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.

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

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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.

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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

The CIA’s Syria Program and the Perils of Proxies

Fadi Al-Halabi/AFP/Getty Images

Fadi Al-Halabi/AFP/Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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

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

After these early hiccups, the program evolved.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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