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Claude Salhani

Claude Salhani

Claude Salhani is the senior editor with Trend News Agency and is a journalist, author and political analyst based in Baku, specializing in the Middle…

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Syria: Playing With Oil and Fire

Politics and religion are two ingredients that are potentially dangerous in any context when mixed together. Now add three years of a violent civil war, deep-rooted hatred and an incrusted traditional cultural need for revenge and you get a vague outline of what may be in store for Syria.

The past three years of war have yet to produce any sign of a potential winner. To date victory has oscillated back and forth between the pro- and anti-regime forces, demonstrating that chances of a clear victory by any one side remains unlikely. If indeed it can be called a victory when more than 150,000 people have been killed, some six million turned into refugees and the country brought down in ruins

These past few months have been particularly hard on the president’s forces that despite military support from Iran and the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah, the government still needed to enter into some unholy alliances with jihadi and mercenary forces.  That could be a mistake that could prove to be President Bashar’s Assad’s undoing.
If Syrian President Bashar Assad is in any doubt about entering into alliances with the devil, he need only look as far as the experience his own country went through in neighboring Lebanon during its 15-year civil war.

Indeed, when the Christian Lebanese were beginning to have serious doubts about staving off the Muslim, leftist, Palestinian coalition they had taken on in 1975, the leadership turned to Damascus for help, knowing fully well that they would one day regret it. And regret it they did not too long afterwards when the Syrians refused to leave Lebanon although the war was long over. They ended up overstaying their welcome by some 15 years.

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Today Assad is committing the same mistakes the Lebanese Christians made by allying himself with Islamists from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

The tide of war is clearly starting to turn in favor of the regime – albeit slowly, and most certainly not definitely -- but it is turning, nonetheless. That much became evident following the recent victory by pro-government forces in the strategic town of Yabroud close to the Lebanese border last month.

Suffice to look at who is behind the creation of ISIS to be left with no doubt that not only is it inevitable, but it is practically guaranteed that down the road and in the not too distant future, Assad and ISIS are going to clash.

ISIS was founded when Assad released a number of jihadis from prison in 2011, says Lina Khatib, director of Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, in a commentary written on al-Jazeera’s website.

 Who adds: “… this strategic alliance with ISIS will backfire once ISIS becomes self-reliant. Like other mercenary groups, ISIS has been profiteering from the war economy. In Iraq, the group has reportedly become largely self-financing due to its control of oil wells. If ISIS in Syria heads in the same direction - a highly likely scenario - then it will become very difficult for the regime to control it.”

If some of the Islamist groups have accepted to enter into an agreement with government forces, it is not out of any affection they suddenly developed for the regime in place. Far from it. Their hatred of the Baathists and the Alawites has not lessened by any means. It’s just that today’s “other” enemy takes precedence over the first group of enemies. For the moment. What is it that they say? The enemy of my enemy… . Tomorrow is another day and there will be another opportunity to fight the regime’s forces. 

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But seen from the Syrian president’s perspective, he was in a vulnerable position and his enemies were getting the upper hand in a war that he could not afford to lose. When someone is in that position a natural reaction is to grab any extended hand that reaches out. To quote former Lebanese president and Christian warlord Camille Chamoun, “when you are drowning and the hand that reaches out is covered with excrement, you grab it nonetheless.” He was, of course, referring to the Syrian army when it was invited by the Christians to intervene in Lebanon.

And yet…

In allying himself with ISIS and similar groups may in essence place Syria in a position somewhat similar to which the Lebanese Christians found themselves during the Lebanese civil war. The support given the Islamist group by Assad has strengthened it and if things go the way the jihadis hope, they could well end up in control of the little oil that Syria currently produces, adding to the oil revenues they now have from Iraqi oil.

Without oil the Lebanese managed to keep their civil war going for 15 year. With oil money coming in from Arab oil producing countries in addition to its own, Syria’s civil war could last another few years yet.

By Claude Salhani of Oilprice.com

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