How to Oust Assad (If We Decide To)

Family Security Matters, by N. M. GUARIGLIA, April 12, 2017:

It would require cooperation from Russia.

Sean Davis, a co-founder of The Federalist, has written a very timely piece outlining the top fourteen questions America must ask itself should President Trump eventually expand on last week’s airstrikes and decide to remove Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad from power.  As Davis states: “We owe it to the American men and women whose blood was shed in Iraq, and their families, to not repeat the same mistakes we made there in Syria.  We owe it to the men and women who would be deployed overseas to have a clear understanding of our political goals in Syria, what military resources will be required to achieve them, and what risks we face, both militarily and politically, as a result of approving military action to remove Assad.”

Indeed.  Therefore, allow me to humbly address these concerns one by one.

Question 1: “What national security interest, rather than pure humanitarian interest, is served by the use of American military power to depose Assad’s regime?”

Answer: This presumes military power is necessary to depose Assad; a presumption America should not automatically make.  American foreign policy history is littered with examples of nonviolent regime change (the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellite regimes among the most prominent).  Regime change can be done through political means, not just military means.  In fact, nonviolent regime change can avoid a war.

As for our national security interest, the answer is straightforward: with the death of Saddam Hussein over a decade ago, Bashar al-Assad is among a handful of living men – perhaps the only living man – to have crossed the calamitous threshold of having used a weapon of mass destruction.  And he has done so multiple times.  Removing Assad from power would deny his ability to do so again.  It is not out of the realm of imagination for Syrian intelligence operatives – or terrorists employed by Syria – to release sarin gas in crowded American cities.  In short, those Syrian children we have seen grasping for air on television could very easily be American children.

The Assad dynasty has been an enemy of America for decades.  Assad remains one of the world’s leading state sponsors of jihadist terrorism.  Should Assad fall, the world’s primary state sponsor of jihadist terrorism, Iran, would lose its chief ally.  Terrorist groups like Hezbollah would lose their principle supporter.  A regime responsible for murdering hundreds of American soldiers and Marines would be brought to justice (if you consider this hyperbole, research the role that the “Syrian ratlines” played in Anbar Province during Gulf War II).

Assad is a genocidal monster and his longtime hostility toward the West should not be taken lightly simply because he is currently engaged in a turf war with ISIS. 

Question 2: “How will deposing Assad make America safer?”

Answer: This is similar to the first question and therefore contains the same answers.  If Assad were to vanish tomorrow and be replaced by a non-hostile strongman – someone like General Sisi in Egypt or King Abdullah in Jordan – the anti-ISIS coalition in Syria would be unified.  No longer would a large percentage of Syrian people feel obligated to fight both ISIS and the Syrian government, thereby dividing their efforts.  Instead, the new Syrian leader, if he were adequately benevolent and did not use chemical weapons on the Syrian people, could unite the Syrian military with the anti-ISIS rebels.  Rather than have a three-way regional war with Russia, Iran, and Syria’s leadership in one corner, America and ragtag Syrian rebels in another corner, and ISIS in the third corner, we could instead craft a three-on-one alliance with America, Russia, and Syria’s new leadership uniting together against ISIS, cutting the Iranians out entirely from their traditional sphere of influence along the Mediterranean.  That would expedite the defeat of ISIS and make America safer.  It would kill three strategic birds (Assad, Iran, ISIS) with one tactical stone. 

Question 3: “What does final political victory in Syria look like (be specific), and how long will it take for that political victory to be achieved?  Do you consider victory to be destabilization of Assad, the removal of Assad, the creation of a stable government that can protect itself and its people without additional assistance from the United States, etc.?”

Answer: We do not need to turn Syria into a liberal democracy to achieve our political and strategic objectives.  Final political victory in Syria would probably look much like Jordan today; a relatively benign government at peace with its neighbors and within its own borders.  That means no Assad.  That means no ISIS.  Both of those objectives are entirely within our grasp, especially if we work in concert with Russia (or I should say, if Russia works in concert with us).

As for how long it will take: who knows?  As long as America is not taking casualties – and not throwing billions down a bottomless pit with no end in sight – does the length of our “involvement” really matter?  We have provided logistical support to the Jordanians and Egyptians for decades.  Nobody cares.  We have been conducting an air campaign over Yemen and Somalia for years.  Nobody cares.  We may require a similar posture toward Syria in a post-Assad environment.

At this time, it appears President Trump has no interest in using military action to overthrow Assad from power.  Very well.  But if events in Syria lead to that outcome, given the emphasis with which Secretary of Defense Mattis has placed on speed and operational tempo, I suspect any overt U.S. military intervention in Syria would be overwhelming, devastating, and swift – taking days and weeks, not months and years.

Question 4: “What military resources (e.g., ground troops), diplomatic resources, and financial resources will be required to achieve this political victory?”

Answer: This is a great question to which I do not have the answer.  And it certainly must be answered.  It would depend upon how we go about it strategically.  In the event that overt military force is used – even if conventional ground forces were used – there is no reason to believe that would necessitate a years-long military occupation and nation-building effort.  President Trump is famously averse to nation-building (and for good reason).  He wants the U.S. military to be the SWAT team that kicks the door down; not the meter-maid handing out parking tickets.  This is to his credit.

In fact, Trump’s view of how the military should be used has always been the traditional American view.  It has only been since the Marshall Plan in the aftermath of World War II that we decided to tie our hands to long-term reconstruction efforts in all postbellum environments.  Before going into Iraq, Colin Powell famously warned George W. Bush of the Pottery Barn rule: “If you break it, you own it.”  Lame.  I suspect Trump’s view of war is to break things without taking on the contemporary obligation of making them nicer after doing so.  Cheers to that.  Breaking things is fast, easy, and cheap.

Question 5: “How long will it take to achieve political victory?”

Answer: This is similar to Question 3.  Military force and political victory are admittedly two separate concepts.  Syria has been in a state of civil war for the better part of six years.  I believe “political victory” would take less than that.  Much less.  Indeed, militarily speaking, ISIS in Syria already seems to be on the ropes.  Removing Assad from office could take days or weeks.  The final destruction of ISIS may take another six months.  In short, the length of any regime change effort is completely unknowable, and would entirely depend upon the nature of our strategy.  If America and Russia were to work together, I do not see why Assad should last more than a few hours.  Perhaps Putin will eventually offer the Assads an asylum package?

Question 6: “What costs, in terms of lives (both military and civilian), dollars, and forgone options elsewhere as a result of resource deployment in Syria, will be required to achieve political victory?”

Answer: This is a question for the U.S. Congress.  America is a constitutional republic that requires the will of the people to go to war.  Therefore, in order for our national wars to be politically sustainable, they should be won as quickly as possible.  Our strategic and political objectives must be clearly defined and limited enough so that they are obtainable through military operations.  If an American war takes longer than 90 days, results in more than 300 dead Americans, and costs more than 5% of the annual defense budget, we’re probably doing it wrong.

Question 7: “What other countries will join the United States in deposing Assad, in terms of military, monetary, or diplomatic resources?”

Answer: England and France would join.  As would Turkey, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and others Sunni Arab states fearful of both ISIS and the Iranians.  Israel would join too, of course, although we may want them to sit on the sidelines for geopolitical reasons.

But the real key would be to obtain Russian support.  Russia has upwards of 4,000 troops in Syria, all of whom are currently supporting the Assad regime.  So it seems at the moment almost preposterous to seek Russian support in the removal of Assad, does it not?  However, I believe this is where Secretary of State Rex Tillerson – who has known Vladimir Putin for many years – could work his diplomacy.  In fact, the presence of Russia within Syria may even accelerate the speed with which Assad could be overthrown.

For starters, America does not want to inadvertently kill Russian soldiers in Syria.  Such an event could potentially lead to World War III.  Therefore, since neither America nor Russia want nuclear apocalypse, I believe both countries are likely to deepen coordination efforts in Syria so as to avoid unintentional friendly-fire.

Secondly, we should not forget that Russia was supposed to disarm Assad of his chemical weapons in 2013 as a precondition for President Obama not enforcing his feckless “red line.”  Whether intentional or not, Russia clearly did not fully disarm Assad.  The international community has every right to hold Russia to account for such negligence; the mere threat of doing so may force Moscow to cut ties with Assad.  Why should Moscow expend enormous geopolitical capital defending a man they could easily replace?

Of course, enlisting the support of Russia would come at a price.  Putin would likely demand something significant from America in exchange for turning his back on Assad.  The question is: what would that be?  Therein lies the foundation of negotiations that one could reasonably conclude are about to take place.

Question 8: “Should explicit congressional authorization for the use of military force in Syria be required, or should the president take action without congressional approval?”

Answer: Many lawyers believe the War Powers Resolution gives President Trump 60 days to conduct military operations before needing congressional authority.  Many lawyers and constitutional experts disagree.  It’s a moot point if we pursue regime change non-militarily in coordination with Russia.

Question 9: “What is the risk of wider conflict with Russia, given that nation’s presence and stake in Syria, if the United States chooses to invade and depose Assad, a key Russian ally in the Middle East?”

Answer: The entire premise of deposing Assad non-militarily is that it should incorporate Russian assistance so as to avoid precisely this risk.

Question 10: “If U.S. intervention in Syria does spark a larger war with Russia, what does political victory in that scenario look like, and what costs will it entail?”

Answer: A war with Russia would be TEOTWAWKI (the end of the world as we know it).  There would be no political victory.  Those of us that survive the fallout would spend the rest of our days eating squirrels in the woods.  That’s why it likely won’t happen.  A half-century of nuclear deterrence and the doctrine of “mutually assured destruction” has proven that the Russians prefer their own existence to the annihilation of America.  We feel the same way.  One must believe that rational minds will yet again prevail before tensions begin to even approach this point.

Question 11: “Given that Assad has already demonstrated a willingness to use chemical weapons, how should the United States respond if the Assad regime deploys chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons against the United States?”

Answer: Assuming U.S. ground forces are used – a bold assumption that I do not believe will come to fruition – we will be faced with the same question we were forced to address prior to invading Iraq in 2003: what do we do if the regime we are overthrowing uses WMD on our troops?  The answer, as far as I can tell, is the same as it was then, and two-fold: protect U.S. ground forces with CBRN Hazmat suits and retaliate against any WMD usage with the wrath of an angry psychotic god.

It is worth recalling the reason Assad does not today have nuclear weapons (by way of North Korean scientists): because the Israelis took aggressive military action on a secret Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007.

Question 12: “Assuming the Assad regime is successfully removed from power, what type of government structure will be used to replace Assad, who will select that government, and how will that government establish and maintain stability going forward?”

Answer: If America and Russia both agree to replace Assad together, then the new leader would be someone that has the backing of both America and Russia.  This person could be found within the existing Syrian polity or from the outside.  So long as the new leader sufficiently breaks with the Iranians and continues to fight ISIS, America’s interests are met.  Once the insurgency is squashed and the civil war has ended, then Syria’s political future would belong to the Syrian people.  The goal must be to find someone that: a) won’t use WMD against innocent people; b) won’t support terrorist organizations; and c) won’t be a stooge of the Iranian government.

Question 13: “Given that a change in political power in the United States radically altered the American position in Iraq in 2009, how will you mitigate or address the risk of a similar political dynamic upending your preferred strategy in Syria, either in 2018, 2020, or beyond?” 

Answer: This question presumes Republican losses in 2018 and 2020.  Nevertheless, given his “America First” rhetoric and campaign pledges, I cannot envision a scenario whereby President Trump agrees to a Syria strategy that ties America’s hands for years to come.

Question 14: “What lessons did you learn from America’s failure to achieve and maintain political victory following the removal of governments in Iraq and Libya, and how will you apply those lessons to a potential war in Syria?”

Answer: The primary lesson from Iraq and Libya is to have a political alternative ready to assume control once we have ousted the regime in question.  It only makes logical sense to pursue regime change in Syria if such a political alternative is identified prior to removing Assad.  This would require enlisting Russian support.

Putin turning his back on Assad might seem improbable.  But it certainly isn’t impossible.  When Trump and Putin put their dalliance aside and get down to truly negotiating about the future of the world, it is not unreasonable for the American side of table to bring up the replacement of Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

Contributing Editor N.M. Guariglia is an essayist who writes on Islam and Middle Eastern geopolitics.

At least 100 dead in suspected chemical attack in Syria, hospital reportedly hit

Fox News, April 4, 2017:

A suspected chemical attack in a rebel-held Syrian town killed 100 people and injured 400 others, a medical relief group said, and some medics treating the wounded were later struck by rubble when an aircraft reportedly bombed a hospital.

SYRIA: MORE WAR CRIMES, MORE PEACE TALKS — AND MORE RADICALIZATION BY RUSSIAN DESIGN

A hospital in Syria’s northern Idlib province was hit soon after the area was bombarded with a suspected chemical agent, an AFP correspondent reported.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said there were 11 children among the dead. The Syrian medical relief group UOSSM reported that the overall death toll had been elevated to 100, according to Reuters.

HALEY: ASSAD A ‘WAR CRIMINAL’ PROTECTED BY RUSSIA, IRAN

Mohammed Rasoul, the head of a Syrian ambulance service, told the BBC that first responders found people choking in the streets.

“Our team is still there, moving patients from one place to another because of overcrowded hospitals,” he said. “I am speaking to my team and they are doing fine, but the situation over there is very bad and most of those who are suffering are children.”

The media center published footage of medical workers appearing to intubate an unresponsive man stripped down to his underwear and hooking up a little girl foaming at the mouth to a ventilator.

SLIDESHOW: HEARTBREAKING IMAGES OF GAS ATTACK VICTIMS

There was no comment from the government in Damascus or any international agency in the immediate aftermath of the attack.

It was the third claim of a chemical attack in just over a week in Syria. The previous two were reported in Hama province, in an area not far from Khan Sheikhoun, the site of Tuesday’s alleged attack.

Tuesday’s reports came on the eve of a major international meeting in Brussels on the future of Syria and the region, to be hosted by the EU’s High Representative Federica Mogherini.

The Syrian American Medical Society, which supports hospitals in opposition-held territory, said it had sent a team of inspectors to Khan Sheikhoun before noon and an investigation was underway.

The Syrian activists had no information on what agent could have been used in the assault. They claimed the attack was caused by an airstrike carried out either by the Syrian government or Russian warplanes.

It was also not immediately clear if all those killed died from suffocation or wounds sustained in the airstrikes. Makeshift hospitals soon crowded with people suffocating, activist said.

Mohammed Hassoun, a media activist in nearby Sarmin — also in Idlib province where some of the critical cases were transferred — said the hospital there is equipped to deal with such chemical attacks because the town was also struck, early on in the Syrian uprising. The Sarmin hospital is about 31 miles away from the scene of the attack.

“Because of the number of wounded, they have been distributed around in rural Idlib,” he told The Associated Press by phone. “There are 18 critical cases here. They were unconscious, they had seizures and when oxygen was administered, they bled from the nose and mouth.”

Hassoun, who is documenting the attack for the medical society, said the doctors there have said it is likely more than one gas.

“Chlorine gas doesn’t cause such convulsions,” he said, adding that doctors suspect sarin was used.

Hussein Kayal, a photographer for the Idlib Media Center, said he was awoken by the sound of a bomb blast around 6:30 a.m. When he arrived at the scene there was no smell, he said.

He found entire families inside their homes, lying on the floor, eyes wide open and unable to move. Their pupils were constricted. He put on a mask, he said. Kayal said he and other witnesses took victims to an emergency room, and removed their clothes and washed them in water.

He said he felt a burning sensation in his fingers and was treated for that.

A Turkey-based Syrian man whose niece, her husband and one-year-old daughter were among those killed, said the warplanes struck early, as residents were still in their beds. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared for the safety of family members back in Syria.

The province of Idlib is almost entirely controlled by the Syrian opposition. It is home to some 900,000 displaced Syrians, according to the United Nations. Rebels and opposition officials have expressed concerns that the government is planning to mount a concentrated attack on the crowded province.

Claims of chemical weapons attacks, particularly the use of the chlorine agent, are not uncommon in Syria’s conflict. The worst attack was what a U.N. report said was an attack by toxic sarin gas in August 2013 on the Damascus suburb of Ghouta that killed hundreds of civilians.

The Syrian Coalition, an opposition group based outside the country, said government planes carried out the airstrike on Khan Sheikhoun, south of the city of Idlib, the provincial capital.

It said the planes fired missiles carrying poisonous gases, killing dozens of people, many of them women and children. The coalition described the attack as a “horrifying massacre.”

Photos and video emerging from Khan Sheikhoun show limp bodies of children and adults. Some are seen struggling to breathe; others appear foaming at the mouth.

A medical doctor going by the name of Dr. Shajul Islam for fears for his own safety said his hospital in Idlib province received three victims, all with narrow, pinpoint pupils that did not respond to light. He published video of the patients on his Twitter account.

Pinpoint pupils, breathing difficulties, and foaming at the mouth are symptoms commonly associated with toxic gas exposure.

The opposition’s Civil Defense search-and-rescue group, which released photos showing paramedics washing down victims, has not published a casualty toll.

The activist-run Assi Press published video of paramedics carrying victims from the scene by a pickup truck. The victims were stripped down to their underwear. Many appeared unresponsive.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch has accused the Syrian government of conducting at least eight chemical attacks using chlorine gas on opposition-controlled residential areas during the final months in the battle for Aleppo last year that killed at least nine civilians and injured 200.

Also, a joint investigation by the United Nations and the international chemical weapons watchdog determined the Syrian government was behind at least three attacks in 2014 and 2015 involving chlorine gas and the Islamic State group was responsible for at least one involving mustard gas.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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.

Read more

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:

Introduction

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?

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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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Russian revolution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For Aleppo, read Grozny

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

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

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

But Chechnya is not the only precedent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Europe’s next nightmare

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

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

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

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

A ‘painful year’

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

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

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

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

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

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

Also see: