Giancarlo Elia Valori
Syria is the great rotating platform of the Middle East. Paraphrasing the statement by Mackinder, the well-known British geopolitician of the early twentieth century, “who rules Syria commands the Middle East, who rules the Middle East controls Europe and Africa”.
This is the profound meaning of the “war between the wars”, as Israel once defined its air operations in Syria.
Israel, in particular, does not want Iran to be hegemonic in Syria.
This is the reason why, first and foremost, it tends to achieve a clear balance with the Russian Federation, which will certainly not leave Syria completely in Iran’s hands.
In fact, in November 2018 Israel started new bombings of the Iranian business districts, such as Kiswah, near Damascus, or Harfa, a strong Hezbollah position near the Golan Heights.
In Syria Bashar el Assad’s forces are pressing the jihadist positions in the Idlib region, as well as the cities of Lahaya and Masasnah in the Northern Province of Hama.
The anti-Bashar groups, i.e. the Free Syrian Army, Tahrir al-Sham, also known as al-Qaeda in Syria, and Jaish al-Izza, a jihadist group affiliated with the Free Syrian Army, with armaments supplied by the United States, but operating mainly in the areas near Hama, faced the Shiite forces’ attack very well and still hold a large part of Idlib.
Idlib is, in fact, the most important corridor for de-escalation, as established by the Astana Agreement, but it is also the city in which Syria connects to Turkey and, hence, to the primary lines heading for Europe.
Turkey has so far taken control of the Murak pass, in the Northern Hama province, while Tahrir al-Sham, that previously held that region, has repositioned itself in Kafr Zeita, again in the Northern Hama province.
In the Western part of the Idlib province, the group led by al-Qaeda in Syria, namely Tahrir al-Sham, has negotiated a “ceasefire” with the other jihadist groups, which allows it to keep control of six villages in the Ghab Plain.
Meanwhile, Assad’ Syrian Arab Army, with the elite forces of the 42nd Division, dubbed “Ghait Forces”, and the 4th Armoured Division, is moving from Southern Syria to the Northern region of the Latakia province.
It should be remembered that all Syrian fighting Corps also have powerful Russian advisors.
The Iraqi Shiite militants, led by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, have moved to Hama’s Northern province, while the Fifth Corps of Assad’s Army – again with Russian support – carries out reinforcement and backup actions between the North of Aleppo and Hama and Latakia’s Northern region.
Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, i.e. the Syrian “section” of al-Qaeda, destroyed all the bridges of Al Eys, in the Southern Aleppo Province.
Hence the Aleppo-Idlib Northern axis is the centre of gravity of this war, while the South is becoming essential for covering and protecting the Northern regions, which are now decisive for the solution of the Syrian war.
The jihadist group, however, has currently positioned itself on the side of the demilitarized zone of Idlib, which is controlled by Russia, Turkey and Iran.
Meanwhile, some groups – probably linked to Daesh-Isis, which is far from having been “eliminated”, as the Western press propaganda maintains – fight against the al-Qaeda-linked groups in the Idlib region.
This region is the centre of gravity of the war. Operations attributable to ISIS have also been carried out in Aleppo.
Meanwhile, the YPG Kurds effectively fight the jihadist groups surrounding the Kurdish city of Afrin, which is currently controlled by the Turkish troops.
In the meantime, Russia has put its anti-missile defence batteries back into operation in the Western province of Hama.
Hence what does Iranians want from Syria? Initially Iran used the Damascus corridor almost exclusively to transfer arms to the Lebanon.
Currently, however, weapons are manufactured directly in that country. In fact, Hezbollah has approximately 150,000 rockets, missiles and mortar shells, which are produced both in Iran and in Syria.
The ferocious anti-Zionist policy of current Iran is based above all on Hezbollah‘s remarkable ability to attack Israel.
According to Israeli intelligence, one in four buildings is a military base of the Shiite group in Southern Lebanon.
In 2017, however, the Israeli air force began to hit hard on the weapon landline stretching from Teheran to Beirut.
Hence Syria has become a sort of second Lebanon, with the current establishment and deployment of an Iran-led army on the field, in addition to the normal maintenance of the lines for transferring weapons from Iran to Southern Lebanon.
Hence this transformation of Israel’s operational logic has led to a change of Iran’s tactics.
On the basis of the agreement signed between Iran and Assad’s regime on August 26, instead of operating solely on Syrian territory, the Shiite Islamic Republic will merge almost entirely with the Syrian armed forces, while Iran’s war industries will be integrated with those of the Baathist regime.
In all likelihood, Iran wants to replace the fallen soldiers of Assad’s army with its own.
Nevertheless Iran is increasingly using Iraq as a storage area for missiles and it also wants to use the Iraqi Shiite militias in the future.
The fact remains that Iran is increasingly standing out as a regional winner in the Syrian conflict.
Russia is certainly not happy about it.
After the US quick withdrawal from Syria, which enables Assad’s regime to stand as the sole protector of the Kurdish groups of Rojava, the Russian Federation is developing a new strategy.
Together with Iran to the Syrians, the Russians are moving to the middle Euphrates river valley, so as to later cross that river and conquer the areas previously occupied by the US forces and their Syrian allies, namely the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), that fought mainly against Isis-Daesh.
The aforementioned region is rich in oil, but Russia and Syria are mainly trying to prepare for the offensive of the Turkish Army on the city of Manbiji, one of the symbols of the Kurdish independence movement.
Considering the US withdrawal, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), however, are dealing with Assad and the Russian forces to grant passage on the territory they previously conquered.
Moreover, with a view to securing the border between Iraq and Syria, the Iraqi regime is actively collaborating with the Russian-Iranian coalition.
Nevertheless, at economic level, things are not going so well for the Syrian-Iranian and Russian coalition.
In eight years of war, however, Assad’s forces have lost control of most Syrian oil wells and natural gas fields.
The phosphate reserves and the agricultural production areas have also fallen into enemy hands.
Syria has reserves worth 2 billion oil barrels – and Bashar al-Assad’s regime stopped light oil production in 2012 and heavy oil production in 2013.
Before the war, Syria produced an average of 385,000 barrels a day.
Currently, according to official sources, Assad’s regime extracts only 20,000 barrels a day.
In its action against the jihadist groups, however, the Syrian regime has recently reconquered – one after the other – the most important oil areas, namely Shaar, al-Hayl, Arak, Hayan and finally the area of Al-Mahr, in the region of Palmira.
Meanwhile, the Kurds – already supported by the United States – keep control of their oil fields and gas deposits in Eastern and North-Eastern Syria.
The areas controlled by the Kurds – currently in contact with Assad’s forces – account for 30% of the Syrian territory.
The Kurdish forces have conquered approximately 1,000 wells, some of which are in good condition and can easily start production.
The Kurdish wells, controlled only by the forces of Rojava, are enough for the consumption of the whole area. Probably the Syrian government secretly bought oil from the Kurds so as to resell it at a higher price, since the Kurdish oil had a much lower price than the one charged on the international market.
As to natural gas, the largest well is the old Conoco, in the Eastern region of Deir Ezzour, which is still controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
One of the old axes of the US presence in Syria.
A well that before the conflict produced 21 million cubic meters a day, as against the current 8.5 million cubic meters, while the Syrian government maintains that it currently produces 16.5 million cubic meters a day.
Obviously the cost of gas for Syrian citizens has multiplied by ten during the war, which is still continuing.
With specific reference to phosphates, of which Syria was one of the top exporting countries, in all likelihood the over 2 billion tons of Syrian reserves will be spoils of war for both Russia and Iran.
The largest production area is again in the region of Palmira. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps took full control of the region in 2015.
In 2017 Syria also signed an agreement on phosphates with Russia, thus leaving Iran aside.
Only Russia, however, does invest in the Syrian phosphate extraction areas.
As to olive oil, the main Syrian agricultural resource, before the conflict Syria was the top Arab producer, with 100 million olive trees and 1.2 million tons of olive oil a year.
As a result of war, production has fallen by 300%.
The provinces of Aleppo and Idlib were the major olive oil production areas.
Let us now analyse the behaviour of Turkey, which is the other great army operating in Syria.
Turkey’s army – the second largest within NATO – which also seems to be strangely not interested in the Syrian war, has carried out extensive and effective operations in Northern Syria.
Apart from some obscure operations – such as the one of Tell Rifaat, where the Russians immediately gave in to the Turkish forces surrounding the country – the somehow hidden and secret alliance between Turkey and the Russian Federation seems to be increasingly clear.
Why? Probably because Russia wants to prevent Turley from siding too much with the United States.
Moreover, after the Turkish shooting down of a Russian fighter aircraft in 2015, and after President Erdogan’s official apologies to Russia, it seems that the Turkish-Russian-Iranian axis is strengthening, above all to define and control the “de-escalation zones”.
There are four de-escalation zones: 1) the Idlib province, as well as the North-Eastern areas of Latakia province, the Western areas of Aleppo province and Northern areas of Hama province. There are over one million inhabitants in this zone, dominated by an alliance of al-Qaeda-linked jihadist groups.
2) the Rastan and Talbiseh enclave in Northern Homs province. There are approximately 180,000 inhabitants in this zone and its wide network of rebel groups includes al-Qaeda-linked fighters.
3) Eastern Ghouta in the Northern Damascus countryside. Controlled by Jaish al-Islam, a powerful rebel faction that was participating in the Astana talks, it is home to about 690,000 civilians.
4) The rebel-controlled South along the border with Jordan that includes parts of Deraa and Quneitra provinces. As many as 800,000 civilians live there.
The agreement envisages that the jihadist rebels and government forces should halt hostilities for six months.
Russia will continue to fly over the areas, but refrain from conducting air raids to bomb enemy positions.
In short, Turkey is siding with Russia and the latter is interested in having Turkey as a key ally in Syria, with a view to breaking NATO’s Middle East strategy and having a strong army operating in Assad’s territory, as well as reducing its engagement and hence the cost of the Russian mission to Syria.
Honorable de l’Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France
President of International World Group