Covid-19 Forsakes Syrian Refugees

Regardless of where you live on this pale blue dot, no one has escaped the coronavirus pandemic. The World Health Organization, United Nations, and even our own CDC here at home have told us the inevitable, that the most vulnerable populations among us will be hit the hardest. Truer words have never been spoken. Let’s take a look at a rapidly brewing humanitarian crisis of epic proportions.

 We all know that war-ravaged Syria has displaced millions of people. This crisis of despair is on-going. No sooner have things begun to stabilize, now we see the coronavirus is upon the very refugee camps created to protect those who lost loved ones, their homes, and nearly all their worldly possessions. Currently, many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have been working together to bring relief to these refugee camps. These NGOs have been working in concert with the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Northeastern Syria (NES).

 The main NGOs leading the relief effort in the NES include; WHO, Kurdish Red Crescent, and the United Nations. Unfortunately, things went from bad to worse due to the arrival of the coronavirus. These organizations were granted limited access to three checkpoints along the Syrian border, but that number was reduced from three to two, and now to one.

 It’s not difficult to understand why, but medical supplies must get through, as there are just not enough medical facilities, doctors, equipment, PPEs, medicines, or the required supply chain to deal with this pandemic in NES, not to mention the actual refugee camps. Testing is also at issue. Although there have been few coronavirus cases reported in Syria this is most likely because test kits simply have not been made available.

In the districts in the Northeastern Region of Syria medical facilities do not even meet the minimum standard of 18 hospital beds per 10,000 people. The international relief efforts now operate about 58 primary health facilities, 37 mobile clinics, and 13 hospitals – all of which rely on medical supplies, and PPE from across Syrian borders. NGOs have attempted to complain to the United Nations’ Security Council of Syria’s failure to allow shipments, but Russia vetoed the request to look into the issue at the last meeting. 

The Syrian Government claims it has facilitated shipments and processed all the paperwork required, but the NGOs say none have arrived. Have the Syrian refugee camps been forsaken amid the coronavirus? Test kits that moved through Damascus seemed to have pit stopped there, and never made it to their final destination. The total number of infected and the total number of deaths from Covid-19 are simply not known reports foreign policy think tanks tracking COVID-19, like the FDD.

As things get worse and stuck in the bureaucracy and/or in various UN committees people are dying. Although the fighting has stopped, the Syrian Government is not too keen on cross border deliveries to the region which could potentially include weapons, more fighters, or the means to pick up the conflict battle in the future. Turkey doesn’t want the Kurds moving through its border, and the Syrian government doesn’t want any more problems from the Kurdistan area of Iraq moving from one side of the border to the other.

Most Middle East countries do not want these refugees and with the price of oil down they can’t afford to take them even if they did want them. While the rest of the region deals with their own coronavirus problems and they have their hands full, many are on the verge of economic collapse.

Russia as an ally of Syria and involved in the war effort to protect Assad’s Syrian military is not interested in the humanitarian crisis, only protecting the borders during a non-fighting period. If supplies cannot come from Turkey or Iraq, then could they come from Jordan? Well, there seems to be a problem with that, as it would require the convoys to traverse too much of Syria and go through a region where they don’t belong according to a leading report on current events affecting Syria and the Middle East.

Normally, such a humanitarian crisis like this would get the full attention of the world, but right now there is simply too much coronavirus chaos, and nations’ leaders are preoccupied with their own challenges and medical supply needs. Remember everyone needs medical supplies now, so even if the deliveries could be made, they’d still fall short of need, at least this is what indications of how COVID-19 is affecting foreign policy in Syria show us, notes the FDD.

One could say that a big crisis just received the ultimate force-multiplier (the coronavirus pandemic) adding more variables, shortages, and time to any potentially viable solution to the Syrian refugee problem. If you will recall, the EU had already been told by many of its nation members that they were full-up with immigrant refugees even before the Syrian conflict.

The Syrian Government is even using this coronavirus crisis to plant malware and spyware onto the smartphones of those in Syria to find out what they are up to. They are offering an APP for Android Phones that claims to be a digital thermometer so users can track their temperature, it doesn’t work, as it merely shows the same temperature whenever used, but it allows access to the phone and gives geolocation data as well.

As major cities in Syria like Aleppo were bombed by the Russians and the Syrian army millions were displaced and many fled to neighboring countries. Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, and other nations simply couldn’t take anymore. The refugee camps got bigger and bigger, barely manageable, and somewhat controlled chaos at first to an impossible humanitarian crisis not seen in nearly a decade. The data and science and technology information affecting COVID-19 and the Middle East suggests that the refugee camps could lose 100,000 people before all this is over.

There is plenty of blame to go around. Some blame Assad and his regime, some blame the United States, some blame ISIS, some blame Iran, some blame Russia, and foreign policy researchers on COVID-19’s effect say it’s not surprising.

It’s hard to say what will happen to all those refugees, or how many will survive the latest coronavirus crisis, especially considering the issues with hunger in the camps along with the ever-present problem of starvation and extreme weather events the region has experienced so far. Coronavirus and its effect on policy in Syria and the Middle East are not fully known yet, but those with a watchful eye on the issues tell us, this won’t end well.

What is the Future of ISIS Now That Baghdadi is Gone?

We all know it would be premature to call ISIS defeated just because the self-proclaimed leader of the modern day Caliphate has met his demise. The idea of a Caliphate is still alive and well in the minds of many ISIS fighters. Just because ISIS is all but defeated in Syria, doesn’t mean its brutality and activities is over, far from it, warn experts on the matter. ISIS is very much becoming a global organization, and we’ve already seen the havoc it can cause throughout the Middle East and elsewhere.

Let’s discuss what happens next as the U.S. withdraws from the fight, pulls troops out of Syria, and declares a job well done. ISIS fighters are still out there in large numbers and have a presence in what looks to be 20 provinces or so. Organized groups, call them franchises if you’d like, ready to continue the fight, while recruiting more. The concept of a modern day Islamic Caliphate isn’t gone.

What is This Modern Day Caliphate All About Anyway?

Well historically in Islam, Muhammad was the divine leader of all of Islam. His first successor was Caliph Abu Bakr and ruled over what was the first Caliphate or the “Rashidun Caliphate’. According to historians, there were four Caliphs of the Islamic Empire. The Rashidun Caliphate lasted approximately 30-years.

It was the goal of Osama bin Laden to eventually unite all of Islam into a Caliphate, a lifetime project even he believed would take centuries to complete. Baghdadi had more aggressive plans to unite all of Islam under one rule, a Caliphate, and declared himself the leader.

This was a rather bold move considering a Caliphate didn’t exist, as individual countries make up most of the Islamic World today. It was also a rather harsh dictatorial approach, as only God (Allah) could decide the mortal human leader of the Caliphate. Baghdadi didn’t care and waged war within countries on anyone who resisted. Driven by religious conviction and recruiting passionate Muslims to come to fight, they brutally set out to set the clocks back to the past period of the Rashidun Caliphate.

We’ve Seen What ISIS Did in Its Quest – What Will It Try Next?

Needless to say, Baghdadi might be dead, but the passion, rage, and fervor of his followers is still very much alive. As ISIS finds defeat in Syria, its fighters have not all been killed, many have slipped away leaving the area to fight another day. Remember the recruited fighters came from all over, some as far away as North America, many from Europe, Africa, Indonesia, and most from the Middle East. These fighters are battle hardened and we’d be in denial to believe they no longer have the same ideology.

What about Syria, is ISIS totally defeated in Syria? There is no doubt that Baghdadi’s death is a major symbolic blow to ISIS. After all, he was the ‘leader of the Caliphate’ even if self-proclaimed. ISIS has lost in Syria, but its organization elsewhere is still in operation. Just in the last few years, ISIS has set up operations in Central Africa, India, and Pakistan. We can expect ISIS in Turkey to grow bolder and come out of the shadows there.

The Reality has Set In – ISIS isn’t Going Away – But Is It Our Fight?

There is a lot of talk in the Washington D.C. area foreign policy think tanks about what the U.S. ought to be doing about Syria now that ISIS is on the run, and what we should do about ISIS going forward. In 2016 Trump ran on “getting the US out of these endless wars” and the fight against ISIS is the epitome of an endless war merely because the leadership of ISIS and its fighters see it as such. They won’t stop until every infidel has been converted or killed or so they proclaim.

One of the goals of these Islamic fighters is to outlast their enemies’ will to fight and then defeat them. ISIS sees this as a generational fight, an on-going struggle, and it gives them a sense of purpose. Such strong will makes ISIS a dangerous adversary. Foreign policy researchers at the FDD remind us that it would be naïve to believe that ISIS is totally defeated or that merely killing its leader will cause the organization to crumble.

The Trump Administration is facing reality and weighing the taxpayers’ costs of the fight, and the loss of American lives to continue according to experts on international diplomacy. Their ‘realist’ approach is indeed an ‘America First’ point of view. Still, we have allies in the region who’ve counted on us to help keep the peace. Withdrawing troops puts forth further instability in the region.

What Comes Next In Syria With ISIS?

International diplomacy researchers at the FDD are watching closely to see if the U.S. withdrawal in Syria will relieve tensions among allies in the region or if it will, in the end, turn out to be the best choice provided the circumstances. It appears the Kurdish fighters in Syria are going to take some serious losses, and the remaining ISIS fighters will be further decimated by a combination of Turkish, Syrian, and Russian military advances according to research from the FDD. So, is this the end of the United States’ involvement in the Syrian Conflict? President Trump has warned that any mass slaughtering of Christians or the Kurds will not be tolerated there.

Does this mean we are only partially withdrawing from Syria and keeping an eye on the situation, or was that ‘warning’ or suggested ‘redline’ just more political rhetoric? Were our announcements of withdrawal overstated for purposes of misdirection for the enemy? The three-dimensional chessboard of diplomacy is filled with items of contention, each one examined under its own merits and how it fits into the larger scheme of things. It’s difficult to judge foreign policy endeavors by watching the media pundits who have only half the information. What comes next in Syria is anyone’s guess.

The Taliban Al-Qaeda Connection – The Enemy of My Enemy Is My Friend?

Is there really a Taliban Al-Qaeda connection? Well, that depends on your definition. If we are asking; “Does the Taliban and Al Qaeda have a common enemy, the United States?” The answer there is a clear; Yes! Perhaps then it should come as no surprise that the Taliban allows a safe haven to the Al Qaeda leadership in Afghanistan. Indeed, there are 18-terrorist organizations in Afghanistan and the Taliban is friendly with all but four of them, according to a United Nations’ report on counter-terrorism. It turns out Al Qaeda is closely aligned with the Taliban. Al Qaeda also provides both religious and military instructors to the Taliban, that we know for certain. This information provided by the U.N. report on the Taliban is quite up-to-date, mid-July 2019.

Recently, the Trump Administration’s Mike Pompeo indicated some intelligence citing links between Al-Qaeda and Iran. Foreign Policy explained why attempting to link Iran and Al-Qaeda undercuts the Administration’s credibility. After all, as recently as last year they were fighting each other in Syria. Still, the claim that there is some sort of alliance or agreement might not be too far off seeing that they both have a common enemy; The United States. Iran is said to be allowing a safe harbor and travels for Al-Qaeda in and through Iran.

Alliances change quickly in the Middle East amongst rogue nation-states and terrorist organizations and even faster between the many terrorist organizations themselves. It’s difficult to stay on top of the shifting sand, but the ancient proverb is always on point; “The Enemy of My Enemy is My Friend.” The United Nations Security Council report on Afghanistan notes a long-standing relationship between the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. There isn’t this level of evidence for an Iran Al-Qaeda relationship, but based on Al-Qaeda’s activities and movements, Iran has at minimum been giving the terrorist organization a free-pass to go about their nefarious affairs.

The Trump Administration wants to end the money drain from the long drawn out war in Afghanistan, as it will be exactly 20-years on October 15, 2019. Unfortunately, to do this an agreement is needed from the Taliban. The Trump Administration wants the Taliban to agree to cease all alliances, coordination, and activities with Al-Qaeda as one of the conditions. Question is; how can we possibly trust the Taliban to stop associating with Al-Qaeda, asks Foreign Affairs Magazine? The answer is; we can’t, and everyone who has looked at this potential eventuality at least agrees on that. In other words, any agreement garnered from the Taliban isn’t worth the Charmin Toiletry it’s written on.

According to the FDD, leading researchers on the conflict in Afghanistan, the connection and symbiotic relationship between the Taliban and Al Qaeda is too interwoven to presume that such a break-up is possible, even “if” certain Taliban leadership were to agree to such a proposal in trade for the US drawing down and ultimately leaving Afghanistan. Likewise, the U.N. Security Council doesn’t believe this is a possibility either. Since the situation in Afghanistan is dynamic and the players in the region always sparring for the top podium. Those interested in the current trends here would be wise to follow the FDD to stay abreast of the latest updates on the conflict in Afghanistan.The Trump Administration is working to find the right move on the three-dimensional chessboard to secure stability in Afghanistan and minimize any future conflict. As reported by leading experts on foreign policy, these objectives will not be easy to attain and things are bound to get more complicated in the process. Needless to say, if the United States and our allies leave Afghanistan, that troubled region of the world will continue to be a hotbed of terrorist activity for many decades into the future.

Cash-Low Tehran Using Sovereign Wealth Fund to Stay Afloat

While boarding Air Force One for the G20 in Japan, President Trump said in an ad hoc interview; “The sanctions are very tough and Iran has to deal with them.” Trump stated he thought the leaders of Iran were making a big mistake, and said; “Iran should do the right thing for their people, if the Iranian leaders care about their people, they’ll make a deal. If they don’t, they are just thinking about themselves, and they are selfish and stupid if they don’t negotiate.”

Are Economic Sanctions Working In Iran?

The sanctions are working and Iran’s economy is experiencing 40-50% inflation as of the date of this article. Iran’s currency, the Iranian Rial, is expected to continue devaluation, and is now considered the most distressed currency in the region. The Iranian government is withdrawing money from its NDF – National Defense Fund at an increasingly faster pace, which is unsustainable according to FDD, researchers on sanctions. Iran has no choice, as sanctions have cut oil and gas revenues by over 50% and the regime’s cash flow is drying up.

One of the most recent U.S. allies to honor the Iranian oil sanctions is South Korea, according to reports from Reuters Business News. South Korea has plenty of other options, as it can buy oil from Russia, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and/or the United States. Iran cannot afford to lose many more customers. At some point the low production volume will be below its break-even point. Iran’s economic crisis is getting worse by the day – currency speculators are betting against the Iranian Rial, and the downturn in the economy is affecting the average Iranian and those in the middle class at a very personal level.

Meanwhile, according to reports from Radio Forda the Iranian regime has been steadily drawing down the NDF, taking out billions for the military, its internal state broadcasting propaganda mechanism, and other expenses. If the US were to sanction the NDF and freeze funds, things could get a whole lot worse. Since Iran’s military has been named a state-sponsor of terrorism due to the regime’s proxy terrorist activities throughout the Middle East, the NDF sanctions can easily be justified. Although that decision has not yet been made, as of the writing of this article, things are happening as we speak with the Iranian crisis.

Will The Iranian Supreme Leader Sit Down With President Trump To Talk?

A meeting of the minds does not appear imminent. Ali Khamenei called the United States ‘the most oppressive regime’ and accused the United States of economic warfare – all this among a flurry of other insults and derogatory statements. Apparently, the Iranian regime is trying to play victim and hopes this will help its case with the international community, yet at the same time attempting to look strong to its own people. Most international relations think tanks believe that Iran will have to capitulate (blink first) and eventually negotiate. That assessment appears to be correct from all the economic data coming out of Tehran.

Tensions remain high as the G20 meeting continues, and the Iranian issue is a hot topic. The problems are not going away and the rhetoric continues. Although President Trump hasn’t drawn any redlines yet, he’s hinted on Twitter; 1.) “Iran can never have a nuclear weapon,” and; 2.) “Iran better not attack anything U.S. again or risk obliteration.”The second Trump tweet is in reference to the U.S. drone that Iran shot down while it was flying in international airspace, and as a reminder to all that the Trump Administration has not taken ‘military action’ off the table. Hard to say how much of that is just tough-talk, but most international diplomacy experts concur with the serious nature of the first item.

Trump Hands Iran Victory

 

For all of Donald Trump’s differences from his predecessor, during the presidential campaign he largely followed the same footsteps as Barack Obama when it came to to foreign-policy. They both agreed that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were poorly managed and they both had similar visions for trade with Europe. One area where the two couldn’t be further apart however, is Iran.

In fact, one of President Trump’s most divisive acts was upending a piece of flagship legislature put into place by the previous administration. The nuclear agreement with Iran known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was referred to by Donald Trump as the “worst deal ever.” The Foundation for Defense of Democracies CEO, Mark Dubowitz notes that unlike President Obama the current administration’s rhetoric regarding Iran has been far from sugar-coated. Learn more about Mark Dubowitz here.

President Trump had little interest in being diplomatic with Tehran. As he promised, the nuclear deal was ended and sanctions were brought back, but for the most part his administration’s military advisors were able to deal with concerns about blowback in the Middle East and managed to contain Iran’s presence in Syria.

The relative success of President Trump’s controversial decision makes it even more bizarre what he did next. The announcement that the U.S. would withdraw all U.S. forces from Syria and reduce our military presence in Afghanistan left a lot of people shaking their heads for the consequences it would mean for our allies in the region. What’s more concerning though, is the effects the decision will have on the US’s efforts to enforce policies meant to prevent Iran from funding terrorism. Many experts suggest that it will only be a positive for the totalitarian regime.

The President’s threats against Iran were clear about what lines they needed to stop crossing – in short, supporting terrorist organizations in Lebanon and Palestine such as Hezbollah. However he did not state in what way these lines would be enforced. With a minimized military presence in the region the President has left himself few options to enforce his will besides sanctions, which Iran has shown little reverence for in the past.
The most baffling aspect of Trump’s decision to the experts is that it runs counter to the position held by the majority of Democrats and Republicans who believe the U.S. should maintain a military presence in Syria. For little cost and risk of US casualties our troops have provided a stopper against Russian aggression, as well as Iranian and ISIS aggressors, and served as back up to our European allies in the region. It’s unclear what the President’s long-term plan is, if he has one, but one thing is certain, so far it looks good for Iran. Stay in the loop as the story progresses.