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​The Syrian quagmire or an unending tale of woe and misery

Dr. Can Erimtan is an independent scholar residing in İstanbul, with a wide interest in the politics, history and culture of the Balkans and the Greater Middle East. He tweets at @theerimtanangle

Published time: May 26, 2014 14:14
People stand along a damaged street in Bustan al-Basha district in Aleppo May 19, 2014 (Reuters/Hosam Katan)

Syria's not-so civil war shows no immediate sign of abating, and now with elections coming up in early June, which are likely to strengthen Bashar al-Assad's hold on power in Damascus, a solution to the conflict seems to have moved even further away.

While behind the scenes, this proxy-battleground in the yet undeclared New Cold War continues to receive necessary outside support to ensure its seemingly endless continuation, with each warring side predicting the opponent's impending defeat.

Some time ago, US President Barrack Obama used his State of the Union speech to reaffirm his commitment to the cause of overthrowing the Assad government: "In Syria, we will support the opposition that rejects the agenda of terrorist networks," Obama said.

Since February last year, the United States has been supplying so-called "nonlethal aid" to the "rebels" and about four months later Obama even authorized secretly supplying weapons, including small arms and an assorted variety of rockets, to "opposition fighters", people whom Assad calls "terrorists", by waiving a provision of federal law designed to prevent the supply of arms to terrorist groups – sections 40 and 40A of the AECA or Arms Export Control Act.

Nearly half of these approximately 100,000 "rebel fighters" or "terrorists" divided into as many as 1,000 gangs appear to have Islamist or Jihadi convictions, as indicated by a study carried out by the defense consultants IHS Jane’s. Charles Lister, the author of the study, said that the "insurgency is now dominated by groups which have at least an Islamist viewpoint on the conflict. The idea that it is mostly secular groups leading the opposition is just not borne out [by the facts on the ground]".

Appearing on 'Face the Nation', the CBS Sunday talk show that has been coaxing the US public since 1954, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich. declared that the US "intelligence agencies ... have a very good handle on who to support and who not to support," in an obvious attempt to convince the America television audience that the Obama administration is not sponsoring terrorism abroad or that the President had not reneged on his earlier made commitment not to bolster the "agenda of terrorist networks".

Re-Orientation

While the West, embodied by the figure of Barrack Obama, so obviously supports the armed opposition, Syria's Baath government led by Bashar al-Assad enjoys the assistance of Russia and Iran (with China preferring to keep a very low profile). The leaders of these three important players recently met in Shanghai, during the Fourth Summit of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA, 20-21 May 2014) - Vladimir Putin, Hassan Rouhani, and Xi Jinping. On that occasion, the People’s Republic of China assumed the Chairmanship of CICA, which had previously been held by Turkey (June 2010-May 2014).

Still, Turkey's wily foreign policy chief Ahmet Davutoglu was also present, in spite of Turkey's championing of the Syrian opposition. Against the ominous backdrop of the crisis in Ukraine (the most recent proxy-conflict in the New Cold War), Russia, and China steadfastly persisted in strengthening their business ties, notably agreeing to a comprehensive 30-year energy cooperation partnership worth $400 billion that poses a defiant challenge to the hegemony of the West in global affairs. The 21st century will undoubtedly see a clear shift to the east of the world's center of gravity, in economic and political terms, a literal re-orientation of the global axis, if you will.

A Free Syrian Army fighter fires a weapon towards forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, in the town of Morek in Hama province May 22, 2014. (Reuters)

The Iranian commentator Mohammad Marandi observes wryly and appositely that the "US government is caught in a web of self-deception if it believes that its declining global influence has gone unnoticed among the world's rising powers". CCTV's Zhou Jun states that "Chinese President Xi Jinping has called on Asian countries to promote unity, cooperation and development of the continent", in view of this coming shift in global relations.

Speaking at the opening of the fourth CICA summit, Iran's President Rouhani highlighted the crisis in Syria, stating that the conflict with its numerous warring groups could "adversely affect CICA members with its terrorist extremism". He went on to say that the flames of Syria's not-so civil war are “stoked by certain regional and international actors who funnel weapons and intelligence to, and embolden the extremist groups", likely referring to President Obama authorizing a secret supply of weapons and Turkey's MIT trucks carrying “weapons and ammunition, bulletproof jackets and electronic devices” to "opposition fighters" or "terrorists".

On the other hand, the Lebanese Hezbollah is allegedly fighting on Assad's side, which is very likely the result of Iranian intervention. The Lebanese journalist Antoine Ghattas Saab opines, "Tehran ... uses Hezbollah as a tool to implement its regional agenda". Saab goes on to say that Hezbollah will continue its armed support for the Damascus regime "until Iran gives Hezbollah Secretary-General Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah the green light" to stop.

At the same time, the Libyan paper al-Akhbar reported recently that the Ukrainian crisis had somehow emboldened Russia's Putin to come to a "final" decision on Syria: namely to increase the military cooperation and "develop the economic collaboration and investment" between the two nations. The paper continues that committees have been set up with that goal in mind, with the Russian side headed by Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin and the Syrian by Finance Minister Ismail Ismail, in his post since last year's cabinet reshuffle. Furthermore, the paper describes Rogozin as a "hawk", likely to push for a robust armed struggle with the opposition, in conjunction, if not direct cooperation, with the Hezbollah fighters in Syria. This report in al-Akhbar might very well be nothing more than a reflection of yet another conspiracy theory, so popular and persuasive all over the Middle East.

Turkey’s expenses and gains

The other major player in the conflict is obviously Syria's northern neighbor Turkey. In an earlier piece, I documented how Turkey had been part and parcel of the armed struggle against Bashar al-Assad from the very beginning. Even though there are credible indications of Turkey's continued direct involvement in the armed struggle next door, and despite the fact that its logistic support for many of the armed fighters on the ground is also well-documented, on the world stage Tayyip Erdogan's government is primarily celebrated for welcoming Syrian refugees into the country – at least 720,000 in total.

In its latest report, released at the end of April, the International Crisis Group (ICG), details the costs incurred by Turkey because of Erdogan's sudden decision to stand against his erstwhile friend Bashar al-Assad. The report laconically declares that the country's losses consist of "over 75 Turkish fatalities and nearly $3 billion in spending."

At the same time, the Syrian "rebels" reap numerous benefits, as Turkey "hosts rebels and their families in well-built refugee camps, [and] allows political and military opposition bodies to convene on its soil [while giving them] logistical and material assistance". About 220,000 Syrians are housed in 22 camps, in all some 24 shelters in ten provinces have been completed, but "two are kept idle for contingencies in case of large influxes."

The report declares that most "Syrians remain in the south east [of Turkey], in cities along the border like Hatay, Gaziantep, Urfa, Mardin and Kilis." But large numbers of refugees are not residing in camps, and are thus not registered and estimated to be "around 500,000" but could very likely "be twice that". These unregistered Syrians living in Turkey are slowly spreading to the western part of the country, with a Turkish official estimating "120,000 and 100,000 [to be] living in Istanbul and Izmir respectively". In addition, the report concludes, "[m]ore and more [refugees] work in Turkey illegally with no social security and often for less pay than Turks".

This last statement proves to be very pertinent in view of the recent mine disaster in Soma, in western Anatolia. Even though the official death toll stands at 301, there are now indications that the number could be significantly higher. The Turkish journalist Ali Tezel, primarily using Twitter to get his message across, has some days ago revealed that between 400 and 450 Syrians also perished in the mine tragedy. Moreover, on Friday, 16 May, Tezel appeared on the independent television channel Halk TV and indicated that the Soma catastrophe was caused by an already existing coal-fire inside a mineshaft that had been closed three months ago, and that has since been re-opened and closed down again. Tezel then added that his sources have revealed that in one of these inaccessible shafts, the remains of a further 400 to 450 dead miners are present, and that these fatalities are Syrian refugees and children who were working illegally underground in Soma.

Aleppo May 17, 2014. (Reuters/Aref Haj Youssef)

In fact, the Union of Aegean Mineral Exporters' Chairman Arslan Erdinc recently gave a speech at the opening of a new Centre for Vocational Education in the industrial city of Denizli, complaining about Turkish workers unwilling to go underground to extract coal and then literally stating that mine owners "are expecting assistance from the state in the procurement of workers. At this moment, I can only think of Syrian [refugees] as [constituting] the only solution the coal sector contributes $35 million to the Turkish economy and is the county's largest employer. The Turkish government has officially spent nearly $3 billion in the pursuit of its Syria policy (according to the ICG report, and arguably disregarding the considerable amount taken out of the Prime Ministry’s discretionary funds) and given the closer than close ties between Turkey's political and business leaders, it now appears that the AKP-led government's foreign and privatization policies are converging – as Turkey now presumably has about "500,000" (or possibly one million, as indicated by the ICG report) cheap workers at its disposal.

As the conflict in Syria keeps dragging on and is now transforming itself into an intractable war that is bogging down all the factions directly or indirectly involved, the specter of the Iraq war has now begun to rear its ugly head – will Syria become the next Middle Eastern quagmire (as also hinted at by the title of the ICG report. which speaks of a "Syrian Quagmire")?

Even though then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld stated in 2003 that referring to the situation in Iraq as a quagmire was "flat wrong", US troops were only able to extract themselves from the Iraqi marshes by December 2011. In all fairness, in the proxy-battleground that is Syria no foreign troops are now directly involved in the fighting on the ground, but this should not detract from the fact that the situation puts a severe strain on the region and wider world.

The US, Russia, Iran, and Turkey are all facing an uncertain future, even though Tayyip Erdogan's government now seems to have hit upon a strategy that would yield a little bit of return on the considerable Turkish investments in Syria and its war – using Syria's refugees as a pool of cheap labor. Even though the New Cold War has now apparently moved to the shores of the Black Sea and the Ukraine, the plight of the Syrian people (refugees as well as those remaining in the country) does not appear to become any lighter anytime soon, Nor does it look like the upcoming elections will bring about any kind of solution, either short- or long-term. Instead, the Syrian population caught in the crossfire will continue to suffer for a long time to come, while the world's leaders position and re-position their pawns on the global chessboard, in true Brzezinski style.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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