A new chapter in the Sunni-Shi’ite war

Jerusalem Post, 3/4

The assembling of a Sunni coalition to challenge the advance of an Iranian proxy in Yemen, and the subsequent announcement in Sharm al-Sheikh of the formation of a 40,000 strong  Arab rapid reaction force are the latest moves in a war which has already been under way in the Middle East for some time.

This is a war between Sunni and Shia forces over the ruins of the regional order. It is a war which is unlikely to end in the wholesale victory of one or another of the sides.  Rather, it will end when the two forces exhaust themselves.  What the region will look like when this storm passes is anyone’s guess.

The two sides in this war differ in significant ways.  The Saudi and Arab League announcements constitute an attempt by the Sunnis to narrow the gaps in unity and effectiveness between themselves and their Shia opponents.

The Shia side is a united bloc, gathered around the structures of the Islamic Republic of Iran.  The Iranians are an overtly anti-western and anti status-quo force, seeking a new Middle East order with themselves at its head.  In their propaganda, they characterize themselves as an alliance of authentic Muslim forces, arranged against the west and its hirelings.

In reality, they are a gathering of almost exclusively Shia groupings, but a cohesive and united one.  It is possible that the traditions of clandestinity and cross-border communication of a long subaltern regional minority assist in the Shia advantage in this regard.

In the Revolutionary Guards Corps and its Qods Force, the Iranians possess an instrument perfectly designed for the current moment in the region.  This force is a gathering  of professional revolutionaries whose specific trade is the mobilizing and direction of proxy political-military organizations.

The context of the current war is one in which states have collapsed and separated into their separate sectarian components.

In Yemen, Iraq, Syria and in a less kinetic way Lebanon, would be ‘successors’ to the state organized on a sectarian or ethnic basis are fighting one another.

In such a context, the existence of a state agency whose specific field of expertise is the creation and maintenance of sectarian political-military organizations is an enormous advantage.  The Sunnis have no equivalent of the IRGC and the Qods Force.

Its existence and its skills are behind the domination of Lebanon by Hizballah, the survival of the Assad regime in Syria, the current Shia militia mobilization against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Ansar Allah (Houthi) offensive in Yemen.

The Sunni side in this war has been since its inception a far more disparate, confused and cumbersome affair.

There are a number of reasons for this. There is no Sunni equivalent of Iran, no single powerful state which gathers and directs all other forces under its wing.

For the last forty years, the most powerful Sunni Arab states formed the key components of the regional alliance headed by the United States.   If Iran was the ‘guiding’ hand behind the Shia challenge to the regional status quo, then the organizing force behind the pro-status quo Sunni states was the US.

But in the last half decade of emergent  sectarian war in the region, the United States has been absent, entirely unaware of the dynamic of events.  So the Sunnis have been adrift.

The US has sought to appease both the Iranians, and the radical, anti-western element among the Sunnis – the Muslim Brotherhood.  All this apparently as part of an effort to withdraw from the region and leave the keys with whoever seemed most inclined to grab them.

What the events of the last week confirm, however, is that the ‘status quo’ Sunni powers, the once-allies of the United States, are now determined to organize themselves independently, given the absence of a US guiding hand.

The commitment of nine Sunni-majority  countries to the Saudi-organized alliance is the fruit of an ambitious attempt by Riyadh to create a new, regionally-led counter bloc to the Iranians.

Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, Sudan, Pakistan, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, and United Arab Emirates are on board.  The drive to halt the advance of the Iran-supported Houthis movement in Yemen is the first test of this new and unfamiliar gathering.

Success remains uncertain.  Egyptian ships have been despatched to the area.  Air strikes have begun.  But the wars of the present time in the Middle East are not primarily high-tech affairs.  Air power certainly plays an important role. But in the end, these are grinding militia contests, fought out on the ground.

In such a war, the Shia Islamist and tribal guerrillas of the Houthis and their IRGC guides are likely to enjoy a certain advantage.  The difficult terrain of Yemen is likely to exacerbate this.

This raises a further difficulty for the Sunnis.

So far, the experience of Iraq and Syria indicates that the only Sunni forces that have gone toe to toe with the Iran-backed element and held their ground are Islamists.  Note the recent conquest by a force led by al-Qaeda affiliate (and Qatar client) Jabhat al Nusra of Idleb city in north west Syria.

Idleb is the second provincial capital to fall to the anti-Assad forces in four years of civil war.  The first was Raqqa, further east.  Its now controlled by the Islamic State.

What this means is that the pushback against the Iranians as led by the Sunni Arabs is likely to involve Sunni jihadis, and Muslim Brothers (Hamas last week also declared its support for the Saudi initiative).

Nor has the Saudi initiative ended divisions among the Sunnis.  The split between pro and anti Muslim Brotherhood elements has been only papered over.  Earlier this month, Qatar and Turkey, the main MB-supporting Sunni states, signed a separate military accord.

This mobilization contains nothing in it of regional reform.  It is a sectarian  gathering par excellence.

But for all the cautions and caveats, the emergence of the Saudi-organized coalition for Yemen and the announcement of the new Arab force to deploy in the region are developments of high, perhaps historical significance.  They represent the Sunni picking up of the gauntlet thrown down a while back by the Iranians.

This war was a long time coming.  It emerged in stages.  It has been here for a while.  This week, with the announcement of the Saudi-led alliance in Yemen, its  full dimensions have become plainly visible.  A new chapter is beginning in the region.

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The Kobani Precedent

Jerusalem Report, 23/3

Recently,  I attempted to undertake a reporting trip into the Kurdish Kobani enclave in northern Syria.  It would not have been my first visit, neither to Syria nor to Kobani.  For the first time, however, I found myself unable to enter.  Instead, I spent a frustrating but, as it turns out, instructive four days waiting in the border town of Suruc in south-east Turkey before running out of time and going home.

The episode was instructive because of what it indicated regarding the extent to which Kurdish control in the enclaves established in mid 2012 is now a fact acknowledged by all neighboring players, including the enemies of the Kurds.  This in itself has larger lessons regarding US and western policy in Syria and Iraq.

But I am getting ahead of myself.  First, let me complete the account of the episode on the border.    My intention had been to enter Kobani ‘illegally’ with the help of the Kurdish YPG and local smugglers.  This sounds more exciting than it is.    I have entered Syria in a similar way half a dozen times over the last two years, to the extent that it has become a not very pleasant but mundane procedure. This time, however, something was different.  I was placed in a local center with a number of other westerners waiting to make the trip. Then, it seemed, we were forgotten.

The westerners themselves were  an interesting bunch, whose varied presence was an indication of the curious pattern by which the Syrian Kurdish cause has entered public awareness in the west.

There was a group of European radical leftists, mainly Italians, who had come after being inspired by stories of the ‘Rojava revolution.’  A little noted element of the control by the Syrian franchise of the PKK of de facto sovereign areas of Syria has been the interest that this has generated in the circles of the western radical left.  These circles are ever on the lookout for something which allows their politics to encounter reality, in a way that does not bring immediate and obvious disaster.  As of now, ‘Rojava,’ given the leftist credentials of the PKK, is playing this role.  So the Europeans in question  wanted to ‘contribute’ to what they called the ‘revolution.’

Unfortunately, their preferred mode of support was leading to a situation of complete mutual bewilderment between themselves and the local Kurds.   Offered military training by their hosts, the radical leftists demurred.  They would not hold a gun for Rojava before they had seen it and been persuaded that it did indeed represent the peoples’ revolution that they hoped for.

Instead, they had a plan for the rebuilding of Kobani along sustainable and environmentally friendly lines, using natural materials  In addition, the health crisis and shortage of medicines in the devastated enclave led the radicals to believe that this might offer an appropriate context for popularizing various items of alternative and naturopathic medicine about which they themselves were enthusiastic.  (I’m not making any of this up).

All this had elicited the predictable reaction from the Kurds, who were trying to manage a humanitarian disaster and a determined attempt by murderous jihadis to destroy  them.  ‘Perhaps you could do the military training first and then we could talk about the other stuff?’ suggested Fawzia, the nice and helpful representative of the PYD who was responsible for us.  This led to further impassioned and theatrical responses from the Italians.

Apart from this crowd, there was a seasoned Chilean war reporter who looked on the leftists with impatience.  He was looking to get down to the frontlines south of Kobani, where the YPG was trying to cut the road from Raqqa to Aleppo at an important point close to the Euphrates.

Also, there was a polite and friendly lone American, a Baptist Christian, who had come to volunteer his services to the YPG.  That was us.

But as the days passed, it became clear that none of us appeared to be getting anywhere near Kobani any time soon.

The reasons given for the delay were plentiful, and unconvincing.  ‘It is the weather,’ Fawzia would say vaguely, ‘too much mud.’  But the presence of mud on the border in February was hardly a new development, so this couldn’t be the reason.

Finally, frustrated at the lack of information, I called a PKK friend based in Europe and asked for his help in finding out why we weren’t  moving.  He got back to me a little later.  ‘It seems the Turkish army is all over the border, more than usual. That’s the reason,’ he told me.

This was more plausible, if disappointing.  After four days on the border, I was out of time and set off back for Gaziantep and then home.  The Italians went to Diyarbakir to take part in a demonstration.  The Chilean and the American volunteer stayed and waited.

When I got back to Jerusalem, all rapidly became clear.  News reports were coming in about a large operation conducted by the Turkish army through Kobani and into Syria.  The operation involved the evacuation of the Turkish garrison at the tomb of Suleiman Shah, south of the enclave.  The American volunteer sent me a picture of the Turkish tanks on tank transporters driving though Suruc at the conclusion of the operation.

This operation was astonishing on a number of levels.

Despite stern Turkish denials, it could only have been carried out on the basis of full cooperation between the Turkish armed forces and the Kurdish fighters of the YPG in Kobani.  Obviously, any unauthorized entry of Turkish troops into the Kurdish canton would have meant an armed battle.

During the fight for Kobani last year, the Turkish government was very clearly quite content for the enclave to fall.  The Turkish army waited on the border, as the prospect of a generalized slaughter of the Kurds in Kobani came close to realization.

But of course, the slaughter didn’t happen.  In the end, the partnering of US air power with the competent and determined forces of the YPG on the ground delivered the first real defeat to the forces of the Islamic State in Syria.

This effective partnering has continued, and has now become the main military element in northern Syria in the battle against IS.

The combination of the YPG and the USAF is now nudging up to a second strategic achievement against the jihadis – namely, the cutting of the road from Tel Hamis to the town of al-Houl on the Iraqi border.   This road forms one of the main transport arteries linking the Islamic State’s conquests in Iraq to its heartland in the Syrian province of Raqqa.  If the links are cut, the prospect opens for the splitting of the Islamic State into a series of dis-connected enclaves.

The YPG-US partnership is particularly noteworthy, given that the YPG is neither more nor less than the Syrian representative of the PKK.  The latter, meanwhile, is a veteran presence on the US and EU lists of terror organizations.  Despite a faltering peace process, the PKK remains in conflict with Turkey, a member of NATO.

But the reality of the Kurdish-US alliance in northern Syria has clearly now been accepted by the Turks as an unarguable fait accompli, to the extent that they are now evidently willing to work together with the armed Syrian Kurds, where their interests require it.

It is an astonishing turnabout in the fortunes of the Kurds of Syria, who before 2011 constituted one of the region’s most brutally oppressed, and most forgotten minority populations.

This raises the question as to why this reversal of fortune has taken place.

Why is the YPG the chosen partner of the Americans in northern Syria, just as the Kurdish Pesh Merga further east is one of the preferred partners on the ground in Iraq?

The answer to this is clear, but not encouraging.  It is because in both countries, the only reliable, pro-western and militarily effective element on the ground is that of the Kurds.

Consider:  in northern Syria, other than the forces of the Islamic State, there are three other elements of real military and political import.  These are the forces of the Assad regime, the al-Qaeda affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra and the YPG.

In addition, there are a bewildering variety of disparate rebel battalions, with loyalties ranging from Salafi Islamism to Muslim Brotherhood style Islamism, to non-political opposition to the Assad regime.  Some of these groups operate independently.  Others are gathered in local alliances such as the Aleppo based Jabhat al-Shamiya (Levant Front), or the Syria-wide Islamic Front, which unites Salafi factions.

Despite the reported existence of a US staffed military operations room in Turkey, the latter two movements are either too weak, or too politically suspect (because of their Islamist nature), to form a potential partner for the US in northern Syria.

Nusra is for obvious reasons not a potential partner for the US in the fight against the Islamic State.  And the US continues to hold to its stated  goal that Bashar Assad should step down.  So the prospect of an overt alliance between the regime and the US against the Islamic State is not on the cards (despite the de facto American alliance with Assad’s  Iran-supported Shia Islamist allies in Iraq).

This leaves the Kurds, and only the Kurds, to work with.  And the un-stated alliance is sufficiently tight for it to begin to have effects also on Turkish-Kurdish relations in Syria, as seen in the Suleiman Shah operation.

But what are the broader implications of this absence of any other coherent partner on the ground?

The stark clarity of the northern Syria situation is replicated in all essentials in Iraq, though a more determined attempt by the US to deny this reality is under way in that country.

In Iraq, there is a clear and stated enemy of the US (the Islamic State), a clear and stated Kurdish ally of the west (the Kurdish Regional Government and its Pesh Merga) and an Iran-supported government which controls the capital and part of the territory of the country.

Unlike in Syria, however, in Iraq the US relates to the official government, mistakenly, as an ally.  This is leading to a potentially disastrous situation  whereby US air power is currently partnering with Iran-supported Shia militias against the Islamic State.

The most powerful of these militias have a presence in the government of Iraq. But they do not act under the orders of the elected Baghdad government, but rather in coordination with their sponsors in the Qods Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps


It is possible that the current partnering with Shia Islamist forces in Iraq is the result of a general US attempt now under way to achieve a historic rapprochement with Iran, as suggested by Michael Doran in a recent essay.  Or it may be that this reality has emerged as a result of poor analysis of the realities of the Levant and Iraq, resulting in a confused and flailing policy.  But either way, the result is an astonishing mess.

In northern Syria, the obvious absence of any partners other than the Kurds has produced a momentary tactical clarity.  But as the larger example of Iraq shows, this clarity is buried in a much larger strategic confusion.

This confusion, at root, derives from a failure to grasp what is taking place in Syria and in Iraq.

In both countries, the removal or weakening of powerful dictatorships has resulted in the emergence of conflict based on older, sub-state ethnic and sectarian identities.  The strength and persistence of these identities is testimony to the profound failure of the states of Syria and Iraq to develop anything resembling a sustainable national identity.  In both Syria and Iraq, the resultant conflict is essentially three-sided.  Sunni Arabs, Shia/Alawi Arabs and Kurds are fighting over the ruins of the state.

Because of the lamentable nature of Arab politics at the present time, the form that both Arab sides are taking is that of political Islam.   On the Shia side, the powerful Iranian structures dedicated to the creation and sponsorship of proxy movements are closely engaged with the clients in both countries (and in neighboring Lebanon.)

On the Sunni Arab side, a bewildering tangle of support from different regional and western states to various militias has emerged.  But two main formations may be discerned. These are the Islamic State, which has no overt state sponsor, and Jabhat al-Nusra, which has close links to Qatar.

In southern Syria, a western attempt to maintain armed forces linked to conservative and western-aligned Arab states (Jordan, Saudi Arabia) has proved somewhat more successful because of the close physical proximity of Jordan and the differing tribal and clan structures in this area when compared with the north.  Even here, however, Nusra is a powerful presence, and Islamic State itself recently appeared in the south Damascus area.

The Kurds, because of the existence among them of a secular, pro-western nationalist politics with real popular appeal, have unsurprisingly emerged as the only reliable partner.    On both the Shia and the Sunni sides, the strongest and prevailing forces are anti-western.

This reality is denied  both by advocates for rapprochement with Iran, and by wishful-thinking supporters of the Syrian rebellion.  But it remains so.  What are its implications for western policy?

Firstly, if the goal is to degrade the Islamic State, reduce it, split it, impoverish it, this can probably be achieved through the alliance of US air power and Kurdish ground forces.  But if the desire, genuinely, is to destroy the Islamic State, this can only be achieved through the employment of western boots on the ground.  This is the choice which is presented by reality.

Secondly, the desire to avoid this choice is leading to the disastrous partnering with Iraqi Shia forces loyal to Iran.  The winner from all this will be, unsurprisingly,  Iran. Neither Teheran nor its Shia militias are the moral superiors to Islamic State. The partnering with them is absurd both from a political and an ethical point of view.

Thirdly, the determination to maintain the territorial integrity of ‘Syria’ and ‘Iraq’ is one of the midwives of the current confusion.  Were it to be acknowledged that Humpty cannot be put back together again, it would then be possible to accurately ascertain which local players the west can partner with, and which it can not.

As of now, the determination to consider these areas as coherent states is leading to absurdities including the failure by the US to directly arm the pro-US Pesh Merga because the pro-Iranians in Baghdad object to this, the failure to revive relations with and directly supply Iraqi Sunni tribal elements in IS controlled areas for the same reason,  and the insistence on relating to all forces ostensibly acting on behalf of Baghdad as legitimate.

Ultimately, the mess in the former Syria and Iraq derives from a very western form of wishful thinking that is common to various sides of the debate in the west.  This is the refusal to accept that political Islam, of both Shia and Sunni varieties, has an unparalleled power of political mobilization among Arab populations in the Middle East at the present time, and that political Islam is a genuinely anti-western force, with genuinely murderous intentions.

For as long as that stark reality is denied, western policy will resemble our Italian leftist friends on the border, baffled and bewildered as they go about proposing ideas and notions utterly alien to and irrelevant to the local situation.

The reality of this situation means that the available partners for the west are minority nationalist projects  such as that of the Kurds (or the Jews,) and traditional, non-ideological conservative elites – such as the Egyptian military, the Hashemite monarchs, and in a more partial and problematic way, the Gulf monarchs.  Attempts to move beyond this limited but considerable array of potential allies will result in the strengthening of destructive, anti-western Islamist forces in the region, of either Sunni or Shia coloration.

As for the Syrian Kurds, they deserve their partnership with US air power, and the greater security it is bringing them.

The American Baptist volunteer, to conclude the story, made it across the border and is now training with the YPG.  He, at least, has a clear sense of who is who in the Middle East.  Hopefully, this sense will eventually percolate up to the policymaking community too.

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Four rival factions pick over Syria’s bones

PJmedia, 5/3

In the latest blow to supporters of the “moderate” elements among the Syrian rebels, the Harakat Hazm “Movement of Determination” this week announced that it was disbanding.

Hazm was never a large group. It never possessed more than around 5,000 fighters and was active only in northwest Syria. But for a period of time, it was held up by those who supported arming the Sunni Arab rebels as the kind of militia that the U.S. and the west could get behind.

It had ties neither to the Salafi jihadists nor to the Muslim Brotherhood. Nor was it given to the kind of open and florid corruption favored by some of the other “secular” groupings in Syria’s north.

As a result, Hazm was the recipient of a number of U.S.-made BGM-71 (TOW) anti-tank missiles in the spring of 2014.

Its demise comes in the same week that the U.S. plan for beginning a program to train and equip a force that will fight the Islamic State is set to commence. The timing is not auspicious.

Hazm’s act of self-destruction appears to be an act of capitulation, undertaken in response to threats from the powerful Jabhat al-Nusra militia, and the capture by the latter of its headquarters. Nusra, the Syrian franchise of al Qaeda, is in the process of solidifying its control over north-west Syria. In so doing, it is slowly isolating and swallowing up these smaller fry.

Among the victims are a number of elements that once featured large in western hopes for the rebellion. In late October, Nusra destroyed the Syrian Revolutionaries Front of Jamal Ma’arouf. Ma’arouf had a fair run enriching himself as a petty warlord in his native Jebel Zawiya region, making deals with regime garrisons and smuggling across the border into Turkey. In late 2014, the jihadis took him on and soon it was over.

Nusra and Hazm then clashed in February. Hazm sought refuge by joining the Jabhat al-Shamiyah (Levant Front), a coalition of rebel groups in the northwest supported by Turkey.

However, in recent days, Nusra continued to issue accusations that Hazm was guilty of the murder of a number of Nusra fighters. The Levant Front, meanwhile, made it clear that it would not stand between the two groups if Nusra attacked Hazm. And that appears to have been that. Left exposed without the help of its new friends, Hazm quietly took itself out of existence.

This not very uplifting tale nevertheless contains within it a number of lessons.

As of now, what constitutes the rebellion in northwest Syria is Nusra, plus the Salafi Islamic Front, plus the Levant Front, whose most significant members are also Sunni Islamist. But it is the jihadists of Nusra which are the key element.

Jabhat al Nusra receives less media attention than the rival jihadi group, Islamic State. Nusra has not declared the area it controls to be a sovereign state, much less a “caliphate.’ But in the longer term, it may well be Nusra that establishes itself as the key armed group representing Syria’s Sunni Arabs. There are number of signs that the smartest local players are seeing the situation in these terms.

Israel turns a public blind eye to the prominent role played by Nusra among the rebels in south west Syria. The Jewish state is determined to prevent either the Assad regime/Iran/Hezbollah or the Islamic State from gaining a foothold along the border with the Golan Heights.

Privately, Israeli officials are well aware that there is no clear dividing line between Nusra and the rest of the rebellion in the southwest. Indeed, Nusra is one of the most active elements when there is fighting to be done.

As a result, Israel has made its pragmatic peace with the presence of the jihadists. Presumably, Israel sees no alternative to accepting their presence if it wishes to keep both the Iranians and IS from the border. There are voices within the Israeli system that are well aware of the dangers lurking along this road. It is safe to assume that Israel will venture no further down it than it perceives to be absolutely necessary. But it is testimony to the extent that Nusra has made its presence a fait accompli in the southwest of Syria no less than it is in the northwest, where it has just swallowed the hapless Hazm militia.

Walid Jumblatt, Druze leader in Lebanon, is a good figure to watch if you want to know the direction of the winds at any given moment in the Levant. Jumblatt always knows to make his peace with rising forces, and to oppose weakening ones, in the classic survival strategy of his Druze people.

Five days ago, Jumblatt in an interview with a regional newspaper reiterated earlier statements according to which he does not consider Nusra to be a terrorist organization. The latest reports suggest that he may also be negotiating with Nusra over the fate of a very small Druze community in northwest Syria.

What is the significance of all this? It is the following. As of today, there are four serious forces on the ground in Syria. They are the Iran/Hezbollah/Assad side, the Islamic State, the Kurds, and Jabhat al-Nusra. What used to be Syria is divided between them.

This is the unpleasant reality to which prudent local players are adapting, after making their own careful calculation of their interests.

Bigger powers which could change this reality, meanwhile, appear to be flailing in every direction. The U.S. “train and equip program,” which aims to put 15,000 men in the field against the Islamic State over the next three years, is unlikely to make much of a difference to the picture. Indeed, given the clear tendency among the rebels to favor Sunni Islamism, it seems quite likely that the U.S. is about to begin arming Sunni Islamists in Syria, even as it gives air support to their rival Shia Islamists in Iraq.

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Heartbreaking Times

Jerusalem Post, 7/3

Kobani refugees faced a bitter winter on the Turkish-Syrian border, yet there was one bright spot: The fight to rid the Kurdish Syrian town of Islamic State jihadists was officially declared over on January 27.

The Kurdish YPG militia, with the vital assistance of the US Air Force’s 9th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron and additional coalition air power, drove the last of the jihadists out and planted the Kurdish flag once more over Kobani.

They have kept up the momentum; more than 160 additional villages in what once formed the Kobani enclave have been liberated. The Kurds are now pressing up against Tel Abyad to the east of the city, and Jarabulus to its west.

Yet for the civilian residents of Kobani, the story is far from over.

Around 200,000 displaced people remain on the Turkish side of the border; they form the overwhelming majority of the families who fled Kobani last autumn, before US air support began, when it looked like the city was doomed. Concentrated in and around the border town of Suruc are 67,200 of the refugees, where a number of makeshift refugee camps have been established.

Refugees have also taken up residence in any available space, swelling the population of the town. Many of the structures are exposed to the elements, and lack even the most basic facilities. It is an acute humanitarian crisis – one largely ignored now that the fighting fronts have moved elsewhere.

Last week, this reporter visited Suruc and the border area, seeking to gain a clearer picture of the reality facing both refugees and returnees.

For the 4,000 or so who have returned to Kobani and environs, the main problem beyond the sheer physical destruction visited on the city is booby traps. Islamic State forces, before leaving, wired explosives to much of what remained intact in the city – including furniture, doorways and toys.

“We need experts to come in and remove the unexploded bombs,” Mustafa Alali, a Kurdish activist who was among the first to return to Kobani, tells me, “and then we need a humanitarian corridor for helping the people as they begin to return, with food, water and electricity.”

Most of those who have returned were formerly residents not of Kobani town itself, but of villages surrounding it. The villages were rapidly abandoned by the jihadists once Islamic State ceded the goal of conquering the urban area. As a result, houses in the rural points of settlement were less badly damaged in the fighting than those in the city.

In Kobani town, little remains. Yet impatience to return is growing among the refugees.

“Just yesterday, a seven-year-old girl here in my office was asking her father why they haven’t gone home yet to Kobani,” says Mustafa Dogal, head of Kurdish relief efforts in Suruc, speaking in his cluttered office there. “And of course, he doesn’t know how to tell her that their home simply doesn’t exist any more.”

“People are running out of patience to return to their homes,” Dogal continues.

“There is an urgent need to rebuild houses, schools and hospitals, and for clean water and electricity; Kobani now has none of these. We are living in heartbreaking times.”

But Alali and Dogal’s hope for a “humanitarian corridor” from Turkey into Kobani runs up against the political reality of Turkish-Kurdish conflict.

The Turkish government appeared content to allow Kobani to fall to Islamic State; Turkish forces assembled to the north of the enclave during the battle made no move to intervene. This is because the Kurdish cantons in Syria are controlled by the Syrian franchise of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – which has been engaged in an insurgency against the Turkish government for over 30 years.

The conflict has left a legacy of extreme distrust between the Turkish authorities and Kurds on both sides of the border, and this is having a direct impact on the plight of the refugees. In January, AFAD (the Disaster and Emergency Management Organization of the Turkish republic) opened a new camp, offering accommodation for 35,000 refugees; thus far, only around 4,000 people have taken up residence there.

“People are worried about going to the government camp,” says Ferzad Daniel, an Iranian Kurdish relief worker in Suruc. “You need to remember that many of the refugees are Kurdish activists on one level or another; they’re worried about retaliation from the government after the ‘foreigners’ leave.”

The absence of facilities for education in Kurdish under AFAD auspices is another reason given for avoiding the government camp. Lack of food is the main problem facing the refugees who prefer to remain outside of Turkish jurisdiction, says Ferzad. “Food not controlled by the government isn’t reaching the camps; so the refugees live on a meager diet of just rice and beans. There are urgent health issues, too – flu is everywhere; 40 percent of the children have diarrhea; and there are skin diseases too, brought on by lack of nutrition.”

Despite the shortages, the camps maintained by the Kurdish relief organizations offer basic but adequate facilities – tents, washing areas, schooling in Kurdish for the children.

Disused houses in Suruc have also been occupied by some refugee families, seeking shelter from the elements. Conditions here are primitive in the extreme. In one structure I visited, four families – 40 people in total – were living together in one large room, with just a blanket placed over the open doorway.

One of the families, the Shaikhos of Sheran village, are still mourning the loss of their eldest son, 19-year-old Mahmoud, who was killed when he stepped on a land mine while crossing the border to escape the advance of the jihadists last October.

Mahmoud’s younger brother, Fadel, 13, was with him when he was killed; Fadel survived the explosion, but lost both legs. Now he lives with his family in the large, empty shell of a house in Suruc, a thoughtful-looking boy who tries but does not quite succeed in smiling.

The plight of the Kobani refugees is just one element of the vast problem of people displaced by the Syrian war. No end to the war appears in sight, and spring looks set to bring little respite to the refugees on the Turkish- Syrian border.

Heartbreaking times, indeed.

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All is not quiet on the northern Front between Israel and Syria/Lebanon.

PJmedia, 27/2.
Co-authored with Benjamin Weinthal
The recent Hezbollah attack on an Israel Defense Forces convoy in the Har Dov area close to Israel’s border with Lebanon, in which two Israeli soldiers were killed, was the latest move in a dangerous and high stakes game that is now underway on Israel’s northern frontier. Israel and Hezbollah are not the only players. The Islamic Republic of Iran, which the U.S. defines as the leading state-sponsor of terrorism, is also a key presence as Hezbollah’s strategic partner.
The attack at Har Dov was the second move by Iran/Hezbollah in response to the Israeli operation on the Syrian Golan Heights on January 18th.  In the Israeli operation, a senior Iranian Revolutionary Guards officer, Mohammed Allahdadi was killed, as was Jihad Mughniyeh, the son of a famous Hezbollah commander.
 Israel appears to have chosen not to immediately respond to the Hizballah attack.  As a result, fears of an imminent escalation to full conflict between the Jewish state and the Lebanese Shia Islamists have diminished.  But the silence is deceptive.  The border incidents cast a sudden light on an ongoing war between Israel and Iran which is more usually played out in the shadows.
The commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) aerospace force Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh announced  on February 2 that his country has exported technology to Hezbollah “for the production of missiles and other equipment, and they can now stand against the Zionist regime.”
A little over a week ago, the IRGC, Hezbollah and Assad’s soldiers launched an offensive in the direction of the Golan Heights to reclaim territory seized by Syrian rebels and jihadis. The offensive seems to have stalled amid the February snow for now.

But the Iranian/Hizballah determination to drive the Syrian rebels away from the border area is clearly intact.  This ambition lies at the root of the tensions on Israel’s northern border.

The Israeli strike on January 18th was a response to an attempt by Iran and Hezbollah to re-write the delicate ‘rules of engagement’ that pertain between Israel and the Shia Islamist organization in Lebanon and now in Syria.

The Iran/Hezbollah/Assad troika has long threatened to develop the Golan  as  a front for possible “jihad duties” against Israel. Syria is in chaos. The area east of the Israeli-held Golan is precisely the kind of lawless territory from where Iran’s regime and its proxies would find it suitable to launch acts of violence against Israeli communities.

Both Syrian President Bashar Assad and Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah, in the course of 2014, made unambiguous public statements threatening the opening of military activity against Israel in this area.

Iranian General Allahdadi, Mughniyeh and the others were in the Golan Heights as part of the effort to make these statements a reality.  They were, it appears, in the process of preparing an infrastructure for attacks on Israel.  Israel acted to prevent this, but also to send a broad and clear message to Iran/Hezbollah that it would not tolerate the establishment of a second springboard for attacks on Israeli communities, just east of the Quneitra Crossing.

Israel does not want to be drawn into the Syrian civil war.  The emergence of a terror infrastructure facing the Golan, with regular attacks from Hezbollah or (more likely) un-named proxy groups could lead the Jewish state to face the alternative of accepting a war of attrition against northern communities or entering to prevent it.  So Israel is determined to prevent the emergence of that reality.

In pursuing this mission, Israel relies only on its own capabilities.  This is a stance born from bitter experience.  The guarantees of the ‘international community’ have proven to be an ineffective barrier to the ongoing march of Teheran’s ambitions.  Just north of Israel’s border with Lebanon, Iran and Hezbollah have constructed a powerful war machine.  The existence of a UNSC Resolution – 1701 – intended precisely to prevent this has done nothing to prevent or even seriously hinder this process.

Since Hezbollah last attacked Israel during the 2006 Second Lebanon War, a beefed-up UNIFIL’s (United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon) mandate has been to restore peace to the border and assist the Lebanese Armed Forces in disarming Hezbollah. The mission has failed.  Hezbollah has likely amassed over 100,000 rockets. It has also infiltrated Lebanon’s armed forces, to the point wherein many ways  it can no longer be reliably discerned where Hezbollah ends and the Lebanese Armed Forces begin.

By way of background, the U.S designated Hezbollah a terrorist organization in 1995. The long bloody trail of Hezbollah’s terrorism can be traced back to 1983. Hezbollah launched a suicide bomb attack against U.S and French military barracks in Beirut. The terror attacks resulted in the deaths of 241 American military personnel and 58 paratroopers. Hezbollah’s jingoism against the U.S. did not end in Lebanon; its operative Ali Mussa Daqdug played a key role in murdering five U.S. soldiers in Iraq in 2007.

Recently, the Washington Post published details of US-Israel cooperation in the assassination of Hezbollah’s terror mastermind, Imad Mughniyeh, in Damascus in February, 2008.  The latest revelations cast light on the extent of ongoing behind the scenes cooperation against the common threat represented by Iran and Hezbollah.  This campaign is a marathon, not a sprint, with achievements and setbacks, moments of greater intensity and periods of waiting.

Deterrence, as Admiral Eliezer Marom, former commander of the Israeli Navy, put it in an interview on Israeli Channel 1 News following the Har Dov attack, is not an exact science. It is an art.  Israeli decision-makers have apparently decided to bring the current episode to a close with no further immediate escalation.

This decision was presumably not easily reached.  Silence is not necessarily cost-free.  With the Iranian ambition very clear, Israel needs to consider whether accepting Hezbollah’s signal to the UNIFIL may mean that the organization and its backers will now feel emboldened  to continue to regard the Golan as an ‘open’ front, in the knowledge that Israel’s responses, though kinetic, would be limited.

The broader picture, in any case, seems clear after the latest events.  The eight years of relative quiet that followed the Second Lebanon War of 2006 are over.  The northern border is back to being an active arena in the Israel-Islamist conflict.

Lastly, Iran’s growing role in destabilizing Israel’s borders should debunk any idea that its President Hassan Rouhani is a moderate leader within the Middle East. The Iranian effort to open a ‘second front’ against Israel in the Golan should be seen as part of a larger regional picture in which the Iranians are actively interfering in conflict areas throughout the Middle East – in Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, the West Bank/Gaza, and now once again across Israel’s northern border.

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Hizballah, Iran, Assad offensive against southern ‘buffer zone’ near the Golan Heights  

Jerusalem Post, 13/2

A force consisting of Hizballah fighters, Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Syrian regime soldiers launched an offensive this week  south west  of Damascus, in the direction of Quneitra province and the Golan Heights.   Their aim is to regain territory lost to Syrian rebels and jihadis over the past year, and to establish a strong defensive line before the capital.

In Quneitra and  Dera’a  provinces, close to  the borders with Israel and Jordan, the Syrian war is characterized by significantly different dynamics to elsewhere in this fragmented country.    The area is completely closed off to reporters, which may partially explain the absence of media attention.    In addition, the Islamic State is not a major factor among the forces opposed to the regime.

In this area, a de facto, undeclared buffer zone has been established by both Israel and Jordan,  as part of a broader effort which includes western and regional players.   The regime and its allies are currently attempting to claw back ground in this area.

The war in the south is fought between a ‘government’ side which includes a very high presence of Hizballah and Iranian personnel, and a ‘rebel’ side whose components have significant links to neighboring, and western, governments.

The absence of IS does not mean that the southern rebels constitute only the moderate, non-Islamist fighters long sought after by supporters of the Syrian opposition.   Rather, they are a mixed bag.

The ‘Southern Front’ led by Bashar al-Zoubi, is the last powerful gathering of non-Islamist fighters on the rebel side in Syria today.  Zoubi is a former senior officer of the Syrian Army, who defected to the rebels early in the war.

But the Salafi ‘Islamic Front’, which supports the establishment of a state based on Islamic Shari’a law is also active in these areas, as is Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian franchise of al Qaeda.

The contours of a complex web of support structures for the rebels in the south, involving agencies of a variety of both regional and western governments, may be discerned.  The existence of an ‘operations room’ in Amman bringing together representatives of 14 countries to coordinate assistance to the rebels in the south has been reported by a variety of regional media sources.  Among the countries represented are the US, France, Jordan, United Arab Emirates  and Saudi Arabia.

Rebel units within the Southern Front vetted by the US have been the recipients of sophisticated weapons systems, including BGM-71 TOW anti tank missiles.

The southern front has clearly been selected by the west and its local allies as its favored area for the injection of aid and active support for rebels.  There are a number of reasons for this.

On the simplest level, the southern area is the only one in which non-jihadi  Arab rebel forces have managed to keep themselves in existence.  In the early stages of the war, southern Turkey was a focal point for regional efforts to assist the rebels.  But in northern Syria today, the significant forces today are Jabhat al-Nusra in the north west, and the Kurdish YPG and the Islamic State further east.  Nusra, in the last months, has made significant gains against the remnants of the non-jihadi rebels in Idleb Province.

In the east, there is only the Islamic State.  In the western border area, Nusra and IS combine in an effort to take the war into Lebanon.  This leaves the south, where tribal and family associations have for a while formed a bulwark against the jihadis.

In addition, however, western, Jordanian and Israeli aid to the rebels in the south derives from urgent necessity.  Iran and Hizballah on the one hand, and IS on the other, form looming dangers.

On the regime side, the Assad regime is no longer able to dictate the direction of events.  The dictator is in power today in the parts of Syria he controls because of the assistance afforded him by the Iranians and their Hizballah proxies.

This means that the Iranians are seeking to develop the area east of the Golan as a potential springboard for operations against Israel (contrary to the historic practice of the Assad regime, which was to keep that area quiet and apply pressure elsewhere).  The killing of the IRGC general and the others on January 18th was a move in the Israeli effort to prevent this.

Islamic State, meanwhile, may have been kept out of the south for the moment, but this is probably only a matter of time.  Its potential emergence in this area is an alarming prospect for the Jordanians and also for Israel.  So both countries have an immediate and pragmatic interest in developing a de facto buffer zone against both these hostile forces, in the adjoining border areas of southern Syria.

Hence the keen Jordanian interest in supporting the Southern Front – and hence the Israeli effort to build and maintain communication and afford aid and medical treatment to rebel fighters  east of the Quneitra Crossing.

The Israeli establishment is divided as to the wisdom of this policy, and as to the preferred extent of it.  The concerns relate to the blurred divisions between non-jihadi and jihadi fighters active in the south.  Jabhat al Nusra is not an enemy, but rather a comrade in arms both of the Islamic Front and of the Southern Front in the military effort against Assad, the Iranians and Hizballah.  It is strong across rural Dera’a and Quneitra and up to the border.  For the moment, at least,  the main focus is the shared enemy.  But this moment will not necessarily last.

These concerns have helped to keep the Israeli engagement with the rebels to modest proportions, focused on the goal of keeping the regime and hence Iran and Hizballah as far away from as much of the border as possible.

These modest proportions are relevant to the broader western campaign of support for the Southern Front.  Contrary to some predictions, there is no likelihood any time soon of a rebel push from this area in the direction of Damascus.  The rebels do not have  the heavy arms and cohesion that would be required to challenge the regime for the capital.  In any case, as is now clear, the US Administration which co-ordinates the support has no interest as of now in seeing Assad’s departure.

The offensive now under way may gain some ground for the regime, but it is unlikely to fundamentally alter the picture on the southern front. As of now, Israel has succeeded in creating a de facto buffer zone along most of the border, designed with the modest but significant goal of keeping both the Iranians and the Islamic State at as great a distance as possible.  The establishment of this zone reflects Israel’s desire to keep the regional chaos at a safe distance.  Careful management of it, however,  will be required to prevent it from having the opposite effect.

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Victory in Kobani: a major achievement –  but hard to replicate

Jerusalem Post, 301

The near-complete liberation of the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani this week from the forces of the Islamic State is a remarkable testimony to the tenacity and courage of the Kurdish resistance on the ground.  It also showcases the awesome efficacy of US air power, when given a clear mission and properly directed.

It is nevertheless necessary to qualify some of the more hyperbolic  reactions to the announcement of the IS retreat.  The relief of Kobani in no way constitutes a general rout for the forces of the Islamic State. Neither does it signal a ‘beginning of the end’ for the movement and its quasi-sovereign entity.

Indeed, the expulsion of the jihadis from the town does not even conclude the task facing the Kurdish fighters in the immediate vicinity of Kobani.

Nor does it offer any general lessons regarding the possible efficacy of western support for  armed groups in Syria or Iraq.

The defeat does constitute one of a series of significant setbacks that IS has suffered in recent days.  All of these were at the outer reaches of its advance.  Iraqi government forces and Shia militias, for example, took Diyala province. The Kurdish Peshmerga are conquering ground outside Mosul.

Still, the ‘heartland’ of the jihadi entity, in Raqqa province in Syria and the greater part of its conquests in Iraq of last June are not yet under threat.

Regarding the specific issue of Kobani,  the town came close to falling in early October of last year.  Indeed, the fighters of the YPG (Peoples’ Protection Units) appeared to be preparing for a last stand.

Civilians were long gone from Kobane.  But the YPG also sent out all personnel not essential for the fighting, and all journalists.  The assumption was that IS would surround the town from the north, and the Kurds would then fight to the death, street by street, until the inevitable conclusion.

That this did not happen is attributable, in the first instance, to the commencement of US and allied air attacks on the Islamic State forces massing around Kobani.  These began in mid-October and have formed by far the most intense aspect of the western air campaign against IS to date.

General John Allen, the retired US officer responsible for coordinating the campaign was initially circumspect about the goal of the air strikes. Allen describe them as a ‘humanitarian’ effort intended to buy time for the defenders to reorganize on the ground.

As the weeks passed, however, it became clear that a strategic decision that Kobani should not fall had been taken.  Evidently the intention was to crush the fighters of IS between the hammer of US air power and the anvil of ongoing, stubborn Kurdish resistance.  In so doing, a symbol of resistance would be created.

This appears to have paid off.  The reinforcement of the very determined but lightly armed YPG fighters with the artillery and mortar capability of the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighters who entered Kobane in late October certainly played a role in stiffening the resistance on the ground.  But the raw courage of the YPG deserves top billing in this regard.

As a result of the Kurdish stand on the ground, the US was able to take a great cull of IS fighters.  The jihadis’ tactics in assault are simple (though often effective.) They involve human wave attacks.  The US were able to observe the jihadis massing for such attacks on Kobane, and to target them from the air.  IS found no effective response to this.  With regard to the IS armored capacity, the situation was the same.  The tanks were visible from the air and IS has and had no effective defense for them.  Hence the very heavy losses suffered by the jihadis in trying to take Kobani.

The victory, however, is only partial.  It is important to remember that Kurdish controlled Kobani prior to the IS assault in September did not consist of Kobani city alone.  Rather, ‘Kobani’ constituted an area stretching from Kobani city to Tel Abyad in the east, and to Jarabulus in the west, plus several tens of kilometers in a southern direction toward the Euphrates.   It was this enclave which IS sought to destroy last autumn. It wished to do this because the enclave jutted into northern Syria, preventing the Islamists from rapidly moving forces from east to west.  This stood in the way of any future ambition  to expand the territory of the Islamic State westwards into Aleppo and Idleb Provinces.  So Kobani had to be destroyed.

As of now, the Kurds and their allies have succeeded in saving the city of Kobani, very close to the border with Turkey.  This area became a symbol and IS wasted over 1000 of its fighters trying unsuccessfully to capture it.  But the larger task of re-conquering the 300 villages and the ground that once constituted the Kobani enclave remains before the Kurds.  One may assume that this effort will be under way in the weeks ahead.

Regarding the larger ‘lessons’ of the Kobani victory, it would be mistaken to jump to the conclusion that it shows that western support to anti-IS forces on the ground has discovered a winning formula which can now be replicated elsewhere.   This would be a rash deduction because of the specific nature of the Kurdish fighting organizations – YPG and Pesh Merga.

In Syria, as in Iraq, the Kurds have developed organizations which are pro-western in orientation, committed to the mission, and effective.

The problem with the Syrian rebels, as with the Iraqi militias and forces, is that they cannot manage all three of these.  If they are committed and effective fighters (like Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, or the Shia militias in Iraq) they will be anti-western.  If they are pro-western, at least nominally, like the Iraqi armed forces or the Syrian Revolutionaries Front in northern Syria, they will tend to be corrupt or ineffective.

The reasons for this are manifold and open to debate.  But it is a clearly observable empirical reality.  This means that while the west should double down on its support for the reliable, secular and anti-Islamist Kurdish forces, now controlling a long belt of territory stretching from the Iraq-Iran border to deep into Syria, western policymakers should be wary indeed of applying any general conclusions from the achievement in Kobani to forces other than the Kurds themselves.

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