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Syria

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The Next Russo-Turkish War?

Turkey has not won a war against Russia since the 1600s, although there have been at least half a dozen of them. You would think that even the most aggressive Turkish leader would try to avoid another one, but you would be wrong.

President Recep Tayyib Erdogan, who has ruled Turkey for the past seventeen years, says he is going to start a war with Russia at the end of this month. Just in Syria, of course, where both Turkey and Russia have already been meddling in the civil war for years. He’s not completely deranged.

“We are making our final warnings,” Erdogan said on Wednesday. “We did not reach the desired results in our talks [with Russia]….A (Turkish) offensive in Idlib is only a matter of time.”

Idlib, in Syria’s northwest, is the last province controlled by rebel forces, and Turkey is their patron and protector. Russia’s military intervention on the side of the Syrian regime in 2015 saved President Bashar al-Assad from almost certain defeat, so there was already strain on the Turkish-Russian relationship – but until recently it was kept under control.

While Russia was determined to stop militant Islamists seizing power in Syria, it was also angling to lure Turkey out of its membership in the NATO alliance, so in 2018 Moscow and Ankara made a deal at Sochi on the Black Sea. The northwestern province of Idlib, where all the surviving rebels had retreated, would remain under Turkish protection, at least for the time being.

That deal broke down last year for several reasons. Almost all the other rebel forces in Idlib were subjugated (after considerable fighting) by the extremist Hayat Tahrir al-Sham organisation, which is just al-Qaeda with a name change. (You remember al-Qaeda: the 9/11 attacks, head-chopping, ‘Islamic State’.) And Turkey made no effort to stop the jihadi take-over.

Turkey also didn’t keep its promise to free up the M5 freeway, which runs between Aleppo and Damascus, Syria’s two biggest cities. (Its northern section, in Idlib province, was in rebel hands.) So in December the Syrian army, backed by Russian airpower, launched an offensive to clear the jihadi forces off the M5. They have now succeeded, and Erdogan is very cross.

Western media unanimously condemn the ‘ferocious’ Syrian offensive (so unlike the gentle offensives conducted by Western forces), and focus only on the refugees who have fled the fighting. They almost never identify the people the Syrians and Russians are fighting as al-Qaeda, preferring to describe Turkey’s jihadi allies as “some rebel groups in the area”.

But there is little chance that NATO will come to the aid of its Turkish ally even if Erdogan acts on his threat to attack the Syrians and Russians. And he may well do that: in recent weeks he has been pouring thousands of Turkish troops and hundreds of tanks into Turkey’s ‘observation posts’ in the province.

The Russian response to Erdogan’s threats has been steadily hardening. After a last-ditch meeting between Turkish and Russian delegations in Moscow on Tuesday failed to produce results, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov warned: “If we are talking about an operation against the legitimate authorities of the Syrian republic…this would of course be the worst scenario.”

He added sarcastically that Russia would not object if the Turkish military took action against the “terrorist groups in Idlib”, in line with the Sochi accord. But what would the Russians actually do if Erdogan carries out his threats?

Erdogan is threatening air strikes against targets throughout Syria, not just in Idlib. He has a big air force, and he could certainly do that, but Russia has a bigger one. Would it just sit idly by and let its Syrian ally be pounded from the air? That seems unlikely. A ground war between Turkish and Syrian troops could well be accompanied by air battles between Russia and Turkey.

You can spin the speculation out endlessly – what would the Israelis do? What would the United States do? – but the likeliest outcome is that Erdogan backs down and the ceasefire line in Idlib is redrawn to leave Highway 5 in Syrian hands.

However, ‘likeliest’ is a long way from ‘certain’. This could end up as a major war, and since Turkey can easily block Russian ships heading for the Mediterranean, Russian victory would not be quick or easy. But they would win in the end, as they always do, and Russia’s victory would make it the paramount power in the eastern Mediterranean.

It would also entail the fall of Erdogan. There’s always a silver lining.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“Western…province”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

China and the Uighurs

Two weeks ago Professor Gay McDougall, co-chair of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, alleged that up to a million people belonging to the Uighur and other Muslim minority groups in China’s northwestern province of Xinjiang have been detained in concentration camps to be ‘re-educated’ about religion.

Hu Lianhe, who shapes the Communist Party Central Committee’s policies on minorities, sternly denied it: “The argument that one million Uighurs are detained in re-education centres is completely untrue.”

He rather spoiled the effect of his denial, however, by telling the meeting that while China was not running a “de-Islamisation” programme in Xinkiang, “those deceived by religious extremists…shall be assisted by resettlement and re-education.”

Resettled where? In detention camps, perhaps? And if not a million, then how many? Half a million? Two million? The state-run Global Times then defended the detention camps that do not exist by claiming that Xinjiang had narrowly escaped a descent into mass violence and chaos.

“It is because of the Party’s leadership, a powerful China, and the courage of local officials that Xinjiang has been pulled back from the verge of massive turmoil. It has avoided the fate of becoming ‘China’s Syria’ or ‘China’s Libya’.” That is not a denial of the policy; it’s a justification of it.

You can’t have it both ways: China is detaining and ‘reprogramming’ Muslims in Xinjiang (we don’t say ‘brainwashing’ any more) on a very large scale. It is doing so because it fears that the sporadic terrorist attacks that have hit cities in Xingjiang and even China proper may escalate as Islamic State, defeated in Syria and Iraq, seeks to build support in other regions of the Muslim world.

Religion is not the root cause of Uighur unhappiness with Chinese rule; it is the deliberate effort to submerge their identity by settling millions of Han Chinese (the ethnic group who make up more than 90 percent of China’s population) in the province that was once known as ‘Chinese Turkestan’.

Xinjiang wasn’t even Chinese until the 1870s, when the Qing dynasty finally nailed down Chinese control over a crossroads region (part of the old Silk Road) that had been ruled by more than a dozen different mini-empires in the previous millennium.

It fell out of Chinese control again in the civil war of the 1930s and 40s, becoming a independent ‘East Turkestan’ republic backed by the Soviet Union. When the victorious Chinese Communist army took back control in 1950, 73 percent of the population were Uyghurs, with smaller Muslim ethnic groups like Kazakhs and Kirghiz accounting for perhaps another 6 or 7 percent.

Only one-fifth of Xinjiang’s population was Han Chinese in 1950; today almost half is. Han immigration was spontaneous in the early days, but in recent decades the Communist regime has encouraged and even subsidised it, in a deliberate attempt to create a loyal majority in the province. Muslim Xinjiang, like its neighbour to the south, Buddhist Tibet, is suspect because its religion gives it an alternative, ‘foreign’ loyalty.

As in Tibet, this attempt to make the population more ‘Chinese’ only stimulated resentment and resistance among the former majority population, and the first anti-Chinese violence in Xinjiang began in the late 1990s. Almost 200 people, mostly Han Chinese, were killed in ethnic riots in Urumqi, the capital, in 2009, and since then there have been numerous knife, bomb and vehicle attacks in Xinjiang and in China proper.

The official Chinese response has been repression. A vast surveillance apparatus, from facial recognition software to mass DNA collection, blankets the province. Xinjiang’s 20 million people are only 2 percent of China’s population, but the province accounts for 20 percent of the country’s arrests. And now, mass detention and ‘re-education’ camps.

The genius responsible for these policies is Chen Quanguo, who previously used some of the same methods to suppress ethnic nationalism in Tibet. The detention camps appeared and human rights abuses intensified after he was made Communist Party Secretary in Xinjiang in 2016, and he is now a member of the politburo in Beijing as a reward for his efforts.

It’s all so predictable and futile. Ignore the real causes of the anger. (The Uyghurs are much poorer than the Han newcomers and fear that they will lose their identity.) Treat the symptoms instead. (Blame the terrorism on religious fanatics who have been influenced by evil foreigners.) Take a leaf out of George W. Bush’s book and go attack the evil foreigners.

Qi Qianjin, China’s ambassador to Syria, recently told the pro-government Syrian daily Al-Watan that China is “following the situation in Syria, in particular after the (Assad regime’s) victory in southern Syria. Its military is willing to participate in some way alongside the Syrian army that is fighting the terrorists in Idlib and in any other part of Syria.”

And then they could invade Afghanistan. Everybody else has.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“Xinjiang…percent”)

Changing Syria’s Demography

With the fall of Deraa last Friday, the end of Syria’s civil war is within sight. What will Bashar al-Assad and his ruling Ba’ath Party do with their victory?

Polishing off the last rebel-held areas in the south, right up against the Israeli border, won’t take long now that Israel agreed that Syrian government troops can re-occupy those territories so long as Iranian and Hizbollah militias don’t accompany them. (Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu discussed the issue with Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Thursday.)

Recovering the thinly populated eastern quarter of the country, currently held by US-backed Kurdish forces, is a tricky diplomatic issue, but it will be accomplished in due course. Reconquering the one province still held by Islamist rebels, Idlib, may take longer, but it’s not going to stop ‘reconstruction’ in the rest of Syria. And that is going to change things a lot.

Syria’s demography shaped the seven-year civil war, in the sense that all the rebels were Sunni Muslims. Lots of Sunnis supported the regime and even fought for it, but 70 percent of the entire Syrian population are Sunnis and a majority of them, especially in rural areas and the big-city slums, backed the rebellion. Hardly any non-Sunnis did.

The pro-regime non-Sunni minorities were Shia Muslims (including the Alawite sect that is the backbone of the regime), Christians, and the Druze, who all feared that a Sunni victory would mean at best oppression, or maybe exile or death for them. This was mainly because the Islamist fighters who dominated the later stages of the revolt were all Sunni extremists whose language made those fears plausible.

So how could the regime make itself safer from another rebellion? Get rid of as many as possible of the poorer Sunnis, and particularly those who lived in the cities.

The present situation presents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do just that, because more than half of the pre-war population of 23 million are now out of their homes: 6 million as refugees abroad and another 6 million internally displaced. They are almost all Sunnis, and the Assad regime sees them as ‘bad’ Sunnis, so here’s what he is going to do.

Syria’s new Law No. 10 requires property-owners in parts of the country devastated by the war to produce their ownership documents within 30 days. If they don’t, they will have no further claim to their home or the land it once stood on. It sounds quite straightforward, but here’s the trick.

The devastated areas where most buildings were damaged or destroyed are, of course, those that fell into the hands of the rebels and were smashed up by government bombs and shell-fire. Assad’s regime assumes (probably correctly) that most of the people in those areas, mainly on the outskirts of the big cities, backed the rebels.

Many of those people are now refugees outside the country, and most of the rest are internally displaced persons. Their documents may have been destroyed, or they may never had deeds (if they lived in informal settlements). In either case they will be very reluctant to come home and put themselves in the hands of the regime, so they lose their land.

And then, the regime thinks, they will never come home at all – which is the point of the whole exercise. When these areas are eventually rebuilt, the homes will go to people who backed the regime, or at least stayed neutral: ‘good’ Sunnis and the minorities.

Meanwhile the war will go on for a while here and there at a lower pace, but the Kurdish-controlled areas will probably soon be back under government control. Rather than wait to be betrayed by the Americans (who will not protect them from Turkey in the long run), the Kurds will make a deal with Assad that gives them an autonomous Kurdish regional government and protects them from Erdogan’s anger.

Idlib, the last opposition-held area, will take longer. The province’s population has doubled to 2 million, and a great many of the newcomers are hard-line Islamists who were sent there after the negotiated surrenders in Aleppo, Eastern Ghouta or Daraa in the past eighteen months.

Assad doesn’t actually want them back, and the Turks (whose troops are already in Idlib province) might fight to protect them. He may just leave them there, safely quarantined, until some opportunity arises to get rid of them. But in the meantime he is re-shaping the population to guarantee the regime’s long-term future.

The cities may be a bit smaller than before, but they will be reliably regime-friendly. The country as a whole will still have a Sunni majority, but probably a less overwhelming one, and the most hostile elements will be living in exile. It is demographic engineering on a very large scale, and nobody can stop it.

To the victor go the spoils.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 5. (“The pro-regime…plausible”)

Iran: No Plan B

The extraordinary thing is that there is no Plan B. If Donald Trump’s re-imposition of American sanctions on Iran does not cause President Hassan Rouhani’s government to buckle at once (which is almost unimaginable), there is nothing else he can do short of going to war with the country. And he couldn’t even win that war.

Iran is entirely within its rights in condemning Trump’s action. All the other signatories to the deal that hobbled Iran’s nuclear programme – Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China – agree that Tehran is in full compliance with its terms, as do the United Nations, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and US Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis.

All of Trump’s complaints about the deal are about things it was never intended to cover, and it does not contain those things because Iran would never agree to terms that effectively gave the United States control over its foreign policy. If Trump wants to try to negotiate that kind of deal anyway, it is not necessary to terminate the nuclear treaty in order to do so.

But it’s a mistake to apply rational analysis to Trump’s action, because this was an emotional decision, not a rational one. It is part of his obsession with expunging every single achievement of the Obama administration: healthcare, the opening to Cuba, the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, the Paris climate treaty, and now the Iran nuclear deal.

You can, however, apply rational analysis to every other player’s reaction to Trump’s tantrum, starting with President Rouhani. He will try very hard to keep the deal alive because his own political fate depends on it. If he cannot succeed, the Revolutionary Guard and other hard-line nationalists will gain the upper hand domestically and his entire reform policy will be paralysed.

Rouhani probably only has a few weeks to get public commitments to continue trading with Iran from the other parties to the deal, and that will require them to defy the United States. Trump’s declaration on Monday only requires American banks and companies to stop trading with Iran within 180 days, but the US may also apply so-called ‘secondary sanctions’ against foreign companies that trade with Iran.

These ‘secondary sanctions’ may actually be illegal under international law, but that has not stopped the US in the past (Cuba, Venezuela, etc.) and it won’t do so now. You can count on Russia and China to push back if the US blackballs their companies for trading with Iran, but will the British, French and German governments also do so? Even if it risks splitting the Western alliance?

Probably not, in which case the deal really will be dead. Rouhani would remain in office for the remainder of his term, but the hard-liners would be in charge. That doesn’t mean that Iran will start working on nuclear weapons right away, however, because it can’t.

In obedience to the deal, it has destroyed the core of a reactor that could have produced weapons-grade plutonium, placed two-thirds of its centrifuges (for enriching uranium) under international monitoring, and eliminated 97 percent of its stockpile of enriched uranium. It would take a long time to get started again.

The immediate impact is more likely to be seen in a tougher approach in Syria, where Iranian troops (sent to aid the government side in the civil war) are bombed by the Israelis practically every week. So far Iran has not responded to these attacks in any way, but it could start by shooting a couple of those Israeli planes down, and then the fat would be in the fire.

For several years now, the main foreign policy goal of America’s two main allies in the Middle East, Israel and Saudi Arabia, has been to draw the United States into a war with Iran. Therefore they have to provide the hawks in the Trump administration (Pompeo, Bolton, et al.) with a plausible pretext for starting the war, and a couple of downed Israeli planes would do nicely.

If it were just an attack on Iran by the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia, it would not be of earth-shattering importance. They would probably lose a lot of planes, since Iran now has good air defences, but none of them could or would do a ground invasion.

Iran is a country the size of Alaska, two-thirds of it is mountain or desert, and it has 80 million people, lots of industry and good science and technology. Invading it would make the Vietnam war look like a tea party. So any ground fighting between Iran and its enemies would be more likely to happen in the countries between them: Syria and Iraq.

You could be forgiven for thinking that both Iraq and Syria deserve a break from war by now, but they may not get it. And the most worrisome thing is that there are both Russian and American troops on the ground in these countries.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 9. (“All…so”; and “In obedience…again”)