rest of the shipment expected to continue until 2020. After months of Washington threatening to apply sanctions on Ankara should the S-400 deal go through, the USA responded by kicking Turkey off the F-35 programme, despite Turkey manufacturing certain parts used in its production. Turkey’s removal from the programme will have severe economic consequences for the country, as Turkish F-35 personnel have been forced to leave the USA and return home. Further, the projected losses for Turkey amounts to $9 billion that it would have gained for supplying materials.
Turkey has dismissed the US threat of sanctions, despite previous sanctions over the Brunson row in 2018. The S-400 deal continues to fuel tensions between the USA and Turkey, and Trump has not ruled out the possibility of applying further sanctions. The 2017 Sanctions Act mandates the USA to apply upto twelve different types of sanctions to any state involved in a large arms deal with Russia. If applied, the sanctions would have a detriment on the already-troubled Turkish economy. The Turkish Lira plummeted in the last two years, losing 40 per cent of its value, after the 2018 sanctions. Further US sanctions could cripple the Turkish economy, threatening Erdogan and the AKP’s hold on power, especially after they suffered massive electoral losses in the 2019 local elections. It seems Erdogan is gambling on Trump’s hesitance to apply new rounds of sanctions on Turkey, despite the looming possibility.
The USA and Turkey continue to be neither friends nor foes after years of protracted diplomatic rifts and alliances. The two states remain NATO members, despite Turkey’s recent ousting from the F-35 programme used by all NATO members. Further, Turkish requests for the extradition of Fethullah Gulen have cast a shadow over the already complicated diplomatic relations between the countries. Recent cooperation for the creation of a safe-zone in northeastern Syria by both countries has managed a temporary peace between the Turkish military campaign and US-Kurdish allies in Syria. The lack of agreement over specific details regarding the safe zone, however, threatens this cooperation, and could see an escalation of already-heightened tensions. Despite this cooperation in northern Syria, Ankara and Washington disagree over the Russian S-400 missile defence system. Trump warned he could slap sanctions on Turkey if it went ahead with the S-400 deal with Moscow. Turkey called Trump’s bluff and received the first equipment shipment from Russia in July and the second shipment in August. If Trump forges ahead with the sanctions, the already strained Turkish economy would suffer, leaving Erdogan with the option of not assembling the S-400, despite receiving its parts, if he wants to salvage relations with Washington.
July began with a major shake-up in the Syrian military and intelligence apparatus. In an attempt to consolidate power after regaining territorial control over most of the country, Syrian president, Bashar al-Asad, seems to be focusing his attention internally within his regime, while still battling to retake the last swathe of opposition-held territory in the northern Idlib province. Asad removed formerly powerful and influential figures in Syria’s intelligence agencies and promoted individuals with close ties with Russia. Iranian influence is a major casualty of the shake-up, with a close Iranian ally, Major-General Jamil al-Hassan, resigning days after he walked out of a secret meeting between Syrian, Israeli and Russian military officials in Quneitra, near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. With the ousting of Iranian allies, officials with ties to Russia have been promoted into key positions, signalling Asad’s consolidation of military and intelligence structures, and distancing his regime from Iran. The sidelining of Iranians and their allies appears to have Israeli fingerprints, after a secret meeting between Russia, Israeli officials and Syrian military generals in southern Syria on 30 June. The shake-up also signals Russia’s efforts to reform the Syrian military and intelligence services to ensure its interests override Iran’s.
Biggest reshuffle in seven years
The 7 July reshuffle of Syria’s intelligence apparatus is the most significant shift in personnel since July 2012, when senior security service personnel were moved after a bombing of the national security headquarters in Damascus left four generals dead. Since then, many of the people that filled these powerful positions in the intelligence apparatus have been implicated in the Asad regime’s atrocities across the country, with some personally accused of committing crimes against humanity. Last month’s reshuffling began Hassan, who headed the Air Force Intelligence Directorate, handed in his resignation. Despite his ill health and inability to carry out his duties effectively, his resignation was unexpected as his contract had recently been renewed for another year. Adding to the mystery is the fact that his deteriorating health was not cited as the major reason behind his resignation, and there have been reports of his having been treated in a hospital in Syria run by the Lebanese Hizbullah.
Hassan was replaced by his deputy, Major-General Ghassan Ismail, a close Russian ally. Ismail has been a key partner of the Russians for front-line operations at the Russian Hmeimim airbase near the city of Latakia. All four Syrian intelligence agencies – Department of Military Intelligence, Political Security Directorate, General Intelligence Directorate, and the Air Force Intelligence Directorate – experienced leadership changes. Another reshuffling of leadership positions occurred in the General Intelligence Directorate, now headed by Major-General Hussam Louqa. Louqa, who hails from Aleppo, was a key Russian intelligence intermediary in Homs, and worked closely with Syrian military commander Brigadier-General Suhail Hassan, who also has close relations with Moscow. Another intelligence veteran and senior Asad advisor, Ali Mamlouk, has been promoted to the position of Vice President for Security Affairs. The Syrian president appears to be grooming Mamlouk for the position of deputy president, returning to his father’s tradition of reserving the deputy president post for a Sunni candidate. Mamlouk’s former position has been filled by Mohammed Deeb Zeitoun, known for his role in strengthening Russia’s links with the State Security Directorate over the past two years.
A number of other figures appointed into new positions on 8 July are also believed to share close links with Russia, including General Nasser Deeb, recently appointed to the strategic post of head of the Criminal Security Directorate. His appointment is viewed as indicative of Asad’s strategy of deploying Russians and their allies within the security apparatus to deal with the growing insurgency in the south, notably in Dara'a, which has seen a number of political assassinations of key opposition figures and those linked to the regime over the past year, since the government retook control of the area. As director of criminal security, Deeb is also tasked with containing the spread of shabbiha gangs, led by members of Asad’s extended family who have carved out territories of personal control in Latakia. The Russians see this post as critical to root out corruption and patronage links between the military and outsiders, as they attempt to herald a political solution to the war-torn country.
Another significant 8 July appointment, without media fanfare, suggested that the shake-up is not limited to the military and intelligence apparatuses. Ali Turkmani, son of a commander killed in the July 2012 bombing of national security headquarters, was promoted to the position of presidential security advisor, while another key political figure, Bahjat Suleiman, a former intelligence chief and former ambassador to Jordan, was reappointed to a key position in the political intelligence bureau. These appointments bear the hallmarks of growing Russian influence in Syria, seemingly at the expense of the Iranians.
Russia and Iran vying for influence in Syria’s military
Since the beginning of the war in 2011, both Russia and Iran’s influence in the Syrian military and intelligence apparatuses have strengthened, and have been critical to the regime’s victories over various rebel groups across the country. Russia’s continuing reform process inside the Syrian military and intelligence apparatuses began with its 2015 military intervention, an attempt to stamp its influence in the country, as shown by the creation of the Fourth Corps under joint Russian-Syrian command. The fractured and beleaguered Syrian military has been weakened over time, while coming under the growing influence of Iran and Russia. Iran wields considerable influence in the military and intelligence apparatus in both lower and higher level structures. Furthermore, the presence of an array of Iran-linked militia, supporting the regime, has created a familiarity between generals and commanders through training and combat operations.
On the other hand, Russia entered the fray when the Syrian military was experiencing significant desertions and fractures in the intensifying war against rebel formations, and at a time when the regime had lost a significant amount of territory to the variety of rebel groups, including the Islamic State group. After the creation of the Fourth Corps in 2015 and the Fifth Corps in 2016, Russia set its sights on creating a single unit of command to integrate paramilitaries loyal to the regime into the Republican Guard. To effect this integration, Moscow has tried to exert greater control over the inner workings of the military and intelligence agencies through training and shifting personnel in key leadership positions. The latest reshuffle is an outcome of this process that intensified in late-2018, after the Syrian regime regained control of major territories lost to rebels since 2011.
Russia’s disagreements with the Iranians is not new. Although Iran continues to exercise considerable influence in the Syrian military and intelligence apparatuses, it has cause for concern as Russia seeks to placate Israeli demands to oust Iranian-linked militia from Syria, especially from the south of the country. In July 2018, as the Syrian regime began an offensive to oust rebels from Dara'a in southern Syria, Russia called for ‘foreign’ forces to withdraw from the southern areas, echoing Israel’s demand for Iranian fighters to retreat from areas close to the Golan Heights, the Syrian territory that Israel has occupied since 1967. In the Astana negotiations process, led by Russia, Iran reportedly condemned Russia for allowing Turkey to launch operations against Kurdish fighters in Afrin in northern Syria in early 2018. In Idlib, the Russians have been dissatisfied with what they see as Iran’s lack of enthusiasm to assist in the regime-led offensive against rebels.
The security reshuffle, just over a week after a tripartite meeting in Jerusalem between Russia, the USA and Israel, also indicates the increasing role of Israel in the outcome of the Syrian conflict. On 25 June, Israel hosted US and Russian officials for a security conference that focused heavily on the question of countering Iranian influence. In the meeting, Israel urged Russia to assist with ensuring Israel’s security, which involves diminishing Iranian influence in Syria.
Russia was also told by Israel and John Bolton, the national security advisor to US president Donald Trump, that Iran needed to be rooted out of Lebanon and Iraq as well. Seemingly in agreement, Russia soon facilitated a 30 June meeting between Israeli and Syrian military and intelligence officials in Quneitra. The meeting was attended by General Jamil Hassan, accompanied by members of Syria’s Fifth Corps, which is funded, trained and commanded by Russia. Other attendees included leaders of certain rebel groups based in southern Syria, including the Ababil Houran Army, Alaa Zakaria al-Halqi and the Shuhada Inkhal Brigade. The meeting was also attended by the commander of the former Syrian Revolutionaries Front, Ahmed Hamaidi al-Moussa, who had been released from a regime prison days earlier, as a result of Russian pressure.
The Quneitra meeting was arranged as part of Russia’s cooperation with Israel for military operations in southern Syria. Israel demanded at the meeting that Hassan integrate the Fifth Corps into regime military forces, remove Iranian militias from the south of Syria (Dara'a and Quneitra) and maintain a distance of least fifty-five kilometres from the Golan Heights. In exchange, Israel and Russia offered to fund operations to combat rebel militia in Syria’s southern provinces.
Hassan reportedly refused to marginalise the Iranians, hailing them as supporters of the Syrian people. Although presented by Israel, the demand to integrate the Fifth Corps into the Syrian military has been an objective of Russia’s ongoing reform process within Syria’s military and intelligence apparatuses. The sacking of Hassan and other senior leaders in the 8 July reshuffle is the most recent part of the Russian reform process, which began after the formation of the Fourth Corps ‘storming brigade’ in October 2015.
Despite (or, perhaps because of) increasingly close coordination between Israel and Russia, the Israeli military has continued its bombardment of areas in southern Syria, targeting particularly Iranian positions near the Golan Heights. The Israeli bombardment also included Iraq, where several Iranian targets were hit by airstrikes. The frequency of Israeli strikes in Syria has increased, and can be expected to continue in Iraq, as suggested by the Israeli Regional Cooperation Minister, who boasted on 21 July that Israel was the only country that was killing Iranians.
Preparing for a new political era
On 13 July, Asad approved the appointments to the UN-guided constitutional committee, composed of regime officials and opposition figures selected by the regime, opposition groups and the UN. The formation of the committee has dragged on for seventeen months, as the UN struggled to establish consensus on the membership of the committee as demanded by the various actors. Geir Pedersen, the UN envoy to Syria, had failed to reach an agreement with the Syrian government on the opposition figures proposed by the UN until a breakthrough on 13 July, after the 8 July reshuffle. Asad and Pedersen announced the agreement on the formation of the committee, and said that talks were expected to continue between the regime and the opposition.
However, there are still disagreements over the constitutional review process. The regime wants to amend the constitution; the opposition has called for a complete redrafting. The latter’s view is supported by the USA, which has believes that a new constitution could see an end to the bitter conflict. It remains unclear whether this position is shared by Russia, which has largely left this process to the UN. For now, the Russians are focused on security sector reform in Syria, while continuing to pursue the Astana political process with Turkey and Iran. With the regime regaining control over most of Syria’s territory, it is expected that the Syrian participation in the Astana process will grow; Asad sent his foreign minister and several high-level security officials to the Astana meeting on 1-2 August.
The ceasefire agreed between the Syrian regime and rebel groups in Idlib on 1 August demonstrates preparation for a new era as combat dwindles. To accelerate this process, Russia intervened and deployed ground troops to assist the regime in Idlib, and this ceasefire is seen as a direct Russian intervention. Russia is therefore on a path of crafting an outcome to the Syrian conflict that is directed and led from Moscow, with regional players – such as Iran and Turkey – playing a mere supporting role.
The security reshuffle in the Syrian military and intelligence apparatuses demonstrates Asad’s intention to consolidate power as he looks towards rebuilding the country while battling the final rebel bastion in Idlib. With his internal consolidation under way, the regime is simultaneously engaging with the UN and beginning talks with the opposition to review the constitution. To do this, the Syrian president has recognised Russia as his most important partner by strategically placing Russian-allied figures in senior positions and allowing Russian training of special forces in the Syrian military. Iran, which continues to enjoy considerable influence in the military and intelligence agencies, is, in the process of the cosying-up with Moscow, seemingly being sidelined. While Tehran and Moscow tussle for influence in Syria, other actors, such as Israel and the USA, continue to play significant roles. Israel’s co-ordination with Russia has been evident in its repeated airstrikes in Syria, with Russia either turning a blind eye or assisting. Israel’s demands to integrate the Fifth Corps, created by Moscow, into the Syrian army to curb Iranian influence in the intelligence apparatuses signals greater Israeli-Russia co-ordination in Syria. Many Russian-trained units, such as the Fourth and Fifth Corps, are being integrated into the Syrian army, while figures allied to Iran, such as Jamil Hassan, are being pushed out. In short, the reshuffle signals that Asad has given Moscow the green light to rebuild Syria’s fractured security apparatuses to secure his future power, even if it comes at the expense of its long-time ally Iran.
South African aid organisations have been lauded for their humanitarian efforts in the Syrian conflict. The conflict began with the Arab spring in 2011 and now has degraded into a civil war whereby there are many armed factions fighting for control. To give us more insight and to explain South Africa's humanitarian role in Syria is Afro Middle East Centre Executive Director Naeem Jeenah.
The deal between Russian president, Vladimir Putin, and Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, regarding Syria’s Idlib province, announced on 17 September, sought to avert a campaign by the Syrian army similar to that in Aleppo, Eastern Ghouta and Dara’a. It followed Erdogan’s appeal to Iran and Russia – his partners in the Astana process – as well as to the USA and Europe to save the three million civilians trapped in the northwestern Syrian province from a fate similar to the one that befell the 400 000 citizens of Eastern Ghouta in March 2018, when Syrian President Bashar Al-Asad launched a brutal bombardment of the area. The September agreement included the establishment of a demilitarised zone twenty kilometres into Idlib from the Turkish border. Turkey insisted that this was necessary to avoid a spillover of clashes on its border, to secure its border by preventing activities of the militant Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), and to prevent an influx of refugees across the border into Turkey.
In terms of the agreement, Turkey was allowed a month – until 15 October – to persuade ‘radical’ rebel groups to leave the demilitarised zone, and ‘moderate’ groups to hand over their heavy weapons. The ‘radical’ groups referred to were – mainly – al-Qaida-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS – formerly Jabhat al-Nusra) and an HTS breakaway (comprising mainly foreign nationals), Huras al-Din, while the ‘moderate’ groups were mostly Turkish-supported organisations. Most of the latter had no choice but to comply; they surrendered their weapons and coalesced into the National Liberation Front (NLF), which began playing the role of a police force centred around Turkey’s observation posts in Idlib. HTS and Huras al-Din did not officially announce their acceptance of the deal, with Huras al-Din emphasising its determination to maintain control over all its weapons and continuing its battle against the Syrian government. However, a week before the 15 October deadline, HTS surrendered its heavy weapons and commenced policing operations with the NLF. Early November, just weeks after the 15 October deadline, Huras al-Din joined HTS and participated in NLF patrols.
The Syrian regime, however, does not feel itself fully bound by the Russia-Turkey deal, and has carried out numerous attacks against various rebel groups in and outside the delineated zone, in violation of the agreement. It insists that all heavy weapons have not been surrendered, and that the deal was only temporary, arguing that the deal’s purpose was to avert bloodshed while preparing the ground for the regime to take over control. Russia agrees on the temporary nature of the agreement; Turkey does not. The arrangement for the province resembles the strategy employed in Afrin,Manbij and the area north of theEuphrates River, where Turkey maintains troops and proxies, ostensibly to prevent activities of the YPG (which it regards as a terrorist group), and to protect its borders from jihadists and refugees fleeing Syrian bombardment. In general, Idlib is regarded as a significant threat by the three states that are part of the Astana process – Turkey, Russia and Iran, even if they do not agree on a strategy to counter it. Despite these opposing interests and strategies, however, the Idlib deal represents a victory of sorts – even if only temporary – for Turkey on the diplomatic and military fronts.
Idlib – the last rebel outpost
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The mountainous Idlib province is in the northwest of Syria, to the west of which are the cities of Tartous, which is home to a Russian naval base, and Latakia, with its large Alawi population that forms the bedrock of support for Asad’s ruling Ba'athist Party. To Idlib’s east is Aleppo, which was Syria’s largest commercial hub before successive battles between rebels groups (including the Islamic State group) and the regime in 2016. To the south is the city of Hama, which experienced large population transfers carried out by the regime in 2016 and 2017. The north of the province forms the border with Turkey, making it a strategic transit route for refugees fleeing the civil war and militants of various stripes entering Syria. The government lost the province to HTS in 2015 after a series of fierce battles, making Idlib one of the regime’s biggest losses. The loss meant that Damascus also lost control of the strategic M4 and M5 highways. The former links Aleppo and Latakia to oil rich Deir Ez Zor and Raqqa, while the latter is a major trade route to Turkey and Europe.
With its 18 000 fighters, HTS controls around sixty per cent of the province, while the rest of the territory is shared between groups that were evacuated under Russian-brokered deals from various parts of the country. They include the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the Islamist Ahrar al-Sham. HTS has often clashed with these other groups, but it also collaborated with Turkey since 2017, and it coordinated with Turkey in March in the establishment of observation posts in Idlib as part of thede-escalation zones declared by the Astana process that included Turkey, Iran and Russia.
Despite some coordination with Turkey, HTS continues publicly to denounce Turkey; its leader,Muhammed al-Joulani, emphasised that HTS will not take orders from Turkey regarding the fight against the Asad regime. In reality, however, HTS rejects the Turkey-Russia deal publicly but complies with it silently. The group has also, under Turkey’s direction, been trying to contain its splinter group that comprises mainly foreign fighters, Huras al-Din. Huras al-Din feels marginalised by HTS’s coordination with Turkey, and fears for the safety and future of its foreign fighters if HTS officially dissolves and joins the NLF. This is a distinct possibility, as recent events signal that HTS is considering the possibility of defeat, and might ultimately dissolve the fighting force as part of a deal with Turkey. The group is aware that it will not be able to withstand sustained bombardment by the regime, backed by Iranian militias and Russian airpower. Thus, the group has been silently complying with the Sochi deal, even though it has not formally joined the NLF, which is composed of fourteen rebel groups, including a large contingent of FSA fighters.
Astana de-escalation zones
The Astana deal was reached in May 2017 in Kazakhstan’s capital by the three key foreign players in the Syrian conflict: Russia, Iran, and Turkey. It sought to implement four de-escalation zones in Syria to pave the way for a political process that would end the Syrian civil war, with the three players acting guarantors of the zones.
Under the agreement, Idlib was earmarked for the first implementation of a de-escalation zone. Turkey was to be the guarantor and monitor of Idlib. Twelve observation posts were initially set up by Turkish troops, but Turkey then set its sights on the neighbouring Afrin province, where it targeted the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, whose main component is the YPG. After lengthy negotiations between the three Astana partners, Turkey moved into Afrin with a nod from Russia for Turkish planes to use Syrian airspace.
Control over Idlib is critical for the Asad regime and its allies (Iran and Russia) to declare victory in the conflict which has been raging since 2011. It would give the regime decisive control over all Syrian territory. Their strategy was to deal with Idlib after defeating the opposition in the south – in Dara'a and Quneitra, where the government took back control of territory lost to rebels, and subsequently transferred rebel groups and many civilians to other rebel-controlled areas. Iran was denied a share of the victory in the south because of a Russian agreement with Israel that Iranian forces would leave the south; a number of militias aligned to it, however, did fight with Syrian forces. Iran thus had been anticipating the Idlib campaign when it could fight alongside Syrian troops against the many opposition groups sent there from other parts of the country as a consequence of ceasefire deals. While Iran was looking forward to a battle in Idlib that would finally end all military opposition, Turkey was attempting to prevent a bloodbath and to protect groups allied to it. These opposing interests had already been demonstrated when Iran decried Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch in Afrin in January 2018. Iran also opposed Turkey’s plea to avert a military campaign in Idlib when the three partners met in Tehran on 7 September 2018.
After a war of words with the Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, Erdogan bypassed Iran, and flew to the Russian island of Sochi to meet Putin, to craft a deal that would protect the northwestern province from a fate similar to that of Eastern Ghouta and Aleppo, where continued rebel fighting resulted in largescale massacres. On 17 September, Erdogan and Putin announced the Idlib deal, undermining Iranian and Syrian ambitions of a fullscale attack on the province. Since the 15 October deadline for demilitarisation of the 20km zone in Idlib, Iranian militias and the Syrian army have continued to shell rebel positions inside the zone, vowing to retake the province from rebel control, in violation of the Turkish-Russian deal.
The Sochi deal mirrors a strategy that Turkey has employed since the start of the war: deploying Turkish troops inside Syrian territory to occupy and clear out areas along its borders of rebels not aligned to it or aligned to the SDF. Starting with the 2016 Operation Euphrates Shield north of the Euphrates River, Turkey deployed forces along its border within Syria to attack and eliminate IS and the YPG. Although Turkey announced an end to the operation in March 2017, full disengagement did not occur, and it maintains a military presence in those areas. Following the Astana agreement in May 2017, Turkey and Iran continued to butt heads over Turkey’s request to be allowed to enter the Afrin province that was under YPG control. In January 2018, Russia allowed Turkey to use air power and, subsequently, to launch Operation Olive Branch against the YPG. Although Turkey claimed the operation was temporary, its troops and proxies continue to control the province. Turkey hopes for a similar outcome in Idlib, especially after seeing a similar result in Manbij, where it negotiated a roadmap with the USA to clear out the YPG by holding joint patrols with the United States.
The Syrian regime regards the agreement as a short-term plan, and is intent on retaking all Syrian territory. Although Russia has stalled Syrian forces for a while, it is unclear for how long it will continue doing so. With this in mind, Turkey is looking for additional support and recently called on France and Germany to assist. Convening a special summit on Idlib in Istanbul, Erdogan hosted Germany, France, and Russia on 27 October 2018 to effectively obtain commitment to the Sochi deal. Noticeable absentees at the meeting were the USA and Iran. For Erdogan, the summit was an attempt to garner European support over and above Russian support.
The Sochi agreement might have been announced as temporary, and viewed as such by Iran and the Syrian government. However, Turkey has no intention of leaving Idlib soon. It seeks to effect in Idlib the same strategy that it employed west of the Euphrates river, in Afrin and Manbij, where it deployed troops and militia groups acting as its proxies. Turkey’s policy of muscular engagement demonstrates its commitment to maintain its interests and security by permanently controlling areas along its border directly or through proxies. As violations of the deal continue from the Asad regime and its Iranian backers, Turkey seems to have managed to get (at least temporarily) what it wants in northern Syria, thanks to Russia. For Turkey, long-term control is a more durable solution against its enemies in Syria, even if it means disregarding Syrian sovereignty.