Netanyahu, Putin, and Trump — jockeying for power in Syria

Foreign Correspondent: While foreign powers continue their squabbles, Syrian civilians pay the price.

FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT Russian bombs rained down on towns of southern Syria as an estimated 320,000 civilians fled for their lives. Over the past several weeks tens of thousands walked to the Jordanian and Israeli borders hoping to escape the onslaught.

Rula Amin, a spokesperson for the UN refugee agency UNHCR, based in Jordan, told me the displaced people left their homes with few belongings and are sleeping in the desert. “They need shelter, food, drinking water — and mostly, they need protection.”

President Bashar al Assad (Photo by Reese Erlich)

“We appeal for an immediate cessation in hostilities and for a safe, unimpeded access to the displaced population that desperately needs assistance,” she said.

The crisis began in June when Syrian President Bashar al Assad, along with his Russian and Iranian allies, sought to recapture southern Syria, which has been under rebel control for five years. Russia negotiated the surrender of some rebel groups in early July. It’s not yet clear, according to the UNHCR, whether significant number of civilians can return to their homes.

Five countries are currently fighting in Syria. Russia, Iran, the United States, and Turkey have stationed troops. Israel regularly drops bombs and fires missiles.

President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin will discuss Syria at their Helsinki summit July 16. The Trump administration is pressuring Russia to reduce the Iranian role in Syria, but will not likely succeed, according to Professor Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.

“Iran is there to stay,” he told me. “Russia is not going to kick Iran out.”

A visit to Daraa

To understand the current crisis, let’s go back to 2011 when I reported from the southern Syrian city of Daraa. I tagged along with some Ukrainian TV journalists on an official tour of the city where the uprising had begun. Government minders claimed the Syrian people supported Assad and that Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United States had instigated the rebellion.

We visited an elementary school where adorable children recited their lessons in unison. Then, seeing the foreign reporters, many began chanting, “Freedom, Freedom,” the slogan of the anti-Assad opposition. Teachers led other students in chanting “Syria, Syria,” to show support for Assad.

The Assad officials blanched as the civil war divisions were on full display for foreign reporters. “The political chasm has reached the schools,” my government translator said. “First graders are now politically motivated.”

For roughly that first year, the Syrian government faced a popular uprising from a broad spectrum of religious and political opposition, part of the Arab Spring. Foreign powers did not create the rebellion, but they were very happy to take advantage of the regime’s lack of popularity to push their own agendas.

CIA steps in

By 2012 the CIA coordinated with Jordanian, gulf states, and Israeli intelligence to fund rebel groups known collectively as  the Free Syrian Army. The United States set up the secret Military Operations Command in Amman, Jordan, and by 2013 was providing an array of arms, ammunition and supplies to the FSA.

The CIA spent $1 billion per year arming rebels in southern Syria. The Pentagon spent another $500 million per year in northern Syria. Washington claimed to be training only “moderate rebels.” But the US-backed militias had no popular support. In several incidents US-trained rebels turned their weapons over to al Qaeda affiliated insurgents.

Nabil al Sharif, a former Jordanian media affairs minister, told me, “This whole program of aiding moderates has failed miserably.”

Israel’s role

As darkness fell one night in 2014, I drove along a dirt road and stopped at a spot in Israel overlooking the Syrian border fence in the Golan. Israel had seized the Golan from Syria in the 1967 Six Day War and illegally annexed it in 1981.

On the night of my visit, artillery and machine gun tracer fire illuminated the fighting among three opposing armed groups: the Syrian Army, the FSA and the Al Qaeda affiliate known as al Nusra. At that point Israel was backing the FSA against the other two forces.

Israel always claimed it was neutral in the Syrian civil war; it only provided humanitarian aid and treated wounded Syrian civilians. In reality Tel Aviv backs rebels who can be used to help Israel keep permanent control of the Golan.

Rainfall from the Golan area is critical to replenishing the Jordan River and supplies one-third of Israel’s drinking water. “The Golan is key for Israel’s water supply,” noted Professor Landis.

Building on the Trump administration’s decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, Israeli leaders now want the United States to formally recognize its annexation of the Golan, which is seen as illegal by other countries.

“This is a moment of tremendous weakness for Syria and Israel wants to take full advantage,” said Landis.

Initially Israeli leaders backed the FSA to keep Assad from coming back to power. When the military tide turned in Assad’s favor in 2015, Tel Aviv sought to prevent Iran and the Lebanese group Hezbollah from establishing a military presence close to the occupied Golan.

Elizabeth Tsurkov, a Research Fellow at the Israeli think tank The Forum for Regional Thinking, wrote “Israeli policy-makers would be content with a Syrian regime takeover of southern Syria, as long as Iranian proxies are kept from the border fence.”

Backroom deals

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met three times over the past six months with Putin to work out a deal on Syria. So far the Israelis have continued to bomb Iranian and Hezbollah targets in Syria, and the Russians have not responded militarily. I think that’s angered the Iranians.

The Iranian military sees its presence in Syria as a deterrent against a U.S. or Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. It continues to arm Hezbollah with Iranian made missiles.

”This is part of Iran’s homeland security,” said Landis.

Of course civilians in Syria don’t care much about Iran’s internal security, nor that any of the other intervening powers. Nobody has clean hands in Syria. The outside powers push their own interests to the detriment of the Syrian people.

We’ll see if anything significant about Syria comes out of the Putin-Trump summit. But don’t hold your breath. While foreign powers continue their squabbles, Syrian civilians pay the price.

Reese Erlich’s syndicated column, Foreign Correspondent, appears every two weeks. He is author of Inside Syria: The Backstory of Their Civil War and What the World Can Expect.

Follow him on Twitter, @ReeseErlich; friend him on Facebook; and visit his webpage.