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Syria

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Lebanon Meltdown

10 August 2020

Beirut has been living with car bombs and air raids on a sporadic but continuing basis for so long that it would probably make sense to rebuild this time with shatterproof glass. The torrent of broken glass falling from a thousand shattered buildings probably accounted for half the 158 dead found so far in Beirut, and certainly for most of the 6,000 wounded.

The Beirutis were not expecting a giant exploding warehouse, of course, but Lebanon has been cursed in so many other ways that in retrospect it seems almost inevitable. Fifteen years of brutal civil war, followed by thirty years of corrupt rule by the very warlords who ruined the country, ended Beirut’s claim to be the ‘Paris of the Middle East’ a long time ago.

The sense that the country’s time was running out has taken different forms over the years, but it was always there. I even thought the end might be coming with Islamic State a few years ago, and took my wife there to see the old Lebanon (some of which still survived and was easy to love) before IS came over the mountains from Syria to destroy it all.

Another blow to my reputation as a prophet, and one I was happy to take. IS over-reached itself, and is gone. What finally did it for Lebanon was more banal: the deliberate looting of the country’s entire fragile economy, and the concealment of the proceeds in obscure foreign banks, by the few thousand people whom ordinary Lebanese contemptuously call the ‘political class’.

‘Warlords’ is the right name for them, although many are sectarian leaders whose pedigrees go back to Ottoman times. It is a country where old men and obsolete communal loyalties oppress the impoverished young. That is true of almost every country in the Arab world, of course, but in Lebanon’s case the only remaining route to a better future may lie through even greater violence.

Popular anger was great even before the 2.75-kiloton explosion last week. Garbage collection failed years ago, the only safe water comes in bottles, and there is still not reliable 24-hour electricity 30 years after the war. The currency has collapsed, most people’s savings have been wiped out, the country has defaulted on its debt, and there are no jobs for the young.

There were huge non-violent street demonstrations last October, and the multi-party coalition government was forced to resign. (The ‘parties’ are really the old militias renamed.) “All of them means all of them,” the demonstrators chanted – but all that really changed was the faces of the cabinet ministers. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

There is a lot of sympathy for the Lebanese, and foreign governments are willing to bail the country out of its troubles – but only on condition that the loans don’t just get pocketed by the same thieves in silk ties, and that there is complete transparency in banking and in government financial transactions.

Those conditions were too tough for the ‘political class’, since many of their past crimes would be exposed and future ones would become more difficult. So, incredibly, the Lebanese government refused the loans even as families went without food. Then came the explosion on the waterfront, which was clearly the result of official incompetence at the very least.

An online summit of fifteen countries hosted by French President Emanuel Macron on Sunday pledged a quarter-billion dollars for immediate humanitarian aid to Lebanon. However, Macron made it clear that a $20 billion International Monetary Fund bail-out will depend on real reforms, including an audit of the central bank and regulation of the country’s capital markets. That is unlikely to happen voluntarily.

The demonstrators came out on the streets in force on Saturday, and by Sunday the army was there as well, firing live rounds into the air. The militias are out too, but so far they have left their weapons at home. The likelihood that this confrontation will be resolved peacefully? Worse than evens, certainly.

The crisis might have been delayed another year without the explosion, but not more. Even Hezbollah, once violent but relatively honest, now also has its hand in the till, and popular outrage is huge. This time, the protesters are building mock gallows in the street.

The oligarchs have their backs to the wall, but they know that popular rage can often be drowned in blood in the Arab world. In the past decade it has been done successfully in Syria, in Egypt, and in Bahrain, so why not in Lebanon too?

Here’s why not. Even if they win in the streets, the oligarchs still lose, because there is no economy left to plunder. And if they lose in the streets, they could easily end up on real gallows.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10. (“An online…voluntarily”)

Syrian Sanctions

Last week the United States imposed new sanctions on Syria: a “sustained campaign of economic and political pressure” to end the nine-year war by forcing President Bashar al-Assad to UN-brokered peace talks where he would negotiate his departure from power. Assad’s wife was already cross about not being able to shop at Harrod’s or Bergdorf Goodman, so he should crumble any day now.

Other things are crumbling already. Ordinary people’s incomes are collapsing (down by three-quarters since the beginning of the year). The price of food in Syria has doubled. Lebanon next-door, already in financial meltdown, is now seeing its large trade with Syria vanish as well.

Even those Syrians who support the regime – around a third of the people who have not fled the country – will have a much harder time, but they won’t desert the regime. The more prosperous ones depend on Assad’s regime for their income, and the poorer ones are mostly minorities who fear they will be slaughtered if the jihadis win.

The US decision to raise the pressure on Assad is probably a random by-product of Donald Trump’s obsessive campaign against Iran (which has been helping the Syrian regime to stay afloat). If Trump even knows that the remaining rebel groups in Syria are by now all led by fanatical Islamists linked to al-Qaeda, the group that organised the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he doesn’t care.

The Syrian tragedy is mainly due to endless foreign interventions. The Syrians who called for an end to Assad’s regime in the ‘Arab Spring’ of 2011 were just like the young men and women who started demanding the fall of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak at the same time. They were both genuinely popular movements, not fronts for jihadis.

The Egyptian protesters won, there was a free election – and then the army struck back in 2013, slaughtered several thousand people in the streets of Cairo, and put General Abdel Fatah el-Sisi in power, where he remains to this day. Egypt is at peace, although hundreds more people have probably died in Sisi’s prisons since then, and thousands have been tortured.

The Syrian protesters didn’t get that far. They were driven from the streets – but then various foreign powers started organising the rebels and giving them arms. The war has lasted another eight years, and somewhere between 400,000 and 700,000 Syrians have been killed. Five million Syrians have fled abroad, and another five million are displaced within Syria.

So here’s the question: would you prefer Egypt’s fate or Syria’s? Both countries are still tyrannies, but one is literally in ruins, with half the population out of their homes, and the other had a few thousand deaths. It’s a no-brainer, isn’t it?

The Syrian power struggle would probably have ended in an Assad victory around the same time that General Sisi took over in Egypt if the US, Turkey and Saudi Arabia hadn’t begun sending the Syrian rebels arms and money. US motives were mixed, but the Turks and the Saudis, both led by different kinds of militant Muslims, just saw an opportunity to replace a secular regime with a hard-line Islamist one.

They would probably have succeeded if Russia had not intervened to save Assad in 2015, and Syria would probably be divided today between al-Qaeda and Islamic State. The groups linked to al-Qaeda absorbed or destroyed all the others, and today they rule over a single province in northwest Syria under Turkish protection. But still the war drags on.

If any of these outside players had been willing to put its own troops in the ground, the war would at least have ended years ago (though it might have ended badly). But none of them were willing to risk their own soldiers’ lives – not even the Russians, who stick to air strikes. And now the US is hitting Syria with even bigger sanctions.

When governments impose sanctions they usually explain that they had to “do something”, but the new sanctions will hurt ordinary Syrians very badly. They might be justified if there were a reasonable chance that more sanctions could bring Assad’s regime down, but there’s no chance of that, and everybody knows it.

In a famous paper in 1997, Robert Pape of the University of Chicago showed that out of 116 cases of international sanctions being imposed during the 20th century, in only six cases did the target government yield to the demands of the country imposing the sanctions. The success rate has not improved since.

It’s 70 years since the United States imposed sanctions on North Korea, and the Kim family is still in power. It’s 60 years since it put sanctions on Cuba, and the Communists still rule. It’s 40 years since Washington slapped sanctions on Iran, and the ayatollahs still rule. Not to mention Zimbabwe (sanctions since 2003), or Venezuela (2006), or Russia (2014).

‘Doing something’ feels good, but it doesn’t usually do much good.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 11. (“Even…win”; and “If any…sanctions”)

Migrants: A Glimpse of the Future

Turkey has opened the floodgates, and soon Europe will be drowning in immigrants. “Hundreds of thousands have crossed,” Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan claimed on television, “and soon it will reach millions.” And it must be true, because you can see it live on your medium of choice.

Look at this clip of Greek frontier guards firing tear gas canisters into angry, stone-throwing crowds of refugees who are right up against the border fence. Look at this shot of other Greek paramilitary troops shooting into the water right beside a rubber raft filled with refugees. Millions and millions of refugees. The migrant Armageddon is at hand.

It’s ugly, but it’s not really what it seems. Erdogan says he has opened Turkey’s border with the west because the country has already taken in 3.6 million refugees, mostly from Syria. There’s just no room for the several million more now trying to get out of Idlib, the last Syrian province held by jihadi rebels. So he’s sending them west.

That is, at best, an over-simplification. There are no more Syrian refugees coming into Turkey from Idlib, because Turkey has closed the border against them. Indeed, most of the people now trying to storm the borders of Greece and Bulgaria – 13,000 at last count, not “hundreds of thousands” – are not Syrians at all.

They are Afghans, Eritreans, Iraqis, West Africans, some genuine refugees and others ‘economic migrants’, who are already living safely in Turkey, but would rather be in some country in the European Union.

They didn’t walk 600 km from Idlib, either. The Turkish government is bussing them to Greece’s land and sea frontiers from wherever they have been living in Turkey, telling them (falsely) that the Europeans will let them in. Erdogan just wants to put pressure on the EU.

Pressure to do what? Good question. He may not know himself, but he’s desperate because his bluff in Syria has been called and he’s facing a potential military confrontation with Russia. It’s not clear how putting the Europeans into play will change that, but he’s definitely at the ‘Do something! Anything!’ stage of desperation.

Erdogan’s problem is that for the past three months the Syrian army, with strong Russian air support, has been taking Idlib province back from Turkey’s Syrian jihadi allies, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (formerly an al-Qaeda franchise) , in a slow, grinding offensive.

Turkey has troops in Idlib, and has gradually been committing them to combat to help the jihadis, but still the Syrian-Russian advance continues. Erdogan has threatened to go to full-scale war, and the Syrian regime and the Russians haven’t even blinked. More than fifty Turkish soldiers have already been killed, so what does he do now?

I don’t know, and I suspect he doesn’t know either. The whole refugee thing may just be a displacement activity, not part of a cunning plan. We’ll probably know more in a week’s time – but in the meantime, look at those clips again, because that’s what the future, or at least a big part of it, will look like.

This is the first time that we have documented evidence of European border guards shooting at, or at least very near, illegal migrants. Yes, there are special circumstances, the migrants are being sent as part of a political ploy – but it will not be the last time.

The Syrian civil war is stumbling to an end, but migrants from all the other countries south and east from Europe will keep coming, and their numbers will swell.

All of the Middle East and West Africa is going to be hit early and very hard by global heating, which will cause a steady fall in food production. The rule of thumb is that you lose 10% of food production for every rise in average temperature of one degree C.

To make matters worse, these regions also have the highest population growth rates in the world: doubling times for most countries are 25 years or less. Now it’s poverty and war that drives the migrants; in the future it will be actual hunger (and war, of course).

They will head for Europe in ever-increasing numbers, because there’s no other safe haven in reach, but it will not remain a safe haven. There will never be another year like 2016, when the European Union, led by Germany, let more than a million refugees in out of sheer pity for their plight. In fact, the political backlash to that act of generosity has already driven politics sharply to the right all over the continent.

Europe’s external borders are already closing down, but in years to come the dirty little secret that everybody refuses to acknowledge will finally become public knowledge. It’s quite easy to shut borders, really. You just have to be willing to kill people who try to cross them without permission.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 12 and 15. (“The Syrian…swell”; and “They will…continent”)

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)’.