Jihadi jumble: Syria’s endless war begins on the Turkish border

The rubble following an airstrike on the rebel-held neighbourhood of al-Kalasa in Aleppo. Picture: Yasser Ibrahim

The rubble following an airstrike on the rebel-held neighbourhood of al-Kalasa in Aleppo. Picture: Yasser Ibrahim

So where is all this heading? Bassam Haji Mustafa, an ethnic Kurd and a senior member of the Islamist Nour al-Din al-Zenki militia group in Aleppo, in conversation with Inquirer, accurately notes the presence of four “projects” in fragmented Syria today — “the Assad regime and its allies; the (Kurdish-led, US-supported) Syrian Democratic Forces; Islamic State; and the rebellion”.

The Australian, by Jonathan Spyer, August 13, 2016:

The town of Gaziantep is located 30km from Turkey’s border with Syria. Over the past five years it has become an epicentre for the unfinished business of the Syrian civil war.

When the history of this most savage of wars is written, there will be a chapter on these dusty border towns and how they came to form way stations for so much of the traffic travelling to or escaping from the killing zones.

I recently visited Gaziantep and the town of Kilis on the border. My purpose was to try to ascertain the current state of the Syrian rebellion against the Assad regime.

Gaziantep in high summer is shimmering in the heat, its many minarets pouring forth the call to prayer. Syrian refugees gather in the evenings to smoke nargileh (hookah) and talk and argue about where things are heading. Deeper down, outside of unaided vision, the complicated politics and logistics of the Syrian war are playing out all around.

Kilis, a short drive south, is the last stop before the war. It feels more Syrian than Turkish. Arabic is spoken everywhere. The apartment blocks with their stone stairs and peeling paint and the tiny shops make it look like a northern Syrian town. The offices of the rebel groups are to be found among them. The shooting begins 5km to the south.

At the beginning of the Syrian war, Gaziantep’s small international airport was one of the main entry points for jihadis from all over the world looking to cross the border to join the fight against Bashar al-Assad. They would arrive in the town, put up in one if its many shabby hotels and await the call from this or that organisation to take the road to Kilis and then across the border. Now the Turkish authorities, pressured by the West, have cracked down on this particular traffic. The airport attack in Istanbul in June cemented the process whereby Islamic State went from tolerated presence in Turkey to deadly enemy.

Islamic State, in invisible form, is in Gaziantep too. Every so often, its presence becomes manifest. In late December, it murdered Naji Jerf, a prominent journalist and critic of the movement, in downtown Gaziantep. Two more people were killed in a suicide bombing in May. “You should be careful here. Its less normal than it feels,” the receptionist tells me with a smile.

Five years since the start of the uprising against the Assad regime, the world’s attention has largely moved on. The war against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has sidelined the fight against Assad. What remains of the rebellion is boxed up, frustrated and exhausted, deployed in northwest and southwest Syria, or waiting in these towns across the border in Turkey.

“Of course, if we thought logically, we’d never have begun the revolution,” Yasser Ibrahim of Nour al-Din al-Zenki, one of the Islamist rebel militias, tells Inquirer. “We went out bare-chested in front of the regime. We lost a lot — but we’re continuing.”

They surely are. The Syrian rebels have in recent days broken a government siege on rebel-controlled eastern Aleppo. The rebellion’s entry into Syria’s second city in late 2012 represented perhaps its single most significant advance. The government strangle­hold on the city threatened to reverse this. It lasted a week. So the rebellion is far from broken and remains, despite it all, a potent force.

Where all this is heading, however, is far less clear.

Tangled lines of support
The first and most immediately noticeable element of the Syrian rebellion in northwest Syria is its bewildering variety. An enormous number of rebel groups, all with ringing and grandiose names in Arabic but varying greatly in size and orientation, are engaged. Unity has remained elusive.

The networks of foreign support for the rebels — from the US, Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia — are equally confused and confusing. The US maintains a Military Operations Command centre in southern Turkey through which weaponry is supplied to certain vetted rebel militias. There are about 40 such groups. Representatives of Arab and other western countries are also present in the MOC centre.

In a covert operation headed by the CIA, these vetted groups are the beneficiaries of the BGM-71 TOW anti-tank missiles that have exacted a heavy toll on regime armour in Latakia, Idlib and Aleppo provinces. There are additional lines of support from Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia to the powerful Salafi jihadist forces that Washington does not support. ­Finally, there are groups that receive support from the US as well as one or another of these regional players.

But there is no tidy distinction between US-supported and non-US-supported groups, as one might expect. There is a continuum. The groups have the same hierarchy of enemies (Assad at the top, then Islamic State). And they co-operate at ground level. Weaponry finds its way into the hands of the strongest.

The guns and assistance provided by the US and the regional backers have been sufficient to prevent the rebellion from facing defeat at the hands of Assad. But since the Russian intervention, which began in September last year, an outright rebel military victory appears beyond reach.

In the meantime, people on the ground are dying. “The MOC supports us, but the world isn’t seeing the shelling of the schools and children and public buildings by the Russian planes,” says Ezadin al-Salem of the Jabhat al-Shamiya rebel alliance as we sit in his office in Gaziantep.

The rebels, in all their multifarious and confusing variety, are at present locked into two grinding wars of attrition — against Assad and against Islamic State — with no apparent light at the end of the tunnel.

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Jonathan Spyer is a journalist, author and Middle East analyst. Based in Jerusalem, he is director of the Rubin Centre for Research in International Affairs and a fellow at the Middle East Forum

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Putin: Russia Will Withdraw Most Of Its Military From Syria – But Russian Activity At Tartus Naval Base And Hmeymim Airbase Will Continue As Before

MEMRI, by Jenia Frumin and Elena Voinova, March 15, 2016:


On March 14, 2016, Russia announced that the next day, March 15, it would begin its withdrawal from Syria. In a MEMRI report published yesterday, Russian political analyst Sergey Karaganov, who is close to the Kremlin, stated that Russia must be extremely careful not to get “bogged down” in the Syrian quagmire, stressing: “[Russia] should have the courage to withdraw quickly if such a danger appears and to prepare [our] society for such a possibility.”[1]Previously, on March 2, 2016, MEMRI published an interview with Karaganov in which he underlined that Russia must “be prepared to leave Syria at any moment.”[2]

Source: Lenta.ru, March 15, 2016

Source: Lenta.ru, March 15, 2016

Russian Media Reports And Analysis On The Withdrawal Decision

On March 14, the day of the announcement of its withdrawal, Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu; during the meeting, he ordered the Defense Ministry to begin withdrawing the main part of Russia’s military group from Syria and asked the Foreign Ministry to step up Russia’s participation in organizing the peace process to resolve the Syria crisis. Putin then specified that Russia’s naval base at Tartus and its strategic Hmeymin airbase will continue operating as before, saying, “They must be protected securely from land, sea and air.” In a phone conversation the same day with Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, Putin said that Russia will maintain an aviation support center in Syria to monitor all parties’ compliance with the ceasefire.

Chairman Of Parliamentary Defense And Security Committee: Up To 1,000 Russian Troops Will Remain In Syria

In accordance with Putin’s orders, the technical staff of the airbase prepared aircraft for the departure to Russia; personnel loaded equipment, logistics gear, and inventory into transport aircraft.[3] The Russian state-owned news agency Ria Novosti[4] wrote that groups of fighter bombers and various types of combat aircraft had already flown back to Russia. The pro-Kremlin news agency Pravda stressed that the military bases would not be shut down, noting, “Russia’s military presence in Syria will be preserved.”

Viktor Ozerov, chairman of the international committee for defense and security in Russia’s upper house of parliament, said that he believes that up to 1,000 Russian troops will remain in Syria.[5] In another interview, Ozerov said that Russia will meet its obligations to the Syrian regime with regard to supplies of military hardware and equipment, commenting, “In any case, [Russia] will be able to quickly strengthen its group there, should the need arise.”[6]

Russian Daily: Anti-Aircraft Systems, Helicopters, APCs, Tanks, SU-35s Will Remain At Hmeymim

The Russian independent daily Vedemosti,[7] citing unnamed Defense Ministry sources, stated that the first stage of the withdrawal is the sending of 30 of Russia’s warplanes home, adding that a new airstrike on terrorist groups is still possible if necessary. However, in Ria Novosti, Deputy Defense Minister Nikolay Pankov stated that airstrikes will continue.[8] Vedemosti also said that Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov doubted that the advanced S-400 surface-to-air missile system will be redeployed to Russia any time soon. This statement was confirmed by the Defense Ministry,[9] and by Kremlin Chief of Staff head Sergey Ivanov, who specified that the S-400 will remain in Syria because it is needed to defend the airbase.

The pro-Kremlin online newspaper Lenta[10] specified that anti-aircraft units will remain in Syria, along with ground protection forces, and that some artillery and helicopter units might also remain. The Russian daily Kommersant[11] said that half of the attack planes will return to Russia, and that anti-aircraft systems, 10 helicopters, BTR-82A APCs, T-90C tanks, four Su-35s (that arrived earlier this month) and perhaps a few more Su-30CM will remain at Hmeymim airbase. Kommersant[12] added that the decision to withdraw was not hasty but had been planned and discussed in the Russian security council.

The Kremlin-funded analytical media outlet Russia-direct commented that Russia had chosen the right moment to withdraw from Syria. It said that the Kremlin’s move would show the international community that Russia seeks to “maintain the peaceful process not only with words,” and that it is ready to take on a role of mediator in the Middle East. In this context, it said, Russia can now present itself as a “neutral force,” which “saved Syria from collapse” while at the same time “shied away” from fighting a war for the Assad regime. Russia-Direct also suggested that Russia’s move is designed to be a “wake-up call” to the “over-confident” Syrian regime, reminding it that “Russian air support is not limitless.”

Pro-Kremlin Newspaper: The Decision To Withdraw Comes Because Russia Doesn’t Want To Be “More Syrian than Syria”

In Vedemosti,[13] the director-general of the pro-Kremlin Russian International Affairs Council, Andrey Kortunov, stated that the main reason for the withdrawal is Assad’s “stubbornness”[14]that could undermine the continuation of the Geneva process and thus damage Russia’s interests in the region. However, Putin spokesman Peskov denied that the withdrawal is aimed at politically pressuring the Assad regime,[15] and that it should not be interpreted as a manifestation of Russian unhappiness with Assad.

Lenta stated that the decision to withdraw is due to the fact that Russia doesn’t want to win the war for Syria, since “Russia won’t be more Syrian than Syria”; furthermore, for Russia, Assad’s personal future is no longer a precondition. According to Lenta, even though the Islamic State (ISIS) has not been completely defeated, Russia has achieved its four goals: the stabilization of the Syrian regime, the strengthening of the Tehran-Baghdad-Damascus axis, strikes by Russian fighters against ISIS in northwestern Syria, and proving that a Russian role in the region is indispensable. It added that Russia will, however, maintain a presence in Syria as a sign of its strategic interest in the Mediterranean and the Middle East.

Additionally, Ria Novosti,[16] cited unnamed diplomatic sources in Brussels as suggesting that the Russian withdrawal from Syria can be seen as a move that could lead to the gradual removal of sanctions on Russia.


Also see:

Why is the West So Obsessed with Protecting the Territorial Integrity of Syria and Iraq?

Russia has been accused of helping the Assad regime by bombing its opponents rather than Islamic State fighters. Photograph: Alexander Kots/AP

Russia has been accused of helping the Assad regime by bombing its opponents rather than Islamic State fighters. Photograph: Alexander Kots/AP

American Thinker, by Adam Turner, Feb. 20, 2016:

This week, UK Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond asked, “Is Russia really committed to a peace process or is it using the peace process as a fig leaf to try to deliver some kind of military victory for Assad that creates an Alawite mini state in the north-west of Syria?”

sy-mapObviously, the Russians are not committed to the Syrian peace process and want an Alawite state. Their national interest is in keeping their client state, Syria, and the Russian bases within it, in existence. The Russians have little interest in a peace process to create a more democratic — and certainly Sunni Arab (74% of the population) dominated — Syria, where they would probably lose both their client and their bases. The easiest way for the Russians to do this now is to cut off the Alawite portions of the state and thereby create an Alawite majority/plurality state.

The U.S., and the rest of the West, needs to understand what these Russian interests are, and try to make the best of the situation. Thanks to the U.S.’s fecklessness in the region, we have already allowed Russia to take a dominant role in Syria, and there is probably little chance of us pressuring them to leave. Besides, the creation of a separate Alawite nation is not necessarily in opposition to Western interests. The West has long sought to promote peace; boost the number of democratic nations; and also protect minority rights (whether religious, gender, ethnic, or tribal) throughout the Middle East. Some revamped borderlines, including the creation of an Alawite state, may well maximize these Western interests.

Syria was one of the many Middle Eastern states that were created by the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Unfortunately, the post-World War I Sykes-Picot lines were drawn solely for the benefit of the colonial powers, and not based on the idea of creating stable, united, and democratic nations. So, the end result of Sykes-Picot has been the creation a Middle East plagued by violence, genocide, and persecution. And with the Obama Administration’s decisions to: 1) pull the U.S. from the region; and 2) favor Islamist Iran, which has long sought to promote instability throughout the rest of the region and thereby boost Iranian power, things have gotten even worse.

A man carries a child from a building following a reported barrel bomb attack by Syrian government forces on Aleppo. Some 50,000 people have fled the recent upsurge in fighting there. Photograph: Karam Al-Masri/AFP/Getty

A man carries a child from a building following a reported barrel bomb attack by Syrian government forces on Aleppo. Some 50,000 people have fled the recent upsurge in fighting there. Photograph: Karam Al-Masri/AFP/Getty

Dividing Syria into different nations — whether officially or de facto — might help ameliorate the bloody civil war that has (so far) reportedly killed up to 470,000 Syrians and driven millions more into exile. An Alawite state in the west of Syria would satisfy the Russians, but also protect the Alawite and Shia population (13%) from slaughter at the hands of Sunni Islamist groups. (Perhaps an agreement could also be reached with Putin to remove Assad, and replace him with another, less bloodthirsty, Alawite.) An Alawite state could also include Syrian Christians (10%), who mostly live near the Alawites, and also are endangered by the Islamists. A Kurdish state in the north would be positive for the West, since the Syrian Kurds (10%): 1) have proven to be the most effective fighters against ISIS; 2) are largely secular; and 3) have had some success creating a region where other minorities are protected. A Druze state, in a portion of the south where they are a majority, might also be a good idea. The Druze (3%), as a minority, generally do not discriminate against other groups, have faced threats from the Syrian Sunni Islamists, and have long been known as fierce and competent fighters.

Syria’s division would also impact Iraq. The remainder of the Syrian state is Sunni dominated, and should probably be added to the Sunni portions of Iraq to create one state. “This ‘Sunni-stan’ has economic potential as an oil producer (subject to negotiations with the Kurds, to be sure) and could be a bulwark against both Mr. Assad and Iran-allied Baghdad.” This would also allow the West to “empower viable Sunni leaders, including tribal authorities” to fight against ISIS, in a replay of what happened in Iraq in 2007. Currently the Sunni Arabs who dominate in those regions so fear being controlled by Shia Iraqis, Alawite Syrians or Shia Iranians that they will not oppose Sunni ISIS. Of course, by separating Sunnis and Shias in Iraq and Sunnis from non-Sunnis in Syria, this should also decrease the religious violence and discrimination currently occurring in Syria and Iraq.

If the Sunni Arab areas of Iraq are separated from the rest of Iraq, this will also result in the creation of a separate Kurdish state in the north, since Sunni Iraq is between Iraqi Kurdistan and Shia Iraq. (Iraqi Kurdistan and Syrian Kurdistan could also unite as one state). Once again, the West would benefit from a Kurdish state; Iraqi Kurdistan “is a uniquely strong, stable, and democratic house” that generally has a good record of respecting minority rights.

25bolton-blog427Two nations will object to these map changes in Iraq and Syria. Iran wants to maximize its control over the Middle East. But contrary to the belief of President Obama, the U.S. does not have national interests in empowering the Shia Islamist Iran. Turkey would also object. But the concerns of that undemocratic, discriminatory Sunni Islamist regime should be immaterial to the West, especially since the Russians would be happy to stick it to the Turks by backing a Kurdish state.

It is time to redraw the lines in the Middle East to ameliorate violence and promote democracy and human rights. I hope the next U.S. president will have the courage and foresight to do so.

Adam Turner serves as general counsel to the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET). He is a former counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee where he focused on national security.

Will Assad Retake Raqqa and Is It a Good Idea?


Iran and Assad have supported Al-Qaeda for years so they can be the ones whose feet must be kissed by the West. ISIS is being used similarly.

Clarion Project, by Ryan Mauro, Feb. 15, 2016:

Syrian dictator Bashad Assad’s army has turned around its situation with help from Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiite militias to the point where there is  talk of an offensive against Raqqa, the “capitol” of the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL).  But a party is premature and comes with major risks.

We must first be aware of the game being played by Assad and his Iranian backers and why that makes it less likely that the Syrian army will engage in a bloody battle for Raqqa. The Syrian regime wants the Islamic State to succeed—or perhaps a better word is need. The author wrote about Assad’s strategy of making Islamist extremists the face of his opposition as far back as 2009, three years before the civil war began. Assad’s strategy hasn’t changed.

Iran and Assad have supported Al-Qaeda for years in order to present themselves as necessary evils and the ones whose feet must be kissed by the West. The Islamic State is being used in the same way, with the Assad regime even funding ISIS by buying its oil. The reason that the vast majority of Russian and Syrian firepower is focused on rebels other than ISIS and Al-Qaeda is because they want to preserve Assad’s trump card. It is in their interest for ISIS to be the last remaining opposition force.

Assad also benefits from the refugee crisis partially caused by ISIS because it changes the demographics in his regime’s favor by reducing the Sunni population. An added benefit is that it raises pressure on the international community to choose accepting his rule over the prolonging of the civil war.

Anonymous Syrian military sources are talking about recapturing the , which is in the direction of Raqqa. It makes sense for Assad’s forces to continue forward to retake the facility. It makes less sense to overextend its already-overextended forces by continuing to move east for a costly battle over Raqqa. There are still areas in the south, the center between Homs and Hama, and the northwest that Assad needs to consolidate control over.

Secondly, the entry of Assad and his radical Shiite allies into the area of Raqqa could “activate” millions of Islamic State supporters who have yet to pick up guns.

A summary of polls last year found that ISIS is only supported by about 5.8% of the population on average per Arab country, based on numbers from 11 of the 22 Arab states. The result is a minimum of 21 million supporters. If you only go by the numbers from the 11 countries surveyed, you get about 8 million. No matter how you look at it, ISIS has huge growth potential with millions of supporters who have yet to be triggered into acting upon their beliefs.

If Assad and his radical Shiite allies go after Raqqa, it will be assumed that Assad intends to now defeat ISIS, which means seizing the northwestern part of the caliphate where Dabiq is located. As Clarion Project has explained from the beginning, Dabiq is the most important geographic location in ISIS’ apocalyptic vision based on Islamic prophecy.

ISIS’ latest issue of its English-language magazines (tellingly named Dabiq) makes the case that the Antichrist will lead an Iranian Shiite army into battle against the Mahdi, the closest equivalent to a “messiah” in Islam. For ISIS supporters, an offensive by Assad and Iran towards Raqqa and Dabiq will undoubtedly look like prophecy unfolding and they will want in on the action. This prophecy includes war with Turkey around the area of Dabiq, so talk of a Turkish-Saudi ground offensive reinforces that conviction.

We must also remember that Assad’s dependency upon Iran makes him little more than a press secretary for the Iranian regime at this point, one whose Western appearance and supposedly “secular” orientation is very useful. Aside from expanding the radical Shiite crescent, there is a symbiotic relationship where Iranian influence leads to radical Sunni influence to counter it.

Finally, ISIS has been able to flourish because of the civil war in Syria. Assad’s taking of Raqqa or even crushing the ISIS caliphate in Syria will not change that. ISIS terrorists will fight on or defect to Al-Qaeda. The pressure will force the rebels to consolidate into an Islamist-dominated coalition regardless of ideological division, as foretold recent testimony from the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency.

If you’re cheering Assad’s retaking of Raqqa, you’re cheering Iran’s retaking of Raqqa. We can celebrate ISIS losing Raqqa if (again, if) that happens, but you shouldn’t celebrate the hands it is falling into.

Also see:

Aleppo siege marks dramatic upheaval on Syrian battlefield


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:

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:

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.

How America can counter Putin’s moves in Syria

Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Alexei Nikolsky/AP)

Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Alexei Nikolsky/AP)

Washington Post, by Condoleezza Rice and  October 8, 2015:

Condoleezza Rice was secretary of state from 2005 to 2009. Robert M. Gates was defense secretary from 2006 to 2011.

One can hear the disbelief in capitals from Washington to London to Berlin to Ankara and beyond. How can Vladimir Putin, with a sinking economy and a second-rate military, continually dictate the course of geopolitical events? Whether it’s in Ukraine or Syria, the Russian president seems always to have the upper hand.

Sometimes the reaction is derision: This is a sign of weakness. Or smugness: He will regret the decision to intervene. Russia cannot possibly succeed. Or alarm: This will make an already bad situation worse. And, finally, resignation: Perhaps the Russians can be brought along to help stabilize the situation, and we could use help fighting the Islamic State.

The fact is that Putin is playing a weak hand extraordinarily well because he knows exactly what he wants to do. He is not stabilizing the situation according to our definition of stability. He is defending Russia’s interests by keeping Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in power. This is not about the Islamic State. Any insurgent group that opposes Russian interests is a terrorist organization to Moscow. We saw this behavior in Ukraine, and now we’re seeing it even more aggressively — with bombing runs and cruise missile strikes — in Syria.

Putin is not a sentimental man, and if Assad becomes a liability, Putin will gladly move on to a substitute acceptable to Moscow. But for now, the Russians believe that they (and the Iranians) can save Assad. President Obama and Secretary of State John F. Kerry say that there is no military solution to the Syrian crisis. That is true, but Moscow understands that diplomacy follows the facts on the ground, not the other way around. Russia and Iran are creating favorable facts. Once this military intervention has run its course, expect a peace proposal from Moscow that reflects its interests, including securing the Russian military base at Tartus.

We should not forget that Moscow’s definition of success is not the same as ours. The Russians have shown a willingness to accept and even encourage the creation of so-called failed states and frozen conflicts from Georgia to Moldova to Ukraine. Why should Syria be any different? If Moscow’s “people” can govern only a part of the state but make it impossible for anyone else to govern the rest of it — so be it.

And the well-being of the population is not the issue either. The Russian definition of success contains no element of concern for the dismal situation of the Syrian people. Refugees — that’s Europe’s problem. Greater sectarianism — well, it’s the Middle East! Populations attacked with barrel bombs and Assad’s chemicals, supposedly banned in the deal that Moscow itself negotiated — too bad!

Putin’s move into Syria is old-fashioned great-power politics. (Yes, people do that in the 21st century.) There is a domestic benefit to him, but he is not externalizing his problems at home. Russian domestic and international policies have always been inextricably linked. Russia feels strong at home when it is strong abroad — this is Putin’s plea to his propagandized population — and the Russian people buy it, at least for now. Russia is a great power and derives its self-worth from that. What else is there? When is the last time you bought a Russian product that wasn’t petroleum? Moscow matters again in international politics, and Russian armed forces are on the move.

Let us also realize that hectoring Putin about the bad choice he has made sounds weak. The last time the Russians regretted a foreign adventure was Afghanistan. But that didn’t happen until Ronald Reagan armed the Afghan mujahideen with Stinger missiles that started blowing Russian warplanes and helicopters out of the sky. Only then did an exhausted Soviet Union led by Mikhail Gorbachev, anxious to make accommodation with the West, decide that the Afghan adventure wasn’t worth it.

So what can we do?

First, we must reject the argument that Putin is simply reacting to world disorder. Putin, this argument would suggest, is just trying to hold together the Middle East state system in response to the chaos engendered by U.S. overreach in Iraq, Libya and beyond.

Putin is indeed reacting to circumstances in the Middle East. He sees a vacuum created by our hesitancy to fully engage in places such as Libya and to stay the course in Iraq. But Putin as the defender of international stability? Don’t go there.

Second, we have to create our own facts on the ground. No-fly zones and safe harbors for populations are not “half-baked” ideas. They worked before (protecting the Kurds for 12 years under Saddam Hussein’s reign of terror) and warrant serious consideration. We will continue to have refugees until people are safe. Moreover, providing robust support for Kurdish forces, Sunni tribes and what’s left of the Iraqi special forces is not “mumbo-jumbo.” It might just salvage our current, failing strategy. A serious commitment to these steps would also solidify our relationship with Turkey, which is reeling from the implications of Moscow’s intervention. In short, we must create a better military balance of power on the ground if we are to seek a political solution acceptable to us and to our allies.

Third, we must “de-conflict” our military activities with those of the Russians. This is distasteful, and we should never have gotten to a place where the Russians are warning us to stay out of their way. But we must do all that we can to prevent an incident between us. Presumably, even Putin shares this concern.

Finally, we need to see Putin for who he is. Stop saying that we want to better understand Russian motives. The Russians know their objective very well: Secure their interests in the Middle East by any means necessary. What’s not clear about that?


Also see:

Russia in the Middle East, Greek Airspace, Iran Naval Surveillance

Iranian warship / AP

Iranian warship / AP

Russia expands its role in Syria, Greece (NATO member) considers US request to deny airspace

As the effects of the Syrian civil war spill over into Europe and Latin America, Vladimir Putin has publically confirmed that the Russian military is active on the side of Bashar al-Assad against the rebels and IS.  Making strange bedfellows with the US and Iran, Russian air strikes have been confirmed as taking place in IS-controlled territory in eastern Syria.  Meanwhile, France is preparing to launch air strikes against IS at the same time that Greece is considering the US request to deny Russia airspace and landing rights to launch air strikes from its territory.

Secretary of State John Kerry is warning Russia that its increased involvement risks obstructing the anti-
IS coalition efforts, due to the fact that Russia is conducting its operations without coordination with other forces.  However, observers in Moscow speculate that Putin may be trying to curry favor by launching strikes against IS, seeking a reprieve of sanctions that have crippled the Russian economy.  For its part, Russia defends its involvement in Syria as one in the same in the fight against terrorism.

Developments on the field may have forced Russia’s hand: reports state that IS and Syrian Army forces are engaged in a battle for control of the Jazal oil field, which is the last remaining facility under Assad’s control.  While both sides have claimed victory, the pattern of attacks by IS on Assad strongholds points to a greater boldness on the part of IS to gain momentum as they inch closer to Damascus.

Iran deal after effects continue

As the nuclear deal continues to work its way through Congress, the Iranian leadership is now active in offering peace negotiations with the US and other powers over the Syrian war.  While remaining a steadfast supporter of Assad along with Russia, the remarks were offered during a press conference with Austrian President Heinz Fischer, who is currently visiting Tehran in an apparent bid to line up business and trade deals as the sanctions on Iran are lifted in the wake of the nuclear deal.

As previously noted, Russia is now actively involved in the war, while Iran continues its support of Assad behind the scenes and through its Hezbollah proxy.  This apparent about-face may be a tactic to divert attention as IS continues its advance and plots to break through to Damascus.

Must read: Iranian Warships Confront U.S. Navy On ‘Daily Basis’

Routinely photographed by Iranians for intelligence purposes

“U.S. naval forces operating in and around the Strait of Hormuz, a critical shipping lane, are “routinely approached by Iranian warships and aircraft” on a “nearly daily basis,” according to a Pentagon official familiar with operations in the region.”

Also see:

Fight Them Over There

U.S. Marines fight the Taliban in Afghanistan / AP

U.S. Marines fight the Taliban in Afghanistan / AP

Washington Free Beacon, by Matthew Continetti, January 16, 2015

Argue about the limits of free speech, the definition of “true” Islam, whether terrorists are lunatics or rational, or the social and political repercussions of terrorism as much as you’d like. The truth is that such debates are irrelevant to the core security problem: There is a growing and energetic movement of radical Muslims dedicated to killing as many people as they can and imposing their will on the rest.

And there is really only one way America can respond to this challenge. We need to kill them first. We need to kill them on a field of battle whose contours are determined not by the terrorists but by us. We need to kill them over there—in the Middle East—before they reach the West.

I realize that for at least the next two years what I propose is wishful thinking. American policy has reverted to a defensive condition in which Islamic terrorists set the terms of conflict. We have been here before. Until 2001, the United States treated Islamic terrorism as a matter of law enforcement. When our embassies were raided or bombed, when our barracks were destroyed, when our soldiers and sailors were murdered, when our World Trade Center was attacked, when our destroyer was damaged, we treated the assailants as members of an Arabic-speaking mafia, as criminals to be apprehended, tried, and punished.

Didn’t work. The jihad grew. It even found a base in Afghanistan, where it could equip and train and plot. In 2001, in a single fall morning, the World Trade Center was destroyed, the Pentagon bludgeoned, and more than 3,000 innocent people were killed.

America rethought its approach to terrorism. No longer were the terrorists considered felons. They were now unlawful combatants. Surveillance, interrogation, and detention policies became more aggressive. We invaded Afghanistan, we toppled the Taliban, and we sent al Qaeda leadership into hiding.

When America invaded Iraq in 2003, al Qaeda and its followers—joining forces with Saddam’s former commanders and marginalized Sunni tribes—designated the Tigris-Euphrates plain the main battleground of the global jihad. Aspiring jihadists, enemies of the West, traveled to Iraq where they encountered, and were killed by, heavily armed and expertly trained U.S. pilots, soldiers, and Marines.

The point of the war on terrorism was not merely to “decimate” the “core of al Qaeda.” The objective was also, in the course of a long struggle, to delegitimize the Qaeda movement and deter its fellow travelers by revealing Islamism as an evolutionary dead end. The unstated message of the strategy was this: If you choose jihad against the West, you will spend your life in Guantanamo or you will die.

Look what happened. By May 2008, plagiarist and emcee Fareed Zakaria could report: “If you set aside” the war in Iraq, “terrorism has in fact gone way down over the past five years.” And soon one did not have to “set aside” Iraq. When the change in strategy and surge of troops Bush ordered in 2007 began to take effect, violence in Iraq went “way down” too.

With the election of President Obama, however, the conflict between Islamism and America entered a third phase. Our troops were removed from the battlefield in Iraq and Afghanistan, leaving Special Forces and drone pilots to do most of the fighting. The defense budget was cut. Harsh interrogation was curtailed, and Guantanamo Bay slowly emptied. Surveillance practices were disrupted. The words “Islamic terrorism” would not be uttered, for that somehow legitimized extremists. As for the terrorists themselves, they were once again treated like criminals.

What has resulted is a dramatic uptick in Islamic radicalism. In January 2014 the RAND Corporation found that “the number of Salafi-jihadist groups and fighters increased after 2010, as well as the number of attacks perpetrated by Al Qaeda and its affiliates.” Attacks including the Ft. Hood massacre; the assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi; the Boston Marathon bombing whose victims included an 8-year-old boy; and the public beheading of British Fusilier Lee Rigby.

The absence of American troops in Iraq created an opportunity for ISIS, the Islamic army born of the Syrian civil war. Last summer, from its base in Raqqa, Syria, ISIS invaded Iraq. It captured and imposed sharia law on Mosul, a city of more than a million people, beheaded journalists, and threatened Baghdad, the Kurds, and minority sects with extermination.

ISIS “controls more land and has more weapons than any other jihadist organization in history,”according to experts at the American Enterprise Institute. ISIS is said to possess “more than $2 billion in assets” and command an “estimated 40,000 fighters.” ISIS is expert at “propaganda by the deed”: the spectacular use of public violence to provoke fear in your enemies and loyalty in your friends. There is even an ISIS gift shop. A global movement cowering in fear does not sell tchotchkes.

Nor is ISIS the only jihadist group on the offensive. Yemen has collapsed into a civil war between Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and Iranian-backed Houthi militants. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb operates freely in Libya and Algeria and Mali. Boko Haram slaughtered thousands while expanding its holdings in Nigeria. Al-Shabaab runs central and southern Somalia. Hamas kills Jews from its Gaza satrapy. The Taliban is ready for its comeback in Afghanistan. This swelling of radical Islam—in territory, in resources, in adherents, in scalps—extends to Muslim communities around the world, and to disturbed and alienated men and women hungry to join a winning fight.

The central front of the war on terror is no longer Iraq. It is not Afghanistan. It is the West, and all lands associated with the West. So the radicals strike Israel, they kill in Sydney, they gun down cartoonists and Jews in Paris, they plan to strike the U.S. Capitol with pipe bombs and rifles.

Such a pattern of destruction ought to force a reevaluation of American strategy. But that has not happened. Instead our response to jihadism has been confusing, contradictory, insipid, self-destructive, and inane.

The administration not only skips a solidarity march in Paris. It won’t call the Charlie Hebdo and kosher market attacks Islamic terrorism. The favorite newspaper of the White House is more concerned with the “fear and resentment” of European populations tired of being killed than it is with terrorism. The error-ridden blog edited by one of the president’s favorite pundits says discussions of free speech “often seem more about justifying Islamophobia against everyday Muslims, who are just as overwhelmingly peaceful as every other religious group, than they are about protecting rights that are seriously endangered.”

Guantanamo inmates are released to Oman, which borders Yemen, on the same day an American jihadist is arrested for plotting an attack on the nation’s Capitol. The State Department says it’s okay for Iran—a radical theocracy that is the largest sponsor of terrorism in the world, that sows upheaval from Lebanon to Syria to Iraq to Bahrain to Yemen, that originated the idea of assassinating Western authors who blaspheme Mohammed—to build additional nuclear plants.

The means by which the president reluctantly has attempted to take the fight to the terrorists are not succeeding. Micromanagement by White House officials of the air campaign against ISIS has resulted in a stalemate. American advisers to Iraq say it will take a minimum of three years to prepare the Iraqi army to roll back the Caliphate. Meanwhile our soldiers are subjected to mortar rounds launched from ISIS positions. So passive-aggressive is the president’s war on ISIS that Iraqis are beginning to suggest that “ISIS is a U.S. creation.” One Iraqi told the Wall Street Journal: “The international coalition against ISIS is a comedy act. America can destroy ISIS in one day only, but it does not do it.”

What about Yemen, which President Obama has held up as a model of intervention? Michael Crowley of Politico reports, “Since mid-September, the U.S. has conducted just three drone strikes in Yemen, down from 19 last year, according to data compiled by the New America Foundation. And that was a fraction of the 2012 peak of 56 drone and air strikes.” Yemen and Syria are the key nodes of a global network of financing, training, and planning for jihadist operations. The United States has allowed this network to persist, indeed to grow in complexity and reach.

Only by extinguishing ISIS can the United States begin to reassert its authority and put the jihadists on the defensive. But increasing the number and pace of drone and air strikes will not be enough. The number of U.S. ground forces in Iraq must be dramatically increased, and America seriously must work to remove the cause of the Syrian civil war: the mass murderer Bashar al-Assad, whocontinues to use chemical weapons, has entered into a de facto alliance with our terrorist adversary, and is reconstituting his nuclear weapons program.

Above all, America must cease pretending that Muslim rage is something the United States can ignore and avoid or is powerless against or cannot fight over there. We must fight it over there, or be resigned to terrorist attacks over here. Again and again and again.

Also see:

Documentary – Meeting ISIL (PressTV goes deep inside the terrorist group)

Published on Aug 21, 2014 by PressTV News Videos:

To learn who these people are, what they are fighting for, and who funds them, PRESS TV goes deep into their camps and brings you face to face interviews and exclusive footage. Many of those who were initially infatuated by the group’s promise of justice seem to be horrified and utterly disillusioned today.

(Press TV (stylised PRESSTV) is a 24-hour English language news organization of the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB). The IRIB is state-owned but independent of the Iranian government in its management, and its head is appointed directly by the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.- wikipedia)

Also see:

More Heavy Weaponry for Syrian Rebels?


President Obama would do well to focus on far more strategically important concerns to the United States, such as stopping the world’s biggest sponsor of terror, Iran, from acquiring nuclear weapons by whatever means are necessary, and dealing effectively with a resurgent Russia.

by :

President Obama is considering ramping up military support to the Syrian rebels, who are increasingly dominated by jihadists. American anti-tank missiles have already appeared in videos in the hands of rebel forces. According to an April 21st report in Time Magazine, the White House is now considering sending the rebels shoulder-fired surface-to-air anti-aircraft missiles known as manpads. In the wrong hands, such missiles could be used to take out commercial aircraft.

Senator John McCain is pushing the Obama administration to take that risk. To combat the Assad regime’s use of barrel bombs dropped on civilian populations from government helicopters, McCain said in a March interview with Time Magazine that he was “willing to take the risk of a manpad, the risk of them falling into the wrong hands.”

McCain’s willingness to take the risk of anti-aircraft missiles getting into the wrong hands is wrong-headed for several reasons.  The most obvious reason is the blowback the United States and its allies will suffer when jihadists fighting in Syria take the weapons they have looted from the so-called “moderate” rebels and use them against us. Nearly half of the rebel fighters are “jihadists or hardline Islamists,” according to a summary by The Telegraph of a report the IHS Jane’s defense consultancy group issued last year. And they are the best trained and equipped forces amongst the Syrian opposition.

Al Qaeda-linked groups have set up training camps in Syria, which they are using to prepare foreign jihadists for their return from Syria to spread their attacks more widely.  This includes jihadists from Western countries such as the Rayat Al-Tawheed group, the British jihadist faction in Syria, that has posted an image of the White House with the caption “Wait a while there will come to you mounts carrying lions in shining armour battalions followed by battalions.” Put weapons capable of shooting down commercial aircraft in the hands of these jihadists and we won’t have to wait awhile before reaping the consequences.

Another reason not to pour such weapons into the Syrian conflict at this stage is that we are way too late to make any material difference in the eventual outcome. Assad is winning the war slowly but surely, with help from Iran, Hezbollah and Russia. The anti-aircraft missiles may have a marginal impact in slowing Assad’s offense down further in some locations. However, they will not be able to completely stop the barrel bombs and other lethal weapons Assad is using with such success against the opposition.

As the intelligence and security news service DEBKAfile explained:

“The newly-armed rebels have gained not much more than the capacity to hold on to their present lines for a while longer. But ultimately, they cannot prevent the combined weight of the Syria army, Hizballah and Iraqi Shiite Iraqis, who continue to stream into Syria, breaking through those lines.”

Vladimir Putin will also be only too happy to further arm the Assad regime and counter anything the U.S. might be sending, if for no other reason than to embarrass Obama.

Read more at Front Page

Also see:

Why Sunnis Fear Shiites

missile_2By  Hillel Fradkin & Lewis Libby:

The recent Arab revolts in the Middle East and the concomitant “Islamic Awakening” have not merely shaken up the order of an already violent and unstable region. They have reanimated the bloodiest and longest-running dispute in Muslim politics: which branch of Islam, Sunni or Shia, is to rule the Muslim polity. This rivalry dates back some 1,300 years to the death of Muhammad, and while it has occasionally been set aside for reasons of expedience, it has never been resolved. The continuing conflagrations following the mislabeled Arab Spring, increasingly shaped by this ancient Sunni–Shia tension, are set to rage on indefinitely. Affairs in the Middle East are accelerating back to the old normal: a state of hot holy war.

The seemingly internal conflict in Syria has become the war’s central front. Sunni and Shia alike have been drawn into the conflict as the Syrian tragedy has unfolded. Inspired by the revolts in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt, in March 2011 Syrians—a predominantly Sunni population—mounted initially peaceful protests against the rule of the Shia-offshoot Alawite regime headed by Bashar al-Assad. Secure in his support from the extremist Iranian regime, Assad responded with great brutality. His opponents responded in kind, fueled by money and arms from their Sunni patrons in the Gulf Arab states and by Sunni Islamists from both the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaeda. They fear what they have taken to calling, with alarm, the “Shia crescent.” The term connotes a swath of Iranian Shiite influence across the Arab world and, via Syria, to the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. Syria functions as Iran’s direct operational link to its terrorist arm Hezbollah and to the Shiite plurality in Lebanon. It borders Iraq, whose Shiite majority may be radicalized, and Turkey, whose Sunni leadership can be monitored and checked.

As the Syrian revolt proceeded, sectarian elements came to the fore. The momentum frequently shifted back and forth between the Iranian-backed Assad and the Sunni rebels. But this past spring, when Assad’s fortunes waned, Iran doubled down. It arranged for Shiite Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiite “volunteers” to join the fray directly and massively, tipping the battle for Syria into Shiite hands. Iran is now winning what one Iranian officer has described as “an epic battle for Shiite Islam.”

As this has gone on, the willful retraction of American influence in the region has fanned both Iranian ambitions and Sunni fears. The Middle East is well versed in the posturings and weaknesses of foreign sovereigns. In Shiite and Sunni eyes alike, President Barack Obama’s proposed deals relating to Syrian chemical weapons and Iran’s nuclear program translate into large gains for radical Shiism.

It is tempting, naturally, for Americans to stay out of a fight between two holy armies who oppose the United States and its allies. To put it very mildly, neither radical Shiite nor radical Sunni groups share our values or serve our interests. Still, as a practical matter, this does not mean that one of our enemies is not a more potent threat than the other. Of all the distasteful regimes in the region, only Iran’s has defined itself from its foundation as our mortal enemy and acted accordingly ever since. Moreover, Iran’s capacity to pursue hostile action toward America is currently growing. Thus, Iran presents the more serious threat to our well-being. If it emerges the victor in the fight for the future of political Islam and regional dominance, American interests will probably be endangered to an extent not seen since the Cold War. This is especially true if an Iranian victory is coupled with the regime’s attainment of a nuclear weapon. Not only will America’s ally Israel be under constant threat of annihilation, but American influence in the Middle East will be made hostage to credible Iranian policy blackmail. And yet, given the current status of the Sunni–Shia conflict, this is where we’re headed. “Iran grows more powerful day by day,” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani recently gloated. It’s hard to disagree.

There are several reasons for thinking that radical Shiism, as manifested in the Iranian regime, might continue to dominate and ultimately win this holy war. First, the Shiite camp enjoys the advantage of the more-or-less unitary leadership of Iran. Perhaps in time internal Iranian opposition could challenge the regime in Tehran, but for now the ayatollahs seem to have stifled any such efforts. Outside Iran, some Shiite clerics in Iraq reject the Khomeinist doctrine of the “Rule of the Jurisprudent,” but this “quietist” school of Shiism is not interested in governing its Persian neighbors and, in any case, is frequently undermined by other clerics working in Iraq on Iran’s behalf. So the concentrated center of Shiite power remains in Iran and is, moreover, strengthened by the support of outside non-Muslim powers—principally Russia and China.

By contrast, the Sunni camp is profoundly divided, and therefore weak. This weakness is manifest in the split among the Sunni Islamist forces fighting Assad in Syria. The result is increasingly frequent military fights between sides, to say nothing of the ongoing fights with more secular Sunni militias.

Beyond Syria, things are scarcely more cohesive for Sunnis. The Sunni nations of Arabia and the Gulf lack the size and reach of Iran. They have provided money and arms to the Sunni rebels fighting Assad, but as they themselves support different Islamist groups inside Syria, they’ve also contributed to the infighting. What’s more, the broader conflicts among these countries have derailed joint efforts.

The unsettled condition of Sunni-majority Egypt, the world’s largest Arab country, has had a demoralizing and divisive effect as well. While ousted Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi had suggested that Egypt might provide greater support for the Syrian opposition, that proposal proved so unpopular it might very well have been a contributing factor in his removal by the Egyptian military. The new regime has made clear that it wants no part of the Syrian civil war.

Read more at Commentary Magazine


Iraqi Shiite Militia Leader Watheq Al-Battat: I Would Support Iran in a War against Iraq


Al Qaeda-Aligned Groups in Syria May Have Access to Biological Pathogens

U.S. Soldiers from the 457th Chemical Battalion sponge off their level A protective suits / AP

U.S. Soldiers from the 457th Chemical Battalion sponge off their level A protective suits / AP

BY: :

Al Qaeda-aligned militants operating in Syria could already have access to “biological pathogens or weaponized agents,” according to terrorism and biological warfare experts studying the region.

The possible acquisition by al Qaeda of these highly dangerous toxins has prompted bio-warfare experts to label the threat a “clear and present danger.”

Extremist militants and other fighters tied to the terror group al Qaeda have continued to gain a foothold in key sections of Syria as the country’s civil war rages on.

Lawlessness has taken hold in many areas that are home to Syria’s biological weapons research hubs and mounting evidence indicates that al Qaeda fighters have capitalized on this security gap by looting the facilities.

“The Syrian civil war has left sections of the bio-pharmaceutical infrastructure destroyed and looting of labs has been observed, which could indicate that Assad is losing command and control over one of the most dangerous classes of weapons remaining in his weapons of mass destruction (WMD) arsenal,” bio warfare and terrorism experts Jill Bellamy van Aalst and Olivier Guitta conclude in a new report.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is believed to have ample biological weapons stores in addition to the chemical weapons currently being confiscated by Western nations. These caches likely include various neurotoxins and deadly viruses, according to U.S. intelligence estimates and other experts.

“A very credible source has confirmed he saw, near Aleppo, a looted pharmaceutical laboratory, which was probably a cover for a biological weapons production site,” Guitta and van Aalst revealed in a research brief published by the Henry Jackson Society.

Read more at Free Beacon


Is Russia Aiding Syria to Hide Its WMD?


Russia’s chemical weapons deal with Syria may not just be a slick move to strengthen Assad. It may be the present-day activation of an old Soviet plan titled “Operation Emergency Exit” designed to cleanse a Third World ally of incriminating material.

Assad has already begun moving his chemical weapons onto Russian ships, according to Kamal al-Labwani, who is a prominent Syrian opposition figure that stands against the Assad dictatorship and the Islamists. The Clarion Project interviewed him in April 2012.

Labwani says that Assad is also hiding chemical weapons in vegetable-filled trucks with the intention of transferring them to parts of Lebanon dominated by Hezbollah. Immediately after the Russian-brokered deal was announced, the Clarion Project was told by an informed source that there was intelligence that Assad was already in the process of sending WMD-related materials to the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon.

The Iraqi government, a supporter of Assad, has denied reports that it is also housing Syrian WMD. General Salim Idris, a rebel military leader, claims that Syrian materials have gone to Iraq, as does an anti-Assad newspaper in Lebanon. The paper says that at least 20 trucks crossed into Iraq without inspection.

As the highest-ranking defector from the East Bloc, Ion Mihai Pacepa, was privy to the deepest secrets of the Soviet Union when he the chief of Romania’s foreign intelligence service. He defected in 1978 and remains in hiding.

In August 2003, he wrote that he had first-hand knowledge of a secret Soviet plan named Operation Sarindar, or in English, “Operation Emergency Exit.” Its objective was to cleanse a Third World ally of chemical weapons in order to prevent the discovery of Russian complicity and to help frame the West as the aggressor.

Read more at The Clarion Project