Kurdish Advances

Jerusalem Post, 21/6

The stunning collapse of the Iraqi army in Mosul, and the rapid advance of the fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) through Tikrit and toward Baghdad has created a new reality in Iraq.

ISIS advances have continued this week; the organization has now taken the town of Tel Afar, with its 200,000 inhabitants, located west of Mosul.

Iraq is now divided on a de facto basis into a Shi’ite south and center, including Baghdad, a Sunni, ISIS-dominated west and a Kurdish-ruled north.

The biggest winners from this situation, apart perhaps from ISIS itself, are the Iraqi Kurds. The conflict between the Sunni jihadis and the Iran-supported Baghdad authorities has enabled the Kurds to add a number of key building blocks to the nearly completed edifice of Kurdish independence in the area once known as northern Iraq.

Largely ignored by the Western media, the Kurds have been quietly building their autonomy in the three northern provinces of Erbil, Sulaymaniyah and Dohuk, granted to them by the Iraqi Constitution of 2005.

A stable political system protected by a powerful armed force of around 100,000 men (the Peshmerga) has been out in place.

In the weeks prior to the current crisis in Iraq, the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) began to independently export crude oil, via Turkey, without seeking the approval of Nouri al-Maliki’s government in Baghdad. Maliki struck back by cutting funding to the KRG in Erbil.

The dispute remained unresolved in the days prior to the sudden eruption of the ISIS offensive in early June. The disagreement over oil exports formed part of a larger standoff between the Baghdad government and the KRG over control of oil-rich, majority Kurdish areas in Kirkuk, Ninawa, Salahaddin and Diyala provinces. The Maliki government threatened to exclude any oil company that began to drill under KRG auspices from access to the giant oil fields in Shi’ite southern Iraq.

The complex standoff now appears to have been resolved – entirely in the KRG’s favor. As Iraqi forces fled from the ISIS advance, the Kurdish Peshmerga swiftly moved in to the long-disputed town of Kirkuk. The Kurds refer to Kirkuk as their “Jerusalem,” and their population was largely ethnically cleansed from the city in the 1980s by Saddam Hussein’s regime. They have long sought its reincorporation into their area of control.

This is not a matter only of sentiment: Kirkuk sits on an area of vast oil wealth, considered to contain nearly 9 billion barrels of oil reserves. By comparison, according to the International Energy Agency, the entire KRG area without Kirkuk contains around 4 billion barrels of proven oil reserves.

The taking of Kirkuk, along with the recent opening of the pipeline to Turkey and thence to international markets, means the emergence of a Kurdish regional oil power is now a reality. The Kurds have already built a link that connects Kirkuk to their pipeline to Turkey.

The political confusion, meanwhile, and the push east by ISIS and associated Sunni forces has demonstrated that the Peshmerga are the most powerful military force in Iraq. They are now deployed along the newly expanded borders of the KRG, and are directly facing the fighters of ISIS. Some clashes have already taken place.

But, for the most part, ISIS and its allies appear to prefer to advance against Iraqi government forces and in the direction of Baghdad, while leaving the more formidable Kurdish fighters alone. Certainly, unlike the Iraqi government-controlled towns still falling to the advance of the Sunni fighters, the Kurdish-controlled areas do not appear vulnerable.

Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani has also made clear that the Peshmerga will not assist the Iraqi army in the effort to retake Mosul. The Kurds, rather, will focus on securing their own borders.

Barzani this week expressed support for an autonomous zone for Sunnis in Iraq, and laid the blame for the current situation largely at the feet of Maliki. Barzani told the BBC, “We have to leave it to Sunni areas to decide, but I think this is the best model for them as well. First, they have to take a decision: what they want exactly. And in our view… the best way is to have a Sunni region, like we have in Kurdistan.”

What all this means is that there exists today an economically powerful, politically stable, well-defended Kurdish entity, with a population of 5 million people, in what was once northern Iraq.

The effective collapse of any authority on the part of Baghdad over this entity means that the latter is now a Kurdish state in all but name.

So will the KRG soon declare independence, turning the de facto state that the Kurds have quietly built up into a de jure sovereign area? The answer is that while it is now clear that statehood is the goal, an early, open declaration of independence by the Kurds remains unlikely.

A source in the KRG told this reporter that Turkish opposition to any declaration of Kurdish statehood had been the main obstacle to any such move. Turkish lobbying in Washington and in the capitals of Europe meant that Western countries remained opposed to Kurdish independence.

The US has also, for its own reasons, remained throughout staunchly in favor of the “territorial integrity” of Iraq. Secretary of State John Kerry reiterated this stance in a statement this week. The Turkish position in this regard appears to be softening, according to a number of reports.

But for as long as the clear US and Western position remains (somewhat bafflingly) opposed to the aspirations of the powerful and openly pro-Western Kurdish de facto sovereign entity in northern Iraq, its independence is likely to remain undeclared.

The collapse of Iraq into renewed sectarian war, and the powerful assertion of Kurdish self-government in the north are the latest evidence that the region – and specifically the area known formally as Iraq, Syria and Lebanon – is in the midst of a historic convulsion whose end is not near.

Whatever the final outcome of all this, Kurdish sovereignty in practice is today a reality in the former northern Iraq. And if the KRG can successfully navigate the difficult diplomacy of the months and years ahead, at a certain point it is likely that the world will have little option but to adjust – and formally recognize this reality.


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Second Front opens in the Sunni-Shia War

The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) organization swept into the city of Mosul in western Iraq last week.  No one has any right to be surprised. ‬

ISIL has held a large swath of western Iraq since January – including the city of Fallujah.  The organization was clearly planning a larger scale offensive action into Iraq. ‬

In January it had carried out a strategic withdrawal from large swaths of Idleb and Aleppo provinces in Syria. This was intended to consolidate its lines in northern Syria, so as to move fighters out toward Iraq.  ISIL controls a contiguous bloc of territory stretching from western Iraq up through eastern and northern Syria to the Turkish border. ‬

Its “Islamic State” is already an existing, if precarious fact, no longer a mere aspiration.  So, like a state at war, it moves its forces to the front where they are most needed‬.

The rapid collapse of Nouri al-Maliki’s garrison in Mosul in the face of the ISIL assault should also come as no surprise.  These forces are hollow. ‬

Saddam Hussein maintained a huge army by coercion. Shirkers and deserters could expect to be executed. But Maliki’s army consists of poorly paid conscripts and often corrupt officers.  The Shia among them in Mosul saw no reason to fight and die for what seemed to them to be Sunni, alien territory.  Sunni officers among the garrison, meanwhile, may well have been working with ISIL itself or with one of the other Sunni Islamist or nationalist formations fighting alongside them. ‬

So what will happen now?  The pattern of developing events is already clear, and much may be learned from the experience of Syria. ‬

Bashar Assad, when rebellion broke out against him in March 2011, sought to use his huge conscript army to crush it.  But the Syrian dictator rapidly found out that his supposedly 295,000-strong army was largely a fiction.  Sunni conscripts refused to engage against the rebels, and Bashar was able to make use only of certain units composed largely of members of his own Alawi sect — units such as the Republican Guard and the 4th Armored Division. ‬

How did Assad address this problem? The answer is that he didn’t — Iran did. ‬

Realizing that their Syrian ally was facing defeat because of an absence of reliable manpower, the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps stepped in to effectively create a new, sectarian military for the Assads.  In addition, Iran introduced its various regional paramilitary proxies into the Syrian battlefield. ‬

By mid-2013, the new, sectarian infantry force trained by the Quds Force and Hizballah – named the National Defense Force – was beginning to be deployed against the Syrian rebellion.  In addition, Hizballah, and Iraqi Shia volunteers of Sadrist and other loyalties began to fill the gaps in manpower for Assad. ‬

These units turned the tide of the Syrian war.  But they have brought Assad survival, not victory.  The dictator rules over only about 40% of the territory of what was once Syria.  The rest is under the control of ISIL, the Kurds, and the Sunni Arab rebels. ‬

It is likely that a similar pattern will now emerge in Iraq.  Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani has been in Baghdad since Friday.  He is in the process of organizing Iraqi Shia volunteers, who in the months to come are likely to be transformed into a sectarian military force resembling the Syrian National Defense Force. ‬

In addition to the new volunteers, Iraqi Shia militiamen in Shia southern Iraq and in Syria are flocking toward the battlefront, eager to do battle with ISIL on their home soil. ‬

These hastily assembled forces, along with the reliable elements of Maliki’s military, are likely to prove sufficient to defend the capital and perhaps to prevent further gains by ISIL, which may have over-reached itself.  But the new, openly sectarian Shia forces behind Maliki are unlikely to succeed in re-taking the entirety of ISIL’s territorial gains in Anbar and Ninewah provinces. ‬

Iran is a leading world expert in the creation of proxy sectarian military forces.  But given the demographic balance in present day Iraq, and in Syria, Iran’s assistance is likely to ensure the survival of the non-Sunni population only in a part of the country in question.  That is – ISIL and Iran’s intervention into Iraq may well portend the de facto partition of that country, and its plunging into a prolonged conflict, along the lines of what is currently taking place in Syria. ‬

Indeed, given the players engaging in Iraq, it is more sensible to see the Syrian civil war and the renewed Iraq conflict as different battlefronts in a single, sectarian war — in which Sunni and Shia/Alawi forces are clashing.  The latter are backed crucially by Iran. The former receive far less systematic and determined backing from a variety of sources, including private elements in the Gulf and perhaps the intelligence services of a number of Gulf states.

Only in Lebanon, which lacks a native Sunni military tradition, have the Iranian proxy forces managed to secure near complete military domination of the country.  In the very different and far more consequential contexts of Iraq and Syria, Sunni rebellion and Iranian reaction are likely to produce the fracturing of the countries in question along sectarian lines. ‬

The Kurds, possessors of a strong, largely secular nationalist tradition and identity, may emerge as major winners from this process of fragmentation, in the context both of Syria and Iraq (as witnessed by the rapid gains made by the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga forces in recent days). ‬

As for the warring Arab Islamic sects, they are set to continue to battle one another, with ready foreign help, over the ruins of the countries once known as Iraq and Syria. This war is just beginning.  Any attempts to portray either of the warring sides as “anti-terrorist” or “pro-western” should be stubbornly resisted.  Acceptance of such definitions is the entry hall to new policy failures and wasted lives.  ISIL and the Quds Force differ in organizational structure, but are similarly anti-western — and similarly vile. They should be left to bleed one another white.‬

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ISIS’ ‘Islamic State’ is born

Jerusalem Post, 13/6

In a stunning and deeply significant development, the fighters of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) organization this week captured the city of Mosul. They then moved on to take Tikrit unopposed and according to reports yesterday were headed toward the capital, Baghdad.

Five-hundred thousand people have fled Mosul in the wake of its conquest by the jihadis. The city, which has an Arab majority population along with large Kurdish and Turkmen minorities, is Iraq’s second largest. Its capture was the latest and most significant success in an offensive launched by the ISIS jihadis a week ago.

It also represents a calamitous defeat for the US-trained security forces of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

ISIS is the most brutal and best-organized of the jihadi elements that have emerged in Iraq and Syria over the last decade. It now controls a contiguous area of territory stretching from deep into western Iraq and including the cities of Mosul and Falluja, across the border into Syria, taking in the province of Raqqa, including its capital Raqqa City, and continuing until the border with Turkey. The movement has a presence as far as the southern suburbs of Baghdad.

The ISIS offensive into Iraq was well-planned, and its execution shows the extent to which ISIS sees its activities in Iraq and Syria as part of a single conflict.

The movement withdrew forces from outlying parts of Syria’s Idlib and Aleppo provinces in January.

At the time, this was presented by Syrian rebels as a defeat they had inflicted on ISIS, but eyewitnesses confirmed that hardly any fighting took place.

The offensive operations against the Kurdish YPG militia in the Kobani (Ayn al-Arab) area also tailed off.

The reason is now clear: ISIS was withdrawing forces and consolidating the western border of its “Islamic state,” in order to focus on expanding the eastern border deep inside Iraq.

The “Syrian” civil war long ago burst its borders, to become a sectarian conflict taking in the territory of Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. ISIS’s tactical offensive has cast this fact into bold relief.

It is also, by necessity, bringing about cross-border cooperation between those elements targeted by ISIS.

The area to the north of ISIS’s “Islamic state” is controlled by the Kurds. But relations between the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) of Massoud Barzani in northern Iraq and the (PKK)-associated PYD’s three areas of control in northern Syria have worsened in recent months. Intra-Kurdish violence has not occurred, but the KRG has kept the border between the two areas tightly sealed – leading to PYD accusations that the KRG’s close strategic relations with Turkey were causing it to support the Turkish position against Syria’s Kurds.

The ISIS offensive appears to have repaired relations between the two Kurdish areas.

The latest gains by the movement in Mosul bring it within a few kilometers of the first checkpoints of Barzani’s Peshmerga forces. Thus, there is a common ISIS-Kurdish border stretching across PYD and KRG-controlled areas.

The result: YPG and Peshmerga commanders have conducted meetings at the border crossings over the last few days, to coordinate their defensive actions against ISIS. The Samalka border crossing, closed for three months, was opened this week to allow refugees to travel back to Syrian Kurdistan, according to Wladimir van Wilgenburg, a Dutch journalist and researcher at the Jamestown Foundation, currently reporting in Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan.

So the cross-border Islamist entity is facing a renewed Kurdish alliance to its north. But what of the Baghdad government? Maliki’s armed forces may have performed atrociously in recent days, but he remains part of the Middle East’s single most powerful functioning alliance – the Iran-led regional bloc.

The emerging reality in western Iraq creates difficulties for the Iranians. Their client in Damascus, the Assad regime, has largely recovered its fortunes in recent months. Aided by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps and Hezbollah, Syrian regime forces are close to encircling rebel-controlled eastern Aleppo.

This little-reported process is causing deep alarm among supporters of the rebellion. Should Syrian President Bashar Assad succeed in besieging and starving out Aleppo, this will definitively end the long stalemate between the regime and the Sunni rebels, possibly paving the way for a regime attempt to roll up the remainder of rebel-controlled Syria.

But even as one Iranian client triumphs, another – Maliki – has lost large portions of his territory to a jihadi force, in the opening moves of what could be a renewed sectarian war on the soil of Iraq. And while the Syrian rebels may be disunited and poorly organized, this is not true of ISIS –  a disciplined, determined and savage force.

This means that the Iranians may in the weeks and months ahead be forced to increase support and attention to their beleaguered client in Baghdad, even as he struggles to form a new government following the parliamentary elections in April.

Maliki’s declaration of a general mobilization is more likely to produce a Shi’ite sectarian military response, and hence continued sectarian fighting against a background of political paralysis.

Therefore, the key point is that the “Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham” is no longer the name of a movement, or the expression of an aspiration. As of now, it is a descriptive term applying to a de facto sovereign space, taking in a large swath of western Iraq and eastern and northern Syria.

The powerful Iran-led Shi’ite alliance will in the period ahead undoubtedly seek to destroy this state.

The Kurdish entities to the north will seek to defend themselves against both sides.

The result of all this cannot be known. The reality is one of sectarian war over the ruins of Iraq and Syria.

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No excuse for western surprise re ISIS advances


At the risk of sounding arrogant, I would like to say that western policymakers have no excuse for being surprised regarding the ISIS advance into western Iraq, and the fragmentation of that country.  I and a number of colleagues have been writing about the rise of the ISIS organization and other putative ‘successor authorities’ in Iraq and Syria and Lebanon, and the ongoing fragmentation of these countries on ethnic and sectarian lines, and the single sectarian war taking place in these territories, for the last three years.   

In this regard, I would like to ‘re-issue’  a couple of paragraphs that I wrote on my recent return from a reporting trip on the YPG-ISiS frontlines in northern Syria: 

‘The clash between the Kurdish enclave and ISIS jihadis offers a number of lessons about the current state of Syria. First, the idea that the regime has turned the tide of the civil war in Syria needs to be put into context. In Kobani and across Syria’s north and east, the regime is little more than a memory. Both the Kurdish zones and ISIS area already have the feel of successor authorities. The rebel enclaves further west, though feuding among themselves, also remain well armed and powerful. So despite the regime’s recent gains in western Syria, the country is divided, and looks likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.

Second, the ISIS enclave stretches far into Iraq. The Syrian conflict has burst the boundaries of the country. A more general sectarian war is now under way.

Lastly, ISIS, despite recent setbacks, appears determined to hold on to the territories it controls while spreading its poisonous brand of Islamism throughout the region. Abu Nur, a fighter of the movement who I interviewed in Gaziantep, Turkey, told me, “We want the Islamic Khilafa (Caliphate). It’s something old and new—from the time of Mohammed. We won’t accept any other form of government.”

The world should pay closer attention to the siege of Kobani. A significant part of Syria’s and perhaps the broader Middle East’s future can be glimpsed from there.’


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Written in Gratitude, on the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings of 1944.

A few years after I made aliyah, my parents sold the house that my sister and I had grown up in and moved to a sheltered housing facility for elderly people in north London. My mum and dad are warm and friendly people and they soon made friends with many of the other couples on the estate. Among these were a family by the name of Lamb – Ken Lamb and his wife Meeda.

Ken Lamb was Devon-born, and Meeda was Welsh. Ken had worked for many years in the construction trade in London, and he and my dad soon bonded and became fast friends over their shared love for rugby and various other sports.

As we got to know the Lamb family better, another element of Ken’s life became evident. As a young man in the seafaring county of Devon, Ken Lamb had witnessed the coming of war between Britain and Germany in 1939. It was quite natural and obvious, then, that Ken should volunteer to join the Royal Navy, and he did so and qualified as a naval officer.

As a result, Ken Lamb found himself on June 6, 1944, commanding one of the landing craft that brought Simon Fraser’s Scottish Commando Brigade on to the shores of Sword Beach, under withering enemy fire. Lovat’s Commandos had the vital role of pushing forward and linking up with British paratroopers who had jumped during the night, to secure the bridges that the allied troops would need in order to push inland.

The commandos achieved their mission, famously to the accompaniment of Bill Millen’s bagpiping, and famously with Fraser apologizing to the commander of the paratroopers for arriving two minutes late to Pegasus Bridge.

Ken rarely talked about the events of that day, or the rest of his war, but as we got to know he and his wife better, he would on occasion reveal some small details of the day, usually speaking in a very quiet voice, usually while sipping on a glass of beer or red wine.

He would describe how a landing craft alongside his own and commanded by his friend had been blown up, leaving nothing but debris behind.

Or he would note that Lord Lovat made sure that Bill Millen played his pipes through the ship’s tannoy system in the silence as they waited to leave the British shores, to still the nerves and raise the spirits of the men.

His voice had the cadences of London mixed with a memory of Devon, and a certain tone that I associate with the people of that generation, and which has almost vanished from modern British speech. A sort of calm and kindly tone, of people who look life straight in the face, with all the horrors that it sometimes brings, and are neither intimidated, nor afraid, nor impressed nor even angered by this.

This tone has almost gone from us. We are not the better for its absence, it seems to me.

Mr. and Mrs Lamb became great friends of our family. When my father was very ill in 2010 with the cancer which would kill him, Ken and Meeda were most kind. Once, when I was in Israel and my father couldn’t climb the stairs anymore, my mum described to me how Ken, who was well in his mid-80s himself, physically carried my dad up the stairs and made sure he was comfortable in his bed.

Ken was a fixture in the small community where my mum now lives alone. Early in the morning, at around 7 am, you would see the tall, slim and distinguished figure of Mr. Lamb going for his morning newspaper, usually smoking a cigarette as he did so. Ken liked to hear about Israel, for which he had much sympathy. ‘keep on flying the flag out there, my boy,’ he said to me once.  He was not pleased with the way that England had gone in recent years, and was not shy about expressing his opinion in this regard.

I am writing this only because today it is the 70th anniversary of the day that Ken Lamb and his comrades took Lord Lovat’s commandos onto the shores of Normandy, alongside thousands of other British, American and Canadian men, embarked on a venture that would save Europe and the world from evil. I am very very happy to testify that following his exertions, Ken lived a wonderful, sane and dignified life of which my family and I were able to share a small part, through the bonds of friendship.

 Also, he is alive still, nearly 90 now. I hope he is having a wonderful day.

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Disaster in the Levant: the Syrian Civil War in its fourth year

Fathom Magazine, 2/6  The Syrian Civil War is now grinding on into its fourth year. Over 150,000 people have died, and tens more are being killed every day in the ongoing fighting. Millions have lost their homes. Many will almost certainly never return to them. This is by far the greatest disaster to have hit the Levant in a generation. It has impacted not only Syria itself, but also its neighbours – with most profound implications for Iraq and Lebanon.

Syria today has in many ways ceased to exist as a coherent entity. Since mid-2012, the regime of Bashar Assad has ruled over only a minority of the territory of the country (about 40 per cent) and a bare majority of its population. No united successor regime has arisen in the area not controlled by the regime. Rather, a number of projects are under way.

Perhaps the most powerful and consequential of these is the Islamic proto-state controlled by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) organisation, stretching from Anbar and Ninawah provinces in western Iraq, up through eastern Syria to the Turkish border.

A Kurdish autonomous project has also emerged, ruling over three non-contiguous areas of majority Kurdish population in northern Syria. Elsewhere, a variety of rival Sunni Arab rebel groups have carved out fiefdoms of their own. The country today is a confusing patchwork of rival powers. The regime possesses a coherent entity stretching from the capital, Damascus and its environs, up to the western coastal area ­– the heartland of the Alawi sect to which the president belongs.

The regime has won a series of victories in recent months, first of all in the Qalamun mountains area, culminating in the capture of the town of Rankous. Regime forces followed this by clearing out the city of Homs, part of which had been held by the rebels since the first year of the uprising.

These achievements on the part of the regime were impressive. They led to it feeling sufficiently confident to announce presidential ‘elections’ in June. Assad also issued a statement predicting that military operations by his armed forces would conclude in 2014, leaving only the fight against terrorism.

Assad’s renewed confidence appears somewhat misplaced, however. The dictator, with the very determined and consequential aid of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and various Iranian regional allies and proxies, has succeeded in ending any immediate danger to the regime’s existence. This is a not inconsiderable achievement, when one considers that, at the end of 2012, the rebels appeared set to conquer Aleppo and begin a push for Damascus. In 2013 the regime succeeded in reversing this picture.

Yet as of now, at least, what this seems to mean is the consolidation of the lines that fragment Syria, and which render its borders increasingly fictional. Assad may have ring-fenced the capital and the west, but he is not even close to achieving the reunification of the country. The same weaknesses that caused the regime to abandon large swathes of Syria in the summer of 2012 remain relevant: the shortage of reliable manpower, and the inability to take and hold areas of rebel support.

Consequently, the foreseeable future for Syria appears to offer only fragmentation and continued war. To understand Syria today, it is important to understand that there is no longer a single ‘civil war’ taking place between a regime and a rebellion against it. Rather, there exists a variety of powerful entities in the country, each strong enough to prevent its destruction by any of the others.

The Assad regime in mid-2014

The Assad regime should not be seen as a single, unified structure. ‘Regime’ forces today constitute a network of interests, not all of which are under the direct command of Assad himself. Indeed, the most significant element of the forces engaged on behalf of the regime – namely, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Quds Force personnel and Hezbollah – do not take orders from the dictator.

Assad has from the outset enjoyed a very pronounced technical superiority over the rebels. He has maintained total control of the country’s skies. He possesses also a missile and artillery capability, a still existent chemical weapons capacity which he has continued to employ in recent weeks, and strong international backing – from Iran, Russia and Iraq – a level of support not enjoyed by the rebellion.

His problem from the outset, however, has been a lack of reliable manpower. While on paper, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) is large – approximately 295,000 regular soldiers – the great majority of these were Sunni Arab conscripts whom the regime could not trust once the rebellion began.

Assad could rely only on a number of select units – his special forces, the Republican Guard, and the 4th Armoured Division commanded by his brother Maher. These were augmented by the largely Alawi irregular forces known as the Shabiha.

In the course of 2013, the problem of a lack of reliable manpower was to an extent solved by the arrival of greater numbers of foreign fighters and, no less importantly, by the creation and training by the Quds Force and Hezbollah of a new militia force, the National Defence Forces, which operates as an auxiliary force for the regime. This force, established in the first months of 2013, numbers about 100,000 fighters.

The regime’s lack of numbers was also addressed by the entry of a larger number of Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon ( there are an estimated 7,000 fighters in the country at any one time). In addition, Iraqi Shia volunteers of Sadrist and other Shia Islamist loyalties have also entered Syria to operate on behalf of the regime.

So, in 2014, the ‘regime’ side looks like a coalition of pro-Iranian forces, of which the SAA forms only one element. But this reorganised pro-government side has enjoyed a series of successes over the last year, beginning with the reconquest of Qusayr in April 2013, continuing with the long offensive across the Qalamoun mountains area (which succeeded in closing rebel access to the Lebanese border) and, as of now, concluding with the expulsion of rebels from Homs and Rankous.

Politically, there are no indications of splits or fractures in the regime. Rather, Bashar Assad has succeeded throughout in preserving the core group around him, and since his fortunes have notably improved in the course of 2013, any internal fissures now look unlikely.

The international coalition behind him also remains solid. Recent reports detailing Iranian recruitment of Afghan Shia refugees to fight for the regime in Syria indicate not only the regime’s continued concerns over manpower, but also Iran’s continued commitment to Assad’s survival. The regime’s control over Damascus, the western coastal area and the roads linking them, and linking Damascus with Hama and Aleppo, are not currently under serious challenge.

The rebellion in mid-2014

The Syrian rebels have been stymied from the outset by two related factors: the absence of a united international coalition supporting them, and the absence of a single unified chain of command. Both these factors remain, yet it is noteworthy that the rebellion continues to command the loyalty of a large number of men willing to fight, and that despite its difficulties it does not appear to show signs of collapse.

The largest and most significant political-military grouping in the rebellion today is the Islamic Front (IF), consisting of approximately 60,000 fighters. This is a gathering of some of Syria’s most powerful Islamist militias, including the Tawhid Brigade from the Aleppo area, Liwa al-Islam from Damascus and Suqur al-Sham. It includes also the avowedly Salafi group Ahrar al-Sham. Formed on 22 November 2013, the IF dominates rebel military activity in the northern part of the country and has been responsible for the recent offensive into northern Latakia province.

In addition to this force, a number of smaller rebel units of more moderate outlook and a number of more extreme jihadi formations are also operating: the Syrian Revolutionaries Front in Idleb Province, the smaller Harakat Hazm group and the recently formed coalition known as the Southern Front are all militant elements associated with the Supreme Military Council (SMC) headed by General Abdullah al-Bashir.

The SMC, in turn, regards itself as the military wing of the Syrian National Coalition, headed by Ahmed Jarba. It is doubtful, however, whether the various elements are actually subordinated to the SMC in any clear command and control structure. Rather, they identify broadly with the aims of the Council and some among them are the beneficiaries of Western and Saudi aid.

Regarding the jihadis, two elements have emerged to prominence since mid-2013: the Jabhat al-Nusra group and ISIS.

Nusra is regarded by the Al-Qaeda core leadership as its franchise in Syria. The group has proved able to cooperate with other rebel organisations, and is one of the most militarily effective of rebel military groups.

ISIS, formed in April 2013, has followed a far more radical and confrontational path than Nusra. It emerged from the Iraqi branch of Al-Qaeda and is commanded by an Iraqi, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. ISIS controls a large swath of territory stretching deep into Anbar and Ninawah provinces in western Iraq, up through Deir a Zor and Raqqa provinces in Syria and to the Turkish border. This area includes the only provincial capital city to have fallen into rebel hands – Raqqa city.

In this area, ISIS has begun to build its version of an Islamic state. This has included punishments of astonishing brutality, including a number of cases of crucifixion, and the introduction of systematised discrimination against Christians in the area. Through its actions against other rebels, and adoption of these extreme means, ISIS has alienated itself from other rebel groups, who commonly maintain that the group is supported by the regime.

No conclusive proof of this has emerged, however. It is also important to note that ISIS remains among the most militarily effective of the Islamist and jihadi organisations active in northern Syria. Facing the threat of attack from other rebel groups in January 2014, ISIS carried out a redeployment, abandoning Idleb and Latakia provinces and retrenching further east. This was not a military defeat for the group, but rather a deliberate redeployment. As one ISIS fighter described to me: ‘If there are powers against me, I have to retreat and protect my back. And perhaps in the future I will return again.’

There is evidence that a ‘war economy’ has emerged among the rebels. Conversations with a number of sources suggest it has become the accepted practice for certain rebel commanders in the north of the country to allow regime garrisons besieged in isolated bases to bring in food, and even allow soldiers to enter and exit, in return for payment.

Similarly, in Aleppo city, possession of certain weapons systems and armoured vehicles by some rebel commanders has been turned into a source of income, with these men hiring the systems to other fighting groups in return for money. It is worth stressing that the groups suspected of engagement in this activity are not connected either to the IF or the jihadi groups. Rather, they are to be found among the ‘moderate’ formations.

The rebels on the ground remain severely disunited, but with some formidable elements among them, in no apparent danger of collapse.

In terms of their international backers, the situation is similarly confused. Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar took the lead in assisting the rebels in the first part of the rebellion. At the present time, Qatar remains active in support of the more Islamist and jihadi elements, while Saudi Arabia is cooperating more closely with the US in supporting more moderate groups. But while the US has been reported to have carried out training and assistance to selected rebel groups on a limited basis, this has had only a small impact on the battlefield.

The US remains justifiably concerned at the possibility that weapons it provides could find their way into the hands of extremist jihadis. A large shipment of weaponry, sent by the Saudis in early 2012, included items which found their way into the hands of extremist elements. Informed sources revealed to me that items from a smaller shipment of TOW anti-tank missiles, sent to rebels in the north in April 2014, have already ended up in the hands of Jabhat al-Nusra, despite supposed precautions taken by the US and the Saudis.


The Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the People’s Protection Units (commonly known as the YPG militia) have emerged as a ‘third force’ in the Syrian conflict. The party, the Syrian franchise of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), currently controls three non-contiguous land areas in northern Syria, to which it has given the collective name of ‘Rojava.’ The largest of these stretches from the Syrian-Iraqi border to the town of Ras al Ayin further west. The next, about 80 km further west, is an enclave surrounding the city of Kobani (Ayn al-Arab). A third enclave still further west surrounds the city of Afrin.

Within these areas, which the Kurds established after the withdrawal of regime forces from much of northern Syria in the summer of 2012, a governing authority dominated by the PYD and a number of allied parties has been established. While there have been allegations of heavy handedness by the Assad loyalist authorities against rival Kurdish groups, these areas constitute one of the most peaceful and effectively governed areas of northern Syria today. The YPG militia, roughly 50,000 strong, has also emerged as one of the most effective forces.

The Kurds regard themselves as pursuing a separate path to both the regime and the rebels, which has led to accusations by some rebel forces that the PYD is conspiring with the regime – despite the fact there have been instances of clashes between the regime forces and the YPG in Aleppo, Qamishli and elsewhere. For their part, the Kurds say they will defend their areas of control from all attackers, while not seeking to conquer further areas by force. The eastern and central Kurdish enclaves have been subject to ISIS assault, since they directly adjoin ISIS areas of control. But ISIS has not yet succeeded in conquering any part of the Kurdish-held areas.

Where next?

The balance of power and hence the stalemate between the combatant sides in the Syrian conflict shows no sign of being broken any time soon.  The regime’s recent gains in the west are significant, but only in so far as they serve to confirm that there is no immediate threat to the regime’s own future.  Assad is not currently in a position to begin to reconquer the main rebel-held areas, and he has not yet begun to do so.

A certain ‘normalisation’ of the war has set in, particularly in the north of the country. This has included the well-reported local ‘ceasefire’ agreements in a number of places, but also less known practices emerging in some areas where the war has become an avenue for personal power and enrichment.

There is no longer simply a ‘rebel’ and a ‘regime’ side in the war.  The regime has itself become a complex network of forces, some of whom are clearly not under the control or command of Bashar Assad.

In areas not controlled by the regime, meanwhile, two of the most powerful forces – ISIS and the Kurds – are engaged in war with one another and each are in their turn regarded with hostility by the Sunni Islamist IF, which is also fighting Assad.  To a degree, the IF, ISIS and the Kurdish governing authority may all be seen as embryonic, competing ‘successor authorities’ to the regime in the north of the country, which it departed in July 2012.

Given the military stalemate, the absence of any meaningful diplomatic process following the failed ‘Geneva 2’ conference and the  continued commitment of the various sides to their own victory, the war in Syria looks set to continue for the foreseeable future.  This is a tragedy for the people of Syria, over 150,000 of whom have already died, and for the region as a whole. The Syrian Civil War, the greatest disaster to hit the Levant for a generation, is still far from a conclusion.

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A most discreet intervention

Jerusalem Post, 30/5

Israel offering limited assistance to rebels in southern Syria

Since the outbreak of the civil war in Syria in 2011, Israeli officials have observed events to the north with caution and concern.  The concern has derived from the presence of anti-Israel paramilitary and terrorist elements on both sides of the fighting lines in Syria.

The caution, meanwhile, relates to the very deep aversion felt in the Israeli system toward the possibility of Israel’s being sucked in to the morass of the Syrian war.  Israel’s Lebanon experience has left a deep institutional memory warning against overly ambitious incursions into the affairs of neighboring states. 

Nevertheless, evidence is emerging of an increasing, though still modest Israeli involvement in events beyond the separation of forces line on the Golan Heights. 

The least ambiguous evidence of Israeli activity related to Syria is the series of air raids against weapons convoys headed for Lebanon.  These have been attributed by foreign media to Israel, and were carried out to prevent the transfer of certain weapons systems from Syria to Hizballah. 

However, the latest emerging indications relate not to activity deep within the skies above Syria. Rather, the contacts in question are happening, discreetly, very close to the ground, and very close to the border. 

Israeli officials have observed with concern the recent ebb and flow of the fighting in the Deraa and Quneitra provinces in southern Syria.  The rebel fighters in this area, as elsewhere, are a varied and disparate group.  The southern front is the focus of the limited western and Arab support offered the rebels. 

A western command center at which US, Jordanian, Saudi, British and French personnel are present has been established to coordinate aid to the rebels in the south. 

But the ‘moderate’ rebels of the Supreme Military Command and the related Syrian Revolutionaries Front, who benefit from the modest flow of western and Saudi aid, are not the only anti-Assad fighters in the south. 

Jabhat al-Nusra, the official Syrian franchise of al-Qaeda, is also playing a major role in the fighting in the south.  The Salafi Ahrar al-Sham group is also present in force among the southern rebels.  These groups operate in coordination with the western supported fighters.   

In recent weeks, forces led by al-Nusra have made major territorial advances.  In late April, these forces captured eastern Tel al-Akhmar (the red hill).  This hill is situated five kilometers from the Israeli border on the Golan Heights.  Western Tel al-Akhmar, which is just 2km from the first Israeli positions, was captured earlier in the month. 

Rebel forces hope to push on to Quneitra itself.  Their intention is to establish a contiguous strip of rebel-controlled territory in across western Deraa and Quneitra provinces – just 100km southwest of Damascus. 

For Israel, the possibility that al-Qaeda linked jihadis should establish themselves along one of its borderlines represents a nightmare scenario. In a video released after the capture of the hill, a Nusra spokesman was heard to praise Osama Bin-Laden as the ‘lion of Islam’, and to vow continued war on ‘Jews and crusaders.’ 

So the problem is clear. What is Israel doing to respond to it?

In addition to increasing drone surveillance and intelligence gathering across the border, the evidence suggests that Israel has established contact with non-jihadi, western supported rebel elements, with the intention of ensuring that the jihadis are prevented from establishing themselves along the ceasefire line on the Golan. 

The medical care afforded wounded Syrian fighters has served to facilitate this process. 1000 or so Syrian fighters have received this, with the more lightly wounded being treated at the IDF field hospital established close to the border, and others in hospitals in northern Israel. 

Colonel Abdullah al-Bashir, who commands the Supreme Military Council, a prominent western backed rebel element, was among the military personnel to be treated in Israel. 

In addition to the direct contacts with the rebels, Israel is also in contact with local leaders across the border, with the intention of offering them inducements to refuse shelter and medical care to the jihadi fighters. 

The Israeli contacts with the rebels are probably coordinated with the western backers of these forces.  According to one report, there are Israeli representatives at the western and Jordanian command center coordinating support for the rebels in northern Jordan. 

Israeli support for western-backed rebels in this arena is made yet more necessary by the fact that defeat for the rebellion in Deraa and Quneitra runs the risk of bringing not the status quo ante bellum, but rather Hizballah, to the border.

Fighters from the Shia Islamist movement are present among pro-regime forces battling in the south.  In early March, IDF troops fired at what they said was a Hizballah team trying to place a bomb in the border area. 

So is the southern border coming to resemble south Lebanon in the 1980s? Is Israel being sucked into another commitment across a northern border? 

Precisely because the lesson of Lebanon is so deeply etched on the collective memory of the Israeli system, it is likely that the Israeli footprint in southern Syria will remain discernible, but light.  There are no ideal options.  Nusra, according to one source, is stronger than it appears, since it has allowed pro-western forces to take credit for a number of operations.  It does this so as to keep western support flowing into the area, from which Nusra itself will then benefit.   So any strengthening of the rebels in the south carries with it the risk of assisting precisely the enemy that it is supposed to thwart.  But the alternative of passive acquiescence to either al-Qaeda or Hizballah assembling along the border is probably worse. 

A complicated political and military eco-system has emerged in southern Syria, just across the ceasefire line in the Golan Heights.  Israel will do its best to preserve its vital interests, while avoiding an overt presence in this arena.  Maintaining the balance is not simple.  As of now, it may be said that Israel is actively, if discreetly, engaged in southern Syria. 

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