By Afro-Middle East Centre
After seven years of the raging Syrian civil war, Israel has emerged from the shadows to launch a campaign in Syria, continuing its battle with Hizbullah, Iran and Syria, while also looking to capture more Syrian territory along its borders. Soon after Israel Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu returned from a trip to Russia, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) attacked a branch of the Scientific Studies and Research Centre in Syria’s Hama province on 11 September. The centre is located in the town of Masyaf, sixty kilometres east of Tartus, where the Russians maintain a naval repair base. Israeli strikes in Syria are not uncommon. In this context, however, Israel hopes to eliminate any possible challenge to its activities in Syria, hence the recent (more than normally-) aggressive tone against Iran. Unlike Russia and the USA (two of the major external actors in Syria), Iran (with Hizbullah) and Turkey are uninterested in having Israeli interests protected. The quest to malign Iran in the region, and discredit its presence in the Syrian conflict is the reason that Israel’s double-edged campaign seeks to create a buffer zone from the border of Golan Heights further into Syria, and ward off any present and future threats from Iran and Hizbullah.
Relations between Israel and its northeastern neighbour have always been rocky. After the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel occupied the Golan, Syrian territory which lies within an area of 444 square kilometres – from the Yarmuk River in the south, Jordan Rivre and the Sea of Galilee in the west. m Syria’s military and diplomatic attempts to force Israel out of the Golan have failed on numerous occasions, including after the 1973 war; in 1981 Israel illegally annexed two-thirds of the Golan Heights, and has been building settlements there since. Over the past five years, the Syrian-controlled part of the Golan has changed hands between the Syrian regime and rebel forces.
Today, the area controlled by Israel is inhabited by approximately 40 000 people, of which half are Syrian and the other half Israeli Jewish settlers. The Golan Heights is a strategic asset that supplies Israel with 30 percent of its fresh water from the Jordan river. The Golan also has fertile agricultural lands for multiple products and is useful for the production of renewable energy.
Since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, Israel’s occupation of the Golan has remained in the background, allowing Israel’s ambitions to extend its control beyond two-thirds of the Golan Heights to fester. This is seen starkly in Israel’s demands to extend its current twenty-kilometre ‘buffer zone’ into Syria. Israel wants to expand the buffer zone to sixty kilometres from the border on the Golan Heights to the west of the road connecting Damascus and the city of al-Suwayda in southwest Syria.
This buffer zone in Syria would mirror Israel’s ‘Good fence’ policy employed in Lebanon when the civil war broke out in 1975. There, Israel established military and social networks with local Lebanese groups, assisting them to fill the vacuum that had been left by the government in terms of service provision as a way to sustain its occupation of Lebanese territory. In Syria this ‘good fence policy’ aims to consolidate Israeli control over Syrian territory as Syrian President Bashar Al-Asad’s position strengthens in the six-year civil war, and Hizbullah and Iran become increasingly entrenched.
In June 2017, Israel provided funding and aid to certain Syrian rebel factions – particularly Fursan al-Joulan (Knights of Golan), through the Golan. Fursan al-Joulan boasts 400 fighters and is close to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (formerly the al-Qa'ida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra), and the Israeli effort to support it was set up in 2013 by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). Fursan al-Joulan has effectively maintained security on Israel’s behalf in Syria-controlled Golan in exchange for the group receiving $5 000 a month, as well as food and medical supplies. Israel seeks to thus alter and shape the outcome of the Syrian civil war, in a way that ensures that it continues its occupation of the Golan. Israel also seeks to realise its interests is by getting the USA and Russia to uphold these interests in Syria via the ceasefire deal negotiated in Astana in Kazakhstan by Turkey, Iran, Russia, the Syrian regime and opposition groups in Syria.
With the recent agreements between Russia, Iran and Turkey, supported by Jordan and the USA, Israel saw an opportunity to expand its control of Syrian territory further, and its sporadic air-strikes in Syria are part of this agenda. The strikes, which Israel claims targetHizbullah arms convoys or warehouses, have been the biggest indicator of its involvement in the Syrian war. These airstrikes had previously resulted in strong diplomatic reaction from Russia. Earlier this year, Moscow summoned Israel’s ambassador in protest, to show that it did not appreciate Israel’s actions against a Russian partner, Iran, which has played a strategic role in supporting the Asad regime. However, this Russian attitude seems to have changed more recently with a seeming romance between Russian president Vladimir Putin and Israeli prime minister Netanyahu.
Astana de-escalation deal
The Russian role in Syria has been critical to the survival of the Asad government, and has strengthened the regime’s position in the war, as well as created the possibility of a ceasefire deal that will see Turkey, Russia and Iran act as guarantors in different zones in Syria. Such a deal, which has been accepted by the USA, has spurred Israel’s campaign against what it calls a ‘permanent Iranian threat’ in Syria.
The Russia-Iran-Turkey de-escalation zones deal was signed in May in Astana, Kazakhstan, and calls for an end to hostilities between (most) rebel groups and Syrian government forces in four regions. The first zone – Idlib province in the northern region, including north-eastern areas of Latakia province, western areas of Aleppo province and northern areas of Hama province – will be monitored by Turkey; the second – Rastan and Talbiseh enclaves in northern Homs province – and the third – which includes eastern Ghouta in northern Damascus – will be monitored by Russia. The fourth zone – including areas along the Jordanian border and parts of Dar'a and Quneitra provinces – will be monitored by Iran, and this is what the Israelis are upset about.
Israel justifies its demand for a stake in the Syrian pie by focusing on this fourth zone, and its supervision by Iran. Hostilities between Israel and Iran date back to the Iranian revolution in 1979, when Iran altered the previously friendly relations with Israel by ceasing ties with the latter and openly supporting the Palestinian struggle against Israeli occupation. More recently, Israel has focused on Iran’s nuclear programme, which, it claims, threatens its existence and stability in the Middle East. Additionally, Israel regards Iran as an enemy for its support of the Palestinian resistance group Hamas, and the Lebanese party Hizbullah.
As part of its campaign to realise greater Israeli control of Syrian territory, the head of Israel’s foreign intelligence service, Mossad, Yossi Cohen, was dispatched to the USA to warn US President Donald Trump of ‘the imminent threat of Iran’s presence in Syria’. In addition, Netanyahu himself flew to Russia to meet President Vladimir Putin while the latter was holidaying in Sochi. Netanyahu informed Putin (and the world) that Israel was prepared to act unilaterally to prevent an expanded Iranian military presence in Syria. Israel values its relations with Russia and recognises the strategic position of Moscow in the Syrian civil war. With this trip, Netanyahu hoped to gain Russian support to curb Tehran’s role in Syria in the future.
The Russians, trying to appear unfazed by Israel’s warning and requests against the ‘threat of Iran in Syria’, have not fully given in to Israel’s demands, but have made certain concessions. Although not agreeing to the extension of the buffer zone, they have, for example, propose a deal that Israel will find beneficial: keeping Iranian troops away from the south of Syria, and preventing them from maintaining a permanent presence in Syria. The deal might not fully give Israel what it wants, but effectively accedes to part of Israel’s request.
Despite being slightly rebuffed by the Russians, and not evoking sufficient American interest, the Israeli campaign will not easily back down, with Netanyahu hoping to insert Israel into the de-escalation deal, and expanding the Syrian territory that it controls. In July this year, a ceasefire deal brokered between the US, Russia and Jordan was widely welcomed by Israel. This deal – also hailed by Jordan – covers parts of Dar’a, Quneitra and western Suwayda, and is set to continue to secure the Jordanian border, which closed in June 2016. Under the deal, groups fighting against Iranian and Syrian forces were asked to cease fighting in the area by their US backers. They have also been asked to return artillery and anti-tank missiles. Israel prefers this agreement to the Astana deal, which recognises Iran as the monitor of areas along the Jordanian border, Quneitra and Dar’a. This zone seeks to create more of a de-militarised zone than a de-escalation zone, warding off the presence of any military hardware (belonging to regime or opposition groups) in the south, thus lifting the threat of an attack on Israeli assets in the Golan.
The Syrian civil war has been characterised by a complex web of involvement by and relations between foreign states. Despite a myriad of attempts to find a solution to the crisis, only the Russian-sponsored Astana (Kazakhstan) process has, thus far, yielded any results – modest as they might be. One of those outcomes has been the de-escalation deal that seeks to create ceasefire zones monitored and supported by Russia and Iran – which are major players in the war and have strengthened the Asad regime, as well as Turkey – which has backed the Syrian opposition. Israel sees in the de-escalation plan an opportunity to advance its own interests – particularly the extension of its territorial control further into Syria – in addition to its occupation of the strategic Syrian Golan Heights. It is using the fact of Iran’s role in the plan to, first, attempt to stymie Iran’s involvement in Syria for the future, and, second, to attempt to justify its own bid for control over Syrian territory. It seeks to thus lay the foundation for a long-term plan of expanding territory beyond Golan into Syria.
Although the USA usually readily supports Israel’s ambitions in the region, it is not an architect of the Astana deal, and has to defer to Russia. It is unclear whether the latter will ultimately give in to Israel’s requests. Although Russia and Iran are currently allies, Moscow is also concerned about Iran’s role in the region being elevated through a resolution in Syria, and might be willing to allow Israel to fulfil some of its ambitions in the interests of keeping Iran in check. Support from Russia and the USA on the issue will also embolden Israel to continue building settlements on Palestinian lands.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
Talks between the Syrian regime and opposition forces, held in Kazakhstan’s capital from 23 to 24 January, concluded with Russia, Turkey and Iran announcing their intention for a trilateral mechanism to monitor and enforce the ceasefire between regime forces and rebels. The talks aimed to build on the 30 December truce, which was brokered by Ankara and Moscow, and endorsed by the United Nations Security Council. Delegations from armed opposition groups and the Syrian regime were meant to speak directly; however, this failed to materialise. The talks suggest the possibility of a diplomatic resolution for Syria in the future, but one which will favour the regime, and will not totally end the fighting.
The Astana talks highlighted the role of these three regional powers in Syria’s civil war, and the sidelining of the USA and Saudi Arabia; the former was invited as an observer, and the latter not at all. Astana did little to change the situation on the ground as regime forces continue attacking rebel fighters in Wadi Barada, near Damascus, while fighting between rebel groups broke out in Idlib, further weakening the opposition in the face of an assertive regime.
The nature of the Syrian civil war, with the involvement of a number of states supporting a range of actors, and the role of the Islamic State group (IS), has led to the failure of several UN-mandated peace talks. The organisers positioned the Astana talks as a basis for upcoming UN talks in Geneva, intended to cement the ceasefire while establishing a trajectory for future negotiations. The fall of Aleppo in December was a turning point in the conflict, and allowed the Syrian president, Bashar al-Asad, to claim victory and rubbish any attempts to exclude him from any transition process. Since Turkish and Russian support led to Asad’s success in Aleppo, they also took the diplomatic initiative. Their ceasefire deal was signed by Syria and seven major opposition groups. It was active in all areas not under IS control, and excluded UN-designated ‘terrorist’ groups, particularly IS and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly al-Qa'ida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra). When the parties decided early January that the ceasefire was substantially holding, Russia and Turkey began preparations to host talks between the regime and opposition forces.
Differing expectations of the Astana talks threatened to collapse the dialogue before it has started. Asad expressed hope that the armed rebel groups will disarm in exchange for an amnesty deal. Opposition groups expected to the talks only to strengthen the ceasefire, leaving any discussion of Syria’s political future to Geneva. The ceasefire agreement between Russia and Turkey has been more successful than previous agreements between Russia and the USA, and the organisers hoped that excluding the USA from a pivotal role may invoke greater trust between participants. Washington’s involvement in the Syrian peace process has decreased not only due to Asad’s ascendency with Russian support or Iran wishing to exclude them from the process, but also as Obama’s presidency ended. Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem also spoke highly of the chance of success due to ‘strong guarantees’ from Moscow, calling the ceasefire a potential starting point for a political process.
Although all opposition groups that had signed the 30 December ceasefire had received invitations to Astana, the Islamist Ahrar al-Sham, one of the larger rebel groups, did not attend, citing the fighting in Wadi Barada. The USA had insisted that the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD, the largest group in the US-sponsored Syrian Democratic Forces) be involved; Moscow remained silent while Ankara refused to consider the inclusion of either the PYD or its armed wing, the YPG, due to their links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The SDF responded by announcing its rejection any decisions that would be made in Astana. Opposition groups are divided, and the loss of eastern Aleppo highlighted their weakened position. Turkey is the opposition’s major state ally; however, Ankara’s rapprochement with Moscow forces opposition groups to question the usefulness of a diplomatic route that constrains their offensive options and increases tensions with Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. The current fighting between Fateh al-Sham and allies against Ahrar al-Sham and allies in Idlib highlights this tension among rebel factions.
The Astana talks were largely unproductive, and their primary impact emerged from discussions on the sidelinesbetween Russia, Turkey and Iran on strengthening the ceasefire. In their agreement to set up a trilateral mechanism to monitor the ceasefire, the parties agreed there could be no military solution in Syria, and that the conflict could only be resolved through compliance with UN Security Council Resolution 2254. Neither the Syrian regime nor the rebel delegation appeared satisfied by the outcome of the talks. The opposition protested Iran’s inclusion in monitoring the ceasefire and mediating the conflict, and refused to sign any agreement. The government, meanwhile, announced the continuation of an offensive in Wadi Barada despite the ceasefire and had recaptured all rebel villages within a week.
An agreement to extend the ceasefire is a shaky foundation for the UN-mandated talks in Geneva starting on 20 February. Further, the exclusion of up to two thirds of opposition groups does not provide the rebel delegation with a popular mandate. The exclusion of armed groups with alleged al-Qa'ida links has further divided the opposition while providing the regime with an excuse for violating the ceasefire. Iran’s commitment to the ceasefire is a positive step towards freezing the conflict. Ultimately, it seems that a diplomatic solution is on the horizon, with the main drivers being Russia, Turkey and Iran. It will likely be a resolution that sees the co-option of certain sections of the opposition into the government, and an agreement that Asad will remain in power until the next election, when he will gracefully exit.
The United Nations has suspended all aid convoys in Syria after its lorries were attacked by warplanes near Aleppo on Monday.
The attack came a few hours after the Syrian army declared an end to a week -long ceasefire. The United States has expressed outrage at an attack on an aid convoy near the Syrian city of Aleppo.
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 13 December surrender agreement between rebel groups and the regime of President Bashar al-Asad marked a turning point in the five-year long Syrian conflict. Opposition demands for Asad to step down through a transition process now seem impractical and unachievable, mainly because the government now controls most urban areas. Further, the agreement’s relative success will empower its chief negotiators, Turkey and Russia, to reshape the conflict to suit their converging interests, which increasingly sees a role for Asad. The regime will, however, find it difficult to establish its sovereignty over the entire country as Turkish troops and rebel groups backed by Turkey and certain Gulf states – including Saudi Arabia and Qatar – consolidate in more rural areas. Significantly, the regime is now more empowered to pursue its aims, even when these do not fully coincide with the interests of its Russian ally.
Announced late Tuesday, the agreement allowed for rebels and civilians trapped in besieged East Aleppo to evacuate to other rebel controlled areas as regime forces regain control of the remains of the city. This completes the main thrust of the regime’s latest strategy, which aimed at consolidating control of large population centres across the country’s east-west spine, confining the rebellion to rural provinces. The government now controls Damascus in the south, Aleppo in the north, and the central Homs and Hama provinces – the areas many refer to as ‘useful Syria’. This means that any transitional agreement that excludes Asad – as the opposition and Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia have been demanding – will not be possible, thus voiding a major demand of the rebellion.
Already, Qatar’s foreign minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al –Thani, referred to the Syrian opposition’s calls for negotiations without any preconditions regarding Asad’s role. Further, although rebel groups control parts of the Aleppo governorate, much of Idlib, as well as areas in the south, their armed capabilities have been severely weakened, due in part to fears about their links with Jabhat Fatah Al-Sham (formerly Jabhat Al-Nusra). This relationship has made some governments, especially the USA and Jordan (which train and coordinate activities with the Southern Front rebel group) wary. Funding, even from Saudi Arabia, has thus been reduced, and some states, especially USA and Jordan, prefer to conclude agreements with the Syrian regime around combatting the Islamic State group and preventing a spillover into Jordan and Lebanon.
Shifting geopolitical interests have also influenced the conflict. Following Turkey’s apology to Russia over its downing of a Russian fighter jet in November 2015, a rapid rapprochement has occurred between the two states, and a convergence on Syria is emerging. In September the two countries agreed on Turkish use of Syrian airspace, and in October Turkey aligned its stance on Jabhat Fatah Al-Sham closer to that of Moscow. It is probable that Turkey’s recent troop deployment into Syria was endorsed by Moscow. Russia and Syria have virtually ignored Turkey’s incursion into northern Syria and its efforts to form a buffer zone up to the IS-controlled town of Al-Bab – in return for it limiting its support for rebel groups in east Aleppo.
Ankara’s redeployment of thousands of rebel fighters from Aleppo and its August capture of Jarabulus, in the north of the Aleppo governorate, in was a key factor influencing the Syrian regime’s ability to reimpose its siege on Aleppo in September. In recent months Ankara has attempted to negotiate a rebel withdrawal from east Aleppo, initially only for Jabhat Fatah Al-Sham fighters, thus allowing some opposition governance in the city, and later, following regime objections, for civilians and fighters belonging to other groups. This deal was key to the rapid fall of east Aleppo, and to the fact that Turkish-backed forces rather than the Kurdish YPG will likely be prominent in attempts to drive IS from Al-Bab. Turkey and the other major regional power with troops in Syria, Iran, have also been discussing Syria in the past three months, and have agreed to protect the country’s territorial integrity.
Iran was not, however, directly involved in the surrender agreement negotiations, and has been accused by some as a spoiler, because of its demands that wounded civilians in the regime-supporting towns of Foua and Kefraya in Idlib governorate, which are besieged by rebels, also be evacuated, and by then supporting militia groups which have prevented many evacuation attempts from Aleppo. Iran has attempted a deal on these towns for the past eighteen months with Ahrar al-Sham. Its proposal was to engineer a population swap, with residents of these towns to be exchanged with Sunni residents of Zabadani and Madaya. This would consolidate the Shi'a presence in the area from Damascus to the Lebanese Beka'a Valley. Iran also demanded the bodies of slain militia fighters that it had sent to Syria, including members of Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Iraqi militias. It also demanded information about any fighters that had been taken prisoner.
The Turkey-Russia agreement stalled repeatedly, and although not part of the original Aleppo agreement, it now includes evacuation plans for Foua, Kefraya, and the parts of Madaya and Zabadani as well.Significantly, the USA and EU played no role in the recent surrender agreement, and initially were unaware of it.
With this reconfiguration in interests and power, Syria could be divided into zones of influence, allowing for some cooperation despite the divergences in the Russian, Iranian, and Turkish positions. The prominence of Jabhat Fatah Al-Sham in Idlib may complicate this plan, especially since Idlib directly borders Turkey, and because the group often coordinates with Ahrar al-Sham, which is supported by Turkey and some Gulf countries. Fissures in Ahrar al-Sham have already emerged, and a splinter group, Jaish Al-Ahrar, which is critical of the former’s reliance on Turkey and its supposed antagonism to Jabhat Fatah Al-Sham, has been formed.
With Aleppo back in Syrian government control, Asad has gained the upper hand in the conflict over control of the state. However, the conflict is not about to end; it will probably continue at a lower intensity as the regime conducts operations in Idlib and other rebel-controlled regions, and because rebel groups will alter their tactics in favour of smaller insurgent operations. Many opposition groups may be forced to accept a political solution as their position further weakens, but it is unlikely the regime will allow the opposition autonomy over areas it currently controls. Earlier versions of the surrender agreement, which would have allowed for the maintenance of the east Aleppo local council, and which was accepted by Moscow and Ankara, was discarded because it was rejected by the regime. In many places opposition to the regime from citizens will endure, and not all rebel groups will accept such an eventuality, arguing that they cannot allow all their sacrifices to amount to nought.