Syria: Two Scenarios

Jerusalem Post, 6/1.

The latest reports from Syria indicate that the ceasefire brokered by Russia and Turkey in Syria is already in trouble.  Fighting has continued in the Wadi Barada area north west of Damascus as regime forces and Hizballah seek to prise the rebels out of this area. Clashes have also taken place in the southern Aleppo and Deraa areas.

The shaky ceasefire places a question mark over whether the planned mid-January talks in Astana between rebels and regime will take place.  More fundamentally, however, the direction of events in Syria raise a number of questions about the current diplomacy of the Syrian war which have potential implications far beyond Syria itself.  These relate primarily to the intentions of Russia in the Syrian conflict, and also to the stance that the new US Administration will take after January 20th.

Regarding Russia, the question is what Putin is looking for in Syria – how do the Russians see the endgame?

A cloud of misinformation and contradiction surrounds this point.

There are in effect two possibilities: the first is that by preserving the existence of the Assad regime, safeguarding Russia’s naval assets in Tartus and Latakia, and showing the lethal efficacy of Russian air power, Putin now sees himself as having proved his point.

In this scenario, the recent ceasefire is intended as a prelude to a deal which will largely leave the current balance of forces in Syria in place on the ground.  Give or take some final ‘cleaning out’ of rebel pockets close to Damascus and in the north west, any agreement that follows the ceasefire would usher in a loose, federal arrangement for an essentially divided Syria, leaving Alawis, Sunni Arabs and Kurds with their own de facto entities.

Such an approach is quite imaginable.  Putin’s behavior in Ukraine and elsewhere in eastern Europe indicates that he has no problem with ongoing, semi-frozen conflicts, in which the Russian client is alive and on the board.  Indeed, he appears to well understand the value of such situations as instruments for pressure on the hapless west, making himself an indispensable part of any discussion.  Russian statements regarding an imminent reduction of forces in Syria, and suggestions by Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov last February that Moscow might favor a federal solution in Syria are evidence in favor of this scenario.

In the Syrian context, such an outcome would run entirely against the wishes of the other members of the pro-Russian alliance. The determined desire of the Assad regime, as expressed both by the dictator himself and by various of his mouthpieces in the western media, is to re-unite Syria under his own exclusive rule.

Iran clearly also wants all opponents of the regime destroyed – though Teheran differs from Assad in preferring a weak regime in which the independently controlled Iranian interest can continue to operate according to its desire.

But these forces are too weak to achieve the goal of total victory without the involvement of Russian air power and special forces.  So the Russians effectively have  a veto on any such effort.  This is why the Russian decision is crucial.

The second possibility is that the Russians have themselves adopted the goal of complete regime victory. If this is the case, the current diplomacy is merely chatter beneath which the effort at military conquest will continue, stage by stage.

One way in which this might take place would be for ongoing efforts by the regime against the remains of the rebellion in Idleb and Deraa provinces.  At the same time, the US-supported SDF would be permitted to continue to grind down the Islamic State in the east of the country.  Once these processes are complete, (ie the rebellion and ISIS destroyed or pushed to the margins), Moscow would present the US and the west with the fait accompli of the defeated rebellion, and suggest that with the war against IS now complete, coalition air power could be withdrawn.

Once this has taken place, the Kurdish dominated SDF would then be presented with the choice of cooperating with the regime and its allies or being destroyed by them.

Vitaly Naumkin, a Russian expert on Syria who is regarded as close to the government, hinted at a Russian preference for the reunification of Syria under Assad in a statement this week.  Naumkin told the pro-Putin Sputniknews that ‘Moscow has made some concessions to Ankara by reacting very gently to the de facto establishment of a buffer zone in the north of Syria. There was no harsh reaction from Russia, but it does not mean that Moscow… will accept that some part of Syria is occupied by a foreign state for a long time, regardless of which state it is.’

In the event that the first scenario accurately reflects reality, we are into the realm of deal-making that the US President-elect evidently favors, and there is a chance for the Syrian war to wind down, or at least decline sharply in intensity and significance.

If the second scenario turns out to more effectively reflect Russian thinking and intentions, however, there is trouble ahead.  A complete victory for the Assad/Iranian side in the Syrian war, under Russian tutelage, would genuinely birth a new strategic dispensation in the region.  It would leave the Iranians in control of a huge swathe of contiguous territory from the Iraq-Iran border to the Mediterranean, all made possible because of Russian patronage and in the face of a flailing, accommodating, retreating US.

In this scenario, there cannot be two winners, and there would be no deals to be made.  The new US Administration would have the choice of accommodating to the Russian/Iranian strategy, at the cost of US humiliation and growing irrelevance, or sharply resisting it. Either way, the implications would be grave.  Either the birth of a new, Iran-dominated dispensation in the northern Levant, or the chance of a faceoff between major global powers.

As to which choice a President Trump would choose in such a situation – impossible to know.  The President-elect combines a conciliatory approach to Russia with a sharp desire to curb Iranian influence, and an isolationist streak with an apparently strong, instinctive street-type knowledge that rolling over and then cleverly justifying it is not the way for a superpower to behave.  Who knows what element would win out at such a moment?

It may well be that Putin favors the first scenario.  He is interested in power projection and influence building, but not in any way in the triumph of Shia political Islam.  On the other hand, he has grown used to an absence of serious consequences for his acts. This is a process which was learned and will need to be un-learned if the US wishes to return as a force of consequence in Mid-Eastern affairs.  Will Syria prove to be the arena in which this takes place?   The months ahead will tell.







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Iranian Kurds Join the Fight

American Interest, 15/12 (Co-authored with Benjamin Weinthal)

The instability that has swept over the Middle East over the past half-decade has its winners and its losers. For the most part, the much-beleaguered Kurds are to be numbered in the former camp. In Syria, the long-silent Kurdish minority now finds itself allied with U.S. air power and special forces, and controlling a large, de facto autonomous area in the country’s north. In Iraq, the Kurdish Regional Government is operating in what is increasingly an all-but-sovereign territory. In Turkey, things are moving in a less positive direction, but this hardly attests to Kurdish weakness or silence. The formidable Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) is once more engaged in insurgency against the government based in Ankara.

The odd man out has been the Kurdish community of Iran, which has faced a much tougher road in defending itself than other Kurdish communities in the Middle East. But there are signs that this is beginning to change. The three major Kurdish movements—the PDKI (Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan), PAK (Kurdish Freedom Party), and PJAK (Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan)—are now overtly engaged in armed insurgency against the regime in Tehran.There are troubling signs that Iran’s clerical rulers might be prepared to employ a scorched-earth policy in response. A scarcely noticed report in early November on the Iraqi Kurdish website Rudaw states: “Kurdish guerrillas suspect Iran used chemical weapons against them.” The Islamic heartland is now awash in chemical weapons use—ranging from the Bashar Assad regime in Syria to the Islamic State. Hence it is conceivable that Assad’s main strategic partner—Iran—will not hesitate to use chemical munitions against the Kurds.

What led to Iran’s current conflict with the Kurds?

First, some background. Kurds constitute around 10 percent of the population of the Islamic Republic of Iran. They are the third-largest ethnic group in the country after Persians (60 percent) and Azeris (16 percent). The majority of Iranian Kurds are Sunni Muslims.Iranian Kurdish politics is fractious and divided. The PDKI, the most veteran of the parties, was founded in 1945. In 1946, the party established and presided over the short-lived Republic of Mahabad, an early attempt at Kurdish sovereignty. The republic was destroyed in the same year, whereupon the PDKI became an element of the Iranian opposition to the rule of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi.After the 1979 revolution, the PDKI fell victim to the vicious closing of accounts carried out by Iran’s new Islamist rulers. These rulers were and are well aware of the potential that ethnic separatist sentiment has for weakening their regime and threatening its rule. Consequently, they have made great efforts to snuff out Kurdish separatist sentiment and organizations.

To achieve this, they have employed a variety of methods including, famously, the assassination of exiled Iranian Kurdish leaders in Europe. In July 1989, Iranian diplomatic personnel murdered Dr. Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou, the secretary general of the PDKI, in Vienna. He had been sent to negotiate for greater self-rule and Kurdish civil rights in the area of Iranian Kurdistan. Three years later, in September 1992, three prominent Iranian Kurdish leaders, Sadegh Sharafkandi, Fattah Abdoli, and Homayoun Ardalan, and their translator were shot dead in the Mykonos restaurant in West Berlin. A Berlin court determined that the assassinations were ordered by the “highest state levels” in Iran, and that Hezbollah was part of the terrorist team.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guard also waged brutal, largely successful campaigns of repression in the Kurdish areas of Iran itself. In 1996, hard hit by these relentless attacks, the PDKI declared a unilateral ceasefire,Two other parties have come on the scene since the Islamic Revolution, though neither has the strength of the PDKI. The PAK was founded in 1991 as the Revolutionary Union of Kurdistan, and changing its name in 2007 to its current form. Recently, the party’s militants have taken part in the fight against Islamic State in the Kirkuk area of Iraq and are reported to have received training from U.S. special forces.

The third major party, PJAK, is the franchise of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) of Turkey among the Iranian Kurds. Founded in 1997, PJAK has engaged in intermittent guerrilla warfare against the Iranian regime since 2004. Like the PDKI, both the PAK and the PJAK are based in the Kurdish-controlled part of northern Iraq.

For the two decades since the ceasefire, the Kurdish areas of Iran have remained largely quiescent. The hand of the Revolutionary Guards remains heavy on the population. Any sign of independent organization is swiftly dealt with. Accordingto the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran: “Execution of Kurdish activists, without fair trials and following torture, increasingly appears as a systematic, politically motivated process.”

But the silence of the Iranian Kurds is now ending.On February 25 of this year, the PDKI announced the re-commencement of “armed resistance against the Islamic Republic of Iran.” The announcement was attributed to “growing discontent,” but this was not a sudden decision. Rather, preparations, including the training of fighters, had been going on for some time. Two other parties, the PAK and Komala (a small leftist Kurdish nationalist party founded in 1969) declared their support for the PDKI declaration.Military operations duly commenced on April 19, 2016, when PAK fighters attacked Iranian security forces during an army parade in the area of Sanandaj.

The attacks have continued throughout the summer and autumn, with casualties on both sides. In October,  PJAK carried out a series of operations against the Revolutionary Guards, in retaliation for the killing of 12 PJAK members by government forces earlier in the month. In addition, attempts to organize and rouse the Iranian Kurds politically are proceeding in parallel to the armed campaign.

For its part, the Iranian regime has not been slow to respond. In mid-August, Iranian forces responded to the attacks by shelling Kurdish villages close to the border, killing or displacing many civilians.The growing conflict between the Iranian Kurds and the regime has repercussions beyond Iran’s borders.

Iran’s leaders have been quick to identify the hand of Saudi Arabia behind the renewed insurgency. Mohsen Rezai, an influential former commander of the Revolutionary Guards, was quoted by Reuters as saying that “[Saudi Arabia] gives money to any anti-revolutionary who comes near the border and says ‘Go carry out operations.”

In response, Saudi Arabia, and indeed the PDKI, has rejected these allegations as baseless. Hiwa Bahrami, a spokesman for the party, told the Kurdish ARA News site that “Both sides [Iran and Saudi Arabia] are trying to support the opponents of each other. But we have, at this time, no contacts [in Saudi Arabia] and the Saudis have not contacted us.”

Iran’s leaders have yet to produce any concrete evidence for the accusation. But anything that worsens the Saudi-Iranian rivalry now playing out across the Middle East is a cause for alarm.In addition, the Iranian Kurds’ return to militancy further complicates relations between Iran and the Kurdish autonomous area in northern Iraq.

Iran supports the powerful Shi‘a militias in Iraq, who are engaged in a number of territorial disputes with the Iraqi Kurds. In addition, Iraqi Kurdish aspirations for independence stand in the way of the Iranian desire for a united, Shi‘a-dominated Iraq controlled by pro-Iranian elements. The beginnings of the Kurdish insurgency in Iran, emerging from across the border in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq, only adds fuel to a combustible situation.

Where might all this be heading?

First, it is worth remembering that the major gains made by Kurds in Iraq and then in Syria resulted from the destruction of the Saddam Hussein regime in the former country and the contraction of the Assad regime in the latter. In Iran (as in Turkey), by contrast, the authorities stand at the head of a powerful security state, which shows no signs of weakness or fragmentation. Hence, it would be wrong to expect major change in the status or situation of Iran’s Kurds in the immediate future.

Nevertheless, the re-emergence of Kurdish insurgency in Iran is a significant development. Iran has proved a champion at exporting unrest and paramilitary activity to neighboring countries—see Lebanese Hezbollah, the Shi‘a militias of Iraq, Ansar Allah in Yemen, and others. The revived Kurdish armed campaign is the first attempt in a while to bring the fires of regional instability—so ably stoked in a variety of arenas by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards—back across the borders into Iran itself.

Given the uptick in Iran’s efforts to procure chemical weapons, the Kurds face grave danger if the West and responsible Sunni states fail to combat Tehran’s growing jingoism. In The Field of Fight: How We Can Win the Global War Against Radical Islam and Its Allies (St. Martin’s Press, 2016), the National Security Advisor-designate, Lieutenant-General (ret.) Michael Flynn, and historian and foreign policy analyst Michael Ledeen write that among the documents found during the Osama bin Laden raid in 2011 was a letter revealing that “al-Qaeda was working on chemical and biological weapons in Iran.”German intelligence reports in 2015 documented Iran’s efforts to obtain illicit chemical and biological weapons technology.

And in October, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) report on “Iran’s Foreign and Defense Policies” cited disturbing information on the Islamic Republic’s chemical and biological weapons development programs.

According to the CRS study, “U.S. reports indicate that Iran has the capability to produce chemical warfare (CW) agents and ‘probably’ has the capability to produce some biological warfare agents for offensive purposes, if it made the decision to do so.”All of this makes clear that Iranian Kurds face a regime that, like the Assad government in Syria, will go to great lengths to obliterate opposition. The next U.S. administration should pay careful attention to these new developments. The Iranians, great masters at fomenting unrest and rebellion in neighboring states, are now faced with an emergent insurgency at home.

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After the Fall of Aleppo

Jerusalem Post, 16/12

The battle for Aleppo is over.  The Assad regime and its Russian, Iranian and Shia paramilitary allies have achieved victory.

The process of evacuation of civilians and rebels is yet to be completed.  Syrian oppositionists are alleging that pro-regime militias are committing atrocities in the conquered areas.  The UN accused pro-regime forces of summarily executing 82 civilians. But while important, these details cannot obscure the main point. Rebel-controlled eastern Aleppo, which held for four years, has now ceased to exist.

What does this mean for Syria and the further direction of the Syrian war?

First and most obviously, there is no longer any prospect of the Assad regime being removed by force.  In effect, any such possibility ended on September 30, 2015, with the entry of Russian airpower into the war.  The rebellion had and has nothing in its arsenal capable of challenging the might of a world class air force.  From the moment of the Russian entry, Assad’s survival was assured.  With the destruction of rebel eastern Aleppo, the regime’s ascendancy is sealed.

Assad has now gained control over all of the major cities of Syria’s center. The regime still controls only around a third of the entire territory of the country.  But this includes a  majority of the population, the entirety of the coast, and the capital, Damascus.

Secondly, the fall of Aleppo does not mean the immediate end of the Syrian rebellion.  With Aleppo city gone, the rebellion remains in control of Idleb province in the northwest, parts of Dera’a and Quneitra provinces in the south west, parts of rural Aleppo, and isolated pockets elsewhere.

The regime side is now likely to turn its attentions to Idleb.  One of the original heartlands of the revolt, Idleb Province is today controlled by two powerful Salafi jihadi militias – Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.

The regime is set to present its actions there as part of the war against al-Qaeda.  These jihadi organizations also dominate the rebel controlled area in the area south of Aleppo city.

But while there will be few in the west who will leap to the defense of these organizations, Ahrar al Sham has a close relationship with Turkey. This support looks set to continue.

In the North Aleppo countryside, meanwhile, the rebels operate in direct cooperation with the Turkish army, and non-jihadi groups have a more significant presence.

Ongoing  Turkish support for and cooperation with the rebels in these areas complicates the picture for the regime and the Russians, and is likely to prevent the complete eclipse of the rebellion in the immediate future.

In the south of the country, the rebellion is dominated by non-jihadi groups and supported by Jordan and the west.  In that area, however, Amman has in recent months reduced support for the rebels, and begun coordination with Russia. The rebels are instructed to operate against  Islamic State forces only.

From an Israeli point of view, the prospect of a regime return to the border is of deep concern.  It may be assumed that Israel will be seeking to use its channels of communication with Russia to ensure that the Iranian/Hizballah hope of building a new confrontation line east of the Quneitra Crossing does not come to pass in the period of regime advancement now beginning.

It is worth noting that the regime’s advances in Aleppo were achieved largely with the help of non-Syrian fighters.  A major question remark remains regarding the regime’s ability to re-conquer and permanently pacify the Sunni Arab-majority areas still held by the rebellion.

Thirdly, the separate war against Islamic State in eastern Syria is not immediately affected by the fall of Aleppo.  IS’s shock reconquest of Palmyra from the regime, even as Assad’s forces pushed into eastern Aleppo, is testimony to the continued danger posed by the jihadis – as well as showcasing once again the regime’s shortages of available manpower.

Large swathes of eastern and northern Syria remain outside of regime control, held either by IS or by the US-supported, Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces.

The regime is likely now to propose itself as the right candidate for global support to defeat IS in Syria.  At least for the immediate future, though, the war in the east is likely to remain largely outside of the regime’s purview.

Finally, much will depend on the stance taken by the new US Administration after January 20th.  The current Administration’s Syria policy has been characterized mainly by  flailing ineffectuality.  Ambassador Samantha Power’s tones at the UN this week  – asking Russian representatives if the suffering in Aleppo didn’t ‘creep them out’ – were a perfect coda to this.

The incoming Administration contains hawkish figures who are deeply suspicious in particular of the ambitions of Iran and its allies in the Middle East.  Generals Mattis, Kelly and Flynn exemplify this trend.  But President-elect Trump himself has spoken of the need to coordinate with Russia in the fight against IS (and Russia, of course, is allied with Iran and Assad in Syria).  Incoming Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s close ties to Russia are a further notable factor in this regard.

If the Iran-sceptic element in the new Administration wins out, this may usher in a determined policy to contain the gains of the Iran-aligned Assad regime, and maintain support to anti-regime and anti-IS forces in Syria.

If, however, the desire to ‘co-ordinate’ with Russia against IS wins out, this raises the genuine possibility of pro-Iranian, pro-Russian forces taking the key role in the ongoing fight against IS and by so doing launching a real bid to reunite Syria under their own control.

If this latter scenario transpires, it isn’t immediately imminent, given the regime’s manpower problems and remaining priorities in its war against the rebels further west.  But it will be a matter of concern for all regional elements, including Israel, who are watching closely the advances made by the Iranians and their allies in Iraq and in Syria in recent months.

So the fall of eastern Aleppo marks the end of any hopes of rebel victory in the Syrian civil war.  But in regard to other processes under the way in the country – further regime advancement, the rebellion’s survival, the war against IS – the final word has not yet been said.



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Hizballah vs. ISIS. vs. Israel

Jerusalem Post, 2/12

Two incidents this week showcase the complexity of the challenges facing Israel on its northern front.

In the first, an air strike killed four members of the Islamic State-affiliated Khalid Ibn al-Walid Brigade after a patrol of the Golani reconnaissance unit in the southern Golan Heights was targeted by the organization. Israeli aircraft then targeted a facility used by the group in the Wadi Sirhan area.

In the second incident, according to regional media reports, Israeli aircraft operating from Lebanese airspace fired Popeye missiles at targets in the Sabboura area, 8 km. northwest of Damascus.

There were no casualties, according to SANA, the official Syrian news agency.

London-based Arabic newspaper Rai al-Youm reported that the Israeli strike was targeting a Hezbollah-bound weapons convoy. The paper also reported that Israeli aircraft carried out a second strike on a facility of Syria’s 4th Armored Division, near Damascus.

Israel neither confirmed nor denied the second incident. But on a number of occasions over the last four years of war in Syria, Israel has used its ability to operate in the skies over Syria to prevent weapons transfers to Hezbollah in Lebanon from the Syrian regime. It is possible that this incident was the latest act in this effort.

These two events are of tactical importance only. Neither is likely at this stage to lead to broader engagements, but they reflect a reality in which some of the world’s most powerful non-state military organizations are deployed close to Israel’s border with Syria, making war against one another while planning and organizing for a future war against the Jewish state.

The Khalid Ibn al-Walid Brigade is a franchise of the Islamic State. It was formed from the merger of two Salafi organizations operating in southern Syria – the Shuhada al-Yarmuk group and the Muthanna organization. The group controls an area of the border east of the Golan Heights, from south of the town of Tasil, down to Syria’s border with Jordan.

From this area, the brigade is conducting a war against the Syrian rebels to its north. It does not fight the forces of the Syrian government because they are not deployed in its immediate vicinity.

Israel has long eyed the Islamic State-affiliate with particular suspicion, expecting that sooner or later a clash would be inevitable. This week it came.

The volume of the Israeli response was clearly intended to reestablish deterrence against the Sunni jihadis, with the hope that it will cause them to think again before engaging with Israeli forces.

Islamic State is facing battle for survival in its main domains farther north and in Iraq and it is unlikely that it is in a position to contemplate opening a front against a newer and more powerful enemy farther south.

The non-Islamic State rebels who control the rest of the border, with the exception of a small-regime controlled part at the northern edge near Beit Jinn, are of lesser concern to Israel. Indeed, a relationship of tolerance and cooperation exists between Israel and elements among those rebels.

Israel’s main concern, rather, is the Iran/Assad/Hezbollah side. The reported strikes in the Damascus area, if they took place, were the latest incidents in a limited Israeli campaign against these elements intended to produce two outcomes: first, to limit the transfer of complex weapons systems to Hezbollah, and second, to keep the Iran-supported militia and its allies from replacing the rebels along the borderline.

As of now, it is difficult to assess the extent of the success of the first objective.

Hezbollah is known to now possess advanced SA-22 anti-aircraft missiles and Yakhont anti-ship missiles. So, as might be expected, it appears that the sporadic Israeli efforts have not succeeded in sealing the Lebanese-Syrian border from efforts by the Assad regime and Iran to supply their ally to the west.

Regarding the border, however, as of now, it remains almost entirely out of government hands, reflecting greater Israeli success.

Nevertheless, Israeli planners are carefully observing events farther north. President Bashar Assad’s regime, with Russian help, is set to reconquer the northern city of Aleppo. This will represent the greatest setback for the rebels since 2012. Once the reconquest of eastern Aleppo is completed, regime forces will hope to move against remaining areas of rebel control in Idlib Governorate.

If they succeed also there, then eventually the southern front will come back on to the agenda. At this point, the Israeli concern will be that similar methods to those that helped the regime to prevail elsewhere will be used here too. The Russian entry into the Syrian arena has tilted the balance for the regime and complicated the picture from Israel’s point of view. It is Russian air power that is enabling the regime to advance in the north. If employed in the south, it can be expected to eventually produce similar results.

It is probable that Israel will be quietly lobbying Moscow to take account of Israel’s security needs on the border when contemplating action in the south. The Russians are not hostile to Israel, but will act according to how they perceive their own interests. Their decision as to whether to allow Assad to reconquer the southwest of his country – and by so doing to allow Iran and Hezbollah to reach the border with Israel – will be decisive.

Of course, even in the worst case scenario in which they decide to allow this, the task facing Israel on the border will not fundamentally change. It will mean that instead of needing to deter hostile but relatively weak Sunni jihadi forces from contemplating action against the hated Zionists, Israel will need to deter hostile and less weak Shi’ite jihadis with the same intentions.

Iran/Hezbollah and Islamic State agree about relatively little, but on the goal of destroying Israel and returning Jerusalem to Islamic rule they are entirely in consensus.

Israel, naturally, prefers the weaker, non-state enemy in close proximity to the stronger. The events of this week show that it is engaged in a tacit, ongoing, unstated and limited war against both.

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Syria’s Interlocking Conflicts

Jerusalem Post, 11/11

The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces last Friday announced the commencement of an operation to conquer the northern Syrian city of Raqqa.  The operation was designated ‘Euphrates Wrath.’

Raqqa is the capital of the ‘Caliphate’ maintained by the Islamic State organization.  In tandem with the effort currently under way to recapture the Iraqi city of Mosul from IS, the loss of Raqqa would represent the final eclipse of the Islamic State as a quasi-sovereign entity.  At this point, it would revert back to the guerrilla/insurgent/terrorist force which it constituted prior to the outbreak of the Syrian civil war.

Conquering the city is likely to be a slow business.  However, the final outcome is not in doubt.  The Islamic State, whose main slogan in Arabic is ‘Baqiya watatamadad’ (remaining and expanding) has been in reality contracting since the high point of its advance in the autumn of 2014.  Its eventual demise, at least as a quasi-state entity, is assured.

But Syria is host not only to the war against IS, but to a series of other, interlocking conflicts.  And one of these additional conflicts pits the two main candidates for the leading role in the fight against IS in Raqqa against one another.

Observe: there is in Syria today no less than five identifiable conflicts taking place.

These are: Turkish-backed Sunni Arab rebel and Islamist organizations against the Assad dictatorship, western backed SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces, dominated by the Kurdish YPG) against IS, Kurdish YPG against the Assad regime, the aforementioned Sunni rebels against IS and, lastly, the Sunni rebels against the SDF.

The problem for those seeking to cobble together a force to take Raqqa city and by so doing destroy the Islamic State, is that the two eligible forces to carry out this action are the mainly Kurdish SDF and the Turkish-backed, mainly Islamist Sunni rebels – but these forces are at war with one another.

After the SDF announced the commencement of the Raqqa campaign this week, Turkish President Recep Tayepp Erdogan expressed his opposition to the decision, repeating his assertion that the Kurdish YPG are merely ‘another terror organization…a side branch’ of the PKK.

Following the SDF’s announcement, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford met with Turkish Chief of Staff General Hulusi Akar in Ankara. After the meeting, Dunford said that the US would work together with Turkey to develop a long term plan for ‘seizing, holding and governing’ the city.

Dunford stated that the US considered the largely non-Arab SDF ‘wasn’t the solution’ for ‘holding and governing’ largely Sunni Arab Raqqa.

A judicious reader will notice that Dunford’s statement doesn’t say that the SDF is unsuitable for the job of capturing the city, only for holding it afterwards.

The root of the deep differences between the SDF and the Turkish supported rebels are to be found not only in the soil of northern Syria. Rather, they are inextricably linked to the long insurgency fought by Turkey’s Kurds against a succession of governments in Ankara since 1984.

The fragmenting of Syria formed a historic opportunity for the Syrian Kurds, which they have seized.  The PYD, the Syrian Kurdish franchise of the PKK organization, established three self-governing cantons along the Syrian-Turkish border in 2012.  In 2015, against the background of the fight against IS, they managed to unite two of these  – Jazeera and Kobani.  On March 17, 2016, the ruling coalition in these areas announced the formation of the ‘Federation of Northern Syria – Rojava.’

The US has since October 2015 found the Kurdish YPG to be a formidable and useful ground partner to coalition air power against IS.  But the Kurds themselves, while welcoming the alliance with the US, have long sought another objective – namely to unite the three cantons, connecting Jazira/Kobani with Afrin in the far north west of the country.

From a Turkish point of view, the prospect of a PKK-linked party controlling the entirety of the 800 km border between Syria and Turkey is entirely unacceptable.  Since mid-2015, a Kurdish insurgency is once again under way against the Turkish government.  As part of the general post-coup crackdown, Erdogan this week arrested Turkey’s most prominent Kurdish politician, Salahattin Demirtas of the HDP.

Since 2012, the instruments Turkey chose to use to contain the Syrian Kurds were the mainly Islamist rebel movements of northern Syria, from the more moderate elements across to Jabhat al Nusra and possibly at one time also ISIS.

By mid-2016, supporting ISIS was no longer an option, and the rebels by themselves were too weak for purpose.  So in August, Turkey boldly launched a direct intervention into northern Syria.  ISIS were the ostensible target.  But the clear purpose was to bisect Syria’s north, rendering a sufficient area impassable that the danger of the Kurds linking up their cantons would disappear.

This process is not yet complete.  The Kurds are still west of the Euphrates, in the town of Manbij. And the crucial IS-held town of Al-Bab remains unconquered.  The Turks would like to help their rebel clients take the town and end any further possibility of Kurdish unification.  But here, in the usual labyrinthine way, other players enter the picture.  Al-Bab is close to Aleppo.  It is possible that the Russians have warned Erdogan that the town remains out of bounds.

But the point to bear in mind is that the process of coalition building against IS in Syria is complicated by the fact that two potential members of the coalition – the US-backed SDF and the Turkish army with their Sunni Arab allies, are currently engaged in a direct conflict with one another.

In this regard,  it is worth noting the yawning gap between the military achievements of the Syrian Kurds and their dearth of similar successes in the diplomatic and political fields.  While YPG commanders call in US airstrikes against IS, no country has recognized the Federation of Northern Syria, and it has received little media coverage.

Dunford’s hurried visit to Ankara reflects the diplomatic state of play.  Namely, that the agenda of a Turkish government, even one that openly supports Sunni jihadis, must be indulged. That of a Kurdish ally can be dismissed.  The Kurds may have little choice in the matter. But they should be careful not to find themselves quickly abandoned once Operation ‘Euphrates Wrath’ is done.


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Battle for Power: Iran vs. Turkey in northern Iraq  


Jerusalem Post, 4/11

The Iraqi special forces have now entered the first neighborhoods of the city of Mosul.  Captured by the Islamic State in the summer of 2014, the city constitutes the jewel in the crown of the Sunni jihadis’ Iraqi holdings.  It may be assumed that they will fight with determination to hold it.  The eventual outcome of the battle for Mosul, however, cannot be in doubt.   There are around 5,000 IS fighters inside the city, facing  a combined force of around 100,000. The attackers have complete control of the skies, and vastly superior weaponry.

The most intriguing aspect of the Mosul campaign, however, has been the differing and often opposing agendas of the various components of the attacking force.  These, with surprising rapidity, have now have come to the fore.

Just two weeks into the offensive, two of its most prominent backers – the Baghdad government of Prime Minister Haider al Abadi, and the Turkish government – are engaged in a war of words.

How has this crisis emerged, and what may be the direction of events in the next phase?

The Shia militiamen of the Popular Mobilization Units, (PMU) or ‘Hashd al-Sha’abi’ are currently heading toward the town of Tal Afar,  population 100,000, located 60 kilometers west of Mosul.  Their mission will be to capture the town and prevent IS fighters from escaping westwards towards the Syrian border, on the highway adjoining it.

The PMU consists of around 40 Shia militias. The most significant of these are directly supported by the government of Iran.  The three most important militias in the PMU are the Badr Organization, the Ktaeb Hizballah and the Asaib Ahl al-Haq group.  All three are pro-Iranian and the recipients of direct training and assistance from Teheran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.

The militias make little secret of their nature and goals. A Badr officer interviewed by this author in Baghdad in summer, 2015 declared that his hope for the PMU would be that it should play a similar role in a future Iraq to that played by the IRGC in Iran. The two most powerful figures in the PMU, Hadi al-Ameri of Badr and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis of Ktaeb Hizballah are both veteran Shia Islamists and close associates of General Qassem Suleimani, who commands the expeditionary Qods Force of the Revolutionary Guard.

The  Shia militias of the PMU are thus a classic Iranian production – combining political, military and paramilitary/intimidatory roles for the maximization of power and Iranian influence.

They are also deeply hooked into the centers of power in Iraq.  Badr in its political guise is a member of the government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.  The militia also holds the governorship of one of Iraq’s provinces, Diyala, where it dominates the official security forces.

In the Mosul offensive, however, the Iranian project for wielding power via proxy is colliding with a rival project of a similar nature, maintained by President Recep Tayep Erdogan of Turkey.

The Turks established  a military base at Bashiqa, east of Mosul, in December, 2015. There, Turkish officers engaged in the training of a Sunni militia. The militia was organized by Osama al-Nujaifi, a former parliament speaker close to the Turks, and by his brother Atheel, former governor of Nineveh Province.

The Nujaifis have come out in favour of an autonomous Nineveh Province once IS has been defeated.  Clearly, the intention is to build Turkish and Sunni influence in northern Iraq.

Abadi, while opposing the Turkish effort, has tried to take a moderate approach. His guarantee that the Shia militias would play no role in the fight against IS in Mosul formed a part of this.

But for the militias themselves and those that back them, the Turkish gambit must  be opposed.  The Iranians and their allies are already engaged against Turkish supported militias in northern Syria.  For them, the battle in Iraq is part of the same fight.

Tal Afar, meanwhile, is of particular importance, not only because of its location but also because of its history and demography.  An old Ottoman garrison town, its majority Turkmen population is a remnant of the days when Iraq constituted a part of an empire ruled from Constantinople.

The population is divided into Shia and Sunni Turkmen.  Its Sunnis were pro-Saddam, and furnished the old regime with many personnel.  Many later also joined IS.  Much of the Shia  population was driven from the town when IS took it in 2014.  The Shia militias may now be seeking revenge.

Turkey has now  deployed tanks and artillery in the Silopi area, close to the border with Iraq. Erdogan warned last week that Turkish forces would intervene if abuses were committed by the Shia militias against the Sunni residents of Tal Afar.

The Iraqi government is taking the threat seriously. Abadi said this week that while Iraq does ‘not want war with Turkey, and we do not want a confrontation with Turkey,’ if Erdogan’s forces invade, however, this will lead to the ‘dismantling of Turkey.’

So how will this game of brinkmanship play out?

Erdogan’s words seem at this stage designed more to exert pressure than to signal an imminent intervention.  As long as the militias avoid a sectarian bloodbath in Tal Afar, the Turkish tanks will probably remain on the border, but not cross it.

But the ongoing tensions between Ankara and Baghdad/Teheran show that even as the fight for Mosul city has not yet reached its expected height, the various players are already competing for supremacy in the aftermath.

As of now, the Iranians have overall the better hand.  Their experience in the use of proxy forces is of longer standing than that of the Turks. They are allied with the central government in Baghdad.  The US and the west perceive little danger in their activities in the post nuclear deal era.

The Turks, however, have demonstrated in northern Syria earlier this year a willingness to employ their own forces in bold but risky gambits on the fragmented territory of their neighbors.  Iranian-Turkish and Shia-Sunni rivalry are at the heart of the struggle for power in Ninevah Province and further afield.

The meaning of all this is that northern Iraq has ceased to function as a sovereign territory. Other forces – Turkish soldiers, Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Kurdish guerrillas, Shia militiamen, Sunni jihadis, are now engaged in a battle over its territory and resources.


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Tremor in Yemen

Jerusalem Post, 21/10

Tremor in Yemen

The Yemeni civil war, in which an Iran-supported Shia militia, the Ansar Allah movement (the ‘Houthis’) is clashing with a Saud- led coalition supporting the government of President  Abd Rabbo Mansur al-Hadi,  is largely neglected by western media coverage.

This is unfortunate.  Recent events related to Yemen demonstrate the growing confidence and audacity of the Iran-led regional bloc, and its apparent belief that it can with impunity escalate the ‘rules of the game’ to include not only strikes on US proxies, but now also direct attacks on US assets themselves.

On October 9th, and again on October 12th, the USS Mason, a US Navy destroyer, was operating in the strategically crucial area of the Bab el-Mandeb Straits off the coast of Yemen, when it was targeted by two missiles fired from territory controlled by the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. The narrow straits connect the Gulf of Aden to the Red Sea.  They are a vital crossing point for ships transporting oil and gas from the Persian Gulf to the Suez Canal and thence to the Mediterranean.

The USS Mason’s mission was to ensure the continued and unimpeded transition of shipping through the Straits.  The ship fired its own missiles to intercept the threats and sustained no damage.  The Mason was then targeted again on October 12th and possibly again on the 15th (this incident is still under investigation).

The USS Mason, along with two other US Navy ships – the USS Nitze and the USS Ponce had been deployed to the straits after an earlier attack on a UAE logistics vessel, the HSV Swift, on October 1st.

The missile fired, according to a report by the US Naval Institute, was a C-802 anti-ship missile. It was a missile of this type which was launched by the Lebanese Hizballah on the Israeli ship INS Hanit, during the Second Lebanon War, on July 14th 2006. This Chinese-produced missile was sold for a time by Beijing to Iran. The Iranians reverse engineered it, and now produce a version of their own.  The Iranians, as noted above, are the main backers of the Houthis.

The attack came a day after a Saudi air strike on the Houthi controlled Yemeni capital of Sana’a, in which around 140 people were killed.

The Ansar Allah organization, better known as the Houthis, denied responsibility for the launching of the missiles. The denials followed, however, a statement by the organization’s leader Abd al Malik al-Houthi, in which he blamed the US for the bombing.  Al-Houthi said that “the first and foremost party responsible for the carnage” was the US and added that  “the Saudis are killing Yemenis by means of U.S. weapons and military aircraft. They strike where Americans pinpoint and allow.”

The missile attack also coincided with a Scud missile attack from Houthi controlled territory on the Saudi city of Taif.

The balance of probabilities, given the timing, location of the tactics and the ordnance used points overwhelmingly towards the Iranian backed Ansar Allah as the organization responsible.  A senior US official quoted by ABC News said that there was ‘no doubt’  that the Houthis carried out the attack.

The attacks were followed by a US response, which targeted three coastal radar sites in Houthi controlled  territory.  It was the first direct US attack against Houthi controlled targets.  The Pentagon then noted that the US would respond ‘as appropriate’ to any further attacks.

The attacks on the USS Mason and its accompanying craft represent a raising of the stakes by the Iranians in the tension surrounding the Yemen war and the Bab el-Mandeb Straits.  The Houthis are not direct proxies of Teheran.  Their relationship is more akin to that of Hamas with Iran rather than that of Hizballah with its masters in Teheran.

That is, Ansar Allah is an organization with its own genuine local roots and agenda, which nevertheless benefits from and relies on Iranian assistance, supplies and training.

The launch of a C-802 anti-ship missile, however, is no simple military exercise of the type generally undertaken by a ragged guerrilla force like the Houthis.  It involves a high level of expertise and the employment of advanced technical means.    The targeting of the USS Mason, therefore, may  well have constituted an instance of direct Iranian involvement at some level in a military attack on a US ship.

Whether or not there were direct Iranian fingerprints on the attack, it is extremely unlikely that the Houthis themselves would have decided unilaterally on a very sharp escalation of this kind.  Iranian approval for the attacks is thus a near certainty.

What this means is that in the current regional reality, the Iranians and their allies feel sufficiently emboldened to engage in proxy or not-so-proxy military assaults not only on US allies in the region (the Saudis in Yemen), but also on US forces themselves.

Such attacks are an indicator of the extent to which US deterrence has declined in the Middle East. There is a strongly-evidenced  sense among both friends and foes that any US response to aggression against it will be judicious, restrained, proportionate and brief.  A response of this kind hands the initiative to any aggressor able to calculate and absorb it.  Renewed deterrence will come only from setting the price higher.

Brigadier-General Massoud Jazayeri, deputy commander of Iran’s Armed Forces General Staff, was quoted this week as saying that “The presence of America in the region is a cancerous malign tumor that can only be treated by removing the filthy tumor and the ejection of America from the region.’

No ambiguity from that side, then.  It is unlikely, these words aside, that Iran seeks confrontation at the present time.  Teheran is busy fighting for control in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, and is not yet close to victory in any of these arenas.  But in the meantime, disrupting Red Sea and Persian Gulf commerce and poking a finger in the eye of the supposed custodians of that area’s security is a useful, apparently low cost method of showing which way the regional winds are blowing.




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