Tag Archives: Syria

ISIS: The Final Countdown?

Winston Churchill once famously said, ‘battles are the punctuation marks of history.’ Well, we have just avoided a potentially disastrous ‘exclamation mark’ in the bloody history of the Middle East. Whilst the post-colonial Versailles settlement of 1919 is being brutally readjusted to take account of the harsh realities of today’s Muslim world, a major crisis has just been avoided. At Russia’s Black Sea resort of Sochi, Turkey and Russia have agreed to form a joint, demilitarised buffer zone around Syria’s embattled north-western province bordering Turkey: Idlib.

This agreement defuses a growing crisis between Ankara and Moscow by preventing any major Russian-backed government offensive from exploding into ISIS’s final rebellious Syrian redoubt. However, significant obstacles remain; Idlib could still become a flash point.

The problem is that the Middle East is as much of an unexploded bomb today as Europe was in 1914. Sunni Saudi Arabia hates Iran, and Shi’a Iran loathes the Saudis. Shi’ite Assad’s remaining chunk of Syria is the close ally of Iran. Behind the Saudis stand the USA, Britain and France. Behind the Iranians stand the Russians, sometimes the Turks, ever keen to obliterate the Kurds, and perhaps China – and watching nervously from its ringside seat is Israel.

For the past ten years we have all been living with this savage struggle to the death. Muslim has been slaughtering Muslim, all in the name of the Prophet of the religion of Peace and Love – ‘May his name be blessed.’ Now this round is nearly over; or is it?

The Turkish-Russian Sochi deal has been welcomed by all sides as an opportunity to avert the suffering that any major offensive would inflict on the province’s 3 million civilians. UN Secretary-General António Guterres welcomed the agreement, saying that the ‘creation of a buffer zone in Syria’s rebel-held Idlib province should avert an all-out military assault and provide reprieve for millions of civilians.’

It would also avoid the heavy losses that would be incurred by government forces in launching the biggest battle yet of the Syrian war against the cornered rebels. Turkey, the UN and aid groups have warned that any major assault by Russian and government forces backing President Bashar al-Assad against the trapped rebel fighters would lead to a massacre. It could also send 800,000 new refugees fleeing across the border into an already overwhelmed Turkey.

Many of the civilians in Idlib are already refugees from other parts of Syria following the collapse of the opposition resistance in cities such as Aleppo. The consequences of an all-out offensive against Idlib with its hapless civilians and the risk of Turkish troops fighting Russians could have led to a bloodbath.

The agreement is specifically designed to halt this major Russian-Syrian-Iranian attack on Idlib, with its trapped civilians.  The agreement calls for a 9- to 12-mile demilitarised  zone around the borders of the region, safe from Syrian and Russian air-force attack and which must be in place by 15 October. Heavy weapons including tanks, mortars and artillery will be withdrawn and Russian and Turkish troops will police the neutral zone. The Syrian government said that it ‘welcomed any initiative that stops bloodshed and contributes to security and stability.’ President Recep Tayyip Erdogan added, ‘With this memorandum of understanding, I believe we have prevented a major humanitarian crisis in Idlib.’

However, the devil is in the detail. The deal’s success hinges on the withdrawal of an estimated 10,000 fanatical jihadi rebel fighters from the buffer zone, fighting under the banner of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the Syrian franchise of al-Qaida and listed as dangerous terrorists by Russia, the USA and the UN.

These are some of Syria’s fiercest rebels, battle-hardened over years of gruelling warfare. HTS will fight to the death rather than surrender and they have good reason to do so: talks with the government have gone nowhere. In recently recaptured parts of the country, Assad’s goons have promptly arrested former rebels and opposition officials despite assurances of amnesty. Many have disappeared into Assad’s torture dungeons. ‘It’s either die, or surrender – and then die,’ says one rebel leader.

Despite these problems, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (a staunch supporter of Assad) tweeted: ‘Diplomacy works.’ However, he added that his visits to Turkey and Russia in recent weeks had achieved ‘a firm commitment to fight extremist terror.’ Putin himself added, ‘Russia and Turkey reiterated their commitment to continue anti-terrorism efforts in Syria in any of its forms or manifestations.’

Quite how this agreement to quarantine Idlib helps to stamp Islamic terrorism remains unclear because the deal is very fragile. With jets from at least six countries – Israel, Russia, Syria, Turkey, Britain and America – roaming the skies over Syria, the risk of mistakes leading to further escalation of the fighting are just a pilot’s blink away. Also, where will the rebels go?

Nevertheless, the international consequences of Sochi are important. Russia has scored a major diplomatic victory by striking a deal with Turkey. Moscow has avoided damaging its growing strategic relationship with Ankara, whilst achieving its own aims in Syria without more bloodshed. The Syrian war may be ending.

However, some things have not changed. ‘Russia doesn’t like the rebels and they want to help Assad lock down his victory; but they also have strong incentives to continue courting the Turks,’ said Aron Lund, an expert on the region. ‘Syria is just a small part of what Putin cares about. If he can just make the Syrian conflict quiet and unthreatening with Assad still in power, then Russia has won the war ….’

Idlib’s locals have mixed emotions about the Sochi deal. Abdulkafi Alhamdo, a 32-year-old teacher living in Idlib remains wary. ‘After seven years, if we trusted anyone we would be fools. Whenever we trust anyone they trick us,’ said Mr Alhamdo, who lived through the siege of Aleppo before fleeing to Idlib.  He added that he was ‘so happy, and so sad’ about the deal, because it still leaves them in limbo.  ‘People might be able to live again. Children might know there is tomorrow without planes. But we are still in nowhere. Refugees forever.’

Others have spotted the loopholes in the agreement. Thanassis Cambanis of The Century Foundation warns: ‘The gaping hole is that “terrorists” are still fair game. Putin has endorsed a lot of truces, but then Russia proceeded to bomb groups it defines as terrorists, because it says they weren’t part of the wider deal.’

This truce might be different. Putin’s own credibility is at stake, having made such a high-profile deal with President Erdogan. Turkey and Russia are increasingly becoming trade and diplomatic partners. Russia is building Turkey’s first nuclear reactor. The Kremlin also sees the strains between Turkey and western countries as a wonderful opportunity to divide and weaken the NATO alliance, to which Turkey provides the second largest number of troops. Putin has a personal stake in the Idlib agreement.

However, whilst for the Jihadis the battle may be lost, their long war is not over, because crushing ISIS in Syria will not eradicate the real problem. If the jihadis escape, the deadly spores of terrorism will merely disperse to spread their Islamist terrorism, which is already ‘global and growing.’ Islamist extremists caused 84,000 deaths in 2017 and intelligence agencies have identified 121 groups sharing a common ideology, now operating worldwide. They killed 84,000 people – nearly 22,000 of them civilians – in 66 countries in 2017, according to latest reports.

Even Whitehall admits that a convicted jihadi terrorist is being released onto the streets of Britain nearly every week. Home Office figures show that 46 prisoners held for terrorism offences were released in 2017 (The Telegraph, 13 September 2018)

ISIS and al Qa’ida are still very dangerous. Whatever happens in Idlib, we have not heard the last of them. The fallout from Syria will be with us for years.

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Watch Out! There’s a War About

For once I find myself in total agreement with Vladimir Putin, who observed recently in a Blinding Glimpse of the Obvious that ‘the world is becoming a more chaotic place.’ Whilst Pres-for-life Vlad’s BGO doesn’t exactly qualify him as a great thinker, this time he is absolutely right. There’s a definite feeling abroad of an unravelling in world affairs; an uneasy sense that something nasty is lurking round the corner of history ….

As Nigel Molesworth put it so succinctly in Down with Skool: ‘History started badly and hav been getting steadily worse.’ Looking at our increasingly troubled world, maybe ‘the gorilla of 3B’ got it right.

But first, the good news. A few months ago we were all nervously observing a ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’ US President threatening fire and fury at North Korea’s ‘Little Rocket Man’ over nuclear missiles. It was definitely steel helmet (and don’t forget your respirator) time. Now, thanks to Trump’s interesting blend of diplomacy, brutal economic sanctions and the threat of violence, Kim Wrong ’Un seems to have a sudden change of heart and is smiling for the cameras and shaking hands across the border. Sigh of relief all round?

However, let’s not get too excited. North Koreans have a consistent track record in talks with the South and the US: consistently lying and trousering the ‘Danegeld’ paid to them to behave themselves, whilst they ignore any agreements. We need to watch this ‘deal’ very carefully.

And let us not forget that Dictator Kim was threatening nuclear war whilst still presiding over appalling human-rights abuses as he ruthlessly executed friends and family alike to eliminate his rivals. Nonetheless, if President Trump really succeeds in negotiating an end to Kim’s nuclear provocations and the Korean War (‘Neutral ground or dramatic backdrop?‘, Telegraph, 23 April 2018), he will have defused a potentially apocalyptic global crisis.

Good luck with that.

Now for the bad news; and there is far too much, as Putin warns.  Intelligence analysts are warning that trouble is looming from at least three other directions: Syria and Iran; Israel; and a global economy deep in debt.

First, Syria, where the endless civil war to keep Assad and his Shi’a allies in power has morphed into something new – and much more worrying. UN Secretary General Guterres warns: ‘The Cold War is back with a vengeance – and a difference.’ The difference is that it is no longer cold. Something very dangerous is unfolding in the war-torn Middle East. A little-known Iranian-backed Shi’a group calling itself the ‘Baqir Brigade’ has declared jihad on US forces in Syria,  where Russian and American troops are only a rifle range apart.  The US, UK and France have already attacked Syrian military targets as a reprisal for the latest gas attack. The dangers are obvious. Any Russia and US fighting in Syria could detonate a hot war and set the entire Middle East on fire.

Further north, Turkey has invaded Syria to crush the Kurds – the warriors who really defeated ISIS on the ground. Meanwhile the Iranians and their Lebanese Shi’a proxy, Hezbollah, have set up a new battle front on Israel’s border. Iran effectively runs Syria now and is turning its malevolent eye against Israel.

This time the Mullahs are really playing with fire. Israel is not a normal country. Tel Aviv will fight like a cornered cat against an enemy that has sworn to ‘sweep the Jews into the sea.’ And Israel possesses nuclear weapons precisely to deter anyone stupid enough to threaten Israel’s very existence. Israel has warned that ‘it will retaliate with every means possible,’ if attacked by Iran and its friends.

Ironically, Iran’s nuclear ambitions may be unravelling at the very moment it tries to intimidate Israel. Tehran thought that it had pulled a stroke with nice Mr Obama with his 2016 no-nukes deal to get sanctions lifted, whilst continuing to build its Shi’a empire in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and now Yemen. Trump is having none of that. Despite Macron’s pleading for a cosy continuation of flogging French and EU goodies to oil-rich Iran, Trump pulled the plug on 12 May 2018 and re-imposed economic sanctions, blocking Iranian oil sales and wrecking Tehran’s not-so-secret nuclear plans.

This is bad news for the world economy, which is now just as vulnerable to a financial crisis as it was in 2008. Oil is the motor of commerce. Oil prices, which dropped to $30 a barrel in 2009 and 2016, are now rising as production cuts by OPEC and Russia have finally sold the world glut of oil; so supply dries up. Iranian sanctions alone will remove 500,000 barrels a day from the market.

Even America’s new oil-shale output cannot fill this gap between supply and demand. Now Brent crude has risen to $72 a barrel and will probably go higher now that Trump has re-imposed sanctions. This could be a global economic bombshell as various geostrategic crises explode. Saudi Arabia is already talking about $100 crude, setting off a speculators’ scramble;  ‘We are pretty confident that oil will be in triple digits by next year,’ opines Jean-Louis Le Mee from Westbeck Capital.

IMF reports warn of a chain-reaction for world finance. One is well-understood: debt. Global debt has been alarmingly high since the 2008 financial crisis. Since then, nations have continued to borrow hand over fist, pushing worldwide debt to $200 trillion (a trillion is a million, million million.)  That is nearly three times the size of the entire global economy.

The second economic problem is that the Chinese and German economies are going into reverse. Germany’s economy in particular is stalling surprisingly quickly. The economic miracle by the EU’s motor of industry is over and now even Berlin faces economic problems, warns Düsseldorf’s Macroeconomic Policy Institute: ‘The danger of recession has increased markedly. It is a more critical picture than just a month ago.’

All this is happening as Korea teeters on a knife edge, Washington and Moscow go head to head, Syria faces multiple wars, Israel and Iran are shaping up for a catastrophic showdown, and the proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran over Yemen gets out of control with missile attacks on Saudi targets by Iranian-backed Houthis. A full blown religious war between Sunni and Shi’a has started. One intelligence analyst warns: ‘All it will take is one Houthi missile sinking a 200,000-ton oil tanker in the Gulf and the consequences would be global.’

Even here, on our island in the sun, alarming events are going on all around us. Suddenly bankrupt Greece is preparing to lease two French multi-purpose frigates to bolster its defences in the Aegean Sea, amid rising tensions with Turkey. Fighters are again on the alert over contested islands. Turkey sails warships to Cyprus to protect hydrocarbon finds. Hostages are being held on both sides. President Erdogan suddenly announces a snap election to choose the country’s next president and parliament on 24  June 2018, to give himself greater executive powers.

All this at a time when the Turkish economy is overheating, raising the possibility of another financial crisis like 2001, when the AKP first came to power promising a strong economy. With Turkish national borrowing skyrocketing and Ankara having to lure foreign money with promises of 13% interest on government bonds, this doesn’t look much like economic competence. The truth is that we are ‘living through interesting times,’ as the old Chinese curse puts it.

Whilst most normal people are just trying to get on with their lives, get to work, earn enough to raise a family and enjoy themselves, all around us alarming events look like coming to the boil. Politically we are living through world-changing history.

It’s an increasingly unstable and dangerous world.  We need to watch out for what is really going on out there.

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