Iran-backed ‘rogue militias a future threat in Syria’

A picture shows members of the Syrian government forces and Russian military police standing at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Damascus, with a poster depicting President Bashar Assad seen in the background. (AFP)
Updated 01 March 2018

Iran-backed ‘rogue militias a future threat in Syria’

LONDON: Iran has strengthened its hand in Syria through proxy militias, which could cause further chaos and be difficult to dislodge when the war ends, according to observers.
Sinan Hatahet, senior associate fellow at Al-Sharq Forum and Omran for Strategic Studies, told a discussion panel at a Syria conference in London on Thursday that there would be ‘“new dynamics kicking in’’ when the fighting comes to an end with “a myriad of small conflicts that will emerge throughout the country.’’
Syrian President Bashar Assad’s attempts to plug major gaps in the Syrian army’s manpower by recruiting Iranian and Russian-sponsored fighters have led to a surplus of foreign fighters on the ground, creating “huge doubt” over the government’s capacity to control these groups in future, Hatahet said.
A discussion on regime-held areas at the Demystifying the Syrian Conflict conference at Chatham House highlighted the influence of militias in areas where the situation is “hugely complex,’’ Hatahet said.
Senior US officials believe that up to 80 percent of the Syrian army is made up of foreign fighters, many of whom are loyal to international forces, including Hezbollah and other Shiite militias with ties to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards and Iraqi Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), according to the Middle East Institute.
In an article published on the institute’s website, Charles Lister and Dominic Nelson said: “Militias loyal to Iran in Syria, in tandem with the Iran-backed elements of the PMU in Iraq, have successfully secured the strategically significant Iranian goal of a land route from Tehran through Baghdad and Damascus to Beirut and the Mediterranean.
“Given the gains these militias have reaped for Iran, it is virtually impossible to see why they would surrender to Russian and Syrian central control in the name of future peace.”
Estimates from 2016 suggest that the number of troops under direct Syrian government influence is between 20,000 and 25,000 compared with between 150,000 and 200,000 militia fighting for the regime. 
Assad has tried to redress the imbalance by stepping up conscription and offering former defectors case settlements to return, but this has failed to shift the balance on the ground.
Higher salaries financed by Iran, more freedom and less accountability have also made the militias more attractive than the army for some young men.
In this context, it is unlikely militia members will be kept in check by offers to join the army after the conflict, leading some to question who they will answer to in the aftermath. 
Wael Sawah, Editor-in-Chief of The Syrian Observer, an independent news website, said the “Syrian regime is in a state of self-defense’’ as it tries to play off competing Russian and Iranian interests. 
While the regime lacks a clear reconstruction plan, paying back Russian and Iranian forces for their military and political support will be high on the agenda when it comes to rebuilding Syria, he said.
This presents a further destabilizing influence on Syria as Russia and Iran compete for control over the country’s resources, including phosphate and gas, while jostling for influence in the government to enact their different visions for reconstruction.
Chairing the Chatham House discussion, Lina Sinjab, Middle East correspondent for the BBC, highlighted the “impression among many that the Iranians are trying to change the demography in Syria.’’
Iran is consolidating its position in the suburbs surrounding Damascus “to create a belt around the area so they can control it better,” Hatahet said.

How ‘liquid of life’ is under threat in the Middle East

Updated 22 March 2019

How ‘liquid of life’ is under threat in the Middle East

  • An increasing number of people in the region do not have access to clean water and basic sanitation
  • In 2015, there were more than 51 million people in the Arab region lacking access to basic drinking water services, and more than 74 million without access to basic sanitation services

DUBAI: World Water Day had somewhat of an abysmal feel to it across the Middle East this year, as the region witnesses a growing number of people with no access to supplies of the vital resource.

Although the issue of supply has always been critical for the Arab region, known to be one of the most water-scarce in the world, matters are only getting worse with a rise in refugees and the displaced.

“The freshwater scarcity situation is aggravated by several factors, such as dependency on shared water resources, climate change, pollution, non-revenue water losses from aging systems, intermittency, inefficient use, and high population growth,” said Ziad Khayat, first economic affairs officer in water resources in the Sustainable Development Policies Division at the United Nations’ Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA). “Occupation and conflict also affect people’s ability to access water and sanitation services. The Arab region is perhaps the only one in the world still experiencing direct military occupation.”

He spoke of the Israeli occupation of Arab territories, which affects access to water resources and the ability of countries to properly manage and provide required water and sanitation services, with a ripple effect on food security, health and development. “Armed conflict in the region has resulted in the destruction of the water and sanitation infrastructure, hampering the provision of safe drinking water and sanitation,” he said. “In response to shortages, households resort to unregulated water vendors relying on compromised resources, such as unprotected wells. In addition, damaged wastewater systems have resulted in river waters and shallow wells becoming contaminated.”

Water shortages and electricity outages have rendered many health care facilities non-functional, while vulnerability to the outbreak of waterborne diseases, particularly for people living in conflict-affected countries, has greatly increased. “The systemic conditions affecting the Arab region’s water security are not expected to improve in the near future,” he said. “In fact, climate variability and change are projected to impose additional pressures, with adverse impacts on the quantity and quality of freshwater resources in an already water-scarce region, affecting its ability to ensure food security, sustain rural livelihoods and preserve ecosystems.”

A higher frequency and intensity of floods, droughts and extreme weather is being experienced in many countries, which aggravates the situation of vulnerable communities and has led to economic losses and environmental degradation in several parts of the region. “The region has a high population growth rate and is one of the most urbanized in the world, with more than 58 percent of the population now living in cities,” Khayat said. “It has witnessed significant and uneven urban transformations, with some countries undergoing rapid wealth generation, others confronting economic challenges, and several afflicted by conflicts that have led to major displacement and migration of large sections of the population.”

Such trends are expected to place more stress on the urban infrastructure, particularly in water, given the scarcity conditions in the region. And with 86 percent of the region’s population — or nearly 362 million people — living in countries under water scarcity or absolute water scarcity, action is needed. “The predictions are that water scarcity is only going to get worse unless we change the way we manage the resource,” said Monika Weber-Fahr, executive secretary at the Global Water Partnership. “I remain an optimist. We were able to meet some of the water-related Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and now, with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), there is a new and broader resolve to, not just improve water supply and sanitation, but take a more holistic approach to managing water, including its transboundary aspects.”

“Leaving no one behind” is the theme of this year’s World Water Day at the UN. The central challenge, Weber-Fahr believes, is that to achieve efficient, equitable, and sustainable water management, all parties must have genuine opportunities to actively participate in water management decisions. “Only then can decisions be taken that reflect how we all value water — reflecting its social, economic and environmental value,” she said. “We need to create a safe space for people to come together to build common ground for water management decisions, working with everyone, everywhere.”

In 2015, there were more than 51 million people in the Arab region lacking access to basic drinking water services, and more than 74 million without access to basic sanitation services. Access to water and sanitation  is also lacking in rural areas compared with urban areas. “The record shows that in the past 10 to 12 years in the Arab region, the overall proportion of population with access to safe drinking water has improved from 85 percent to 90, almost reaching the global average of 91, but deteriorated in Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Yemen, where it dropped from 94 percent to 88 due to military occupation, civil conflicts and insufficient investments,” said Dr. Waleed Zubari, professor in water resources management at the Arabian Gulf University in Bahrain. “Disparity between urban and rural population in both services continues to be considerably large, especially in the lower-income countries. This is expected to continue with the civil conflicts in Syria and Yemen and in Iraq, and under the military occupation of the West Bank and the blockade of the Gaza Strip.”

If only excess water during rainy days can be stored for use during the dry months, water shortage wouldnot be much of a problem. (AN file photo)

Climate change and drought are also expected to worsen river flows, which is the main source of water for many Arab countries such as Egypt, Iraq and Syria. “Whether we have achieved a universal access to water for all the population or not, there are some challenges that will stay with us in the Arab region,” he said. “Scarcity of water resources and limited endowments facing increasing water demands due to increased population will continue to be a major challenge in the region. Another issue that needs immediate attention is the water supply and use efficiency, recycling and reusing water, considered very low in the region, and if worked on, will reduce water stress tremendously.”

Peace and stability will also help improve the situation, as well as rebuilding the water sector in countries shattered by civil war and occupation. Similarly, water management, efficiency and conservation in policies will need to progress.

For Dr. Ahmed Murad, dean of the college of science at United Arab Emirates University, said that providing clean water for the population is essential for all communities. “Historically, the absence of water could increase conflicts between nations,” he said. “Latest statistics show that about 844 million people in the world live without access to safe water, and one in nine lack the access to safe water.”

He spoke of more pronounced circumstances in the Middle East, with high temperatures and a low amount of rainfall. “Such conditions with population growth may reduce the availability of clean water due to a high demand on water resources,” he said. “The limited and diverse water resources will pressurize natural resources, and this will continue to deteriorate if no action is taken.”