Syria diplomacy suspended as Russian-backed Assad forces advance

Jerusalem Post, 6/2

UN Special Envoy on Syria Staffan de Mistura this week announced the suspension of just-convened peace talks in Geneva intended to resolve the Syrian civil war.

The failure of the talks was predictable, and foreseen by most serious analysts on Syria.
Diplomacy requires compromise. But the forces of President Bashar Assad, Russia, Iran and Hezbollah are advancing in both northern and southern Syria. The dictator and his allies, as a consequence, see no reason to abandon their core aims or accept a political process leading to a transition of power.

The action of consequence with regard to Syria is taking place on the battlefields of Aleppo, Idlib, Deraa and Quneitra provinces, not in the conference rooms of Geneva and Vienna.

The aim of the regime and its Russian and Iranian allies at present appears to be to destroy the non-Islamic State Sunni Arab rebellion against Assad.

This would have the consequence of leaving only three effective protagonists in the war in Syria – Assad, Islamic State and the Kurds in the north.

Moscow is engaged at the moment in the energetic courting of the Kurds. Should Russia, after defeating the non-Islamic State rebels, succeed in tempting the Syrian Kurds away from their current alliance with the US, this would leave Moscow the effective master of the universally approved war against Islamic State in Syria.

Assad, who was facing possible defeat prior to the Russian intervention in September 2015, would be entirely dependent on Moscow and to a lesser extent Tehran for his survival. This would make the Russians and Iranians the decisive element in Syria’s future.

The defeat of the non-Islamic State Sunni Arab rebellion is the first stage in this strategy. The main regime and Russian efforts are currently directed toward the remaining heartland of the rebellion in northwest Syria.

But Assad and his allies also appear intent on delivering a death blow to the revolt in the place it was born – Deraa province in the south and its environs. This, incidentally, if achieved in its entirety, would bring Hezbollah and Iran to the area east of Quneitra crossing, facing the Israeli-controlled part of the Golan Heights.

It is not by any means certain that the regime will achieve this aim in total. But as of now, Assad and his friends are moving forward.

The first stage following the Russian intervention, and achieved in the dying months of 2015, was to end the rebel threat to the regime enclave in Latakia province. There is no further prospect of the rebels finding their way into the populated areas of this province. The regime has recaptured 35 villages in the northern Latakia countryside.

This achieved, the main fulcrum of the current effort is Aleppo province. Aleppo is the capital of Syria’s north. The rebellion’s arrival in this city in the late summer of 2012 signaled the point at which it first began to pose a real threat to Assad.


This week, the regime,  its Iran-mustered Shia militia supporters and Russian air power succeeded in breaking the link between the border town of Azaz and rebel held eastern Aleppo.  This reporter travelled these rebel supply routes from the border when they were first carved out in 2012.  They were vital to the maintenance of the rebellion’s positions in Aleppo.   There is a single link remaining between Turkey and eastern Aleppo – via Idleb Province.  But the rebel situation is rapidly deteriorating.


The regime also broke a two-year siege on two Shi’ite towns, Nubul and Zahra.
The rebels rushed all available personnel and resources to defend these supply routes. Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaida branch in Syria, sent a convoy of 750 fighters to the area. This proved insufficient.

Further south, a recent regime offensive in Deraa province led to the recapture of the town of Sheikh Maskin, which again cuts the rebels off from key supply lines in a province they once dominated.

So the direction of the war is currently in the regime’s favor. This is due to the Russian air intervention and to Iran’s provision of ground fighters from a variety of regional populations aligned with it.

The pattern of events on the ground had a predictable effect on the diplomacy in Geneva.
All this does not, however, necessarily presage imminent and comprehensive regime and Russian success on the ground.

Syrian opposition sources note that the pendulum of the war has swung back and forth many times in the course of the last four years. They hope that fresh efforts from Ankara, Qatar and Saudi Arabia will help to stem regime gains in the weeks ahead.

Perhaps more fundamentally, any attempt by the regime to claw back the entirety of Sunni Arab majority areas or Kurdish majority areas of Syria would lead to the same situation the regime faced in 2012 – namely, overstretch and insufficient forces to effectively hold areas conquered.

But as of now, thanks to the Russian intervention, prospects for rebel victory have been averted and the Assad regime, with its allies, is on the march once more.

Comprehensive eclipse for the non-Islamic State Sunni Arab rebel groups is no longer an impossibility somewhere down the line. This reality at present precludes progress toward a diplomatic solution. As an old Russian proverb has it: When the guns roar, the muses are silent.

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SDF Plays Central Role in war against IS

A more detailed report on the SDF, deriving from information obtained during my visit to Syria in December, appeared in Janes Intelligence Review in January, 2016. Here is a link to the report, which is behind a paywall and can be accessed only by subscribing to JIR.

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Taking the Fight Back to Islamic State

The Australian, 23/1


In northern Syria, a new military alliance is making headway against IS


Kobani is a good place to start.  This once anonymous Kurdish town on the Syrian-Turkish border was the subject last year of the predatory intentions of the Islamic State.  The  jihadis wanted to remove the logistical irritation of a Kurdish enclave poking into their domain.  Abu Omar al-Shishani, most feared of the IS commanders, declared that he would ‘drink tea in Ayn al-Islam’ (the name that IS gave the town).  He came close to achieving his objective.  By  October of last year, the near surrounded Kurdish forces were preparing for a last stand.  The Kurdish fighters of the YPG were determined but out-gunned.

Then something changed.  The intervention of US power, partnering with the lightly armed but determined Kurds, turned the tide and proved the formula for success against IS.  2000 jihadi fighters died inside the ruins of Kobani, under the relentless US air attacks and the determined assaults of the YPG.  In January, they abandoned the attack. Kobani had survived  – and a formula for success against IS was established.

This formula – application of western air power in partnership with carefully selected and directed local ground partners – is now being applied across a broad front stretching from Jarabulus all the way to deep inside Iraq.

In late December, I travelled to northern Syria to take a closer look at how things were working out.   Is the Islamic State being contained and eroded ? And if it is, who are the forces on the ground that are achieving this?

Kobani today is a fearful testimony to the awesome destructive capacity of modern war.  There is hardly a building that is not damaged.  Roads  are plowed up.  Craters made by the bombs,  filled with rainwater, offer mute testimony to the fierceness of the fight that took place here.   Once residential streets are now just lines of damaged structures – rubble and masonry, and curious shapes made by the destruction,  foundation walls rising like outstretched hands towards the sky.

But, importantly, the war is now far from here.   Once the assault on Kobani ended in January, the YPG and their US allies continued to push the jihadis back.  196 villages and an area of 1362 square kilometres  were liberated from the jihadis. As of now, since the capture of the town of Ain Issa, the frontlines at their most forward point are situated just 30 km from the Islamic State’s ‘capital’ in Raqqa City.

This has enabled life to begin tentatively to return to Kobani.  Around 40,000 people are now living in the town, although its reconstruction remains in its opening stages.

It has also set the stage for the current phase of the war.  A stage in which Islamic State is no longer on the attack. Rather, it is being slowly pushed back.


Syrian Democratic Forces

What comes next, I asked Colonel Talal Silu, spokesman for the Syrian Democratic Forces, at a facility in the city of Hasakeh.  The SDF, whose existence was announced on October, is the 40,000 strong military alliance with which western air power and special forces are partnering at the present time in the war against the Islamic State.

Silu, an ethnic Turkmen from northern Syria and a member of the ‘Jaysh al Thuwar’ (Army of Revolutionaries) group, is himself a living example of the purpose of the SDF.

The victories against IS at Kobani and in the area to its east were won by the combination of determined Kurdish ground forces and US air power.

This partnership works militarily.  Politically, however, it is problematic.

The US is committed to the maintenance of Syria as a territorial unit.    The Kurdish PYD (Democratic Union Party) is a franchise of the PKK (Kurdish Workers Party), and is widely believed by Syrian Arabs to be seeking to secede from Syria.   Yet more problematically, the PKK remains on the US and EU lists of terror organizations.  And the YPG in Syria is fairly clearly the creation of the PKK, though spokesmen deny formal links.

The SDF, which brings in non-Kurdish organizations and fighters around the nucleus of the 30,000 member  YPG, is intended to remedy this situation.  It serves a purpose for both Kurds and Americans.  It enables the YPG to present itself as an integral part of Syria. The Americans, meanwhile, can claim to be working with a multi-ethnic alliance, rather than a Kurdish nationalist force.

This latter aspect is of particular urgency because of Turkish concerns.  The Turks have warned the YPG not to cross west of the Euphrates River. Ankara is concerned at Kurdish ambitions to acquire control of the entire long border between Syria and Turkey.  At present, an isolated Kurdish canton in the area of Afrin in north west Syria remains cut off from the main area of Kurdish control. Areas of rebel and IS control separate the two.

Colonel Talal Silu, however, was not interested in discussing the intricacies of Levantine power politics on the morning that we met.  What needed to come next, he told me, was heavy weapons.

On October 14th, the US dropped 50 tons of ammunition to the SDF.  This, the colonel said, was not enough for purpose.  ’What they dropped was only enough to fight for two or three days. Not so useful.’

So what would be useful?

‘Heavy weapons, Tow missiles, anti-tank missiles…The Americans gave $50 million to people who did nothing.  Saudi Arabia is supporting forces and providing high quality weapons. But we are the only force that is fighting IS seriously.’


Declining IS Morale

This sentiment was repeated again and again, as we followed the SDF frontlines down south of Hasakeh, to the last forward positions before the town of Shaddadah.  The SDF liberated al-Hawl on November 16th, and is now pushing beyond it.

The remnants of IS rule were plainly visible as we drove through the town.  ‘The Islamic Court in al-Hawl’ one painted structure proclaimed grandly.  But the building was ransacked and deserted, and someone had painted a livid red YPG emblem above that of the former Islamist rulers.  IS was on the retreat.

‘If we had effective weapons, we could take Raqqa (the ‘capital city’ of the Islamic State) in a month’, said Kemal Amuda, a short and energetic YPG commander at a frontline position south of al-Hawl.  ‘But the area is very large.  And the airstrikes are of limited use.’


What would help?  Once again; ‘Anti-tank weapons, tanks, armored vehicles.’

The reason why the kind of heavy weapons these commanders desire have not been forthcoming may relate to the provisional nature of the alliance underpinning the SDF.

The west want to use this force as a battering ram against the Islamic State.  But the Kurdish core of the force have other ambitions, which include the unification of the cantons and acquiring control of the border.   The western coalition may well prefer to neutralize the IS advantage in heavy weapons by employment of air power, rather than afford the Kurds an independent capacity in this regard.

But despite the absence of such weapons, and the political complications, the SDF is proving a serviceable tool in the battle against IS.  The strategy appears to be to slowly chip away at the areas surrounding Raqqa City, in order to weaken the jihadis’ ability to amount a determined defense of the city.  The loss of al-Hawl meant that IS also lost control of  the Syrian section of Highway 47 from Raqqa City across the Iraqi border to Mosul, Iraq’s second city and the other jewel in the IS crown.

The later conquest of the Tishreen Dam by the SDF on December 27 further isolates Raqqa.  The dam was the last bridge across the Euphrates controlled by IS.  Its loss  very significantly increases the time it would take for the jihadis to bring forces from Aleppo province on the western side of the river to the aid of the city if it were attacked.

So the SDF, partnering with US air power,  appears to be aiming to split the Islamic State in two,  before attacking its most significant points.

The YPG component, which accounts for the majority of the fighting strength of the SDF, is an irregular force. It lacks  the resources and the structure of a regular army.   The fighters have only the simplest of equipment.  No body armor.  No helmets.  Night vision equipment also appears to be absent.  Medical knowledge and supplies are of the most basic variety.

Concerns have been raised regarding the high rate of attrition in this force, including of fighters who suffered wounds which ought to have not been fatal had skilled medical attention been close at hand.

But despite all this, they appear to get results, and morale was clearly high among the young combatants that I interviewed in the frontline areas south of al-Hawl and Hasakeh.

A particularly striking element was the constantly repeated refrain that the Islamic State fighters suffered from severe attrition and  noticeably declining motivation.

As we passed  through an eerily silent and seemingly deserted frontline area close to the Basil Dam 30 km east of Shaddadah, I came across a group of YPG men defending a position about three kilometers from the first lines of the jihadis.

The officer commanding this group refused to give his name or to be recorded. ‘Journalists aren’t really supposed to be around here,’ he remarked with a smile.  Nevertheless, in the conversation which followed, the commander gave a precise description of the  changing tactics used by the jihadis, and what in his view this portended for the fight against the Islamic State.

Once, the jihadis had attacked en masse.   The order, as described by the  commander, was that a number of ‘suicide cars’ – vehicles filled with explosive and intended to be spread panic among the defenders – would be the first to appear.  These would be followed by suicide bombers on foot, who would try to enter the positions of the defenders and detonate themselves.  Then a mass of ground fighters would follow behind, with the intention of breaking through the shocked defenders.

These methods had been effective, but also very costly in terms of manpower.  Now, however, the jihadis were evidently seeking to preserve the lives of their force. Their tactics had changed accordingly.  They moved in smaller groups, preferring to leave only token forces to defend areas subjected to determined attack.

The change, suggested the commander, derived from a dwindling flow of eager recruits, when compared to the days of summer, 2014.  ‘Formerly they were attractive as conquerors. Their power derived from intimidation and imposing terror,’ he concluded.  ‘This has now gone.’

This decline in the stream of recruits for Islamic State probably explains  an amnesty announced in October 2015 for deserters from the group’s ranks, as revealed in a recent trove of IS documents leaked to British researcher Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi.  The announcement suggests that IS can no longer maintain in their entirety the ruthless and draconian methods that characterized its early stages.  The need for manpower precludes this.

The turn to international terrorism by IS in recent months is probably also explained by its loss of momentum in Iraq and Syria.  IS needs ‘achievements’ to maintain its ‘brand.’   Its slogan, famously is ‘Baqiya wa tatamaddad’ (remaining and expanding).  But expansion of its actual territorial holdings is no longer taking place.  The downing of the Russian Metrojet Flight 9268 on October 31, the coordinated attacks in Paris on November 13 and the series of attacks in Turkey suggest that action on the global stage may form a kind of substitute for gains on the battlefield closer to home


An Expanding US Presence?

What is most striking about the large swathe of northern Syria now administered by the Kurds is the atmosphere of near normality which is maintained there. This was not always the case.  This reporter first visited ‘Rojava’, as the Kurds call Syrian Kurdistan, in early 2013 – just a few months after the regime pulled out of most of north-east Syria.

At that time, the security structures put in place by the Kurds were rudimentary and somewhat chaotic.  And the remaining regime presence in the cities of Qamishli and Hasakeh far more extensive.

By the end of 2015, however, the rule of the PYD and its allies has taken on a look of solidity. Pictures of the martyrs are everywhere, testimony to the high cost that the establishment and maintenance of the enclave continues to exert.  But the checkpoints of the YPG, and the presence of both the Asayish (paramilitary police) and the ‘blue’ police force established by the Kurds leave no doubt as to who is in control here.

The US decision to partner with the Kurdish de facto force in this area is an acknowledgement  of this achievement.

Finding physical evidence of the American presence, however, is a challenge. YPG commanders interviewed were insistent that the process of calling in airstrikes was handled by the YPG alone, via a control room which was in contact with the US forces.  The Americans, in this telling, were responsible only for advising and some training of forces.

Yet it seems likely that the small complement of US special forces committed to Syria (up to 50 operators, according to the official US announcement) are doing more than simply training and advising.

In neighboring Iraqi Kurdistan, evidence has already emerged of the ground involvement of US special forces in operations against IS. It is likely that similar events are taking place, away from visibility, in Syria too.

According to a recent report in the leading regional  newspaper Al-Hayat, plans are afoot to broaden the US presence, with the construction of a base in which, according to a western official quoted by the paper, ‘US experts will reside and from which they will travel to battle lines with ISIS.’  The base, according to al-Hayat, is set to be built outside the town of Derik (al-Malkiyah), deep in the heart of the Kurdish controlled area in north east Syria.  These reports, if they have substance, suggest a  deepening of the military alliance between the US and the Kurds of Syria.



The SDF consists nominally of 8 separate militias. The other elements of significance (apart from the YPG and its female section, the YPJ) are the Jaysh al-Sanadid (Army of the Brave) group –  an armed formation of the Shammar tribe in Syria, the Syriac Military Council, which represents the Syriac Christians of northern Syria and the Jaysh al-Thuwar (Army of Revolutionaries), which is a gathering of a number of small, non-jihadi groups who emerged from the Free Syrian Army and the rebellion against Assad.

Of these, the Sanadid is the most numerous and serious, numbering perhaps 5000 fighters.  I visited the palatial residence of the leader of Sanadid, Sheikh Hamidi Daham al-Hadi , outside the village of Tel Alo, and attended a funeral of three fighters of the movement that took place at a cemetery adjoining the village.  The Sheikh acknowledged the primary role of the YPG in the SDF, and noted that the alliance of Sanadid and YPG represented the latest chapter in a long history of cooperation between the Kurds and the Shammar tribe in northern Syria.

The Shammar are a large Beduin tribe, with branches across the Middle East and a long standing rivalry with the Saudi monarchy, who Sheikh Daham al-Hadi, notably, describes as ‘the first ISIS.’

The presence of the Shammar in the SDF is significant because if the force is to proceed further southwards, it will need the support or at least the acquiescence of Sunni tribes in the area. So far, only the Shammar and the Shaitat tribes have linked up with the SDF.

The other component parts of the SDF are less numerous, but of equal political importance, each in their own way.

The Syriac Military Council, with perhaps 2000 fighters, is the third significant military presence in the SDF. The small, fragmented rebel groups of the Jaysh al-Thuwar number only a few hundred fighters each.  And while these groups contain skilled fighters who have been at war ceaselessly for five years, their general level of organization as observed is clearly not on the same level as that of the YPG.

But the political usefulness of the Arab rebels as a presence in the SDF has nevertheless been demonstrated in recent days.


When the SDF captured the Tishreen Dam on the Euphrates River from IS on December 27th, this technically involved a violation of a red line previously issued by the government of Turkey to the Kurds.

In a statement issued on July 1, 2015, the government of Turkey issued a statement forbidding  any action west of the Euphrates River by the Kurds.

The capture of the Dam brought SDF fighters west of the river. But Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu subsequently said that as far as he was aware, it was Arab fighters who had crossed over.

This statement by the Turkish prime minister perhaps reflected the limited options Ankara has for enforcing its red lines, now that Russian air power is engaged in the skies over Syria.

But it also was certainly a product of the ambiguity inherent in the very nature of the SDF, which enabled the Turks to save face by ‘interpreting’ the move west of the Euphrates in a way which previously would not have been possible.


What happens next?

As of now, the slow and grinding offensive of the SDF and US air power against Islamic State looks set to continue.  It constitutes the main military effort against IS in Syria.

There remains an obvious contradiction in it, between the political differences of the Kurds and those of the Americans regarding Syria’s future.  For the Kurds, apart from the issue of uniting the cantons, the SDF represents the military part of a much larger political project. This is intended to result in the establishment of a federal Syria with a ‘constitution recognizing the rights of all minorities.’   On December 10th, after a two day conference in Derik, it launched a political wing, the Syrian Democratic Assembly.

Neither this assembly, nor the PYD, have been invited to the talks in Vienna intended to negotiate an end to the war in Syria.

But this war, in truth, currently looks nowhere close to conclusion. In the meantime the Syrian Kurds have carved out an enclave constituting over 20% of the territory of the country in which something approximating normal life is able to take place.

This alliance is currently moving forward against the Islamic State.

The jihadis are far from a spent force.  On January 15th, they launched a ferocious counter-attack against Assad regime forces in the Deir el-Zur area.  A massacre of civilians followed.     The remaining IS capacity for murder should not be underestimated.

Still, as we crossed the Tigris River from northern Syria to Iraq, two memories remained particularly vivid.

The first was of Kobani. As we entered the ruined city, a celebration was taking place.  About a hundred young Kurds were dancing in an open area, Kurdish music blaring from a primitive sound system, with the ruined, macabre buildings casting their shapes all around.

The second  was of a clump of strange mounds that we found by the roadside in the desert south of al-Hawl. These, on closer inspection, were the torn corpses of a group of IS fighters – killed perhaps in an airstrike.

Their foes had covered them lightly with earth before continuing south.  The sightless eyes stared skyward.  The war against Islamic State and the larger war of which it is a part are far from over. But on this front at least, the direction is clear.  The SDF is moving forward.


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Eclipse of the caliphate


Jerusalem Report, 18/1

Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, in the last days of 2015 is a place that appears to have risen from a near-death experience.

In the summer of 2014, the fighters of the Islamic State (IS) got to within 45 kilometers of this city. Around 30 percent of the inhabitants left. The foreign companies that had turned Erbil into a boom town hurriedly pulled out.

In their place, throngs of refugees filled all the available empty spaces. US air power stopped the advance of the jihadis, but the Iraqi Kurds were left bruised and shaken.

I visited the city at that time. It was a place in a state of shock. Since the 1990s, the Kurds of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in the north of strife-torn Iraq had become accustomed to viewing themselves as a haven of sanity and industry in the heart of the Middle East. In the summer of 2014, the Iraqi Kurds discovered just how fragile all that was. And just how easily the most frenzied of the region’s furies could force their way in.

A year on, they have recovered their composure. The refugees are still here, but they are now in tent encampments or housing, rather than on the streets and in disused buildings. The foreigners have begun to return. The restaurants are full on weekday evenings. The Islamic State has been driven back to the western side of the Tigris, all along the plain between Erbil and Mosul.

Now it is the Kurds and their allies who are outside the main cities of IS, rather than the other way round. Yet, Erbil has not become immune. An IS suicide bomber hit the US Consulate on April 17 – a cocky demonstration on its part that even the most security-saturated parts of the city were not immune to penetration.

I am here again to take a look at the ground war against IS in Iraq and Syria, a year after the jihadis reached their furthest point of advance.

The year 2015 was not an especially good one for the Islamic State. Its slogan, famously, is “bakiyawa’tatamaddad” – remaining and expanding. As of now, the first of these objectives remains firmly in place, the second far less so. With the Kurdish Pesh Merga outside Mosul, and further south the Iraqi Golden Division inside Ramadi City, and Tikrit, Baiji and Sinjar lost in the course of the year. 2015 was a year of slow contraction for IS in Iraq.

In Syria, too, IS has lost ground. Here, the unlikely partnering of US air power with a local franchise of the Kurdish PKK, the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party, is mainly responsible for the advances. In Syria, too, it was US air power that was the crucial addition to the fight that halted and reversed the headlong advance of the jihadis.

In both the Iraqi and, even more, the Syrian cases, the crucial contribution of air power was to nullify the advantage enjoyed by the jihadis because of their possession of heavy weapons. Neither the Pesh Merga, the KRG’s military force, nor the lightly armed YPG People’s Protection Units in Syria had any real response to the up to date artillery, armored vehicles and Humvees – looted from the garrison at Mosul – that the jihadis could put into action.

US air power served to even the playing field. The courage and tenacity of the Kurdish fighters could then come into play. It is a formula that has proved tentatively successful. It halted the jihadis and is now very slowly pushing them back.

Interviews with commanders and fighters of the Pesh Merga, revealed a growing confidence that the Islamic State had passed its high point as a semi-conventional military voice.

Captain Rebin Rozhbayane, a commander of the Pesh Merga special forces, describes largely quiet frontlines in which the initiative is now in the hands of the Kurds. “Mortars, sniping but no major attacks at the moment,” he tells me, as we meet in the lobby of a hotel in the Christian section of Erbil.

Rozhbayane, a 10-year veteran of the Pesh Merga, commands a rapid reaction force of 80 fighters on the Gwer front.

IS is no longer seeking the initiative, the captain notes. Rather, they now appear content to wait. It is the Kurds who are moving forward. “Mosul is the next target,” he asserts. This, Iraq’s second city with a mainly Arab population, however, is likely to prove a tougher target. IS’s ability to proclaim itself a “state or caliphate” rather than simply a jihadi fiefdom in Iraq largely rests on its holding Mosul. The taking of this city in August 2014 was the key moment in the Islamic State’s advance and the group will defend it with all means available.

This is not the case, however, with the generality of its holdings. IS now needs to conserve resources.

Rozhbayane notes that the latest major victory of the Kurds, in Sinjar city, was achieved against relatively minor resistance. The desperate determination with which IS pressed its offensive in Kobani at the end of 2014 against the YPG and US air power cost it heavily. Some 2,000 jihadi fighters are thought to have died in the ruins of that Syrian Kurdish city. But by the end of January, IS was forced to retreat. The lesson the jihadis learned from this is that unless a point absolutely must be held, it is better to abandon it than to risk another costly defeat like Kobani.

Even in Ramadi, which IS clearly wanted to keep, a force of only about 1000 jihadis was left to face the assault of 10,000 Iraqi government troops, backed by US aircraft.

Kamal Kirkuki, former speaker of the KRG’s parliament, a veteran of the ruling Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and now a commander of the Pesh Merga on the north-west Kirkuk front, tells me that “ISIS has declined and is morally weak. They no longer have the force to attack us.



“What they can do,” he adds, “is terror attacks.” Kirkuki is referring to specific events in the Kirkuk area. But the sense that IS may be returning to focused terrorist attacks as its ability to expand militarily evaporates was repeated to me many times during the course of my time in Iraq and Syria.

The turn of the jihadis toward international terrorism – with the downing of the Russian Metrojet Flight 9268 on October 31 and the coordinated attacks in Paris on November 13 – are ominous signs of the potency that a refocused IS.could have.

A European volunteer with the Pesh Merga told me in Erbil that “we need to fight IS here or we’ll be fighting them in Europe in 10 years.”

The rhetoric of this statement is impressive and there is a deeper truth to it. However, it may well be that, tactically, the correlation is more complex. The more IS loses ground in its “state,” the more it may turn its attention to terrorism against both near and far enemies to maintain the sense of momentum on which it depends.

For the Iraqi Kurds, there is, of course, a larger political context to all this. Kirkuki, who is known as one of the more nationalist of senior KDP members, refers to Iraq as a “failed state” and advocates the establishment of three states to replace it – “Kurdistan, Shia-stan and Sunni-stan.”

KRG President Massoud Barzani recently announced the recommencement of preparations for a referendum on independence in the KRG area. Plans were afoot before IS erupted across the border in the summer of 2014. Now that the jihadis have been held and the immediate danger has passed, the notion is returning to the agenda.

There are complications, however. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the KDP’s rivals, are close to Iran and would be likely to oppose a bid for separation. The West’s position remains ambivalent.

But the very fact that independence has returned to the agenda is an indication both of the perceived waning threat of IS and of the persistent, structural problems facing Iraq, of which the Sunni jihadis are a manifestation, rather than a cause.

In Syria, the situation is even more complicated. The “border” that separates northern Iraq from northern Syria is now administered by Kurdish forces on both sides. The process of administration and passage at the FishKhabur/Semalka crossing is orderly enough. A traveler passes through one set of Kurdish officials, across the Tigris river in an old metal barge, and then past a second bureaucratic process on the other side.

But the seeming tranquility belies a strained reality. The Kurds may control an uninterrupted area of ground all the way from the Iraq-Iran border to seven hours’ drive into Syria. But the Iraqi Kurdish KDP and the PKK-oriented Syrian Kurdish PYD remain implacable rivals.

In northeast Syria, though, the ambiguities go beyond the narrow Kurdish context.

The last positions of the Assad regime still remain deep in the area of Kurdish control, with tension between the sides never far from the surface.

The regime’s presence has been eroded in recent years. Where once there was an imposing government checkpoint at the entrance to Qamishli city, the main urban center of “Rojava,” the Syrian Kurdish domain, now Assad’s forces remain confined to a few clearly defined points of the city.

The regime soldiers look scruffy and exhausted, not so different from the rebels. Every so often, one sees a well-fed mukhabarat (secret service) type in a leather jacket moving about close to the regime facilities.

Caution is advised. The regime tries every so often to force young Kurds into the ranks of its army. The Kurdish security forces resist.

Syrian Kurdistan is a much poorer, more provisional affair than the KRG. In the KRG, a class of KDP-linked people have enriched themselves enormously and an atmosphere of consumerist normality prevails. IS put a dent in this in 2014, but it has now been contained.

In Syrian Kurdistan, by contrast, there is still something of the atmosphere of revolution, of scant resources and devotion. The YPG militia have proven the most powerful irregular force in northern Syria apart from IS itself. The partnering of US air power with Kurdish determination on the ground has brought the YPG to within 30 kilometers of the “capital” of the Islamic State – Raqqa City.

There is a central dilemma in this partnership, however. The PKK, the evident “mother organization” of the PYD and YPG, remains on the US and EU list of terrorist organizations. There appear to be no serious efforts under way to amend this.

The result is that while YPG fighters are responsible for calling in US airstrikes against IS targets, legal restrictions on supplying their fighters mean that they operate in the most primitive conditions, almost always without helmets and body armor, often without boots, without night vision equipment and without anything approaching adequate medical provisions.

In spite of all this, they are covering ground, and driving IS back.

In the town of al-Hawl, 40 kilometers east of Hasakeh city and liberated in mid-November, I saw the swiftly rotting remains of the primitive administration that IS had established in the town. The painted black signs proclaiming the “Islamic court” in Hawl painted over with the YPG’s vivid red and the building broken and abandoned.


The next target is Shadadi, further south, Kemal Amuda, a YPG commander tells me at a frontline position south of the city. The intention is to cut Mosul off from Raqqa and split the Islamic State in two.

“We need better weapons systems,” says Amuda. “Anti-tank weapons, tanks, armored cars. Then we could take Raqqa in a month. Support from the air isn’t enough.”

As of now, the US appears to be supporting a rebranding of the Kurdish YPG that will allow the deepening of cooperation.

In October 2015, a new anti-IS coalition, called the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), was announced. This force brings together the YPG with the remains of non-jihadi rebel formations in northern Syria – Shams al Shamal, Thuwar Raqqa and others, and with a militia of the Shammar tribe, the so-called Jaysh al Sanadid (Army of the Brave).

It is a somewhat lopsided affair, however. The 40,000 strong YPG accounts for around 90 percent of its strength. The Sanadid has about 5,000 fighters, the remaining rebel groups substantially fewer. The goal of the SDF is clearly to enable the Kurds to avoid (or seek to avoid) accusations of separatism, and the US to avoid accusations of favoring the Kurds.

There is a built in tenuousness to the political side of the alliance. The American goal is to bring a force into the IS capital of Raqqa city, and by so doing terminate any notion of the Islamic State as an actual quasi-state entity.

The Syrian Kurds are more interested in uniting the Kurdish cantons along the Syrian-Turkish border and thus completing their control of the Syrian side of the border (a prospect that alarms and infuriates the Turks). On December 26, the SDF completed the conquest of the Tishreen Dam.

This target could form part of a drive toward Raqqa (it removes from IS the chance to rush forces from Aleppo province to the city). Or it could be the commencement of a Kurdish push westward to begin the unification of the cantons.

But while the politics remain deeply ambiguous, once again, the military direction seems clear – IS is losing ground in northern Syria, slowly, but surely.


A YPG commander at a frontline position describes to me the changing tactics employed by the jihadis. Where once they sent waves of men across open ground, preceded by “suicide cars,” now they move in small groups, cautiously, seeking to preserve manpower. “Their power is derived from intimidation and imposing terror,” suggests the commander. “This has now gone. They are afraid of us and of the international coalition.”

It is important, of course, not to exaggerate the advances made against IS. Both Raqqa and Mosul remain formidable targets, along with much additional territory. But the direction of Western supported coalition forces is clear – and it is forward.

Even if IS continues to be eroded, this will not answer the bigger questions concerning the future arrangement of what was once Iraq and Syria. The clashes of formidable regional powers – Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey – and global ones – the US and Russia – will continue independently of the fate of the jihadi entity.

But in a region in which good news is scant, the survival of two very different Kurdish projects in northern Iraq and northern Syria, and their successful rallying in partnership with the West against perhaps the most graphically murderous manifestation of political Islam in recent times is a point of light.

In the desert south of Hawl, I came across what initially looked like a small clump of mounds on the side of the road. On inspection, these were the bodies of IS fighters torn apart in a coalition air strike during the fighting a month earlier. The sightless eyes stared skyward. The Kurds had covered the bodies lightly with sand before continuing south. These unrespected dead were a silent indication of the current direction of the war.


As of now, the Islamic State is remaining – but retreating.



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ISIS is retreating – but ISIS isnt the main problem

PJmedia, 19/1

On a recent reporting trip to Iraq and northern Syria, two things were made apparent to me — one of them relatively encouraging, the other far less so. The encouraging news is that ISIS is currently in a state of retreat. Not headlong rout, but contraction.

The bad news?

Our single-minded focus on ISIS as if it were the main or sole source of regional dysfunction is the result of faulty analysis, which in turn is producing flawed policy.

Regarding the first issue, 2015 was not a particularly good year for ISIS. In the course of it, the jihadis lost Kobani and then a large area to its east, bringing the Syrian Kurdish fighters of the YPG and their allies to within 30 km of the Caliphate’s “capital” in Raqqa city.

In late December, the jihadis lost the last bridge over the Euphrates that they controlled, at the Tishreen Dam. This matters because it isolates Raqqa, making it difficult for the Islamic State to rush reinforcements from Aleppo province to the city in the event of an attack.

Similarly, the Kurdish YPG advanced south of the town of al-Hawl to Raqqa’s east.

In Iraq, the Iraqi Shia militias and government forces have now recaptured Ramadi city (lost earlier in 2015) following the expulsion of ISIS from Tikrit and Baiji.

The Kurdish Pesh Merga, meanwhile, have revenged the humiliation they suffered at the hands of ISIS in the summer of 2014. The Kurds have now driven the jihadis back across the plain between Erbil and Mosul, bringing them to the banks of the Tigris river. They have also liberated the town of Sinjar.

The city of Mosul nestles on the western side of the river. It remains ISIS’s most substantial conquest. Its recapture does not appear immediately imminent, yet the general trend has been clear. The main slogan of ISIS is “Baqiya wa’tatamaddad,” “Remaining and Expanding.” At the present time, however, the Islamic State may be said to be remaining, but retreating.

This situation is reflected in the confidence of the fighters facing ISIS along the long front line. In interviews as I traversed the lines, I heard the same details again and again regarding changing ISIS tactics, all clearly designed to preserve manpower.

This stalling of the Islamic State is the background to their turn towards international terror, which was also a notable element of the latter half of 2015. The downing of the Russian airliner in October, the events in Paris in November, and the series of suicide bombings in Turkey since July attest to a need that the Islamic State has for achievement and for action. They need to keep the flow of recruits coming and to maintain the image of victory essential to it.

Regarding the second issue: seen from close up, the Islamic State is very obviously only a part, and not necessarily the main part, of a much larger problem. When talking both with those fighting with ISIS and with those who sympathize with it in the region, this observation stands out as a stark difference in perception between the Middle Eastern view of ISIS and the view of it presented in Western media. The latter tends to present ISIS as a strange and unique development, a dreadfully evil organization of unclear origins, which is the natural enemy of all mainstream forces in the Middle East.

From closer up, the situation looks rather different.

ISIS has the same ideological roots and similar practices as other Salafi jihadi organizations active in the Syrian arena. ISIS treats non-Muslims brutally in the areas it controls, and adheres to a rigid and fanatical ideology based on a literalist interpretation and application of religious texts. But this description also applies to Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda franchise in Syria.

Nusra opposes ISIS, and is part of a rebel alliance supported by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey. In March 2015, when Nusra captured Idleb City in northern Syria, the city’s 150 Christian families were forced to flee to Turkey. Nusra has also forcibly converted a small Druze community in Idleb. The alliance Nusra was a part of also included Muslim Brotherhood-oriented groups, such as the Faylaq al-Sham militia, which apparently had no problem operating alongside the jihadis.

ISIS is not a unique organization; rather, it exists at one of the most extreme points along a continuum of movements committed to Sunni political Islam.

Meanwhile, the inchoate mass of Sunni Islamist groups — of which ISIS constitutes a single component — is engaged in a region-wide struggle with a much more centralized bloc of states and movements organized around the Islamic Republic of Iran, which is committed to a Shia version of political Islam.

The Middle East — in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and to a lesser extent Lebanon, all along the sectarian faultline of the region — is witnessing a clash between rival models of political Islam, of which ISIS is but a single manifestation.

The local players find sponsorship and support from powerful regional states, themselves committed to various different versions of political Islam: Iran for the Shias; Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Muslim Brotherhood-supporting Qatar for the Sunnis.

The long awakening of political Islam as the dominant form of popular politics in the Middle East started decades ago. But the eclipse of the political order in the region, and of the nationalist dictatorships in Iraq, Syria, Egypt (temporarily), Tunisia, and Yemen in recent years, has brought it to a new level of intensity.

States, indifferent to any norms and rules, using terror and subversion to advance their interests, jihadi armed groups, and the refugee crises and disorder that result from all this are the practical manifestations of it.

This, and not the fate of a single, fairly ramshackle jihadi entity in the badlands of eastern Syria and western Iraq, is the matter at hand in the Middle East.

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Teheran vs. Riyadh

Jerusalem Post, 8/1

Saudi-Iranian confrontation reflects key Mideast trend lines

The decision by Saudi Arabia to sever diplomatic relations with Iran following the burning of the Saudi Embassy in Tehran is an escalation in an enmity of long standing between these two countries. The dynamics underlying it cast light on a number of key trend lines in the Middle East.

The first, apparent for a half decade now, is the ongoing decline of confidence on the part of Saudi Arabia and to a lesser extent other Gulf countries in the power of their traditional patron – the United States of America. The new Saudi proactiveness, first apparent in the intervention by “Peninsula Shield” Gulf forces in Bahrain in 2011 to quell a nascent Shi’a rebellion there, derives from the strong sense that Washington no longer sees Riyadh’s interests as in line with its own.

The abandonment by the US of long-standing ally Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in 2011 confirmed for the Saudis the sense that the current US administration is operating in the Middle East according to a set of perceptions quite alien to its own, and quite likely to end in disaster.

The concluding of the deal on Iran’s nuclear program on July 14 set the seal on this Saudi perception. The US, in Saudi eyes, is seeking a rapprochement with a dangerous and expansionist Iran. This desire for rapprochement is based, in Riyadh’s view, on a quite mistaken US perception that Iran is available for transformation into a reasonable regional actor, in return for the satisfying of some of its ambitions.

With the US unavailable, since it is unwilling to act to restrain Iranian ambitions, Riyadh has sought to do so itself. The Saudi intervention against the Iran-supported Houthis in Yemen and the Saudi assistance to Syrian rebels fighting the Iranian client – the Assad regime – in Syria are indications of this approach.

As to Iraq, Riyadh is deeply concerned at growing Iranian influence, but US backing for the Shi’a-dominated Baghdad government and low Saudi influence among the Sunni population mean that the Saudis have no strong client.

Similarly, Saudi support for the military coup in Egypt in July 2013, contrary to the US position, reflected Riyadh’s concerns regarding the proliferation of the Muslim Brotherhood across the region (a threat that has since declined in prominence).

So the current breakdown in relations is the latest episode in an ongoing region-wide confrontation between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which derives from Riyadh’s sense that the choice facing it was to organize proactively against Tehran or watch it come to dominate the Middle East.

This sense derives in the first instance from the vacuum left by American desire to withdraw from active involvement in the region.

Saudi Arabia is not alone in its perceptions. Bahrain, which is most concerned about the Iranian threat because of its majority Shi’a population, has also severed diplomatic relations with Tehran. Kuwait has withdrawn its ambassador. The United Arab Emirates, Tehran’s main Gulf trading partner, has downgraded its relations, replacing its ambassador with an embassy official in charge. Qatar may well follow suit. Further afield, Sudan, too, has severed diplomatic relations in “solidarity” with Riyadh.

The second related element underlying the Saudi-Iranian confrontation is the growth to prominence of sectarian markers as organizing factors in regional politics.

Sectarian differences are not new. What is new is the collapse and effective eclipse of three regional states formerly ruled harshly by military regimes – Syria, Iraq and Yemen. In all three states, political-military organizations seeking to represent particular sectarian or ethnic elements among the disparate populations of these spaces are the main factors making war over the ruins of the states.

In all three states, Iran and Saudi Arabia are supporting opposing sides, and in all three areas, the support runs along sectarian lines – Saudi support for the Sunni Arab insurgency in Syria, Iranian support for the Alawi-dominated Assad regime, and so on. So Saudi-Iranian state rivalry has collided with and been intensified by a much larger process. This is the reshaping of large swathes of the region along sectarian lines and the awakening of long-suppressed or eclipsed identities.

But for Saudi Arabia, the growth of popular Islamist and jihadi movements among Sunni Arab populations is a matter for concern as well as manipulation. Organizations such as Islamic State, al-Qaida and the Muslim Brotherhood challenge the legitimacy of the Saudi state. States such as Qatar and Turkey are competitors for the leadership of the Sunnis.

In seeking to make of itself the champion of a perceived Sunni defense against Iran-led Shi’a encroachment, Riyadh is also glancing over its shoulder at its own population and Sunni Arab populations elsewhere. It needs to demonstrate its own strength also, so as not to be credibly depicted as an unfit defender of Sunni interests by these movements or by rival Sunni states.

It is notable that Saudi King Salman has proved more willing to align with Sunni Islamist forces than was his predecessor, King Abdullah, who regarded them as enemies. This fact has underlain, for example, Saudi proxies’ involvement in the Jaish al-Fatah rebel coalition in Syria, alongside al-Qaida and other Salafi jihadi forces.

So the Saudi decision to execute Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, which triggered the current crisis, and the subsequent breaking of diplomatic relations with Iran are not only a simple product of Sunni-Shi’a rivalries. They are also informed by intra-Sunni concerns.

Lastly, the partial but notable rallying of Gulf states (and Sudan) behind the Saudis is testimony to the lopsidedness of the sectarian battle and the Iran-Saudi contest in the region. Iran possesses abilities in the fields of asymmetric warfare and subversion far beyond those of Riyadh. It is in the process of seeking to make an alliance with a powerful global player looking to wield influence in the Middle East (Moscow).

But Tehran also has a built-in structural weakness. As its activities in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and among the Palestinians show, Iran is not able to build lasting and deep alliances with forces outside of the Shi’a and associated minorities. And the Shi’a are a minority in the region, too few in numbers to form a basis for regional hegemony. The majority Sunni Arab world remains suspicious and cautious regarding Tehran’s designs on it.

The result of this is that Iranian interference in each case until now has led not to Iranian victory and the reconstitution of the area as an Iranian ally. Rather, Iranian interference leads to ongoing instability and conflict, with the Iranian client neither defeated nor fully victorious. Iran creates chaos. But it has not begun to rebuild a new order out of this chaos.

So welcome to the Middle East circa 2016 – state collapse, political Islam as the dominant language, an ambitious Iran at the head of a Shi’a/minorities alliance, and Saudi Arabia seeking to mobilize Sunni resistance to Iranian plans, in competition with sundry other Sunni actors. All taking place against a backdrop of American absence and Russian attempts to build a presence.

The Saudi decision this week to sever diplomatic relations with Tehran represents an escalation within this grave reality rather than a radical new departure.

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Rubin Center end of year appeal

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