From Syria to Ukraine, a saga of serial abandonment of Western allies

If the abandonment of the Kurds was a one-off, it could be dismissed as a blot. (AFP)
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Updated 06 March 2022

From Syria to Ukraine, a saga of serial abandonment of Western allies

  • Ukraine is the latest in a long line of friends left to fend for themselves during crisis
  • US foreign policy about-turns in the Middle East and Europe point to unmistakable pattern

DUBAI: In October 2019, as Turkey massed its forces on the border with northeastern Syrian, threatening to invade and carve out a so-called safe zone, Kurdish communities just miles away turned to their powerful ally in Washington for support. The US military could keep the forces of their fellow NATO member at bay, the Kurds believed.

Five years of close security cooperation and the sacrifice of more than 11,000 lives in their joint fight against Daesh had convinced the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces that the bond of trust that had grown between them and the Americans was unbreakable and that in the face of an even more formidable foe, their allies would surely have their back.

However, the Kurds were also prepared for the worst since a tweet by President Donald Trump and a White House video on Dec. 19, 2018, announcing the withdrawal of all American soldiers from Syria — save for a few hundred to guard oil fields near Deir ez-Zor.

“We never had the slightest intention of defending Ukraine, not the slightest,” said Anatol Lieven. (AFP)

As it turned out, by October 2019 Russian troops and Syrian forces had taken over at least three abandoned US camps in northern Syria. “Russian mercenaries splashed their good fortune over social media and took selfies in front of US equipment, while Russian reporters gave walking tours of the base,” Business Insider said in a report on Oct. 16.

Meanwhile, the Turks had launched bombing raids against the SDF in the name of “Operation Peace Spring.” The war effort against the global menace of Daesh — the US administration’s top priority just five years before — meant nothing to Trump. The SDF soldiers who had helped the anti-Daesh coalition win were summarily left twisting in the wind.

If the abandonment of the Kurds was a one-off, it could be dismissed as a blot on an otherwise honorable record. But recurrent American about-turns in recent years, in the Middle East and Europe, point more to a pattern than to a mistake. In Georgia, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and now Ukraine, peoples and governments that believed they could count on the superpower’s military support have all felt the crushing blow of its absence just when they needed it most.

Washington’s Gulf allies have learned the lesson the hard way. (AFP)

In a recent interview with the American Prospect magazine, Anatol Lieven, author of “Ukraine and Russia: A Fraternal Rivalry,” said: “We never had the slightest intention of defending Ukraine, not the slightest. Even though Britain and America and the NATO secretariat to the Bucharest Conference in 2008 came out for NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia (the NATO HQ was completely behind it on American orders), no contingency plans were drawn up, not the most remote or contingent ones, for how NATO could defend Ukraine and Georgia. There was no intention of ever doing that at all.”


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Lieven added: “Claiming that we were going to admit them to NATO: It goes beyond actual irresponsibility. In my view, this was deeply immoral, to make such a commitment that we had no intention of fulfilling.”

Last August, shocking scenes of planes careering down the runway of Kabul airport as desperate stowaways fell to their death from American military cargo planes’ wheel wells, came to be the defining image of a 20-year US occupation. Not far behind were scenes of Taliban fighters walking into Kabul as victors of a long war, their arch-foe having fled, and the national army raised by the US having folded almost overnight.

“There is no doubt that the Russian intervention in Ukraine is an accumulation of a series of Russian military interventions in Georgia in 2008,” said Ibrahim Hamidi. (AFP)

Two decades after promising to bring democracy and freedom to Afghanistan, the US had simply given up. First Trump, and then Joe Biden, had walked away from a clear moral obligation to a population that had made an enormous sacrifice in blood for America’s protracted “war on terror.” Nine months on, Afghanistan is a broken country, ruled by an unpopular Islamic fundamentalist group handed power practically on a platter by a nation that has lost the will to lead and the patience to keep fighting.

In the Middle East, where the US has trod with a heavy footprint since 9/11, there is little faith that a country suffering so much from political polarization itself has a coherent vision to offer.

Since 2000, the pendulum has swung between the missionary zeal of George W. Bush’s advisers and the cold-hearted realism of Barack Obama loyalists, and between the transactional mindset of Trump and the “Obama lite” image of Biden.

“The future of Europe and the EU looks much different today than it did just a week ago,” said Carl Bildt, Co-chair of European Council on Foreign Relations. (AFP)

At different times in the past two decades, Washington’s foreign policy priorities have been dictated either by human rights, commercial interests, democracy promotion or individual whims. Such a protean approach has taught even friends to be wary.

Washington’s Gulf allies have learned the lesson the hard way. The warm embrace of one administration as an essential regional security partner was replaced in 2020 by the aloofness of the next, compounded by rushed overtures to Iran.

The recognition of Iran as a malign actor and the threat posed by proliferating Iranian proxies in the region fell of the priority list almost overnight, while the Houthis were removed from the terror list, despite the group’s implication in the destabilization of the region’s poorest country, Yemen, and attacks on civilian facilities and population centers in Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Commenting recently on Twitter on America’s Gulf partners’ neutrality on the Ukraine crisis, Hasan Alhasan, a research fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, found “the subliminal message: this isn’t our war” similar to the “one consistently (sent) by the US to the Gulf states on Yemen and Iran over the past several years.”

Referring to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, Alhasan added: “Iran has wreaked havoc in the region and has been locked in proxy war with Saudi/UAE. But the US, and especially the EU, were ready to normalize ties with Iran following JCPOA regardless.”

Two decades after promising to bring democracy and freedom to Afghanistan, the US had simply given up. (AFP)

More than two years on from Trump’s Syria pullout, the SDF, a mixed Kurdish-Arab military unit raised and funded under the Obama administration to lead the fight against Daesh, has not recovered militarily from the US betrayal. Kurds across the border in Iraq, who also took part in the global coalition’s campaign against Daesh, remain similarly wary.

The notion about the US being an all-weather partner and natural ally in whom Kurds of the Middle East could blindly trust during times of need proved especially fanciful during the Trump presidency.

Six years before the Syrian withdrawal, Obama made another decision that likely changed the course of the country’s civil war, while casting doubt on the ability or willingness of the West to demonstrate the courage of its stated convictions.

If any issue could stir Western leadership, the widespread use of chemical weapons on civilians would surely be it. But when Syrian President Bashar Assad gassed opposition forces as they approached the gates of Damascus, killing more than 1,300 on a late summer morning in 2013, the “red line” Obama had set as a trigger for intervention suddenly became a negotiation point.

Instead of standing with Syrian civilians, with his inaction Obama condemned them to another decade of misery, collective punishment and war crimes. Impunity became entrenched in Syria, and within a few years Russia would benefit from it most.

Washington’s foreign policy priorities have been dictated either by human rights, commercial interests, democracy promotion or individual whims. (AFP)

With the Assad regime in its pocket, America’s chief geopolitical adversary was able to establish a training ground in the lead-up to the annexation of Crimea in 2014, which, in hindsight, was a dress rehearsal of sorts for what was to come in February 2022 — the invasion of Ukraine.

“There is no doubt that the Russian intervention in Ukraine is an accumulation of a series of Russian military interventions in Georgia in 2008, Crimea in 2014 and Syria in 2015,” Ibrahim Hamidi, senior diplomatic editor for Syrian affairs at Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, told the Associated Press news agency recently.

Putin “believes that America is regressing, China’s role is increasing, and Europe is divided and preoccupied with its internal concerns, so he decided to intervene.”

UAE pledges $13 million in aid to quake-hit Syria

Updated 31 sec ago

UAE pledges $13 million in aid to quake-hit Syria

DUBAI: The United Arab Emirates on Monday pledged humanitarian assistance worth around $13.6 million to Syria following an earthquake in Turkey that killed at least 1,000 people in the war-torn country, Emirates News Agency reported.
The 7.8 magnitude quake struck near the Turkish city of Gaziantep before dawn on Monday, killing more than 1,651 people in Turkey and another 1,100 in neighbouring Syria.
Emirati Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum "directed urgent humanitarian aid to those affected in Syria", the official news agency WAM said.
The assistance is valued at 50 million dirhams, it added.
Countries around the world have mobilised rapidly to send aid and rescue workers to affected areas.
The UAE has dispatched a first plane to Adana Airport in southern Turkey "carrying search and rescue teams, crews, and medical equipment", WAM said.
The UAE said it was planning to establish a field hospital in Turkey and will also send search and rescue teams to Syria, along with urgent relief supplies and emergency aid, the news agency added.
Earlier on Monday, Emirati President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan offered his condolences to his Syrian and Turkish counterparts in two separate phone calls, according to WAM.
He "emphasised the UAE's support for Syria and Turkiye and offered to provide any assistance in their efforts to mitigate the impact of the earthquake", it said.

Lebanon rocked by deadly quake in Turkiye, Syria

Updated 06 February 2023

Lebanon rocked by deadly quake in Turkiye, Syria

  • Residents took to the streets and sheltered in cars as several aftershocks from the quake were felt during the day

BEIRUT: Parts of Lebanon on Monday were rocked by the deadly 7.8 magnitude earthquake that hit southern Turkiye and northern Syria, killing and injuring thousands of people.

Residents took to the streets and sheltered in cars as several aftershocks from the quake were felt during the day.

The National Council for Scientific Research’s National Center for Geophysics recorded a 4.8 magnitude tremor at 3:18 a.m. local time, which lasted for 40 seconds, followed by others.

Many buildings in Beirut, coastal cities, and all the way to the Bekaa Valley shook, but the Lebanese Red Cross reported no casualties apart from a few citizens who had suffered heart attacks.

The Lebanese Ministry of Education announced that all educational institutions should remain closed until Wednesday for the safety of students and staff, while traffic police urged citizens not to park vehicles near trees, billboards, or objects at risk of falling, and to keep away from beaches.

A team from the Civil Defense, Red Cross, and Beirut Fire Brigade was traveling to Turkiye to assist rescue workers.

Marilyne Brax, director of the National Center for Geophysics, said there was little chance of a tsunami.

“We were unable to scientifically monitor the movement of waves in Lebanon due to the loss of monitoring instruments in the sea, but in Cyprus and Turkiye, wave height movements recorded 20 centimeters.”

One resident of Ashrafieh, in Beirut, said: “I woke up to the bed shaking and objects falling on the floor. It was completely dark, so I used the flashlight on my phone to find my way out of my apartment.

“I could hear my neighbors crying as they came down the stairs. Everyone looked terrified. It was a horrific night. An earthquake is the last thing the Lebanese need right now.”

In Tripoli, northern Lebanon, young men fired shots into the air to urge people to leave buildings and private generators were turned on to provide light for frightened people.

Fatima, a resident of the southern suburbs of Beirut, said: “I already suffer from a phobia of earthquakes, and when I realized what was happening and heard walls cracking, I hurried out of the house into the street in the dark.

“My neighbors and their children and sick elderly were already in the streets praying.”

A nurse at Makassed Islamic Hospital in Beirut said the building had been designed to resist earthquakes.

“As soon as everyone calmed down, there was a strong aftershock, but we were able to continue our work about half-an-hour later.”

In the coastal city of Tyre, the earthquake caused cracks in a road, and a house in the Rashaya Al-Wadi area of southeastern Lebanon was reported to have collapsed.

But while encouraging citizens to evacuate any older buildings showing signs of collapse, Lebanon’s caretaker interior minister, Bassam Mawlawi, said there had been limited damage in the country.

Many buildings in Lebanon do not meet required safety specifications as they were constructed during the civil war.

Seismic activity is common in Lebanon. One of the worst quakes to hit the country was on March 16, 1956, in the Chouf, Jezzine, Sidon, and Bekaa areas. It claimed the lives of around 140 people and injured more than 600, in addition to destroying buildings, roads, and infrastructure.

Quake damages ancient citadel in Syria’s Aleppo

Updated 06 February 2023

Quake damages ancient citadel in Syria’s Aleppo

  • “Parts of the Ottoman mill inside the citadel” of Aleppo have collapsed, Syria’s Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums said

DAMASCUS: Several of Syria’s archaeological sites including a famed citadel in the northern city of Aleppo were damaged in a deadly pre-dawn earthquake Monday, the country’s antiquities authority said.
“Parts of the Ottoman mill inside the citadel” of Aleppo have collapsed, while “sections of the northeastern defensive walls have cracked and fallen,” Syria’s Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums said in a statement.
Parts of the dome of the minaret of the Ayyubid mosque inside the citadel fell off, while the entrance to the fort has been damaged, “including the entrance to the Mamluk tower,” it added, publishing photos of the site on its Facebook page.
More than 1,000 people were killed across Syria as buildings collapsed after the 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck neighboring Turkiye, state media and rescuers said.
At least 156 people died in Aleppo province alone and 507 were injured when 46 buildings collapsed, the official news agency SANA had said, quoting an official.
The city of Aleppo is renowned for its ancient citadel, its UNESCO-listed historic center and its centuries-old covered markets.
Aleppo was Syria’s pre-war commercial hub and considered one of the world’s longest continuously inhabited cities, boasting markets, mosques, caravanserais, and public baths, but a brutal siege imposed on rebels left it disfigured.
Even before the earthquake, buildings in Aleppo often collapsed due to poor infrastructure after more than a decade of war and little oversight to ensure the safety of new construction projects.
In Hama province, archaeological surveys found that “some buildings inside the ancient Al-Marqab Castle” in the city of Baniyas had been damaged, while parts of the fortifications and a tower had fallen, the antiquities body said.
In Tartus province, part of a rocky cliff fell in the vicinity of the Qadmus castle, and residential buildings on the site collapsed, it added.
Expert teams were reportedly assessing the damage, and whether the earthquake had affected the ancient city of Palmyra.
The pre-dawn quake hit near Gaziantep in southeastern Turkiye at a depth of about 18 kilometers (11 miles), the US Geological Survey said.
Tremors were also felt in Lebanon and Cyprus, AFP correspondents said.

Israel says approved aid to quake-hit Syria, Damascus denies request

Syrian rescue teams search for victims and survivors in the city of Hama on February 6, 2023. (AFP)
Updated 06 February 2023

Israel says approved aid to quake-hit Syria, Damascus denies request

  • Israel “received a request from a diplomatic source for humanitarian aid to Syria, and I approved it”: Netanyahu
  • Syrian official told reporters Damascus “ridiculed and denied the allegations” it had requested aid from Israel

JERUSALEM: Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he had given the go-ahead to send aid to earthquake-hit Syria, but a Damascus official swiftly denied they had requested help in the first place.
Israel “received a request from a diplomatic source for humanitarian aid to Syria, and I approved it,” Netanyahu told lawmakers from his hawkish Likud party, adding the aid would be sent soon.
But a Syrian official told reporters Damascus “ridiculed and denied the allegations” that it had requested aid from Israel.
“How can Syria ask for help from an entity that has killed... Syrians for decades?” said the official.
Syria’s government does not recognize Israel and the two countries have fought several wars since Israel’s creation in 1948.
Netanyahu’s office declined to provide further details on the source of the request to help Syria, where hundreds of people were killed by a 7.8-magnitude earthquake Monday in neighboring Turkiye.
The Israeli leader has also confirmed his government would send humanitarian assistance to Turkiye following the disaster.
Israel’s foreign ministry said a team of search and rescue specialists would leave for Turkiye on Monday, and that another delegation equipped with humanitarian supplies would follow on Tuesday.

‘Buildings folded like paper towels’: Turkish survivors recount harrowing quake experiences 

Updated 06 February 2023

‘Buildings folded like paper towels’: Turkish survivors recount harrowing quake experiences 

  • “It was the strongest earthquake I’ve ever experienced,” Iskenderun resident tells Arab News
  • Death toll exceeds 1,500 as Turkiye activates level 4 alert state

ANKARA:Turkish survivors of one of the Middle East’s most devastating earthquakes in decades have relayed their harrowing experiences of surviving the disaster, which left buildings “folding like paper towels.”
Berjin and her cousin Rojhat, who were holidaying in Turkiye’s southeastern province of Diyarbakir, were about to return to their hometown, Van, in the country’s east, before the quake struck.
But early on Monday, the shockwave destroyed the building where Rojhat, a local football player, was sleeping. After emergency services arrived to rescue people from the rubble, Berjin waited for hours in front of the collapsed building in a distraught state.
After Rojhat was rescued, the two returned to Van, where an aftershock struck later in the day. “Please stop, it is such a strong quake, please stop,” Berjin cried in a video capturing lights and furniture shaking in her home.
Berjin, interviewed by Arab News, was was left waiting outside her destroyed home in minus 15 degrees Celsius temperatures after the second quake. The building was one of many in the city that had yet to be renovated following a 2011 earthquake, which killed hundreds of people.

Rescue workers search for survivors under the rubble following an earthquake in Diyarbakir, Turkey February 6, 2023. (Reuters)

Turkiye began the new week with a devastating and deadly 7.8-magnitude earthquake — one of the most powerful to hit the region in decades — killing more than 1,500 people in the country and in neighhboring Syria. About 3,000 buildings were destroyed.
The quake struck just after 4 a.m. Monday morning local time, 23 km east of Nurdagi, Gaziantep province, at a depth of 24.1 km, according to data from the US Geological Survey.
The earthquake also devastated parts of Syria, claiming hundreds of lives in the country. Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and Egypt were also affected.
There was another 7.5-magnitude earthquake at noon on Monday, with the epicenter recorded near Turkiye’s southeastern Kahramanmaras province.
A hospital in southeastern Sanliurfa province was completely destroyed by the earthquake, with many patients left trapped under rubble.
Turkiye stopped oil flow to the southern Ceyhan export terminal as a precaution.

People search through rubble following an earthquake in Adana, Turkey February 6, 2023. (Reuters)

Ozcan Karakoc, a teacher at a state-run school in Diyarbakir, immediately ran to his school building once he felt the quake.
He was involved in assisting survivors next to the school, providing blankets and food to those rescued from nearby buildings.
The school is in Baglar district, one of the most-affected areas in Diyarbakir and also one of the poorest.
“I live in Seyrantepe district of Diyarbakir where buildings were relatively new and we didn’t have so much damage inside the houses. But the building next to our school was about an eight-story old building where more than 200 people were living. It folded like a paper tower in seconds,” Karakoc told Arab News.
He now anxiously awaits news from his students, with many living in run-down housing in Baglar.
After the quakes, the streets of Diyarbakir filled with people, including children, dressed in pajamas in the freezing weather.

Rescuers work at the site of a collapsed building following an earthquake in Adana, Turkey February 6, 2023. (Reuters)

Berrak Demirel, another resident in Diyarbakir, was sleeping when the earthquake struck the city.
She ran out of her home with her husband and children when the second quake ended.
“We stayed long hours outside, but had to come back home due to the freezing weather conditions in the city,” she told Arab News.
Turkish armed forces set up an air aid corridor in the earthquake zone.
Misel Uyar, a resident of Iskenderun, a town in southern Hatay provice, said that a hospital in the area was destroyed in the quake, with health workers and patients inside.
Several new buildings collapsed despite having supposedly been built to modern standards, he added.
Iskenderun port was also damaged during the quake.
“It was the strongest earthquake I’ve ever experienced,” Uyar told Arab News, adding that many of the town’s older buildings were destroyed in the quake.
“Another old building, just some meters away from my house, also collapsed, with several people dying inside.
“All our churches in the region were completely destroyed. The policeman guarding the Orthodox Church died as well because of a stone hitting his body. People took shelter in cars due to the fear of the aftershocks,” said Uyar.
Main opposition Republican People’s Party deputy Ali Oztunc, from Kahramanmaras province, was present in the quake zone during an interview with Arab News.
“All our local municipalities and AFAD, the disaster agency, are currently collaborating to rescue people and provide them with urgent needs,” he said.
“The 500-year-old unbreakable East Anatolian Fault passes beneath this city. We had urged the authorities several times in the past to take necessary precautions regarding the buildings.”
The need to build quake-resilient cities has been a top agenda in Turkiye for years, with prominent scientists warning authorities to take urgent measures.
About 18,000 people in Turkiye were killed in 1999 in a 7.4 magnitude earthquake that rocked the Marmara region.
Another earthquake that hit the country in 1939 killed about 33,000 people.
Renate Cavdar, a music teacher in southeastern Gaziantep province, was surprised at the severity of the quake.
“It was felt so strongly. Several roads are blocked because they were damaged by the earthquake, and bulldozers have to clear the debris to open the passage,” she told Arab News.
“In Islahiye district, a building where an old relative was living collapsed. We are now trying to reach the area to get information from her,” Cavdar said.
According to the latest reports, several local politicians were killed in the region, which is also home to millions of Syrian refugees.
In the southeastern province of Adiyaman, a municipality building collapsed.
The campuses of some local universities were opened to host survivors.
Niyazi Buluter, a civil society activist for the Roma community in Gaziantep, lost six relatives in the quake, including children.
“I have been informed that some family died as the old building they were residing collapsed in seconds during the quake. Low-income people were residing in this district,” said Buluter.
“Several buildings also collapsed in our area. There were some cracks in our one-story house. But we couldn’t stand during the quake. It was so strong. I have a disabled child; I took him in my arms and ran out of the house quickly. May God protect poor people.”
Volkan Demirel, technical director of Hatayspor football team, appealed for humanitarian assistance in an emotional video posted on social media.
Several countries expressed solidarity with Turkiye after Monday’s earthquake.
“I have been in touch with Turkish officials to relay that we stand ready to provide any and all needed assistance,” White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said on Twitter.
“We will continue to closely monitor the situation in coordination with Turkiye,” he added.
Having declared a level four alert state, Turkiye also requested international help through the Emergency Response Coordination Center, the EU’s civil protection program. In response, 45 countries offered to help in search and rescue efforts.
“We express our solidarity and sympathy to our brothers in Syria and Turkiye following the earthquake,” said Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Ministry.