Doha-Riyadh-Ankara, New Sunni Axis In Syria Turns Tables Against Assad

Led by new Saudi King Salman, an alliance of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey is aiding rebels, including jihadists, in new victories against Syrian President Assad's regime.

Erdogan and Salman in Riyadh in March
Erdogan and Salman in Riyadh in March
Benjamin Barthe and Marie Jégo

ISTANBUL — In the Syrian war of attrition, the rebels once again have the advantage. After leaning towards the regime for more than a year and a half, the balance of forces is now shifting in the other direction.

The changing fortunes have been attributed to a new military alliance, Jaish al-Fatah (Army of Conquest), that has been gathering jihadists, Salafist fighters and others close to the Muslim Brotherhood. The rebel forces have recently taken possession of the major part of the Idlib Governorate, in northern Syria, along the border with Turkey.

Several Syrian war experts say this resurgence of the rebellion is a result of a pact between Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, at the instigation of new Saudi King Salman, who took power in January. After years of mutual distrust, these three regional powers, fiercely hostile towards the Syrian regime, started joining efforts.

This rapprochement, which led to a new but limited round of weapon deliveries, is part of a much more active diplomacy Salman initiated to counter Iran's growing influence in the Middle East. In the same way that he's leading the Arab coalition against pro-Iranian Houthi militias in Yemen, the Saudi monarch seems eager to strengthen the rebels, to hasten the departure of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Iran's key regional ally.

"There's a very clear Salman effect," says Ahmed Tomeh, prime minister of Syria's interim government formed by the opposition, which indirectly controls parts of the country. "The coordination between Riyadh, Ankara and Doha has improved. The Saudi intervention in Yemen restored hope for Syrian rebels. They sense that important change is coming."

Jordanian security analyst Fayez al-Doueiri, who is in regular contact with the rebels, agrees. "The Doha-Riyadh-Ankara triangle has started working. Salman's positioning as new commander of the Arab world is pushing the brigades to reorganize themselves."

These two sources, along with a third one who works closely with Qatar's authorities, say that anti-Assad forces are now in possession of anti-tank weapons, including Tow missiles. But none of these sources reports any mass arrivals. Osama Abu Zayed, spokesman for the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the moderate branch of the rebellion, says it hasn't "received anything in five months." But he acknowledges that this could change very soon. "Saudi, Turkish and Qatari friends are considering supporting us."

As a sign of this renewed rebel confidence, the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), the main opposition political group, announced it would not send an emissary to Geneva, where special Syrian UN envoy Staffan de Mistura wishes to consult separately with each player in the crisis. "Assad is retreating," SNC President Khaled Khodja, recently told the Turkish press.

Tipping point

The first signs of the turnaround began on Dec. 15, 2014. That's when the al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda's Syrian branch, and the Islamist movement Ahrar ash-Sham — the two formations at the origin of Jaish al-Fatah — took control of the northern Wadi Deif military base, a critical cornerstone of Assad's regime.

The turnaround was confirmed during the winter, when fighters of the al-Shamia Front, Aleppo's main rebel force with close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, fought off the loyalist attack aiming to surround the eastern part of the city. And it accelerated at the end of March, with the collapses, one after the other, of Idlib, Jisr al-Shughur, and the nearby al-Qarmeed military camp.

This change in dynamic coincided with the emergence of a new regional order. Initiated by Salman, who was convinced the Brotherhood represented a far less urgent danger for Saudi Arabia than Iran, Saudi Arabia reached its hand out to both Qatar and Turkey.

The mended ties with the two countries came at the expense of Saudi Arabia's relationships with the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, on which Saudi Arabia had relied until then. "The Riyadh-Abu Dhabi-Cairo axis gave way to the Riyadh-Ankara-Doha axis, which is a lot more favorable to the anti-Assad forces," explains Qatar professor and defense expert Andreas Krieg. "Qatar Emir Tamim once again has significant leeway in Syria, whereas in 2014, by fear of displeasing King Abdullah, he had to revise downwards all his ambitions in the country."

During the Gulf Cooperation Council summit, held in Riyadh last week, Tamim was photographed chatting with Saudi crown prince Muhammad bin Nayef, who is said to be very fond of Qatar. The logical approach would be for the city-state to increase its aid to Ahrar ash-Sham and the al-Shamia Front, while Saudi Arabia increases support towards the Jaysh al-Islam (Army of Islam) Salafists, its main clients in Syria, ubiquitous in the outskirts of Damascus.

As for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, he is expected to arrive in the Saudi capital soon for his third visit this year. The left-wing opposition accuses him of providing logistical support to the al-Nusra Front, which he unconvincingly denies. According to the Turkish press, the Saudi monarch promised to support the creation of a no-fly zone in northern Syria, a measure that Turkey has been demanding for a long time.

The new Saudi-Qatar-Turkey alignment doesn't necessarily guarantee that the collapse of Assad's regime is near. In the short term, it is bound to lead to an escalation of clashes in the coming weeks. Determined to avenge the insult that was the loss of Jisr al-Shughur, an access point to the coastal zone, Damascus has launched an attack to retake control of the city.

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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