The current situation in Syria

Commentary: The intelligence and military porosity of Assad’s regime is extremely dangerous and could thwart both the pax russica and, above all, the already defined projects of investment in the "New Syria", mainly by China. 

A checkpoint on the outskirts of Damascus. Photo: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:VOA_Arrott_-_A_View_of_Syria,_Un...

Syria’s current prospects are no longer a return - albeit a laborious one - to an old pre-2015 unitary State, but the persistence of a very fragmented territory. This, however, responds to a logic of various countries’ future participation in the great reconstruction business. 

The war operations on the Syrian territory are currently prerequisites for the various strategic players’ future presence for reconstruction. They are not only mere war actions for reconquering a specific territory, but also actions to achieve a "post-national" hegemony. 

In this regard, as early as 2005, in his article entitled War is Peace: on Post-National War, Ulrich Beck spoke about the relationship between post-national and cosmopolitan responsibility, currently typical of the West, when war is decided in a specific place of cosmopolis. 

War is waged - often an unending war as the United States is currently doing - but then a new war is waged to isolate the type 1 conflict from the rest of the global system.

Certainly, as we well know, the motivations of the various players that started the war in Syria were much more immediate and earthly. However, if the West decides a war in its periphery, it must always justify it globally, because this is now its code of action and the justification it must "sell" to its public.

Ever more laboriously, indeed.

The East must not justify its wars. It just wages them. Also China and Russia, however, are very careful not to spread the effects of a regional conflict to the rest of the international equilibria system like wildfire.

Israel is continuing its air strikes in Syria, especially to avoid friction between Hezbollah, Iran, some Syrian units and its key positions in the Golan Heights. 

On September 11, the Israeli Air Force and missiles hit the missile construction stations at al-Safirah, near Aleppo, probably in Hezbollah’s hands.

In that case, sources of the Syrian regime stated that most of the Israeli missiles were shot down by Syrian anti-aircraft forces.

The Israeli Air Force also attacked the T-4 base, in the Homs province, with a probable departure of Israeli jets from the U.S. base of Al-Tanf on the Iraqi-Jordanian border.

Moreover, some military logistics analysts state that Israel's targeted attacks on the Hezbollah missile stations in Syria and on the Golan Heights have now completely inhibited Iran from transporting weapons, both within the Tehran-Beirut line and from that line to the Golan Heights.

Other Israeli attacks have been recorded in Al-Mayadin and Abu Kamal, but in total there have been six Israeli attacks, at least since the beginning of September 2020.

There was also an ammunition depot in Abu Kamal. 

Pending the attacks, but also the current reconstruction of the "Caliphate", all this is matched by Bashar el Assad’s request for closer relations with Russia, with a meeting held on September 7 last between Bashar el Assad, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov and Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, where the two countries reaffirmed their common fight against "terrorism", but underlined their efforts for Syria’s reconstruction.

Russia is more interested in achieving hegemony and benefiting from the reconstruction business than in militarily supporting Assad for him to fully reconquer the whole Syrian territory both against the jihad and the various other forces, always linked to external players. An operation which is unlikely and anyway future and very expensive. 

The "Caliphate" is currently present in various parts of the Syrian central desert.

There were already some ISIS suicide attacks to take some territories back after the "Battle of Baghouz" of March 2019, which also put an end to the Caliphate’s grip on Iraq. 

By what means? Much of the money that was in Raqqah, the capital of the aforementioned ISIS, is still held by the various regional leaders who, however, still have an obscure, but probably strong military and political link between them.

Initially the flow of money was above all from Raqqah to Abu Kamal, the ISIS last outpost before the supreme, but not final defeat. Currently, however, the "Caliphate" is attacking Deir-ez-Zor, Raqqah, Homs and Shaddadi, south of Hasakah, hitting both Bashar el Assad’s army and the Syrian Democratic Forces. Only a few days ago the Russian forces reconquered the gas deposits and wells of Doubayat, south of Sukhnah, in the Homs province.

There were also other ISIS attacks against the Shiite militias west of the Euphrates. 

Nevertheless, the most important one was the attack of various (Sunni) tribes, gathered by the leaders of the Aqidat tribe, against the Kurdish troops and especially against the Syrian Democratic Forces.

This happened after the clashes in Jajsh Aqidat, but there was also a threat - not even too veiled - from the Baghouz Coordination to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), so as to force them to apologize for their behaviour in the region, especially with regard to the many citizens of Baghouz currently interned in the camps organized by the Kurdish-led FDS.

Tribes really count, "foreign" armies less. 

It is the logic of the old Bedouin proverb: "I against my brother. I and my brother against my cousin. I, my brother and my cousin against the stranger". 

Meanwhile, the Iranian Al Qods Forces support, even materially, the Shiite or non-Shiite defections of elements already belonging to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), without any Western supporters of the SDF raising the problem.

The main Kurdish tribes are currently seven, with religious affiliations of various origin, including Yazidis, Yarsanis (the oldest Kurdish religion), Alevis and obviously Sunnis.

In the Kurdish tradition, however, there is also a considerable Shiite minority, the Faili Kurds - about 1.5 million people - who are found between the Zagros mountains and the two Syrian and Iraqi borders, but now also live in Baghdad, Diyala, Wasit, Missan and Basra. 

They have always had little affinity with the Ba’ath Party. They are often rich and hold important positions in the commercial communities of the cities where they live, but they have played a significant role in the creation of Kurdish nationalism.

There are also the Shabak, mainly Iraqi Kurds, who speak an Iranian dialect and live in religious communities (ta'ifa) in the Nineveh area.

The ancestors of the Kurdish Shabak were almost all followers of the Kurdish mystic Saif-ad-Din Ardabili. 

As a man linked to the Sufi order of Zahed Gilani, the Zahedieh, Ardabili created a mystical tradition largely linked to the Kurdish identity, although no Sufi order really bonded with these "appearances". 

If we do not study the development lines of Islamic mysticism, but also Alawite (which is a modern expansion of Shiite Sufism) and Christian mysticism, we do not understand anything about Middle East’s Arab factionalism and the true "incense route" that currently separates the various territories of the Greater Middle East and not only them.

The Sufi, Sunni and Shiite Tariqat connect areas which are very far one another: the Horn of Africa connects to Iran, from Sudan to the Amazigh of the Maghreb desert, from India to Egypt.

It should be recalled that in Turkey the Sufi orders were banned by Atatürk in 1925, but they went ahead with little legal trouble. 

The Albanian Bekhtashi were tolerated and, indeed, they became powerful even under Enver Hoxha's regime.

Currently the greatest Sufi order is the Qadiriyyah, linked to the tradition of the first Sufi recognized by the Islamic tradition, Abd Al Qadir al Jilani, who was probably Kurdish. It was our year 1000 in Baghdad. 

It is a very rich order - thanks to the Arab informal finance channels - and operates everywhere. 

In Sudan there is also the Khatimiyyah, namely the Mirganiyah, not to mention the Mahdi sect. 

Also Omar al Mukhtar, well known to the Italian occupying forces in Libya, was a Qadiriyyah, a Sufi order from which the secret society of Tijanijah originated and developed. It expanded especially among the Amazigh, in our 18th century, and had many Sufi traits.

There are even the Fulani, who also love jihad very much, but in a different way from Al Qai'da al-Sulbah and other very recent similar organizations.

If, instead of studying how to fatten up the Islamic goose to make it addicted to the mystical Western ritual of the ballot in a box, we had studied the esotericism - even the political one - of the seven Sufis and the various confraternities and brotherhoods, we would have had much fewer political and terrorist problems. 

As an old Afghan Sufi "master" told me, "do not send us mobile phones and computers. We already have them and we know how to use them better than you. Just send us a holy man and we will listen to him with respect".

Materialistic secularism destroys, above all, its worshippers.

But let us revert to Syria.

In Syria, ISIS is continuing its assassinations against both Assad’s and the Syrian Democratic Forces’ soldiers.

General Talal Qassem, an officer linked to Assad, was assassinated, as well as two officers of the 4th Division, supported and armed by Iran, and Muhammad Jamal al-Jamal, very close to Russia and leader of the Deraa Committee. The jihadists also killed Muhammad Qasim al-Yunis, recruiter of the Iranian Al Quds Forces in Deraa.

Hence a significant level of Caliphate’s territorial intelligence, which makes us assume that much more relevant operations will be made in the future.

Since 2019 the "Caliphate" has been reorganizing itself, from al-Sukhna in the province of Homs, al-Mayadin, in the area of Deir-ez-Zor, to Ma'adan near Raqqa, towards the desert of Al-Suwaida, the one of Al-Buqamal, of Al-Mayadin, al-Salamiya and al-Zakf, in the Western area of the Anbar desert. 

The Caliphate’s primary triangle is currently the one between Al-Sukhna, al-Mayadin and Ma'adan that is supposed to count 45,000 militants approximately. 

Talking again about Ba’athist generals, Firas Al-Nasaan, executive of the Syrian Air Force Intelligence Service, the real core of Syrian intelligence, and other leaders of Assad’s Intelligence Service, were also killed. 

This implies a dangerous penetration of Syrian structures by the jihad, which not even Russia has been able to avoid.

There were clashes - very dangerous politically - between Assad’s 8th Brigade, in the hands of the Russian forces (like all the Syrian army operational corps), and some Bedouin tribes in the Deraa province.

Clearly this province is already an area of Caliphate’s deep penetration, but also of its financial, political and religious networks which, apparently, are currently not an evident part of ISIS. 

This intelligence and military porosity of Assad’s regime is therefore extremely dangerous and could thwart both the pax russica and, above all, the already defined projects of investment in the "New Syria", mainly by China. It is therefore clear to understand who is behind it, if anyone.

In the meantime, the United States is sending mainly drones, which killed two commanders of "Hurras al-Din", also known as the Guardians of Religion, an organization affiliated to Al Qa'eda, but also opposed to the other traditional subsidiaries of Bin Laden's network in Syria. The two commanders were Sayyaf al-Tunisi and Abu Hamza Al-Yamani. 

War with remote control, namely strategic zapping. It will not be enough. 

The two U.S. operations were recorded by Russia in the Idlib area, but it is likely that the contrast between this Qaedist organization and the other traditional ones did not favour Haya't Tahrir Al-Sham and the subsequent Bin Laden’s networks.

The Hurras al-Din network, however, is known to have stable relations with the Turkish Intelligence Services. 

In 2018 it operated to mediate between the Syrian Liberation Army, in the Aleppo area, and Ayat Tahrir al-Sham.

The above-mentioned pro-Turkish group has recently operated in the Hama area and, sometimes, in Idlib.

The Russian Federation has operated successfully in Syria but, mainly and indirectly, by organizing the Army structures of Bashar el Assad, thus controlling him closely. 

The factionalism of the Syrian Ba’athist army is well known. In 2018-2019, Bashar el Assad’s Chief of Staff directly controlled only 25,000-30,000 soldiers and officers out of a total of over 200,000.

Hence the usefulness of the non-Syrian Shiite militias, such as the Lebanese Hezbollah; the Iraqi and Pakistani Ali Zulfikar, originating directly from the Islamist efforts of the Bhutto family; the Abu Fadl al Abbas Brigade, born in Syria mainly to prevent jihadist activities of desecration of Shiite mosques (and Christian churches), as well as, obviously, the Al Quds Brigade of the Iranian Pasdaran, and finally the Afghan Shiite Fatimiyoun and the members of the Pakistani Zeinabiyoun Brigade. 

Russia strongly needs to have Iran present in Syria, but it certainly does not want to leave the Syrian future in Iran’s hands. 

Quite the reverse. Many intelligence signals tell us that Russia knew about some operations of other regional players against the Pasdaran and the other forces led by Iran, but did not lift a finger. 

The Russian plan is therefore to have a mobile and very centralized Ba’athist force, with a significant share of Special Corps and relative autonomy from Russia, especially in the Southern and Eastern Syrian territory, with reference to both jihadist operations and operations by more or less regular forces led by regional or global players.

As early as 2015 Russia had created the 4th Syrian Corps, with a core of Bashar el Assad’s old army and a unit of the National Defence Forces led by Iran, as well as some brigades of the Ba’ath Party.

It is therefore obvious that, in Syria, the second opponent of Russia is an ally, namely Iran. 

Putin has therefore correctly calculated his strategic equation: the West could not materially oppose his intervention in Syria. 

Part of his intervention in that country was aimed at deterring the West.

Hence many Anti Access-Denial Area (A2AD) operations and full control of the airspace, as well as - particularly today - Russia’s continuous use of Private Military Companies (PMCs), which allow greater flexibility in the use of force and also to "do politics" on the territory.

There is also the oil problem, which can never be neglected. 

At the end of June 2020, the U.S. company Delta Crescent Energy signed a contract with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, but also with a guarantee from the Kurdish leadership that Russia could benefit from the agreement, and with possible future opportunities for Russia to explore and extract local oil. 

Erdogan, too, offered Russia the opportunity to modernize the Deir-ez-Zor oil fields, in view of reinvigorating the Syrian economy.

The Mercury company, owned by Yevgheni Prigozhin, an entrepreneur who is Putin’s personal friend, already operates in Eastern Syria but, in the meantime, Russia's operatives are permanently dealing with the Syrian Tribal Council, as well as with the pro-Iranian Nawaf al-Bashir tribes. 

Unlike other countries, Russia knows that the Middle East States are mobile compositions of tribes that are the real basic political entity. 

This happens while the United States is leaving the Syrian buffer zone, i.e. the Peace Corridor, or the Security Mechanism placed on the Syrian side of the Syrian-Turkish border, and hence China is entering the scene.

China's humanitarian aid to Bashar el Assad began in August 2016, but obviously China always stresses the principle of non-interference in conflicts and in the internal affairs of other States.

It should also be recalled, however, that China has shown a cold attitude also towards Russia's missile and air operations in Syria, although it is an open ally and friend of Bashar el Assad's regime.

Iran has often sought Chinese support for its engagement in Syria and it is also trying to enter the system of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).

This Chinese support will continue also during the likely future offensive by Assad's forces on Idlib.  

 

Professor Valori is President of the International World Group