Turkey and Russia lock horns in Syria as fear of outright war escalates


Mehmet Ozalp, Charles Sturt University

As the nine-year Syrian civil war enters its final turn, Turkey and Russia, long-time allies in Syria, are on the brink of war over the Syrian province of Idlib.

Both sides are sending stern messages of warning as diplomacy to end the conflict has so far failed to de-escalate the situation.

What has led to the stand-off?

In September 2018, Turkey, Russia and Iran signed an agreement (also called the Sochi accord) to create a de-escalation zone in Idlib, where violent hostilities were prohibited.

Under the agreement, opposition forces were classified as jihadist and mainstream. Mainstream forces were to pull heavy weapons out of the zone and jihadist groups to vacate it completely. All sides, including Turkey, set up military observation posts.

Claiming that jihadist groups did not leave the zone after more than a year, Syrian government forces launched an offensive in December 2019. The offensive displaced more than 900,000 civilians.

This was followed by the Syrian government forces attacking a Turkish observation post and killing 13 Turkish soldiers.




Read more:
The ‘ceasefire’ in Syria is ending – here’s what’s likely to happen now


Outraged, Turkey retaliated on February 2 with a counter-attack that killed Syrian soldiers and four members of Russian special forces. Turkey also intensified its military build-up in Idlib’s north.

On February 3, Turkish President Recep Tayyib Erdogan openly defied Russia with a visit to Ukraine, where he pledged US$200 million in military aid.

On February 15, Erdogan warned:

The solution in Idlib is the (Syrian) regime withdrawing to the borders in the agreements. Otherwise, we will handle this before the end of February.

Russia blamed Turkey for failing to meet its obligations and continued to allege Turkey was supplying weapons to what Russia considers terrorist groups.

Erdogan countered these claims by saying Russian and Syrian government forces were “constantly attacking the civilian people, carrying out massacres, spilling blood”.

The greatest fear is an all-out war in Idlib and the inevitable civilian suffering. With more than a million civilians trying to survive in makeshift camps, a United Nations representative has warned of “a real bloodbath”.

Why is Idlib so important?

Capturing Idlib has immense strategic significance for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, as it is the last opposition stronghold in Syria.

Backed by Russia, Assad has been conducting a successful military offensive against jihadist opposition forces throughout the country to regain and consolidate his power since 2015. He has allowed remnants of these groups to escape to Idlib as a deliberate strategy to gather all opposition forces in one location.

So far, Idlib has been controlled by a range of opposition groups. The most powerful is Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which was formed by a large faction that split from the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda in 2017.

Capturing Idlib with the help of Russia and clearing the province of all armed opposition would allow Assad to declare victory and end the civil war.

Turkish and Russian clash of interests in Syria

Erdogan had three main goals in his Syrian involvement. First, prevent the establishment of a Kurdish autonomous region in northern Syria. The Turkish fear such a development could inspire the large Kurdish-populated southeast regions of Turkey to pursue similar ambitions.

The second is to fight a proxy war in Syria through jihadist groups to topple the Assad regime and establish an Islamist government. Erdogan hoped this would extend his political influence in the Middle East and his ambitions to make political Islam dominant would be achieved.

A third aim is to do with maintaining his 18-year rule in Turkey amid political and economic problems. A war in Syria serves to silence critics.

Erdogan calculated he could achieve his goals if he was to have forces in Syria and collaborate with Russia and Iran. The cost was distancing Turkey from the Western block and increasing its international alienation.




Read more:
As Turkish troops move in to Syria, the risks are great – including for Turkey itself


Turkey, Russia, Iran and the Syrian government wanted to balance Western and particularly US power in Syria, and if possible to push US out of Syria. Even though their relationships were fragile from the start, these four countries were extremely careful on the diplomatic table and presented a powerful bloc against US involvement in Syria.

The Russian strategy in Syria has been clear from the start – support the Assad government until it regains control over all Syrian territory and defeats all opposition forces. Then Russia can control Turkey so it does not cause serious armed conflict with the Assad regime, while protecting Russian interests in Syria and the greater Middle East.

Russia has invested enormous funds in support of the Assad government. The only way to recoup its costs and have return on investment is if Assad achieves a full victory. Nothing short of capturing Idlib will suffice, even if it means open conflict with Turkey.

What is likely to happen next?

Erdogan is caught in a dilemma. He is unable to influence the Syrian opposition parties in Idlib, but he is also not prepared to forsake them. If he withdraws support, they may possibly retaliate with terrorist attacks in Turkey.

Another flood of Syrian refugees is a serious problem for Erdogan. He lost local government elections in 2019 largely due to the Syrian refugee crisis in Turkey.

It is hard to predict what Erdogan will do in Syria. He is either bluffing or is determined to stay the course, even if it means war. He has shown he is not afraid to make bold moves, as demonstrated with his October 2019 military operation in northern Syria and recent military involvement in the Libya conflict.

Bluffing or not, Putin is not backing down and will not hesitate to take on Turkey in Syria. In doing so, Putin will continue to support the Assad forces with equipment, military intelligence, air power and military expertise, rather than being involved in open military conflict. This strategy allows Russia to claim Syria is exercising its legitimate right to defend its sovereign territory against a foreign Turkish military presence.

It is likely Erdogan will avert the risk of war at the last moment. He has involved the US, which has expressed its support for Turkey and hopes to see Assad gone. He has used his NATO membership card and the European fear of another Syrian refugee flood to bring European powers onside at the diplomatic table.

Erdogan will be happy and claim victory if he manages to enlarge the safety zone with a continued Turkish presence there. Russia would only accept this on the condition that all jihadist opposition groups leave Idlib. On these terms, both sides could claim a win from the present dangerous tension.

The likely Russian response is to go all the way in Idlib, regardless of what Turkey does. Any Turkish military success in Syria is highly unlikely. Russia completely controls the airspace and could inflict serious damage on Turkish ground troops.

It is in Russia’s interests to finish this costly civil war once and for all. It is only a matter of time before the Assad government captures Idlib diplomatically or by force.The Conversation

Mehmet Ozalp, Associate Professor in Islamic Studies, Director of The Centre for Islamic Studies and Civilisation and Executive Member of Public and Contextual Theology, Charles Sturt University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Political assassinations were once unthinkable. Why the US killing of Soleimani sets a worrying precedent



The assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani has sparked protests in a number of countries – both Muslim and non-Muslim.
RAHAT DAR/EPA

Ben Rich, Curtin University

Since the US assassination of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, the immediate crisis appears to have dissipated. However, the wider ramifications pose a worrying precedent for international affairs.

For many, the killing was unexpected. But this was no Trump administration miscalculation. It’s the latest in a wider decay of the liberal norms that underpin diplomacy, conflict resolution and the day-to-day functioning of interstate relations.

Once championed by Washington, these rules have become increasingly rejected under President Donald Trump. That threatens to inject even more instability into our global system.

What are norms in international relations?

“Norms” is the term foreign policy people use to mean actions that are implicitly or explicitly acknowledged as reasonable for states to undertake – like a rulebook that guides the conduct of international relations. Norms influence everything from human rights protection to when and how it is appropriate to use force.

Norms differ from laws, as they lack formal enforcement mechanisms. Nevertheless, there can be major repercussions when they are violated.

Norms change over time, often shaped by dominant cultural, ideological and political trends.




Read more:
In Iran showdown, conflict could explode quickly – and disastrously


For instance, in previous centuries, war was seen as a natural part of statecraft and something to be celebrated. However, this view has changed markedly, largely due to the catastrophic great wars. Today, war is viewed by most countries as something to be avoided, and only used as a last resort.

This has led to an overall decline in major conflicts and the establishment of a range of international bodies designed to prevent, constrain and moderate war.

Norms provide a kind of “standard operating procedure” for states, which is especially pertinent in times of crisis and uncertainty. Understanding that one’s rivals generally wish to avoid conflict allows states to formulate policies aimed at deescalation and détente.

When countries deviate from these norms, however, it injects unpredictability into the system. This can lead to miscalculation, panicked escalation and, ultimately, violent conflict.

The US was once the biggest proponent of the rules-based international order. Not anymore.
Michael Reynolds/EPA

The rise of the ‘liberal international order’

The most influential body of norms today are encapsulated in what foreign policy analysts call the liberal international order, which emerged from Western consensus after the second world war.

This order does several important things, such as:

  • incentivises collective action over unilateralism;
  • encourages democracy, dialogue and understanding over authoritarianism and aggression; and
  • seeks to lessen violence by providing alternative means of resolving conflict.

The liberal international order rejects actions – such as the assassination of state officials like Soleimani – which are likely to inflame, rather than resolve, tensions.

Many scholars and analysts argue that such norms have been a significant factor in the period of relative global peace since the second world war.

The US and liberal international norms

Over the past 70 years, the US been at the centre of many of the institutions that promote these rules, including the WTO, NATO, UN and IMF.

While the constraints of the liberal international order have not always benefited it – Washington has lost numerous trade disputes in the WTO, for instance – the US has been able to shape the very nature of the international system.

It’s one thing to win in a game, quite another to dictate the rules by which that game is played.

As a result, the US has sought to promote itself not just as an adherent of liberal norms, but as an exemplar of them. Notable exceptions not withstanding, this has been a position held across both Republican and Democratic administrations, from Harry Truman to Barack Obama.

Mourners taking part in the funeral procession for Qassem Soleimani in Najaf, Iraq.
ALI Al-MUMEN/EPA

Why assassinations matter to international norms

The US abandoned the practice of political assassinations in the wake of the infamous Church committee of 1975.

This inquiry exposed repeated CIA attempts to kill foreign leaders and officials. Such clandestine activities were seen as out of sync with the strengthening liberal norms of the day. If the US was really committed to promoting the order, how could it engage in actions that flagrantly undermined peace and stability?




Read more:
Iran vows revenge for Soleimani’s killing, but here’s why it won’t seek direct confrontation with the US


After the inquiry, the US halted its assassination programs, and adopted alternative methods of dealing with troublesome regimes. These included sanctions and funding and training opposition groups.

In the modern era, the targeting of state officials in assassinations is understood to be strictly verboten and reckless. This position allows officials to engage with more confidence and good faith in diplomacy, and dissuades states from engaging in such activities.

Upsetting the balance of the world order

In retrospect, Trump’s willingness to reject liberal norms on assassinations hardly seems out of character for someone who has shown profound hostility for them.

Trump has undermined longstanding alliances and weakened important mechanisms of collective cooperation, all while encouraging the worst predilections of authoritarian leaders.

Trump’s blase attitude towards the importance of liberal norms and institutions has left traditional allies feeling increasingly insecure and unable to rely on the US.

Dictatorial leaders of rival states have felt empowered by Trump’s own penchant for authoritarian behaviour at home, and more confident to violate international norms without fear of significant collective reprisal.

Soleimani’s assassination presents a further worrying decline in the influence of liberal norms. Not only does it position the US as a transgressive state with little concern for the rules of the international system, it also provides precedent for states to engage in such activities themselves.

At the best of times, this would be an unpleasant development.

Within the chaos of our current world “order”, however, the resumption of political assassination poses serious concerns for the future stability of the entire international system.The Conversation

Ben Rich, Senior lecturer in International Relations and Security Studies, Curtin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Iran and US step back from all-out war, giving Trump a win (for now)



Donald Trump announced new sanctions against Iran in his address, but said the US would not escalate its military response.
Michael Reynolds/EPA

Ian Parmeter, Australian National University

US President Donald Trump’s statement overnight confirming the US would not take further military action in response to Iran’s missile strikes on American bases in Iraq eases regional tensions for now.

In hitting back at the US over last week’s assassination of General Qassem Soleimani, the leader of Iran’s elite Quds Force in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Iran was clearly pulling its punches.

The missiles it fired at US bases near Baghdad and in northern Iraq produced no US casualties and appear to have done little damage to the bases. Media reports quoting Western intelligence sources claim that some of the missiles were aimed deliberately short of the target. It’s clear the Iranian regime did not want to give Trump an excuse for retaliation.




Read more:
Iran vows revenge for Soleimani’s killing, but here’s why it won’t seek direct confrontation with the US


Moreover, the regime has described its missile attacks as a “proportionate” response to Soleimani’s killing – which it obviously was not. It also said its response was “concluded”, implying it would not launch further strikes against the US.

In addition, according to several media reports, Iranian officials have claimed to their domestic audience the strikes killed more than 80 US military personnel, but the US is hiding the real toll. Such statements are aimed at quelling popular pressure for a more robust response.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei reportedly called Iran’s missile attacks against the US a ‘slap in the face’.
IRAN’S SUPREME LEADER OFFICE HANDOUT/EPA

Fortunately for the region, Trump’s overnight statement indicates he is prepared to leave matters at that. In addition, the crash of a Ukrainian airliner shortly after take-off from Tehran airport appears to have had nothing to do with the US. The latest indications are the plane was likely struck by an Iranian missile, though investigations are continuing.

That means that, for now, the risk of escalating tit-for-tat strikes or something closer to all out war between the US and Iran has receded. Most in the region will now breathe easier. This is especially true for Iraq, which could have been drawn into a broader conflict as there are still about 5,000 US troops stationed there.

But many questions remain unresolved, any of which could heighten the risk of renewed military conflict between the two sides.

Can Iran pressure Iraq to expel American troops?

A first friction point is whether US troops will remain in Iraq much longer.

Last week, the Iraqi parliament ordered the expulsion of all foreign forces (which include Australian military trainers) from Iraq. Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi has said he will implement the parliament’s demand – which the parliament itself has no power to enforce.

Abdul Mahdi is also under enormous pressure from Iran to expel US forces. The Iranian regime would clearly see their removal as additional payback to the US for the Soleimani assassination.

But Abdul Mahdi, a moderate, is known to fear a possible resurgence of the Islamic State in Iraq. The group’s rise there in 2014 was the reason the Iraqi government invited US forces to return after they had left in 2011. Iraqi forces by themselves would probably not be able to contain IS.

Moreover, the US has given Iraq US$5.8 billion in military aid since 2014.




Read more:
What next for Iran’s proxy network after killing of Qassem Soleimani


A further problem from Abdel Mahdi is that Trump has threatened sanctions on Iraq if it expels US forces. He has implied that such sanctions would also include repayment of aid moneys.

While US troops remain in Iraq, there is the constant prospect of lethal attacks on them by a range of Iraqi militias loyal to Iran, such as Kata’ib Hezbollah, the militia that started the latest US-Iranian confrontation by killing a US contractor in late December.

Another militia strike that resulted in a US death would almost certainly spur a Trump military response against Iran – which Iran would, in turn, likely react to.

It remains unclear whether Iraq’s leader will follow through on parliament’s order to expel foreign troops.
Ali Haider/EPA

What happens with the nuclear deal now?

The second friction point is Iran’s statement following the Soleimani killing that it is no longer bound by the restrictions of the nuclear deal Iran signed with the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany in 2015.

This agreement, from which Trump withdrew in 2018, put restrictions on Iran’s uranium enrichment and stockpile levels with the aim of preventing the country from developing a nuclear weapon.

Iran said earlier this week it would no longer remain bound by the deal’s restrictions, meaning it would, if it chose, exceed the enrichment and stockpiling limitations. At the same time, however, it said it would remain within the deal and continue to allow inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

This playing with words appears to have been aimed at keeping the Europeans (Britain, France and Germany) from re-imposing UN sanctions on Iran if it formally left the agreement.




Read more:
Iran’s cultural heritage reflects the grandeur and beauty of the golden age of the Persian empire


Significantly, in his overnight statement, Trump emphasised that Iran would never be allowed to develop a nuclear weapon. The strong implication was that if Iran is discovered to be enriching uranium to weapons grade, the US will take action to stop this.

Such action would probably be military, though the US has worked with Israel in the past on cyber-technology to stymie Iran’s enrichment centrifuges.

That raises the question of how effective continuing IAEA oversight of Iran’s nuclear program will be. Before the nuclear deal was agreed, Iran was adept at putting obstacles in the way of IAEA inspectors – though it does not appear to have done so since the agreement entered into force.

Neither side wanting further conflict

For all the fragility of the current situation, there are two reasons to hope that calm will prevail for at least the next few weeks.

The first is that Iran’s options are limited. The relatively minor missile attacks on Wednesday indicate Iran does want to take on the US in direct conflict. Iran knows it would suffer.

The second is that Trump appears happy to declare victory and leave matters roughly as they stand.

He can boast to his now fiercely re-energised base that his action in eliminating Soleimani has made Americans safer. He also won’t want to get into a major Middle East conflict in an election year. Indeed, the opposite. He will almost certainly try to remove US troops from Iraq this year – but on his terms, not Iran’s.

So far, this is a win for Trump.


Updates story previously published with new details on plane crash indicating cause was likely an Iranian missile.The Conversation

Ian Parmeter, Research Scholar, Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Why Australia can no longer avoid responsibility for its citizens held in Syria



Detention camps in Syria hold about 100,000 Syrian and foreign family members of IS suspects.
Murtaja Lateef/EPA

Anthony Billingsley, UNSW

The small number of Australians being held in prison camps in northern Syria has been an ongoing, albeit low-level, challenge for the Australian government. There are believed to be eight Australian fighters for the Islamic State in captivity, along with around 60 Australian women and children.

Despite its reluctance, the Australian government may eventually feel obliged to bring many or all these people home.

So far, the Australian public seems to have accepted the government’s line that it’s too dangerous to extract them from Syria. As Prime Minister Scott Morrison succinctly put it:

I’m not going to put any Australians in harm’s way.

An increasingly untenable position

The government believes there are valid security concerns in bringing these people back to Australia. Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton has claimed some of the women are “hardcore” and “have the potential and capacity to come back here and cause a mass casualty event”.

Identifying these people, gathering evidence about their crimes and managing domestic fears would be a big challenge.

However, the government’s position on extracting them from Syria has become less tenable after the Turkish invasion of northern Syria in October. This followed US President Donald Trump’s announced withdrawal of the American military buffer in the region.

The invasion added uncertainty to an already fraught situation. The Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces, who were central to the defeat of the Islamic State, were compelled to reinforce their forces on the border with Turkey.




Read more:
Western states must repatriate IS fighters and their families before more break free from Syrian camps


Many of their forces have been engaged in controlling prison camps in northern Syria, where about 12,000 men and boys suspected of Islamic State ties, including 2,000 to 4,000 foreigners from almost 50 countries, are held. Some camps also hold about 100,000 Syrian and foreign family members of IS suspects.

The invasion focused attention on the state of the camps, which are overcrowded, unsanitary and experiencing considerable unrest. There have been some escapes from the camps, and many fear they are close to collapse.

The situation increases the possibility that young people in the camps will be radicalised.

Last week, the US government, which has repatriated some of its nationals, offered to help allies, including Australia, rescue their citizens from northern Syria. On the same day, Turkey called on Australia to repatriate its IS fighters and their families in Turkish custody.

Groups like Save the Children and Human Rights Watch have also called for the repatriation of women and children in the prison camps.

In Canberra, shadow home affairs minister Kristina Keneally has also argued Australia has a moral obligation to repatriate the women and children who were taken to Syria against their will.

Al-Hawl camp in northern Syria where eight Australian IS fighters and some 60 women and children are believed to be held.
Tessa Fox/AAP

Barriers to bringing detainees back

While Australia has not joined the Dutch in outright rejecting the US offer, the Morrison government has shown no enthusiasm for the idea.

Its position has been further undermined by the actions of other nations with citizens in the camps. Kosovo, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan, for example, have already repatriated hundreds of prisoners.

And Britain is considering options for repatriating its citizens. A government document reported on last month said,

While difficult, the practical challenges in arranging and implementing an extraction (of IS suspects) are likely to have solutions.

Australia, by contrast, has continued to focus on the difficulties of extracting its citizens from the area, rather than tackling the legal challenges associated with bringing them home. Our legislative framework is still not sufficiently robust to deal with returnees.

The government has had many years to figure this out. In 2014, the UN passed a resolution obliging all countries to adopt measures to deal with the issue of foreign fighters.




Read more:
Why is it so difficult to prosecute returning fighters?


There are ways to try those suspected of crimes committed in another country. The principle of universal jurisdiction, for example, would allow Australia to interrogate and prosecute those currently held in Syria.

Lower-level suspects who are desperate to escape from Syria could also be required to accept certain conditions, such as restrictions on movement and contacts and participation in re-education programmes. The Australian women in the camp have already indicated they are open to this.

But instead of looking at these options, Australia has endeavoured to keep out returning fighters and their families. Laws have been passed to strip some of their citizenship, running counter to several international conventions, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

And the temporary exclusion orders bill passed in July gives Dutton the power to bar Australian citizens from returning home for up to two years if they are suspected of supporting a terror organisation.

There are few other options

Some governments have suggested that IS captives in Syria should be transferred to Iraq, where trials of suspected IS members have already been held. The problem with this idea is that Iraq’s justice system is deeply flawed and has imposed the death penalty after some highly dubious trials.

For example, France sent some suspects there only for them to be summarily sentenced to be hanged.




Read more:
Preventing foreign fighters from returning home could be dangerous to national security


Equally unacceptable would be to allow the Australian prisoners to fall into the hands of the Syrian regime.

In coming months, as conditions in the camps deteriorate and Syrian government forces expand their control of the area, we can expect mounting pressure on governments like Australia’s to repatriate their citizens.

In the long run, these are Australian citizens who should be entitled to the benefits that come from that, including due process of law. It is hard to see how the government can continue to deny their rights.The Conversation

Anthony Billingsley, Senior Lecturer, School of Social Sciences, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.