Trump Got This One Right

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sea change: Turkey enters Syrian conflict – as an enemy of the U.S.’s closest partner

Turkish tanks assembled on the Syrian border in 2015. (Image: Screen grab of RT video, YouTube)

Turkish tanks assembled on the Syrian border in 2015. (Image: Screen grab of RT video, YouTube)

Liberty Unyielding, by J. E. Dyer, Aug. 24, 2016: (h/t/ Tundra Tabloids)

Turkey has done cross-border shelling for a long time now, and has used her air force to bomb Kurdish positions in Iraq and Syria.  There was even evidence in November 2015 that Turkey had troops deployed just across the Syrian border in northeastern Latakia Province.

But for the first time, on Tuesday, 23 August, Turkey has ordered an entire town on the Turkish border with Syria to evacuate, in preparation for an overt cross-border military operation, complete with an armored invasion force.  The objective is to take the Syrian town of Jarablus from Islamic State.

That may sound superficially like it serves America’s goals.  (Indeed, the operation is reportedly being supported by NATO air power.  That could get messy, if it continues.)

But Turkey has actually been content to have ISIS in control of Jarablus for many months now.  The timing and context of this latest move are the key: Turkey’s real objective is to prevent theKurds from wresting Jarablus from ISIS.

And the Turkish entry into the Syrian conflict looks to be part of a joint effort – with Russia, Assad, and Iran – to neutralize the Kurds, as part of the campaign to take all of Syrian territory back from the factions now holding it.

The Kurds have been the major U.S. partner in fighting ISIS in both Syria and northern Iraq.  Until the Iran-sponsored Shia militias in Iraq ejected ISIS from Tikrit, Ramadi, and Fallujah – under the military direction of Iran’s Qods Force commander, Qassem Soleimani – the Kurds were by far the most effective ground force against ISIS.

But Erdogan has been uneasy with the Kurds’ success in consolidating territory.  Now Turkey wants to roll them up in this sensitive border area.

There are reasons why Iran is satisfied to be part of that effort, at least for now.  And for Russia, dealing with or protecting the Kurds is always a calculation, not a cause.  Don’t look for Russia to be solidly on one side of this thing; the Russians will maneuver simply to be at the center of it, so everyone has to come to them for solutions.

Remember, Moscow isn’t trying to get out of Syria, or leave Syria in good hands.  The whole point for Putin’s Russia is to stay there.

U.S. position eroded beyond recovery

The U.S has been the Kurds’ main patron for a long time now.  I very much fear Obama is about to abandon them – because he’d get so much bad press if any Americans got hurt, in the Syrian war realignment that now looks inevitable.

Obama has no intention of strengthening our forces’ posture against that realignment.

More importantly, he has absolutely no policy for what to do other than watch that realignment happen.  From a policy standpoint, he’s an inert quantity, a leadership void, tethered to a bunch of SOF, intel assets, and strike-fighters still wandering through the battle space burning gas and bullets.

It’s only with extraordinary pain that I say this, but it would be better for America – because of who’s in the Oval Office – if we did simply pull out.  Our forces on scene are in an increasingly impossible situation.  They should not be left there, exposed and unsupported.  Moreover, there’s nothing they can achieve there.  It’s not worth their lives to try to hang on to a situation that’s slipping away, for no positive good.  The next president will just have to deal with whatever reality has become, five months from now.

But pulling out – even quietly – and abandoning all pretense of having a policy or a plan would signal a definitive end to the last vestige of U.S leadership in the Middle East.  It would be a severe blow to the Kurds, who don’t deserve to be treated that way.  It would be a signal of faithlessness that our other long-time partners and allies could not ignore.

It’s difficult to preview comprehensively everything that might be unleashed; it could be very, very bad, or there could be random factors that keep it from getting too bad between now and next January.

Read more

Also see:

Meet Aleppo’s ‘Moderate,’ ‘Secular’ ‘Rebels’: Al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood

aleppo-syria-moderate-rebels-muslim-brotherhood-al-qaeda

Let’s support moderate Muslims. But that means figuring out which ones are the real deal.

National Review, by Andrew C. McCarthy, Aug. 19, 2016:

As the invaluable David Pryce-Jones notes, Syria’s second-most important city, Aleppo, is the locus of heavy combat, pitting Russia and Iran, the forces propping up theBashar Assad, against anti-regime fighters, also known as the “rebels.” David refers to reports that, as he summarizes them, “secular rebels appear to have liberated most of [Aleppo], maybe all of it.” Meanwhile, the estimable Charles Krauthammer observes that Russia is operating out of an air base in Iran (probably yet another violation of Obama’s disastrous nuclear deal with the mullahs). And who does Charles say Vladimir Putin’s air force is targeting? “It’s hitting a lot of the moderate rebels . . . in Aleppo.”

I have been arguing for years (and as recently as last weekend) that there are simply not enough moderate, secular rebels in Syria to overthrow the regime, much less to defeat both Assad and ISIS simultaneously. Suggestions to the contrary are wishful thinking. More important, such suggestions are counterproductive: The illusion of a vibrant secular, pro-Western opposition in Syria is the basis for urging that America throw its weight behind the “rebels,” on the theory that we would be undermining radical Islam.

In truth, we’d simply be empowering one set of anti-American Islamists against another.

At The Long War Journal, Tom Joscelyn, who for my money does the best job in America of analyzing the factions involved in the global jihad, takes a careful look at who is fighting against Assad in Syria. To what should be no one’s surprise — but will apparently be very surprising to many — the bulk of the opposition consists of Islamists.

As Tom explains, two coalitions are spearheading the campaign that has enjoyed recent success against the regime in Aleppo. The first is headed up by al-Qaeda and goes by the name Jaysh al-Fath (Army of Conquest). The al-Qaeda franchise in Syria, until recently known as al-Nusrah, has rebranded itself as Jabhat Fath al-Sham (JFS). It has a close alliance with a group called Ahrar al-Sham (Ahrar), which includes many al-Qaeda veterans and (as Tom notes) models itself after the Taliban (al-Qaeda’s close ally in Afghanistan). JFS and Ahrar run the Jaysh al-Fath coalition, which includes sundry other jihadist militias long affiliated with the al-Qaeda terror network.

Al-Qaeda is well aware of the West’s myopic focus on ISIS (the Islamic State — the al-Qaeda splinter group that began as al-Qaeda in Iraq). This myopia has the U.S. government and much of the commentariat turning a blind eye to other anti-American Islamists, even absurdly labeling them “moderates,” as long as they are not part of ISIS. The leaders of al-Qaeda realize that a great deal of financial and materiel support is to be had in the “moderate rebel” business but that the al-Qaeda brand could be problematic in maintaining the façade. So they have encouraged their franchises to obscure and soft-peddle their al-Qaeda connections — particularly by not brandishing “al-Qaeda” in their names.

It’s working.

To their credit, the Wall Street Journal’s editors concede that “the Army of Conquest coalition . . . includes al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate.” Yet this is still an understatement, just as the Journal’s follow-up observation — that this al-Qaeda affiliate “fights alongside more moderate and secular forces” — overstates the case. In reality, al-Qaeda is the Army of Conquest; and the forces they are fighting alongside are a different coalition — and one whose moderation and secularity are exaggerated.

As Tom Joscelyn elaborates, the other coalition in Aleppo is known as Fatah Halab (“Aleppo Conquest”). To be sure, it has some secular, moderate elements; but it also features deep Islamist ties.

The “secular, moderate” veneer is built on the fiction, heavily promoted in the U.S. from the first stages of the uprising, that the Free Syrian Army (FSA) is a gaggle of secular factions seeking to replace Assad with a Western-style democracy. In reality, the FSA has long been coopted by the Muslim Brotherhood — as has the Syrian National Council, which was set up early on to pose as the overarching framework of the opposition.

As I have pointed out any number of times over the past several years, enthusiasts for American intervention in the civil wars of Muslim-majority countries bend over backward to avoid mentioning the Muslim Brotherhood. They say “moderate” and “rebel,” hoping no one will try to pin them down about who these “moderate rebels” are. But way too many of them are members of the international sharia-supremacist organization whose motto remains: “Allah is our objective. The Prophet is our leader. The Koran is our law. Jihad is our way. Dying in the way of Allah is our highest hope. Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar!”

The Brotherhood has been designated a terrorist organization in recent years by Egypt (which ousted a government led by the Brotherhood), and by its former allies, the governments of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. (See Daniel Pipes’s 2014 piece in National Review on how perceptions of the Brotherhood have changed.) In the U.S., legislation to designate the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization has been proposed by Senator Ted Cruz (R., Texas) and was approved by the House Judiciary Committee earlier this year. Nevertheless, it remains progressive Beltway wisdom that the Brotherhood is better thought of as a moderate Islamist organization — even a “firewall against violent extremism,” as Marc Lynch of George Washington University put it in a Washington Post opinion piece in March.

But the Brotherhood, which has a history of violence and boasts as its Palestinian branch the Hamas terrorist organization, is hardly opposed to “violent extremism” (the Washington euphemism for “jihadist terror”). It is true that its methods differ from those of al-Qaeda and ISIS. For the Brothers, jihad has its place but is just one form of aggression in a broad arsenal that includes political activism, vexatious lawsuits, media propaganda, etc. Nevertheless, the Brothers’ objective is exactly the same as that of the more brutal jihadist networks: the imposition of the totalitarian sharia system of governance. And given the geography of the conflict in Syria, it is worth emphasizing that the Brothers have no more coveted short-term objective than the destruction of Israel.

Just as the al-Qaeda affiliates pretend to be “moderates” by stressing their opposition to ISIS, the Brotherhood affiliates pose as “secularists” — with no small amount of help from the Obama administration — by stressing their differentiation from al-Qaeda. This pose is also helped along by the fact that al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has taken to mocking the Brotherhood as overly cozy with secular regimes and insufficiently zealous for transition to sharia. (See Tom Joscelyn’s report, here.) Consistent with this strategy, the Fatah Halab coalition in Aleppo made a point of claiming that al-Qaeda groups would be excluded. But this, again, is mainly a feint to project the illusion of secular moderation, which triggers Western and other support. In reality, as Tom documents, key Fatah Halab constituents have been working with al-Qaeda affiliates all along.

Don’t get me wrong. This is not to belittle the magnitude of the Russia–Iran alliance. Not only is Putin leveraging his increasingly close relations with the mullahs to project power; Tehran reportedly has dispatched hundreds (perhaps thousands) more fighters to bolster Assad’s forces in Aleppo (to say nothing of the 80,000 to 100,000 militia fighters whom Iran controls in Iraq). My point is that we need a strategy that recognizes all of our enemies for what they are, not one that imagines enemies into potential allies for no better reason than that other enemies seem worse.

I am far from an isolationist, but I strenuously opposed foolish interventions. I am not unsympathetic to the cause of supporting secularists and moderate Muslims — meaningnon-Islamists. But that means figuring out which ones are the real deal. We should be analyzing “rebels” in the exacting way Tom Joscelyn does, so that we can grasp what realistically can be accomplished. In Syria, that may be no more than creating safe space for refugees, promoting pro-Western groups, attacking jihadist hubs, and awaiting an American president who understands that both Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood are our enemies, not our prospective “regional partners.”

Until then, the lesson of Libya ought to teach us that it is no advancement of American interests if al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood win in Aleppo, even if that means that Assad, Iran, and Russia lose.

Andrew C. McCarthy is a senior policy fellow at National Review Institute and a contributing editor of National Review.

Who should rule Syria? Nobody

Aleppo, Syria (Photo: Getty)

Aleppo, Syria (Photo: Getty)

Or at least not all of it. Grasp that and you can see a clear strategy for the West

The Spectator, by Jonathan Spyer, Aug. 18, 2016:

The long civil war in Syria is still far from conclusion. Any real possibility of rebel victory ended with the entry of Russian forces last autumn — but while the initiative is now with the Assad regime, the government’s forces are also far from a decisive breakthrough. So who, if anyone, should the UK be backing in the Syrian slaughterhouse, and what might constitute progress in this broken and burning land?

It ought to be fairly obvious why a victory for the Assad regime would be a disaster for the West. Assad, an enthusiastic user of chemical weapons against his own people, is aligned with the most powerful anti–western coalition in the Middle East. This is the alliance dominated by the Islamic Republic of Iran. It includes Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Shia militias of Iraq, and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. If Assad won, the Iranian alliance would consolidate its domination of the entire land area between the Iraq-Iran border and the Mediterranean Sea — a major step towards regional hegemony for Iran. So an Assad victory would be good for Islamism — at least of the Shia variety — and bad for world peace. It should be prevented.

The controversy begins when one starts to look at the alternative to an Assad victory.

In November last year, David Cameron claimed to have identified 70,000 ‘moderate’ rebels ready to challenge Islamic State in the east of Syria. That figure was a myth. Yours truly was among the very first western journalists to spend time in Syria with the rebels. I recently returned from a trip to southern Turkey, where I interviewed fighters and commanders of the main rebel coalitions. With no particular joy but a good deal of confidence, I can report that the Syrian rebellion today is dominated in its entirety by Sunni Islamist forces. And the most powerful of these are the most radical.

The most potent rebel coalition in Syria today is called Jaish al-Fatah (Army of Conquest). It has three main component parts: Ahrar al-Sham (Free Men of the Levant), a Salafist jihadi group; Jabhat al-Nusra, until recently the official franchise of al–Qaeda in Syria, now renamed Jabhat Fatah al-Sham; and Faylaq al-Sham (Legion of the Levant), whose ideology derives from the Muslim Brotherhood branch of Sunni political Islam.

Jaish al-Fatah dominates the main rebel-controlled area in Aleppo, Idleb, Latakia and northern Hama. Its various components seek the establishment of a state dominated by Islamic sharia law. There is no reason to suppose that Nusra’s recent renunciation of its al-Qaeda affiliation was anything more than tactical. When one speaks of the Syrian rebellion today, one is speaking of Jaish al-Fatah. The small ‘Free Syrian Army’ groups that still exist do so only with Jaish al-Fatah’s permission, and only for as long as they serve some useful purpose for it. In the now extremely unlikely event of the Islamist rebels defeating the Assad regime and reuniting Syria under their rule, the country would become a Sunni Islamist dictatorship.

So if there is no British or western interest in a victory for either the regime or the rebels, what should be done with regard to Syria?

First of all, it is important to understand that ‘Syria’ as a unitary state no longer exists. A rebel commander whom I interviewed in the border town of Kilis in June told me: ‘Syria today is divided into four projects, none of which is strong enough to defeat all the others. These are the Assad regime, the rebellion, the Kurds and the Islamic State.’ This is accurate.

So the beginning of a coherent Syria policy requires understanding that the country has fragmented into enclaves, and is not going to be reunited in the near future, if at all.

Various external powers have elected to back one or another element in this landscape. The Russians and Iranians are backing the regime. Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia are supporting the Islamist rebels.

The West, too, has established a successful and effective patron-client relationship — with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces. Dominated by the Kurdish YPG, but including also Arab tribal forces such as the Sanadid militia, this is the force which is reducing the dominions of the Islamic State in eastern Syria, in partnership with western air power and special forces.

In contrast to the sometimes farcical attempts to identify partners among the Syrian Sunni rebels, the partnership with the Syrian Democratic Forces works. Weaponry does not get passed on to or taken by radical jihadi groups, because the SDF is at war with such groups. Training and assistance produces a united force with a single chain of command. And this force captures ground and frees Syrians living under the vicious rule of Isis.

On the commonsense principle that success should be built on, it is clear that the alliance with the SDF ought to be strengthened and grown. The West is committed, correctly, to the destruction of the Islamic State. The pace of the war against Isis needs to be stepped up. As witnessed in Nice, Würz-burg, Normandy and elsewhere in recent weeks, Isis is an entity that will make war on the West until it is destroyed.

The destruction of the Islamic State by a strengthened SDF would lead to control of Syria east of the Euphrates by a western client of proven anti-terrorist credentials. Further west, the truncated enclaves of Assad and of the Sunni Arab rebels would remain. It is possible that, over time, the fragmentation of Syria would be formalised. But it’s equally likely that the various component parts would remain in de facto existence for the foreseeable future.

What matters is that three outcomes be avoided: the Assad regime should not be permitted to reunite Syria under its rule, the Islamist rebels should similarly not be allowed to establish a jihadi state in the country, and the Islamic State should not be permitted to remain in existence. By strengthening the alliance with the SDF, utilising it and its allies to take Raqqa and destroy Isis in the east, and then allowing its component parts to establish their rule in eastern and northern Syria, these objectives can be attained. For a change, the US and its allies have found an unambiguously anti-Islamist and anti-jihadi force in the Middle East which has a habit of winning its battles. This is a success which should be reinforced.

Also see:

ISRAEL’S NEXT HEZBOLLAH WAR

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Philos Project, by Andrew Harrod, Aug. 12, 2016:

Between Israel and Hezbollah, “another conflict is all but inevitable,” wrote retired Israeli Brigadier General Yakov Shaharabani. “It will be far more destructive and harmful than any other war Israel has fought in recent memory.” The former Israeli Air Force Intelligence chief thus introduced a sobering Foundation for the Defense of the Democracies report a decade after Israel’s last clash with the Lebanese terrorist organization.

Shaharabani said that the July 2006 Lebanon War “was the longest Israel had experienced since its War of Independence in 1948,” but any future clash with Hezbollah will make those destructive 34 days pale by comparison. According to his FDD coauthors, the Israeli government estimates that Hezbollah has approximately 150,000 rockets today as opposed to the mere 14,000 it possessed prior to the 2006 conflict. Writing for the Weekly Standard, Vanderbilt University law professor Willy Stern said that this gives Hezbollah a “bigger arsenal than all NATO countries – except the United States – combined.”

Stern elaborated that Hezbollah’s state sponsor Iran has “supplied its favorite terrorist organization with other top-of-the-line weaponry,” including advanced Russian-made anti-tank and anti-ship missiles and air defense systems. The FDD report noted that sanctions relief for Iran under the recent nuclear agreement will only darken this picture, for “Iran’s massive windfall is expected to trickle down to its most important and valuable proxy: Hezbollah.” Additionally, “Hezbollah has gained significant experience during five years of fighting in Syria” for the embattled Bashar Assad dictatorship.

Israeli Defense Forces leaders have presented Stern with grim scenarios in which “elite Hezbollah commandos will almost certainly be able to slip into Israel and may wreak havoc among Israeli villages in the north.” Given Hezbollah’s “capacity to shoot 1,500 missiles per day, Israel’s high-tech missile-defense system will be ‘lucky’ to shoot down 90 percent of incoming rockets, missiles and mortars.” Accordingly, “IDF planners quietly acknowledge that ‘as many as hundreds’ of Israeli noncombatants might be killed per day in the first week or two of the conflict.”

The FDD report documented Shaharabani’s prediction that the “next Lebanon war could actually devolve into a regional war.” With Hezbollah’s expanding into Syria, “Hezbollah and Iran plan to connect the Golan Heights to the terror group’s south Lebanese stronghold – to make it one contiguous front against Israel. Iran can also unleash violence on Israel through its Palestinian proxies,” meaning, for example, that Hamas rockets “could force the Israelis to divert Iron Dome and other anti-missile batteries to the southern front with Gaza.” As Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps “was already embedded with Hezbollah during the last conflict, there is the very real possibility that Iranian forces could join Hezbollah in battle during the next confrontation.”

The FDD report noted that recurrent Israeli airstrikes against Hezbollah and Iranian targets in Syria raise the dangers of killing Russian advisers or coming into combat with Russian warplanes now supporting Assad against the Syrian rebels. Israeli consultations with Russia seek to avoid these clashes, but scholar Michael Doran warned at his Hudson Institute’s July 26 panel discussing the report that the “potential for friction there is enormous.” Recent American coordination plans with Russia in striking jihadist groups like the Islamic State would enable the Assad coalition to approach Israel’s borders, implicating an Israeli “red line” concerning the IRGC there.

Experts agree that a future Hezbollah-Israel conflict’s havoc will engulf as well Lebanon, termed at the Hudson Institute as “Hezbollahstan” by the Israeli embassy’s Deputy Head of Mission Reuven Azar. “The IDF no longer distinguishes between the sovereign nation of Lebanon and Hezbollah,” Stern has written, now that the Shiite-based organization has expanded its influence beyond its south Lebanon stronghold to countrywide domination. Simultaneously, “Hezbollah cleverly places its arsenal where any Israeli military response – even legal, carefully planned, narrowly targeted, proportionate measures – will lead to huge civilian casualties among Lebanese.” As report author Jonathan Schanzer noted at a July 25 FDD event, Hezbollah has “turned Shia villages into essentially missile silos.”

“We are not in the business of trying to provoke a new round,” Azar said, echoing certain arguments in the FDD report, yet several factors indicate that Israel will accept a decisive challenge with Hezbollah if it comes. While report author Tony Badran noted at the Hudson Institute that Hezbollah “is not even comparable to what it was in 2006,” the coming years “risk seeing a Hezbollah that is infinitely more capable in terms of its weapon systems. This time period of the Iran nuclear agreement also portends an Iran that is unleashed, that is probably by that point a threshold nuclear state with a legalized industrial scale program and recognized regional primacy in Iraq and Syria.” As the FDD report stated, the nuclear deal “has placed Iran on a patient pathway to a nuclear weapon. The clock is ticking. Israel’s window of opportunity to defeat Hezbollah in the shadow of the nuclear deal cannot be ignored.”

Not surprisingly, the FDD report cited Israeli assessments of Hezbollah as Israel’s greatest threat, a view confirmed by Schanzer’s past three years of meetings with Israeli officials. While Shaharabani at FDD discussed how Hezbollah would view not losing a future conflict with Israel as a victory, Israel would desire a short, yet decisive campaign against a growing threat, however contradictory these two goals. As he wrote, “Israel may find out very quickly that deterring Hezbollah is not a sufficient strategic goal. Therefore, defeating Hezbollah (or forcing it to leave Lebanon) might become its strategic objective.”

Although Shaharabani’s remarks noted that the more extensive Israel’s actions against Hezbollah, the likelier the intervention by Iran and others, the FDD report remained resolute. “Should war break out, the United State should actively delay the imposition of a premature ceasefire in order to buy the Israelis as much time as needed to complete their military campaign,” it read. This no substitute for victory approach makes eminent sense if, as Carnegie Endowment for International Peace scholar Joseph Bahout judged at FDD, Israel’s war with Hezbollah is unavoidable, only the “question is when and under which circumstances.”

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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Exclusive: U.S. Allies Now Fighting CIA-Backed Rebels

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Daily Beast, By Nancy A. Youssef, Feb. 12, 2016:
Not long ago, U.S. jets and Shia militias worked together to battle ISIS. Today, those militias are trying to take down American proxies in Syria.

Iraqi militias who once fought ISIS with U.S. help are now working with Russian and Iranian forces to crush American-backed rebels in the strategic Syrian city of Aleppo, two defense officials have told The Daily Beast.

At least three Shia militias involved in successful battles against ISIS in Iraq—the Badr Brigade, Kata’ib Hezbollah, and the League of the Righteous—have acknowledged taking casualties in fighting in south and southeast Aleppo province. U.S. defense officials confirmed to The Daily Beast that they believe “at least one” unit of the Badr Brigade is fighting in southern Aleppo alongside other Iraqi militia groups. Those groups are backed by Russian airpower and Iranian troops—and all of whom are bolstering President Bashar al Assad’s Syrian Arab Army.

Reports on social media say the Iraqi militias in Syria are armed with U.S. tanks and small arms they procured on the Iraqi side of the border. Those reports could not be independently confirmed.

The presence of militias fighting on behalf of Assad—a dictator that the U.S. has pledged to depose—is yet another reminder of the tangled alliances that the United States must thread as it pursues seemingly contradictory policies in its battles against the self-proclaimed Islamic State. In Iraq, these Shia militias were battling on behalf of the U.S.-backed government. In Syria, they are fighting against an American-supported rebel coalition that includes forces armed by the CIA.

In other words: The forces the U.S. once counted on to take back Iraq’s cities are the same ones the Russians now are counting on to get Aleppo back. And those militias are fighting units of the American-backed Free Syrian Army—including the 16th Division, elements of Jaish al Nasr, and Sultan al Murad—according to Nicholas Heras, a research associate at the Center for a New American Security.

U.S. officials claim not to be alarmed. “On our list of problems, one Badr brigade in Syria is way down there,” one U.S. official explained.

But the role of the Shia militias continues to be controversial. The militias are backed and funded by Iran—Badr, in fact, was created as a branch of the Iranian military. But in Syria, their role is part of the increasingly effective one-two punch of the Russian/Iranian alliance that has given the Syrian government the upper hand in the battle for Aleppo.

U.S. officials agree that without those Iraqi militias, the Syrian Army would be too weak to hold territory on their own.

It is perhaps because of these dynamics that both Russia and the U.S agreed to a “cessation of hostilities” in Syria late Thursday, to begin in one week. Even if Aleppo fell, Assad forces’ hold on the city and the country would be tenuous, at best, and would depend on unending Russian/Iranian support, an unappealing proposition for two states with fragile economies. For the U.S., the deal offered hope for ending uncomfortable alliances that had militias that once served it interests fighting opposition forces it was no longer willing to back militarily.

In the last week, Russia has launched hundreds of punishing, largely indiscriminate strikes in Aleppo. That’s allowed forces loyal to Assad—including the Iraqi militias—to move in and reclaim parts of Aleppo, cutting off the main supply route to the city. According to the Red Cross, at least 50,000 refugees have sought to flee to Turkey since the Russian assault began.

“Without the Russian airstrikes the Shiite militias would not have been as successful,” said Phillip Smyth, a researcher at the University of Maryland who studies Shiite militias. At the same time, “It is clear that Iran is routing as many fighters as possible to Syria, particularly on the Aleppo front.”

To make matters worse for the U.S. effort in Syria, among the opposition groups now losing territory in Aleppo are groups once backed by the United States. Unfortunately, those groups are also intermingled with Jabhat al Nusra, al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate and a member of the U.S. list of terrorist organizations. The great irony of Aleppo is that U.S. strikes against the Islamic State have the perverse effect of benefiting al Qaeda.

It was Nusra forces who, in 2013 and 2014, were key in pushing ISIS out of Aleppo.

Today Nusra and its allies now are largely fighting back the Russian/Iranian offensive alone.

The fall of Aleppo, Syria’s biggest city, would be a major win for Assad supporters and potentially leave Syria with two major rival forces—ISIS and the Assad regime.

In Iraq, the Shiite militias, known as Popular Mobilization Forces, were key to important wins against the Islamic State in Amiri and Tikrit, former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s hometown. With the help of U.S. airstrikes, the militias were able to claim those cities from ISIS and end the jihadist group’s land grab across Iraq.

Fighting in Syria is a more lucrative undertaking, however. During the battle for the Iraqi cities of Amerli and Tikrit, militia members earned roughly $720 a month, according to Iraqi government officials. In Syria, the militiamen earn as much as $1,500 a month, Smyth said. The pay increase is a powerful incentive to join the battle—as if the appeal to sectarian loyalty were not enough.

U.S. officials are quick to say that they have never directly coordinated with the militias—small wonder, given that the Badr Brigade, for one, targeted hundreds of American troops in Iraq with Iranian-provided explosively formed projectile bombs, one of that war’s deadliest weapons.

But U.S. officials also acknowledged that the pro-Iranian militias benefited from U.S. airstrikes in Amerli and Tikrit, something the militias themselves refused to acknowledge. Only “weak people like the Iraqi army” wanted U.S. help, Haider al Amiri, the head of the Badr Brigade, said of the battle for Tikrit. He publicly celebrated Iranian support.

Either way, the fall of Amerli and Tikrit last year paved the way for the coalition and Iraqi forces to reclaim the city of Ramadi, the biggest prize to be taken back from ISIS so far. That, in turn, allowed the militias to increase their influence over Iraqi security matters.

The U.S. has been notably silent on the role of its erstwhile Iraqi allies in the ongoing battle in Syria, though it no longer predicts that Russia will become bogged down in the conflict as the Russian airstrikes provide the cover needed for the Iranian-backed forces to advance.

Meanwhile, on Thursday, Kurdish forces captured a military base in Aleppo, near the Turkish border.

with additional reporting by Michael Weiss