The roles of the US, Russia, Turkey, Iran and Israel in Syria: moving towards the end of the war

 

 

The two superpowers have agreed to finish off ISIS in Syria

Al-Qaeda in Syria has lost the support of the people and the countries of the region

Hezbollah fears an Israeli-US-Saudi Arabia war but the facts speak otherwise

Published here:  v

Elijah J. Magnier – @EjmAlrai

 

The US and Russia have agreed to put an end to the “Islamic State” (ISIS/Daesh) as a priority in Syria, unifying the goal without necessarily agreeing on uniting efforts and coordinating the ground attack. Nevertheless, this beginning will lead the way towards the end of the war in Syria and pave the way to removing essential obstacles (that means all jihadists) on the peace process road.

 

The US in Syria and the difficult choices:

The United States has pushed hundreds of its special forces and elite troops into the north – east of Syria to maintain a military presence in the country and help the Syrian Kurds and Arab tribes fight ISIS[i]. The US forces are training, planning and supplying their proxies with weapons, offering air support and intelligence monitoring through SIGINTL (signal Intelligence) to observe and neutralise ISIS leaders and formulate attack plans for the city of Raqqa.

It is inevitable that there should be some redistribution of roles between the US and Russia over the attack to defeat ISIS in Raqqa. This is also manifested in the advance of the Syrian army towards ISIS-held territory[ii] in north-eastern Aleppo in order to stop the Turkish army and its allies from advancing beyond al-Bab city[iii] and to close the circle tighter around Raqqa by crossing the Euphrates River from the west bank. The Syrian army is aiming to liberate Deir Hafer and Maskana to complete its full control of northern-eastern rural Aleppo and cleanse it of any ISIS presence.

Top military generals, Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Valery V. Gerasimov, the chief of the Russian general staff; and their Turkish counterpart, Gen. Hulusi Akar met last week[iv] in Antalya and defined the limits the Turkish forces and their proxies can reach in Syria. It was clear that Ankara shall not be part of any attack against Raqqa and that its forces and proxies will stop at the limits defined by Al-Bab gates. Both the US and Russia want to avoid any Turkish-Kurdish clash in Syria, particularly as the danger from Jihadists, ISIS and al-Qaida is far from being over, and that Kurdish forces still have a role to play in attacking ISIS around Raqqa.

Aspects of President Trump’s policy towards Syria are materialising, whilst there is a clear hesitation by the US administration regarding many other plans related to Bilad al-Sham during and after the war’s end. Trump wants to avoid any military confrontation with Russia and acknowledge its presence and its role in Syria, useful also for combating terrorism. Moscow wants to end the war and look after its strategic interests by being present on the ground in the Middle East for many years to come, thanks to the Syrian window. It is also aiming to eliminate over 9,000 Russian nationals[v] and various other nationalities fighting within the ranks of ISIS and al-Qaeda in Syria. It is in the interests of all the countries concerned to eliminate terrorists before they spread and leave Syria for other destinations and wage the jihad in some other place. This particular issue is driving the Russian-US coordination in countering terrorism, even if the US is still unclear about its own plans after the end of the war.

To-date, the intention of the US troops stationed in the north of Syria and its strategic objectives is still unclear. The presence of four US military bases and an airport under construction may be an indication that these forces are not willing to pull out any time soon. Leaving Syria won’t be without a price and staying means the creation of a Kurdish Syrian enclave similar to Kurdistan in Iraq. This also means the Turkish forces will follow the US and keep over five thousand square kilometres annexed to Turkey.

It is also clear that though Trump is injecting more US troops on the ground, he is fighting, up to now, with Kurdish and Arab tribe’s proxies. He may be aiming to register a “recognised victory” by defeating ISIS (the group is retreating on all fronts in Iraq and Syria, deprived of any support and with more limited finances) without diving into the Syrian quagmire. Such a victory may turn into failure if Trump decides to keep US troops there indefinitely once the Syrian war is over.

The question remains: which forces will storm the city of Raqqa?

Twenty thousand Arab and Kurdish militants may be able to reach the gates of Raqqa and participate in surrounding it. The Arab tribes in the area will reject the control by Kurds of an Arab city. Moreover, there is no reason for the Kurds to risk their lives and lose hundreds or thousands of militants (hundreds of Kurds lost their lives to liberate Manbij city) to deliver the city of Raqqa back to the Arab tribes once it is liberated from ISIS.

Therefore, Trump will be facing a real dilemma, and will be forced to collaborate with Russia and its allies on this front against ISIS. Air strike coordination between Russia and the US is not excluded for the Kurds to reach one side of Raqqa and for the Syrian Army to storm the other side of the city, similar to the tactics used at Mosul (Iraqi Kurds were responsible for reaching the northern front of Mosul, contributing to surrounding ISIS). In this case, Trump won’t be the only one to collect the victory, he will be forced to share it with Russia and work alongside the Syrian forces- unless of course he decides to put in his own US troops (several thousands) and accept the inevitable human losses! All difficult choices, but the collaboration of US, Russian and Syrian army forces in Syria is absolutely unavoidable.

 

The role of Russia:

Moscow in the Syrian war is acting like the maestro of an orchestra, aiming to control the pace of the battles and the distribution of power on the geopolitical map of the Levant.

Russia has decided that Syria has become a part of its political and military strategies, preventing the fall of a coherent governing system that protects the state and prevents the reproduction of the Libyan “failed state” scenario. To this end, and to maintain its influence in the Middle East through the Syrian window, Russia has worked on multiple fronts to ensure that it is not dragged into the Syrian quagmire, that the long war in Syria ends, and that the safety and long term security of its military bases on the borders of NATO Middle East – represented by Turkey – be confirmed.

Moscow showed its fangs to the Obama administration when they insisted on protecting al-Qaeda and other jihadists. The Russians used all kinds of modern weapons (appropriate to the Syrian war) to hit all of the United States allies and “protected” groups in Syria when these were working closely with al-Qaeda, and were benefitting from modern weapons, intelligence, finance and logistic supply from the countries of the region (Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey). Moscow offered full air support to the Syrian army and its allies, and represented the spearhead of main attacks against the alliance of jihadists and the Syrian rebel groups. This led the forces of Damascus to a robust victory in the cities of Aleppo, Palmyra, rural Lattakia, and Damascus and other parts of Syria.

Russia has committed itself to strike any alliance of al-Qaeda and the armed opposition (even if these were not included in any peace talks) if these have the intention of violating the Astana-Kazakhstan ceasefire and preparing for a future offensive against the Syrian army. Moscow is asking Damascus and its allies to fight ISIS now rather than al-Qaeda, mainly established around Aleppo and in the northern city of Idlib, unless these insist on harassing the Syrian army positions.

The Kremlin rejected any Turkish proposition to advance into Kurdish territory because this is already liberated from ISIS. And it stopped Turkey dead at the city of al-Bab, preventing its forces from moving any further. Russia does not trust Turkey’s intentions in Syria despite the recent visit of President Erdogan to Moscow (where warmth has returned to the relationship-for the sake of both countries’ economies). President Putin was clear with Erdogan about his strategic alliance with Iran, despite his orchestrating terrorism whilst hoping to earn Trump’s blessing.

Ankara may try to turn its attention towards Russia rather than the US in the forthcoming Astana 3 talks, hoping, probably in vain, to persuade Putin to choose to support Turkish forces against the Kurds in Syria. The military map has been already drawn, where Turkey has no place in the forthcoming war against ISIS- nor will she be allowed to venture into the area already liberated by the Kurds. Nevertheless, the Turkish influence is still needed against al-Qaeda due to the presence of several of its proxy groups in Idlib and around it, and due to the easy border crossings and benefits Turkey allows al-Qaeda to enjoy.

Moscow is expected to play an important role in the future of Syrian policy, imposing a political dialogue and negotiations between rebels and Damascus in Astana and Geneva. Russia is carefully avoiding the Afghanistan experience, unwilling to be drawn into a long war in Syria. This is one of the main reasons why Putin wants the end of the war as soon as possible. Already, the slogan of “Assad should leave by military or political means[vi]” is history: even the US is no longer asking for the departure of the Syrian President saying his fate will be decided “by the on-going political negotiations”.

On the other hand, Russia has not interfered in the conflict between Israel and Iran (and its Lebanese Hezbollah ally). Israel was prevented from targeting any military force fighting alongside the Syrians, but, at the same time, Tel Aviv jets were given a free hand to bomb Iranian warehouses dedicated to Hezbollah in Lebanon or to the “Syrian resistance” in the Golan, a force which is preparing in the shadows for the post-Syrian war. Russia doesn’t want to be part of this struggle and she has allowed both sides to sort out the rules of engagement on their own. Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu failed to convince President Putin and won’t have a free hand to bomb Hezbollah and Iran[vii] in Syria as long as these are part of a coalition led by Russia to end ISIS and al-Qaeda in Syria. The war is not over yet and al-Qaeda has large forces in the north of Syria and others in the south. ISIS is still capable of causing damage, its fighters number several thousand in Syria and Iraq.

 

Al-Qaeda from “Nusra” to “Fateh al-Sham” to “Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham”:

Al-Qaeda has lost its “father” and “mother” in Syria and its region when absolute support for changing the regime in Syria was dropped.

The “father” was incarnated in several countries of the region (Saudi Arabia and Qatar) who are now reducing their role in Syria because the opposition failed to achieve the target of overthrowing Assad, and because Russia and the US are imposing new rules, closing the road to any arms supply or finance to terrorist groups in Syria. The regular passage through Turkey is closing down slowly but surely: ISIS and al-Qaeda will be shortly unable to benefit from the supply line available for over five years.

“People to the movement are just like water to

the fish: Any movement that misses public sympathy will

continuously lose thrust until the movement vanishes or hides[viii]” (Osama Bin Laden).

Where the Obama administration failed to split rebels from al-Qaeda, its leader Abu Mohamad al-Joulani succeeded: he attacked the same rebel groups who offered protection to al-Qaeda for years when these accepted to participate in the Astana cease-fire talks. Not only that, al-Qaeda attacked the biggest rebel jihadi group “Ahrar al-Sham” who turned down the offer to go to Astana, accepting Turkey’s anger, just to stand by AQ. This is when al-Qaeda lost its “mother” in Syria- where the Syrian people are giving up, turning against it and rejecting its actions. Joulani offered two choices to most groups: either you join us or we fight you to the death.

 

“You know that many of jihadist groups that insisted on starting by working on the internal enemy got their courses foiled and did not achieve their goals, such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, the attempt of the Islamic Jihad in Egypt, the condition of the brothers in Libya and Algeria[ix]” (Osama Bin Laden).

 

In the light of the Russian-American determination to fight terrorism in Syria, al-Qaeda has few options:

– Fight to the death a battle without any strategic outcome

– Merge with rebel groups, like Ahrar al-Sham, a most unlikely step following the recent events where al-Qaeda attacked rebels and Ahrar to gather strength and weapons

– Ask all foreign fighters to leave Syria and go to another Jihadi land, Yemen or Somalia. Joulani has said that Foreign Fighters represent at least a third of his forces.

Therefore, eliminating ISIS first as a top priority may allow enough time for al-Qaeda to prepare for its biggest battle or decide on an alternative plan. Once Idlib faces the choice of surrendering or fighting, the thinking will be over and a clear cut decision will impose itself.

 

Saudi Arabia and Qatar role in Syria:

The Middle Eastern countries understand today that Russia is planning to stay in Syria and will use all its powers to defend its interests. It is also clear that the US won’t be able to alter Russia’s decisive intention. Therefore all regional players are slowly pulling out, mainly following the recovery of the city of Aleppo by Damascus forces.

The UN envoy to Syria, Stafan De Mistura has clearly stated that the all parties should give up on the illusion of a possible military victory, engage in a global ceasefire, discuss the constitution (by the same Syrians), reconstruct the country and put an end to terrorism. There is to be no further talk about the fate of the Syrian President: a clear indication that the international community is prepared to give up on any group willing to continue fighting and that Syria is heading toward the end of the war.

This stand is sending a strong message to Saudi Arabia and Qatar that no more military supplies to rebels or jihadists will be tolerated, which means the end of the Middle Eastern countries’ negative role. Saudi Arabia and Qatar never had a clear strategy in Syria except supplying weapons and finance for a regime change without necessarily planning for a new government or forwarding any kind of vision for the new ruler of Syria. A “failed state” was on the agenda of Saudi Arabia and Qatar even if that was leading to control by jihadists, al-Qaeda and ISIS, who would turn their guns, once they were strong enough, against these same Middle Eastern countries.

 

Iran:

Speculation went viral in the media, claiming that Russia would ask Iran and Hezbollah to leave Syria as part of the peace process deal. This was wishful thinking since Moscow never raised the question with Iran and its allies. What makes this speculation unrealistic is the fact that only the Syrian government or President would ask his allies to leave the country. Moreover, al-Qaeda and ISIS still maintain tens of thousands of militants on the ground and the Syrian army alone, with the support of Russian Air Force, may not be able to cleanse the country of these. AQ and ISIS are equipped with a strong ideology, a driving force not present in the doctrine of the professional soldier: therefore, there is a need for similar ideologies so as to be able to fight back with the same determination.

Iran came to Syria in 1982 to respond to those who became known later as the Lebanese Hezbollah. Also, it is Assad who asked for the support of Hezbollah in 2013 when the situation became critical. Syria, Iran and Hezbollah form what is known as the “axis of resistance” where Syria fulfilled its deal by supplying advanced weapons to Hezbollah in 2006 (and continues to do so to this date) to face Israel. Therefore, Syria won’t be in need of tens of thousands of allies once the war is over. The allies of Syria are expected to leave as fast as they landed in the country when Assad decides it shall be so, regardless of what Moscow or Washington wish.

Today, it is obvious that the Iranian strategy prevailed over that of Saudi Arabia and Qatar in Syria and managed to sustain a friendly government in Syria. Iran is also playing a positive role in the rapprochement between Baghdad and Damascus, resulting in military collaboration and the air bombing of ISIS targets by the Iraqi Air Force in Syria.

Moreover, there is an on-going discussion between Damascus and Tehran for the construction of an Iranian naval base in the oil terminal port of Banias, 55 km from Latakia. If realised (it may take few years before it becomes operational) it will boost the crippled Syrian economy. Throughout the years of war, Iran has been supplying Syria with oil, mainly when the jihadists of ISIS and Al-Qaeda controlled the northern eastern oil fields.

 

Hezbollah:

Hezbollah militants are present over the entire Syrian geography, supporting the Syrian army in its war against rebels and jihadists. Hezbollah believes Israel and the US, financed by Saudi Arabia, maybe preparing for another round of violence against the Lebanese group in Lebanon. Nevertheless, all facts indicate the opposite:

  • if Trump is aiming for a spectacular victory, ISIS is much weaker than Hezbollah, easier to win over.
  • US priorities in Syria are to degrade and contain ISIS and maybe al-Qaeda. To achieve this goal, Hezbollah forces are still needed. Moreover, the result of a war against Hezbollah, unlike ISIS, is not guaranteed. The tens of thousands of rockets and missiles held by Hezbollah can create real damage in Israel.
  • If Israel declares war against Hezbollah, Syria will take part as a direct player, dragging Russia with it. The destiny of the Syrian regime is linked to its victory in Syria. It won’t hesitate to stand by those who fought with its army for years. Russia wouldn’t want to see its plans in Syria collapsing when so close to achieving its goal.
  • The internal Israeli front is not ready to face a destructive war with Hezbollah, in control of between 150,000 to 200,000 rockets and missiles, according to Israeli officials.
  • The warfare experience gathered by Hezbollah in Syria made the group a challenging adversary when facing Israeli infantry. Hezbollah engaged in a different battle style against its fiercest enemies in Syria (ISIS and al-Qaeda) and showed itself to be fearless of death, unlike the Israeli army.

As long as the war in Syria was fuelled and active, Israel was feeling safe. Now that the beginning of the end is taking off, Israel is rightly worried. It took Hezbollah very few days to occupy the 600 sqkm city of al-Quseyr in 2013. How long it would it take to occupy the 2,380 sqkm of Galilee in a war situation? The war in Syria was highly beneficial to Hezbollah, despite the 1,600 men killed in the battlefield.

Syria looks both close to and far from the end of the war. There are still both military (against ISIS and al-Qaeda) and political battles (constitution, cease-fire, reconstruction) to be fought. Nevertheless, despite the US and Turkish occupation of Syrian territory which Damascus will have to face one day, there are clear signs that the war in Syria is on track towards its ending.

 

 

Endnotes:

[i] Dearden Lizzie, US marines sent to Syria to help assault on ISIS; Raqqa stronghold, The Independent, March 2017.  http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/us-marine-corps-syria-raqqa-isis-stronghold-assault-attack-donald-trump-islamic-state-a7620236.html

[ii] Tomson Chris, Syrian Army reaches Lake Assad for the first time since 2012 amid humiliating ISIS defeat, Al-Masdar News, March 2017. https://www.almasdarnews.com/article/syrian-army-reaches-lake-assad-first-time-since-2012-amid-humiliating-isis-defeat/

[iii] Bassam Laila & Pamuk Humeyra, Syrian army dash to al-Bab risks Turkey clash, Reuters, Feb 2017. http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-albab-idUSKBN15G5DA

[iv] Oliphant Roland, Top Russian, Turkish, and US generals meet amid standoff in northern Syria, The Telegraph, March 2017. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/03/07/top-russian-turkish-us-generals-meet-amid-standoff-northern/

[v] Putin: ‘Thousands’ from former Soviet bloc fighting with IS, BBC News, October 2015. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-34552318

[vi] Syria crisis: bashar al-Assad must go or face ‘military option’, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister says, ABC, September 2015. http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-09-30/assad-must-go-or-face-military-option-saudi-arabia-says/6815218

[vii] Keinon Herb, Netanyahu to urge Russia to say ‘Nyet’ to Iranian ops near Israel border, The Jerusalem Post, March 2017. http://www.jpost.com/Israel-News/Politics-And-Diplomacy/Netanyahu-to-urge-Russia-to-say-nyet-to-Iranian-ops-near-Israel-border-483257

[viii] Osama Bin Laden letter to Abu Basir, Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Leading Intelligence Integration, Bin Laden’s Book Shelf, letters seized from the compound used to hide Osama Bin laden in Abbottabad raid, released on January 2017, p.2. https://www.dni.gov/files/documents/ubl2017/english/Letter%20to%20Abu%20Basir.pdf

[ix] Ibid, p.5.

 

Putin is expected to lead the anti-Trump front in Syria or to engage in bargaining with the US.

 

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– The explicit Turkish-Iranian bickering is unprecedented

– Turkey has lost Mosul but managed to occupy a part of Syria

– The Erdogan coup against his allies of yesterday is not new on his part

– Partition is now expected to hit: separated Northern and Southern Syria will be the result

– Damascus will support the Kurds and Arabs against Turkey if necessary: any push toward Manbij or Raqqah will be totally opposed.

 

Published here: 

By Elijah J. Magnier – @EjmAlrai

 

Russia is prepared to face down Donald Trump’s policy in Syria as revealed by the reaction of the US President himself in sending US ground troops and establishing more than one safe zone in Bilad al-Sham.  The safe zones may be not restricted to northern Syria but might reach the south as well. This indicates that the war in Syria is reaching its final phase where the various countries involved are committing their own men on the ground rather than hiding behind proxies, financing them to fight on their behalf for their respective interests. All the signs indicate the inevitable outcome the partition of Syria for many years to come, leading to a struggle and wars “without end” in the Middle East.

Top decision makers in the Syrian capital say “Russia realises today the gravity of the situation in Syria and that any political solution has not yet matured. Yesterday’s allies are turning against their previous agreements, changing significantly the course of events. This follows the explicit announcement by President Trump of his intentions towards Syria and the Turkish announcement whose support safe zones and send troops to Raqqah (thus dividing the north of Syria)”.

“Russia is looking at Syria more realistically today than ever before. The Kremlin, in the past year, allowed Iran to mediate the return of warmth to the Moscow-Ankara relationship following the downing of the Russian Sukhoi SU-24 on the Turkish-Syrian border in 2015. The Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan tried to hide under the skirts of NATO. As expected, NATO High Command rejected any intervention against Russia, in order to avoid a clash in Syria with another superpower. Once again Iran intervened and convinced Russia of the necessity to bring the Turkish President to the negotiation table in Astana (Kazakhstan) as a partner, due to Ankara’s influence over both the rebels and the jihadists, convinced this would end the war in Syria”.

Both Moscow and Tehran – despite Damascus’s apparently sceptical approach – agreed it was time to close their eyes on Ankara’s years of support for “Islamic State” (allowing foreign fighters to join the terrorist group, and weapons, ammunition and necessities being tolerated to flow into Syria and Iraq in exchange for stolen oil and art treasures and regime change) and for Al-Qaeda – who permitted militants to benefit from medical, logistic and weapons support and to use the Turkish borders to attack the Syrian Army in any military campaigns, mainly the Kessab (rural Latakia) and Idlib attacks) – even though both organisations were considered to be terrorist groups by both Turkey and the US”.

According to the source, Iran didn’t take sufficiently into account the personality of the Turkish President and his “unstable friendships” with leaders in the Middle Eastern region. Indeed, both Erdogan and Bashar al-Assad were very close friends prior to 2011. Ankara was carrying the Palestinian cause, (confronting Israel in the Marmara crisis) and was acting as intermediary between Tel Aviv and Damascus for the return of the occupied Golan Heights.

It is clear that Russia is upset with Turkey’s new alignment with President Trump, which promotes the partition of Syria (with safe zones and a push towards Raqqah). It is for this reason that Moscow planned to cover the advance of the Syrian Army and to close the road on the Turkish forces and their proxies at the limit of al-Bab, ready to bomb Ankara’s soldiers and tanks if necessary. A new map is drawn now where Damascus will temporarily accept Turkish soldiers on its soil until the end of this war.

Damascus’ priority is to fight ISIS, al-Qaida and to disturb the Turkish-US plans in Syria. The Syrian Army will definitely support the Kurds and the Arabs in the northern area of Syria to make sure Ankara sinks into the Syrian quagmire and remains engaged in the long war. Any push of Ankara soldiers toward Manbij or Raqqah will not be tolerated neither by Moscow nor by Damascus.

Commander, U.S. Special Operations Command Gen. Joseph Votel speaks to Naval Special Warfare personnel during an all-hands call at Naval Special Warfare Center. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Michael Russell/Released)

Commander, U.S. Special Operations Command Gen. Joseph Votel speaks to Naval Special Warfare personnel during an all-hands call at Naval Special Warfare Center. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Michael Russell/Released)

There is real concern among the different decision makers operating in Syria about the forthcoming phase that is aiming to divide the country. When Trump speaks of “safe zones” it is another way of indicating that the US wants to establish a permanent base in Syria (US already have military bases at Al-Rmaylan (south east Syria), Tal Baidar, Mabrouki, Ain Eissa, Tel Abiyad and al-Hasaka with thousands of advisors). The visits of US officials, congressman and military commanders confirm there is more going on than meets the eye in the northern Kurdish Syrian area.

A second “safe zone” could indeed be the triangle Jarablus- al Ra’I- Azaz- alBab, occupied by Turkey. This Turkish triangle was possible only when Turkey expressed its fear of the “terrorist attacks” which jeopardised its national security. It was also a convenient plan as seen by both Moscow and Damascus for disrupting the Obama US administration plan to form a new Kurdish “state”, similar to Kurdistan Iraq, from al-Malikiya to Afrin. Nevertheless, Erdogan’s new aggressive position towards Iran and Damascus is therefore reshuffling the cards: once again Turkey is considered hostile. In the eyes of Damascus Tehran and Moscow, Erdogan is no longer a trustworthy ally, he chooses to join the US policy in Syria, wanting to have his share and not be cut out.

The third ‘safe zone” is the south of Syria, along the Jordanian- Israeli borders. The area is under the control of ISIS (Khaled bin al-waleed) and al-Qaeda along with other rebels and jihadists. The US could participate with Gulf money  in a military campaign in that area under the banner of fighting terrorism. It fits perfectly well with the “buffer zone”  Israel was intending to establish few years ago. In fact, the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he would “never return the Golan Heights to Syria”.  In establishing a new “buffer (or safe) zone”, Damascus will have to negotiate the return of this newly occupied land rather than the Golan. This plan would prevent the Lebanese Hezbollah from operating in the Golan area, particularly as its Secretary General Sayed Hassan Nasrallah considers that his war against Israel starts from Naqoura (the Lebanese southern borders with Israel) and extends to the Golan Heights.

“It cannot be excluded that Trump and Netanyahu want to bring Jordan into the Syrian swamp to keep Israel in the shadows. The US President is unaware that creating a buffer zone offers the perfect reason-d’être to Iran, Hezbollah and the newly formed “Syrian resistance” for carrying out attacks on Israel, and on whoever occupies the new southern area if that is the plan. A “Syrian resistance” mirroring Hezbollah was created a few years ago, equipped in the same Hezbollah fashion and trained to face Israel once the war settles down”, said the source.

For such a plan to be effective it is necessary to get rid of President Assad, not through the ballot where he can easily win, but by any other possible means. Moreover, it is also necessary to hit the Lebanese Hezbollah and Iran, militarily for the first and economically the latter, in order to paralyse any attempt to disrupt such a plan. Already Trump started off by accusing Iran of “sponsoring terrorism”, followed by Turkey who also accused Iran of being responsible for terrorism in the Middle East and for attempting to establish “Shia states in Iraq and Syria”. The preparation of a bigger plan seems to be on its way. The exchange of accusations and hostile statements between Turkey and Iran has reached an unprecedented level of escalation.

It is obvious that Erdogan is pulling out of his deal with Russia and Tehran. In Astana 1, Turkey sent a high level delegation to the peace talks. In Astana 2, the Turkish delegation was late, the meeting was postponed for a day and the level of authoritative representation was downgraded. The Turkish President failed to achieve any benefit or control in Iraq, and therefore he is playing the Syrian card, where his ambition and plans to annex further territory are clearer today than ever before. This could be either a blessing or a curse for Turkey in the long term, unless Moscow were to agree on an apparent status quo, including the partition of Syria, and engage itself in market-place bargaining with President Trump, accepting the US, Turkish and Jordanian presence in one territory that used to be called Bilad al-Sham.

“The US abandoned its friends, including Erdogan during the coup d’état in 2016 when Iran and Moscow fully supported him. Friends of America, i.e. the Tunisian President Zein al-Abideen bin Ali, the Egyptian Hosni Mubarak and the Libyan Moammar Gheddafi,  were all dropped because “the US establishes business relationships not friendship”. When the time comes, this newly formed alliance (US, Turkey, Saudi Arabia) will fall to the advantage of the Axis of the Resistance”, the source believes.

It is very difficult to predict Erdogan’s future policy, just as it is impossible to predict what will happen to Syria in the next year. Different armies have gone down into the battlefield with their own soldiers (US, Turkey and Iran). It is apparently no longer a mystery what the US will do because its plan has been clearly announced and implemented. But it is crucial to know how Russia will react: is it going to buy and sell, or take a stand against everybody, facing everyone in Syria?

 

 

 

Geneva talks doomed: Turkey’s changing position in Syria is pushing Russia into more aggression

 

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The US- Russia relationship over Syria will be blown apart and pushed into opposition

Erdogan is hiding behind Saudi Arabia and mimics the US hostility towards Iran

The Sukhoi return is expected more aggressive than ever

Key words: Syria, Russia, Geneva, USA, Turkey, ISIS, AQ.

By Elijah J. Magnier: @EjmAlrai 

After the collapse of 9 months of peace negotiations, Geneva hosts today a meeting about  Syria amid differences between the main regional influential players and an unclear US stance, which will inevitably be reflected in the results of the talks. The main player, Turkey, with troops on the ground in northern Syria, is constantly changing position and plans, creating not only confusion but renewing hostility in the country: a warning of the pessimistic outcome to come.

The US stand:

President Donald Trump’s foreign policy is still unclear, and towards Syria in particular. The US administration has expressed its will to fight terrorism, but mentions only the “Islamic State” (ISIS) group in Syria, and disregarding al-Qaida who are represented by “Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (ex-Nusra). Moreover, Trump is expressing his wish to form “safe zones” in the north, asking the Gulf countries to pay for these “zones”. He is also sending military equipment and special forces support for training and guidance to the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). His aim is to push the Kurds, working alongside and leading the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), towards the ISIS Syrian capital in north-east Syria: Raqqah. Nevertheless, the US plan is unclear and doomed for several reasons:

  1. Declaring “war on terrorism” can’t be limited to ISIS. Al-Qaida is well-established and announced its presence in all the Syrian fronts with two-thirds of the forces on each front. The group is against democracy or any election run by the UN or any other establishment. It is also against any peace talks and has already attacked and split the Syrian rebels, leaving these no choice but to join its ranks or join Ahrar al-Sham, the second biggest rebel groups in Syria.
  2. The US can’t combine a support for the YPG and the Turkish forces and an interest in Syria at the same time, specially in relation to the forthcoming attack against Raqqah. Turkey considers the YPG to be a Syrian affiliation of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). This  organisation (not the YPG) is considered terrorist by Turkey as well. The PKK is waging a ruthless military campaign against Ankara, claiming the right to a Kurdish autonomous state within Turkey.
  3. The US plan to “liberate” Raqqah with 10.000 or 20.000 Kurds and Arabs is not a feasible plan. In Mosul, Iraq is pushing forces between 50.000 to 60.000 strong, supported by Iraqi and coalition helicopters and jets to retake Mosul. The battle for Mosul is far from being a piece of cake, any more than Raqqah, even if that Syrian ISIS city is much smaller than the Iraqi one and holds less than half a million civilians.
  4. The US is promoting “safe zones” for immigrants to stay in Syria and refrain from travelling to Europe or the US. Actually, there is no need for a safe zone or zones because the number of displaced Syrians is no longer increasing and quite static at the moment, following the battle of Aleppo. Any safe zone is considered to be part of an American plot to occupy the north-east of Syria and to establish military bases in the country. Such a step will be faced with a harsh response from Damascus and its allies who would be more than happy to revive the 1983 Beirut barracks and attack the American forces, similar to the 2003-2011 Iraq occupation.

Turkey:

Several months ago, the key for the success of any political talks in Syria was the Turkish involvement, due to Ankara’s influence over rebels and jihadists. This is what pushed Iran and Russia to restore their relationship with Ankara and bring it into the Asatan (Kazakhstan) negotiation. Nevertheless, Turkey was unable to bring to the table one of the biggest rebel groups in northern Syria, Ahrar al-Sham.

Following the coup of al-Qaida against groups who participated in the Astana talks, the rebels are more divided than ever, afraid of any move that could increase their partition and make them easy to overwhelm by the Syrian Army and its allies. Nevertheless, Turkey continues its attack on al-Bab (the ISIS stronghold), unable to get a quick victory. But Turkey is changing position and turning its political guns against yesterday’s allies. Ankara understands today that Trump is aggressive toward Iran and gave his blessing to Saudi Arabia. Therefore Erdogan is taking a new position: hiding behind Saudi Arabia, mimicking the US hostility towards Iran and, in consequences, declaring himself  once more against the Syrian President Bashar Assad.

  1. Turkey has harshly attacked Iran, considering it to be the source of terrorism in the region. This shows a real u-turn in Turkish policy that will definitely be reflected in the situation on the ground in Syria. In fact, Damascus and Iran, along with their allies, are pushing forces to counter al-Bab and prevent any expansion of territory of the Turkish forces toward Raqqah.
  2. Turkey is applauding the US plan of “safe zone(s)” only to offer its forces inside the US Trojan horse. This upsets Russia and Damascus, confirming that Turkey, no longer a partner, is disrespectful of the previous commitment to keep Syrian away from partition. Establishing safe zone(s) can only lead to dividing Syria and disrupting the Russian plan to establish itself in a stable united country. Such a move will have serious practical repercussions on the advance of the Turkish forces and their allies in Syria.
  3. The Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared that his forces “will liberate the Syrian town of Manbij”, already liberated from ISIS by the US-backed SDF and YPG Kurdish forces last year. Erdogan’s verbal intention is considered “a pipe dream” by the Syrian government and Russia. Russia considers the Syrian Kurds as potential allies and Damascus is certain that, once the war is over, it will be possible to reach a win-win deal with the Syrian Kurds, keeping the country safe from partition. Damascus will, not only oppose Turkey in this manoeuvre, but is ready to fight back any force advancing towards its army in the north of Syria, particularly the Turkish forces and their proxies at this moment since, as we have seen, Turkey is shifting its policy, veering towards the unknown.
  4. Turkey offered to the US to go to Raqqah: such a plan is far from being possible. The distance between al-Bab and Raqqah is over 200km, and the territory is controlled by the Syrian Army, ISIS and the Kurds (who are considered by Ankara to be terrorists). The performance of the Turkish forces and their proxies in al-Bab is far from being encouraging. Therefore, the Turkish offer to go to Raqqah is unrealistic and unrealisable.

Syria:

The Syrian Army and its allies considered the Astana talks premature but went along with Russia, believing it was possible to reach a global cease-fire and split al-Qaida from other rebels who will join the peace talks. Turkey was unable to bring Ahrar al-Sham around the negotiation table and al-Qaida turned the table on everybody, forcing a return to the combat.

The Syrian Army is moving today on several fronts:

. from al-Bab toward deir-Hafer, to create a demarcation line with Turkey and its proxies and cutting the road toward Raqqah, preventing Turkey and its proxies from occupying further land in northern Syria;

. Palmyra (Tadmur) to regain control of the ancient city and push toward Deir-ezzour and Raqqah from the east. Again, the aim is to prevent any force from reducing the geographic seize of Syria as its is known today;

. Gathering forces on the rural Aleppo fronts to enlarge the control of its forces toward tel el-Eiss and Fua/Kefraya and move toward Idlib, the al-Qaida stronghold.

All this indicates that Russia will find itself engaged in a broad combat before forcing the rebels to sit at the negotiation table and shift Turkey out of its unrealistic “multi-front dream”. Turkey is showing that it is not an adequate partner for Russia and Damascus. It is unstable in its strategy in Syria and its shifting alliance making it untrustworthy. Therefore, a more aggressive Syrian Army will be seen in the coming months on several fronts with the return of the Sukhoi more active than ever. Russia is waiting to see how Trump’s policy materialises in Syria. The Kremlin is refraining from being the initiator of further hostilities so as to avoid a rapid US blow back.

The US policy in Syria seems frantic and far-fetched without efficient powerful allies on the ground, and is unable to retake cities from ISIS with its Kurdish proxies alone. And the “honeymoon” between Washington and Riyadh will certainly have a substantial negative effect on the war in Syria. This will increase the closeness between  Russia and Iran, but the tension between US and Russia is also expected to increase: one side (the US) wants the partition and the other (Russia) wants a unified Syria without al-Qaida and ISIS, and without Turkey occupying the north of Syria and a Saudi Arabia return to the Bilad al-Sham. At this stage one can only speculate on what this clash of incompatible objectives will produce on the ground in Syria.

 

 

 

Hezbollah and Syria will find themselves partnered in any future war against Israel

 

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A war between Israel and Hezbollah will be the most devastating ever for both sides, and what about Russia?

Key words: Israel, Hezbollah, Hizballah, Syria, Iran, Lebanon.

Publish here:    via

Damascus, by Elijah J. Magnier – @EjmAlrai

“Hezbollah and Syria will find themselves partnered in any future war aiming to hit the Iranian proxy in its bases in Lebanon and Syria because they share the same destiny”.

This is what a decision-maker in the Syrian Capital told Al Rai when asked about the reason behind Hezbollah’s escalation threat against Israel issued by Secretary General Sayed Hasan Nasrallah. Nasrallah warned that the Dimona nuclear reactor and ammonia containers in Haifa will be targeted by the hundreds of long range missiles provided by Iran, if Israel decides to go to war against his group.

Hezbollah maintains a solid military presence in Syria with all its various branches and institutions related to the presence of tens of thousands of its militants since 2013. The mountains dividing Lebanon and Syria provide excellent shelter for hosting and protecting the highly destructive Fateh-110 4th generation and other similar solid fuel missiles, which are capable of carrying between 250 to 500 kg of explosive and cover the entire geography of Israel. For years, Hezbollah has been involved in constructing underground shelters for its missiles launchers in Syria, an essential stage that Hezbollah and the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad agreed upon in the case of a future war.

Israel maintains over 200 atomic bombs at the Negev Nuclear Research Centre referred to as the Dimona reactor. This nuclear reactor was built in the 50s with the French assistance, following the Protocol of Sèvres agreement. Israel has never acknowledged its possession of nuclear arms. It was only in 1986 when Mordechai Vanunu, a former technician at Dimona, fled to the United Kingdom, that top-secret evidence about the Israeli’s nuclear facility and capability was revealed.

Iran, Syria and Hezbollah believe the US President Donald Trump is aiming to cripple Iran in the Middle East and is escalating its (for now) verbal attack with the full support of the Middle Eastern countries. This verbal attack may well be translated into serious attacks against Iran proxies in the Middle East but not necessarily a direct attack on Iran. The possibility of a military campaign against Iran is ruled out by Iran’s retaliatory capability, with effects that could seriously damage several countries of the Middle East. It would be more appropriate to attack Hezbollah – it is believed – which represents the main and strongest Iranian arm in the Middle East.

Hezbollah is on the “terror list” of the US, some European countries, but it is feared above all, by Middle Eastern countries, including the Arab League who have it on their own list. Therefore, any attack against Hezbollah would be viewed positively by the main countries of the region (i.e. Saudi Arabia, Emirates, Bahrein) and could also be supported financially. Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in his speech last September to the United Nations General Assembly: “Many other states in the region recognize that Israel is not their enemy. They recognize that Israel is their ally. Our common enemies are Iran and ISIS (the “Islamic State” terrorist group)”.

“So countries in the Middle East are ready to finance a war against Hezbollah, considered a terrorist organization and a spoiler of their plans in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. And Hezbollah’s forces prevented the fall of Damascus in 2013 when al-Qaida and rebels were in the heart of the capital. Hezbollah was and still is the spearhead of forces in Quseyr, Qalamoun, Zabadani, Homs, Aleppo, Lattakia, Daraa- all over the Syrian geography, in fact. The war against ISIS and al-Qaida is far from over. It would be a blow to Syria itself if Hezbollah were attacked and pulled away from the Syrian war. Therefore, there is no doubt that Syria will be part of any war between Israel and Hezbollah,” said the source.

Israel bombed Syria more than 15 times during recent years. It is Syria’s right to retaliate, regardless of the consequences. Targeting Hezbollah means targeting the stability of Syria and the possibility of ending the war in that country”.

Syria and Hezbollah believe that a war with Israel would force Russia to intervene not in favour of one side against the other but to stop the war. A war in Syria would destabilise the Russian plan in Bilad al-Sham, aiming to end the war and establish Russia in the Middle East for at least the next 50 years.

“Hezbollah is not willing to start a war. Nasrallah’s words on “red lines” and his will to target Haifa and Dimona aim at creating a strategic balance: the destruction on both sides would be devastating, therefore it is better to avoid starting a war. It doesn’t mean he wants war. Both sides are aware of the impossibly high loss of life and damage to infrastructure. His words therefore serve as a reminder of the destructive scenario which will ensue if Israel, supported by direct US military assistance and the blessing and finance of Middle Eastern countries, decides to go to war”, said the source.

The Hezbollah threat was indeed on the schedule discussed between Netanyahu and Trump at the White House. Nasrallah believes Trump wants to be part of the history and is focusing on Iran. Hezbollah, representing of Iran’s arm in the Middle East, has lost over 1,600 men and 8,000 wounded in Syria and could be under strain. Therefore, there will be a time (if the US were to be a direct participant in this war) maybe around this coming summer, when the best opportunity presents itself.

This is the scenario that Hezbollah believes feasible, but it can’t be adamant about it happening. The military apparatus in Hezbollah offer Israeli banks of objectives that are constantly updated, and recalled back to Lebanon some of the most experience special forces units, the “Ridwan forces”, freed from several parts of Syria due to reconciliation between the government and rebels around Damascus and in other parts of the country.

The long war in Syria and the presence of a non-hostile (to Hezbollah) new Lebanese President, Michel Aoun have spared Lebanon a much more aggressive Hezbollah approach toward the many hostile groups in Lebanon. This organisation is much stronger than the Lebanese Army or any other non-state group in the Middle East. It is better armed, superior in men and infrastructure, and managed to control a surface larger than Lebanon during its war in Syria. Hezbollah is exerting a very high level of self-control so far, and is navigating in the middle of a boiling Middle East with overwhelming sectarianism. The umbilical cord linked directly to Iran imposes on Hezbollah a state-like behaviour rather than a group or organisational impulsive attitude, domestically. The 7 Mai 2008, when Hezbollah took control of the Lebanese Capital in few hours with minimum casualties was the only moment when Hezbollah showed some of its real strength and demonstrated highly sophisticated planning in the way Beirut was occupied. If  wounded by any war – which is impossible to eliminate because it is embedded in the Shia population and certainly not detached from it – will Hezbollah be able to continue exerting such a control? That is the question!

Syria prepared for new round of violence: over 85% of belligerents are excluded from the ceasefire

 

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Published here:  v

Key words: Russia, Turkey, Syria, Iran, Hezbollah.

Elijah J. Magnier: @EjmAlrai

Belligerents in Syria are preparing for a new round of violence despite the ongoing preparations by the main two guarantors (Russia and Turkey) for the Astana-Kazakhstan peace talks.

These coincide with the end of the US Obama administration and the beginning of the new era led by President Donald Trump.

 

The main reason for this war preparation and the ceasefire rejection is the exclusion of the main groups who represent tens of thousands of militants. These are: the “Islamic State” (ISIS), Al-Qaida (Nusra/Fateh al-Sham) and similar jihadist groups, plus pro-Turkey Ahrar al-Sham.

 

Despite the agreement on the ceasefire between Moscow and Ankara, essential countries involved in the Syria war, i.e. Saudi Arabia and Qatar, were excluded from the first round of the Astana peace talks and did not delegate their wishes to Turkey to negotiate on their behalf. These Middle Eastern countries refuse, to-date, to raise the white flag, and they still enjoy significant influence over tens of thousands of militants fighting in Syria, demonstrating  the failure of the Russian-Turkish meeting in Kazakhstan. The exclusion of the US and Europe is also a factor presaging an unsuccessful outcome, a by-product of Russia’s pressing determination to end the Syrian conflict. Turkey has not said its last word: it has not committed to abide by Russia’s terms in reaching the end of the war in Syria. Moreover it has refrained from imposing on its proxy, Ahrar al-Sham, the signature and agreement on the ceasefire, and abandoning the choice of war: this despite the loss of Aleppo.

 

Also, Damascus and its allies consider Russia is in too much of a hurry, trying to reach an immature political compromise for fear of being stuck in the Syrian quagmire. The “Afghanistan nightmare” seems to dominate the Russian politicians, causing the failure of two out of three ceasefires “imposed” by Russia these last months. It looks as if – at least according to Damascus and its allies –  the third ceasefire is will fail dramatically, simply because conditions and circumstances for its success are absent.

 

The Russian announcement to pull out its forces from Syria is irrelevant because the 4,500 officers and soldiers are still spread all over Syria, operating on the ground.The group of ships led by the Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier is due to leave as part of its routine end-of-mission and the presence of the naval group was in any case a political move directed at the US, asserting Russia’s determination to face all challenges in Syria.

 

Damascus and Tehran believe that Russia’s absence for over 30 years from the Middle Eastern arena accounts for its inadequate negotiation skills.. The Middle East understands the language of “forceful negotiation” and many players have their own agenda, willing to fight to defend their interests in the region and trying to have an influence over the course of events, mainly in Syria and Iraq.

 

The Turkish role is crucial but still unclear, its political approach in Syria fluctuating  depending on the circumstances: in al-Bab where Turkish forces are engaged against ISIS, Ankara is in need of Russian support to operate in the area and push forces further towards Raqqah. Turkey is waiting for the Obama administration’s exit, marking a distance from the US until a clear stand toward the Middle East is materialised by the new President Trump. Turkey is trying to contain the reaction of its proxies in Syria who reject any compromise unless it includes the end of the President Bashar al-Assad’s rule.

 

Turkey is avoiding any hits against al-Qaida in Syria to avoid repercussions on its national security and circumvent a possible war declaration like the already existing ones with the Kurdish PKK and ISIS. The Turkish President RecepTayyipErdogan has demonstrated that he understands Russia’s impatience to end the war in Syria and its urgent need to end the conflict in order to register a politico-military-regional-international victory. The Turkish stand, multi-faceted and complex as it is, will certainly affect the course of the war in Syria, either in prolonging or reducing its length.

 

However, Turkey’s window for manoeuvre cannot be very long, otherwise its troops in Syria will be in direct danger from the Russian and Syrian Air Forces. Its stand will therefore be clearer the day jihadists and rebels initiate a wide attack against the Syrian Army and its allies around Aleppo or on other fronts. And then Turkey will no longer be considered a viable partner.

For reasons mentioned above, Damascus does not trust Ankara and looks sceptically at the possibility of the ceasefire’s success and that of Russia’s generally premature initiatives. They know that the language of war will continue to prevail until the danger is pushed away from Damascus, eastern Ghouta, south, west and north Aleppo, rural Hama and Homs, and rural Latakia. Only then would the possibility of any ceasefire success be significant: when all jihadists and those aiming to continue fighting are pushed towards a particular area in the north of Syria.

 

It seems the resurgence of battles in Syria is an inescapable fact in the light of prevailing mistrust, the manoeuvres by various players and the rejection and exclusion of most of the powerful organisations and jihadi groups operating in the Syria of the ceasefire. It also seems that Turkey is doing exactly what Washington resisted in its negotiations with Russia: splitting the jihadists from the rebels. Players like Saudi Arabia and Qatar stand against this move because, indeed, they haven’t announced their defeat. Moreover, the lack of maturity of this peace process and the differences between Russia and its allies inevitably mean that battles are expected to regain their intensity, this until the main parties involved are seriously and demonstrably committed to ending the war in Syria. Even though the Astana process is not expected to be successful it still represents the first step in that thousand mile journey.

 

 

 

 

 

Are Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and al-Qaida winners in Syria?

 

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Published here:  via

Key Words: Syria, Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, al-Qaida, ISIS.

By Elijah J. Magnier: @EjmAlrai

With the new year 2017 knocking at the door of the Syrian war, there are many players in Bilad al-Sham: some are directly present with their forces on the ground, the others through their proxies with differing goals. After five and a half years of war there are winners and there are losers.

Russia:

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Russia had been politically hibernating, unwilling to engage in the Middle East despite cries from the region for a balanced superpower situation, one that the US held for many decades, precisely since the Perestroika reform. The Libyan war was a good example of the lack of Russian political engagement, allowing a failed state situation to take place, and triggered by the international community whilst removing Moammar Ghaddafi without drawing up any plans to preserve stability in the country. This allowed jihadists to move in and create insurgency for many years throughout Libya and to-date.

Even when the “Arab Spring” (Tsunami really rather than Spring) blew over the Middle East and the war in Syria started, Russia was still hiding in its lair..

The re-awakening started only when a media campaign blew up in the face of Damascus, accusing the Syrian government of using chemical weapons against rebel-controlled areas soliciting a call for an international military action against Assad. The US administration prepared domestic and international opinion generally for a military intervention which would hit Damascus and change the regime, despite the complete lack of any alternative.

This is when Russia woke up, pushed by Iran. Iranian officials visited Moscow with a clear message: if Damascus is bombed, Israel will be next. Still, the Kremlin acted as a mediator, late 2013, and coordinated a way out, with Washington, to end this critical period for the Middle East by outlining a plan for Assad to cede control of its chemical arsenal. The US took the Iranian threat seriously and wanted to avoid a wider Middle Eastern war without any visibility of the possible devastating consequences. Russia however remained shy about its involvement in Syria until, again, Iran pushed for a direct intervention to save the Syrian government in April 2015. This is when Russia saw the opportunity and was ready to jump.

Russia sent its forces to Syria, enlarged its naval base in Tartus, took hold of a military airport in Hamymeen, signed a 50 year contract with Damascus for its long term free base with a wide window on the Mediterranean, trained its pilots and special forces on real war scenarios.

So doing it increased by additionall $10bn its armament sales and it imposed itself on the Middle Eastern and International arena: it showed the world its capacity to exclude and marginalise the US and Europe from the peace process (previously Washington’s exclusive arena for decades): it managed to create a breach between an important NATO member (Turkey) and the US. It achieved all that and more through the Syrian gateway, where Russia became the dominant international player.

The cost for Moscow in human lives was, to-date, less than 30 officers and soldiers, and a few dozen private military contractors. Russia used up its MOD budget allocated for training in Syria but exceeded the original financial commitment, a “deficit” largely covered by the sale of weapons and the live trials of dozens of new weapons in Syria in full view of the world.

Iran:

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The Islamic Republic of Iran enjoyed excellent relationship with the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad until 2011 when the war started. Assad was part of the “axis of the resistance” who supported Iran on the international arena, supported the Palestinian cause and groups (Hamas, the Islamic Jihad, Popular Front-General command…) against Israel and allowed Tehran to send weapons via Damascus into Lebanon to supply the Iranian proxy: Hezbollah.

Over the five and a half years of war, Iran has spent over $25bn in Syria to support the Syrian government and people by supplying Damascus with financial aid to pay salaries, build roads, reconstruct parts of destroyed cities, offer medical support to hospitals, sending oil and hundreds of advisors to prevent Assad from falling. Iran sent thousands of Iraqis, Afghan and Pakistani to fight, hold the ground or carry out offensives to recover land from jihadists and rebels. The Iran Air Force supplied many embattled Syrian cities. Many pilots were present in Syria offering support to their Syrian counterparts. Iran invested in the reconstruction of the Syrian armament industry to meet the significant missile and rocket demands during the five and a half years of war.

Politically, Iran was behind the Russian involvement in Syria by explaining the critical situation it was in in April 2015 when Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Brigade, visited Moscow for that purpose . A year later, Tehran reopened its gates to the Turkish President RecepTayyib Erdogan to repair the catastrophic relationship with Russia following the downing of the Sukhoi-24 late in 2015. Moreover, Iran exerted serious pressure on Turkey to join the peace process and brought it to Moscow to start a ceasefire excluding the US administration and Europe, to the delight of Russia.

All the above represent serious investment, diplomatic efforts and huge financial and human losses (Iranian advisors and their proxies) for Tehran to regain the position it used to enjoy with Damascus and with President Assad prior 2011.

Hezbollah:

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Prior to 2011 Hezbollah enjoyed full support from President Assad. In fact, Assad visited Hezbollah positions in the south of Lebanon, and established robust relationships with its leadership before his mandate as President. He helped removed key intelligence officers in Lebanon (Brigadier General Ghazi Kanaan and his team) and the vice President (Abdel Halim Khaddam) so as to favour Hezbollah’s position and relationship.

Between 2003 and 2006, Assad was under serious regional and international pressure to give up on supporting Hezbollah and cut the supply road between Iran and Lebanon that used to flow via Damascus. He resisted this pressure and, when the occasion presented itself, supplied Hezbollah with most advanced anti-tank missiles, a crucial weapon and a major contribution changing the course of the second Israeli-War in 2006. Furthermore, he supplied Hezbollah, under the full control of the Israeli Air Force during the 30 days war in 2006, with a new version of al-Fateh missiles offering his M-600 long range and most accurate and destructive missiles to Hezbollah, waved in the face of Israel through its Secretary General Sayed Hasan Nasrallah’s famous sentence: “We shall hit Haifa and targets much beyond Haifa if Beirut is targeted”.

Syria was also Hezbollah’s favourite nearby backyard where commanders and top ranking officials considered the country as a breathing space with a friendly entourage: Syria was Hezbollah’s Switzerland.

In 2012, Hezbollah intervened in Syria to protect the holy shrines around Damascus. Assad rejected any support in the first year of the war. It was not until 2013 that Hezbollah became fully engaged, with tens of thousands of militants distributed all over the Syrian geography to secure the borders and the major Syrian cities.

Due to the vast engagement in a huge geographic area like Syria (Lebanon is 10.500 km2 while Syria is 180.000 km2), the number of Hezbollah fighters seriously increased to the point where Nusrallah told commanders (in a private meeting) to be ready because “there will be a martyr in every single house to stop jihadists in Syria and prevent these from moving the fight to Lebanon”. Commanders enrolled their own sons into training programs and these were sent to fight in Syria.

Hezbollah used to run battles (against Israel) at the level of battalions or units. Today, it is fighting at the level of division, with different branches harmonised: the artillery, armoured divisions, infantry, developing and modifying weaponry, armed drones and the coordination of air strikes with the troops’ advance.

Hezbollah used to attack Israeli positions in the south of Lebanon or military patrols on the borders. During the last years of war in Syria, Hezbollah attacked cities, strategic mountains, fought in the desert, in open fields, and engaged in dense urban warfare in all weather conditions.The Lebanese organisation used to fight in small zones, today it is fighting an operational theatre on multiple zones and fronts, imposing challenges on its planning command and troops support by every means possible.

The military engagement on several fronts turned Hezbollah from a guerrilla group to a non-regular organised army with tens of thousands of men and a huge infrastructure in Syria. It was therefore no longer possible for Hezbollah to return to Lebanon and leave Syria permanently, but it improvised new bases, mainly along the Syrian-Lebanese borders, both away from and within residential areas. The Syrian mountains offer an adequate hideout for Hezbollah’s strategic long-range missiles, causing a real threat to Israel.

But Hezbollah has lost around 1.600 militants (including top ranking field commanders and a member of the Jihadi council, the highest level among decision makers) and more than 7.000 wounded to stop cities and strategic positions from falling to the Jihadists and rebels. It took, to-date, four years of war with full engagement to regain the position Hezbollah enjoyed in 2011 and to keep Syria as a friendly country and passage for its weapon supply and continuous existence in Lebanon.

What was allowed for Hezbollah in Syria prior to 2011 is still allowed in 2017. Moreover, Hezbollah enjoyed a wide support among Sunni, even Salafi radicals, following its second war with Israel in 2006. Due to its decisive military role in Syria, Hezbollah has lost considerable support among these to the point that countries of the region now feel comfortable in labelling it a “terrorist organisation”.

Al-Qaida:

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When the leader of “Islamic State in Iraq” (ISI) Abu Baker al-Baghdadi sent a group of commanders led by Abu Mohamad al-Joulani in May-June 2011 to establish a base in Syria, he was unaware that this move would cost him dearly and will lead later on to a serious split among the jihadists.

From 2011 to 2013, Joulani managed to build a robust reputation among Syrian rebels, leading attacks with suicide bombers and effective planning under the name of his organisation, Jabhat al-Nusra. This “success” alarmed Baghdadi (informed about Joulani’s intention to “play solo”): in April 2013, the leader of ISI declared the merger between ISIS and Nusra creating the “Islamic State in Iraq and Sham” (ISIS/ISIL). To protect his achievement and save his neck, Joulani announced the split from ISI and self-declared his organisation as part of al-Qaida, without even consulting Ayaman al-Zawaheri, AQ Central Emir. To his delight, Zawaheri adopted Joulani: it was a mutual convenience opportunity for both men. Al-Qaida (AQ) was growing bigger than ever with a strong presence in the heart of the Middle Eastern events.

Throughout the years, AQ in Syria became bigger, stronger, richer and formidably equipped with weapons. It has developed remote-controlled Vehicle with Improvised Explosive devices (VIEDs), used drones, tanks, US most advanced anti-Tank TOWs and managed to combine guerrilla and classical warfare. Today AQ in Syria counts over 10.000 militants and have managed to infiltrate the Syrian society in rural Aleppo and Idlib mainly.

Even if Nusra has rebranded to become JabhatFath al-Sham, militants are part of Qaidat al-Jihad, holding the same aims, ideology, creed and goal: establish an Islamic Emirate.

Regardless of what 2017 could bring to AQ in Syria, AQ central has managed to reboot itself following the death of Oussama Bin laden and many core leaders in Yemen and Syria. It will continue to represent a threat to the regimes and monarchies of the Middle East for a very long time to come.

Syria:

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In 2011, the SyrianPresident Bashar al- Assad was watching the “Arab Spring” effect all around him, confident it wouldn’t reach his country. He was unaware of the regional and international intentions to remove him. The “Islamic State in Iraq” (ISI) was also planning to create chaos in Bilad al-Sham, a perfect ambiance for its militants to proliferate.

Assad was badly advised by his entourage who discouraged him from implementing serious reforms in the first months to contain the “revolution”. No one, among the high ranking officials in Syria, believed that a plan to destabilise the country was already in operation regardless of any domestic reforms: thousands of jihadists travelled to Syria from all over the world and billions were spent to arm the “revolution”.

The world was watching how Jihadists were infiltrating the “revolution” and hijacking it. That didn’t create a problem or a reaction simply because Assad was due to fall in few months.

Throughout the years of war, Bilad al-Sham became the Mecca of all Jihadists, creating a real split in Syrian society and pushing it toward sectarianism.

Cities changed hands, hundreds of small groupings were formed, the inevitable infighting among rebels and jihadists was noticed, and defections of officers and soldiers of the Syrian Army weakened it. Syria is the second country, according to the United Nations, to host so many different nationalities on its soil with the difference that all these are armed and fighting each other. The number of victims among civilians, soldiers and militants is unknown but fluctuates between 300 and 400.000 and the number of wounded largely surpasses the million. The devastating economic destruction (infrastructure, agriculture, industry and commerce) is beyond $280bn. There are 5 million refugees outside the country and 6 million internally displaced people. Whoever will control Syria, it will be an almost impossible task to regain the state of affairs prior to 2011.

Who are the winners? Syria as a country and Syrians as a population are certainly not among the winners. Their country has been turned into a battleground for many different kinds of opposing forces.

 

 

 

 

Equilibre régional et international au Levant (1): Tournant pour la Turquie dans la guerre de Syrie

 

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Elijah J. Magnier:

Tandis que la fin de 2016 approche, la guerre de Syrie entre dans sa 6ème année, laissant morts environ 310.000 combattants et civils, un nombre encore plus élevé de blessés, et plusieurs millions de déplacés à l’intérieur et à l’extérieur du pays. Les destructions d’infrastructures, d’habitations et de bureaux dépassent les 250 milliards de dollars. En outre, la Syrie a bien failli être le point de départ d’une troisième guerre mondiale, entre les Etats-Unis d’Amérique et la Russie.

La guerre de Syrie a donné naissance à des organisations terroristes telles que l’”Etat Islamique” (ISIS/Daesh) et la franchise d’al-Qaeda (Jabhat al-Nusra, aka Fatah al-Sham). De nombreuses factions rebelles sont nées et de nombreux petits groupes se sont fondus dans des groupes plus puissants. D’autres organisations rebelles ont quitté l’arène syrienne malgré les centaines de millions de dollars investis en entrainement et en armes dans l’espoir de changer le régime syrien.

A partir de la Syrie, le terrorisme s’est répandu au-delà de ses frontières, frappant la Jordanie, le Liban, la Turquie, et d’autres pays de la région, et plus loin encore, allumant des sirènes d’alarme et augmentant les budgets du contre-terrorisme dans le monde entier.

Les êtres humains en Syrie ont été confrontés à l’humiliation et à la mort au nom de la religion et de la doctrine. Les principaux médias ont largement contribué à entretenir le conflit sectaire en donnant des informations bien loin de la réalité, citant des activistes anti-gouvernementaux sectaires, et présentant la guerre de Syrie comme une guerre entre minorité Alawite et majorité Sunnite. La guerre est bien loin d’être exclusivement entre des belligérants religieux. La majorité de l’armée syrienne est sunnite, combattant pour la survie du gouvernement, des infrastructures et l’unité du pays, contre des djihadistes dont le crédo est le rejet de la démocratie, tout ce qui n’est pas musulman sunnite, et tout gouvernement non religieux. La réputation des média internationaux a été sérieusement mise à mal, perdant leur crédibilité en raison d’une couverture pauvre et biaisée de la guerre de Syrie.

Les acteurs changent tout comme leur rôle et les conséquences de leur contribution : la Syrie est passée d’une situation à une autre plus stable qu’il sera plus facile de définir en 2017.

 

Le rôle de la Turquie :

C’est celui qui a le plus d’influencé la guerre en Syrie contre les djihadistes et les rebelles. L’intervention de la Turquie a été importante et décisive pour le sort de la Syrie politiquement et sur le champ de bataille, formant diverses alliances où les ennemis d’hier sont aujourd’hui tolérés.

L’intervention de la Turquie dans la guerre de Syrie a commencé il y a 5 ans et demi. L’objectif Président turc Recep Tayyip Erdogan se limitait alors à chasser le Président syrien Bashar al-Assad du pouvoir, mais comportait l’annexion de la “ceinture de sécurité” (zone de sécurité) le long de la frontière nord. Il est ensuite allé plus loin dans ses plans, préparant une action au sol pour se rendre maitre de la ville d’Alep, une ville qui restait hors de ce qui a été appelé à tort le “printemps syrien” pendant un an après la crise en Syrie. Cette ville profitait de sa puissance économique et politique, l’influence sunnite en Syrie étant représentée par les villes d’Alep et Damas.

Cette intervention turque est venue avec la tentative des puissances occidentales pour chasser Assad, pour plusieurs raisons : les EU ont étendu leur influence pendant la présidence de George W. Bush, à la suite de l’invasion de l’Irak. La Syrie était la suivante sur la liste pour construire un “nouveau Moyen Orient” ; le projet Qatari du gaz qui devait traverser la Syrie jusqu’en Europe dans  le but d’affaiblir l’économie russe, actuellement le principal fournisseur de gaz pour l’Europe; le rôle d’Assad dans cet “axe de la résistance” et son soutien à des organisations que Washington considère comme des groupes terroristes (Hezbollah, Hamas et Djihad islamique); le soutien de la Syrie à l’Iran qui est en travers du chemin entre rapprochement entre Israël et les pays arabes. Toutes ces influences étaient présentes derrière le “Printemps arabe,” mettant la Syrie au sein d’un véritable ” tsunami arabe” sans grand bénéfice apparent.

Dès les premiers jours de la guerre en Syrie, la Turquie a ouvert ses frontières à quiconque voulait rejoindre la guerre. Beaucoup d’étrangers (européens et non-européens) sont allés en Syrie en passant par la Turquie, pour rejoindre les organisations djihadistes, connues plus tard sous le nom d’“Etat islamique” (ISIS/Daesh) et les branches d’al-Qaeda en Syrie (Jabhat al-Nusra, aka Fateh al-Sham). Ces gens sont partis au su et, dans la plupart des cas, avec l’accord des pays occidentaux (la France, les EU, la Grande Bretagne…). Beaucoup de ces mêmes combattants sont revenus par la suite dans leurs pays respectifs, représentant une véritable menace pour ces sociétés, mais particulièrement en Turquie même parce qu’il était demandé aux combattants de s’installer dans ce pays afin d’y construire une société radicale. En fait, ISIS a demandé à beaucoup de combattants étrangers de s’arrêter en Turquie et de fonder une famille et une société où il se pourrait bien qu’un jour il leur soit demandé de servir la “Nation islamique”, instaurant un noyau pour le futur.

Le monde libre prévoyait la chute d’Assad dans les 3 mois…6 mois…1 an… La situation devint glauque après ce délai. La chute d’Assad ne pouvait plus être prévue. Dans les premières années de la guerre, l’armée syrienne a résisté malgré d’importantes fissures dans ses rangs, pour être mise à mal dès 2013. C’est alors qu’Assad a appelé ses allies à la rescousse. Le responsable des services secrets français et sa contrepartie britannique ont tous deux dit “la carte du Moyen Orient ne sera plus jamais la même”. A la lumière d’aujourd’hui, tous deux se sont bien trompés, confirmant que de nombreux politiciens, officiers des services secrets, analystes et média se sont également trompés dans leur analyse parce qu’ils prenaient leurs désirs pour des réalités. C’est exactement ce qui est arrivé au Président Erdogan, pensant qu’il tenait la partition de la Syrie.

Erdogan a par conséquent permis à ISIS de s’installer dans le pays, d’avoir des échanges commerciaux, surtout de pétrole, et de mettre en place une route pour fournir en armes les djihadistes d’al-Qaeda aussi. Ceci était considéré comme un processus transitoire parce qu’“Assad devait partir dans quelques mois”.

Comme le temps passait et le gouvernement syrien tenait toujours, la Turquie a bâti des alliances solides avec des groups syriens comme Ahrar al-Sham (15-20,000 combattants), Nur ad-Din Zengi (3,000 combattants), Sultan Murad (2,000 combattants) et d’autres qui ont été par la suite rappelés du “bouclier de l’Euphrate” et combattre sous le commandement direct des forces turques en Syrie. Ces mêmes groupes ont établi de bonnes relations avec les groupes modérés et les djihadistes en Syrie.

La Turquie a contribué de façon effective à la chute de la          ville de Kessab dans la partie rurale de Lattaquié en permettant aux djihadistes d’utiliser leur territoire pour pénétrer en Syrie et contrôler les collines entourant la province nord-ouest de la Syrie. En plus, la Turquie a joué un rôle déterminant en armant et en offrant la logistique nécessaire pour permettre aux djihadiste et aux rebelles d’occuper les villes d’Idlib et de Jisr al-Shoughour. Tout se passait comme la Turquie l’espérait jusqu’à ce qu’Assad appelle l’Iran et ses alliés à la rescousse.

Ankara a soutenu le contrôle exercé par les djihadistes et l’opposition sur une grande partie d’Alep. Elle a joué rôle actif, permettant à l’Iran de prendre part à la bataille avec ses alliés. La présence de l’Iran a changé l’équilibre en faveur du Président Assad, mais pas assez pour contrer le soutien turc continu dans la région, soutenu par les EU et les pays de la région (Arabie saoudite et Qatar). Malgré des gains significatifs faits à Damas, Qalmoun et dans d’autres régions, le régime et ses alliés ont décidé de se retirer dans les principales villes pour les protéger.

Ici la Russie est intervenue pour abîmer les plans de tous ceux qui voulaient diviser la Syrie, et changer la carte de leurs projets et de leurs espoirs. Cela a changé l’équilibre du champ de bataille imposant la solution initiale qui demandait que tous s’assoient autour d’une table de négociations et reconnaissent le rôle d’al-Assad, qui avait été marginalisé. Mais quand la Turquie a abattu le Sukhoi-24 en Novembre 2015, tout le jeu syrien a été bouleversé. La partition de la Syrie n’était plus à l’ordre du jour et la Russie a montré qu’elle ne voulait pas d’un équilibre entre les acteurs. L’événement a marqué un tournant dans l’histoire de la guerre de Syrie : la Russie a déployé plus de forces, des missiles anti-aériens sophistiqués et a lancé son poids militaire dans la bataille, offrant au Président Assad la possibilité d’une victoire.

Un second tournant dans la guerre de Syrie a été quand le Président Erdogan a dû faire face à un coup d’état manqué. Les renseignements fournis par Moscou par l’intermédiaire de l’Iran ont contribué à prévenir le Président Turque à temps pour qu’il prenne les mesures de sécurité nécessaires, pour contrer le coup et rester en vie. Erdogan a accusé implicitement les EU d’avoir été derrière le coup et a tourné son énergie politique vers la Russie.

La perception de la Syrie par la Turquie, la Russie et l’Iran a isolé la présente administration US (au moins jusqu’à ce que la prochaine administration reprenne les choses en mains). Ce consensus entre les 3 pays a permis au gouvernement syrien de reprendre le contrôle d’Alep. Cela a aussi empêché la partition de la Syrie méridionale avec la création d’une large zone d’influence américains dans la région contrôlée par les Kurdes, entre al-Hasaka et Afrin.

La Russie a béni cette implication de la Turquie sur le champ de bataille : les forces turques et leurs alliés ont pris le contrôle de Jarablous, Dabiq et atteint les portes de la ville d’al-Bab. C’est alors que les Russes ont arrêté Erdogan de nouveau quand le manque de coordination a permis que des forces anti-gouvernementales (les alliés Syrien de la Turquie) se trouvent face à l’armée syrienne aux portes d’Alep. Il eut été critique qu’al-Bab tombe entre les mains d’Ankara. Les forces turques ont été bombardées à quelques kilomètres d’al-Bab, envoyant un message fort et dessinant la ligne de ce qui serait la limite de déploiement des forces. Une fois encore, la Turquie a compris le message et demandé une réunion immédiate avec la Russie et l’Iran pour coordonner les étapes suivantes.

Une réunion importante a donc eu lieu à Moscou entre les ministres des Affaires étrangères de Russie, d’Iran et de Turquie pour définir la stratégie et distribuer/ coordonner les tâches durant l’année 2017 en Syrie. Cette réunion a exclu les EU et l’Europe. L’exclusion des militants d’Alep et l’avance des troupes turques (avec leurs milices sous le “bouclier de l’Euphrate”) à al-Bab ont été les premiers résultats visibles de cette réunion.

La brutalité avec laquelle ISIS a brûlé deux soldats turcs a calmé l’envie du Président Erdogan de soutenir les groupes terroristes. Au contraire, l’élimination de ces organisations est maintenant devenue une priorité de la Turquie. Pourtant, l’harmonie entre la Russie, la Turquie et l’Iran, si elle continue à ce rythme, aura moins pour but de détruire ISIS que d’autres groupes djihadistes agissant parmi les rebelles syriens.

La Turquie a abandonné Alep et contribué à battre les militants et les djihadistes. Bien qu’Ankara ait longtemps soutenu al-Qaeda (Nusra, aka Fatah al-Sham), le rapport ne peut plus être le même. En effet, Al-Qaeda a refusé à plusieurs reprises de se courber devant Erdogan bien que le soutien militaire, médical et logistique, et la sécurité, viennent de la frontière syro-turque.

La Turquie a annoncé qu’al-Qaeda en Syrie (Jabhat al-Nusra) était sur sa liste des groupes terroristes. Mais cette décision n’a jamais été implémentée : au contraire, Ankara a effectivement contribué à la formation de “Jaish al-Fath” où les alliés d’al-Qaeda et de la Turquie (et d’autres groupes) étaient sous un même parapluie.

Pourtant, al-Qaida s’est dressé contre la Turquie quand elle a annoncé son rejet d’une zone de sécurité à sa frontière “parce que ce n’est pas dans l’intérêt du djihad,” et a fait partir ses djihadistes du nord de la Syrie, laissant les alliés de la Turquie seuls face à ISIS. Mais la goutte qui a fait déborder le vase a été quand al-Qaida a interdit de demander l’aide de l’armée turque à tous les groupes participant au “bouclier de l’Euphrate”.

Les factions soutenues par la Turquie n’accepteront jamais de fusionner avec al-Qaeda parce qu’en Syrie cette organisation va être la cible dans les prochains mois. Ceci a aussi été clairement annoncé par la Turquie et approuvé durant la réunion de Moscou avec la Russie et l’Iran.

La Turquie est maintenant l’acteur principal sur l’arène syrienne. Ses forces sont déployées sur le champ de bataille pour contribuer à changer les règles du jeu et les alliances. Les soldats d’Ankara sont dans le bourbier syrien (combattant ISIS à al-Bab pour commencer), perdant plus d’hommes en une semaine que la Russie en 18 mois. Le Président Erdogan ne peut plus renoncer à son engagement pour en tirer les avantages après la guerre. Par conséquent, les djihadistes ne voulant pas fusionner avec des groupes djihadistes modérés (y compris islamistes) ne pourront pas bénéficier d’une amnistie. En Syrie, il ne peut pas y avoir de place pour les combattants étrangers d’al-Qaeda, ni ISIS ni ceux qui refusent une solution pacifique pour arrêter la guerre.

Par conséquent, d’importantes différences et des déchirures sont attendues entre les différentes factions situées dans la ville septentrionale d’Idlib dans le processus qui devrait conduire à une solution politique et épargner à Idlib un bain de sang semblable à celle qui a aplati la ville d’Alep.

La Turquie reste donc un des principaux acteurs, consciente du fait que toute alliance avec l’actuelle administration américaine (sous Obama) en Syrie sera aussitôt avortée, tandis qu’une alliance avec la Russie a permis à Ankara de rester en Syrie. Le Président syrien devra négocier avec Ankara et prendre en considération ses intérêts, le jour où la guerre de Syrie se terminera.

 

Traduit par lie professeur Olivier duLac.

Suite : Equilibre régional et international au Levant (2) : le rôle de la Russie