Putin Vs. Erdogan

Australian, 28/11

The downing of the Russian Suk­hoi SU-24 bomber over Turkish airspace this week is a dramatic escalation in an already existing situation of tacit conflict between Moscow and Ankara in and over the ravaged landscape of northern Syria.

The Turkish action is unlikely to pass without retribution of some kind. This will not necessarily come immediately. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s record in international ­affairs suggests that revenge is a dish he prefers to serve cold. But it will come.

Nevertheless, the broader Turkish-Russian relationship, and the important but limited status of Syria as a proxy war are likely to prevent a complete deterioration in relations between the countries as a result of this event.

This latest development serves to highlight the complexity of events in northern Syria. While all sides like to proclaim themselves the opponents of Islamic State, a far more complex set of clashing interests and ambitions are being played out in reality.

Despite the dutiful statements and occasional gestures, Russia regards Islamic State as an enemy of secondary importance. For Turkey, meanwhile, it is hardly an enemy at all.

Since the outbreak of civil war in Syria in 2011, Russia and Turkey have been arrayed on different sides, as active and energetic backers for their chosen proxy.

Putin’s support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been perhaps the single most crucial factor in enabling the dictator’s survival to this point. Russian veto power at the UN Security Council prevented the possibility of international action against the dictator sanctioned by the UN (with the quiet additional backing of China).

Russia’s continued willingness to provide weapons to its client of long standing kept the dictator’s armouries full.

And, of course, when Assad found his western coastal enclave menaced by the rebels of the Jaysh al-Fatah (Army of Conquest) coalition in the course of the northern spring and summer, it has been Russian direct intervention that has turned back the immediate threat. The reasons for Russia’s staunch backing of Assad have been well-rehearsed and do not need to be reiterated at length: the naval depot at Tartus on the western coast; the planned port at Latakia; the long relations between Syrian Baathists and the Soviet predecessors of the current Russian state dating back to the 1960s; concern over Sunni jihadi proliferation.

Add in Putin’s brutally realist view of foreign affairs, according to which the worth of the strategic coin of a country in any given region will be measured in large part by its ability to give effective backing to its clients, and the reasons for the Russian stance become clear.

The point of relevance here is that this Russian stance has long placed Moscow on a direct line of confrontation with Turkey.

Ankara, for its part, has followed precisely the opposite line on the Syrian crisis. Having ­judiciously developed relations with the Assads before 2011, Turkey’s imperious Recep Tayyip Erdogan, then prime minister, rapidly abandoned the relationship when the rebellion started, throwing his country’s full weight behind the rebels.

The Syrian rebels, almost all Arab Sunni Muslims, have had no better friend than the government of Erdogan.

This reporter accompanied rebel arms convoys travelling from Turkey into northern Syria bringing guns for the rebellion as early as February 2012. The convoys were moving with the obvious tacit consent of the border authorities.

Similarly, the traffic of refugees to and from northern Syria into Turkey, the easy crossing of the border and the friendly relations between rebel fighters and Turkish soldiers offered ample evidence of the co-operation between the sides.

This ground-level evidence was part of a broader strategic choice by the Ankara government. Turkey saw the rebellion as part of a process of change in the Arab world, which fitted with the ambitions of Erdogan strategically and ideologically. Ankara correctly understood the mainly Sunni Islamist rebels to be on a similar ideological page to the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, in Turkey and decided that bringing them to swift victory over Assad would produce a Sunni Islamist-dominated Syria whose natural inclination would be to align with Turkey.

Of course, Erdogan miscalculated in expecting a swift victory for the rebels. But he was hardly alone in that. Unlike in the case of Western powers, Turkish support for the rebellion has never ­wavered. The Turks are among the backers of the Jaysh al-Fatah coalition, whose progress in northern Syria was the precipitating factor for the Russian intervention in Syria.

The main Russian efforts in Syria so far have been directed not against the Islamic State further east but against the rebel coalition directly adjoining the regime enclave on the western coast that the Russians joined the war to preserve. This coalition is the ­direct ally of the Turks.

This is the background to the Turkish decision to down the Russian jet. It needs to be clearly understood.

The Russian war in northern Syria is being conducted against forces with which the Turks are ­directly aligned.

Further complicating the picture is Ankara’s own ambiguous stance towards Islamic State. Putin’s remarks following the downing of the SU-24 directly ­accused Turkey of support for the jihadi entity.

“IS has big money, hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars, from selling oil,’’ the Russian leader said. “In addition they are protected by the military of an entire nation. One can understand why they are acting so boldly and blatantly. Why they kill people in such atrocious ways. Why they commit terrorist acts across the world, including in the heart of Europe.’’

There is some evidence to suggest the Russian leader’s statements may not be baseless.

Turkey’s main enemy in northern Syria is not the Assad regime and certainly not Islamic State. Rather, it is the PYD (Democratic Union Party), the Syrian franchise of the Kurdistan Workers Party, (PKK) that is engaged in a long war against Ankara. The Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (YPG), which guards two large Kurdish autonomous enclaves along the Syrian-Turkish border, is the most effective military opponent of Islamic State.

A body of evidence exists to suggest Islamic State oil has been pipelined to and sold in Turkey in the past three years, and Islamic State fighters have been treated in Turkish hospitals. Kurdish fighters allege direct Turkish backing for the ­jihadis. (The PYD leader, incidentally, recently was hosted in Moscow, a further instance in which Russian and Turkish interests ­directly clash in Syria.)

So Turkey’s interests in northern Syria are to aid the rebels fighting Assad and to contain and/or ensure the defeat of the Kurds. The Turkish government is not troubled by alliance with ­Islamist and even extremist jihadi fighters in pursuit of these aims. Indeed, the former at least are the partners with which the Turkish government appears to feel most comfortable.

There is an additional element. Among the rebel formations facing the regime are forces hailing from the small Turkmen minority in Syria. The Turkmens of Syria are ethnic Turks, numbering anywhere from 500,000 to three million. They have been staunch backers of the rebellion throughout. They were the subject of severe discrimination under Assad. Resident mainly in the area of Jabal Turkmen (Turkmen Mountain) in Latakia province, east of the regime enclave, they have ­organised their own armed groups, known as the Syrian Turkmen Brigades. Trained and ­financed by Turkey, these groups operate in close co-operation with other Sunni rebel forces in northern Syria.

According to Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, an expert on rebel groups in northern Syria, one of the Turkmen groups, the 2nd Coastal Division, initially claimed responsibility for the killing of the co-pilot of the Su-24 aircraft, Lieutenant-Colonel Oleg Peshkov. Tamimi said that in conversation with him, the 2nd Division’s spokesman later appeared to backtrack from this claim, perhaps because of the diplomatic sensitivities involved.

The areas in which the Turkmen rebels operate are precisely those that have been the main subject of Russian attention in recent weeks. Russian bombing has exacted a heavy toll from these areas, which Turkey is directly pledged to protect. Some reports have suggested the downed Russian jet was engaged in action against Turkmen-inhabited areas when it was shot down.

Ankara and Moscow are engaged in promoting different versions of what exactly preceded the downing of the aircraft. Ankara says the SU-24 was warned 10 times before action was taken. The Russians say no such communication took place. Putin has called the Turkish action a ‘‘stab in the back’’. Erdogan says it reflected the “right of Turkey to protect its borders’’.

But such disputes after the fact are of only secondary importance. What matters is what happens next.

As things appear, neither Moscow nor Ankara wish to see this incident leading to a general breakdown in relations. In the Syrian context, Turkey and Russia are straightforward adversaries following directly contradictory agendas. This is set to continue. But of course Syria is not everything.

Russia announced that it would cease military co-ordination following the downing of the aircraft. But the two countries remain useful to one another in various ways. Turkey is a major purchaser of natural gas from Russia. This is a mutually ­beneficial arrangement that neither country has an interest in terminating.

The economic connection in turn serves Moscow as a means of lessening the significance of Western sanctions over Russian actions in Ukraine.

A deal for the building of a ­nuclear power plant in Akkuyu, in Turkey’s Mersin province, by Russian company Atomstroyexport was signed in 2013. The deal is worth $20 billion, which the Turks expect to recoup in electricity sales.

These broader strategic and economic considerations, as well as a mutual desire to avoid disaster, underlie present efforts to manage the crisis. Moscow’s revenge, when it comes, is therefore likely to be proportionate and to take place within the framework of the dispute between the two countries over Syria, or in a limited way on the economic front, rather than in a broader context leading to a complete breakdown in relations. Some analysts have suggested that Moscow may choose to cosy up further to the Syrian Kurds and their redoubtable YPG militia.

In this regard, to make things even more complicated, the Kurds would need to choose in the event of such an approach between their suitors in Moscow and their partners in Washington. The YPG is at the moment the main partner of US air power in the fight against Islamic State in northeast Syria, in a different arena of the conflict to the one directly concerning Moscow and Ankara.

The incident this week illustrates just how fragile the situation is. In Syria, among many other points of friction, two nations each in the midst of a sense of national resurgence and led by charismatic and assertive leaders (Russia and Turkey) are arrayed on opposite sides of a long, brutal and unresolved conflict.

One of these nations — Turkey — is a NATO member.

The stakes are perhaps not quite sufficiently high in Syria for either side to risk a deterioration to direct conflict over events there.

But with the US pursuing a confused and limited policy against Islamic State further east in Syria, the Islamic State jihadi entity itself holding its ground while engaging in international terror further afield, the Kurds successfully defending their secular national project along the borders, and an assertive Iran promoting its own proxy war broadly aligned with Russia in the same space, the sense of a Middle East in disarray and dangerous flux has never been greater.

Nevertheless, the downing of the Sukhoi SU-24 probably is not the spark that will lead to a dramatic escalation into the unfamiliar territory of state-against-state war.

Rather, it is a milestone in an ongoing, fierce and bloody proxy war among the ruins of northern Syria that looks set to continue.

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‘Remaining and expanding’?

Jerusalem Post, 20/11

Will the Paris bombing galvanize a new strategy to destroy the ‘Islamic State’?

The Islamic State (IS) is a murderous enterprise, based on an insane ideology.  It nevertheless desires its own survival and expansion. In October , 2015, prior to the downing of the Russian jet over Sinai and the attacks this week in Paris, no serious threat to its continued existence was apparent.  The US-led coalition bombing campaign was half hearted, and western support for Kurdish and Arab elements engaged in conflict with IS was clearly intended to contain, rather than destroy it.

Islamic State has now by its own actions altered this calculus.  Why might it have chosen to do so, and what is this likely to mean for the next phase of the conflict in Iraq and Syria (and now metastasizing  beyond it)?

The bombings in Paris constitute the latest act in a turn toward international terrorism by IS that began in the summer of this year.  IS claimed responsibility for a bombing of a Shia mosque in Kuwait on June 26, 2015. But the first really substantial evidence of this turn was the attack on July 21st on a Kurdish community center in the town of Suruc, close to the Syrian-Turkish border.  This attack was clearly intended as a strike at the ‘underbelly’ of an enemy that formed the main barrier to Islamic State’s ambitions in northern Syria.

The Suruc bombing was followed in subsequent months by IS acts of terror in Ankara against a pro-Kurdish demonstration, over the Sinai against the Russian Metrojet Flight 9268, in south Beirut against the Hizballah-controlled Burj al-Barajneh area, and now in Paris.

The tactical motivation for these attacks is fairly obvious.  In all cases, the attacks are against forces or countries engaged on one level or another against the Islamic State itself.

IS has lost around 20-25% of its holdings in the course of the last half year.  But these losses are manageable. Indeed, the group has in recent weeks continued to expand in a western direction, across the desert to Palmyra and thence into Homs province in Syria. Why then embark on a path which risks the destruction of IS at the hands of forces incomparably stronger than itself?

The answer is that IS does not, like some other manifestations of political Islam in the region, combine vast strategic goals with a certain tactical patience and pragmatism.  Rather, existing at the most extreme point of the Sunni Islamist continuum, it is a genuine apocalyptic cult.  It has little interest in being left alone to create a model of Islamic governance according to its own lights, as its western opponents had apparently hoped.

Its slogan is ‘baqiya wa tatamaddad’ (remaining and expanding). The latter is as important an imperative as the former.  IS must constantly remain in motion and in kinetic action.

If this action results in western half-measures and prevarication, then this will exemplify the weakness of the enemy to IS supporters and spur further recruitment and further attacks. And if resolve and pushback is exhibited by the enemy, this too can be welcomed as part of the process intended to  result in the final apocalyptic battles which are part of the IS eschatology.

Because of this, allowing IS to quietly fester in its Syrian and Iraqi domains is apparently not going to work.

The problem and consequent dilemma for western policymakers is that Islamic State is only a symptom, albeit a particularly virulent one, of a much larger malady.  Were it not so, the matter of destroying a  brutal, ramshackle entity in the badlands of Syria and Iraq would be fairly simple.  A western expeditionary force on the ground could achieve it in a matter of weeks and would presumably be welcomed by a grateful population.

This, however, is unlikely to be attempted precisely because the real (but rarely stated) problem underlying IS is the popularity and legitimacy possessed by virulently anti-western Sunni Islamist politics among the Sunni Arab populations of the area.

This is evidenced by the fact that the greater part of the Syrian Sunni Arab rebellion also consists of Sunni Islamist or jihadi forces, many of them not a great deal less extreme than IS.  The most powerful rebel coalition, Jaysh al-Fatah, for example is a union between al-Qaeda (Jabhat al-Nusra), Muslim Brotherhood (Faylaq al Sham) and local Salafi (Ahrar al Sham) elements.

As the Iraq insurgency and the Syrian and Palestinian examples show, the current tendency of popular and street level  Arab politics in the Levant and Iraq is to take the form of violent politicized religion.   Any western force entering the Islamic State as a liberator would as a result rapidly come to be considered an occupying force and would be the subject of attacks.

It is possible that because of this, western policy will continue to follow the path of least resistance, as evidenced by the French bombing of Raqqa this week.  Such bombings may serve to sate an understandable feeling of rage and desire for revenge on the part of the French public. But they will do little to degrade, much less dislodge IS.

Islamic State is part of a larger process whereby Iraq and Syria have collapsed and fragmented into their component parts, and vicious sectarian war among their ruins is taking place.  If  western policymakers conclude that even given the continued existence of this larger process, Islamic State is a particular manifestation which must be wiped out, and if they seriously wish to pursue this policy, how might it be achieved, given the determination to avoid a western ground invasion for the reasons noted above?

The answer is through the effective partnering with reliable local forces, who could be persuaded, bribed or induced to undertake the military task of destroying IS, in cooperation with western air power.

The obvious candidates to undertake such a task would be the powerful Kurdish military organizations in both Iraq and Syria, presumably with a leavening or decoration of Arab fighters (Sunni Arab tribal forces in Anbar, small ‘FSA’ associated groups in Syria, and so on)  for appearances’ sake and for holding the area following the destruction of IS.

Kurdish successes in cooperation with US air power in both north east Syria and northern Iraq provide the blueprint for such a path.

The problem here, of course, is that the Kurds, reliable as they are, have little or no motivation for risking the lives of their fighters in the probably thankless task of providing the backbone for a ground assault on the Islamic State.

This problem is not insurmountable.  But it would require a strategy able to provide sufficient political inducements for the Kurds. This would almost certainly have to include support for Kurdish statehood, or a very entrenched version of ‘sovereignty-minus.’  Turkish concerns would of course become a factor here.  Syrian Kurdish agreement to remain east of the Euphrates seems to have calmed Ankara, for now.  But Turkey’s agenda in Syria, and in particular the problematic support offered by Turkey to jihadi elements there remains a factor awaiting attention.

What is most urgent is a clear understanding that both Iraq and Syria as unitary states have ceased to exist,  that part of a successful strategy must include thinking about what replaces them, and that the way to challenge the negative elements active among their ruins is by supporting the positive elements.

The weeks ahead will indicate whether or not such a strategy is in the process of being formulated.

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A Murder in October

On October 13, 2015, two young Palestinian men affiliated with the Hamas movement, Baha Alian and Bilal Ranem, boarded the 78 bus in Jerusalem’s Armon Hanatziv neighborhood. The two were residents of Jabel Mukaber, an adjoining Arab village.

Alian was armed with a concealed firearm, Ranem with a knife. The two intended to carry out a terror attack within the framework of the spate of murders of Israeli Jews by Palestinian Arab Muslims, inspired by false claims that Israel was planning to change the “status quo” on the Temple Mount area.
Shortly after boarding the bus, Alian opened fire, and Ranem set about trying to stab the passengers. Alian was overpowered by a security guard on the bus. Ranem managed to seal the door of the bus, but was then shot from outside it by members of the Israeli security forces.

The terrorists succeeded in killing three Israelis and wounding a number of others. One of those killed was a 78-year-old man named Haviv Haim.

That afternoon, at home in my apartment in a neighborhood on the other side of the valley from Armon Hanatziv, I received a message on my phone. The message was from an old army friend of mine, and asked if I had heard about what happened to Menash’s father. The message caused me to stop in my tracks. The names of some of those killed had already been released. “Haviv Haim.” And “Menash” meant Menashe Haim, the deputy company commander of the company in the IDF reserves in which I served for 17 years.

“Haviv Haim?”, I typed back. My friend replied in the affirmative, sending details of the shiva taking place at the family home.

I hadn’t seen Menash for about three years, since I stopped doing reserve duty in the tank corps. I remembered him, though. He was an exceptional commander. I remembered him standing on the hull of a tank to address us all the day after we were called up for the Second Lebanon War in August 2006. Small, stocky, unshaven, black-haired and smiling. We were tired and a bit disoriented after the long night of the emergency call-up, arriving to the north.

Menash was the very best type of officer, cool and competent in the technical aspects of our work, but also skilled in the management of soldiers. Certain people have an ability to make any situation seem safe, normal, and manageable. To reduce things to known and familiar proportions. Hard to say exactly how this is done. Menashe Haim is one of those people.

I remembered him for his reckless courage also, inside Lebanon. Riding in the tank, his head out of the turret, fearless and imperturbable. Until we were hit by a barrage of 25 Kornet missiles in a valley below al-Khiam. Menash was struck by a fragment in his right arm, which was shattered. I remembered seeing him out of the hospital and back at the base a few days later with the arm in a sling. Still smiling. Irrepressible.

They used to call him “pita” in the unit, after the round, flat bread eaten in the Middle East. This was because of a strange habit he had of substituting the word “pita” at random for various other words. “Go join those other pitas over there,” he’d say, pointing to a crowd of soldiers.

He wasn’t laughing when I saw him in the shiva house in Armon Hanatziv the next day, with his blue t-shirt ripped as a sign of mourning. Haviv had died instantly, in the first burst of fire. His wife Shoshana, Menash’s mother, was still in a coma, still in the hospital. They weren’t sure at that stage if she would remember or know what had happened. (As it turned out, she remembered everything and knew her husband was dead straight away when she regained consciousness a few days later).

Menash stammered a little as he talked, and it was clear that at times he was keeping his composure with difficulty. Grief renders a person very alone. Incommunicable.

There is an instinct in all of us to run away from death. To be where it is not. This is something which must be overcome. The apartment was full of people and it was overcome.

The blank horror of the murder, the savagery, out of nowhere, an elderly couple, returning from a doctors’ appointment, defenseless. Yes, all very clear.

The Haim family is from Baghdad and Erbil. They left in the wake of the Farhud pogrom of 1941 amid the growing fears of Iraq’s Jews as Arab nationalism rose and painted their doors in anticipation of slaughters to come and what might be inherited.

Jerusalem. The Seventh Armored Brigade. The wars of establishment and defense. Five children. Fourteen grandchildren. Life ending on a bright Jerusalem morning. All their fine sons not able to help them.

“We’re not here for a short time. We’re here to stay. We’re in a long struggle,” Menash told me, as we sat on the sofa in his parents’ apartment. “The one who can endure most will win. Who can endure most. But also, in the end we’ll live in peace.” “You haven’t changed,” I said to him. All words seemed tiny and feeble.

Later on that October, Netanyahu made ill-advised comments about the Holocaust and Hitler and Haj Amin al-Husseini. He seemed to blame the mufti for Hitler’s attempt to kill all the Jews in the world, a wrongheaded accusation he later walked back. But it certainly was the mufti who stirred up the people of Baghdad for the Farhud pogrom after arriving there in 1939. A matter of historical record. And it was the mufti who popularized the insane fears of a Jewish threat to al-Aqsa mosque, the same claim that underlies the current campaign of murder.

He and his like have been trying to make the life of the Hayim family of Jerusalem and Baghdad and Erbil unliveable for most of the last century, and I suppose a while before that, too. They won’t succeed.

I walked home back to Abu Tor through the valley. A brilliant blue and gold Jerusalem afternoon. The air clear and everything vivid as it only ever is in this city. Days of insanity come again. The only thing between now and the time of the Farhud is the structures we have built for our defense. Maintained with sweat and tears and blood and love. The one who can endure most will win.

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Is it Iran’s Middle East Now?

Fathom Journal, Autumn, 2015.
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Syrian Bluff

Jerusalem Post, 6/11

Syrian Bluff

The west has conceded the continued existence of both Assad and Islamic State, despite attempts to create a different impression.

Talks in Vienna last Friday intended to relaunch the diplomatic process on Syria produced predictably little.  Meanwhile, the latest announcement from the US of its intention to send a small number of special forces operators to north east Syria represents an undoubted improvement on the previous disastrous and now abandoned ‘train and equip’ program.

But the presence of the US ‘advisors’ is unlikely to lead to major changes on the ground.

Both the fruitless Vienna meeting and the limited dimensions of the latest US engagement in Syria indicate that whatever its stated policy, the west has effectively conceded both the continued incumbency of Bashar Assad, and the continued existence of the Islamic State for the foreseeable future.  What is being pursued today is a policy of containment.  The attempt to create an impression that anything beyond this is being conducted is a bluff.

The talks in Vienna brought together 20 countries, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, to discuss ways to end the civil war in Syria.   No common ground was in evidence.  Indeed, the single point of commonality on which all participants could agree was itself devoid of connection to reality: this was the joint commitment that Syria’s ‘territorial integrity’ should be preserved.

Given that Syria is currently divided into four distinct entities (the government enclave in Damascus and the western coastal area, the Kurdish autonomous area in the north, the areas controlled by the Sunni rebels and the Islamic State area, which itself stretches deep into Iraq) this is a commitment to ‘preserving’ a state of affairs which no longer exists.

The participants in the Vienna talks also managed to agree that they should re-convene within a few weeks.

Later, however, even this achievement appeared to be in doubt.  Iran on Monday announced that it was considering not participating in future talks, because of what it described as the ‘unconstructive’ role being played by Saudi Arabia.

Secretary of State John Kerry, in a statement detailing his impression of the Vienna talks, described them as ‘very effective.’

In a way, Kerry was right.  The Vienna talks were effective in demonstrating once again the irreconcilable positions of the Sunni backers of the rebellion (Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar chief among them) and the supporters of the Assad regime (Iran and Russia chief among them).

There has been much speculation in the media in recent days regarding supposed differences between Moscow and Teheran concerning Syria’s future.  But while there are genuine and important differences between the two on both broader regional strategy and on how best to help Assad, the bottom line commitment of both countries to the survival of the regime is not in doubt.

So given that none of the combatant sides appear close to victory, and given the pitiful state of the diplomacy around the conflict as evidenced in Vienna, it appears that the wars in Syria are set to continue.

Where does this leave western policy vis a vis the Islamic State, which President Obama has vowed to ‘degrade and eventually destroy’?

Defense Secretary Ash Carter, speaking to the Senate Armed Services Committee on October 27th, described current US policy vis a vis the Islamic State as consisting of ‘three R’s’ – namely Raqqa, Ramadi and raids.

Carter’s statement preceded a US announcement that 50 special forces operators were to be deployed in northern Syria to advice and assist fighters engaged in the battle against IS.

What this means is that the US is supporting a slow battle of attrition against the Islamic State, designed to chip away at its holdings, rather than seriously threaten its existence.

Re Raqqa,  Washington is supporting a new coalition called the ‘Syrian Democratic Forces.’  This consists of the redoubtable Kurdish YPG, which has partnered successfully with US air power in northern Syria since October, along with a number of small non-jihadi Arab rebel groups.  There are no signs of this formation launching a large scale assault on the IS capital in Raqqa city any time soon.

The Kurds, who are the main component, are clearly not interested in adding Sunni Arab Raqqa to their canton system.   It has already become clear to them that any attempt to integrate Arab majority areas into their area of control will produce protests and claims of ‘ethnic cleansing’ from supporters of the Syrian rebellion – as took place after their conquest of Tel Abyad.

Rather, the Kurdish and Arab rebel forces are presently engaged in a campaign to push IS back in the countryside of south-east Hasakeh province.

Their intentions toward Raqqa city at present appear to be to isolate, rather than conquer it.

Similarly, regarding Ramadi, Carter’s naming of this IS controlled city west of Baghdad indicates that the US has abandoned any hopes of an early re-conquest of Mosul, the main urban holding of IS in Iraq.

Instead, the Iraqi government’s preferred approach of concentrating on challenging IS in Anbar province is to be followed.  But here too, the Iraqi armed forces and the Shia militias appear to be in no particular hurry to re-conquer majority Sunni Ramadi.  A US backed government offensive has been under way since early October and has made some headway.  The presence of Sunni tribal fighters among those fighting IS in the area indicates US desires to avoid the battle turning into a straight sectarian fight.  But as of now, despite some gains in the surrounding area, the city remains in the hands of the Islamic State.

As for the third ‘R’ – raids – it appears that behind the scenes, US personnel in Iraq will continue to observe and sometimes participate in targeted actions against IS facilities, as in the Hawija raid on October 22nd.  But no one is under the impression that such raids pose any threat to the continued existence of IS.

So the US and allied war against IS effectively consists of support for those elements to the north, east and south of the borders of the jihadi entity, to prevent further advances by IS, and to chip away at its edges.  That is, a war of containment.  Even in these terms, IS has been left free to continue to advance in a western direction, because here its enemy is the Assad regime, which is not part of the coalition.  IS this week captured the town of Maheen from Assad’s forces, in south west Homs province.

The Administration has tacitly accepted the continued existence of Islamic State and is engaged in trying to contain it.  Russia too constitutes no apparent great danger for the jihadis. Moscow’s  intervention as presently constituted is directed against the rebels, and even then mainly to preserve the regime enclave rather than to embark on a major reconquest of territory for Assad.

What all this means is that the conflict systems taking in what used to be Iraq and Syria (and Lebanon) remain at stalemate.  The de facto partition of these countries is therefore  set to remain for the foreseeable future.    The diplomatic and military noise suggesting otherwise is a bluff.

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Israel Avoids the Abyss – For Now

The Australian, 31/10

First indications that the violence in Israel and the West Bank is Being Contained

For the past four weeks, Israel and the West Bank have been hit by a wave of stabbing attacks by Palestinian Muslims on Israeli Jews, and by demonstrations and protests in the West Bank.  Palestinian fury derives from claims that Israel planned to change the ‘status quo’ banning Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif area.

The 37 acre area of the Temple Mount constitutes in many ways the epicenter of the long conflict between Israeli Jews and Palestinians/Arabs/Muslims.

It is the holiest place in Judaism.  As the site of the First and Second Temples, it is the most resonant reminder for Israeli Jews of their sense of remembered and ancient sovereignty in the land.

For Palestinians, Arabs and the wider Muslim world, the area is revered as the site of the al-Aqsa mosque, whose holiness is surpassed only by Mecca and Medina.

The fact of Israeli control of Jerusalem’s Old City since 1967 constitutes for many Palestinians a constant reminder of what they regard as the wrongs of the current situation, and the perceived historical injustice of Israel’s establishment.

So the area is a permanent flashpoint. Its potential  to ignite the flames of renewed conflict is ever present.

Some have assessed that the wave of attacks herald a third intifada, or Palestinian uprising.

But a number of indications suggest that while the wave of attacks is unprecedented in the decade since the end of the Second Intifada in 2005,  it does not currently appear to be set to turn into a mass uprising.

So is the violence being contained, and if it is, what are the factors underlying this? And will the current trend hold?

Jerusalem  has been flooded with an increased deployment of police reinforced by 1200 Border Police officers for the last two weeks.  Israel Police Spokesman Mickey Rosenfeld this week  contended that this deployment had on a tactical level succeeded in preventing attacks and containing the situation.

There has without a doubt been a numerical decline in attacks in Jerusalem, and a  similar reduction in incidents elsewhere in Israel over the past week (though not in the West Bank.)

A number of  additional elements have contributed to the tentative sense that the violence, if not yet defeated, is being contained.

Firstly, the agreement reached between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Jordanian King Abdullah II in Amman last Saturday lessens the plausibility of any claims that Israel plans to alter the ‘status quo’ on the Mount.

This agreement, in the first instance between Netanyhau and Abdullah, provides an Israeli guarantee that the ‘status quo’ on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif is not going to be changed.  The placing of cameras in the area will be a further positive contribution in making clear that no such change is being implemented.

Of course,  no evidence has emerged of an Israeli plan at any stage to change the status quo in the area.  Rather, one of the more notable constants since the capture of the area by Israel in June 1967 has been the continued prohibition of Jewish or Christian prayer on the Mount, despite its great significance to these religions.

But the perception of a danger to the al-Aqsa mosque, the product of a constant drumbeat kept up by Hamas, the Islamic Movement in Israel, prominent clerics and sometimes also by Fatah leaders including Abbas   has been the key element in firing up the incendiary atmosphere behind the attacks.

The agreement will not appease the youthful circles most closely involved in the violence. They are influenced by social media rather than high level politics.  But it may well reduce the general level  of apprehension regarding the situation on the Mount,  and thus lessen the broader support necessary to turn the current situation  into a large scale uprising.

Secondly, it is noteworthy that cooperation between the Israeli security forces and those of the Palestinian Authority has not broken down as a result of the current events.  The Palestinian Authority leadership does not control the young people carrying out the stabbings.  But if the PA wished to put its own structures behind the unrest, it could at a stroke transform it into something far more serious.

On a verbal level, the PA accepts the stabbings and describes the perpetrators as ‘martyrs.’  President Abbas contributed to the inflamed atmosphere underlying the attacks in a speech broadcast on PA TV on September 17th,  in which he called on Israelis/Jews not to place their ‘filthy feet’ on the Mount.

But the goal of the Palestinian President is to control and channel the unrest, not to escalate it.  The PA may benefit from unarmed protests and demonstrations, which keep the Palestinian cause the subject of world attention.  But Abbas does not seek a general, violent insurgency against Israel.

This reflects itself in the practical moves adopted by the Palestinian president. Fatah armed groups such as the Tanzim and Aqsa Martyrs Brigades played a key role in the attacks on Israeli population centers in the 2000-5 period.  Security cooperation broke down in autumn 2000 and was a key prelude to the mayhem that followed.

But this time around, in spite of his rhetorical condemnations, Abbas evidently prefers not to throw away the relative stability of the last years.  The Tanzim and other Fatah armed groups have been instructed not to engage in the violence.  The official PA security forces are continuing cooperation with Israel.

Thirdly, there is a more nebulous element here, harder to quantify but nevertheless apparent in conversations with Palestinian residents of Jerusalem.  The general chaos in the surrounding area – in Syria, Sinai, Iraq and so on – has not escaped the attention of either Palestinians or Israelis.  This serves as a disincentive to participation in violence among wide sections of society.  It is easy to launch an uprising, harder to know where it may lead.

The Second Intifada was not that long ago. It is still remembered by all those over the age of 30.  The suffering that it entailed, and the surrounding examples of what a general breakdown in civil order can produce are  probable contributors to the fact that the demonstrations and protests of recent weeks have stayed small, numbering in the hundreds rather than the thousands.

Fourthly, the attacks are emerging not from organized structures, but rather from a milieu of young Palestinians too young to remember the last Intifada, who receive their information from social media, where claims that Israel is about to change the status quo on the Temple Mount proliferate.

The experience of the Arab Spring shows both the power but also the limitations of loosely organized or non-organized groups of youth inspired by social media.    Activity generated by social media is immensely difficult for the security forces of a government to combat.   There is no means to infiltrate or have forewarning of a person who is convinced by a message on social media, and then chooses to go out and commit a murder using instruments available in most kitchens.

But other than expressing anger, a leaderless, directionless trend of this type ultimately is capable of only a limited impact.  The stabbings will not produce any gains for the Palestinians. Nor will they have any particular effect on internal Palestinian politics.  In the agreement reached in Amman, Israel refused a Palestinian demand to return to the pre-2000 ‘status quo’ on the Temple Mount, according to which Israeli security forces would not enter the area and the age of worshippers was not restricted.  The reason for this refusal, clearly, was to dispel any attempt to claim that the wave of stabbings had achieved a concrete concession from Israel.

Fifthly, the Palestinian Islamist movements Hamas and Islamic Jihad have thrown their support behind the protests and stabbings, and are seeking to derive political capital from them.  A number of the attacks were committed by individuals with connections to  the Islamists.  Five individuals connected to Hamas were arrested for the murders of Eitam and Na’ama Henkin on October 1st.  Muhanad Alkubi, who killed IDF soldier Omri Levy on October 18th, was also in contact with that movement.  Islamic Jihad claimed credit for the attack in Jerusalem’s Old City on October 3rd, in which Nehemia Lavi and Aharon Bennett lost their lives.

But there is a gap between the desires of Hamas and Islamic Jihad,  and their abilities to implement them.

Hamas wants to turn the current unrest into a mass movement which it can direct – as much against the Palestinian Authority as against Israel.

Abbas is unpopular. Palestinian elections have not taken place for nearly a decade.  Hamas would like to increase the demonstrations and attacks on the West Bank, and assume the leadership of them, turning them into a mass movement which could result in the collapse of the Palestinian Authority and the movement’s seizing the leadership of the Palestinians.

At the same time, Hamas wishes to avoid another destructive war with Israel in its Gaza enclave.  The reconstruction of the damage suffered in last year’s round of fighting is still under way.  So focusing the unrest on the PA fiefdom of the West Bank would suit its purposes.

Islamic Jihad, which is a purely paramilitary group, rather than a military-political one like Hamas, is also energetically seeking to fan the flames. The movement has been the main factor in the demonstrations and protests close to the Gaza border itself.

The intention of both these movements is to launch larger scale and more sophisticated terror attacks against Israelis, along the lines of those witnessed during the Second Intifada.

Such attacks would win the support of the fluid population of very young Palestinians who are engaged in the current violence, and bring the situation to a new level of gravity.  It is worth remembering that at the height of the Second Intifada, 130 Israelis were killed in a single month of attacks (March, 2002).  By contrast, the last month has seen the deaths of 11 Israelis.  Hamas and Islamic Jihad want to raise the price.

But no such large scale, ‘quality’ terror attacks have yet taken place.  This is not by chance.  While a decision by a single individual as a result of incitement to carry out a stabbing is very hard for the intelligence structures of Israel (and the PA) to detect in advance, this is not so with regard to larger scale attacks, which require a network of skilled personnel, prior knowledge, and direction.

Structures of this kind are vulnerable to penetration, and to surveillance.  Israel eventually managed to defeat the Second Intifada through a combination of intelligence work and targeting of commanders and activists of the organizations engaged against it.  The networks which enabled this still exist in the West Bank.  These, until now, have prevented the Palestinian Islamist organizations from carrying out attacks which would necessitate a more determined Israeli response and thus increase the gravity of the situation.

There is another factor which should give pause to even the circles of Hamas, with regard to the advisability of encouraging a further deterioration of the security situation.

On October 22, the ‘Damascus Province’ of the Islamic State issued a video featuring a heavily armed militant speaking fluent, Palestinian-accented Hebrew.  It was the latest in a series of clips issued by the organization supporting the current wave of violence. In the video, the man issued blood-curdling threats against Israeli Jews, promising that the Islamic State was coming ‘from the north and the south, from Sinai, from everywhere’ and that ‘not one Jew’ would be left alive ‘in Jerusalem or across Israel.’

The inspiration for the wave of knife attacks is fairly obvious.  It is the Islamic State which has ‘pioneered’ murder with cold steel in the Middle East.

If Hizballah, with its paramilitary methods, was the inspiration and spirit behind the Second Intifada, the corresponding inspiration today is the murderous religious fervor of the Islamic State.

Earlier this month, the Israeli authorities arrested seven Arab citizens of Israel in the Nazareth area. They are accused of establishing the first Islamic State terror cell in Israel.

Renewed low intensity war would almost certainly herald the arrival of Islamic State west of the Jordan River.  Current indications suggest that while Israelis and Palestinians glimpsed that abyss in the strange and bloody October of 2015, it has not yet been entered.  Friends of both peoples should be hoping that this situation continues to hold.

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Russian intervention in Syria: significant, but not a ‘game changer’

The Strategist, Australian Strategic Policy Institute, 29/10


On September 30th, Russian aircraft began the bombardment of rebel and Islamic State targets in Syria, heralding a new phase in Syria’s long and bloody civil war.  The Russian attacks were accompanied by an assembling of pro-regime ground forces for a renewed offensive to reverse recent rebel gains in the north west of the country.

The Russian air intervention and the ground offensive by Syrian, Iranian, and Iraqi and Lebanese Shia forces has removed any immediate threat to the regime enclave in Syria’s western coastal area.  Yet these latest developments do not appear close to bringing the war to a conclusion.  Rather, the variety of inter-locking conflicts which now constitute the Syrian war appear far from resolution, with some movement on the ground but nothing suggesting a final coup de grace, or indeed a political process which could bring the conflict to an end.

The civil war in Syria, it should be remembered,  is no longer a single conflict. Rather, there are no fewer than five separate but interlocking wars taking place on the soil of the country.  These are: the ‘original’ war between the Assad regime and the largely Sunni Arab rebellion against it, the war between the Kurdish YPG (Peoples’ Protection Units) and the Islamic State organization, conflict between the rebels and Islamic State in the north and south of the country, clashes between the Islamic State and the Assad regime in Homs and Aleppo provinces, and finally Turkish attacks on the Kurdish  YPG (most recently in the town of Tel Abyad) because of that organization’s links with the PKK (Kurdish Workers Party).

The Russian intervention is of direct relevance to only one of these conflicts – that between the regime and the Sunni Arab rebellion.

The regime/Russian/Iranian offensive against the rebels is currently making some progress in the southern Aleppo countryside.   While Russian and regime bombing in the Ghab plain area prevents any further significant move forward by rebels, pro-regime forces are seeking to encircle Aleppo city, and eventually to link up with two Shia villages north west of it, Nubl and Zahra.  If the encirclement is completed, this would be of high significance, because it would serve to cut off the rebels in Aleppo from their supply lines across the Syrian-Turkish border.  Aleppo, Syria’s second city, has been contested between the rebels and the regime since summer, 2012.

The Russian intervention was an emergency response to rebel advances in north west Syria in the preceding months.  A new rebel alliance, the Jaish al-Fatah (Army of Conquest), declared in March 2015, had made considerable gains in the months prior to the intervention.  This new bloc brought together a number of the most powerful rebel militias in Syria’s north, including the Syrian franchise of al-Qaeda, Jabhat al-Nusra and the Salafi Ahrar al-Sham.

These forces captured Idleb city and the strategic town of Jisr al-Shughur in the spring of this year.  This left the way open for a rebel push into the regime controlled Latakia province on the western coast.  Latakia contains the Russian naval depot at Tartus, the only Russian naval facility outside of the former Soviet Union.

This would have spelt potential disaster both for the Assad regime and its Russian patron.  The Russian intervention was intended first and foremost to prevent this.  This is clear despite the hollow claim by Moscow that its intervention was intended to help the regime in its fight against Islamic State.

This is confirmed by the pattern of Russian bombing in Syria – overwhelmingly directed not against IS, but rather against rebel targets adjoining regime controlled areas at vulnerable points.  While Russian spokesmen have claimed from the outset of the bombing campaign on September 30th that Moscow was targeting IS positions as well as those of the rebels, it is observable fact that the great bulk of the attacks have targeted Idleb, Hama, Latakia and Homs provinces.  These are the areas immediately adjoining the regime’s vulnerable western coastal enclave.  The IS presence in them is minimal to non existent.  So the goals of the Russian offensive are clear.

But while Moscow can save its client from immediate destruction, it cannot resolve the key strategic dilemma facing the regime.  From the outset of the war, Assad’s problem has been an insufficient number of men willing to engage in the fighting on his behalf.  This derived from the narrow sectarian basis of the regime.  Assad’s own Alawi sect accounted for only about 12% of Syria’s population (compared with around 60% for the Sunni Arabs who formed the core of the rebellion against him).  This absence of manpower is what lies behind the retreats from large swathes of territory which the regime has undertaken in the course of the last three years.  The regime has sought to reduce the area under its control in order to govern it effectively.

But what this means is that the air assistance of the Russians can do little but preserve the regime enclave.  Assad can not afford to advance far from his current area of control, because the acquisition of new areas to rule would then revive the original problem of manpower shortages which made the retreat necessary in the first place.

The Iranians, of course, are providing the manpower for the current regime offensive. But unless Teheran envisages placing Sunni areas of northern Syria under permanent occupation, this is only a temporary solution.

The Russian intervention has been accompanied by diplomatic moves from Moscow, with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov saying after a surprise visit by Assad to Moscow that Russia supports preparations for ‘parliamentary and presidential elections’ in Syria, and would even be willing to offer sir support to rebels in combat against Islamic State.

Given that Moscow envisages a continued role for Assad throughout this projected political process, however, it is unlikely to have much purchase with rebels, who have been fighting for four years to bring down his dictatorship.

What all this means is that the Russian intervention into Syria, while undoubtedly significant, does not appear to be a ‘game changer’ in the Syrian war, presaging its early conclusion.  Rather, Moscow took the decision to double down on its support for the Assad regime at a time when it was experiencing extreme difficulty.  But the Russian intervention is not of a type and scale which can deliver victory to Assad.  Nor will it impact significantly on the other conflict systems currently under way in the land area that was once Syria.

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