U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was pleased to conclude his assignment for the international organization with a grand tour of the Middle East, where Lebanon was one of his stops. Lebanese Speaker of the Parliament Nabih Berri saw the occasion as a chance to persuade the secretary-general of the need to demarcate maritime borders for its exclusive economic zone with Israel. Also note that the U.S. administration recognized an area of 580 square km (220 square miles) in a report submitted by the expert Frederic C. Hof, and that professional geologists assert the area is actually more than 800 square km (310 square miles).
The speaker of the parliament’s petition came as a continuation of attempts that Berri made with U.S. State Department Special Envoy Amos Hochstein, during his visit to Lebanon. The reason, as some of the southern district deputies see it, is tied to Lebanon’s fundamental need to invest in oil and gas exploration in territorial waters, especially after public debt jumped to more than $70 billion at a time when bankers are predicting a decrease in annual foreign revenues from $7 billion to $5 billion.
Another reason relates to the possibility of Israel extracting oil from Lebanese fields by means of horizontal drilling. This portends that every delay in the investment process reduces the future production of Lebanese oil fields and increases Israel’s desire to monopolize joint discoveries with Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey and Cyprus.
In 2000, the Consolidated Contractors Company discovered an oil field called Gaza Marine. The field contains an estimated one trillion cubic feet of gas and is located 30 km west of Gaza’s coastline. However, Israel insisted on closing the field, saying that Hamas would exploit the source of income to increase terrorism, and would transfer some of the profits to an aid fund for Palestine.
Observers of the secretary-general’s talks in Lebanon say that he directed the attention of officials to the need to resume the demarcation of boundaries with Syria on the northern and eastern sides. Perhaps it was Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent proposal that spurred Ban Ki-moon to stir up this old issue. Putin suggested the importance of establishing a federation in Syria to solve problems arising from the society’s ethnic and sectarian composition. Therein lies a rich combination of contradictions that federalism could help to alleviate by melting the Alawites, Kurds, Christians, Sunnis, Armenians, Assyrians, Chaldeans and Druze into one pot. It is significant that Lebanon was intent on demarcating its borders with Syria, a matter that encouraged the Directorate of Geographic Affairs to approach Damascus about it. The Defense Ministry entrusted the issue to Lieutenant Colonel Yusef al-Bitar, Amin Abd al-Malak, who is an engineer and head of the Surveying Division, and Albir Mata, who is an engineer at the Directorate of Geographic Affairs.
Meanwhile, the Syrian delegation was formed as follows: Ahmed Ibara, engineer and director general of the Real Estate Authority, Brigadier Abd al-Wadud al-Sabai, and Abd al-Hakim Abbas, engineer and director of Surveying. On the Lebanese side, survey maps relied on the first official maps of the area that were created by the French engineer Draveur. These maps indicated that the borders were overlapping on both sides.
It can be concluded from Ban Ki-moon’s comments about the necessity of demarcating the Lebanese borders with Syria that he believes the region is entering a phase in which new borders for new countries will be created. He is also convinced that Syria will face disintegration and a restructuring of areas in a manner that resembles the redrawing of borders in the region after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.
President Bashar Assad is aware of the significance of the ground that his troops have regained. This is something that Russian President Putin helped to ensure for Assad. Retaking Palmyra also provides Moscow with valuable negotiation material that can be employed in Ukraine.
Informed sources released an intriguing piece of news last week in connection with the meetings between American Secretary of State John Kerry, President Putin, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Although Moscow has been silent about the details of the meeting, there were several indicators that Moscow was anticipating an agreement on Bashar Assad departing to Iran, albeit with differences as to when the zero hour would be. The French press questioned Kerry’s mission, owing to its conviction that President Barack Obama has steered clear of crises in the Middle East. Some French media outlets mentioned the decision Obama made in September 2013 to retreat from the red line that the White House had placed on using chemical weapons. At that time, the American president had promised to strike Syrian regime forces in the event that there was proof Assad had poisoned thousands of his citizens with gas. But Obama backed out of his pledge in favor of Russian and Syrian assent to take these weapons out of circulation.
In a book he published last summer, former Israeli Ambassador to Washington Michael Oren claimed that the idea of removing chemical weapons in exchange for Washington holding back from bombing Assad’s forces was an Israeli one. He said that Yuval Steinitz presented the initiative at that time!
The British media says that an American-Russian agreement on Assad’s departure is no longer valid after Assad’s forces took back Palmyra with Russian air support. Assad’s capture of Palmyra was welcomed with expressions of overwhelming joy expressed by political and cultural figures, with London Mayor Boris Johnson at the forefront.
The truth of the matter is that the Islamic State group’s destruction of historical monuments and treasures was the impetus that encouraged Assad to recover the city, even if it meant paying a high price in regime soldiers. Additionally, its particular strategic location motivated Russia to intensify its airstrikes.
The geographic location of Palmyra is indicative of its historical value. Being in the center of the country, it was built up as a hub between Damascus and Deir ez-Zor, where communication with Iraq was more accessible. The military assumes that Assad’s next step will be to focus on entering Deir ez-Zor with the goal of regaining control of border crossings with Iraq.
At the same time Assad could push his troops to recover Raqqa, which was taken by Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as his capital. This would trap the Islamic State group on three sides — from the northeast along the Turkish border, from the west where the Syrian army will be deployed, and from the east where the Iraqi army, which is currently escalating its attacks on Mosul, will be.
Observers say that Assad’s victory in Palmyra granted him additional morale. All of this after securing his rule in Damascus and sectioning off the Alawite coast. This being the case, he will be compelled to retake the south of the country, close to the border with Jordan, where the revolution originated five years ago.
Observers see that the Islamic State group lost power in Iraq and Syria after deciding to expand its foreign networks into Libya, Tunisia, Paris and Brussels. At the beginning of last year the group was expelled from the Turkish border city of Ayn al-Arab (also known as Kobani) by Kurdish YPG forces.
In March of last year, Iraqi forces took back the city of Tikrit. Washington’s airplanes participated in the retaking of this key city, inhabited by a Sunni majority, in Salah al-Din province. In November of the same year, Kurdish forces retook Sinjar, where the Islamic State group had committed barbaric atrocities against the Yazidi minority. Recapturing Sinjar cut off a strategic route that the Islamic State group had been using to move between Iraq and Syria, making it a major military victory.
At the end of last year, Iraqi forces retook the city of Ramadi, 100 km west of Baghdad. On March 24, the Syrian army entered the ancient city of Palmyra. However, this sudden entrance raised a lot of questions about the way the regime deliberately turned a blind eye after the Islamic State group’s takeover and occupation of the “Pearl of the Desert.” This is because in May of last year Assad’s troops withdrew from Palmyra hours before the arrival of al-Baghdadi’s convoy. Although the road leading to the citadel was in plain view of regime airplanes, Assad did not order his air forces to move. He simply ordered the transport of detainees from Tadmor Prison to other prisons in Damascus. After the Islamic State group took over the citadel and the surrounding city, it ordered the beheading of the 82-year-old Khaled Asaad, who had been the city’s head of antiquities for 50 years. One week later they carried out the destruction of temples and monuments.
The Syrian opposition interprets Assad’s reluctance to strike Islamic State group forces on the desert road to Palmyra as a political decision to prevent reporters and photographers from entering Tadmor Prison. The reason is that in Hafez Assad’s era it received thousands of prisoners who were members of the Muslim Brotherhood along with others. Human rights organizations have published dozens of books on this prison that sustained seven massacres. Among those imprisoned were Syrians, Lebanese (600 people), Palestinians and Jordanians. After the liberation of Palmyra, maybe the regime will accuse the Islamic State group of being responsible for all the atrocities and crimes.
In looking back at a period of over 60 years, five years of Bashar Assad’s rule stand out as a time when Syria lost more than 300,000 people to death, and when civil war caused the flight of more than seven million. Syria will need $200 billion from neutral countries to rebuild its destroyed cities.
Despite this absurd war, Bashar Assad is seeking to strengthen his negotiating position now that he has recovered the “Pearl of the Desert,” after leaving it to his opponent Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi!