Syria. Interesting developments

Most of the media focus on Syria these days is to do with IS, Islamic State, ISIS, ISIL, Daesh. I don’t think a single group has ever collected so many acronyms! They control large areas in the north and east of the country. In the south however, there is a different situation. The Southern Front, which has many thousands of well equipped and trained fighters, is made up of moderate muslims and secularists and they hold large parts of Syria south of Damascus. Extremist groups such as Al Nusra and Daesh have tried to get a foothold in the south but without success.

The leadership of the Southern Front believe the regime of Bashar al Assad will collapse at some point. There are various reasons for this. The first is the duration of this terrible war which has sapped a lot of energy out of the Syrian military in terms of manpower. Both sides of this conflict are tired after 4 years of fighting but the areas loyal to the Assad regime are becoming uncomfortable at how many of their men are being lost in this war while Assad sits comfortably in his palace in Damascus. The second reason is economic and is closely linked to the price of oil. War is hugely expensive and the Assad regime is dependent on both Iran and Russia. Iran for funding and Russia for weapons. As the price of oil has collapsed over the last few months it becomes increasingly difficult for Iran to fund Bashar al Assad so he can buy weapons from Russia. Russia can not afford to simply give weapons away as it has its own financial problems also due to the price of oil and the effect of sanctions. If oil prices stay low well into 2015 then it will become extremely difficult for the Syrian regime to hold on to power.

The Southern Front sense this and are preparing for Bashar al Assad to lose his grip on power. The biggest challenge when this happens will be to stop Damascus descending into chaos and allowing the extremists an opportunity to try and fill the vacuum. When Saddam Hussein was overthrown the biggest mistake the Allies made – mistake is too kind, FUBAR would be more appropriate – was to remove all traces of the government and institutions without having anything to replace them, that is what led to the chaos we see in Iraq today. Southern Front realize this and have very recently stated how they see a transition being made. They are not looking to take over the country, in fact as you will see from their in-depth statement below they want to see Syria as a very inclusive country with all being represented in the new government. When the regime falls there will probably still be large areas in the north and east of Syria under the control of Daesh but for the rest of the country there will be an opportunity to close a terrible chapter in the history of the beautiful country. Then with time it will be possible to regain territory from the extremists.

Below is the statement which was passed to me by the Chief Co-ordinator of the document and I also provide a link to a PDF of the release.

The Southern Front
Free Syrian Army
Transitional Phase
10.12.2014

STATEMENT NO. 4
THE TRANSITIONAL PHASE

The collapse of the current regime will not be the end of the Syrian people’s revolution. The end of the regime will be only the start of a new and, hopefully, final phase of the people’s struggle for freedom. In order to ensure that the final phase succeeds with the  establishment of a new national model of governance based on respect for human dignity and a rebirth of Syria’s tremendous potential, it is imperative that all nationalist forces commit to a course of action during the period of transition from authoritarianism that will fulfill the popular will.

Therefore,
The Southern Front announces that it will dedicate its efforts during the period of transition following the collapse of the regime to supporting:
First: the protection of all Syrian citizens, their property and their rights without any distinction of religion, culture, ethnicity, or political affiliation in accordance with International Humanitarian Law and the international standards of Human Rights.
Second: the maintenance of Syrian state institutions, including all ministries and military institutions.
Third: the integrity of the economic and service infrastructure of the state, including telecommunications, energy, water, and public and private transportation networks.
Fourth: the establishment of a process of inclusive, national, political reconstruction.

GENERAL FRAMEWORK

1- The Civil Defense Force:
Once the Assad regime collapses, the Southern Front of the Free Syrian Army intends to transition from a military organization into a civilian defense force to contribute to establishing the appropriate conditions to enable a successful political transition in Syria. Among the primary objectives of a civilian defense force will be: protecting all citizens, maintaining all state institutions, and securing the infrastructure for the economic prosperity of the country. The Joint Command of the Southern Front is currently preparing itself for the moment of transition and is committed to implementing a detailed day-after plan to protect Damascus (the seat of government), prevent looting, protect citizens and state employees, and ensure that governmental institutions remain fully operational.

2- The Transitional Administration:
To guide the period of transition, the Southern Front will support efforts to establish a Transitional Administration. The Southern Front believes that no current state employees, identified for their competence and loyal service to the state, should be excluded from continuing to serve. In addition, the Transitional Administration should be open to senior defected government officials who return to the country to help in its reconstruction. The Southern Front, which by this time will have transformed into the the Civil Defense Forces, will support such an interim governing arrangement granted that it is non-political, and led by technocrats whose terms will end upon the completion of the interim or transitional phase. The first task of the Transitional Administration will be announcing the cessation of
all military operations and demanding foreign fighters to leave the country within a specified period of time. The Transitional Administration will also take steps to ensure that state institutions continue their routine work. It will announce to government officials including the judicial authority that their work will be guaranteed within the framework of the General Law. The civilian police will be requested to continue their work. The armed forces will be requested to remain temporarily in their barracks until security and order restored.
The current constitution will be immediately suspended and replaced by the original constitution of 1950 as an interim constitution until the drafting of a permanent constitution for the country that shall be approved by a popular referendum.

To ensure neutrality with respect to key decisions that need to be made during the critical transitional period, the Transitional Administration should issue an immediate appeal to the United Nations to form a “Syrian Transitional Phase Office” in Damascus as soon as possible with a special envoy of the UN Secretary General. This Office will be necessary to advise the Transitional Administration, coordinate foreign aid, and identify key requirements for the transition. It is also needed to recommend and supply experts and advisers to help rebuild the institutions of the state. To ease the pressure on the Transitional Administration, and to benefit from the best Syrian minds and intellects in guiding the transition, the “Syrian Transitional Phase Office” will be requested to appoint a Syrian Advisory Committee composed of qualified professionals to draft a framework and plans for the transitional period, according to a specific timetable. The Office will also request the presence of a UN observer missions and specialist teams.

The key tasks for UN and the Syrian Advisory Committee will be:

First: to establish the High Electoral Commission.
Second: to oversee general elections to choose an “interim” legislative authority within six months, paving the way for the formation of a constituent committee for the drafting of the constitution.
Third: to form a constituent committee to draft the permanent constitution for the country within one year.
Fourth: to hold a public referendum on the constitution after the completion of the work of the constituent committee.
Fifth: to implement national elections for a new parliament and government.

All bodies and formed by the “Syrian Transitional Phase Office” or by the Advisory Committee should be independent bodies. They should advice the Transitional Administration, but they should not be subject to it or overlap with it. The mandate of the Transitional Administration should be considered officially over after the holding of  elections for a new parliament and government.
Long Live Free Syria
The Southern Front
10.12.2014

Statement 4-The transitional phase

I will be back in the region in the near future to talk directly to Southern Front and should have more information for you some time in January. I’m very curious about what will happen. I think 2015 will be an interesting year.

This article is also published on DigitalJournal.com

A Potential New War. Part 2

Back at the end of March I wrote about the high possibility that Turkey would start a conflict with Syria. You can see it here I began hearing that there was a very good chance of this happening about 6 months ago. As of a couple of days ago there has been an interesting development which brings this likelihood even closer.

Turkey has sent a protection force comprising of main battle tanks, armoured personnel carriers and some 300 troops to protect the tomb of Suleyman Shah. This tomb is the supposed resting place of the grand father of Osman 1, the founder of the Ottoman Empire. For the moment they say they are there simply to protect it from damage, but damage by whom? Seemingly not the Islamic extremist group ISIL, Erdogan said and I quote “Right now, the issue is not about ISIL” and this protection force is only a few hundred metres from the Islamist base camp in the area. Something else must be afoot.

As I said in my first article on this topic, Turkey is becoming more belligerent and expansionist, it would like to reclaim some of the land it lost at the end of the Ottoman Empire. The northern territories of Syria are to be honest, ripe for the taking. It would appear that If Turkey does try to reclaim territory it will have the backing of the USA. Another important point is the fact that historically under the Ottoman empire, Turkey acted as the spiritual leader for Sunni Muslims, when the empire fell after the 1st world war Saudi Arabia stepped into that role with its own brand of Islam, Wahabism or Salafism. Turkey still believes that it should be the global leader for Muslims. Over time it is looking for ways to re-assert its influence and expanding into Syria is one way of starting to re-balance the Salafi influence as well as constrict the movement of the Shia Muslims of Iran who control Bashar al Assad and his regime.

Looking at the long term situation in Syria, things are looking quite mixed for Bashar al Assad. While he has been able to consolidate his grip on the region from Damascus up towards Homs and then on to the coastal areas of Latakia, including the strategically important port of Tartous, elsewhere in the country things are not looking so good for his regime. In the south around the Daraa region, moderate rebels under the command of Bashar al Zoubi of the Al Yarmouk Division, whom I met a couple of times are being able to create an area which is slowly pushing back the Syrian army. They are working on creating an autonomous area and until now there have been no major problems with Al Nusra and other extremists. It must be mentioned though that Jordan is being very firm about which areas the moderate rebels are permitted to try and take, I have this information directly from my contacts in the Al Yarmouk Division.

In the north, the extremists hold a lot more ground and the regime is regularly dropping barrel bombs from helicopters into civillian areas, particularly in Aleppo. In Menbij, ISIS are wreaking havoc, killing anybody who stands in their way. The moderate rebels in the north have very few resources and are not able to put up much resistance. The entrance of Turkey into northern Syria, ostensibly to protect the tomb could well be a precursor to a full on military assault to push out the extremists and annex the land. The moderates would be in no position to stop them and so it seems neither will Assad.

I’m going to join up a few dots now and see where this leads us. Assad has 2 main backers, Iran and Russia. Without these, Assad would have fallen a long time ago. The situation now is that Iran is financially in difficulty, it has just cut fuel subsidies for its people, the price of fuel has jumped overnight by nearly 75% for Iranians. The government in Tehran would not have done this unless it really needed the money, the problem is the Iranian population are also suffering, there is very high unemployment and under employment. Fuel cost rises will feed into inflation, food and heating will become more expensive etc. It is costing Iran a fortune to continue its support of Assad. Then we have Russia, many people don’t realize just how financially fragile Russia is at the moment, its banking sector is facing an enormous problem of bad loans. The crisis with Ukraine will probably lead to sanctions being put on Russian banks cutting them off from the global financial system. All this is keeping Putin busy, will he also have the resources to continue supporting Assad? Time will tell.

Nearly a year ago, I wrote that the result of the war in Syria would end up with the division of the country. The revolution has been hijacked, the people’s popular uprising along with their desire to regain their dignity and security after 40 years of the Assad’s family rule of the country, all has come to nothing, their country is in ruins while half the population is displaced. The reasons for this are shockingly simple. If the Syrian Revolution had been allowed to succeed then many countries would have lost their political influence in one of the most strategically important countries in the Middle East. Iran would have lost all its investment in Syria as well as having its hegemonic ambitions curtailed. Any new people’s government might or might not have been ambivalent towards Israel so the USA and Israel didn’t want to take the chance of the people succeeding in their revolution, just in case. Russia would lose its only port in the Mediterranean. There would be much to be lost for many countries if the people had been able to decide for themselves how they want their country to be governed.

Instead, we now have a situation where international geo-politics prefers a solution that divides the country and balances the power of Sunni and Shia Muslims across a huge swathe of the Middle East. In the north Turkey will take control of large areas, In the south Jordan will have control over the southern liberated region, using the moderate rebels there to do the fighting to create such a zone, as is happening today. Assad if he can hang on and I think he will, will continue to hold territory from Damascus up to the coastal region. Of course if he can hold on he will be much weaker than before. Essentially what this will do is create a new Sunni/Shia balance. Sunni Turkey and Jordan controlled areas to the north and south. Shia controlled areas from Damascus to the coast sandwiched between the Sunni. This division will enhance the security of Israel and curtail the hegemonic ambitions of Iran. The only way for this to succeed is if both Russia and Iran are sufficiently weakened and are unable to support Assad as before. Therefore I would propose that the current Russia/Ukraine crisis is part of the strategy, Russia will be destabilized soon, dangerously so. Iran is suffering economically, the end of fuel subsidies is a good indicator of the pain, can it really afford to continue supporting Assad and lending money to him to buy Russian military hardware? Hopefully now you can see how all this ties in with Turkey’s movement into Syria and what we can expect in the not too distant future.

As I said in a recent article, conditions in the world are very similar to those shortly before the outbreak of WW1. Watch this space.

Interview with Firas Tlass the son of Syrian ex defense minister Mustafa Tlass

I recently had the opportunity to interview Firas Tlass. His father Mustafa Tlass was defense minister for Hafez al Assad the father of Bashar al Assad. The Tlass family was obviously very close to the Syrian regime and one of the most important families in Syria. The Tlass family were also one of the richest in Syria and had a lot of benefit from being so closely linked to the regime. In conjunction with this interview I would suggest that you also read the interview I did with Zaid Tlass, he defected from the Syrian military and gives a very personal insight into the working of the regime. You can find it here

The interview with Firas is below and I write it verbatim.

When the revolution started nearly 3 years ago the first Syrian army officer to defect to the revolution was Abdul Razzak Tlass, which created huge waves. It was considered inconceivable that any of the Tlass family would ever be disloyal to Bashar al Assad. As time went on, more and more of the Tlass family have decided to support the revolution. This is my second interview with a member of the Tlass family. Earlier this year  I had the opportunity to meet and interview Zaid Tlass Now I have had the chance to question Firas Tlass and ask him about the situation and why he defected even though it would cost him a lot of his wealth and business.

My first question was about his reaction to the defection of Abdul Razzak and the effect it had:

Firas: People always ask me about Abdul Razzak, but they don’t know that he was one amongst hundreds of my relatives to have made this decision. Many others, from officers to civilians have defected as well.However,Abdul Razzak became an important symbol because his defection came early, and because of his civilian character(as opposed to the typical military figure) ,which was very effective on the ground in terms of gaining the people’s heart.There are also many more like him who did not get as much attention.

Why did you defect? You had a lot of privilege by being close to the regime

Firas: I did not have a political position to defect from as I am not a politician nor was I involved militarily with the regime.I just decided to take a different course in my life and my conscience was the driver of my decision; for each one of us there will come a moment where we reassess our life, our choices,positions, and probably also affiliations.

For me, this moment came with the start of the Syrian revolution.I still had hope, the first few weeks, that there would be a national solution through a grand national reconciliation initiated by the regime to rebuild Syria on a totally new basis, one that responds to the aspirations of the Syrian people. However,when I lost hope,and that happened quiet early, within the first few weeks of the revolution, I chose to stand on the side of the oppressed,and this was the turning point in my life:I lost my company that I had been building for the past 30 years,my house and properties, but I have gained a consciousness, comfort and the feeling of being part of the people,the real people.

What about the role of Russia, Iran and North Korea in the conflict. What can you say about this?

Firas: Russia is defending itself and its interests through Bashar al Assad. For, as it is commonly known, it has a historic zone of influence in Syria since the Cold War,and within what has happened in the region Russia has lost some partial areas of influence,particularly in Libya and previously in Iraq; Syria remains its major influence in the Middle East. There is also another factor, not less important,and that is the Russian’s recognition of the American lack of enthusiasm to seriously intervene in Syria, and thus they are using this opportunity to fill the American void in the region.  Iran has an ideological project/plan which started with the Islamic revolution in 1979, which is based on exporting/diffusing the Islamic revolution, and imposing itself as a regional power.This ambition increased with the American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; Syria, within the Iranian plan, is its arm extended to the West on the shores of the Mediterranean and on the borders of Israel and Lebanon. Iran is also aware that the Assad regime is the only system that could achieve its interests in the Arab region. Any other system, whatever its nature, if it were to govern Syria,would not be able to satisfy its interests in the same way as the Assad regime.That is why they think that the remaining of Bashar al Assad in power is a battle of survival, for their own nationalist goal, and they are ready to go even further than that to reach this goal. As for North Korea, the Syrian military cooperation with them is old; there is even a part of the military system of the Syrian army which depends on Korean technology, especially in the field of advanced missiles and chemical weapons. In case of a Korean commanders presence, they would be there as technical experts.

What about the refugee crisis in Jordan. Do you think it is being used as a tool by Iran and Syria to try and destabilize Jordan? If so will Jordan be drawn into the war?

Firas: Iran could do anything, it has intelligence arms extended as far as Argentina, and it will not hesitate to do anything that serves the survival of its ally, and the refugee crisis in Jordan is certainly one of the potential cards to be used on economical,security/intelligence,and media levels. Bashar al Assad’s regime runs his battle with the mentality of the long-war, so if he were to focus on a specific area or neglect another, he is thinking tactically about it, and considers it a temporary phase. And if this probability occurs, Jordan will be unable to make a big step of this kind because of its internal complications, and its inability to engage in a battle of this kind, which may create further disturbances on the Jordanian side.

So Iran and Russia and working together to create new spheres of influence in the middle east?

Firas: In a sense yes, they are trying to draw a map of new balances but their ability to do so is determined by the American position; for the role of any international or regional player today with regards to Syria is determined by the size of the American vacuum. What is not filled by America will be filled by other players, in particular Russia and Iran Russia and Iran are in agreement on several points; there has been some kind of agreement between them for many years: both have an imperial project, aiming to re-state their influence on an international and regional level,and both now have an interest in the survival of Bashar al Assad, though for different reasons.

How is it that Syria has become little more than a puppet under the control of the Iranians?

Firas: Hafez al Assad,the father of Bashar, understood very well the game of international alliances. He managed to build a strong coalition with Iran but it remained in the framework of an alliance,he  did not allow the Iranians to meddle or enter in the depth of Syrian affairs, because he knew the points of convergence with the Iranians (in Lebanon, Iraq, the Gulf and Israel) and refused to let Syria become a card in the hands of Iran’s ideological ambitions. Bashar al Assad did not realize this delicate balance,Bashar al Assad used to think that he owned the country, and he was acting out on this basis.He did not have a roadmap (not bad nor good) and he did not know what to do; he was influenced by the people around him,mostly Al Makhlouf who were driven by their business and financial interests. He did not reach the level of political awareness to manage a complex country like Syria in a troubled region and dangerous phase. and he let Syria turn from a regional player that benefited from its relationship with Iran to a card in the hand of Iran’s imperial project.

What about the Kurds. Do you think they have separatist intentions and will try to divide the country to create an autonomous region?

Firas: The Kurds have proved that they understand the game of politics. They took advantage of every opportunity to install a fait accompli that improves their chances to negotiate in the future. In principle, Syria has mistreated the Kurds (since independence,and not only in the rule of Al Assad) and failed to integrate them into the Syrian social fabric, and deprived them from their basic rights, mainly their cultural rights, that is why they feel alienated from the Syrian society. Today, this opportunity came with the eastern and northern areas falling out of control of the regime, they found themselves to be strong enough and organized to extend their influence over large areas of northern Syria. So they have done so. However, contrary to what is being portrayed by the media, I do not see that what is happening in the north is an introduction to the separation of the Kurds,since the majority of the Kurdish discourse is not separatist, and most of the Kurdish political formations consider themselves to be an integral part of the Syrian homeland; they are only demanding their legitimate rights as being an essential component of the Syrian identity.

Looking to the future. What do you think will happen in Syria?

Firas: History does not go back, there is no turning point,and inevitably there will be a new Syria. The road is long and difficult and there will be great sacrifices, but in the end, there will not be a place for Bashar al Assad in Syria, sooner or later. As for the shape of the end, or what you may call the solution, it is open to many possibilities, but the historical circumstances have paved the way for change,what remains is the endpoint. And this will come, inevitably, as history has taught us. The great challenge that we will face, in my opinion, is the economical and development challenge, which is no less important than the political, security, and social challenge. We have millions of unemployed and millions of Syrians who do not find food to eat; thousands of factories and work-shops have been destroyed. We must start thinking now about the development question, how are we to provide job opportunities for the people, and how are people to resume their lives.

And the extremists. What is the solution to that problem?

Firas: The issue of the jihadists is complex and requires a special body to deal with it. If the regime ends abruptly(Assad’s assassination or escape) then dealing with them should be based on advice- advising them to leave Jihad while providing them with a cash injection to purchase their ammunition and secure their return to their countries. What would be left of them then would be considered against the law and dealt with accordingly. As in the case of the continuation of the conflict and their continuously increasing influence to confront the opponent regime; here we would be entering a long struggle ,which will lead to a more complex regional conflict.

End of interview