Erdogan key to normalising ties with Syria - GulfToday

Erdogan key to normalising ties with Syria

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.


Recep Tayyip

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov last week called on the West to lift sanctions against Syria which are deepening the suffering of its people by denying them food, fuel and medical supplies and preventing reconstruction. “The sanctions against Syria are unacceptable and must be lifted, and the West’s talk that they do not affect the Syrian people is a lie, as they are the cause of their suffering,” Lavrov stated during a press conference in Moscow.

He said that the volume of humanitarian aid received by Syria is far less that requirements and is the lowest rate when compared to programmes for other countries. The UN’s Syrian action plan required $4.44 billion for 2022, received $2.10 billion, or 47.3 per cent needed. This sum was dispersed across Syria as well as spent in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Egypt, which are hosting Syrian refugees.

It is bitterly ironic that the US, the main author of the punitive sanctions regime, is the largest donor to relief, providing $1.564 billion in 2022. Such funding is, perhaps, conscience money meant to offset the ravages of US policy. The most constructive move by Washington would be revocation of the Caesar Act adopted by the US Congress during the Trump era’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, Syria’s ally, along with Russia, during the proxy war. This will not happen any time soon as the Biden administration has adopted the destructive Trump strategy toward both Iran and Russia and their allies. The Ukraine war — prosecuted by US-led NATO against Russia — has made this policy all the more devastating.

The Caesar Act, which became law in 2020, targets Syrian President Bashar al-Assad; military and energy industries infrastructure projects; and foreign governments, firms, and individuals doing business with Syria. These sanctions have seriously impacted Syria’s recovery but have done little harm to the government. As sanctions have destroyed the economy and impoverished the Syrian people, the Caesar Act must be branded as “collective punishment” which is illegal under international law.

According to the UN, there are 16.27 million Syrians living in the country. During this year, the number relying on humanitarian aid will rise to 15.3 million. Two-thirds of Syrians face food shortages, including seven million children and 4.5 million women. In 2010, before the civil and proxy war, Syria had a population of 21 million. The overall poverty level was 24.8 per cent and decreasing.

Today some five million Syrians are living outside their country and six million are displaced within Syria.

The Caesar Act is also having a knock-on effect in crises-mired Lebanon which hosts more than a million poor UN-registered Syrian refugees. Fuel- and electricity-starved Lebanon has become a major source of fuel oil and petrol smuggled to sanctioned Syria. This illicit trade, conducted openly in buffer zones between the borders of the two countries, deprives Lebanon of meagre supplies and raises the price to the Lebanese.

The dire fuel situation in Syria is likely to become critical because last week Iran, which had been providing limited shipments at discount rates, has doubled the price to more than $70 a barrel. Iran also wants prompt payment from cash-strapped Syria rather than credit as has been the arrangement.

Syria now imports 90 per cent of its fuel and limits how much it buys as Damascus does not have foreign currency to pay for imports. During 2014, the country’s largest oil field, al-Omari, was captured by Daesh. It was driven out in September 2017 by US-backed Kurdish fighters who also seized control of other oil fields in the northeast. Before the war, Syria’s oil and gas production provided not only for domestic needs but also brought in billions of dollars in revenue from ex- ports. In 2010, oil and gas sales contributed about 35% of export earnings and 20% of state revenue.

Before the war, the Syria also had high earnings from tourism. In 2010, 8.5 million tourists visited Syria, contributing $8.4 billion to its economy. Tourism contributed nearly 14 per cent to the country’s GDP and employed more than eight per cent of the workforce. In an interview with the Gulf Today that year, a senior Tourism Ministry official said that, unlike many other countries in this region, Syria was making the tourism sector a purely Syrian affair by training Syrian tour guides, hotel and restaurant managers, and staff. He said 11 million visitors were expected in 2011.

While Syria made a successful attempt to revive tourism after 2018 when the situation in government-controlled areas was relatively stable, sanctions, the lack of fuel and electricity, Covid, and recently cholera have discouraged even the most intrepid tourists.

The situation in Syria could change dramatically for the better or the worse if Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan decides to go ahead with his proposal to reconcile with Damascus. President Assad’s price for normalising ties with Ankara is full Turkish withdrawal from occupied enclaves in northern Syria, including north-western Idlib province where al-Qaeda affiliate Hay ‘at Tahrir al- Sham (HTS) has installed itself as Turkiye’s local ally. If Erdogan is serious, withdrawal could be a difficult and even dangerous business as HTS and Erdogan’s Free Syrian Army militia could revolt if not disarmed and disbanded and a solution found for their fighters and hangers on. Turkiye may have to provide asylum for commanders and hundreds of fighters. However, such a move could compel the US-supported Kurdish People’s Protection Units, which occupy 25 per cent of Syrian territory, to abandon their alliance with Washington and make peace with Damascus. The Turkish military, the Syrian army and the Syrian Kurds could then take on HTS and Turkish surrogate militias and, after some violence, restore Syrian sovereignty.

In exchange, the Syrian government would have to agree to the repatriation and resettlement of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees living in Turkiye, which is Erdogan’s primary political objective as the unwelcome Syrian presence in Turkye is a major electoral issue in the coming presidential election. To provide for the refugees and prevent a humanitarian catastrophe, the US and its Western partners would have to lift sanctions and allow Syria to rebuild its infrastructure and economy.

However, Erdogan’s sudden switch to reconciliation from threatening Syria with a fresh military operation in the north could be simply an election ploy to win votes at a time his popularity has plummeted due to Turkiye’s economic melt-down. If this is the case, the war against Syria by Turkish military and Western economic means will continue to ravage Syria and condemn its people to increasing poverty, driving thousands of Syrians to seek refuge in this region or Europe.

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