We've detected an outdated browser.

You may want to consider updating your browser. International Policy Digest requires a modern browser in order to view the website properly.

Click here for information on how to update your browser.

Continue Anyways
Syrian Civil War

Tag Archives | Syrian Civil War

Syria’s Civil War, Assad and the Palestinians

and |
Following heavy fighting in the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus, Palestinian refugees line up to receive food aid from UN workers. Photo: ONU Brasil

The three-year old Syrian crisis presents dire dilemmas for Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) and in refugee camps across the Middle East.

Following heavy fighting in the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus, Palestinian refugees line up to receive food aid from UN workers. Photo: ONU Brasil

Given Syria’s traditional role as a sponsor of Palestinian resistance movements and a home to hundreds of thousands of refugees, Palestinian leaders are understandably torn between loyalties to President Bashar al-Assad and his enemies. Palestinians have fought in Syria on behalf of both the regime and the rebels. The conflict has deepened ideological and political wedges between Palestinians and complicated their patchwork of international alliances. Moreover, as various proxy battles are waged within Palestinian refugee camps in Syria, the Palestinian refugees there are now enduring an underreported humanitarian crisis.

Syria’s Role in the Palestinian Resistance

Historical bonds between Palestinian resistance movements, refugees, and the Syrian government have complicated Palestinian attitudes toward the grinding civil war in Syria. In 1948, 90,000 Palestinians fled to Syria as refugees. Since then, several hundred thousand more have arrived and settled in large refugee camps, such as Yarmouk in Damascus.

Continue Reading →

Armenian Insecurity and the #SaveKessab Campaign

|
Following heavy fighting in the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus, Palestinian refugees line up to receive food aid from UN workers. Photo: ONU Brasil

In what was an inadvertent statement on the sad state of news, it took a tweet from Kim Kardashian (no intro needed) for the #SaveKessab movement to garner some real attention.

Following heavy fighting in the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus, Palestinian refugees line up to receive food aid from UN workers. Photo: ONU Brasil

The hashtag is in reference to Kessab, Syria where on March 21 rebel groups took over and forced the majority of the city’s 2,000 Armenians living in the city to flee to Latakia city, some 57 km away. Early on, there were reports of Armenians being killed and Armenian churches being vandalized.

However, the reports have yet to be verified, despite protests from Armenians, both inside and outside of Syria, who have demanded investigations on the happenings in Kessab. This is also not the first time that Armenians have been forced to flee during the Syrian civil war. Aleppo, Syria, a relative melting pot for the country’s minorities, was on the front lines of battles between pro-Assad and rebel forces and included a significant Armenian population. There, an estimated 10,000 Armenians fled and churches were destroyed.

Continue Reading →

Syrian UN Aid Resolution a Step Forward

|
The Syrian civil war has left millions displaced and seeking refuge in neighbouring countries, often in camps in a dire condition. EPA

On Saturday, the UN Security Council unanimously passed a resolution that demands access for humanitarian aid organisations in Syria.

The Syrian civil war has left millions displaced and seeking refuge in neighbouring countries, often in camps in a dire condition. EPA

This is an important step forward. It follows a Presidential Statement last October, which had made similar requests. But why is access for humanitarian organisations such an important issue in this crisis? Part of the issue is the sheer number of civilians who have been affected by the Syrian civil war. Some 2.3 million Syrians have sought refuge in neighbouring countries; 6.5 million are internally displaced within Syria. A further three million civilians within Syria are in need of assistance, including an estimated 240,000 civilians who are under siege by government and opposition forces.

Combined, these figures represent half of Syria’s population. This has led to a massive assistance operation on the part of the international community. The UN has requested US$2.3 billion for assistance operations within the country and a further US$4.2 billion for operations in the region. To give an idea of the scope of these requests, the worldwide contributions to humanitarian assistance in 2012 totalled only $17.9 billion USD. Despite the crisis enveloping the country, the Syrian government has blocked significant assistance efforts within Syria. Most aid organisations are guided by four key principles derived from the Geneva Conventions:

Continue Reading →

Analysis of Turkey and Iran’s Growing Alliance

and |
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan with Iran's President Hassan Rouhani. Source:  Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs

“The terrorist groups that are operating under the cover of Islam are in no way related to Islam. We will widen our cooperation shoulder-to-shoulder with Iran in combating terrorist groups.” – Recep Tayyip Erdoğan

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan with Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani. Source: Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan’s visit to Iran last month symbolized a pivot toward Tehran and a shift in Ankara’s Middle East foreign policy. Declaring a desire to stand “shoulder to shoulder” with Iran in combating terrorism, and driven by Turkey’s evolving policy toward Syria, Erdoğan’s trip highlighted Ankara and Tehran’s tendency to pursue mutual interests when their paths cross. This is significant in terms of its implications for the Syrian conflict and for the region’s landscape, as both countries have the ability to influence the course of future events throughout the Middle East.

History of Turkish-Iranian Ties

Turkish-Persian history was characterized by centuries of rivalry, which remains the case today as both powers seek to shape the Middle East consistent with their respective visions. The Turkish Republic oriented itself toward the West (and away from the Middle East) throughout the 20th century; Iran was therefore not a central focus of Turkey’s Cold War foreign policy. However, the Iranian revolution of 1979 did create tension, as Turkey’s ruling secular elite viewed Iran’s post-revolutionary regime as a menace. This perception was in part fueled by Ankara’s belief that Tehran sponsored terrorist groups in Turkey with the intention of exporting the Islamic revolution to neighboring countries. In turn, Iran’s post-1979 political order viewed Turkey as a threat to Iran’s post-revolutionary objectives, given its membership in NATO and secular ideology.

Continue Reading →

Turkey’s Competing Impulses On Israel

|
Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Photo: Norbert Schiller

Almost one year after Benjamin Netanyahu’s attempt to patch up relations with Turkey with his phone call apology to Tayyip Erdoğan as Barack Obama stood by looking over his shoulder, Turkey is again talking about normalizing relations with its former ally.

Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Photo: Norbert Schiller

In the eleven months since the apology, Turkey and Israel have been negotiating over the terms of an agreement, with precisely how much compensation must be paid to the families of those killed aboard the Mavi Marmara the major sticking point. Turkey has seemed in no rush to get a deal done, and at various times has made noise about Israel having to admit fault or to pay more money than Israel is prepared to do. And of course, Erdoğan and others have wasted no opportunity to bash Israel whenever convenient, either directly such as blaming Israel for the Egyptian military coup, or indirectly in referring to “dark forces” and “foreign powers” seeking to bring Turkey down. Formal negotiations may be taking place, but Israel and Turkey haven’t seemed terribly close to actually burying the hatchet.

Last month, however, news leaked that Turkish and Israeli negotiating teams were getting close to a final deal over compensation, and last week Ahmet Davutoğlu publicly confirmed that an agreement to normalize ties was in the works. As usual when it comes to this subject, I have been skeptical that this will actually happen, which is why I have resisted the impulse to write about it. Right on cue, two days after Davutoğlu made his announcement, Erdoğan came out and said that normalization won’t happen until Israel agrees in writing to completely end the blockade of Gaza. Israeli Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz said yesterday that Israel is ready to sign an agreement but that Erdoğan himself is the stumbling block holding up a deal.

Continue Reading →

Hollande, Obama and Monticello: When Empires Forgive

|
President Barack Obama and President François Hollande of France hold a bilateral meeting in the Oval Office, Feb. 11, 2014. Pete Souza/White House

It is true that French President François Hollande had been in a touch of bother back home – at least in the relationships department.

President Barack Obama and President François Hollande of France hold a bilateral meeting in the Oval Office, Feb. 11, 2014. Pete Souza/White House

France had been preoccupied with the President’s overactive libido, a petulant figure who was now freed of his First Lady’s presence. French leaders have, in recent years, taken the chance to travel to the New World freed of their spouses or partners – Nicolas Sarkozy did it in 2007 before heading to Washington; and Valérie Trierweiler is conspicuously absent on this visit. That libidinal atmosphere has even rubbed off on one French paparazzo, who claimed that President Barack Obama had also partaken in other affairs of state. On this occasion, the smut searching Pascal Rostain was convinced that Obama and Beyonce Knowles had gotten it on. The Washington Post did not bite, while Le Figaro had a tentative nibble.

The emotional baggage was not, in the state setting, as significant as the statements coming forth from the White House. The official visit has provided a good occasion to reminisce about power – France, faded yet still anxious to pull punches in Africa and the Middle East; the U.S., the gloss removed from its splendour, limping and tilting towards other areas of the globe, notably the Asia Pacific. The continuous theme to this gathering: that mutual trust had been restored between the countries.

Continue Reading →

U.S. Aid to Lebanon, a Delicate Balance

|
Outside Iran’s embassy in Beirut. The site of a car bomb explosion. Source: Mehr News Agency

In light of Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian civil war and the spate of political bombings in Lebanon, contradictory objectives for US policy in Lebanon are reducing the stability of an already volatile region.

Outside Iran’s embassy in Beirut. The site of a car bomb explosion. Source: Mehr News Agency

Swinging from support for the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), to concern for Israeli security, to fear of Hezbollah, to worries over the Syrian refugee crisis, US foreign policy has rarely been more schizophrenic. “A comprehensive review of the Lebanese military aid program, along with acknowledgement of the fundamental inability of the LAF to uproot Hezbollah due to sectarian divisions, is necessary to restore consistency to the US-Lebanon relationship,” confirmed former US ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer in an interview for this article.

The US has in the past been the most influential consistent donor to Lebanon though a number of other nations provide it military aid such as Saudi Arabia, which recently announced an unprecedented $3 billion aid package. Aid to Lebanon is carefully balanced; too little and Hezbollah can reign freely in the southern border area adjacent to Israel, too much and Israel becomes concerned that the LAF itself will pose a threat. If Saudi aid is indeed provided to the LAF, it may tip the balance the US has been trying to maintain.

Continue Reading →

Iran and the Gulf Cooperation Council: Prospects And Challenges

|
Gulf Cooperation Council session. Source: ISSA

The past few months have seen Iran busy.

Gulf Cooperation Council session. Source: ISSA

Apart from elections and a new President, a proposed nuclear deal still being discussed and despite past efforts neither side has walked away from the negotiating table. Additionally, with the United States no longer directly engaged in Iraq, Iran’s role in the region seems to be growing, to the chagrin of the United States, Saudi Arabia and other countries.

Furthermore, the Iranian nuclear deal might just put an end to the status quo between the Gulf countries and Iran. If so, how is the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) going to react? To begin with, the Arab countries are having a hard time trying to find some common ground. When it comes to the Iranian situation, different member countries of the GCC are adopting different approaches. For instance, Oman is trying its best to be neutral. In fact, Oman acted as the facilitator during the US-Iran negotiations for the nuclear deal. On the other hand, Qatar is waiting to project itself as the key player in the region, ahead of both Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Continue Reading →

Hamas and Hezbollah at Loggerheads over Syria

and |
An elderly woman crosses a street in the Bab el-Adid district of Aleppo. Fabio Bucciarelli/AFP

Born of a common struggle against Israel and nourished by common benefactors in Syria and Iran, Sunni Hamas and Shiite Hezbollah have long been natural allies despite their sectarian differences.

An elderly woman crosses a street in the Bab el-Adid district of Aleppo. Fabio Bucciarelli/AFP

Ever since the early 1990s, when Israel exiled Hamas’ leadership to Lebanon, the two groups have cultivated an alliance that has shaped the Middle East’s balance of power for decades. But the crisis in Syria has ruptured the old “axis of resistance,” with regional forces giving the two organizations opposing stakes in the conflict and bringing unprecedented tension to their relationship. While Hezbollah fighters have fought and died for Bashar al-Assad in some of the civil war’s fiercest battles, Hamas has thrown in its lot with the rebels and retreated deeper into the embrace of Sunni Islamist powers in the region.

For a time, it appeared that the partnership might be over, with Hamas calling on Hezbollah to extricate itself from Syria and Hezbollah accusing Hamas of funneling weapons and technology to Sunni jihadists. Yet the two groups appear to have looked beyond Syria’s civil war and calculated that more is to be lost than gained from a total divorce. Despite outbursts of inflammatory rhetoric, Hamas and Hezbollah have apparently agreed to disagree on Syria while maintaining a strategic partnership against Israel.

Continue Reading →

Saudi Arabia’s Rise in the Middle East Comes at a Cost

|
Members of the Lebanese Armed Forces

Saudi Arabian interest in the Middle East is primarily focused on Iran.

Members of the Lebanese Armed Forces

Saudi leadership has stated that the Gulf Cooperation Council may acquire a nuclear deterrent should Iran acquire one. They are suggesting, however, a Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone (WMDFZ) as a way to pressure Iran and also Israel to give up nuclear weapons and rely on the umbrella security provided by the permanent members of the UN Security Council, despite their reservations over the Council’s treatment of the Palestinians. The U.S. deal with Iran will shape the Iranian nuclear narrative, but if things start to fall apart, Saudi Arabia may press forward quickly to acquire a GCC bomb.

Saudi Arabia’s announcement that it will provide Lebanon with $3 billion dollars in military aid to support the Lebanese Armed Forces should not be seen as a surprise, given that it is intended to counter Iranian influence in the region. What is more significant is how it serves to emphasize the current and developing fissure between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, and the Saudi leadership’s willingness to adopt an independent approach to regional relations. Saudi Arabia has been vocal about its view of America’s inadequacy in dealing with Iran and Syria and is now implementing its own plan.

Continue Reading →

The Necessity of Rethinking U.S. Middle East Policy

and |
Protests last year between Morsi supporters and the government. Mosaab El-Shamy/AFP

2013 was not a good year for political stability or progress in most Arab countries. Henry Kissinger once said that: “the Arabs can’t make war without Egypt; and they can’t make peace without Syria.”

Protests last year between Morsi supporters and the government. Mosaab El-Shamy/AFP

Egypt is polarized in a zero-sum fierce fight between its two best organized institutions, the military and the Muslim Brotherhood, following Revolution 2.0 and the ousting in July 2013 by General Al-Sisi of elected President Morsi. Violent demonstrations and political assassinations occur almost on a daily basis. Syria is entrenched in the worst political and humanitarian crisis since it became a nation; the civil war has claimed more than 100,000 lives and millions of refugees have been displaced. Kissinger was referring to Arab-Israeli matters, but clearly these two key countries are in no position to provide regional stability. Maybe it is time for the U.S. to a rethink its Middle East policy approach.

What about Iraq and the Arab Gulf states? Iraq, with its substantial oil and water resources and a traditionally large middle class, well-educated population, is not in good shape either. The rising number of victims of sectarian fighting between the country’s Shiite majority and Sunni minority is approaching a peak of violence not seen since 2007. Meanwhile, the Kurdish regional government is slowly, yet aggressively, establishing itself as an independent state, without the label.

Continue Reading →

An Israeli-Iranian Dialogue: Why Not?

and |
Pictured: Benjamin Netanyahu, Shimon Peres, Hassan Rouhani and Ali Khamenei

In early December, Israeli President Shimon Peres stated that he was willing to meet with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.

Pictured: Benjamin Netanyahu, Shimon Peres, Hassan Rouhani and Ali Khamenei

The Israeli and Iranian media have not paid much attention to this statement so far, probably assuming that such a meeting is unlikely to happen and that the individuals lack the power to cut a deal. Peres’ position as Israeli President is largely ceremonial and the real power is vested in Bibi Netanyahu as Prime Minister. For Iran, although President Rouhani runs the government, ultimate power is vested in Supreme Leader Sayyid Ali Khamenei. Logic might suggest – therefore – that there is little in Peres’ offer. A deeper look into the issue, however, reveals a very different story.

Peres has been a major figure in Middle Eastern politics for over six decades. He understands that reducing tension with Tehran would serve Israeli interests in many arenas. Iran has its fingers in almost all the region’s pies. Several of Iran’s allies pose real threats to Israeli national security, most notably Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Continue Reading →

Turkey’s Crisis: More than Meets the Eye

|
A young Turkish demonstrator in Istanbul back in June of 2013. Photo: Jordi Bernabeu

The current corruption crisis zeroing in on Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has all the elements of one of his country’s famous soap operas that tens of millions of people all over the Middle East tune in to each day: Bribes, shoe boxes filled with millions in cash, and dark whispers of foreign conspiracies.

A young Turkish demonstrator in Istanbul back in June of 2013. Photo: Jordi Bernabeu

As prosecutors began arresting leading government officials and businessmen, Erdogan claimed that some foreign “ambassadors are engaging in provocative actions,” singling out U.S. Ambassador Frank Ricciardone. The international press has largely dismissed Erdogan’s charges as a combination of paranoia and desperation, but might the man have a point?

The corruption story is generally being portrayed as a result of a falling out between Erdogan’s conservative brand of Islam and the Gulen Community, a more moderate version championed by the Islamic spiritual leader Fethullah Gulen, who currently resides in Pennsylvania. Both are Sunnis. More than a decade ago the two men formed a united front against the Turkish military that eventually drove the generals back to the barracks and elected Erdogan’s Islamic Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2002.

Continue Reading →

2013 Was the Year of Setbacks for the Arab World

|
Will 2014 fair any better for the Arab world?

2013 has expectedly been a terrible year for several Arab nations. It has been terrible because the promise of greater freedoms and political reforms has been reversed, most violently in some instances, taking two countries Syria and Egypt down the path of anarchy and complete chaos.

Will 2014 fair any better for the Arab world?

Syria has been hit the hardest. For months, the United Nations has maintained that over 100,000 people have been killed in the 33 months of conflict. More recently, the pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights concluded that at least 125,835, of which more than third of them are civilians, have been killed.

The UN’s humanitarian agency (OCHA) says that millions of Syrians living in perpetual suffering are in need of aid, and this number will reach 9.3 million by the end of next year. OCHA’s numbers attempt to forecast the need for aid for the year 2014. However, that estimation reflects an equally ill-omened political forecast as well. There are currently 2.4 million Syrian refugees living in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt. The number will nearly double to 4.1 million by the conclusion of next year. Considering the growing political polarization between the Syrian parties involved in the conflict, and their regional and international backers, there is little hope that the conflict will die away in the near future.

Continue Reading →

Saudi, Israeli and French Anxiety over U.S.-Iran Rapprochement

|
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry

As US-Iran rapprochement inches toward at least partial consummation in Geneva, I wish to offer a few observations. The Iran nuclear weapons threat has always been a McGuffin, an excuse for various powers to advance an anti-Iran agenda.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry

Chief among the usual suspects is, of course, Israel under PM Netanyahu. If the Israeli government is able to spin Iran as a nuclear (almost) capable existential threat to Israel, then Israel can make an absolute claim on US sympathy, support, and protection. If Iran returns to good relations with the United States, the US will arguably become less willing to bear the sizable political, diplomatic, and economic cost of deferring to Israel’s priorities—on the Palestinian question, on regional security, and its obstinate refusal to acknowledge its nuclear arsenal and integrate it into the international arms control regime.

The other regional power most interested in thumping the Iran-threat drum is Saudi Arabia. However, I would argue that the high-profile anti-Iran stance of the Kingdom (probably symbolized but not necessarily created by the notorious Prince Bandar) has little to do with the threat of “Iran hegemonism” (a canard frequently retailed in the big-name press) and a lot to do with Saudi Arabia’s decision to go pro-active against the popular democratic agitation expressed by the Arab Spring uprisings by supporting conservative Sunni theology and governance, not just in Shi’ite inflected countries like Bahrain, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria, but also in nations like Libya (where Saudi Arabia and its creature, the Gulf Co-Operation Council were the primary motive force in demanding intervention against Gaddafi) and Egypt.

Continue Reading →