Senior Political Risk Analyst Elijah J. Magnier discusses the end of the war in Syria and what follows as the U.S. pulls out, Syria is reintegrated into the Arab League, Russia helps consolidate Syrian sovereignty, the Kurds are left to fend for themselves, and Turkey and Israel ponder on how to move forward.
Podcast: On this edition of Geopolitics and Empire, we interview senior political risk analyst, Elijah Magnier, who has over 30 years of experience and in depth knowledge of the Middle East. We’ll be looking at the developments in Syria, and examine whether the war is really over. Why don’t we start with President Trump’s announcement of US withdrawal?
Podcast: This is confusing, because we know the US has had a long term plan of regime change in Syria, and just a week or two ago, an article was published describing how US forces would remain indefinitely in Syria, and then we hear Trump say that US forces are pulling out. His claim that the US has defeated ISIS is kind of silly, because in reality, it’s been Syria, Russia, and Iran who were largely responsible for defeating a US sponsored ISIS, but Trump’s comment is a face saving measure perhaps before a naïve US populace.
Podcast: Some people remain skeptical as to the US pulling out, what is your assessment? [spoiler]
Elijah Magnier: Yes, hi, I think from what we have seen today, and what we have seen in the last couple of weeks, it seems Trump is serious about pulling out his troops from Syria, particularly in the area that his forces are occupying in the Northeast of Syria, and that is [inaudible 00:01:27] province, and [inaudible 00:01:28], and part of [inaudible 00:01:30].
Elijah Magnier: The reaction of his defense secretary, the reaction of other diplomats like Brett McGurk, who resigned from the US establishment, was a good indication that Trump wants to go ahead and pull out of Syria. Moreover, the reaction of Turkey that was insisting on disarming the YPG Kurds that are the PKK version, Syria PKK version, that also confirm one thing, that the US can no longer protect the Kurds, and can no longer stay in that part of the country.
Elijah Magnier: Today, we saw the Syrian forces deploying two small divisions in Manbij, and particularly in an area around Arima that’s a village west of Manbij that they Syrian and the Russian use to maintain an observation location in the area for over a year, and they pull out from this 20 location in the area, like Arima, Arab Hassan Kabir, [inaudible 00:02:54], Al Furat, Dandaniya, and all these villages.
Elijah Magnier: They pull out, and they pull out when Turkey attack Afrin, and they returned only three days ago, but before they have reached an agreement with the Kurds yesterday evening, late around midnight, so they have decided to send two small divisions in the city of Manbij, and the Kurds, YPG, announce their withdrawal from the city, although the Americans are still there, but the Americans can do nothing without the Kurds, because they have used the Kurds as a human shield to protect them, and the presence of 2,000, or 2,000 or a little bit more than 2,000 American troops are not enough to protect the Americans in an area that is more or less 50,000 square meters. That is more or less a third of Syria, which is exactly between 23 to 24% of the geographic Syria.
Elijah Magnier: Therefore, they need the Kurds, and if they Kurds pulled out of Manbij, there are no other forces that can protect the Americans, so, yes, my answer is Trump seems serious, now the Syrian army moved in, they put the Russian and the Syrian flag on all the position, they are regaining control of to give a strong indication to the Americans and to Turkey that now Russia is involved, and no other force will regain the force of the Syrian territory but the Syrian army.
Podcast: We’re seeing other promising signs, which you have written about, that Arab investment will pour back into Syria, and that Assad will be diplomatically and politically perhaps reinstated and welcomed back, begrudgingly, with his neighbors, including the Arab league. You’re right that the Sudanese president recently visited Assad, and that lays the ground work for more Arab leaders to pay tribute to Assad in 2019. We see that countries like Italy, and the UAE are, I think, reopening embassies in Syria. Does this mean, then, that operation Timber Sycamore and the regime change plan has been called off and that the war is finally over?
Elijah Magnier: Indeed, yes, the regime change plan is history now, is behind us. The integrity of Syria, regardless who is sitting on top of the country, is preserved today, and there is no more [inaudible 00:05:53] state, or Jihadists state, or a chaos in control of the [inaudible 00:06:00].
Elijah Magnier: Yes, the Arabs are returning. Sudan is a very close ally to South Arabia and to the Emirates. Sudanese forces are fighting alongside with the Emirates, and the Saudis in Yemen, and President Bashir would never dare to take a unilateral decision to reopen widely the relationship between, to open the road to the Arabs to return by his first visit to Syria after seven years of war.
Elijah Magnier: Therefore, it is with the agreement of the Arabs, and with the consent of the Americans, because they also were informed about the visit of Omar al-Bashir, and they didn’t object. We saw the Emirates, they opened their embassy at the [inaudible 00:06:54] level yesterday. We see that [inaudible 00:06:57] is going to start functioning at a full state embassy in Damascus.
Elijah Magnier: There is an information that I have about the meeting between Mohammed Bin Salman and the advisor on the security issued to the President Assad, General Ali [inaudible 00:07:22] who met with Mohammed Bin Salman a few years back, and Bin Salman said his intention is not to destabilize the country, and that his support to Syria is limited to what the Americans are asking him to do, therefore he just fulfilling the commitment of the Americans to appoint where he express on the ground in Syria his lack of intention to continue supporting Jihadists when he gave up on Al Ghouta around Damascus, and [inaudible 00:08:03] that Saudi Arabia was financing.
Elijah Magnier: Today we see several thousand of [inaudible 00:08:09] are working under Turkey and no longer under the flag of Saudi Arabia, because they no longer received the support of Saudi Arabia. Yes, there is a meeting of the Arab League that’s going to happen at the beginning of next year, and the Arab League will open its arms to the return of Syria back to the Arab, let’s say, family, because the gun countries would like to regain some of their losses in Syria by seeing if by regaining, a real normalizing the relationship with Syria, they can push Syria a little bit far from Iran. That’s an objective that I don’t think they will reach, but at the other hand, Syria will be extremely happy to start a good relationship with the Arab state because Syria, Iran, and Russia, and China cannot rebuild the country, particularly when the need to reconstruct Syria is between 250 and 400 billion dollars.
Elijah Magnier: There is a need for not only Syrian hands to reconstruct the country, and not only China, Russia, Iran and those around Syria that did not declare a [inaudible 00:09:38] state objective on Syria, or did not declare war on Syria. There is a need for other countries, a rich country to come and invest in Syria, and Assad will welcome even Saudi Arabia.
Elijah Magnier: Now, the war is almost over, but we still have, as a first objective, will be for the Syrian army to eliminate ISIS along the Euphrates where the US forces were offering protection to these militants, and second need to regain control of [inaudible 00:10:18] and then to turn towards [inaudible 00:10:23].
Podcast: I’d like to get your thought on Russia’s role in the Syrian conflict. This is a very, I guess, divisive topic, especially in the west, and what we try to do here on Geopolitics and Empire is look at thing without our own emotions, or preconceived notions, or biases, or ideologies getting in the way, which is why we interview people from left, right, and in between. I recently posted a political cartoon on social media, which perhaps you may have seen, a Syrian woman telling her young son not to worry, that she will be okay, meanwhile multiple knives and daggers are depicted sticking out from the backside of the woman, and country names are listed, such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia, USA, France, Germany, Israel, and Turkey.
Podcast: A friend of mine raised the question as to whether a Russian dagger should also be depicted, implying that Russia is responsible in some way for the Syrian conflict, or taking advantage of the conflict, but based on history and the actions taking by Russia in accordance with international law, I personally see no wrongdoing by Russia in this Syrian conflict. What is your assessment?
Elijah Magnier: Well, Russia was on the side when the war imposed on Syria started in 2011, and Russia was not yet ready to reenter the international arena, and particularly the Middle East complication, because Russia was building up it’s strength, ready to face other challenges in the future that we see today, it is facing these challenges. We saw Russia did not interfere in what happened in Libya and allow the American and Europe to do whatever they want in Libya, and the result is a failed state, and a disastrous situation.
Elijah Magnier: But Russia was not in the position to interfere. In 2011, Russia, again, was not in a position to interfere in Syria, on the other hand, Russia learned from the mistakes in the major Libya, and was limiting itself, which is not little, to support Syria at the UN and prevent the Americans from attacking or from taking the illegal right from the UN to attack Syria, or with all its military force.
Elijah Magnier: But in 2015, when the allies of Syria, that is Iran, [inaudible 00:13:08], realize the size of support, the Americans, the Europeans, Turkey, and the Arabs were offering to the Jihadists, they have decided to regain control, to gain control of the cities, and to pull out from all the rural areas, because they couldn’t control all that, and because the support was overwhelming, and the number of the Syrians on the other side was much higher than the number of the allies, and Iran didn’t want to send it’s army, because then Saudi Arabia would send its army, and then American will send the army, and everybody will start fighting on this territory, and there will be total chaos.
Elijah Magnier: Russia understood that the Jihadists and the rebels will not allow Russia to keep its military base on the Mediterranean coast in [inaudible 00:14:07] and [inaudible 00:14:08]. What Russia did in September 2015, they had decided to interfere in the conflict lightly by trying to stop the war without giving the upper hand to any side. Russia aimed to keep a status quo, and to start a negotiation without any real visibility and objective, but to start the war first.
Elijah Magnier: What happened is Turkey dragged Russia into a higher contribution by downing his jet at the end of 2015. This is where Russia’s involvement started to become even more effective. What Russia did, yes, of course, Russia didn’t interfere just to support Assad, the support of Syria dates back to the late president, [inaudible 00:15:05] Assad, the father of [inaudible 00:15:07]. We’re talking about the beginning of the ’70s when Russia and Syria established a defense agreement between the two countries, and the supply of weapons, the Syrian supply of weapons, [inaudible 00:15:24] from Russia.
Elijah Magnier: Therefore, Russia wanted to maintain the window on the Mediterranean, and look at its budget where it can train a [inaudible 00:15:35] in the [inaudible 00:15:35], conditions and scenario, and the same budget used at the Russian Defense Ministry was used [inaudible 00:15:45] military base where the Russian can obtain a very unique experience in warfare by actually using their skills and their training on live targets. This is what was Russia approach to keep a balance, and to make sure that there will not be a failed state in Syria.
Elijah Magnier: That was a positive approach. Nevertheless, on the other hand, Russia made it clear to Iran and Israel that it will not interfere in the conflict between them, and that was a mistake, because if you have troops on the ground, you can’t isolate yourself and thinking that you will suffer no casualties if you keep watching. Indeed, they have suffered, the Russian have suffered several casualties from watching from Afar, and we recently saw the IL 20 with 15 officers on board that was downed by a mistake during the exchange between the Israeli and the Syrian air defense.
Elijah Magnier: There are many other examples before that. A Russian jet was downed by Turkey, another Russian helicopters were downed during the conflict, so Russia tried it’s best to reach a deal with the Americans, particularly with John Kerry in mid-2016. Thanks to the Americans, unwilling to respect their deal that Russia took the war further and tried to consolidate the position of the Syrian army, and give the upper hand to the Syrian government.
Elijah Magnier: Because America decided to go on with this war, didn’t believe in the Russian capability to make any changes on the ground, and they were wrong, because Russia did make many changes, and managed to defeat the Jihadists. Got rid of the control of ISIS of large territory in Syria, west of the Euphrates River, in Palmyra, in [inaudible 00:18:08], in other places under the control of Al Qaeda and other Jihadists, [inaudible 00:18:16] around Homs, around [inaudible 00:18:18], in Aleppo, all that was thanks to the Russian intervention.
Elijah Magnier: Russia was in favor of seeing a state with a government that is stable, and not a [inaudible 00:18:33] state. Regardless who is sitting on top, so regardless if Assad remains in power or not, and the Russians said clearly “This is not our problem. It’s up to the Syrians to decide who is their future leader.” So, Qatar, yes, has invested 150 billion according to what the ex-prime minister said. Saudi Arabia has invested tens or hundreds of billions, and send all the Jihadists they have into Syria to change the regime.
Elijah Magnier: Turkey has invested by allowing the passage of all Jihadists into Syria, and bought oil from ISIS, gave all the supply and the logistics needed to ISIS, supported Al Qaeda by allowing Al Qaeda to attack many areas around [inaudible 00:19:35], in the north of Syria, and take [inaudible 00:19:39]. It was thanks to Turkey that Al Qaeda managed to take [inaudible 00:19:43] at that time, and now [inaudible 00:19:45] is safe haven of Al Qaeda, of other Jihadists, and of the rebels who pulled out from all over Syria. What Russia did, it was very clever, because they created [inaudible 00:20:01], they have isolated all the problems on the entire geography and start dealing with one city at a time, with one pocket at a time.
Elijah Magnier: This is how they have managed to regain the territory from the air, and Iran, and Syrian army, and [inaudible 00:20:21] on the ground because the Russians can’t do that on their own. Militants and Jihadists don’t surrender to a jet, but they surrender to troops on the ground, so the combination with having the allies on the ground, and the Russians in the sky made a very strong army, let’s say, in harmony to reconquer the land and give it back to the control of the Syrian army.
Elijah Magnier: The Russian road in Syria was extremely positive generally speaking, but there are a few mistakes, but these are insignificant.
Podcast: Briefly about Israel, we know there are documents, I guess from the ’80s, such as the [inaudible 00:21:07] plan, where Israel has some expansionist ideas, and on Christmas day, I believe, there was an Israeli attack on Damascus. As the US withdraws, will Israel continue to remain very active in Syria?
Elijah Magnier: Well, it is thanks to the Israeli violation, continuation violation of Syria sovereignty that Russia provided Syria with anti air defense missiles that never existed before in Syria. The continuous violation of Israel to Syrian sovereignty and bombing targets in Syria was due to the intention of Russia, the Syrian army, and Iran not to be involved in a wider conflict that the Israelis would love to see, particularly if there is such as a conflict, the US will be part of it on the side of the Israelis.
Elijah Magnier: The war was to defeat the [inaudible 00:22:17] and the Jihadists first, allow Israel to play and to be the naughty boy, let’s say, to bomb objectives in Syria, to bomb warehouses that can be replaced later, but to concentrate on one objective, eliminate Jihadists and make sure the US will not interfere by larger forces with Israel, because another conflict is starting. They have avoided this, and because they have avoided this, Israel took advantage of this situation playing on the psychology, on the circumstances, on the priorities, and on the lack of response of Russia and the Syrian army to all its bombing of the Syrian objectives in [inaudible 00:23:10].
Elijah Magnier: This situation can no longer remain valid when the Americans will pull out, I think Israel will have a very hard time if they think, if the Israeli military think they can still abuse of the Syrian [inaudible 00:23:29] and the Russian [inaudible 00:23:31] in [inaudible 00:23:32].
Podcast: You know, I still feel that it is almost too good to be true, that the foreign aggressors will accept that their plan for Syria has failed. I feel that somehow in the future they might revisit their project in some way, you say Trump’s withdrawal in your latest article lays a trap for Russia, Iran, and Turkey that the situation perhaps, again, can complicate, which can lead to the US later on saying that they need to go back in.
Podcast: Do you still see that as a possibility? Will Turkey hold out and continue with their own geopolitical goals, or will they also throw in the towel on Syria? What do you think will happen from here on out?
Elijah Magnier: Turkey, Iran, and Russia have established a very strong commercial strategic bond that is translated today by the decision of Turkey not to push forces, and to wait to give Russia the time to reorganize itself, and to think of a strategy to give the upper hand to the Syrian government. Turkey did not enter into [inaudible 00:24:44] for many reasons, first because it doesn’t want to confront the Russian forces, second because Iran, Russia, and the Syrian army can arm the Kurds and support them to fight against Turkey that will be involved in fighting around 43,000 square kilometers, and the Turks and the Syrian proxies are not capable of retaking such a big area, more or less a third of Syria.
Elijah Magnier: Turkey has a gas, energy, commercial relationship with Russia and Iran today that are established. Moreover, Turkey knows that its presence in [inaudible 00:25:34] is protected [inaudible 00:25:35] agreement. If they walk in the [inaudible 00:25:40] province, they will not be protected because there is no previous agreement. Yes, it is in the advantage of Turkey not to see its forces involved in [inaudible 00:25:54] of [inaudible 00:25:57] and [inaudible 00:25:58] and start fighting again the Arab Tribe, and the Kurds YPG in the north of Syria.
Elijah Magnier: Now, the US are pulling back from that area, and they’re going to be based in Iran. Now, the US is planning, but also the Iraqis are planning, and the question is, how long the US can stay in Iran. That’s another question. If they use Iran as a platform to start attacking Syria, then I think the Americans will be attacked also in Iran, now this is a very strong possibility, therefore we can’t say that the Americans are planning, and the rest of the Middle East is just watching them, and Iran, and Russia, and Iraq will sit idle and do nothing about it. On the contrary. Each side is planning to think how they can get rid of the other, or limit its presence or power in the Middle East.
Elijah Magnier: Yes, it is not too good to be true, because we have seen seven years of destruction and war that covers Syria, covers Iraq, and neighboring countries, so that is not an easy situation to deal with. After seven years today, we have a complicated situation where the Americans wanted to deliver, to pull out as an organized exit. It means that they wanted to deliver Turkey each area they pull out from, but Turkey didn’t walk along with the Americans, and the Russians play an essential role in promising first that the YPG will no longer be armed, and this is what Turkey wants, and this is what Syria wants.
Elijah Magnier: Damascus refused the request of the Kurds to keep their weapons. Seconds, the administration of the [inaudible 00:27:54] that is a Kurdish Arab area, is not only Kurdish, will be given to the Syrian government, and not the Kurdish administration, that will go away. What the Americans have created as the [inaudible 00:28:08] will vanish. Anything that the Americans have created in the north of country, they will be thankful for the military airport they have created, and they will leave to the Syrian army, and nothing else. All their proxies will leave them, because they have abandoned and betrayed their proxies, the Kurds, without giving them any notice that they were leaving, and they used them as a human shield.
Elijah Magnier: The Kurds now have nothing to link them to the Americans. Therefore, yes, it is a normal and a logical situation to see the Kurds giving up on the Americans as the Americans gave up on the Kurds first, that Turkey needs to look after its long term relationship with Syria, and with Russia, and with Iran, and is not with the Americans, because the Americans don’t have friends, they have only interest relationship.
Elijah Magnier: When the interest and the benefit stops, then the relationship with the Americans stops. That is not the case with Russia and Iran, so it is more in the advantage of Turkey to keep Iran and Russia on the good side, without necessarily losing the US, because Turkey is still a NATO member.
Podcast: I have one final question before I ask for your final thought. I ask this to most of my guests. Could you give us your thought on how you view this idea of the American empire and is this failure in Syria a sign that it is receding, declining, and do you think Trump will manage a soft landing, or is there a potential, as we’ve seen in history, for another sort of World War?
Elijah Magnier: I think the US [inaudible 00:30:01] of the world is over, unilateral [inaudible 00:30:04] of the world. Therefore, today Russia regained its place that used to have before the Paris [inaudible 00:30:13] in 1990, therefore I think today the US is still a superpower, is still extremely strong with a very good army, capable of winning any war, but not to control any country they win. We saw that in Iraq, we saw that in Syria. They can’t win the after war. They can win the war only. They can’t win the hearts and minds of the population. Iraq turned against them, Afghanistan turned against them, today 52 provinces in Afghanistan are in the hands of Taliban.
Elijah Magnier: Therefore, the US empire, unilateral empire, the only [inaudible 00:30:55], only [inaudible 00:30:56] of the world, is over. Russia is moving in as a superpower country, China is moving in as a commercial superpower, and the Americans are losing a lot of friends on the way, not only in the Middle East, but mainly in Europe. They behave on their own, without consulting their supposed to be partners in Europe, they have done this against the Nuclear Deal that they have signed and they refuse to honor while the Europeans are still holding it. They are losing in Iraq, and the government in Iraq is far from being pro-American.
Elijah Magnier: They have lost in Afghanistan, they have lost their [inaudible 00:31:46] state in Syria, they have lost the impose on the Lebanese government to attack [inaudible 00:31:52] and to turn against it. So, all their plan, the only power they have, is on GCC weak countries who are ruled by families, and who need the US to keep them in power, and this is only where they can exert their will upon the leaders of the Arab countries. That is enough to keep military bases, it is enough to keep its presence where it can use military power, but is not enough at all to dominate the population.
Podcast: Any final thought or comment from you? And how can people best follow your work and support you?
Elijah Magnier: Well, thank you for this question. My articles speak for themselves, so I am on Twitter, I have my blog, I have my articles published at the newspaper, and I give interviews to people like you, but not to BBC and other big institutions, because they proved to be unreliable, and they have forgot about how journalism is.
Podcast: Well, thank you, Elijah, for your very concise, clear, and excellent analysis on the Middle East. I am ashamed to admit that I’ve only recently discovered your work, and I urge listeners to follow Elijah’s website, his Twitter, which we’ll link in the descriptions below, and to leave him a donation so that he can continue providing cutting edge analysis, and thank you for the interview.
Elijah Magnier: Thank you.
About the Guest
Elijah J. Magnier is a Senior Political Risk Analyst with over 32 years’ experience covering Europe & the Middle East. Acquiring in-depth experience, robust contacts and political knowledge in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Sudan and Syria. Specialized in political assessments, strategic planning and thorough insight in political networks. Created and coordinated network of decision makers to provide key insight into the complex political developments of the Middle Eastern region. Experienced in dealing with intrinsically difficult situations in a broad spectrum of situations when interacting with leaders and fundamentalist movements in war zones and areas of growing instability.
*Podcast intro music is from the song “The Queens Jig” by “Musicke & Mirth” from their album “Music for Two Lyra Viols”: https://musicke-mirth.de/en/recordings.html (available on iTunes or Amazon)