By Ramzy Baroud
Israeli anxiety was palpable after Israel’s prime minister, Benyamin Netanyahu, waited for days to be contacted by the new US president, Joe Biden, after the latter’s inauguration. While much is being read into Biden’s decision, including Washington’s lack of enthusiasm to return to the ‘peace process’, Moscow is generating attention as a possible alternative to the USA by hosting inter-Palestinian dialogue and discussing the future with leaders of Palestinian political groups.
Despite relative calm in fighting in many parts of Syria, the north-western Idlib province has been under heavy Russian and Syrian government bombardment after a March 2020 ceasefire between Russia and Turkey ended in June. Bashar al-Asad’s regime, backed by Iran and Russia, has been leading a campaign to retake control of Idlib, which is currently in the hands of former Al-Qa'ida affiliate, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), and other jihadi groups. Turkey, which backs a number of rebel groups, including HTS, has sought to delay the regime offensive by trying to convince these groups to disarm and surrender territory along the strategic M4 and M5 highway to regime forces. This has largely failed and the government offensive continues, despite Russia, Turkey and Iran, partners in the Astana process, claiming to pursue a political solution to the embattled Syrian conflict.
Russia and Iran, both supporters of Asad, have locked horns in the past year, with one result being continuing divisions in the Syrian military and security apparatuses and tensions flaring in the south-western Dera'a province. Compounding the situation are an increasing number of Israeli airstrikes against Iranian personnel and Iranian-sponsored militia in Syria; the most recent airstrikes targeted Iranian and Hizbullah positions in Damascus. A further complicating factor is that Turkey and Russia support opposite sides in the Libyan war, which has, thus, spilled into Syria as each of these two states recruits Syrian fighters to fight with opposing sides in Libyan.
All of these national and international politics and military operations have worsened the lives of ordinary Syrians. Millions of Syrians facing a humanitarian crisis were dealt a immense blow on 12 July when Russia blocked a UN Security Council’s resolution that aimed to open humanitarian border crossings for the flow of aid to areas hard hit by the civil war.
Attempts to revive a political solution
The presidents of Iran, Russia and Turkey met in a videoconference on 30 June to discuss the Astana de-escalation process they had agreed on in May 2017 in Kazakhstan. The Astana process has been dormant since the beginning of 2020, having become unworkable when the regime began battling rebel groups in Idlib. The meeting was the first since Turkey had clashed with regime forces in Idlib in March, when a Russian airstrike had killed at least thirty-three Turkish soldiers. The official statement of the virtual summit slammed the USA for seizing oil fields in the northeast; criticised the autonomous northeast region – controlled by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) – and labelled them ‘illegal self-rule initiatives’; and condemned US sanctions on the Syrian regime, including the latest Caesar Act sanctions targeting individuals linked to the regime.
Even as the three countries issued a joint statement, political differences between them were stark. Turkey and Russia clashed in February, causing the deaths of over sixty Turkish soldiers in Idlib. Turkey retaliated with ‘Operation Spring Shield’ against Asad’s forces, downing three Syrian fighter jets and killing many soldiers. Russia then accused Turkey of breaching the terms of the September 2018 de-militarisation agreement, and of cooperating with HTS. This Russian statement represented the high point of recent tensions between the two countries, and led to the signing of another ceasefire agreement early March that committed both states to joint patrols alongside the Idlib part of the M4 highway.
Turkey has funded a number of rebel groups, has launched various military campaigns in northern Syria, and has a large military presence in Idlib province, which borders Turkey. The Turkish army has also conducted various cross-border military operations against Kurdish targets in northeast Syria, the one being dubbed ‘Operation Peace Spring’ in October 2019 under a US-brokered agreement that left Turkey controlling a 120-kilometre area between Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain that had been under the control of the Kurdish-dominated and US-sponsored Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Turkey carries out these operations and maintains a presence in Idlib at the accommodation of Russia, even with Iranian disagreement. Iran disapproves of Turkish military operations in the northeast as well as plans for demilitarisation in Idlib. It accuses Turkey of undermining Syria’s territorial integrity, and of giving control of the area to Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels. Iran’s disagreements with Turkey have become obstacles in the implementation of the Russia-Turkey agreement, especially because Turkey is to be the guarantor of Idlib as an Astana de-escalation zone.
Iran-Turkey disagreements are, however, minute within the larger set of problems with the Astana process. The Syrian regime remains the biggest obstacle to a political solution, including its foot dragging on the UN Geneva process. The government’s focus is on its attempt to retake control of the entire country – with Russian and Iranian assistance, and little attention is paid to participation in the political process, despite occasional Kremlin pressure. The UN-Geneva process is a case in point. The regime’s delegates always stall the process, outrightly rejecting most proposals from other parties, and resisting every attempt to proceed with any of the political processes. In December 2019, the UN Special Envoy for Syria, Geir Pederson, told the UN Security Council that the second round of talks had failed because Syrian regime officials refused to discuss constitutional reforms. This came after months of UN and Russian efforts to get the Asad government to agree to a list of opposition and civil society participants for the Constitutional Review Committee formed under the auspices of the UN, and supported by Russia and Turkey.
Instead, the regime set its sights on Idlib, the last rebel bastion in the country, under the control of HTS And other rebel groups. Idlib has become the haven for Syrian civilians and rebels who had fled regime bombardment in other, previously rebel-held, areas. It enjoyed relative calm for a while as the regime reconquered other parts of the country. From September 2018, a series of ceasefire agreements were signed between Russia and Turkey. Some three million people are at risk of displacement in Idlib because of continuing violence, and around one million are already housed in refugee camps along the Turkish border.
Although Russia seems to have a great appetite to revive and establish a political process to end the conflict, military operations place this project at risk. The Asad government has won back around seventy per cent of the country, and hopes to regain the remaining thirty per cent over the next months, starting with Idlib. With the Idlib offensive in full swing after a few months of relative calm, the regime is still nowhere near to conquering the province, mainly thanks to Turkish interference. HTS, which controls around sixty per cent of the province, has been cooperating with Turkey in a bid to stop Russian and Syrian army bombardments. In the process, the leader of the former Al-Qa'ida affiliate, Mohammed al-Julani, has rebranded the group and, at Turkish insistence, been suppressing dissenting groups, including those that are close or aligned to Al-Qa'ida.
This strategy attracted the attention of James Jeffrey, the US envoy to Syria, who began to advocate for flexibility towards HTS. Jeffrey praised the group’s claim of patriotism to Syria, and said it did not pose an international threat, but was focused on maintaining its positions in Idlib. HTS’s determination to hold its position and control in the province has resulted in it intensifying its attacks against rival rebel groups. On 22 June, the group arrested senior members of its Shura Council who had defected to two other jihadi factions: Ansar al-Din and Muqatileen al-Ansar. These (and other) groups accuse HTS of cooperating with Turkey, which shares intelligence with the USA on Al-Qa'ida affiliates’ leaders in Idlib. In June, US drone strikes killed two Huras al-Din leaders – Khaled al-Aruri, a Jordanian who had been a member of Al-Qa'ida in Iraq before moving to Syria in 2015, and Abu Adan al-Homsi, who was in charge of logistics for the group.
HTS’s doing Turkey’s bidding was seen starkly in May when the group declared the Turkish Lira as the official currency in Idlib. It intensified after protests by displaced Idlib civilians – said to be mobilised by rival groups – disrupted Russian and Turkish patrols along the M4 highway. A blast on the M4 that targeted Russian and Turkish soldiers early July was blamed on HTS rival Huras al-Din, and HTS subsequently arrested many of its leaders and members. Russia retaliated for the bombing by pounding rebel positions in the Latakia countryside. However, this HTS strategy to make itself more acceptable than other rebel groups has not worked; Russia and the Syrian regime insist that HTS members remain terrorists, and they press forward with attacks on the group despite unsuccessful Turkish attempts to get it to give up its heavy weapons as per the 2018 agreement.
Dera'a a battleground for influence and control
Since entering the Syrian conflict in 2011 to support Asad, Iran continues to be a key player in the Syrian conflict. Iranian-linked militia and Lebanon’s Hizbullah are stationed in various parts of Syria backing the regime, and Asad’s survival until the Russian entry into the war is largely dependent on Iranian and Hizbullah support. Iran also has considerable influence in various sections of the Syrian military and intelligence apparatuses. Since the 2015 Russian engagement in Syria, however, changes have been made in the Syrian military and security institutions to minimise Iranian influence. This led to tensions within the military and allied militia, and the rivalry has unfolded rapidly in the southwestern province of Dera'a, where a July 2018 Russian-brokered deal saw rebel factions surrender their heavy weapons and the province to the regime, ending a month-long regime bombardment.
Iranian-backed militia in Dera'a are linked to assassinations and kidnappings of opposition faction leaders who had been part of the 2018 deal that ended regime incursion in the province. Syrian army officers linked to Russia have also been implicated in assassinations and attacks on Iranian-linked groups in the province. The Iranian-Russian tensions came to a boil on 4 May 2020 when former rebel leader Qasem al-Subehi, linked to the Russia-backed Fifth Corps, killed nine regime police officers in Muzayrib town. These tensions also saw parliamentary elections disrupted in various parts of Dera'a on Sunday, 19 July.
Former rebels such as al-Subehi are part of a policing force set up by the Russians called the Eight Division, which had been incorporated into the Syrian army’s Fifth Corps. The Eight Division, is led by former Sunna Youth rebel group leader Ahamd al-Oda, polices checkpoints in many areas in Dera'a. It has also been implicated in violence against regime supporters and Iranian-linked generals in Dera'a. On 12 April, two Iranian-linked regime generals – Hamid Makhlouf and Mahmoud Habib – of the Fifty Second Brigade of the Fourth Division were assassinated in an attack that was widely blamed on Russia. Russia, through the Eighth Division, is vying for control and influence in the province against the Fourth Division, headed by Maher al-Asad, the president’s brother. Maher is known to have links with Iran and to coordinate with Iranian paramilitaries and Hizbullah forces in southern Syria.
Together with Maher Fourth Division, Iranian-linked militia have been blamed for over 102 assassinations of former rebel leaders who joined the Fifth Corps. The Fourth Division constantly clashes with military, security and other agencies loyal to Russia. Such clashes and attacks have become a routine occurrence in Dera'a, threatening an escalation of violence in the province where the Syrian uprising had begun in 2011.
In the midst of this ongoing violence, Russia has used the province as a harvesting ground to recruit fighters to be sent to Libya. Russian paramilitary company Wagner has been recruiting young Syrian men to fight in Libya for warlord Khalifa Haftar. In May, tribal leaders in Dera'a organised protests condemning this Russian recruitment of Dera'a’s youth.
Increasing Israeli airstrikes
The increasing number of Israeli airstrikes in Syria targeting Iranian and Hizbullah positions has added an additional layer of violence in the ongoing conflict. On Monday, 20 July, Israeli airstrikes violated Lebanese airspace and struck positions in south Damascus, killing Iranian-backed fighters and causing infrastructural damage. These airstrikes were the latest in a series of ongoing Israeli attacks against Iranian and Hizbullah forces. Israel, which previously did not acknowledge carrying out these attacks, has recently been more brazen about admitting to its striking Iranian interests in Syria. The airstrikes represent Israeli acts of war against Iran, and have been sanctioned by the US.
The Israeli airstrikes have also raised questions over the role of Russia, which appears to be turning a blind eye to Israeli incursions. Russia had previously summoned and reprimanded Israeli ambassadors over Israeli airstrikes in Syria. The most recent reprimand was in February 2020, when the Russian defence ministry condemned Israeli airstrikes in Damascus suburbs that nearly hit an airbus carrying 172 passengers. The Russian defence ministry still holds a grudge against Israel after a Russian reconnaissance aircraft was shot down by Israeli strikes in September 2018, but was seemingly downplayed by the Russian President Vladimir Putin. There seems to be a difference between the Russian defence ministry and the presidency on how to address Israeli operations in Syria.
Although the occasional Russian rebuke gets attention, this does not deter Israel, suggesting the Russian criticism is merely performative. This suspicion is strengthened by the fact that Russian complaints are few, and only for specific cases rather than against the overall Israeli series of attacks. Israel strikes in Syria despite Russian S-300 surface-to-air missile defence systems deployed in Syria in February 2019. The non-effectiveness (or non-activation) of the Russian missile defence systems is, at best, because of a lack of effective training of Syrian military personnel. However, there have also been reports that Russia had not given the Syrians the control codes to the systems, which prevents them from detecting the Israeli F-16s, effectively making Russia complicit in the Israeli attacks.
Worsening humanitarian situation and Russian interference
Amid increasing pressure from the Russian-led offensive on the embattled Idlib province, millions of displaced Syrians refugees are stuck in IDP (internally displaced persons) camps inside the country. The face dire humanitarian conditions, which prompted the UN Security Council to pass Resolution 2533 on 11 July to resume its mandate to deliver aid to the country. The resolution came after Russia and China vetoed an earlier proposal aimed at keeping open two border crossings that channel aid from Turkey to Idlib. The UNSC finally resolved to allow the use of the Bab al-Hawa crossing point for one year, but close the border crossing at Bab al-Salam, both in Idlib.
The closure of the Yaroubia crossing from Iraq prevents the delivery of medical supplies from various aid agencies, including the UN, into the Kurdish-controlled northeastern Syrian region. The Jordanian Nasib Border crossing has similarly been closed; it had functioned as a lifeline for refugees mainly stranded at the Rukban refugee camp in southern Syria. The closures of these crossings will ensure the that the distribution of aid will be controlled by the Syrian regime, thus making it difficult for opposition groups to continue controlling territory. The UN has warned that humanitarian conditions are worsening because of the closure of these crossings, especially as the world battles the Covid-19 pandemic, which has also gripped Syria’s northern provinces.
Blocking the original resolution was also Russia’s attempt to give the regime access to resources as the government battles a weak economy and falling currency prices. In June, the USA announced economic and travel sanctions on Asad and members of his inner political circle, including family members, putting further pressure on the already-struggling government. Named the Caesar Syrian Civilian Protection Act, it allows the administration of US president Donald Trump to name and sanction thirty-nine individuals, companies and cross-border networks that channel money into Syria. The sanctions have added another layer of strain on the cash-strapped Syrian government as deepening rifts within Asad’s family expose worsen economic problems. Asad’s cousin, Rami Makhlouf, once a leading businessperson in the Syrian economy and fervent financial backer of Asad, has been confined to his residence after the state seized most of his business assets. Makhlouf’s Syriatel company was targeted amid rumours that Asad’s wife Asma was looking to set up a rival telecommunications company. The assets of other businesspeople and political figures have since also been seized by the government in a bid to replenish the state’s coffers.
Fragile situation in northeast Syria
The predominantly Kurdish region of northeast Syria has been in a fragile political situation after the Turks launched ‘Operation Peace Spring’ in October 2019. On 1 June, the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) – whose military wing, the Kurdish Protection Units (YPG), leads the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – announced progress on reconciliation talks with the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC). The rival parties began reconciliation talks in November 2019, following the end of the Turkish offensive in the northeast. The SNC is based in Turkey and one of its members, the Kurdish National Council, is the only Kurdish faction at the UN Geneva talks.
Kurdish issues in Syria have been seized upon by the French government, which currently has tense diplomatic relations with Turkey over Ankara’s involvement in the Libyan conflict and Turkish naval manoeuvres in the Mediterranean. In May this year, French officials secretly met with the parties that form the Kurdish National Alliance (HNKS) and the PYD in a move seen as a direct provocation to Turkey. Turkey considers the SDF and PYD as affiliates of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is in a state of war with and outlawed in Turkey.
The 30 June Astana meeting between Russia, Turkey and Iran revived a political process that seemed to have reached an untimely end because of political problems between the leaders of the process. Russia continues complicated bilateral relations separately with Turkey and Iran pertaining to the Syrian conflict, thus putting the Astana process in a never-ending quagmire. The regime’s offensive in Idlib supported by Russia ended a ceasefire agreement signed between Turkey and Russia in March, compounding an already-alarming humanitarian crisis for three million Syrians displaced in the province. This has put the Turkish-Russian relationship in a precarious position in Idlib as rebels continue to fight against the regime and Russia. Iran, which also supports the regime’s Idlib offensive is looking to counter increasing Israeli attacks against its positions inside Syria. Although the recent Astana meeting addressed these issues, it is yet to translate to tangible results on the ground. Meanwhile, boiling tensions in Dera'a remain unresolved, threatening renewed violence. Russia’s bid to restore territorial control to the Syrian regime saw it force the closure of two UN humanitarian aid crossings, leaving open only the Bab al-Hawa crossing in the northwest. This puts a strain on an already-struggling Syrian population because of the failing economy and US sanctions.
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.