US Strategy and Israel’s Stake in Eastern Syria

Jerusalem Post, 24/6

The downing on June 18th  of a Syrian Air Force SU-22 by a UA Navy F-18 Super Hornet over the skies of northern Syria sharply raises the stakes in the emergent stand-off in the country.  This stand-off is no longer between local militias, nor between regional powers.  Rather, through interlocking lines of support, it places the United States in direct opposition to Russia.

The last move has almost certainly not yet been made.   And while events in north east Syria may seem a distance away, there is a direct Israeli interest in the outcome of the current contest.

This latest move was a probably inevitable outcome of two sharply opposing outlooks  currently in play in Syria.  The US seeks to maintain a divide between the war against Islamic State in the east of the country and the civil war between Assad and the rebellion against him in the west of it.  Washington sees itself as involved in the first conflict system,  while remaining outside the second. Thus, US-supported Kurdish and Sunni Arab rebel forces are forbidden from attacking Assad’s forces.

The US statement following the downing of the SU-22 reflected this position.  Pentagon Spokesman Cpt. Jeff Davis noted that the US does ‘not seek conflict with any party in Syria other than ISIS, but we will not hesitate to defend ourselves or our partners if threatened.’

From the point of view of the regime and its Russia and Iranian allies, by contrast, no such division exists.  For them, the Syrian war is a single system, in which the ‘legitimate government’ (ie the Assad regime) is engaged in a fight against various illegitimate entities.  The latter group includes ISIS, but also the Sunni Arab rebels and the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces, with whom the US is aligned.

The recent Astana agreement for the creation of four ‘de-escalation’ areas has freed up regime and allied forces to take a more active role in the war against ISIS further east.  Regime forces are advancing along two axes –  from Palmyra in the south,  and from Aleppo province further north.  The second axis is bringing the regime and its allies into direct and close proximity with the US-supported SDF.  The incident this week took place, according to the US version, after regime forces attacked the SDF in the town of Jadin south of Tabqa.  Further tactical clashes are probably inevitable as each side seeks to take control of areas abandoned by ISIS as it retreats.

But these tactical matters are part of an emergent strategic reality.  The defeat of the Islamic State as an entity controlling territory is clearly only a matter of time.  The actions of the Assad regime (or more accurately the Iranian and Russian interests that dominate it)  equally clearly reflect their determination to confront and defeat all other armed elements within Syria.  The United States is currently backing certain non-governmental armed elements in Syria, for the stated purpose of defeating Islamic State.

So the situation is leading the US inexorably toward a choice.  At a certain point, perhaps after the final eclipse of IS, but also perhaps before it,  Washington will need to decide if it wishes to abandon its allies to destruction at the hands of the regime, Iran and Russia, or whether it wishes to help to defend the forces it has armed and trained.

At this point, the US will need to decide its end objective in Syria.  Is it a federalized, decentralized Syria, with the regime dominant in the west and US allies in the east? Is it the destruction of the Assad regime? The construction of safe zones and ongoing negotiation?  Which is it to be?

None of this is easy and all choices have a price.  Failure to decide, and a tactical, localized response to immediate threats is also a kind of choice, of course. So far, this type of response has resulted in the pro-Iranian forces reaching the Iraqi border, north of al-Tanf, and cutting off the US-backed rebels in the area from the possibility of further progress northwards.

As of now, on four occasions, US forces have responded to the regime coming too close.  But this has the appearance of a piecemeal response.  All sides await the discovery or emergence of US strategy in Syria.

Why does all this matter for Israel? For the following reason: if the US and its allies are eclipsed in eastern Syria, the result will be the establishment of a contiguous land link from Iran, across Iraq and Syria and to Lebanon and the Israeli border.  This in turn will transform the threat picture facing Israel in the event of a renewed war with Hizballah. This is not only or mainly to do with the transfer of weapons systems to the Lebanese Shia jihadis.

One must observe and study the style of war that Iran has conducted in Syria and Iraq over the last half decade to grasp this essential point.   In both contexts, with no official Iranian declaration of war, a coalition of Teheran-aligned militias have acted in a coordinated fashion on behalf of Iranian allies and interests.  This coalition of forces has played a crucial role in the survival of the Assad regime.  In Iraq, a similar coalition of Iran-aligned forces played a crucial role in the fight against IS, and now constitutes the key instrument of power in that country.

At no time have the pro-Iranian forces been constricted by nominal state borders or ‘national’ divisions.  Lebanese Hizballah personnel have played a vital role in Syria and have been present also in Iraq.  Iraqi militiamen have been active in Syria. Afghan fighters were among the first to reach the Syria-Iraq border on June 9th.

There is no reason for Israeli planners to assume that a future war with Hizballah would be immune from this pattern. To reiterate, it does not require a formal declaration of war from Iran.  Proxies are mobilized and deployed under the stewardship of the IRGC, but with no direct or acknowledged involvement given or demanded from Iran at any stage.

The loosely and ambiguously governed nature of these territories would serve as an advantage for the Iranian forces,  perhaps providing the kind of diplomatic cover for them that the presence of the toothless Siniora government in Beirut did in 2006.  Thus the tried and tested Iranian model of revolutionary warfare.

The creation of a contiguous corridor all the way from Iran to Lebanon would make possible the prosecution of such a war at an appropriate time and opportunity for Teheran, against Israel.

For this reason, the prevention of the emergence of this direct land route through eastern Syria is a direct Israeli national interest.  Unfortunately, the tactical and piecemeal nature of the US response, and the apparent absence of a clearly formulated strategy to face the Iranian, Russian-supported advance may yet facilitate its creation.   Perhaps a clear strategy will yet emerge. It is Trump’s move.

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Lines in the Sand

Jerusalem Post, 9/6

An alliance of pro-US Sunni Arab states is emerging

The decision by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt and Yemen  to cut off diplomatic relations with Qatar is the latest step in the re-emergence of a clearly defined US-led Sunni Arab bloc of states.  The task of this alliance is to roll back Iranian influence and advancement in the region, and to battle against the forces of Sunni political Islam.

Little noticed by western media,  this conservative Sunni alliance against Iran and Sunni Islamism has been under construction for some time.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE were the first to recognize the new regime of General Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi following the military coup on July 3, 2013.  Financial support from both countries has been crucial in ensuring the avoidance of economic disaster in Egypt.

The Saudis and Emiratis were the moving force behind the interventions into Bahrain in 2011 and Yemen in 2015. In both cases, the intention was to prevent the advance of Iranian interests.

Both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates maintained high levels of military spending over the last half decade, in spite of low oil prices.  The two countries have sagely invested in air power and special operations forces – the areas most relevant to the type of wars being fought at present in the Middle East.

The results have been visible over the last two years.

The intervention to prevent  the advance of the Iran-supported Ansar Allah militia toward the strategically crucial Bab el-Mandeb Strait was the first real ‘outing’ for Gulf Arab non-proxy military power (Operation Peninsula Shield into Bahrain in 2011 was a police action against popular unrest).

The results in Yemen have been mixed, but by no means constitute the debacle that the intervention has been presented as in some quarters.  The Houthis remain in control of Tsana’a, the Yemeni  capital.    But the nightmare scenario in which an Iran-supported force acquired control of the narrow Bab El-Mandeb strait, through which all shipping between the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea must pass, was avoided.  Emirati and Saudi special operations forces played a key role in the fighting.

In Libya, Emirati air power, employed in support of  General Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army, has played an important part in Haftar’s fight against Islamist militants.  The Emiratis built a forward air base, al-Khadim, in Marj province 100 km from Benghazi.   AT-802 light attack aircraft and UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters operate from the base, according to satellite imagery published by IHS Jane’s.

However, the election of Donald Trump appears to have sharply increased the scope and ambitions of the pro-US Gulf Arab states.  It is clear that they  identify  a similar regional outlook to their own in Trump and  key figures around him.  This raises the possibility of a more assertive and clearly defined strategy regarding both the Iranian and Sunni Islamist adversaries.

At the Riyadh meeting on May 21st,  55 Muslim majority countries signed a declaration pledging to establish a ‘a reserve force of 34,000 troops to support operations against terrorist organizations in Iraq and Syria when needed.”

According to the final communique from the summit, the leaders present ‘confirmed their absolute rejection of the practices of the Iranian regime designed to destabilize the security and stability of the region and the world at large and for its continuing support for terrorism and extremism,” and accused Teheran of  maintaining a  “dangerous ballistic missiles program” and of “continuing interference in the domestic affairs of other countries.” A third of the document was devoted to criticism of Iranian regional activities.

The signing of the ‘Riyadh Declaration’ took place following the visit of Donald Trump to Riyadh. Trump, in his speech at the summit, accused Iran of ‘“spreading destruction and chaos across the region.”

Declarations by Gulf states have not always been followed by concerted action on the ground, of course.  But with the current emergent stand-off between pro-western and pro-Iranian forces in eastern Syria, and the incremental loss of territory by the Islamic State in that area, it is not hard to think of the type of roles which a standing Gulf Arab ‘counter-terror’ force would play, for example, in holding and administering Sunni Arab areas in cooperation with local forces.

An additional, un-stated assumption behind the emergence of this bloc is that the energies of the Arab uprisings that began in late 2010 are largely spent.   A bloc led by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Sisi’s Egypt will not seek to mobilize the revolutionary energies of populations. Rather, as with that of the Iranians, this alliance will be a top-down affair, featuring regular and semi-regular military forces carefully commanded and controlled from above.

In this regard, it is interesting to note that the main ‘casualty’ of the emergence of this alliance is Qatar, the country which above all others sought to fan the flames of the uprisings.  Qatar, through its support for Muslim Brotherhood associated movements and via its enormously influential al-Jazeera satellite channel, tried to turn the energies of the Sunni Arab masses in Syria, Egypt and the Palestinian territories into political power and influence for itself (while, of course, harshly suppressing any attempts by its own largely non-citizen population to claim rights).   This project has failed.

For a moment, a large Sunni Islamist bloc based on Qatari money and Muslim Brotherhood power seemed to be emerging.  MB-associated parties controlled Cairo, Ankara, Tunis and Gaza.  Similar movements seemed plausibly within reach of Damascus.  But this bloc proved stillborn and little of it now remains.

The hour of the revenge of Doha’s Gulf neighbors has thus arrived.  The shunting aside of little Qatar, however, is ultimately only a detail in the larger picture.  What is more significant is the re-emergence of an overt alliance of Sunni Arab states under US leadership,  following the development of military capabilities in relevant areas, and with the stated intention of challenging the Iranian regional advance and Sunni political Islam.  It remains to be seen what this bloc will be able to achieve re its stated aims.  But the lines of confrontation between the two central power blocs in the region are now more clearly drawn than at any time in recent years.

 

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The Race for the Ruins

Jerusalem Post, 26/5

Events taking place in a remote stretch of south east Syrian desert in recent days reveal the current direction of US Middle East strategy.

 

An observable ratcheting up of US and allied air and special forces activity in eastern Syria is currently under way. This in turn appears to derive from a new, hard-nosed understanding of the nature of the strategic game in the large, strife-ridden area covering what was once Syria and Iraq.

On Thursday, May 18th, US aircraft launched strikes on a column of Assad regime vehicles including tanks and earth-movers, 18 miles from the town of al-Tanf, on the Syrian-Iraqi border.     The strikes took place after the vehicles entered an agreed deconfliction zone around the town.  US and British special forces are currently training ‘vetted partner forces’, ie Syrian Sunni Arab rebels in the town.

This was the second occasion in recent weeks that US aircraft have directly engaged against Assad’s forces.  On the first occasion,  the target was the al-Shayrat airbase.  That raid took place on April 6.  It was a clear retaliation for the regime’s use of sarin gas at Khan Sheikhoun on April 4.  The Shayrat raid was generally interpreted as a belated attempt to enforce the American ‘red line’ against further regime use of chemical weapons.  As such, it was not widely seen as indicating a more general change of policy.

The attack on the column near al-Tanf, by contrast, was not preceded by any unusual regime activity, apart from the approach of the column itself, and its too close vicinity to western forces.  On Monday, the pro-opposition website Syria Direct quoted an un-named US military spokesman as saying that ‘if pro-regime forces move further south or east from their current positions, this will be considered a threat.’ The website also reported that regime forces are preparing to move toward the Badia area, a stretch of desert to the north east of al-Tanf.

What is the significance of this butting of heads?

The battle against the territorial holdings of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is reaching its final phase.  The re-conquest of Mosul is almost done.  The assault on Raqqa city, the capital city of the Caliphate is about to begin.  It is set to be a hard and bloody fight.  But its eventual outcome is not in question.  Islamic State as an entity controlling ground will be destroyed. At which point the movement will revert back to its former status as a clandestine terror network.  As the eclipse of the Caliphate draws near, the race is opening up to inherit its former domains.

The competitors in this contest are  Iran and its various allies and proxies, and forces associated with the west and the Sunni Arab states.

The Iranians and their allies want to penetrate IS territory from west to east – with the Iraqi Shia militias pushing westwards from Tel Afar and Assad regime forces and pro-Assad militias (including Hizballah) probing east.

The regime forces nosing around in al Tanf are in the process of seeking to seize border areas with both Jordan and Iraq.  The US is determined to prevent that.  The town of Deir al-Zour and the surrounding oil rich areas will form an important part of the prize.

Pro-western forces, meanwhile are pushing north from Jordan and south from the Kurdish-controlled area north of the IS enclave.  The forces engaged on this side are the Syrian Democratic Forces, dominated by the Kurdish YPG, and the Maghawir a-Thawra (Commandos of the Revolution, formerly the New Syrian Army) rebels, supported by the US, UK and Jordan, from the south.

The outcome of this contest is of strategic significance, despite the remote and arid nature of much of the territory concerned.  The Iranians want to create a contiguous line of territory controlled by themselves and their allies stretching from Iraq into Syria, and thence to the Mediterranean Sea and the border with Israel.

Islamic State has formed a buffer against the achievement of this goal.  But Islamic State, in the usual manner of Sunni Salafi organizations when they control territory, declined to be satisfied with the stewardship of a small domain.  Instead, the Sunni jihadis elected to declare war on the west, using the territory as a base to hold and execute captured western prisoners, to prepare attacks against western civilian targets, to administer a regional network of franchise groups, and to attempt genocide against a non-Muslim population, the Yezidis.  As a result, the west, unsurprisingly,  made it a goal to destroy the Islamic State.

The question now is who will inherit.  The Americans, it appears, have understood that to stand a chance of  re-establishing influence and standing in the region, and beginning the process of turning back the Iranian advance, it is necessary to have skin in the game, ie to develop reliable proxies and have them control ground, in this pivotal area.

Only thus can a contiguous line of Iranian control from the Iraq-Iran border to the Mediterranean and Israel be prevented.  Only thus will the US be able to prevent an eventual outcome in Syria and in Iraq entirely favorable to the Iranians.  Hence the development by the US Department of Defense of the relationships with the YPG and elements among the Jordan-supported Sunni Arab rebels in the south.

It is worth also noting that the outcome in eastern Syria is not of primary interest to the Russians.  Russia wants to preserve the regime in existence and to keep its naval investments in Latakia Province. Neither of these interests is threatened by events further east.  Controlling the east is an Iranian and Assad regime goal only.

The outcome of this emergent contest will be of deep interest also to Israeli strategic planners.  While some recent analysis has suggested that Israel favors or should favor allowing IS to continue in existence as a quasi-state, it is obvious that this is no longer an option.  Syria as a state has largely ceased to exist.  The question now, as it is parceled out into zones of influence, is who will gain and who will lose.

Alongside the military jockeying on the ground, the diplomatic processes in Astana and Geneva will sputter on. Their eventual outcome, though, will depend on the balance of forces on the ground.  Iran wants its contiguous line not least in order to move weaponry and fighters both in preparation for and no less importantly in the course of a future war with Israel.  Preventing this is an Israeli national security interest par excellence.

This emergent US strategy has not yet been officially confirmed.  Indeed, Defense Secretary James Mattis was quoted by Agence France Presse after the al-Tanf strike as denying that the raid heralded any ‘increased role’ for the US in the Syrian war.

The pattern on the ground suggests otherwise.  The United States Administration has defined the Iranians and the Sunni jihadis of IS as its main adversaries in the region.   Eastern Syria is an area where the defeat of the latter by pro-western forces will constitute also a setback also for the former.  This is a game which is now afoot.  Much depends on its outcome.

 

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Al-Arabiya write about my recent visit to Syria

 

http://www.alarabiya.net/ar/mob/arab-and-world/syria/2017/05/18/%D8%B5%D8%AD%D8%A7%D9%81%D9%8A-%D8%B1%D9%88%D8%B3%D9%8A-%D9%8A%D8%B4%D9%87%D8%B1-%D8%B3%D9%84%D8%A7%D8%AD%D9%87-%D8%A8%D9%88%D8%AC%D9%87-%D8%B9%D8%B6%D9%88-%D9%88%D9%81%D8%AF-%D8%B2%D8%A7%D8%B1-%D8%B3%D9%88%D8%B1%D9%8A%D8%A7.html

English translation of the article:

The British researcher Jonathan Spyer  managed to obtain an entry visa to the areas under the control of the Assad regime last April. This was within the framework of  a delegation of foreign supporters of Assad, as Spyer described in  a detailed report on his website jonathanspyer.com on the 9th of May. He wrote a report upon his coming back from Syria and posted also on his Facebook page on the same date.

The British researcher conveyed a surprising incident in his report when he revealed an incident with a Russian journalist (whose name he didn’t mention) who threatened a member of the delegation with a pistol. Spyer said the authorities could do nothing with this “drunken” Russian journalist who was threatening with his weapon a member of the foreign delegation that was visiting the country. Spyer wrote that this is because the man was Russian and because “the Assad regime’s servants do not enjoy unquestioned sovereignty even in their own capital.” In the final paragraph of the report, Spyer contended that “today the regime is a hollow structure.”

Spyer ridiculed the slogan “Aleppo is in our eyes,” which he put as the background of his Facebook account and which is used by the Assad regime. He explained that it is intended to mean that Aleppo is under the observation of the Syrian regime and its tight surveillance and monitoring.  The journalist  had already entered Syria beforehand but to the areas under control of the Syrian opposition as mentioned in his report.

The report that the British journalist has produced does not agree with the whims of the regime’s propagandists. He surprised them, discarding Assad’s image that they are constantly trying to wave contrary to the reality. After the official reception, he was given facilities that could tempt any investigative journalist who strives to see the real situation closely. Afterwards he surprised them with an article about his visit titled, “Assad’s Hollow Crown.” In the article, Spyer disclosed the control of Iran and its affiliated militias and Russian forces over all circumstances of life [mafasil al-hayat, joints or details of the life]. [He showed] the Assad regime’s existence has become to an extent a facade, and summed this up in a memorable way by referring to Assad’s “hollow crown”–that is, a nominal power hollow and empty of content.

One of the amenities [facilities, ighra’at means literally “bait” to seduce] that the Syrian regime gave him was the permission to meet officers of the Assad army and cite their declarations as well as those of the Minister of Information Muhammad Ramez Tarjuman. The latter is now under fire from Assad’s propagandists. The British journalist  mentioned that the preparations for his trip to Syria were carried out in coordination with the Ministry of Information of the Regime. The latter appointed a representative to the delegation who accompanied it on its every step.

Spyer met with the regime minister for reconciliation Ali Haydar and published a picture of the encounter in which one can see also other members of the delegation that visited Syria in areas under Assad’s control. It is worth mentioning that the media affiliated with Hizballah militia depict Jonathan Spyer as an “Israeli journalist,” whereas some Arabic sources insist on calling him “a British journalist.” Spyer lives in Israel, and he is a researcher at the Global Research in International Affairs [Center] known as GLORIA.

Journalists of the Syrian regime channel demanded an immediate investigation with regard to “Jonathan Spyer’s entry and the interview that the state minister for national reconciliation gave him.” All this after the researcher had published an expanded report about his visit to the areas in Syria that are under the regime control and with its official accord.

TV repórter Reza al-Basha was suspended from the work on Syrian territories on the order of the Ministry of Information after he had revealed that the  Assad army and its affiliated militias stole from deserted dwellings of Allepo residents.  Reza al-Basha posted on his Facebook page that the Assad regime let “a Zionist” enter in the name of journalism, whereas it forbids entry to those who love Syria.

Doctor Akram Umran who runs a Facebook page, “Syria: corruption at the era of reform” (Surya: fasad fi zaman al-islah) has done the same: He threatened to investigate on his private Facebook page everyone who has contributed to the visit of the aforementioned journalist to Syria.

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Syria Has Effectively Ceased to Exist

Foreign Policy, 20/5.

Syria Has Effectively Ceased to Exist

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Assad’s Hollow Crown

Jerusalem Report, 9/5.

The mortar shells came early in the morning.  At about 5.  At regular intervals. Solemn and sinister. They were a reminder of how close it all was. We were in the Damascus Old City. There was still fighting in Jobar, about two kilometers away.  The rebels had also counter-attacked from the east, from the suburbs in eastern Ghouta, in the previous week.   A shell had landed in the precinct of the Umayyad Mosque.  This was not in accordance with the line being promoted by the regime, according to which the rebellion was on the verge of defeat.  But there it was.

The old city was tense, behind a veneer of strained normality.  There were checkpoints every hundred meters or so.  These were maintained not by the army, but by the National Defense Force (NDF), an Iranian-sponsored paramilitary force created to fill the gap presented by the Assad regime’s lack of loyal manpower. Young men mostly, with a sprinkling of older types and a very few girls.  Supervised by Mukhabarat officers with pistols in their belts.  They were suspicious of foreigners.  There had already been a number of suicide attacks by members of the jihadi organizations in regime-controlled areas.

 

A military checkpoint, Damascus, Old City. IMG_1471

For the most part, though, the atmosphere of strained normality held.  Undoubtedly, fear of the regime played its part in the exaggerated professions of loyalty and love for Bashar that one would hear.  But there was also justified fear of the Islamist rebels, and what their advance would mean. And, of course, there was mainly fatigue, and the desire of people to live in their own private circle, and willingness to cope with any governing authority which appeared able to provide for that.  The Syrian pound had plummeted in value since the start of the war – from 48 pounds to the US dollar in March 2011 to 625 to the dollar now.  There were long queues each morning to buy subsidized bread at the state bakeries.  The traffic was on the roads, the shops were open, pictures of the dictator and his family were everywhere. But all was far flimsier and more brittle than it initially appeared.

I should explain first of all how I came to be in Damascus.   I have been writing about Syria now for over a decade.  I have visited the country numerous times since the outbreak of its civil war in mid-2011.  My visits, though, were always to the areas controlled by the Sunni Arab rebels or the Kurdish separatist forces.  This was a notable gap in my coverage.  I wanted to remedy it.

The Assad regime makes it hard for journalists to acquire visas.  The authorities are keen consumers of media, and keep track of the names of reporters who have spent time among their enemies.  The number of journalists who have managed to report from both the government and rebel sides is very small.  I  had tried on a number of occasions to acquire a visa, but made little progress.

Finally, a colleague suggested the idea of joining a delegation of foreign supporters of the regime.  With the war going its way since late 2015, the Syrian government has begun to cautiously open up to visitors. But like other authoritarian regimes, it prefers to welcome these in groups, and under careful supervision.

I made contact with the organizers of one of these delegations. The process was surprisingly straightforward.

We met in Beirut and then crossed the border.  The tour was organized in cooperation with the Syrian Ministry of Information, so a representative of the ministry would be with us at all times.  The participants were a varied bunch.  Some pro-Assad true believers, some younger travelers. Mainly from the west, but a couple also from Jordan.

The Assad supporters represented that strange axis in contemporary western politics where far left meets radical right.   A British man on the delegation was fulsome with praise for Assad’s social welfare system.  The west, he declared, was fearful of Arab socialist regimes such as Assad’s Syria and Gaddafi’s Libya coming to form an example for western publics.  And later ‘The Rothschilds control the banking system in all the world.  There’s five countries where the banking system is not controlled by them.  Iran, Syria, China, Russia and North Korea.’

‘Syria refused to make peace with Israel,’  another of the participants, a young woman from Jordan, told me: ‘so they decided to start the war and bring down the Syrian government.  They will only allow puppet Arab governments who do what they say – like Jordan and Saudi Arabia.’

‘There was the Iraq war, of course.  And then there was the war of 2006, which was supposed to defeat the resistance. Then when this failed, they decided to try the ‘Arab Spring’ instead. ‘

This message – that the war in Syria is the result of an Israel-inspired conspiracy intended to foment internal unrest and split the country into enfeebled cantons – is the central talking point of regime spokesmen.  I would hear it again and again in Syria. Ironically,  I had heard a precise mirror image of this theory from Syrian rebel commanders on the Turkish-Syrian border a few months earlier.  In their telling, the conspiracy involved a nefarious alliance between the Iranians, the Assad regime and Israel.

In the case of the rebels, such claims come in Islamic garb, giving them a more contemporary feel. With the regime supporters, the justifications are wrapped in the antique tones of the old secular Arab nationalism of the 1960s and ‘70s. Ironically, of course, behind the nationalist rhetoric of Syria being the last defiant fortress of pan-Arab resistance and so on,  the Assad regime is today entirely dependent for its survival on non-Arab forces – namely Russia and Iran.

Indeed, perhaps the most striking and immediately apparent element in regime-controlled Syria is the yawning gap between the rhetoric of the regime, the impression it wants to give, and the underlying reality.  I’m not referring to the gulf between the gaudy ideological proclamations and the reality of a brutal police state. This should be obvious.  What I mean is the gap precisely between the attempt to convey the impression of a powerful, consequential Arab nationalist regime and the fragmented, enfeebled reality of a regime dependent on other forces both above and below it, and controlling only a part of the territory over which it claims sovereignty.

Syria today remains effectively divided into six enclaves.  The government controls Damascus, the three major cities to its north – Homs, Hama and Aleppo, and the western coastal area. There are two rebel held enclaves –  Idleb province in the north west, and parts of Dera’a and Quneitra in the south west.  The Kurds control a large area in the north east and an isolated canton further west (Afrin).  The Islamic State organization, meanwhile, holds a diminishing area in the east and south.   There is an additional Turkish-supported rebel enclave between the towns of Azaz and Jarabulus on the Syria-Turkey border.

The regime has been advancing since the intervention of Russian air power on its behalf in September, 2015.  But the advance is slow, and it remains doubtful if Assad will ever have sufficient strength to reunite the entire country under his rule.

By itself, the regime is very weak.  The Russian contribution is decisive in the air. Iran and its proxies are the key element on the ground.  The Assad regime from the outset has rested on a narrow base of available support. The Iranians have trained the auxiliary forces that make up the numbers, like the NDF that guards the Damascus old city. Teheran’s proxies – Lebanese Hizballah, the Iraqi Shia militias, the Afghan Fatemiyun and others – play a vital role on the ground.

Without Russian and Iranian assistance, a total regime victory is impossible.  The unanswered question at present is what the Russians want.  They, above any other force, control the direction of the war between Assad and the rebellion against him.  In the meantime,  Russian paratroopers in uniform stroll cheerfully through Damascus and Aleppo, and the regime-controlled part of Syria has effectively become a proxy, or puppet of Moscow and Teheran’s interests.

Controlled from above, the Assad regime is also subject to fragmentation from below.  There are over a hundred pro-regime militias active in the Syrian war.  They constitute around half of the available troop strength available to the regime.  These militias are not mere servants of Assad. Rather, they are centers of power and resources for the men that control them.  Some are small local groups, numbering just a few dozen fighters.  Others are countrywide and make use of heavy weapons including armor and artillery.

So the ‘regime’ side in Syria today isn’t really a single entity at all.  It is a coalition of interests, of which Assad and the power structure around him constitute only a single part.  But it is in the interests of all these elements that the Assad regime present itself as a single, united and sovereign force.  The regime’s antique Pan-Arab nationalist rhetoric, and the echoes it finds among some elements in the west and the Middle East are a part of this.

Aleppo

We entered Aleppo via the Sheikh Najjar industrial district in the east of the city.  The destruction wrought by Russian air power on formerly rebel-controlled eastern Aleppo is chilling, awe-inspiring in its proportions.  Whole neighborhoods reduced to rubble and rendered uninhabitable.  Moscow employed the means of total war on the city. What remains is mostly silence.  Just a few families have returned and are living among the ruins.

 

A house destroyed by aerial bombing, Aleppo.  IMG_1093

I have been in Sheikh Najjar once before.  That was in the summer of 2012, when the rebellion had just broken into the city.  I remembered it as we walked among the desolation.

It had been before the rebellion had taken on its definitively Sunni Islamist character – though the signs had already been prominently there.  I remembered the constant noise, the government planes overhead, the commanders of the long defunct Tawhid and Afhad al-Rasoul brigades in the Shaar and Saif al-Dawli neighborhoods, the terrified civilians in the basement of the Dar al-Shifa hospital, as the regime aircraft dropped their bombs outside.

Dar Al-Shifa is long since destroyed, of course. The civilians have gone too. Replaced by silence, and ruins.  A massive poster of Bashar Assad and his brother Maher is mounted at the entrance to the Aleppo Citadel.  ‘Congratulations on your victory, O Aleppo.’ it reads.  Another, seen all over the western part of the city, depicts a stern, helmeted member of the security forces and reads ‘Aleppo is in our eyes.’  This has a double meaning in Arabic –  ‘we are watching Aleppo’, but also  ‘Aleppo is precious to us’.  This is the way the Assad regime speaks to its subjects. A threat, lightly coated in a sickly sweet rhetoric.

Western Aleppo, nevertheless, appears superficially untouched by the war.  The rebels, entirely lacking in air power and with only primitive, improvised artillery, were never able to make a serious impression on it.  But the regime’s hold is narrower than it appears.  Even now, the rebels are not far from the city. They are located just north west of Aleppo in Kafr Hamrah and Huraytan.  The strained normality of the street scene in the west of the city is punctuated every so often by deep, ominous booms of artillery fire from somewhere not very far off. The war is not over. Nor has it gone away.

 

Bustan al-Qasr Neighborhood, AleppoIMG_1001

Homs

A single highway snakes its way south of Aleppo through regime-controlled territory, with the rebels to the west and Islamic State to the east.  At its narrowest point, near the town of al-Sa’an, the government controlled area is just a few kilometres wide.  You must take this road to get from Aleppo to Homs.

The devastation in Homs is, as in Aleppo, breathtaking.  Whole neighborhoods turned into wasteland, rendered uninhabitable.  Homs was one of the nerve-centers, the heartlands of the revolt against Assad.  Destroying the rebellion there meant destroying much of the city itself. This the Russians have undertaken and largely achieved.

Our guide in Homs was an ebullient Alawi Syrian lady called Hayat Awad.  Hayat was brimming with vim and confidence and contempt for the ‘terrorists’, as she called the rebels. But she wore a pendant around her neck, showing the face of one of her sons who had died fighting the rebellion while serving in Assad’s army.

Hayat trudged with us through the endless dead streets where the rebellion had lived and been destroyed, dispensing the official regime version of the conflict as she did so.  ‘They destroyed everything at the behest of the Jews,’ she declared, ‘because the Zionists want to claim that they have the oldest culture, but they were not able to do this because Syria has a history 7000 years old.’  We were in a Christian church damaged in fighting between the rebels and regime in the Homs old city at the time.

Casual anti-Semitism of this kind is common and entirely mainstream in the Arab world. No logic is required for it.  Consider the claim:  Sunni Arab jihadi fighters in Homs had deliberately set about destroying the Christian heritage in the area because the jihadis are in alliance with a broader Jewish and Zionist plan to destroy non-Jewish cultural heritage in the Middle East. This is part of a Jewish plan to pretend that theirs is the oldest culture in the area, or the world.  Such an idea is obviously insane.  It is also to be found among the mainstream of discussion in regime-controlled Syria.

Hayat Awad declared this in front of a small audience consisting for the most part of people who would declare themselves progressives, leftists and liberals in their own western homes. Not a word of protest.

While we were in Homs, a ‘reconciliation’ deal was under way.  The rebels were set to leave the last neighborhood of the city under their control, al-Waer.  These agreements are part of the regime strategy to reduce the area of the country under the control of the rebellion.  They involve laying siege to the area in question and then offering the rebels and their supporters the option of leaving for Idleb, which is under the control of rebel organizations.   In the case of al-Waer, the rebels and their supporters were being permitted to leave in exchange for the lifting of the rebels’ own siege on two isolated Shia villages in Idleb province – Fu’a and Kafriya.  The deal was delayed after a rebel group attacked a convoy of civilians coming from these villages in Rashidin, at the entrance to Aleppo, but has since been implemented.

Some observers of the Syrian war consider that these deals amount to a form of ethnic cleansing or depopulation, whereby Sunni Arab populations are being systematically induced to leave the government-controlled area.  No evidence of a clear and consistent plan on the part of the regime or its backers has yet emerged in this regard.  Indeed, the regime continues to accept refugees seeking to enter its zones of control from rebel areas, so claims of a general strategy of sectarian expulsion are unproven.  In Daraya, Moadamiya, Zabadani, and Aleppo City, the evidence shows that residents were given the choice of evacuation to Idleb or residence in nearby regime controlled areas. But in Homs city, specifically, it is clear that only very small numbers of civilians have been permitted to return.  Some accounts suggest that only people who actively sought to reach regime territory have been allowed to return to their neighborhoods.  Hence the acres of ruined and empty houses stand as a warning of the strength available to the regime and its backers and the tactics they are prepared to employ.

In one of the ruined houses we found remnants left by the retreating rebel fighters.  Some shell casings, and a Saudi-produced theological book about Ramadan, entitled ‘Spirit of the Fast.’  A sort of testimony or warning to those who might celebrate the destruction as a victory – that this other, Sunni Arab, Islamist Syria, despite it all, is not yet destroyed.

 

Destruction in Homs CityIMG_1271

Damascus

In a meeting with a serving general of the Syrian Arab Army, I asked what the regime’s strategy was for re-uniting the country.  The general, seated behind a picture of his younger self with Rifaat Assad, and puffing on an enormous cigar, responded that  ‘No conclusion of the war can come without the decision of ‘official Syria.’’  This vague reply was revealing of the large gap between the regime’s proud rhetoric, and the diminished extent of its power.

I received similar replies to the same question from ministers in Bashar Assad’s government with whom we met in the course of our time in Damascus.  Mohammed Tourjman, information minister, said that the ‘reconciliation’ process and the ‘liberation’ of occupied areas would continue. Only ‘ISIS and Nusra’, in his telling, refuse to be part of the reconciliation, and these are regarded internationally as terrorist organizations (with the implication that they could be dealt with by purely military means).  And with regard to the de facto division of Syria.  ‘We have absolute faith that this is a temporary situation.’  All this after an introduction in which the minister  too spoke of ‘a plan to divide Syria into cantons, and keep us weak, to the benefit of the Zionist entity.’  Again, this is a clear declaration of intent, but the reconciliation process at least as of now is mainly trimming the edges of the regime controlled zone, not fundamentally altering the balance of forces between the sides.

Ali Haidar, Minister of Reconciliation Affairs, who handles much of the practical aspect covering the transport of rebels from ‘reconciled’ towns was equally vague in response to this question.  Reunification will only come, he suggested, when ‘foreign powers stop supporting the Syrian organizations.’  No plan for how to achieve this. Haidar, incidentally, is not a Ba’athist. He is the leader of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party. This party, founded in 1932, is a fascist style group, even down to its swastika-style emblem, which he was wearing in his lapel during our meeting.  The party’s literature refers to Syrian rebels as ‘internal Jews.’

 

A poster commemorating the death of SSNP member Naim Salim Hadad, killed fighting the Syrian rebels, Homs.  IMG_1349

It is tempting but probably superfluous to dwell on these grotesque aspects of the Syrian government.   The  regime in its self-presentation openly resembles the European totalitarian governments of mid-20th century Europe.  This holds an ugly fascination for some Europeans and other westerners.  But the posturing and the rhetoric is mostly without weight, like a cheap tin pendant that only from a distance resembles solid metal.  Holding up this fragile structure are a variety of other forces more deserving of attention.

On our last night in the city, a member of the delegation was threatened at gunpoint by a drunken Russian journalist.  The  authorities in the area said they could do nothing, because the man was Russian. This small episode says more about the true state of affairs in government-controlled Syria than all the regime’s verbiage.  The Assad regime’s servants do not enjoy unquestioned sovereignty even in their own capital.  The regime is today largely a hollow structure.  The vigorous regional ambitions of Iran and Russia, and the smaller but no less notable intentions of a vast variety of pro-regime militia commanders must be factored into any assessment of regime capabilities and intentions.

The closeness of the Sunni Arab rebels to the regime’s urban centers, and the absence of Assad’s power from almost the entirety of the country’s east are further testimony to the erosion of the regime.  It is a very long way from the days when Hafez Assad ran Syria as his ‘private farm’, as a Syrian Kurdish friend of mine once put it.  The Assad regime cannot be destroyed for as long as Moscow and Teheran find a reason to underwrite its existence.  But the mortar shells landing in Damascus in close succession are an unmistakable testimony to its reduced and truncated state. The anachronistic rhetoric of its officials and its supporters does not succeed in disguising this reality.   Assad is wearing a hollow crown.

 

The author, Hamidiyeh Market, DamascusIMG_1486

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After ISIS

Jerusalem Post, 10/3

Who will dominate the post-Islamic State landscape in Iraq and Syria?

On the surface, the wars in Syria and Iraq are continuing at full intensity.  The fight between Iraqi government forces and the Islamic State in western Mosul is proving a slow, hard slog.  This week, government forces captured the police directorate and the courts complex in the city, moving toward the denser warren of the old city.  The jihadis are fighting for every inch of ground.  Further west, the US-supported Syrian Democratic Forces succeeded in cutting the last road from the IS capital of Raqqa to its stronghold in Deir al-Zur.

In the fight between the Assad regime and the Sunni Arab rebellion against it, a rebel attempt at a counter-attack in the city of Deraa has led to renewed bloodshed.  The regime is continuing its attacks on rebel-held Eastern Ghouta east of Damascus, despite a new Russian-brokered ceasefire.

But while the tactical contests are continuing, the general direction of events in both the war against IS and the fight between Assad and the rebels is now clear.

The Islamic State is on its way to ceasing to exist as an entity controlling significant territory.  This process is set to continue many months.  But IS, having lost tens of thousands of fighters and with the flow of new recruits drying up, facing enemies with complete control of the skies and vast superiority in numbers and equipment, has no means of reversing the trend.

In Assad’s war further west, meanwhile, the rebellion is in retreat and its eventual eclipse seems a near certainty.  The regime, with its Iranian, Russian and Hizballah allies, is currently seeking to reduce and destroy isolated rebel held enclaves in the midst of regime-held territory in western Syria.  Hence the attacks on  eastern Ghouta, and on Wa’er in the Homs area.  Once this is done, the pro-regime forces may well turn their attention to south west Syria, and eventually also to rebel-held Idleb province in the north.

The regime is also now engaging in the war against Islamic State.  Government forces  reached the Euphrates River this week, after sweeping through IS-held territory in the east Aleppo countryside.

As the direction of events becomes clear, so the possibility emerges of the Iran-led alliance achieving an overall victory in the Syria and Iraq wars.

Such a victory would on the face of it constitute an achievement for Assad.  But the Syrian dictator’s own forces are entirely dependent for advances on the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Hizballah, Iraqi Shia militia forces and paramilitary formations created by the Iranians to address the regime’s manpower shortages over the last five years. That is, the real power behind such a victory would be Iran-arranged forces on the ground. These, in turn, are only capable of moving forward in cooperation with Russian air power, as events in Aleppo and the north west have shown.

Such an outcome is still distant, and is by no means certain.  But it is no longer an impossibility, and Israeli and US planners will be noting its feasibility, and seeking ways to prevent it or reduce its impact.

What would such a victory look like?

It would include the following elements: firstly, the Assad regime would succeed in terminating or severely reducing the remaining areas held by the Sunni Arab rebels and Islamists in the western part of the country.  Secondly, following the destruction of IS-held areas in eastern Syria, regime forces supported by Russian air power would succeed in heading eastwards, challenging or co-opting Kurdish and remaining rebel forces in the area, and reaching the Syrian-Iraqi border.

Thirdly, following the reduction or destruction of IS in Ninawah Province, the Iraqi Shia militias organized in the framework of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) would remain under arms, becoming a permanent feature of the Iraqi political and military landscape.

The Iraqi parliament in late November passed a law making the PMU a permanent part of the Iraqi security forces.  The 100,000 fighters of the PMU do not consist solely of pro-Iranian elements.  But the main militias and de facto command structures are in the hands of pro-Iranian forces. Most significantly, the Badr Corps of Hadi al-Ameri and the Ktaeb Hizballah group of Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis are directly linked to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.

The militias are now located west of Mosul city, close to the town of Tel Afar.  If regime forces push eastwards, they will link at the border with their comrades of the PMU, creating a massive contiguous area of de facto Iran-controlled territory all the way from deep inside Iraq across Syria and into Lebanon.

That is what victory for the Iran-allied side in the wars in Syria and Iraq would look like.  How might it be prevented?

Advances for the Iranian side are only possible with the support of Russian air power.  And Russian goals in Syria (Iraq is less significant for Moscow) do not necessarily dovetail with Teheran’s.  Iran wants total victory, the reunification of Syria under Assad’s nominal control, and the emergence of the Iran-led Shia militias as the key power-holders in Iraq.

Moscow had and has far more limited goals.  The Russians in Syria wanted to prevent Assad’s defeat, secure their naval assets on the Mediterranean and make themselves the main broker in the subsequent frozen or semi frozen conflict.

There is a large gap between these two agendas, and working on and widening it should be foremost in the minds of both western and Israeli policymakers.

 

The Russians need to understand that while their own perceived vital interests in Syria can be accomodated, the far more ambitious Iranian agenda in the area crosses western and Israeli red lines, and therefore will not be allowed to achieve its goals.  Without the Russians, western and Israeli efforts to contain and turn back the Iranians can proceed apace.

This can be achieved through a combination of diplomatic efforts and facts on the ground. Regarding the former, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in his visit to Russia will presumably be making clear to Russian President Vladimir Putin that  Israel’s security red lines regarding Iranian and Hizballah creation of a new conflict line east of Quneitra Crossing, and regarding the need to prevent permanent Iranian bases in western Syria are serious, will be pursued, and can be achieved with no threat to Russian vital interests.

Regarding the latter, as of now the key force in Syria fighting Islamic State is the US-aligned SDF.  The latest reports indicate that elements of the US 75th Ranger regiment, and of the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit are deploying in eastern Syria, to support the fight against IS in this area.

Ownership by the US and its allies of eastern Syria in the post IS-period is the best way to prevent the possibility of the realization of Iran’s aims, while presenting Russia with a fait accompli.  The indications are that the US Administration is thinking in these terms. If so, Iranian victory emerging from the ruins of Syria and Iraq can be prevented.

The post-IS landscape in Iraq and Syria is emerging.  The contest for primacy within it is set to begin.

 

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