Syria – The Final Chapter?

The Demise of the Islamic State

Previously we wrote that the period of the Islamic State’s survival would be inversely proportional to the interests of the very imperialist states that had facilitated its birth (if not actually inventing it). We added that the development of IS, based as it is on the territorial conquests of parts of Syria and Iraq containing oil wells, would become a minor power able to fund a small, powerful army. The birth of IS was funded, sponsored, armed and politically driven by Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Qatar and Turkey. In short, by those powers who wanted to get rid of Assad and his influence on the Iraqi Shiite regime. These were Governments ruled by Shi’ites, and therefore allies of their number one enemy, Iran. But behind the religious screen the perennial question of the battle for economic and commercial supremacy was going on. This included control of the oil supply, and the related trade routes for crude oil. In other words, the old and ever present ‘pipeline wars.’

It’s no coincidence that in 2011, following the breakout of the Syrian version of the Arab Spring, the powers mentioned above began to finance all the organisations, jihadist or otherwise, who opposed Assad’s regime. IS was included, not so much to favour Sunni’s as opposed to Shi’ites, but more to prevent an agreement to build a gas pipeline connecting South Pars in Iran, the world’s largest natural gas field, to Syria and then to the Mediterranean by 2016. This would have been a brilliant deal for Assad, and also for Russia, which would have had access to strategic Syrian ports in the Mediterranean. Not so brilliant for Turkey, however, which saw in the project a strong Iranian influence and interference in the management of energy materials in ‘mare suum.’ [1] On top of all that, on 16 August 2016, Assad announced the discovery of a huge gas field at Qara, near Homs.

For the USA (another financier of IS), the game was always to prevent a Russian naval presence in the Mediterranean. The fight against Assad was thus the only way to ensure the VIth American fleet was the only one in the waters close to the strategic points of Europe, North Africa and the Turkish gateway to Asia. It’s no wonder, then, that immediately after the first signs of opposition to the Assad regime, the US-backed Sunni Front began to strengthen all kinds of opposition forces, especially that of Syrian-Iraq IS. From 2011 to 2014, the date of the official birth of the Islamic State, IS was able to enjoy all sorts of funding and privileges. Then, suddenly, after the decisive intervention by Russia, things began to change. This led to the birth of both US-led and Saudi-led coalitions, neither of which want to give Moscow the monopoly on fighting jihadist terrorism, even though each one, in its own imperialist expansion, have been heavy present in the region. In a formal sense everyone is against al Baghdadi, but in reality everyone defends their economic and strategic interests, whose scope far outstripped the aspiring Caliph’s ambitions.

Today, after six years of war and horrific destruction, after the untold massacres perpetuated by both sides, with hundreds of thousands of civilians dead, with hospitals destroyed and whole cities raised to the ground, with millions of refugees forced to knock on the door of the West (which doesn’t want to know), this historical tragedy, perpetuated by the West and its Middle Eastern allies, is reaching its day of reckoning.

The Islamic State is now at death’s door. It now only needs to lose a couple more battles in the remaining precarious settlements round Raqqa and Mosul to be totally annihilated. However the situation remains stationary simply because the winning forces are still trying to reach an agreement on a solution to the ‘Syrian question’ which will be weighed down by a series of complications ranging from the problem of the Syrian Kurds to the demands for ‘security areas’ by Israel as well as Turkey’s pretentions in the area not to mention the broader partition ambitions of both Russia and the USA. On top of this is the former Isis area in Iraqi territory has to be considered, along with the energy problems relating to the Iraqi government via its oil agreements with Iran. Last but not least, is the question of what political position should be given to that non-state which is the Kurdish state of Masoud Barzani and his possible role in the Syrian Kurdish set up under Washington’s patronage.

The US Plan for Syria

On the question of Syria itself, as it stands following the G20 meeting, it’s safe to say it has reached a stalemate. What remains of the Islamic State does so only because it doesn’t have much strength and because the various imperialist powers are divided as to what to do, as if their Syrian prey is about to be cut down and the only question is how to distribute it’s bloody limbs among the hunters. Initially, before the armed intervention of Russia, the USA followed a sort of maximum programme which pursued the objective of the destruction of the Assad regime and its replacement with a Western style government which would eliminate the presence of the Russian fleet in the Mediterranean and include a long process of Moscow’s isolation in favour of American strategic interests in the sea that surrounds Africa, Europe and the gateway to Asia.

Russian intervention put paid to that. Putin had as his maximum programme the defeat of all opposition to Assad’s government and in return maintaining his fleet in Syria’s strategic ports, as well as the use of the gas pipelines in conjunction with those of South Pars to eventually supply Europe through a more southern route. Imperialist dynamics have re-configured the two ‘maximum’ plans and now the signs are pointing to the real question, that of power, through the ‘minimum’ programmes they are still aiming for. Putin and Trump seem to essentially agree on the division of Syria, but have less agreement on the areas to be divided and how to manage them. At the G20 Summit the two leaders seemed to have found a point that met with their priorities (and in a lesser way satisfied their subordinate allies), as long as the two don’t collide, and as long as the current dispute over US sanctions against Russia doesn’t put everything into jeopardy. The agreement (the US version of revising the old plan B on the partition of Syria) revolves around the ceasefire of all parties, except against IS terrorists. This would be followed by the creation of ‘humanitarian corridors’ which would allow the civilian population to escape the area, along with those jihadists who have contributed to their massacre.

The third and final part of the agreement would be the implementation of ‘security areas’. In practice this would be alongside the old and notorious Plan B, which provided for the division of Syria into four parts. The first area in the north east would be entrusted to the SDS (Syrian Democratic Forces) under the military and political control of the US. It is a vast area from Hasaka City to the Euphrates and is inhabited by Syrian Kurds pushing for their autonomy on the back of their Iraqi cousins. But this project is obviously opposed in Ankara, which will have to be satisfied with another area.

The second area is the area from Aleppo to the north, from the city of Bab to the Turkish border. This has always been a Kurdish area that would be given as a sweetener to Turkey, which would then administer a portion of strong Kurdish territory ninety miles away, far enough away from the demands of Ankara, but sufficient to guarantee a minimum of control over their Kurdish population, (since abandoning its demands could trigger the virus of Kurdish nationalism in Turkish territory).

The third area would certainly have to be given in an oblique way (via various diplomatic twists and turns) to Jordan, and above all to Israel, which is always looking to control the ‘security’ issue.

Geographically this area starts from the Golan Heights, rises up to Derna and to the city of Souweida. It’s a territorial gift that Trump and his collaborators have thought of giving to their loyal allies, to reinforce a military ‘friendship’ which, in this delicate phase, both absolutely need.

The fourth area ‘legally’ belongs to Russia and covers the whole coastline parallel to the Aleppo-Homs-Damascus axis and so obviously gives control of the strategic ports of Tartus and Latakia.

The Russian Alternative

The Russians, however, along with Iran and Turkey, have developed a plan of partition that goes under the name of “de-escalation zones” not unlike the American version based on the concept of division, but with some significant differences. The areas chosen to be included in the de-escalation plan as elaborated in the Astana agreements reflect the desires of the three signatories of the agreements themselves. At the same time the zones (there would be three areas, possibly four), would be administered by the countries following a co-operation agreement, or at least they will as long as they agree on the way forward; any disagreements will end in open opposition to the plan. The areas in question where these so-called ‘escalation zones’ will be formed include the Idlib province, some substantial parts of the provinces of Latakia, Aleppo, Hama and Homs; the surrounding area of Ghouta east of Damascus and parts of the provinces of Dara’a and Quneitra, close to the border with Jordan. According to the agreement the three guarantor countries will create ‘checkpoints and observation posts’ on the boundaries of the ‘areas of low tension’. The check-points should ensure the movement of unarmed civilians; in other words the Astana agreement between Russia, Iran and Turkey marks a point in the process of the partition of Syria, particularly as Russia advances its claim to routinely manage the Mediterranean part of Syria via control of the previously mentioned ports, as well as the Aleppo-Homs-Damascus axis with its economic, strategic and military importance. Iran wants to control the area on the border with Lebanon in an open attempt to reach the coasts of the Mediterranean and maintain even closer ties with Lebanese Hezbollah. Turkey isn’t too keen on taking the small amount that the Trump plan has assigned to it, instead it aims to take over the administrative ‘possession’ of northern Syria, exactly what the US would give to the SDS under its own careful supervision.

Clearly the two proposals for division conflict in several ways. Turkey, for example, opposes the American project for the Kurdish area to fall under the administration of the Syrian Democratic Forces. Ankara doesn’t want to run the risk that Syria, sooner or later, will give rise to a Kurdish ‘autonomy’ that could join or merge with those in Iraq, creating a dangerous nationalistic precedent on its borders that could galvanise the Turkish Kurds in the PKK.

The other area of friction is represented by Israel and Iran at the southern borders. While Iran aspires to connect with the Hezbollah Shiites in Lebanon, Israel wants the same area as a security zone on its northern borders against Syria’s Assad but also against the anti-Zionism of Hezbollah itself. These are the problems faced on a daily basis by imperialism at this stage in its historic development. Sometimes it faces them with aggressive diplomacy, at other times with the use of force. In Syria’s both strategies have been used, although the latter has had the upper hand for six years and the former has stalled due to the conflicting interest of the parties concerned. This doesn’t exclude the first route, that of the agreement between the US and Russia. During the three phone calls exchanged between Trump and Putin at the end of the Astana Conference no change was made to the veiled proposal by the US not to interfere further in the complex events in Syria in exchange for the promise of a free hand in Iraq. In this completely hypothetical case we’d be in the presence not of the dismemberment of a Middle Eastern country, but of a substantial part of the Middle East itself. Even so, it should be said that such a framework, in so far as it has any chance of becoming a reality after the recent US sanctions against Russia, it would only be on paper while simultaneously opening the door to the intensification of armed conflict that would prolong the Syrian and Iraqi massacres for years, with a real risk igniting the rest of the region. Unfortunately, the limitations of imperialism’s ‘negotiated solutions’ almost always leads to the use of force, which destroys everything in order to rebuild it all in its own image and for its own interests.

FD

July 2017

Translated from the Italian.

Note

[1] “It’s sea” i.e. the Mediterranean, once referred to by the Romans (and later Mussolini) as “mare nostrum” – our sea.

Saturday, August 19, 2017