Hayward: Free Syrian Army, Once the Great ‘Moderate’ Hope, Joins Turkey to Attack Kurds

Huseyin Nasir/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Breitbart, by John Hayward, Feb. 6, 2018:

Turkey has conducted its “Operation Olive Branch” military incursion into Syria in concert with the Free Syrian Army, which has helped Turkish forces take control of several villages in the Afrin region.

This is an uncomfortable development for U.S. policymakers because both the Kurds and Free Syrian Army were considered battlefield allies of the United States in the war against the Islamic State, and the FSA was seen as the model white-hat rebel group when the Obama administration and intervention-minded Republicans were desperately seeing “moderate” forces in the Syrian rebellion to support.

In fact, as recently as last spring, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-AZ) strongly urged increased support for the Free Syrian Army as part of the U.S. strategy for stabilizing Syria while holding the regime of dictator Bashar Assad at bay.

McCain has long been prominent among those convinced the Free Syrian Army was America’s best bet for a terrorist-free moderate rebel group to arm and support, a step he felt the Obama administration was much too reluctant to take while Russia was busy shipping arms to the Syrian regime.

He made a surprise visit to the Turkey-Syria border in 2013 to meet with FSA leaders who wanted American heavy weapons, up to and including anti-aircraft weapons, and American air support against FSA adversaries such as Hezbollah. At the time, the FSA claimed to be running perilously low on munitions, which does not seem to be a problem now that they are fighting on Turkey’s behalf against the Kurds.

McCain has not responded well to contrary arguments about the FSA, as when he reportedly stormed out of the room during a 2014 presentation by Syrian Christians who said there were Islamist fighters among the FSA’s ranks.

There was a good deal of confusion surrounding support for the Free Syrian Army in the Obama administration, which occasionally seemed uncertain about what kind of support it was sending them. Critics complained effective support for moderate rebel groups was announced too late, after too much dithering, and was delivered too long after it was finally announced. The aid program that eventually materialized was an unserious disaster.

Whether reluctantly as with Obama, or eagerly as with McCain, plans for zero-footprint Syrian intervention kept circling back around to the Free Syrian Army, despite persistent warnings it contained some unlovely people and outright terrorists. One reason for this default support is that many of the other options for American support were Kurdish groups or members of Kurdish-dominated umbrella organizations, which was problematic because U.S. policymakers wanted to avoid conflict with the Turkish and Iraqi governments. Going all-in on the Kurds would inevitably bring accusations that America was supporting Kurdish nationalists, separatists, or terrorists (as Turkey would have it).

To this very day, Turkey denounces American support for the Kurds as direct support for terrorists, no different in principle from shipping arms to the Islamic State, which is something the Turks also charge America with doing when they are especially upset. It may come as some small consolation to know that everyone involved in the Syrian quagmire accuses everyone else of supporting terrorism, and they quite frequently have a point, since even the better rebel groups have been known to cooperate with powerful terrorist forces like al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front from time to time. It is difficult for outside powers to be certain that a weapon given to a white-hat moderate rebel today will not be handed over, voluntarily or involuntarily, to a terrorist or war criminal tomorrow.

In a 2013 profile of the Free Syrian Army, the BBC noted it was a “loose network of brigades rather than a unified fighting force,” with very little operational control exercised by appealing and high-minded spokesmen like Brigadier General Salim Idris.

Brigades aligned with the Free Syrian Army and its spinoff organizations retained “separate identities, agendas and commands.” The BBC noted that some of them “work with hardline Islamist groups that alarm the West, such as Ahrar al-Sham, and al-Qaeda-linked jihadists.”

Deutsche Welle recalls that, a few weeks ago, a delegation from the Free Syrian Army came to Washington and argued that if the CIA did not resume military aid frozen by the Trump administration, its “moderate” forces would have no choice but to look elsewhere for support. Virtually overnight, the FSA signed up with Turkey to work as mercenaries in its war against the Syrian Kurds, which DW notes is difficult to square with the FSA’s nominal mission of battling the tyranny of Bashar Assad on behalf of the Syrian people. It also argues against viewing the FSA as the kind of staunch moderate ally who can be entrusted with American weapons as they fight a noble battle to liberate Syria from cruel dictatorship.

“The Free Syrian Army practically doesn’t exist,” DW quotes Mideast expert Kamal Sido telling a German broadcaster. “The Free Syrian Army is a smokescreen hiding various names, and if you look at the names, at these groups’ videos, you’ll find they are radical Islamist, Jihadist groups.”

Charles Lister of the Brookings Institution contributed the observation that nearly 80 distinct factions now identify themselves with the FSA brand, and while some are moderate in outlook, others are hardline Islamist radicals. The group as a whole is moving inexorably into the orbit of radicals, and Islamist patrons like Turkey’s Erdogan, simply because they tend to be better-armed and more ruthlessly effective on the battlefield.

If such groups ever succeeded in overthrowing Assad, they would likely either replace him with an Islamist tyranny or turn their guns against their erstwhile moderate allies – which is essentially what the FSA is doing to the Syrian Kurds right now. At this point, with Russian and Iranian support firmly behind Assad, his ouster seems unlikely, so the “rebels” are largely fighting for concessions at the negotiating table and perhaps a degree of autonomy to run their own little fiefdoms within postwar Syria. Every proposal to arm Syrian groups must carefully consider what those groups actually intend to fight for.

It should also consider how they fight. Syrian Kurds are protesting the brutality of the Turkey-FSA invasion of Afrin, which threatens to push even further into Syria, as President Erdogan has openly called for American troops to get out of his way.

Over the weekend, video footage surfaced that appears to show Free Syrian Army fighters fondling and abusing the corpse of a female Kurdish fighter killed in the Afrin operation. One of them described the woman’s body as “the spoils of war from the female pigs of the PKK,” which is the violent Kurdish separatist organization in Turkey. The Turks insist that all Syrian Kurdish militia forces are allied with the PKK, including those directly supported by the United States.

The Free Syrian Army high command promised to investigate the incident and hold those involved accountable, “if it is verified in accordance with Sharia law and our principles.” The use of Islamic law to decide whether clearly heinous activity constitutes a war crime is not what the Western world should be looking for in a “moderate” ally.

Conversely, the Turks and their allies accuse the Kurds of fighting dirty and allying themselves with the brutal Assad regime, and Kurdish forces have been blamed for civilian deaths from a rocket barrage that struck a refugee camp near the Turkish border on Monday.

Syria is a bloody mess, and white hats are hard to find, but the hellish conundrum is that failure to intervene unleashed a refugee wave that threatens to drown Europe, not to mention a humanitarian disaster within Syria that should be utterly intolerable to the civilized world. The Free Syrian Army clearly is not the easy answer that so many people have so desperately wanted it to be for the past five years. They proved it by joining a Turkish operation that may soon put the lives of American troops at risk and threaten the future of NATO.

Also see:

Civilians in Northern Syria Flee to Caves as Turkish Invasion Barrels On

Russian-Turkish axis in Syria faces meltdown

Syrian Kurds: Russia Pressured Us to Give Afrin to Assad ‘One Day’ Before Turkish Attack

Israeli airstrikes target suspected chemical weapons facility in Syria

GETTY

Long War Journal, by Thomas Joscelyn, Sept. 7, 2017:

Israel struck a suspected chemical weapons facility maintained by Bashar al Assad’s regime near Masyaf, Syria earlier today. The Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA), a propaganda arm for Assad’s regime, quickly confirmed the strikes, claiming that “Israeli warplanes fired several rockets from the Lebanese airspace.” SANA did not mention that Masyaf reportedly houses a chemical weapons facility, but claimed that “two army personnel” were killed and “material damage” was done “to the site.”

The airstrikes were launched less than a day after the United Nations released a report saying it has documented “25 incidents of chemical weapons use in the Syrian Arab Republic” between Mar. 2013 and Mar. 2017. Twenty of these “were perpetrated by government forces and used primarily against civilians.” The UN also held the Assad regime responsible for Apr. 4 sarin attack on civilians in Khan Sheikhoun, Syria. At least 83 people were killed and hundreds more injured in the bombing. Both the Syrian and Russian governments have denied the regime’s culpability, but the UN found that their explanation was not credible.

The facility near Masyaf, which is located in the Hama province, is one of several suspected chemical weapons sites maintained by the Syrian regime. Both the UN and the US say that despite agreeing to give up its chemical weapons, the regime continues to operate a weapons of mass destruction program.

In January, the US Treasury Department sanctioned “18 senior regime officials connected to Syria’s weapons of mass destruction program.” The sanctions were announced after a UN body “found that the Syrian government, specifically the Syrian Arab Air Force, was responsible for three chlorine gas attacks” on Apr. 21, 2014 and Mar. 16, 2015.

Among those sanctioned were several officials who work for the regime’s Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC), which reportedly manages the sites in Masyaf and elsewhere.

In late April, just weeks after the Sarin attack in Khan Sheikhoun, Treasury announced “one of the largest sanctions actions in” history. 271 SSRC employees were sanctioned. Treasury explained that they “have expertise in chemistry and related disciplines and/or have worked in support of SSRC’s chemical weapons program since at least 2012.”

Treasury’s designations did not specifically mention Masyaf as one of the SSRC’s chemical weapons facilities, but other reporting has pointed to the location.

In May, BBC News cited a document prepared by a “western intelligence agency” as indicating that Assad’s men were producing chemical weapons at three primary locations. In addition to Masyaf, two other facilities, Dummar and Barzeh, are reportedly located outside of Damascus. The same document “alleges that both Iran and Russia, the [Syrian] government’s allies, are aware” of the ongoing chemical weapons production, according to the BBC.

Israel has closely tracked the facilities in Masyaf and elsewhere for years, fearing that the Syrian military may transfer some of the know-how to Hezbollah or other Iranian-backed terrorists. This concern has only grown as Hezbollah has increased its footprint inside the country. In 2012, Spiegel Online reported that Masyaf was one of the locations being closely monitored by Israeli intelligence and Israel was “weighing whether to strike.”

Israel has repeatedly bombed other locations inside Syria since the beginning of the war.

In May, for example, the Israeli Air Force struck an apparent weapons shipment to Hezbollah at the T-4 military base near Palmyra. In Dec. 2015, the Israelis reportedly bombed a Hezbollah position, killing a long-wanted terrorist. These are just two of Israel’s suspected bombings in Syria. [See FDD’s Long War Journal reports: Israel’s airstrikes in Palmyra likely targeted Hezbollah weapons shipments
 and Israeli Air Force kills notorious Hezbollah commander in Syria.]

The facilities at Masyaf reportedly store not only chemical weapons, but also the means for delivering them. Jane’s Defence Weekly reported in 2014 that various Syrian regime development projects, including those related to “missile and rocket production,” were relocated to Masyaf as a result of the ongoing war. Projects related to manufacturing Scud missiles, armor, and surface-to-air missiles were already based in Masyaf, according to Jane’s.

In April, the US launched its own airstrikes on a Syrian airbase. The bombings were carried out after the sarin attack in Khan Sheikhoun.

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD’s Long War Journal.

Also see:

Iran, operating from Syria, will destroy Europe and North America

There is a long term plan at work here aimed at destroying the West and it can work.

Israel National News, by Dr. Mordechai Kedar, Aug. 28, 2017:

Iran and Russia plan to destroy Western Europe, the US and Canada by means of a new wave of millions of Syrian Sunnis fleeing to the West to escape the Shiite takeover of Syria.

In my weekly column two months ago, I claimed that Iran is the real victor in the Syrian civil war.  Using the war against ISIS as a smokescreen, it is taking over large swathes of Syrian territory, mainly in the scarcely populated middle and eastern parts of the country. In the more fertile and densely populated west of Syria, there are  Iraqi, Afghan, and Iranian Shiite militias augmenting  Lebanese Hezbollah fighters who were given carte blanche to do whatever Hassan Nasrallah decides to do there.

Assad’s strength continues to increase as ISIS and the other rebel forces lose ground.  The brutality of Russian involvement and the cruelty of Shiite militias overcame the anti-Assad forces, the turning point occurring when in 2015, Turkey’ s Erdogan was forced by Russia to cease his aid to the rebels and ISIS. Today, although Erdogan is an unwilling ally of Russia, Alawite Assad still sees him, justifiably, as an Islamist enemy.

The Kurds of northeast Syria, treated as below third class citizens until 2011, will never agree to live under Arab mercy once again and it is reasonable to assume that should Syria remain an undivided country under Assad’s rule, the Kurds will preserve relative autonomy in their region – or fight the regime for their rights.

That is certainly a problem, but the main issue facing a united Syria is going to be the drastic demographic changes the country is going to face.

First of all, about half of Syria’s citizens – close to 10 million – are refugees, half located in Syria and the other half in Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, other Arab countries, Europe, North and South America, Australia and even Israel.  Syrian refugees who reached points outside the Arab world will in all probability stay put, benefitting from the secure and orderly lives they can now lead. On the other hand, the 3.5 million now in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey are awaiting the end of hostilities in order to return to their homes.

Those expectations may be dashed, however, because Syrian reality is totally changed, and large parts of its cities are in ruins after six and a half years of a cruel and bloody war.  Countless bombs dropped from planes and helicopters, artillery and tank barrages, mines and explosives planted by both sides have made much of urban Syria, where most of the fighting took place, unsafe to live in. In Homs, Aleppo, Adlib, Hamat and many other cities, entire neighborhoods will have to be razed and their infrastructure rebuilt from scratch. Decades and billions of dollars are needed to rebuild the country and I, for one, do not see the world’s nations standing on line to donate the necessary funds.  Refugees will not agree to switch their tents in Jordan for ruined buildings lacking basic infrastructure in a desolate and destroyed Syria.

The other reason the refugees will not return is their justified fear of the new lords of the land – the Shiites. Iran has been moving Shiites from Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan to Syria for a long time in a clear attempt to change the demographic makeup of the country from the Sunni majority it had before the civil war broke out in 2011. The issue could not be more clear because it is no secret that the pre-civil war Sunni majority considered the Alawite rulers heretic idol worshippers who had no right to live in Syria, much less rule over it.

The Alawites know well that the Sunnis rebelled against them twice: The first time was from 1976 to 1982, a rebellion that took the lives of 50,000 citizens. The second time, slowly drawing to an end, has cost the lives of half a million men, women, children and aged citizens of Syria.  The Alawites intend to prevent a third rebellion and the best way to do that is to change the majority of the population to Shiites instead of Sunnis.  They will not allow the Sunni refugees to return to their homes, leaving them eternal refugees whose lands have been taken over by the enemy. Iran, meanwhile, will populate Syria with Shiites from Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan.

This ethnic cleansing is the Ayatollah’s dream come true, the dream that sees a Shiite crescent drawn from Iran through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea. This will cover the eastern Arab world from the north, while the war in Yemen is being fought in order to create a parallel southern crescent, entrapping Saudi Arabia and Jordan between the two. With the help of Allah, both those countries and Israel, the Small Satan, will soon fall into the hands of the Shiites, while Europe and America do nothing because who cares when Muslims fight other Muslims?

The Shiite majority in Syria will play along with Lebanon’s Hezbollah, their natural allies, and it is possible that some form of federation might be created between the two in order to push the Lebanese Christians out of the picture, “persuading” them to flee to other countries, leaving Lebanon to its “rightful” Shiite masters. This explains Nasrallah’s eager willingness to fight on Syrian soil as well as the opposition of those against Nasrallah to his involvement there.

The new demographic situation in Syria will convince the Sunni refugees that they have no place to which to return. They will try their best to be allowed to leave Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey for any country, preferably North America and Europe, willing to allow them entry.  I predict a process that is the exact opposite of the one the world expects to take place when “peace” breaks out in Syria:  Instead of refugees returning to their birthplace, expect the mass flight of Sunni refugees from the region, and expect a heightened incidence of Islamist terror in the countries that allow them in.

The reasons are obvious:

1. Former ISIS and rebel forces will infiltrate along with the refugees, because they, too,  are Sunni. They are filled with fury and hatred for the Western countries  who were part of the coalition that fought ISIS or stood by without aiding the rebels. Some of them will continue their Jihad on European and North American soil. Expect shootings, explosives and ramming attacks against citizens of these countries.

2. Some of the refugees will not find work and live on the economic and social fringes of society, in poverty-stricken Islamist neighborhoods which have already existed for years in many European cities, and where the local police fear to tread. Poverty and life on the fringe of society will turn some of the Muslim young people into easy prey for terrorist organization recruiters who arouse the desire for Jihad by describing the accepting host countries as decadent societies infected with permissiveness, prostitution, alcohol, drugs, materialism and corruption.  They present the countries that allowed the immigrants entry as having done so to take advantage of them as industrial slaves, garage hands, cashiers and other degrading occupations, while the privileged citizens are lawyers, accountant, businessmen and homeowners w ho take advantage of the migrants in humiliating ways. It is only a matter of time until young Muslims, especially those who were taught that “everyone is equal” in Western schools, enlist in terrorist organizations.

3. Countries which allow in refugees will suffer a higher crime rate as a result, including violence in public places, sexual attacks and harassment, housebreaking, car theft, substance abuse, unreported work to avoid paying taxes and illegal construction. This will all occur at the same time these countries expend a larger part of their budgets on social services for the refugees, from child allowances to unemployment, health and old age benefits. At this point in time, the percentage of second and third generation immigrants populating the prisons in Western Europe is significantly larger than their percentage in the general population.

4. Increased economic, social and security problems in Europe and North America as a result of the rise in the number of migrants will lead to a rise in the strength of the right and the extreme right.  This will in turn lead to more social tensions in the West. Members of Parliament whose only wish is to be re-elected will adapt their parliamentary activity – especially the laws they promote – to the expectations of the rapidly Islamizing constituencies, sacrificing their own people’s interests on the altar of their political careers. Many Europeans, aware of their elected leaders’ betrayal, will despair and leave those socially and economically deteriorating countries. This will increase the rate at which Europe turns into an Islamic region..

And that is how the agreements Iran and Russia will soon coerce Syria into accepting  are going to start a chain reaction increasing the number of refugees and pulling  Europe down to a point of no return, without the world understanding what  is going on. The Atlantic Ocean is not wide enough to protect North America from this debacle crossing the sea.

This is how the Iranian Ayatollahs intend to destroy the heretic, permissive, drunk and materialistic  West.  More of the unfortunate Syrian millions will find themselves exiled to the heretic  countries hated by the Ayatollahs, and Iran will operate from Syrian soil to vanquish Europe and America.

Writen in Hebrew for Arutz Sheva, translated by Rochel Sylvetsky, Senior Consultant and op-ed editor of Arutz Sheva English site.

Also  see:

Trump Got This One Right

An anti-Assad militia member loads an American-made TOW anti-tank missile southeast of the city of Tal Afar. Photo credit: AHMAD AL-RUBAYE / AFP / Getty

Weekly Standard, by Thomas Joscelyn, THE MAGAZINE: From the August 7 Issue

Earlier this year, President Donald Trump was shown a disturbing video of Syrian rebels beheading a child near the city of Aleppo. It had caused a minor stir in the press as the fighters belonged to the Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement, a group that had been supported by the CIA as part of its rebel aid program.

The footage is haunting. Five bearded men smirk as they surround a boy in the back of a pickup truck. One of them holds the boy’s head with a tight grip on his hair while another mockingly slaps his face. Then, one of them uses a knife to saw the child’s head off and holds it up in the air like a trophy. It is a scene reminiscent of the Islamic State’s snuff videos, except this wasn’t the work of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s men. The murderers were supposed to be the good guys: our allies.

Trump wanted to know why the United States had backed Zenki if its members are extremists. The issue was discussed at length with senior intelligence officials, and no good answers were forthcoming, according to people familiar with the conversations. After learning more worrisome details about the CIA’s ghost war in Syria—including that U.S.-backed rebels had often fought alongside extremists, among them al Qaeda’s arm in the country—the president decided to end the program altogether.

On July 19, the Washington Post broke the news of Trump’s decision: “a move long sought by Russia,” the paper’s headline blared. Politicians from both sides of the aisle quickly howled in protest, claiming that Trump’s decision was a surrender to Vladimir Putin.

There is no doubt that Putin, who has the blood of many Syrian civilians on his hands, was pleased by the move. But that doesn’t mean the rebel aid program was effective or served American interests.

The defenders of the CIA program argue that the Free Syrian Army (FSA) remains our best hope for a moderate opposition to Assad. But the FSA is not the single, unified organization its name implies. It is, rather, a loose collection of groups that have adopted the FSA brand, often in addition to their own names and branding. Although “Free Syrian Army” sounds secular and moderate, its constituents are ideologically diverse and include numerous extremists. Zenki, for example, was referred to as an FSA group well after its hardline beliefs were evident, and few FSA groups could be considered truly secular. Several prominent FSA organizations advocate Islamist ideas, meaning they believe that some version of sharia law should rule Syrian society.

To make matters worse: FSA-affiliated rebels have often been allied with Jabhat al-Nusra, al Qaeda’s branch in Syria. Some of the most prominent FSA groups, indeed, objected to the U.S. government’s decision to designate Nusra as a terrorist organization in December 2012. Al Qaeda’s Syrian arm was even then strong enough to command loyalty in the face of American sanctions. There have been episodic clashes between Nusra and America’s FSA allies, but more often than not FSA-branded rebels have been in the trenches alongside Nusra’s jihadists.

Jabhat al-Nusra, publicly an arm of al Qaeda until July 2016, has been the single strongest organization within the insurgency for some time. Well before President Trump was inaugurated, Nusra had grown into a menace. And America’s provision of arms to FSA-branded rebels worked to Nusra’s advantage—an inconvenient fact for those criticizing the president’s decision.

Russia intervened in Syria in September 2015, and the timing was not accidental. Just months earlier, in March, the “Army of Conquest” took over the northwestern province of Idlib. This rebel coalition was no band of moderates. It was led by Nusra and included its closest Islamist and jihadist partners. The Army of Conquest was on the march, threatening the Assad family’s stronghold of Latakia on the coast. Had the insurgents progressed much further south, Bashar al-Assad’s regime would have been in serious jeopardy, perhaps would even have fallen. With the backing of Russia and Iran, Assad’s forces rallied and stopped the Nusra-led coalition from taking even more ground. Russia saved Assad, but its efforts also stymied the jihadists’ offensive—a important fact that is often left out of Syria policy debates.

Since July 2016, Jabhat al-Nusra has changed its name twice and merged with other organizations to form a group known as Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (“Assembly for the Liberation of Syria,” or HTS). The group is riven by internal rivalries, with some members even arguing that its leadership is no longer beholden to al Qaeda. But the jihadists are consolidating their control over Idlib as part of a totalitarian drive to dominate governance in the province.

HTS’s top-dog status within Idlib is no accident. Al Qaeda’s leadership and Jabhat al-Nusra have been laying the groundwork for an Islamic emirate, based on radical sharia law, in Syria since 2012. And their plan has called for exploiting Free Syrian Army groups and their CIA support.

Nusra has been happy to take advantage of the support FSA groups received from the United States and other nations supporting the multi-sided proxy war against Assad. There are dozens of videos online showing Syrian rebels firing the American-made, anti-tank BGM-71 TOW missile. The TOW is distinctive in appearance and relatively easy to identify, making it a rather public announcement of the groups involved in the CIA’s “clandestine” program. If one wants to know which FSA-branded groups have been approved by Langley, just look for TOW missiles.

Defenders of the program argue that only a small number of TOWs have been fired by al Qaeda’s men or other non-vetted rebels. Maybe. But at least some of the “vetted” groups shouldn’t have been deemed acceptable partners in the first place. Zenki received TOWs even though its extremism is obvious. Other Islamist groups within the loose-knit FSA coalition received TOWs as well.

And Nusra used such organizations to further its own designs. Abu Kumayt, who served as a fighter in the Western-backed Syrian Revolutionaries Front (SRF), explained to the New York Times in December 2014 that Nusra “lets groups vetted by the United States keep the appearance of independence, so that they will continue to receive American supplies.” Another “commander” in a group that received TOWs told the Times that FSA “fighters were forced to operate them . . . on behalf of” Nusra during a battle with Assad’s forces. American-made weapons were fueling the jihadists’ gains and when Nusra finally grew tired of the SRF and Harakat Hazm, another American-supported group based in Idlib province, it quickly dispatched them, taking their weapons in the process.

American-made arms helped fuel the insurgents’ gains in Idlib province in 2015. Today, that same province is home to a nascent Taliban-style state.

Advocates for the Syrian opposition point to areas of the country outside of Idlib province where FSA-branded groups seem to hold more sway. But the story is almost always complicated by a jihadist presence. Take Aleppo, for instance, where in August 2016, insurgents temporarily broke the regime’s brutal siege. The Army of Conquest coalition—the same Nusra-led alliance that took over Idlib—played a key role in the fighting, as they would in a second attempt to break the siege later in 2016.

In October 2016, the U.N.’s special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, told reporters that Nusra accounted for only 900 to 1,000 of the 8,000 opposition fighters in Aleppo. After objections that this modest figure was too high, the U.N. revised its estimate downward, claiming Nusra had just 150 to 200 members within the Aleppo opposition. Advocates then seized on this low figure to argue that the insurgents inside the city deserved the full backing of the West. They ignored the fact that the other, non-Nusra rebels included many extremists—such as Zenki.

It is doubtful that the U.N.’s lowball estimate for Nusra’s presence in Aleppo was accurate; Nusra produced videos showing large convoys making their way to the city, which suggested a much bigger force. But even the U.N. conceded that Nusra’s “influence” was greater than its numbers implied, because of the jihadists’ “operational capacity coupled with the fear that they engendered from other groups.” Part of the reason Nusra is so operationally effective is its use of suicide bombers, and a series of these “martyrs” were deployed by Nusra and its allies during key points in the battle for Aleppo. Without Nusra’s Army of Conquest, the insurgents would have had little hope of breaking Assad’s grip on the city, and TOW-armed FSA groups, some of them Islamist, fought right alongside Nusra’s men.

The bottom line: Sunni jihadists and extremists are laced throughout the Syrian rebellion and have been for years. While pockets of acceptable allies remain, there is no evidence that any truly moderate force is effectively fighting Assad, and President Trump was right to end the program of CIA support for the Syrian opposition.

It is a dire situation, and one might easily conclude that a full alliance with Russia in Syria makes some sense. That is clearly the president’s thinking. His administration has already explored ways to cooperate with Putin against the Islamic State, including brokering a ceasefire in southern Syria. But a partnership with Russia has its own downsides.

Russian and Syrian jets have indiscriminately and repeatedly bombed civilian targets. The Assad regime has used chemical weapons, which Trump himself objected to, bombing a Syrian airfield in response. The United States cannot endorse these war crimes by allying itself with the perpetrators of mass murder in Syria. The president has loudly denounced Iran and its sponsorship of terrorism throughout the world. But Russia and the Syrian government have sponsored Iran’s growing footprint in the country. A recent State Department report said that as many 7,000 fighters from Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed terror group that is opposed to both the United States and Israel, are now located in Syria. These same Hezbollah fighters, along with Shiite militiamen sponsored by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), are Russia’s and Assad’s key on-the-ground allies.

All of which is to say that there are no easy answers in Syria. But that doesn’t mean the United States should keep playing a losing hand. And that’s exactly what the program to support Syria’s rebels was—a bad deal.

Thomas Joscelyn, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.

Red Lines in Syria

Front Page Magazine, by Kenneth  R. Timmerman, July 19, 2017:

Suleymania, Iraq – With Saturday’s bombing of Afrin, a town controlled by America’s Kurdish allies in northern Syria, Turkey appears to have crossed a line.

Turkish artillery pounded the Ashrafiyeh neighborhood near the city center as well as surrounding villages. Reports from the region said the Turkish attack killed five civilians, including an entire family that was buried alive in their own home, and damaged dozens of homes.

“This is considered the first targeting of the city since the start of Turkish preparations” to expand military operations in Northwest Syria last month, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The Turkish attacks were not directed against ISIS or against any other Islamist group. The Turks targeted Afrin because it has become a key political hub for the Democratic Union Party of Syria, the YPD, which Turkey accuses of being part of the PKK.

I spoke with Asya Abdallah Osman, the co-president of the YPD, on the sidelines of a conference both of us were attending in Iraqi Kurdistan. She was visibly shaken when she called home and learned details about the civilian casualties in Afrin.

“We have been fighting [ISIS] because we as women do not want to be subjected to their inhumanity. But we need your help,” she said, meaning the United States. “We need no other. This is war and people are dying. It won’t be resolved by politics, only by hard power.”

She swept aside the Turkish allegations that the regional government of the YPD, and its associated militia, known as the People’s Protection Units (YPG), were controlled by the PKK, or that the PKK was using YPD territory to launch attacks into Turkey.

“We are an independent political party that belongs to Syria and to the Kurds. If the PKK has come to Syria, it’s because Turkey has forced them to come,” she said.

Turkey has long accused the Kurdish Workers Party, or PKK, or fighting a terrorist war against it, but also has been willing to negotiate with PKK leaders when it felt it could reach a deal to curtail the violence.

After Turkey violated a 2013 truce negotiated in Oslo that called for the PKK to remove its fighters from Turkey into northern Iraq, the PKK relocated remaining fighters into the Kurdish areas in Syria, known as Rojava.

Like most Kurds, Ms. Osman believes Turkey and its allies in the region do not want to see a successful democratic self-governing region in northern Syria, because it would encourage their own Kurds to seek greater autonomy.

“They accuse us of not being democratic, but we have allowed all political and ethnic groups to have representatives in the regional government. Our project is for all of Syria, not just Kurds,” she told me.

Ms. Osman traveled to Northern Iraq in a group of 65 Syrian Kurdish activists, representing nearly twenty political groups.

Normally, they would have entered Iraq via a pontoon bridge over the Tigris River at Semalka, in an area that has escaped the current fighting.

But the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq closed the border recently, forcing the Syrian pro-democracy delegates to make a dangerous 16-hour trek by foot across the only other border crossing into Iraq near Mount Sinjar, which is controlled by Iranian-backed Shiite militias.

“There is no Kurdish Regional Government,” Ms. Osman said dismissively. “There is only the KDP,” the Kurdish Democratic Party, dominated by President Massoud Barzani and his family.

She and other Kurdish activists at the weekend conference believe that Turkey pressured the Barzanis to close the Semalka border crossing in order to further isolate them. “Semulka is our only gate to the outside world,” she said. “When it is shut, we are closed off.”

She attributed claims that the YPD and its militia were controlled by the PKK to Turkish propaganda. “Of course, we have dialogue with other Kurdish parties, including the PKK. So do most Kurdish groups in the region. But we run our party and our administration ourselves. We elect our own officials and they take orders from no one.”

Indeed, I only learned after the conference that a member of the PKK central committee had attended the weekend event, sponsored by the Kurdistan National Congress, where three hundred delegates from Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey strategized over a future Kurdish state or confederation.

There were few references to the PKK by the speakers, and the PKK central committeeman himself never spoke. The final declaration of the conference makes no mention of the PKK.

Both President Trump and Secretary of Defense Mattis have warned Turkey not to attack America’s Kurdish allies in Syria. Turkey has blithely ignored those admonishments until now.

Less than a month after President Trump at the White House personally rejected Erdogan’s demand that the U.S. drop support for the Syrian Kurds, Turkey began moving troops to encircle Afrin, the political capital of the Syrian Kurdish region, and other Kurdish controlled areas.

After Turkey started to attack YPG positions in late June, Secretary of Defense James Mattis upped the ante by declaring that the United States might allow the Kurdish group to keep U.S. supplied weapons after the battle for Raqqa to smash ISIS was over.

Some of Erdogan’s erstwhile political allies believe he Erdogan is playing a dangerous game.

Even before the Turkish attacks on civilians over the weekend, former Turkish Foreign Minister Yasar Yakis, who helped found Erdogan’s ruling AKP party, counseled against attacking the Syrian Kurds.

“The best course would be to negotiate a deal with the Syrian Kurds, persuade them not to attempt to change the ethnic composition of the region, and establish – preferably in cooperation with the Syrian government – a multi-ethnic, multi-confessional democratic administration,” Yakis wrote in a column for Arab News.

That is precisely the project Ms. Osman and the YPD have been proposing.

Erdogan showed his arrogance in Washington when he calmly observed his bodyguards cross a Capitol Police barrier in May to viciously bludgeon opposition protestors with truncheons.

But by putting his forces in a position where they could potentially clash with U.S. military units assisting the YPG and the Syrian Democratic Forces, Erdogan has shown a reckless side as well.

Turkey has been warned twice. Will Afrin prove to be the third strike for Erdogan in Syria?

Christian Fighters in Raqqa Report ISIS Using Drones to Drop Bombs

A fighter of the Syriac Military Council burns an ISIS flag on the front line on the western side of Raqqa, Syria, on July 17, 2017. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

PJ Media, by Bridget Johnson, July 18, 2017:

Christian forces fighting to oust ISIS from its declared capital of Raqqa said today that while “hundreds, maybe thousands” of terrorists fled before the Syrian Democratic Forces laid siege to the city, the remaining terrorists have resorted to “dirty tactics” including dropping bombs on their forces from drones.

The Syriac Military Council (MFS), which consists of Assyrian men and women fighting alongside Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen and other ethnic groups under the umbrella of the SDF, also warned that the Turkish government and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are trying to stop the SDF’s offensive by attacking the anti-ISIS coalition.

In a video message today, MFS spokesman Kino Gabriel said that the operation to “liberate the so-called caliphate of the Islamic State,” in particular the current Wrath of Euphrates operation to liberate Raqqa and surrounding territory that began in November, is going according to plan.

“The importance of this operation for us is very huge … liberating [Raqqa] would mean another step in the battle to defeat ISIS and to defeat terrorists that have been persecuting the Syrian people and its components for so long,” Gabriel said, noting that ISIS has been attacking different groups including “the Syrian Christians who have been living in different areas like Jazira, like Raqqa, Homs.”

MFS participation is important, he said, “in order to revenge the persecution that Syriac Christians have taken, to revenge the persecution that we see and that people have been living under since 2013 and 2014.”

He also emphasized the role of the Bethnahrin Women’s Protection Forces, “the Syrian women who have taken part in the operation since its first stages” who comprise the women of the MFS.

(Syriac Military Council)

“There have been several Christian families, living and still living in the city of Raqqa, some of them managed to get out and got the support of the Syriac Military Council and other groups,” Gabriel said, adding that there are “so many civilians” still trapped in Raqqa “that are still living there alongside the few Christian families,” whose status is “currently unknown.” He said the MFS is “taking different measures in order to locate those families and be able to rescue them as the operation and the offensive is continuing.”

The goal is to “completely liberate the city” and allow the civilian administration to take over and “get the people back again to their normal lives and to be able provide the necessary services the people need.”

“Our goal is to completely liberate Raqqa and continue fighting Daesh in the territories under its control,” he said, using the pejorative Arabic name for ISIS.

Gabriel said the MFS and allies “are trying to do our task and kick the terrorism out,” but “so far we have been attempted to stop by different forces like the Turkish state and the Turkish army alongside some Free Syrian Army groups who are affiliated with Turkey and attacking different areas that are controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces.”

“They attempt to stop or slow our operation to reach Raqqa,” he said. “The same thing goes for the Syrian regime supported by its allies, which attempted to slow down and attacked our forces in different locations … military and defensive measures have been taken and several airplanes belonging to the Syrian army have been dropped.”

A month ago, a U.S. Navy F/A-18E Super Hornet shot down a Syrian Su-22 that was dropping bombs on SDF positions southwest of Raqqa. The U.S. military said the Syrian regime attack wounded “a number” of SDF fighters.

“Our goal, as we said, is to liberate Syria from the terrorism of Daesh and the different terrorist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra and the others,” Gabriel said, and let the Syrian people thrive in “a democratic system that is pluralistic” and gives a voice to all of Syria’s ethnic and religious groups.

“ISIS has been defeated so far inside the city, hundreds maybe thousands of fighters maybe escaped during the first stages of the operation and just before the siege of the city from all sides,” the spokesman continued. “Those who are left, maybe they will be in the thousands, and they are fighting very hard against our forces, mostly using, let’s say, dirty tactics including dropping bombs from drones, snipers, VBIEDS [car bombs], and are using tunnels that have been built under the city to infiltrate our forces. So far, our forces have been able to do the task and stop any attacks from Daesh.”

ISIS released a lengthy video in January unveiling their weaponized drone program. After the Mosul operation began in October, a U.S. general described ISIS’ drones as “commercial, off-the-shelf” unmanned aircraft.

Gabriel noted that they have been able to “liberate several neighborhoods and are continuing our operations to liberate the others.”

“We are sure that our battle is for the good and the righteousness of our cause and we are going to succeed, and we are going to be victorious in this battle and in this operation,” he said.

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Iran’s Lebanese Missile Factories in “New and Very Dangerous Phase”

by Yaakov Lappin
Special to IPT News
July 18, 2017

Recently-built Iranian missile factories in Lebanon can produce powerful weapons for Hizballah and are part of a wider trend that could set the region on fire, a senior former Israeli defense source has told the Investigative Project on Terrorism (IPT).

“There is no doubt that this is a new and very dangerous stage,” the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said about the fact that Iran has for the first time placed military production industries directly in Hizballah’s possession.

“It points to the fact that Lebanon is not a state, but a branch of Iran that is controlled by Hizballah, and that Iran, after the nuclear agreement, feels that it can do everything because no one dares harm it,” he added.

Tehran’s alliance with Moscow gives the Islamic Republic “extraordinary power, and hence, Iran allows itself to do what it has not dared do without the alliance with Russia,” the source said.

Russia depends on Iran to safeguard the Assad regime in Syria, the source noted. Iran is testing Israeli red lines by arming the radical Shi’ite Iranian proxy, Hizballah, with potentially dire consequences.

“When Israel is forced to act after Iran and Hizballah cross all of the red lines, Lebanon will be destroyed, because Iran and Hizballah have turned it into one big weapons storage facility, and the world is silent,” the source said.

“Anyone who dreams about Israel accepting, in a future arrangement [with the Palestinians], any kind of international force that will have any kind of role, should examine the utter uselessness of UNIFIL [the United Nations force stationed in southern Lebanon], which has yet to report on a single rocket or missile out of the 120,000 that exist in Lebanon. For Israel, UNIFIL is more of a nuisance than a benefit,” the source said.

Earlier this month, France’s Intelligence Online magazine reported that one factory was under construction in northern Lebanon, with the second being built on Lebanon’s southern coast.

The production center in northern Lebanon was designed to make Fateh 110 medium-range missiles, which puts most of Israel in range and carries a warhead of 500 kilograms, according to the report.

The IPT interviewed defense experts about the factories in March, and noted the sites represent a disturbing boost in the Shi’ite terrorist army’s ability to self-produce weapons.

Israeli officials have gone on record in recent weeks to confirm the factories’ existence, including Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Chief of Staff, Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eizenkot, and the chief of Israel’s Military Intelligence, Maj.-Gen. Herzl Halevi. Hizballah is “establishing a military industry in Lebanon with Iranian support,” Halevi said.

Eizenkot told the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee earlier this month that the Israeli military had placed the Iranian “precision project” – the drive to produce new guided projectiles, and to improve the accuracy of existing projectiles – at “the top of our priority list.”

The program is “mainly ongoing in factories in Iran and Syria, and they are trying to promote it in Lebanon,” Eizenkot said.

He also seemed to suggest there was a difference between the current threat posed by Iran’s guided missile program and the future potential threat, if left unchecked.

The IDF was not resting on its laurels in the face of Iran’s efforts to manufacture and spread these weapons, Eizenkot said. Currently, “these abilities are very limited, and therefore, we must remain proportionate and not be alarmed. The IDF is working in regards to the [Iranian precision] project all of the time, through a wide range of tools that are best not talked about. We are working with the intention of avoiding a deterioration [of the security situation].”

Emily Landau, head of the Arms Control and Regional Security Program at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, told the IPT that the factories “signal a new escalation in Iran’s weapons proliferation in the region.”

Not only do they serve Iran’s objective of continuously arming Hizballah, they are also designed to “overcome the vulnerability of transport vehicles transferring weapons from Iran via Syria, to Lebanon,” Landau said, in reference to international media reports about repeated Israeli strikes on Iranian-Hizballah weapons convoys in Syria.

Iran seems to hope that setting up missile factories in Lebanon would eliminate opportunities to attack future international weapons trafficking runs.

“All of these activities are in blatant violation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701 [which called on making southern Lebanon a weapons free zone, with the exception of Lebanon’s official army],” Landau said. “The world seems to ignore this violation. The international community should be called out on turning a blind eye to what Iran is doing. This should not be Israel’s problem alone.”

The factories feed “into Iran’s very problematic regional profile,” Landau said, “which is connected to the nuclear deal as well, and should all be on the table in the Trump administration’s Iran policy review.”

For now, Israel appears to trying to deter Iran from starting up the factories, and has reportedly issued explicit warnings to Tehran to that effect.

Meanwhile, Israeli media reports say that Iran wants to create an airbase in neighboring Syria. Iran’s plans include the leasing of a ground military base for thousands of Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias and a naval base.

“These steps represent a move by Iran to establish a long-term presence in Syria and pose a threat to Israel,” Israel’s daily Yedioth Ahronoth reported.

On Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a dramatic statement, rejecting the ceasefire in southern Syria brokered by the United States and Russia, saying it fails to suppress Iranian attempts to consolidate its military power in the war-torn country.

“Israel is aware of Iran’s expansionist goals in Syria, Netanyahu’s office said in a statement.

Yaakov Lappin is a military and strategic affairs correspondent. He also conducts research and analysis for defense think tanks, and is the Israel correspondent for IHS Jane’s Defense Weekly. His book, The Virtual Caliphate, explores the online jihadist presence.

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