Middle East Ticker

Turkey Turns to Russia for Air Support in Syria, Fighting Continues Despite Ceasefire, U.S. Policy Could Shift in Libya, and One of Iran’s Founding Fathers Dies

By J. Dana Stuster
Tuesday, January 10, 2017, 11:00 AM

Russia Provides Air Support to Turkish Campaign in Syria

Russia conducted airstrikes in support of Turkish military operations in Syria earlier this month, according to new reporting from the New York Times. The strikes are the latest indicator of deepening ties between Ankara and Moscow, which have also included coordinating negotiations with rebel groups—those talks, after months of deadlock, led to a nationwide ceasefire agreement that went into effect last month. Starting in late December, Russian forces began dropping unguided bombs on Islamic State areas near al-Bab, where Turkish forces and Syrian rebels participating in Operation Euphrates Shield have been bogged down since November.

Turkish officials have publicly expressed their frustration with the U.S. military’s lack of support for operations near al-Bab. As the Russians were bombing the area last week, a spokesman for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that “In the past month-and-a-half, we have seen and understood that this [U.S.] support was not given at the sufficient level and effectiveness,” referring to operations near al-Bab. The spokesman also said that the Turkish government could reconsider allowing U.S. forces to operate from Incirlik airbase if the United States does not step up in support of Turkish operations near al-Bab. The New York Times reports that after some initial reticence to participate on the part of the United States—which was not informed about the Turkish offensive before it was launched in November—U.S. forces are conducting reconnaissance to prepare for strikes and have flown “show of force” sorties in the area.

Though the United States may still get involved in the fight for al-Bab, it’s clear that Turkey is willing to look elsewhere for support, including to Moscow as part of its ongoing foreign policy pivot. As Turkey has turned its focus inward, it has prioritized protecting its southern border and preventing the independent statehood of the Syrian Kurdish rebels that have been the United States’ most reliable ally against the Islamic State. And the Kurds are truly ascendant right now: as the Washington Post reported, they are instructing Arab rebels on the ideology of Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) patriarch Abdullah Ocalan, including his vision for a borderless state of “democratic confederalism.” Fawza al-Yusuf, a senior political figure in Kurdish Syria, told Al-Monitor recently that autonomous cantons, including for the Kurds, are the only political solution to the Syrian civil war, and that Kurdish forces would keep expanding their territory until that eventuality is reached. “I believe Turkey does not have the power to stop the SDF [Syrian Democratic Forces, the mostly-Kurdish U.S.-backed coalition in eastern Syria] from advancing,” she said.

Turkey’s focus on containing the Kurds has increasingly taken precedence over its outspoken opposition to the Assad regime, creating room for Turkish-Russian cooperation. But it’s unclear whether this military coordination can be maintained as Russia draws down its deployment. And then there’s the issue of whether the two countries can actually agree at a negotiating table—that will be tested in the Russian-backed peace talks in Astana, Kazakhstan, expected to take place later this month.

 

Battle over Water Access near Damascus Despite Ceasefire in Syria

Despite the implementation of a nationwide ceasefire in late December, fighting has continued between Assad regime and rebel forces in Wadi Barada, northeast of Damascus. The area is strategic for two reasons: it is located along a crucial corridor between the capital and Lebanon, and it is the site of the Fijah Spring, the headwaters of the Barada River that provides much of the potable water to Damascus. “[T]he situation around the Fijeh Springs is not a zero-sum game,” Nick Waters wrote last week for bellingcat. “If the regime attempted to take the Barada Wadi area they risk the water being cut off to Syria’s largest city, while if the rebels inflict permanent damage on the springs they lose all influence and risk their pocket being destroyed.”

Syrian rebels that occupy the area have been able to leverage its access to the water supply to maintain control of their territory since 2012, but regime forces besieging the rebels have been pressing for the rebels to surrender in exchange for safe passage to other rebel-held areas. Similar agreements have been reached between the regime and rebels in other besieged neighborhoods, but few places have the strategic potential of Wadi Barada.

The situation came to a head in December, days before the Russian-brokered ceasefire entered effect. What exactly happened is contested: the regime-controlled Damascus Water Authority claimed that the water was shut off after it was contaminated with diesel, and the regime water resources minister, Nabil al-Hassan, claimed that rebels had bombed the spring and diverted the water supply. But, as Waters notes, rebels reported regime bombing in the area on December 23, just before the water shut-off, and his open-source analysis suggests that this, and not demolition by rebel forces is what prompted the crisis.

What is certain is that the primary source of water for Damascus has been severed. Jan Egeland, the U.N. humanitarian envoy to Syria, warned last week that the destruction of Fijah Spring could be a violation of international law. "To sabotage and deny water is of course a war crime, because it is civilians who drink it and civilians who will be affected by waterborne diseases,” he said at a press conference in Geneva. The crisis has touched off fighting in the area as Hezbollah fighters tried to capture the spring, and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has reported airstrikes and shelling targeting the rebels. That fighting has continued since the implementation of the ceasefire; the regime says that the area is held by al-Qaeda-linked groups not covered by the agreement, a claim the rebels deny. Youssef Sadaki, writing for the Atlantic Council’s SyriaSource blog, argues that regaining control of Wadi Barada is one of the regime’s top priorities. “In the coming period, the regime is expected to concentrate primarily on towns and villages in the Barada Valley, after it finishes moving any opposition forces and their supporters from the city of Zabadani and the town of Madaaya to Idlib,” he writes. Regime officials have said they will not back down until the rebels accept an agreement to vacate the area.

 

Will Trump Back a Different Faction in Libya?

The ongoing fight among political factions in Libya is prompting growing concern from its southern neighbor, and a shift in U.S. policy could be in the offing. Last week, the government of Chad announced that it was closing its border with the conflict-riven nation and deploying troops to prevent militants from fleeing into its territory. "Some isolated ... groups have converged toward the south of Libya, that is to say on the northern border of our country, which is potentially exposed to a serious threat of ... infiltration," Prime Minister Albert Pahimi Padacke said in a statement.

Much of the displacement of radical fighters has been the result of the campaign waged by Gen. Khalifa Haftar, the head of the Libyan National Army, who is aligned with the Tobruk-based House of Representatives. In recent months, his forces have advanced into the country’s oil crescent and attacked the Benghazi Defence Brigades near the town of Houn. And he has the support of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. That could lead to a shift in U.S. politics, the Atlantic Council’s Elissa Miller argues in the Arab Weekly. “Future US policy in Libya is tied to Trump’s relationship with Egypt,” she writes. “Strong ties between Trump, Sisi and Russian President Vladimir Putin could lead to a shift in US policy towards Libya in which the new US administration throws support behind Haftar and his forces. The abandonment of the UN-backed process that produced the GNA [Government of National Accord], as well the emboldening of Haftar and his anti-Islamist forces, would deal a heavy blow to the GNA’s shaky credibility and could produce further turmoil in the country.”

The GNA has been faltering for months and was dealt an additional blow on January 2 with the resignation of Moussa al-Kouni, one of its three deputy prime ministers. Kouni, who represented the country’s Tuareg minority, said at a press conference that he was stepping down “because I have failed” and said the GNA was responsible for much of the conflict in the country. “We (in the GNA) are responsible because we accepted this mission,” he said. “We take responsibility for everything that has happened in the past year: dramas, violence, murder, rape, invasion, the squandering of public funds... Regardless of the extent of the crimes, we are responsible.”

 

Former Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani Dead at 82

Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, who died on Sunday of a heart attack at the age of 82, leaves behind a complicated legacy. He was an aide to Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini during the revolution, president of the Islamic Republic from 1989 to 1997, and a prominent political figure until his death. Over his career, his positions spanned the breadth of Iranian politics: he helped draft the country’s constitution that enshrined the clergy as the absolute authority, but fought to exercise greater power as president. He was the supreme leader’s envoy to the military during the Iran-Iraq War, but also an early advocate of peace in the conflict. As president, he was a reformer who loosened religious controls on dress and cultural expression, but also allowed purges of political dissent. He pushed for closer ties with the United States, from Iran-Contra through the nuclear agreement reached in 2015, but was also possibly complicit in some of Iran’s worst state-sponsored terrorist attacks against the West. He was a man of contradictions, but, above all, a political survivor.

“Iranians liked to refer to Rafsanjani as ‘the shark,’ because of his cleverness,” Haleh Esfandiari and Shaul Bakhash wrote for The Atlantic, “or as the proverbial Iranian cat that despite setbacks always managed to land on its feet.” Robin Wright, writing in the New Yorker, described him as “the theocracy’s Machiavelli—at times wily and ruthless, at other times a jokester who gently cajoled followers with his famed Cheshire-cat grin.”

Rafsanjani’s political fortunes had fallen in recent years, and his death comes at a complicated moment for the country’s moderates. “Rafsanjani’s death could rob [President Hassan] Rouhani of key support” in upcoming elections, BuzzFeed’s Borzou Daragahi reports. “On the other hand, it might also help Rouhani and a new generation of moderates take the helm without being damaged by association with the Rafsanjani brand.”