Aleppo siege marks dramatic upheaval on Syrian battlefield

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CNN, by Tim Lister, Feb. 7, 2016:

The images from Aleppo, Idlib and Syria’s border with Turkey can be described in one word: despair.

Tens of thousands of people have fled the relentless bombing and shelling that has paved the way for dramatic battlefield gains by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and its allies. Hundreds of thousands more remain trapped, awaiting their fate with trepidation.

In the space of a few weeks, the Syrian battlefield has been transformed, the balance of forces pulverized and the prospects for peace talks — already dark — virtually extinguished. Another tide of displaced civilians converge on the Turkish border, trapped by the advance of regime forces.

Last week, the regime of Bashar al-Assad, supported by Iranian and Lebanese Shia militia, severed the main road from Aleppo to the Turkish border, a narrow corridor through which the rebels and NGOs alike moved supplies. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reports that several villages in the area were hit by airstrikes on Sunday.

A defining battle for Aleppo, Syria’s largest city before the war, seems imminent. Regime forces and their allies on the ground, supported by Russian bombers in the air, are tightening the noose around the eastern half of the city, still held by a coalition of rebel groups. It’s estimated some 320,000 people still live, or subsist, there — under continual bombardment.

Shortages of diesel and food are reported, but many people simply don’t dare or can’t afford to leave. One civil defense worker told the Guardian newspaper: “They think, ‘We can die in our own homes, we don’t need to go to other places to die.’ “

Russian revolution

Beyond the humanitarian catastrophe that looms, the plight of Aleppo symbolizes the rapid transformation of the Syrian battlefield since the regime, Iran and Russia came together. For much of 2015, Assad’s forces were on the defensive, as rebel groups consolidated and took major towns in Idlib, the Aleppo countryside and began to attack regime strongholds in Latakia.

It was the very real possibility of regime collapse that prompted Russian intervention in September. Russian airstrikes and Iranian militia have since bolstered regime troops and reversed the tide. Aleppo is their most prized target.

“Should the rebel-held parts of the city ultimately fall, it will be a dramatic victory for Assad and the greatest setback to the rebellion since the start of the uprising in 2011,” says Emile Hokayem in Foreign Policy.

The Institute for the Study of War says a successful regime offensive around Aleppo would “shatter opposition morale, fundamentally challenge Turkish strategic ambitions and deny the opposition its most valuable bargaining chip before the international community.”

Rebel groups have made desperate appeals for help in defending the city.

The notoriously fractious resistance groups are declaring alliances to bolster their collective resistance. One of the most important groups, Ahrar al Sham, announced at the weekend: “We extend our hands to all factions of the Syrian revolution … and we announce our acceptance for unity with them without any prerequisites.”

But even briefly united, they can’t shoot down planes, and they don’t have T-90 tanks.

Since Russia began its air campaign, most of its strikes have been on cities and towns held by the rebels in western Syria. The aim: to link regime-held territory from the capital to the coast. These are not areas where ISIS has much of a presence; al Nusra, Ahrar al Sham and elements of the Free Syrian Army are the main groups.

Resistance has been fierce, but the sheer scale of the assault has gradually pried one town after another — or rather their ruins — from rebel hands.

In the process, senior rebel commanders have been killed in Homs, Idlib and Aleppo provinces.

Some commentators believe that the Assad regime and Russia set out to hoodwink the West by agreeing to the Geneva peace process while stepping up their military campaign, to create “facts on the ground” that would vastly change the balance in the negotiations.

“Their ultimate objective is to force the world to make an unconscionable choice between Assad and ISIS,” says Hokayem. For now, ISIS is waiting out the battle for Aleppo and watching its rivals get pummeled. It is crowing that it is the only real defender of Sunni Muslims against the Shia-dominated forces now on the offensive.

The Syrian Kurds, whose attitude toward the Assad regime might be described as ambivalent, also appear to be taking advantage of the situation, chipping away at rebel-held villages north of Aleppo. According to diplomats in the region, they are being encouraged by Russia — keen to antagonize Turkey at any opportunity.

For Aleppo, read Grozny

Some analysts compare Russian President Vladimir Putin’s strategy in Syria with the Russian campaign in Chechnya in 1999, which he directed as Prime Minister. All opposition figures were marked as terrorists, and Russian forces destroyed cities such as Grozny in which insurgents lived, as well as the insurgents themselves. By some estimates, 80% of Grozny was rendered uninhabitable. Human Rights Watch published a report on the Chechen campaign in 2000 entitled “Welcome to Hell” and accusing Russian forces of egregious human rights violations.

Putin pursued an exclusively military solution against the Chechen insurgency, and ultimately it worked. It took six years and an unknown number of Russian military casualties, but today acts of resistance in Chechnya are few and far between, and the republic is run by a Putin loyalist.

The same approach is apparent in Syria. After his meeting with Putin at the United Nations in September, U.S. President Barack Obama said of the Russians’ view of the rebels: “From their perspective, they’re all terrorists.”

But Chechnya is not the only precedent.

Jihadists, some of them from the Caucasus, have threatened to turn Syria into another Afghanistan for the Russians. While they may be driven from territory they hold, they are unlikely to be driven from Syria and could revert to insurgency tactics such as ambushes, assassinations and suicide bombings.

To some analysts, the regime advance will only radicalize what remains of rebel forces in Syria. Hokayem speaks of a “widespread and understandable feeling of betrayal in the rebellion, whose U.S.-friendly elements are increasingly losing face within opposition circles.”

Last month, Osama Abu Zeid, a senior adviser to the moderate Free Syrian Army, complained that “the U.S. is gradually moving from a neutral position toward being a partner in crime as it allows Assad and his allies to kill Syrians.”

Several rebel groups, as well as Turkish officials, blame Washington for the failure to establish a “safe-haven” inside Syria last year. Some in Washington take the same view.

In an Op-Ed for The Washington Post, two former senior officials, Nicholas Burns and James Jeffries, urge the Obama administration to “dramatically expand funding for the moderate Sunni and Kurdish forces that pose an alternative to Assad’s government and the Islamic State” and “reconsider what it has rejected in the past: the creation of a safe zone in northern Syria to protect civilians, along with a no-fly zone to enforce it.”

But they acknowledge that “defending the zone, preventing it from being overwhelmed by refugees, grounding it in a convincing legal justification and keeping out jihadist groups would be daunting tasks.”

Europe’s next nightmare

The United Nations estimated Friday that 40,000 people have already been displaced by the fighting in Aleppo. But the current exodus is by no means the first since the Russian air campaign began. In just three weeks in October, the United Nations reported the displacement of 120,000 people from Aleppo, Hama and Idlib. Nor will it be the last.

Turkey — which already has 2.5 million Syrian refugees on its soil — says it is close to capacity. The European Union is pouring cash ($3.3 billion) into a vastly expanded program to house refugees in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, trying to forestall another surge of refugees across the Mediterranean. But it may not be enough.

Some EU officials see Europe’s expensive and divisive refugee crisis as an intended consequence of Russian policy.

“Putin likes to cast himself as a man of order, but his policies have brought more chaos, and Europe is set to pay an increasing price,” says Guardian columnist Natalie Nougayrède.

A ‘painful year’

The main supporters of the rebels in northwest Syria — Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar — are now short of options. They could send weapons across the border into Idlib, but the province is largely controlled by al Nusra.

They seem unlikely to walk away from a struggle in which they have invested so heavily and watch their Shia enemies — Hezbollah, the Alawite-led regime, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard — claim victory.

Fabrice Balanche at the Washington Institute speculates they may try to “set up a new rebel umbrella group similar to Jaish al-Fatah, and/or send anti-aircraft missiles to certain brigades…(or) open a new front in northern Lebanon.”

“The question is, do Riyadh and Ankara have the means and willingness to conduct such a bold, dangerous action?” Balanche asks.

It is hard to find anyone who believes the situation in Syria will get better before it gets much worse.

“The conditions are in place,” says Hokayem, “for a disastrous collapse of the Geneva talks — now delayed until late February — and a painful, bloody year in Syria.”

Also see:

U.S. Spots Russian Commandos in Syria

AP

AP

Spetsnaz troops helping Syrian, Hezbollah, foreign forces near Aleppo, Latakia

Washington Free Beacon, by Bill Gertz and Adam Kredo, Feb. 2, 2016:

Russian special operations troops are working covertly in Syria to support an array of Iranian-backed fighters, including members of the international terrorist group Hezbollah, U.S. defense officials and counterterror experts say.

The Spetsnaz commandos were detected working closely with military forces of the regime of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, as well as several Iranian-backed groups, which even include armed Iraqis and Afghans.

Officials did not disclose the specific numbers of Spetsnaz troops in Syria but said the numbers were in the dozens.

Recent operations involving Spetsnaz forces have been focused on attacking anti-regime rebels near the northern city of Aleppo. The city has also been a target of Russian airstrikes.

However, officials said reports from Syria that Spetsnaz troops are working with pro-Iranian Hezbollah forces are a growing concern. Officials are worried the terrorist group, which is known for attacking Americans, will gain valuable military know-how from the Russian commandos.

Hezbollah, or Party of God, is a Lebanon-based terror group that the U.S. Counterterrorism Center has linked to numerous attacks that have killed scores of Americans since the 1980s.

“Although Hezbollah’s leadership is based in Lebanon, the group has established cells worldwide,” the Center states.

Hezbollah’s leader stated in May 2013 that the group is backing the Assad regime by dispatching fighters to Syria.

“Russian-Hezbollah cooperation and coordination in Syria has been going on since the outset of Russia’s entry into the civil war,” said David Daoud, a Middle East analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

“Iranian and Hezbollah sources have openly admitted, on a number of occasions, that Hezbollah ground operations during key battles in the war were carried out with Russian air support,” Daoud said. “So it wouldn’t be surprising that there’s now cooperation between Hezbollah’s ground forces and Russian special forces.”

Despite its record of anti-U.S. attacks, the U.S. government has done little to counter Hezbollah or retaliate against it.

Hezbollah’s military commander, Imad Mughniyah, was killed in a car bomb attack in Damascus in February 2008. Israel was suspected of carrying out the bombing.

Iranian-backed militants and organizations like the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps have long been suspected of serving as Russia’s de facto “ground force” in Syria, according to defense officials monitoring the situation.

One Pentagon official recently told the Washington Free Beacon that military sources have continued to monitor “Iranian-sponsored forces providing support to the Syrian regime in their fight against Syrian opposition forces.”

Rep. Ed Royce (R., Calif.), chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, disclosed late last year that military leaders had informed him of Hezbollah-led “ethnic cleansing” campaigns.

“I’ve been briefed on the fact that [Iran is] even bringing in militias from Hezbollah and their families into Sunni dominated neighborhoods in Damascus and running their Sunni population out as they basically do an ethnic cleansing campaign,” Royce said.

The deployment of Russian special operations troops to Syria illustrates the growing role for covert military forces from numerous countries in the war-torn country.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter disclosed last month that U.S. special operations commandos are operating in Syria to assist rebel forces opposing the Islamic State (ISIS).

The U.S. commandos were sent in November as part of the Obama administration’s latest strategy to defeat the terrorist group.

The elite U.S. warriors are engaged in intelligence-gathering, targeting enemy forces, and advising rebels.

“These operators have helped focus the efforts of the local, capable forces against key ISIL vulnerabilities, including their lines of communication,” Carter said in a speech Jan. 13, using an alternative acronym for ISIS. “They are generating new insights that we turn into new targets, new strikes, and new opportunities.”

Recent news reports from Syria have indicated Hezbollah is working with Spetsnaz troops in the eastern part of the country.

The Arabic-language Al Rai newspaper reported on Jan. 26 that the commandos were making military advances in the mountains north of Latakia.

“Special forces from the Russian army equipped with Howitzer artillery, supported by warplanes and backed by elite units from Lebanon’s Hezbollah … have been entering the fiercest of battles in the heights and towns of Latakia,” the newspaper reported. The paper quoted sources in a Damascus operations center that included military forces from Russia, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Hezbollah.

Boris Zilberman, also with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said the Russian-Hezbollah collaboration is not surprising.

“Russia recently said they do not consider Hezbollah a terrorist group and there are unconfirmed reports that Hezbollah militants participated in the search and rescue of the downed Russian Su-24 pilots,” Zilberman said.

Two Russian pilots were shot down and one killed when their aircraft strayed into Turkish airspace in November.

Russia continued airstrikes in northern Syria on Monday with Moscow reporting attacks on ISIS oil depots near Aleppo and other areas.

Two weeks ago, Western reporters visited Russia’s main Syrian base at Hmeimim, near Latakia, where Spetznaz troops were seen conducting security details. The commandos reportedly were dispatched to Syria on orders from Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

Russia’s special operations troops are considered among the most well-trained and well-equipped elite troops used for both combat and intelligence-related activities.

Russian bombers destroyed more than 1,300 terrorist targets in 468 sorties over the past week, Russia’s state-run Interfax news agency reported Feb. 1.

The strikes were carried out by Tu-22 bombers and Su-35 strike aircraft.

Also see:

The CIA’s Syria Program and the Perils of Proxies

Fadi Al-Halabi/AFP/Getty Images

Fadi Al-Halabi/AFP/Getty Images

Daily Beast, by Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Nathaniel Barr, Jan. 19, 2016:

After fighting al Qaeda and its affiliates for a decade and a half, the CIA is now helping them gain ground in Syria.
Almost every aspect of the Obama administration’s policy toward Syria has been scrutinized, lambasted or praised in recent months, but one of the most significant facets, the CIA’s covert aid program to Syrian rebels, has largely slipped below the radar.

It is time that we start paying attention, since this initiative is benefiting the very jihadist groups the U.S. has been fighting for the past 15 years.

America’s abrupt about-face is a mistake, but even those who would defend this new course as the least bad option should favor a more robust public debate.

The CIA’s program, launched in 2013, initially was conceived as a way of strengthening moderate rebels fighting Bashar al-Assad’s regime without significantly increasing the U.S. footprint in the conflict.

The program got off to a slow start, with rebel commanders grumbling that the CIA was stingy due to its concern that weapons would fall into extremists’ hands. As a result, moderate rebels were forced at times to ration ammunition. At least one rebel group severed its ties with the CIA and joined an Islamist-led coalition, while other CIA-backed rebels stopped fighting.

After these early hiccups, the program evolved.

Anonymous U.S. officials now tell the media that CIA-backed rebels have begun to experience unprecedented successes, particularly in northwestern Syria. Yet these gains reveal a darker side to the CIA-backed groups’ victories, and even American officials’ framing of these advances provides reason for concern. As the Associated Press reported in October, officials have explained that the CIA-backed groups were capturing new territory by “fighting alongside more extremist factions.”

Who are these extremist co-belligerents? Analysis of the geography of “moderate” rebels’ gains during this period and reports from the battlefield demonstrate that CIA-backed groups collaborated with Jaysh al-Fateh, an Islamist coalition in which Jabhat al-Nusra—al Qaeda’s official Syrian affiliate—is a leading player.

Hassan Hassan, co-author (with The Daily Beast’s Michael Weiss) of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, suggested that rebel gains in Idlib in April 2015 showcased the symmetries between CIA-backed forces and Nusra when he attributed the rebels’ successes to suicide bombers (frequently deployed by Nusra and other jihadists) and “American anti-tank TOW missiles.” In southern Syria, the CIA-backed Southern Front fought alongside Nusra in the campaign to take the city of Deraa in June 2015.

CIA-backed groups in northwestern Syria publicly acknowledge their relationship with the al Qaeda affiliate. A commander of Fursan ul-Haq, a rebel group that received TOW missiles through CIA channels, explained that “there is something misunderstood by world powers: We have to work with Nusra Front and other groups to fight” both Assad’s regime and the Islamic State.

Similarly, a spokesman for CIA-backed Suqour al-Ghab justified his group’s collaboration with Nusra by noting that “we work with all factions when there are attacks on the regime, either through direct cooperation or just coordinating the movements of troops so we don’t fire at each other.”

The fact that CIA-backed groups collaborate with Nusra does not necessarily prove that they harbor jihadist sympathies, nor that they hoodwinked the American officials who vetted them. In many or perhaps most cases, these groups’ decision to cooperate with Nusra is born out of pragmatism.

When fighting a regime as brutal as Assad’s, it is natural to look for allies wherever they may be found. Further, as one of the dominant players in northern Syria, Nusra can dictate terms to smaller rebel factions. The experiences of Harakat Hazm and the Syrian Revolutionary Front, two CIA-backed groups that Nusra literally obliterated in late 2014, are a stark warning.

Jamaal Maarouf, the commander of the Syrian Revolutionary Front, explainedafter his group was ousted from Syria that no militia in the rebel umbrella organization known as the Free Syrian Army can operate in northern Syria “without Nusra’s approval.”

Because of Nusra’s strength, CIA-backed factions have entered what has beencalled a “marriage of necessity” with the jihadist group, which is exploiting its position to gain access to American weapons.

After rebels seized a Syrian military base in Idlib province in December 2014, CIA-backed groups admitted that they had been forced to use U.S.-provided TOW missiles to support the Nusra-led offensive. One rebel explained that Nusra had allowed CIA-backed groups to retain physical control of the missiles so as to maintain the veneer of autonomy, thus allowing them to sustain their relationship with the CIA. In short, Nusra has at times gamed the system.

But such subterfuge notwithstanding, at this point it is impossible to argue that U.S. officials involved in the CIA’s program cannot discern that Nusra and other extremists have benefited. And despite this, the CIA decided to drastically increase lethal support to vetted rebel factions following the Russian intervention into Syria in late September.

Rebels who previously complained about the CIA’s tight-fistedness suddenly found the floodgates open, particularly with respect to TOW missiles. One rebel explained: “We can get as much as we need and whenever we need them. Just fill in the numbers.” Reports suggest that the Obama administration and Sunni states backing the opposition have also discussed, though not committed to, providing shoulder-fired anti-aircraft weapons to vetted groups.

With the CIA doubling down on its support for Syrian rebels, it is now more important than ever to have a candid and vigorous public debate about the agency’s program. Put simply, such an about-face in U.S. policy—backing groups that help al Qaeda to make advances, after spending a decade and a half fighting the jihadist group—should not occur without a public debate that helps Americans understand why such drastic changes in U.S. policy have occurred.

Several prominent figures have defended this program. For instance, Robert Ford, the former U.S. ambassador to Syria, argued that by maintaining the supply of lethal support to moderate rebels, the CIA may ultimately be able to build up these factions as a viable alternative to Nusra, the Islamic State and Assad.

But the program’s costs outweigh its possible benefits. Though aiding al Qaeda’s advances is not the program’s intention, it is the effect. Thus, after fighting al Qaeda and its affiliates for a decade and a half, the CIA is now helping them gain ground in Syria.

At the moment, al Qaeda is trying to rebrand itself by contrasting its approach to that of the far more brutal Islamic State—and, unfortunately, it has experienced some success due to its jihadist competitor’s excesses and the escalating conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Al Qaeda has portrayed itself to Sunni states and the Muslim public as a bulwark against both the Islamic State’s growth and Iranian encroachment. If U.S.-backed rebels are cooperating with al Qaeda, the United States will be hard-pressed to stop al Qaeda from gaining more room to operate in the region.

It is unlikely that the United States, with no meaningful presence in Syria, understands the situation on the ground better than al Qaeda, and can strategically outmaneuver the jihadist group. The danger is too great that continuation of this policy will empower Nusra further, eventually forcing policymakers to confront a greatly emboldened al Qaeda force in Syria.

This is why, at the very least, we should have a robust public discussion about whether to continue this course in Syria—a debate that the U.S. Congress is well positioned to kickstart through public hearings on the CIA’s program. Allowing this program to continue without carefully thinking through the benefits, costs, and possible unintended consequences is incredibly risky, and could erode public trust and support.

***

Also see:

Former Syrian “Moderate” Commander Killed

The ISIS Study Group, Dec. 26, 2015:

A former “moderate” anti-Assad commander known as Zahran Alloush was killed in an airstrike launched in the Damascus-area. The New York Times is calling it a “significant blow” against the opposition and the cease-fire negotiations with the Assad regime. The truth is Alloush is hardly the “moderate” the likes of Senators McCain and Graham try to make him out to be.

Powerful Syrian Rebel Leader Reported Killed in Airstrike
http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/26/world/middleeast/zahran-alloush-syria-rebel-leader-reported-killed.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=first-column-region&region=top-news&WT.nav=top-news&_r=1

Plan to evacuate jihadists from south Damascus on hold
http://news.yahoo.com/syria-rebel-chief-zahran-alloush-killed-monitor-opposition-163954620.html

Alloush Source: Amer Almohibany/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Alloush
Source: Amer Almohibany/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

We’ve written about Alloush and his former role in Harakat Hazm (HH-which disbanded earlier in the year)/Islamic Front before (“US-Backed Syrian Group Disbands – But Were They Ever Truly ‘Moderate’ to Begin With?”). Although there were some serious tensions between HH and the al-Nsura Front (ANF), towards the end the two groups were actually working together agains the Assad regime and the Islamic State (IS). At the end of his life, Alloush was a leader in Jaysh al-Islam, which is also affiliated with the Islamic Front. Make no mistake, at no time was Alloush ever a “moderate.” He may have paid lip service to the international community’s collective drumbeat, but his actions were saying something very different. From the LA Times:

Outside Syria, members of the political opposition who have helped facilitate the weapons transfers to the fighters play up the groups’ moderation and secular agenda in hope of securing more advanced armaments. But inside Syria, such characterizations have become a burden that fighters try to shrug off.

Harakat Hazm, for example, has struggled with being regarded as a U.S. pawn and labeled as secular in the midst of an opposition movement that has grown increasingly Islamist.

“Inside Syria we became labeled as secularists and feared Nusra Front was going to battle us,” Zeidan said, referring to an Al Qaeda-linked rebel group that has been designated by the U.S. as a terrorist organization. Then he smiled and added, “But Nusra doesn’t fight us, we actually fight alongside them. We like Nusra.”

In July, eight West-backed rebel brigades — all recipients of military aid — released a statement of “rejection of all forms of cooperation and coordination” with Al Nusra Front. Harakat Hazm was one of the signatories, even as it fought on the same front lines with the group in Aleppo, battling both Islamic State militants in the north and government forces seeking to retake the city.

Syria rebels, once hopeful of U.S. weapons, lament lack of firepower
http://www.latimes.com/world/middleeast/la-fg-syria-harakat-hazm-20140907-story.html#page=1

Alloush’s guys served as the public face for the Muslim Brotherhood – which is the Grandfather of the modern Sunni terrorist btw. The idea at the time was for Alloush’s group to give the jihadist movement a “secular” appearance that would be more palatable to the West. Aside from the US, HH also received substantial assistance from Turkey and Qatar – who were likely the ones American weaponry were being funneled through. The level of support they enjoyed from the US was largely due to the efforts of Senators McCain and Graham – who were heavily influenced by the likes of phony analyst Elizabeth O’Bagy. A major red flag that should’ve alarmed the people in the Beltway was the the fact that HH’s formation predates the Islamic Front and involves the establishment of the Harakat Zaman Muhammad (of which it was a part of) under the Quranic verse “And fight against disbelievers collectively. [9:36]” The effort involved the recreation of the al-Farouq Brigades (you know, the guys who force non-Muslims to pay the “jizya” or “tax” in the territories they seize) in a new form under new leadership for the purpose of uniting all Islamist groups in Syria at a later stage. Sadly, the US government was more concerned about scoring political points then actually vetting the people we were considering a “partnership” with in the Syria War. The fact that these organizations as a whole are Salafists/Islamists should’ve been another reason not to support them.

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Indeed, there is no real difference between Alloush’s crew and AQ’s ideology – of course the MB links should’ve been a big clue on where they stand. Check out the following video:

The video above was Alloush’s speech to the Umma on the challenge of the “Raafida,” which was pretty much a big anti-Shia tirade. He even used the great Umayyad desert palace of Caliph Hisham Ibn And al-Malik as the bakdrop of the video. As one would guess, Alloush talks about brining back the “Umayyad Empire” and really speaks to how sectarian he is to the core. Alloush calls for the reducing of the Nusayris (a reference made about Alawites) as “Majors” or “crypto-Iranians.” Now “Majors” is the old term for pre-Islamic Persians or Zoroastrians. Arab Christians use th term in Christmas carols about the Magi, or “three kings from the orient” who come to pay homage to Jesus – Magi are Persians or “Easterners.” In this video, Alloush uses the term as an Islamic term meant to suggest that Alawites and Iranians not only have the wrong religion, but also the wrong ethnicity – they are not “Arabs” in his eyes. The Islamic Front as a whole likes to use such terminology.

Not surprisingly, Alloush has been a major advocate for “cleansing” Damascus of all Shia/Nusayris. Of course this makes Vlad and the Assad regime’s IO campaign against the anti-Assad factions extremely easy. With such rhetoric regularly coming from so-called “moderates,” it also makes the case for a military solution even easier. The O’Bagys of the intelligence community will argue that there’s a “clear line” between HH/Islamic Front and AQ affiliates such as ANF. Unfortunately, the ugly truth of the matter is that both sides’ ideology is largely based on a similar reading of Islamic history and the Quran. Both idealize the reestablishment of an “Islamic Empire,” both reject democracy and embrace Sharia Law. Their views also overlaps in several areas with that of IS, although the later is run by an Iraq – which in itself is another signifiant fact worth keeping in mind here.

The negotiations that Alloush had been involved in were designed by the Assad regime and Russia to cause further divisions between the anti-Assad factions. There was a similar deal made in support of the Aleppo campaign (see-“Obama Administration Tries to Rewrite History and Salvage Their ‘Legacy’”). A major part of this is focusing the Russian airstrikes (like the one that killed Alloush) on the so-called “moderates” as a means of pressuring them into reaching a settlement with the government on Assad’s terms – then Russia will move their gun sights on IS. By targeting Alloush, the pro-regime forces removed a prominent member of the so-called “moderates,” furthering weakening them. This is actually a sound strategy as it would take a significant – although weakening – jihadist faction out of the equation while countering the shrinking American influence in the region. Vlad has truly outmaneuvered the Obama administration on every level. However, we suspect that the Obama administration may actually feel a great sense of relief now that a major foreign policy embarrassment like Alloush is now dead. They’re probably hoping that the media and everybody else will forget what he was all about. We understand that most Westerners want to place everybody in a “good guy” or “bad guy” category but in this fight the only true good guys on the ground in Syria or Iraq are the Kurds. Period.

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Also see:

Cruz v. Rubio: Shots Fired, but What’s the Plan?

Getty Images

Getty Images

Breitbart, by Dr. Sebasria Gorka, Dec. 2, 2015:

As Donald Trump’s lead amongst Republic presidential candidates shows signs of faltering, conservative blue-on-blue attacks will exponentially increase as those who feel they have the most to gain from the fall of “the Donald” position themselves against their rivals for the candidacy crown.

The latest broadside – or rather fusillade, given its intensity – has come from Senator Ted Cruz and is aimed squarely at Sen. Marco Rubio.

In a lengthy interview for Bloomberg, Cruz attacks the fellow Cuban-American senator as a reckless adventurist as unfit to lead on matters of national security as Democrat frontrunner and former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton.

Cruz links Rubio support for Clinton’s involvement in the Obama administration’s policy to dethrone Muammar Gaddafi to the subsequent terrorist attack in Benghazi that led to the death of four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, and to a general “military adventurism” that does not serve American interests.

Whilst it is disheartening to see two young presidential candidates on the right battle each other given the greater target that the Democrat slate surely represents, the obvious fact is that the 2016 election will be fought in the arena of national security and this will not be the last duel of its kind.

After the recent ISIS attacks in Paris, the question must be asked (and answered): what does the right have in way of a plan that is better than the current White House approach, which apparently sees “climate change” as not only the most important threat to national security, but also somehow part of the explanation for the rise of jihadist violence in general?

Is Senator Cruz right in saying with regard to the rise of ISIS, as he does in the interview, that “we have no dog” in the war in Syria? Is the carnage unfolding day by day in the Middle East really just another version of the scenario in Libya, and is Rubio just “repeating the very same mistakes” Clinton and Obama committed?

It is actually easy to agree with Senator Cruz that any likely replacement for Assad will probably be far worse for Syria and America than if he retains control in Damascus. But does it naturally follow that Syria’s war has nothing to do with the safety of this nation, and the safety of Americans in America?

After the attacks in Paris, that is a very hard argument to make.

Senator Cruz appears to be resorting to the same type of straw-man argument that was used recently by the White House to bulldozer through the nuclear “non-treaty” with Iran. In that case, we were told that if America does not sign the deal, then the only other possibility is war with Iran. Why?

Why does the fact that removing Assad is a bad “neocon” idea (and yes Senator Cruz liberally uses the neocon label in a most pejorative sense, associating the putative “cabal” with Rubio’s policy stances), automatically mean America has no interests in Syria? No interests in a war in which one of the actors, namely ISIS, has established a Caliphate, declared America and the West its mortal enemy, and just sent its operatives to Europe to kill infidels?

And this is not even just about Syria, Iraq, or Paris.

As my wife and I have recently documented in our report on the domestic ISIS threat in America, ISIS is already here and intent on killing our citizens.

In the last 20 months, law enforcement authorities have killed or arrested 82 ISIS supporters in the U.S. Of these jihadists, half were planning to travel to the Middle East to fight for ISIS in Iraq or Syria. 19% were higher grade facilitators, the talentspotters who identified those willing to join the Holy War and effect their physical deployment into the warzones of the Middle East.

But a full 29% of those arrested or killed had no intention of traveling anywhere. They had decided by themselves, or under ISIS direction, that the best way to serve the new Caliph and the new “empire of Islam” was to kill American infidels here in the United States.

At the same time, the unclassified data is clear: we are arresting on average three times as many ISIS suspects per month here in the U.S. than we have arrested Al Qaeda suspects on average per month since 9/11.

In English: ISIS’s domestic recruiting here in America is 300% more successful that Al Qaeda’s has been, and fully a third of the people they recruit are planning to execute Paris-type atrocities in America’s cities.

In his attempt to define himself in contrast to his fellow presidential candidate, and in some form as a “third way” figure when it comes to national security, Senator Cruz offers a simple litmus test: military action should only be considered if there is “a real threat” to American security. Is the interdiction of ISIS jihadis in the U.S. planning to kill Americans in our own cities “a real threat?”

I would suggest it is rather difficult to answer that question in the negative.

As a result, the next question to Senator Cruz should be: what kind of military action do you propose? Destructive criticism is ever so easy. Constructive criticism less so.

I will be suggesting to the Senator’s team that if his test still stands, we now need to hear from him what his plan for military action is.

Just because Hillary and the neocons made things worse in Iraq, Libya, and Syria, does not mean that there is no right way to use force when faced by a threat that is committed to our destruction.

Sebastian Gorka, Ph.D. holds the Major General Matthew C. Horner Chair of Military Theory at the Marine Corps University, Quantico, and is the Chairman of the Threat Knowledge Group. Follow him on Twitter @SebGorka.

Syrians are a Terror Threat, Here are the Numbers

ht_ISIS_twitter_mssg_01_mt_140814_16x9_992-lanczos3Sultan Knish, by Daniel Greenfield, Nov. 29, 2015:

Syria is a terror state. It didn’t become that way overnight because of the Arab Spring or the Iraq War.

Its people are not the victims of American foreign policy, Islamic militancy or any of the other fashionable excuses. They supported Islamic terrorism. Millions of them still do.

They are not the Jews fleeing a Nazi Holocaust. They are the Nazis trying to relocate from a bombed out Berlin.

These are the cold hard facts.

ISIS took over parts of Syria because its government willingly allied with it to help its terrorists kill Americans in Iraq. That support for Al Qaeda helped lead to the civil war tearing the country apart.

The Syrians were not helpless, apathetic pawns in this fight. They supported Islamic terrorism.

A 2007 poll showed that 77% of Syrians supported financing Islamic terrorists including Hamas and the Iraqi fighters who evolved into ISIS. Less than 10% of Syrians opposed their terrorism.

Why did Syrians support Islamic terrorism? Because they hated America.

Sixty-three percent wanted to refuse medical and humanitarian assistance from the United States. An equal number didn’t want any American help caring for Iraqi refugees in Syria.

The vast majority of Syrians turned down any form of assistance from the United States because they hated us. They still do. Just because they’re willing to accept it now, doesn’t mean they like us.

If we bring Syrian Muslims to America, we will be importing a population that hates us.

The terrorism poll numbers are still ugly. A poll this summer found that 1 in 5 Syrians supports ISIS.  A third of Syrians support the Al Nusra Front, which is affiliated with Al Qaeda. Since Sunnis are 3/4rs of the population and Shiites and Christians aren’t likely to support either group, this really means that Sunni Muslim support for both terror groups is even higher than these numbers make it seem.

And even though Christians and Yazidis are the ones who actually face ISIS genocide, Obama has chosen to take in few Christians and Yazidis. Instead 98.6% of Obama’s Syrian refugees are Sunni Muslims.

This is also the population most likely to support ISIS and Al Qaeda.

But these numbers are even worse than they look. Syrian men are more likely to view ISIS positively than women. This isn’t surprising as the Islamic State not only practices sex slavery, but has some ruthless restrictions for women that exceed even those of Saudi Arabia.  (Al Qaeda’s Al Nusra Front, however, mostly closes the gender gap getting equal support from Syrian men and women.)

ISIS, however, gets its highest level of support from young men. This is the Syrian refugee demographic.

In the places where the Syrian refugees come from, support for Al Qaeda groups climbs as high as 70% in Idlib, 66% in Quneitra, 66% in Raqqa, 47% in Derzor, 47% in Hasakeh, 41% in Daraa and 41% in Aleppo.

Seventy percent support for ISIS in Raqqa has been dismissed as the result of fear. But if Syrians in the ISIS capital were just afraid of the Islamic State, why would the Al Nusra Front, which ISIS is fighting, get nearly as high a score from the people in Raqqa? The answer is that their support for Al Qaeda is real.

Apologists will claim that these numbers don’t apply to the Syrian refugees. It’s hard to say how true that is. Only 13% of Syrian refugees will admit to supporting ISIS, though that number still means that of Obama’s first 10,000 refugees, 1,300 will support ISIS. But the poll doesn’t delve into their views of other Al Qaeda groups, such as the Al Nusra Front, which usually gets more Sunni Muslim support.

And there’s no sign that they have learned to reject Islamic terrorism and their hatred for America.

When Syrian refugees were asked to list the greatest threat, 29 percent picked Iran, 22 percent picked Israel and 19 percent picked America. Only 10 percent viewed Islamic terrorism as a great threat.

By way of comparison, twice as many Iraqis see Islamic terrorism as a threat than Syrians do and slightly more Palestinian Arabs view Islamic terrorism as a threat than Syrians do. These are terrible numbers.

Thirty-seven percent of Syrian refugees oppose US airstrikes on ISIS. 33% oppose the objective of destroying ISIS.

And these are the people whom our politicians would have us believe are “fleeing an ISIS Holocaust.”

Seventy-three percent of Syrian refugees view US foreign policy negatively. That’s a higher number than Iraqis. It’s about equal to that of Palestinian Arabs.

They don’t like us. They really don’t like us.

Obama’s first shipment of Syrians will include 1,300 ISIS supporters and most of the rest will hate this country. But unless they’re stupid enough to announce that during their interviews, the multi-layered vetting that Obama and other politicians boast about will be useless.

It only took 2 Muslim refugees to carry out the Boston Marathon massacre. It only took 19 Muslim terrorists to carry out 9/11.

If only 1 percent of those 1,300 Syrian ISIS supporters put their beliefs into practice, they can still kill thousands of Americans.

And that’s a best case scenario. Because it doesn’t account for how many thousands of them support Al Qaeda. It doesn’t account for how many of them back other Islamic terrorist groups such as Hamas that had widespread support in Syria.

While the media has shamelessly attempted to exploit the Holocaust to rally support for Syrian migrants, the majority of Syrians supported Hamas whose mandate is finishing Hitler’s work. The Hamas charter describes a “struggle against the Jews” that culminates in another Holocaust. Bringing Hamas supporters to America will lead to more Muslim Supremacist violence against Jews in this country.

But all of this can be avoided by taking in genuine Syrian refugees.

While Obama insists on taking in fake Syrian refugees, mainly Sunni Muslims from UN camps who support terrorism and are not endangered in Jordan or Turkey, both Sunni countries, he is neglecting the real refugees, Christians and Yazidis, who are stateless and persecuted in the Muslim world.

Instead of taking in fake refugees who hate us, we should be taking in real refugees who need us.

Obama and Paul Ryan have claimed that a “religious test” for refugees is wrong, but religious tests are how we determine whether a refugee is really fleeing persecution or is just an economic migrant.

The Sunni Muslims that Obama is taking in do not face persecution. They are the majority. They are the persecutors. It’s the Yazidis and the Christians who need our help. And these real refugees, unlike the fake Sunni Muslim refugees, are not coming here to kill us. They truly have nowhere else to go.

Syria is a disaster because its rival Muslim religious groups are unable to get along with each other. Bringing them to this country will only spread the violence from their land to ours. Instead of taking in the religious majority that caused this mess through its intolerance, we should take in their victims; the Christians and Yazidis who are being slaughtered and enslaved by ISIS.

During the entire Syrian Civil War, Obama has only taken in 1 Syrian Yazidi and 53 Christians.

It’s time that we had a refugee policy that protected the persecuted, instead of their Muslim persecutors. It’s time that we listened to Syrian Christians in this country who oppose bringing tens of thousands of Syrian Muslims to terrorize their neighborhoods the way that they are already terrorizing Syrian Christians in Germany.

Syrian Muslims are a nation of terrorist supporters. They destroyed their own country. Let’s not let them destroy ours.

It’s time that we kept our nation safe by doing the right thing. Let’s take in the real Christian and Yazidi refugees and let the fake Sunni Muslim refugees and terrorist supporters stay in their own countries.

President Obama’s Cynical Refugee Ploy

The American Interest, by WALTER RUSSELL MEAD, Nov. 17, 2015:

The debate we are having over the acceptance of Syrian refugees is not the conversation the country needs.

The governors of 26 U.S. states signaled yesterday that they will not be willing to take in any Syrian refugees, following the lead of Michigan and Alabama, which announced similar objections this past Sunday. Governor Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire became the first Democrat to voice opposition to President Obama’s plan to accept 10,000 refugees from the war in Syria in the next year. Governors of Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Washington, and Connecticut, on the other hand, came out in explicit support of the initiative.

Goodhearted liberals have reacted with handwringing to the avalanche of dissenting governors. Some have earnestly quoted relevant Bible verses about taking in the poor and the afflicted, while the usual righteous tut-tutters have engaged in their usual righteous tut-tutting. “Everybody who disagrees with my proposal is a bitter-clinging xenophobe, not to mention a racist,” is the clear implication of the President’s supporters.

That there are racist xenophobes in this country is clear to anybody who has ever perused the comments section of an internet news site, or has spent too much time on Facebook and Twitter. And many of these people are spewing ugly hate about Syrian refugees in ways that appall—or should appall—anybody with an open mind and a humane spirit. That said, the refugee issue is not, despite President Obama’s rhetoric, a simple morality play featuring Wise Liberals and Racist Jacksonians. It is something more complicated and, at least as far as President Obama’s own role in the debate, a bit uglier.
To see the full cynicism of the Obama approach to the refugee issue, one has only to ask President Obama’s least favorite question: Why is there a Syrian refugee crisis in the first place?
Obama’s own policy decisions—allowing Assad to convert peaceful demonstrations into an increasingly ugly civil war, refusing to declare safe havens and no fly zones—were instrumental in creating the Syrian refugee crisis. This crisis is in large part the direct consequence of President Obama’s decision to stand aside and watch Syria burn. For him to try and use a derisory and symbolic program to allow 10,000 refugees into the United States in order to posture as more caring than those evil Jacksonian rednecks out in the benighted sticks is one of the most cynical, cold-blooded, and nastily divisive moves an American President has made in a long time.
Moreover, many of those “benighted” people were willing to sign up for the U.S. military and go to fight ISIS in Syria to protect the refugees. Many Americans who now oppose the President’s ill-considered refugee program have long supported the use of American power to create “safe zones” in Syria so the refugees could be sheltered and fed in their own country. If President Obama seriously cared about the fate of Syria’s millions of displaced people, he would have started to organize those safe havens years ago. And if he understood the nature of America’s role in Europe, he would have known that working with the Europeans to prevent a mass refugee and humanitarian disaster was something that had to be done.
Also see:

The Refugee Resettlement Process is Already Discriminatory

obama-600x315Center for Security Policy, by Kyle Shideler, Nov. 17, 2015:

President Obama made headlines today in reaction to a question from the press regarding the possibility of taking in Syrian Christian and other religious minorities ahead or in place of Syrian Muslims (Syria is majority Sunni Muslim.) The President responded aggressively claiming such a policy was, “… not American. That’s not who we are. We don’t have religious tests to our compassion.”

The reality however is that the Refugee Resettlement system already has “a religious test of their compassion”, to quote the president. And that’s a test which actively disfavors Christians, according to figures released by the State Department:

Of 2,184 Syrian refugees admitted into the U.S. since the Syrian civil war erupted in 2011, only 53 (2.4 percent) have been Christians while 2098 (or 96 percent) have been Muslims, according to State Department statistics updated on Monday. The remaining 33 include 1 Yazidi, 8 Jehovah Witnesses, 2 Baha’i, 6 Zoroastrians, 6 of “other religion,” 7 of “no religion,” and 3 atheists.

The CIA Factbook for Syria gives the stated percentage of Christians in Syria at 10%. Estimates by Christian aid groups have suggested between half a million and 700,000 Syrian Christians have fled the country, making them between 16% to 23% of the estimated 3 million Syrian refugees who have fled the country. This seems reasonable, given that Christian groups in the Middle East face aggressive discrimination from a wide variety of the factions fighting across the Middle East, including especially the Islamic State, and so could reasonably be conceived to make up a disproportionate percentage of refugees.

So depending on calculation method Christian refugees could fairly be between 10% to 23% of the total refugee flow from Syria, ignoring any other questions of preference such as propensity to support groups like Islamic State.

But they are only 2.4%. That is heavily suggestive that there is a systematic bias against Christian refugees within the system.

One of the elements at play is the fact that for the most part, the United States does not get to select its own refugees. As Nina Shea highlights at National Review, The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is typically the deciding agency, and recommends to the United States which refugees will be resettled. So the selection process hits several snags. Firstly, Christian refugees almost overwhelmingly avoid United Nations refugee camps out of legitimate fears of possible violence against them.Reports of attacks on Christians refugees by their Muslim counterparts have been reported, such as when Christian refugees on a boat in the Mediterranean were thrown overboard, and German police have openly urged publicly separating Christian and Muslim refugees, due to attacks. In one case a Christian convert was beaten unconscious by a metal baton.

Secondly, the United Nations itself is strongly beholden to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), it’s largest voting bloc, which has its own views on the refugee situation that are unlikely to conform with U.S. interests and equally unlikely to favor Christians, given that at the OIC’s home headquarters, in Saudi Arabia, the practice of Christianity is itself largely illegal.

Thirdly, and perhaps most largely problematic, is the appearance of overt anti-Christian bias by the State Department itself. As good friend of the Center, Institute for Religion and Democracy’s Faith McDonnell notes in her recent piece on the state of Christian refugees, the State Department has explicitly declared they, “would not support a special category to bring Assyrian Christians into the United States,” in response to a plan by a private aid group to fund, entirely free of taxpayer dollars, the transport of Assyrian Christians facing extermination by Islamic State.

In other words, even when its free, no cost to them, the State Department has preferred to snubbed Christians rather than save them.

So it’s true that there is a “religious test” for refugee admittance into the United States, but it is a deck stacked against Christians, not for them. President Obama is treating efforts to address this ongoing discrimination as if it, and not the original policy, is based in bias.

It is highly disingenuous that the President is treating any criticism of a discriminatory system of resettlement as itself discriminatory, in order to shut up debate about the plight of Middle Eastern Christians.

Russian Intel: ISIS Has 80,000 Jihadis in Iraq and Syria

Islamic-State-flag-Getty-640x480

Breitbart, by Jordan Schachtel, Nov. 12,2015:

Russian intelligence reports are claiming that the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) terror group has amassed 80,000 soldiers in Iraq and Syria for its drive towards the goal of a global caliphate.

A senior Russian official told state-run TASS news agency that 30,000 ISIS jihadis are currently stationed in Iraq, and another 50,000 are fighting the jihad in Syria. Some 7,000 militants are originally from states that were formerly part of the Soviet Union, according to the report.

“According to reports, militants now control around 40 percent of Iraqi territory and 50 percent of Syrian territory,” said Yevgeny Sysoyev, the deputy leader of Russia’s FSB security services, which was formerly the infamous KGB during the soviet-era.

“Among members of the group are citizens of 80 countries, including France, Great Britain, Germany, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, the US, Canada, as well as Russia and other [Commonwealth of Independent States] countries. Among them are about 30,000 foreign terrorists. Most of them come from the Middle East and North Africa,” Sysoyev added from a conference in Sochi, Russia.

The estimates did not account for the members of ISIS affiliates throughout the region. The group now sustains terror cells of significant stature in Afghanistan, Yemen, Egypt, Libya, Nigeria, Gaza, and in other countries and territories.

Russian forces are engaged in a campaign to support Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad against all forces that oppose his rule, including ISIS. Russian air power has also heavily-targeted rebel areas where ISIS does not retain a significant presence. Moscow’s military has also worked side-by-side in Syria with forces from the Iranian regime and its proxy, the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah.

Russia denies that its forces have targeted groups besides ISIS. But the Pentagon has claimed that over 90% of Russian strikes in Syria have not targeted the Islamic State.

On late Tuesday, Assad-backed forces broke a two-year ISIS siege on Kwairis military airport, which is located near the hotly-contested city of Aleppo.

Assad’s troops killed “hundreds of ISIS terrorists and destroyed their dens and cells with all weapons inside,” Syria’s state-controlled SANA news reported.

“The regime has been fighting since the end of September to break the siege,” Rami Abdurrahman, who heads the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, told CNN. “Taking this airport back from siege means they can advance to ISIS areas. They can use it to shell areas around Aleppo.”

***

Also see:

Russian-Backed Offensive in Syria Begins to Stall-What Now?

  • Putin Gives Assad mid-Nov. deadline for results with Aleppo offensive and that the Russian airstrikes weren’t “indefinite.”
  • Syrian Rebels gaining some ground and pro-Assad forces suffering supply shortages and taking casualties – most notably IRGC commander Hamedani causing low morale.
  • Lack of coordination and competition between IRGC-Qods Force, Hezbollah, SAA and Russian Army causing problems
  • In spite of ops in Ukraine and Syria causing logistical strain on Russia, no sign of opening another air base.
  • Russia’s plan to take Aleppo, forcing a negotiated settlement and then turning attention to hitting ISIS is not going well and the Sinai plane bombing has just made everything more complicated.
  • Russian propaganda aside, can you say “Quagmire”?

The ISIS Study Group, Nov. 7, 2015:

In late-OCT Syrian President Bashar al-Assad met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in a surprise visit to Moscow. Although it was called a “working visit” and the Assad regime did confirm three meetings were held, most people in the international press were caught up with this being Assad’s first visit in a few years. However, something rather important occurred during this visit – Vlad put Assad on notice. Assad was informed by Vlad that he’s expecting results from the Aleppo offensive by mid-NOV since he has Russian military support. That’s mid-NOV as in starting next week. He also told Assad that the Russian airstrikes weren’t “indefinite.”

Syria’s Assad in surprise visit to Moscow
http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2015/10/syria-assad-met-russia-putin-moscow-151021064340109.html

Source: ZB

Source: ZB

Indeed this is a bit of a departure from what Vlad told Prince Salman of Saudi Arabia (“No End in Sight in Fighting on the Arabian Peninsula Front”), but we see it as more of our favorite KGB officer beginning to feel a greater sense of urgency. Basil al-Asad Airbase is operating at full capacity and our sources in Syria have informed us that there are no plans to open up other airbases to expand Russia’s logistical footprint – which is going to come back to haunt them. The ongoing offensive in Aleppo that we discussed in “Pro-Assad Forces Experience Setbacks Despite Russian Military Intervention” has become the new priority for the pro-regime forces looking for a “big win.” The problem with this is it means resources and personnel involved in the operations occurring in Northwest Syria are being redirected. Despite the Russian military support and diverting of resources and personnel to the Aleppo front, the offensive has stalled.

No End in Sight in Fighting on the Arabian Peninsula Front
http://isisstudygroup.com/?p=8896

On Thursday the al-Qaida-flavored Jund al-Aqsa seized control of the Hama Province town of Morek. That town was the last SAA garrison along the main highway between Aleppo and Hama. This was a particularly important event since the anti-Assad factions now have control of a major line of communication from which reinforcements and supplies can be sent to support operations in Idlib and Aleppo. We’ve been covering this multi-pronged pro-regime offensive to retake Aleppo, Idlib, and Russia’s involvement in it from the start (“Russia Supports New Syrian Offensive and Begins Prepping For Russian Ground OPs” and “Pro-Assad Forces Experience Setbacks Despite Russian Military Intervention”). In those articles we discussed the first indicators of things not exactly going as well as Russian propagandists are spinning them out to be. Although its true that pro-regime forces retook multiple villages South of Aleppo, they sustained heavy losses in doing so.

Syria jihadists capture regime town along vital road
http://news.yahoo.com/syria-rebels-seize-key-regime-town-hama-aleppo-095717057.html

Russia Supports New Syrian Offensive and Begins Prepping For Russian Ground OPs
http://isisstudygroup.com/?p=8669

Pro-Assad Forces Experience Setbacks Despite Russian Military Intervention
http://isisstudygroup.com/?p=8778

BG Hamedani in his best pic yet Source: The ISIS Study Group

BG Hamedani in his best pic yet
Source: The ISIS Study Group

The IRGC continues to play a large role on the ground on the Aleppo front, although they haven’t been able to recover (yet) from the death of IRGC BG Hossein Hamedani (Reference – “Pro-Assad Forces Experience Setbacks Despite Russian Military Intervention”). The combined pro-regime forces were already having problems coordinating/prioritizing lines of effort, but BG Hamedani’s death made the situation worse. As of this writing the vast majority of the pro-regime forces are suffering from low-morale and supply shortages that are compounded by that failure to prioritize and coordinate operations – which is why the current Aleppo campaign is stalling. Such problems have watered down all the airstrikes and fire support, so it really shouldn’t surprise anybody that the ground forces are having a hard time seizing and holding territory.

A big indicator of these problems in coordination operations can be seen in the anti-Assad factions’ adapting to the Russian airstrikes that aren’t necessarily being reported up by the guys on the ground. The reason has more to do with personal pride and an overall pissing contest between the officers of the IRGC-Qods Force, Hezbollah, SAA and Russian Army. The establishment of joint-coordination centers have helped some, but thus far it appears to have been the most successful in better stream-lining logistical operations. The reason for the lackluster improvement has to do with the Russian military continuing to maintain their own C2 separate from the SAA, IRGC and Hezbollah. The Russians manage sorties and use embedded LNOs to process strike requests – which chews up a lot of time that the guys on the ground probably don’t have the luxury of wasting. As one would guess, this has only led to increased tensions between the Russians and the Qods Force – who don’t believe they need Vlad’s boys beat down the anti-Assad factions (Gee, that sure looks like a great opportunity for some IO messaging there, CENTCOM – HINT, HINT).

al-Nusra fighters in the Southern part of Aleppo Source: al-Nusra Media Office

al-Nusra fighters in the Southern part of Aleppo
Source: al-Nusra Media Office

The Islamic State (IS) had severed some of the primary supply lines (such as the Khanaser Road) linking support hubs to the Aleppo front. Although the Assad regime is trumpeting its “victory” in regaining control of the Khanaser Road, they had to reallocate units to reopen the line of communication (LOC) just to sustain the offensive. Unfortunately, that also meant losing considerable momentum in other, more critical areas on the front. Assad’s forces were stretched even further when they were forced to eject IS from an oilfield near Hama. Another issue the SAA is running into is the increasing reliance on militias such as the Liwa Abu Fadl al-Abbas (LAFA) as a result of manpower shortages. The problem with relying on the militias is that they’re very hit or miss. Not all of the militias are as capable as Hezbollah, Badr Organization, Kitaib Hezbollah (KH) or Asaib al-Haq (AAH). As a result, the Russian ground force mix of Spetsnaz and conventional troops are seeing more action. Most of their operations (the conventional guys anyways) are centered around convoy security in the Ghab Valley, although their Naval Infantry guys are conducting more small-unit operations at the company-level and lower. The Spetsnaz continue to due their counter-terror raids in conjunction with the Qods Force, although neither side appears to be particularly thrilled with having to “share” responsibilities. Those Russian ground troops have already sustained 10 KIA and another 24 WIA (again, a great opportunity for an IO campaign for the US to regain the initiative – assuming anybody in the Pentagon still has their balls).

Syrian Government Forces Regain Key Aleppo Supply Route
http://www.wsj.com/articles/syrian-government-forces-regain-key-aleppo-supply-rout-1446740694

Syrian Regime Makes Gains For Aleppo Supply Lines, Uniting ISIS, Jabhat Al-Nusra, Syrian Rebels
http://www.ibtimes.com/syrian-regime-makes-gains-aleppo-supply-lines-uniting-isis-jabhat-al-nusra-syrian-2165308

Syrian army, allied Hezbollah militia expel ISIS from key oilfield near Hama
http://aranews.net/2015/11/syrian-army-allied-hezbollah-militia-expel-isis-from-key-oilfield-near-hama/

Hollow Victory: The pro-regime forces threw a great deal of time and personnel – their most precious resource – at retaking this piece of real estate Source: George Ourfalian (Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)

Hollow Victory: The pro-regime forces threw a great deal of time and personnel – their most precious resource – at retaking this piece of real estate
Source: George Ourfalian (Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)

The big problem Vlad is going to face if this war extends beyond 6 months (which we don’t see any end in the foreseeable future) is the strain on the Russian military’s logisitical capabilities. Sure, the talking heads in the media point to Russia’s vast numbers, but what they fail to realize is that Russia’s military is a conscript force – and one that doesn’t have the highest morale. They also overlook the fact that despite the Russian military’s size, they have a hard time providing logistical support to it on campaigns. Russia was beginning to struggle with providing support to the limited presence it has in Ukraine, so what do you think is going to happen in Syria, or Iraq for that matter (should they expand there)? The biggest sign of strain to Russia’s airlift capabilities will be felt in the ordnance-area, in a few months we’ll know why the airstrikes will begin to decline. This is why we find Russia’s decision not to open up another airbase to alleviate the strain placed on Basil al-Assad Airbase (which is currently operating at full capacity) so interesting. The implied task, therefore, would be to use more sealift transport. The problem with that is the Russian Naval base in Tartus may not have the infrastructure to expand that capability. Ultimately, this will lead to a lag in support operations.

So what’s next? With all the resources being thrown into this multi-pronged Syrian offensive with so little in results, Vlad is going to be forced to either invest even more in the regional war by expanding Russia’s military intervention, or lower the bar of what constitutes “success.” Vlad’s original plan was to push for a “big win” in Aleppo to use as a means of forcing the so-called “moderates” into a negotiated settlement on terms favorable to Assad. Once that happens, the combined pro-regime forces would turn their complete attention to IS. However, the bombing of a Russian airliner in Sinai changed all that (Check out “Sinai Plane Crash Update” and “Amplifying Details on the Sinai Plane Bombing and the Egypt-Libya Nexus” for more details). If anything, Vlad almost has to expand his military’s involvement in Syria if nothing else but to continue to push the narrative that he’s the “ironman” of the international community – and the “anti-Obama.” Thing is, by getting more involved in this regional war, Vlad will run the risk of falling into the same trap that his predecessors did in Afghanistan. Vlad may fill the leadership void left by the US government, but all its going to do is increase recruitment to Baghdadi’s cause. Jihadists may hate America, but they have a very special hatred for Russians. As much as the Rand Paul fanboys are excited about the possibility of somebody else carrying the load, region will become much more unstable because of it. This is going to affect both the West and the Russians. Keep in mind that although Russia prefers a more draconian strategy of laying waste to entire populations, that philosophy didn’t particularly work out in Afghanistan, Chechnya, Ingushtia or Dagestan. So welcome to the meat-grinder Vlad – sucks, don’t it?

Sinai Plane Crash Update
http://isisstudygroup.com/?p=9184

Amplifying Details on the Sinai Plane Bombing and the Egypt-Libya Nexus
http://isisstudygroup.com/?p=9230

Source: The ISIS Study Group

Source: The ISIS Study Group

Other Related Articles:

Vlad Uses Saudi Prince’s Thirst for Power to His Advantage Against US Influence
http://isisstudygroup.com/?p=9180

Islamic State Claims to Have Shot-Down Russian Plane in Sinai – But Did They?
http://isisstudygroup.com/?p=9157

Russia Providing Lethal Aid to Syria, Iran and Establishment of Intel Centers in Iraq
http://isisstudygroup.com/?p=8532

Russia Poised to Increase Military Presence in Middle East in Response to Islamic State’s Strength
http://isisstudygroup.com/?p=8416

The US Didn’t Create ISIS — Assad and Saddam Did

basharalassadonline-newsit2_1Frontpage, by Daniel Greenfield, Nov. 4, 2015:

The Russia-Iran-Assad axis and its useful idiots in the West claim that the United States created ISIS. Some of the loonier conspiracy sites that gleefully repost Russian propaganda allege that the Caliph of ISIS is a Jewish Mossad agent named Elliot Shimon or a CIA agent named Simon Elliot.

Elliot doesn’t exist, but ISIS’ Deputy Caliph Abu Ali al-Anbari, who was Saddam’s major general and a Baathist member, does. The Caliph’s right hand man, Abu Muslim al Turkmani, was also a Baathist and a lieutenant colonel in Saddam’s military intelligence organization before being killed by a drone strike.

Considering the history between Saddam and the USSR, it is likely that one or both of the Caliph’s deputies received training from Russian intelligence advisers during their careers. Turkmani’s DGMI in particular was closely entangled with the KGB. One of the reasons ISIS is much better than its Sunni Islamist opponents is that its top people had been trained by Soviet experts.

The ISIS blowback doesn’t lead to America, but in a completely different direction.

Before the Islamic State’s current incarnation, it was Al Qaeda in Iraq and its pipeline of suicide bombers ran through Syria with the cooperation of Assad’s government.

Assad and Al Qaeda in Iraq had a common enemy; the United States. Assad had a plan to kill two birds with one stone. Syrian Islamists, who might cause trouble at home, were instead pointed at Iraq. Al Qaeda got manpower and Assad disposed of Sunni Jihadists who might cause him trouble.

Meanwhile Al Qaeda openly operated out of Syria in alliance with the Baathists. While Syria’s regime was Shiite and Iraq’s Sunni, both governments were headed by Baathists.

The Al Nusrah Front, the current incarnation of Al Qaeda in the area ever since the terror group began feuding with ISIS, named one of its training camps, the ‘Abu Ghadiya Camp”. Abu Ghadiya had been chosen by Zarqawi, the former leader of the organization today known as ISIS, to move terroriststhrough Syria. This highway of terror killed more American soldiers than Saddam Hussein had.

The Al Qaeda presence in Syria was backed by Assad’s brother-in-lawAssef Shawkat, who had served as Director of Military Intelligence and Deputy Defense Minister.  His real job though was coordinating Islamic terrorist organizations. During the Iraq War, he added Al Qaeda to his portfolio.

Handling terrorists without being burned is a tricky business though and the blowback kicked in.

In 2008, a US raid into Syria finally took out Abu Ghadiya and some of his top people. A year later, General Petraeus warned that, “In time, these fighters will turn on their Syrian hosts and begin conducting attacks against Bashar al-Asad’s regime itself.”

Shawkat was killed by a suicide bomber three years later. Assad’s support for terrorists had hit home. Those Sunni Islamists he had sent on to Iraq who survived returned with training and skills that made them a grave danger to his regime.

Exactly as Petraeus had predicted.

Anti-American Leftists who claim that the US created ISIS were cheering on its early terror attacks as the work of a Baathist “Resistance”. ISIS these days is accompanied by top Baathists including General al-Douri, a close Saddam ally. The same outlets claiming that we created ISIS celebrated the “Resistance” campaign against NATO “neo-colonialism” when what they were really celebrating was ISIS.

Putin’s regime has claimed that it is fighting ISIS, but it was supporting Assad back when Syria was a conduit for ISIS to attack Americans. The Baathists in Syria and Iraq had both been Soviet clients and it was the USSR which turned international terrorism into a high art.

The United States has gotten plenty of the blame for supporting Mujahedeen in Afghanistan against the USSR, but the USSR had started the practice much earlier and had signed on to the Red-Green alliance. As Primakov, a top Soviet leader and KGB figure closely involved with the Muslim world, had said, the “Islamic movement” has a “radical trend which is strongly charged with anti-imperialism.”

It’s no coincidence that ISIS has thrived best in countries that were former Soviet clients whose governments attempted to fit Primakov’s definition by walking a fine line between Socialism and Islam. Nor is it a coincidence that in addition to its beheadings and sex slavery, ISIS plays up its free medicalcare and price controls. ISIS is still offering Socialism and Islam with a bigger emphasis on Islam.

While Baathism is often described as secular, it actually sought to blend Islam with its politics. It was a leftist Islamism that emphasized Socialism in contrast to the rightist Islamism of the Muslim Brotherhood whose leaders were often businessmen and landowners with a more capitalistic bent.

These distinctions, which led the USSR to build ties with the Baathists while Western countries got involved with the Muslim Brotherhood, were more style than substance. The preference of the Muslim Brotherhood or the Turkish AKP for crony capitalism as the next best thing to a lost former feudalism did not make them friendly to the West. And the Baathists were tribal dictators who cloaked their clannish authoritarianism and familial feuds in a blend of hollow Socialist and Islamic platitudes.

Critics claim that there would be no ISIS if Saddam were still in power, but the Iraqi dictator helped create ISIS through his alliances with Islamists. ISIS did not suddenly rise out of the ruins of his regime. Instead it grew within Saddam’s regime as the dictator responded to his setbacks against Iran and Saudi Arabia, two Islamist states, by reinventing Iraq and Baathism as explicitly Islamist entities.

During the Iran-Iraq War, Saddam had begun building ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, hoping to bridge the old split between Baathists and Brotherhood and meet Shiite Islamism with Sunni Islamism.

After the Gulf War, Saddam Hussein went in a blatantly Islamist direction. The man in charge of his “Return to Faith” campaign was General Al-Douri, who would be the key ally that Al Qaeda used to move its people through Syria and who would live long enough to fight alongside ISIS as it retook Tikrit.

Allah Akbar was added to the Iraqi flag and Islamic education was embedded into the system from elementary schools to Islamic universities. It is likely that the Caliph of ISIS owes his own Islamic education to Saddam’s newfound interest in the Koran.

By the mid 90s, Saddam endorsed a Caliphate and implemented Sharia punishments such as chopping off the hands of thieves.  When ISIS amputates hands, it’s just restoring one of Saddam’s Sharia policies.

Everyone knows about Saddam’s palaces, but fewer know about his campaign to build the world’s biggest mosques. One of the biggest of these had a Koran written in Saddam’s own blood. This mosque would become a major center for ISIS allied operations run by a Muslim Brotherhood organization.

The Caliph of ISIS was recruited into the Muslim Brotherhood by his uncle. And like so many Jihadist leaders, he moved on to Al Qaeda. His own Baathist-Islamist background made him the perfect man to take Saddam’s vision of a Pan-Islamic state with Sharia and Socialism for all to the next level.

Saddam’s outreach to the Muslim Brotherhood helped create ISIS, just as Assad’s backing for Al Qaeda did and much as Gaddafi’s LIFG deal with the Brotherhood paved the way for his own overthrow.

Barzan, Saddam’s brother and the leader of his secret police, had warned him that his alliance with Islamists would lead to the overthrow of his regime. And that is what likely would have happened. American intervention changed the timetable, but not the outcome.

ISIS is a Baathist-Islamist hybrid that devours its creators, turning on Al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood, and at times even threatening its Baathist allies. Its hybrid of Socialism and an Islam so medieval and brutal that it even frightens Al Qaeda and the Brotherhood has its roots in Saddam’s Iraq. Televising new and more extreme tortures was a tactic that was more Saddam than Osama.

Even ISIS’ most revolutionary step, declaring its leader the Caliph, echoes Saddam’s effort to don the vestiges of the Abbasid Caliphate by linking himself to Caliph Al-Mansur. The difference between Saddam and ISIS is that it is willing to follow through on the symbolism.

For Saddam, Islam was a means. For ISIS it is an end. ISIS is Saddam’s Islamized Iraq without Saddam. It uses Saddam’s tactics and infrastructure for purely Islamic ends.

ISIS is blowback, but not against America. It’s the outcome of two Russian client states that climbed into bed with terrorists only to see the terrorists take over their countries. Saddam and Assad were both warned about the consequences of their alliance with Islamists.

Saddam aided the Muslim Brotherhood in trying to topple Assad’s father, yet learned no lessons from it. Assad aided the Al Qaeda attacks on Americans, but didn’t consider what would happen when Al Qaeda turned its attention to him. Both regimes sowed the Islamist seeds of their own destruction and made inevitable their transformation into Islamic terror states.

Russia’s “Strategic Ambiguity”

US Soldiers Will Fight on the Ground in Iraq, Just Don’t Call It That

obama-iraq

If the guy in the White House had an R after his name, the media would be losing its mind over this. Late night comedians would be working it over. And Michael Moore would have a documentary out.

But it’s just Obama Inc. swooping from one crazy Orwellian language distorting lie to another. So the good news is that the Iraq War is over. We’re not fighting in Iraq. American soldiers fighting and dying in Iraq will be at the center of Obama’s new strategy.

But don’t call it a war or combat or boots on the ground.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Tuesday that raids such as the one that killed Master Sgt. Joshua Wheeler will be at the center of a new strategy in Iraq and Syria.

Carter told a Senate panel that U.S.-backed raids will be accompanied by increased military pressure on Ramadi and Raqqa, two of the front lines in the stymied war against the Islamic State.

More ground raids mean higher risk for American servicemembers and will no doubt raise questions over mission creep more than one year into the new war in the Middle East.

But of course it’s not combat. Or boots on the ground. We’re just sending in American troops to “advise” with their guns.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter today revealed that the U.S. will openly begin “direct action on the ground” against ISIS forces in Iraq and Syria.

In his testimony before the Senate Armed Services committee on Tuesday, Carter said “we won’t hold back from supporting capable partners in opportunistic attacks against ISIL…or conducting such mission directly, whether by strikes from the air or direct action on the ground.”

American soldiers will be going in and engaging in firefights with ISIS to achieve military objectives. This will cost lives. But it’s “supportive” and don’t call it “combat.”

At the time Carter and Pentagon officials refused to characterize the operation as U.S. boots on the ground. However, Carter said that the military expects “more raids of this kind” and that the rescue mission “represents a continuation of our advise and assist mission.”

This may mean some American soldiers “will be in harm’s way, no question about it,” Carter said last week.

Remember the time we “advised and assisted” our way through WW2, supporting our French and British allies with direct action. It wasn’t a war though. It was just advising.

“U.S. forces are not in Iraq on a combat mission and do not have boots on the ground,” said Lt. Gen. Sean B. MacFarland, commander of the Combined Joint Task Force — Operation Inherent Resolve.

We’re just shooting people to achieve a military objective. It’s not a combat mission. It’s “Direct Action” in Operation Inherent Euphemism.

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US military confirms it killed senior al Qaeda strategist Sanafi al Nasr in airstrike in Syria

Sanafi al Nasr, sitting on the far left in the picture above, has been killed in a US airstrike.

Sanafi al Nasr, sitting on the far left in the picture above, has been killed in a US airstrike.

The Long War Journal, by  BILL ROGGIO AND THOMAS JOSCELYN | October 18, 2015:

The US military confirmed that it killed Sanafi al Nasr, a senior al Qaeda strategist who was dispatched by the jihadist group years ago to Syria, in an airstrike in the war torn country on Oct. 15. Nasr’s death, and that of two other jihadists, was first reported by al Qaeda members late last week.

The US Department of Defense confirmed that Nasr was killed in “an airstrike in northwest Syria.” The US military described Nasr as “a Saudi national and the highest ranking leader of the network of veteran al Qaeda operatives sometimes called the ‘Khorasan Group.’”

“Al Nasr was a long-time jihadist experienced in funneling money and fighters for al Qaeda. He moved funds from donors in the Gulf region into Iraq and then to alQaeda leaders from Pakistan to Syria,” the press release announcing his death stated. “He organized and maintained routes for new recruits to travel from Pakistan to Syria through Turkey in addition to helping al Qaeda’s external operations in the West. Al Nasr previously worked for al Qaeda’s Iran-based facilitation network. In 2012 he took charge of al-Qaeda’s core finances before relocating to Syria in 2013.”

The US military claimed that Nasr “is the fifth senior Khorasan Group leader killed in the last four months.” Among those senior al Qaeda leaders killed by the US in Syria killed is Muhsin al Fadhli, a Kuwaiti who served alongside Nasr in al Qaeda’s so-called “Khorasan Group.”

Jihadists on Twitter first reported Nasr’s death on Oct. 17 and claimed that two other al Qaeda members, Abdul Malik al Jazrawi (a Saudi) and Abu Yasir al Maghrebi (a Moroccan), were killed alongside the strategist. Additionally, the Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria, posted a picture purportedly showing a car struck by the “Crusader coalition” in Al Dana, a town in northern Syria west of Aleppo. [See Threat Matrix report, Jihadists claim senior al Qaeda strategist killed in Syria.]

Nasr’s death has deprived al Qaeda of an important leader. In addition to serving as a senior strategist, Nasr, a Saudi whose real name is Abdul Mohsin Abdullah Ibrahim Al Sharikh, was long known for his active role in promulgating propaganda and messages online.

The Long War Journal first reported in March 2014 that he had risen through al Qaeda’s ranks to become a senior leader and that he had relocated to Syria from the Khorasan, an area that encompasses Afghanistan and Pakistan. As The Long War Journal reported at the time, Nasr, a third cousin of Osama bin Laden, led the “Victory Committee,” which is responsible for developing and implementing al Qaeda’s strategy and policies. Declassified files recovered in bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound show that the al Qaeda master had ordered the creation of a committee to serve that function. [For more information on Nasr’s biography and al Qaeda role, see LWJ report: Head of al Qaeda ‘Victory Committee’ in Syria.]

The US Treasury Department later confirmed Nasr’s relocation to Syria and his role as an al Qaeda strategist in an official terrorist designation. [See LWJ report, Treasury designates 2 ‘key’ al Qaeda financiers.]

In September 2014, the US government said that it had bombed the so-called “Khorasan Group” in Syria. The government’s claims caused widespread confusion, but the “Khorasan Group” is really just an elite cadre of al Qaeda operatives from around the globe. The Long War Journal reported shortly after the airstrikes were launched that Nasr was a leading figure in the “Khorasan Group.” [See LWJ report,Senior al Qaeda strategist part of so-called ‘Khorasan group.’]

Nasr is or was a well-known critic of the Islamic State, al Qaeda’s jihadist rival. In July, for instance, he was one of more than a dozen signatories on a statement vowing to continue to oppose the Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s self-declared “caliphate.” The statement was authored by leading Al Nusrah Front and Ahrar al Sham leaders, as well as a handful of other allied jihadists. [See LWJ report, Officials from Al Nusrah Front, Ahrar al Sham vow to continue fight against Islamic State.]

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of The Long War Journal. Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for The Long War Journal.

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Thousands of Iranian Forces Deploy in Syria

Iranian-commander-Brigadier-Ge

Iran Truth, Oct. 15, 2015:

According to Reuters, the “hundreds” of Iranian troops that have been arriving in Syria since the Russian deployment of air support assets have grown to “thousands” on the verge of a major offensive.  This offensive is being led by Qassem Suleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, and one of America’s most dangerous enemies.  IranTruth reported on his trip to Moscow in violation of international travel bans in August, when we warned that planning a military offensive was the reason Suleimani himself would need to go.

Quds Force has apparently been put in the lead of Iran’s overall effort in Syria, aligning the deployment of conventional regular forces with the networks of proxy forces that Iran has erected in Syria.  Two more top Iranian military officers,including a former head of Quds Force, were killed in Iran in recent days.  The first was General Farshad Hasounizad, described as a “defender of the Sayyeda Zeinab Shrine.”  This shrine features heavily in Iranian recruitment efforts pointed at forming new Shia militias across Syria and Iraq, as it is a specifically Shi’ite shrine that is said to be in danger of destruction by both ISIS and non-Islamic forces.  The other officer killed was Hassan Shemshadi, a regular from Iran’s 1st Brigade, 92nd Armored Division, considered the top armored unit in Iran’s regular forces.  Their deaths follow the loss of the IRGC’s Hussein Hamdani earlier in the conflict.  He was killed while in the role of military adviser to the Syrian army preparing to retake Aleppo.

“The big battle preparations in that area are clear,” said one of the officials. “There is a large mobilization of the Syrian army … elite Hezbollah fighters, and thousands of Iranians who arrived in stages in recent days,” said the official.

The second official, who is close to the Syrian government, said: “The decision to launch the battle of Aleppo has been taken … It is no longer hidden that thousands of Iranians are now in Syria and their role is fundamental.”

According to the Institute for the Study of War, initial gains have been limited.  It will take some time to organize an effective system for unifying the command of the numerous proxy forces with regular troops.  Russian airstrikes are intensifying, however, in what is likely battlespace preparation for a ground push.  ISW predicts that the campaign will go on much longer than the “three or four months” that Russian command has publicly predicted.

Russian propaganda tells a different story.  Russia Today is proclaiming that Russian airstrikes have destroyed “most” of the vehicles and ammunition stores of the Islamic State in their first weeks of operation. They cited Defence Ministry statements and provided published gun tape from bombing runs that allegedly show hits upon ISIS bunkers and other targets.  However, a review of these tapes does not show evidence of secondary explosions, which would indicate a hit upon ammunition stores.  It is unclear just how good Russian intelligence could be on ISIS’s stores and bunkers this early into their deployment.  Unless Russia has prepared with a solid human intelligence campaign within ISIS- and rebel-held areas of Syria, it will be dependent on locally-provided information.  American experience with such information in the Iraq war showed that it was often of questionable value until proper intelligence networks, including proper chains of custody and the services of analytical officers familiar with the sources and history of the conflict, were in place.

Given that ISIS was set up by a collection of former Ba’athist intelligence officers, it is unlikely that Russia will inherit a strong Syrian intelligence capacity.  ISIS has a robust counterintelligence plan, and made a careful study of ties of loyalty in their areas of operation before openly seizing control of those areas.  Purges of suspected enemies have been characteristic of ISIS operations.  It is unlikely that Syria can therefore provide Russia with adequate intelligence for an effective air campaign.

Unless Russia deploys significant intelligence operators to the region, it will thus be dependent on aerial surveillance and the limited intelligence provided by its partners for the success of its operations.  Of these, Quds Force proxies may provide the best information as they will be directly operating against ISIS and rebel forces.  Quds Force certainly has practice generating proper intelligence from battlefield information, but it will leave the Russians dependent on Iran in this critical capacity.  Iran will also control the overarching alignment of ground forces in these campaigns.  It is thus Iran, and not the apparently more powerful Russia, that is in the driver’s seat in Syria.

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