Monuments to the Caliphate in north-east Syria

29/9

In Raqqa, they were exhuming  a mass grave as we drove into the city.  It was by the municipality, in the center of the town.  A great gaping pit.  A group of men in blue municipality uniforms at work removing corpses.  A JCB accompanying them.  The bodies – mostly skeletons but with a little hair remaining on the heads of some of them, were wrapped in blue tarpaulin sacks and left aside as the work continued.  Some of the tarpaulin bundles were very small. These were the bodies of children, killed, perhaps by the Islamic State authorities, but just as likely by the coalition aircraft that had devastated the city prior to the entry of the fighters of the Syrian Democratic Forces.

The stench coming from the pit was very intense, a pungent, indescribable smell of putrefaction. The men wore masks against ingesting the foul air.  P. and I scrambled down the steep edge  and began to photograph them as they worked.

‘Some of these bones are probably of Da’esh men, anyway,’ the  foreman, who introduced himself as Jamshid,  remarked.  ‘They don’t care about graves and toward the end of the siege, they began to throw the bodies of their own men into these pits.  It was summer and they had precious little medicines left in the city.  They were frightened of epidemics, so they just threw the corpses into the mass graves and covered them up.’

One of the tarpaulin bags had been left open. From among the smaller ones.  You could see in there the roundness of a skull and an eye socket.

Nothing of this has anything to do with rest.  Such categories are useless for description.  Matter is not at rest.   One may come to understand in the contemplation of dead human matter the fascination for human sacrifice among very primitive peoples.  They wanted to grasp what exactly was the difference, at the exact point that living matter is turned into this. This inert, other stuff.  But there is no way to capture that. We only know that it is vastly, unutterable other.  Some cultures see the dead as impure, unclean.  Threatening to the living. There is something to this, too.  Unspoken, we and the Raqqa municipal workers were united in a slight sense of intangible danger, of participating together into a mission into some dangerous borderland.

In reality, there was no danger. What was left of the Islamic State was boxed in far to the south.  Raqqa was at peace. But we were located at an entrance point, like a gaping mouth, into the earth and that other realm.  In which lies war, corruption, and disappearance.

It was nearly a year since Raqqa had been liberated from the Islamic State. The city was still full of rubble. It was a sullen, tense and silent place in the slow afternoon.  Unexpectedly, wandering the city with my friends from the SDF, I felt a little like a representative of an army of occupation.  Too obsequious smiles from tradesmen, who beckoned us into their shops. Strange, sidelong, insinuating glances at Mustafa Bali, my old friend from Kobani, resplendent in his YPG camouflage.

‘We had a 10 day curfew here, a couple of weeks ago, to clear out IS sleeper cells.  They’re here. Those connected to the regime are trying to get organized, too.   Some of them are people who were with us before. Who think the regime’s coming back. Graffiti, demonstrations, that sort of thing.  No, nothing serious to worry about.’

That was ‘Haval Chia,’ the head of security in Raqqa city. He was a Kurd, maybe 40 years old, moustached, new to the notion of being part of the ruling authority. As were all the others.  But they’d grown into it fast.

The regime was winning the war and it was waiting on the other side of the Euphrates. Waiting to ‘reunite’ Syria and wipe out all this and put back the flag of the Ba’ath party all the way to the Iraqi border.  This was no longer somewhere in the distance.  It was coming forward, though slowly.  Like the armored suicide cars that IS used to operate at the start of the war.

Youd see them starting off, in the distance, from the jihadi’s lines.  They weren’t in any hurry. They knew at that time there were no weapons on the other side that could stop them. They’d approach like they had all the time in the world.  And you could run away or stay to face them when the explosion came.  That was how the regime wanted people to think of it.  Everything depended on the Americans.  If they stayed, nothing could cross the river. But who knew what they wanted. They didn’t seem sure themselves. And not only to do with Syria.

The regime were already here, anyway. But closed in. In Qamishli city and Hasakeh.  You had to be careful in Qamishli. The new confidence of the regime meant that they were asking foreigners for their I.Ds now.   It wouldn’t help to show them the little bit of paper that the Kurds had given you at the crossing at Fishkhabur. They’d already picked up a couple of unfortunates like that.

We’d almost stumbled in there ourselves.  Driving round Qamishli city with a driver from Kobani who didn’t know the geography of it. And who was  tired and young and maybe thinking about something else.  I’d noticed suddenly that there were crosses in the neighborhood and I’d heard that the regime’s area took in Christian areas. Then we’d seen the livid swastika type emblem of the SSNP and just a little further down a regime checkpoint and we’d turned around, very fast.

I had interviewed the leader of the SSNP a year earlier, in Damascus, under false pretences and they would have liked to talk to me.

This was how it was in Syria.  Everything nice and normal, even saccharine sweet like a Feyrouz song in the morning,  and then danger, from behind the curtain.

In Ein Issa, for example, at the SDF’s media center, I’d started talking in my kitchen Arabic to an Arab SDF fighter called Ali.  The Arabs tended to be more immediately  friendly than the Kurds and anyway I didn’t know Kurdish.  Of course within three minutes we were fast friends and I gave him my Facebook name and we shook hands warmly as we left. Then on the way back to Kobani as the light was fading I started thinking about regime information structures deep inside the Kurdish territories.  My Facebook profile revealed my residence in Jerusalem, in Israel. Ali, for all I knew, could be speaking to one of the various structures.  Making a phone call that evening to let them know who was passing through.  I was exaggerating, of course.  Not all or many of the Arab SDF fighters would be in contact with the regime.  And anyway I wasn’t important enough for something to be put on for my benefit so deep inside of Kurdish controlled territory.  But it was a reminder that nothing was ever really safe. Even when it seemed like it was.

That night back safe and cosy in Kobani I’d told P. to get us a different driver for the next day.  The following morning Mohammed Waisi arrived.  In his mid-50s but looking perhaps ten years older.  Mohammed was quiet, punctual, without airs.  A Kurd from Raqqa, but now living with his family in Kobani.

He didn’t speak much, until we were turning a corner outside of Ein Issa and he remarked ‘that was where my family and I were caught by ISIS in 2014.’  There was a short silence that followed. I encouraged him to continue.

‘when ISIS came to Raqqa, our neighbors began to say ‘our state has come. Its time for you to leave.’  So the Kurds began to leave the city.  I took my family to Abu Sora, then on to Kobani city.  We had the idea of returning to Abu Sora because we thought Kobani would fall.  We were travelling with two of my cousins and their families. About twenty of us in all.  We were passing that corner when ISIS opened fire at us from the side of the road, so we had to stop.

There were about twenty of them.  They ordered us out of the car and separated the men and the women. The women they put back in the car.  They made us men kneel down with our hands on our heads by the road.  They told us that we were PKK and that they were going to execute us.

Then they were distracted by  a YPG vehicle that came upon the road and they all began shooting at it.  They must have fired about 1000 bullets.  So it turned back. We were all just waiting by the side of the road. They were going to kill us, but in the meantime an ISIS Emir had turned up.  A blond haired guy,  we thought he was a Russian or a Chechen.  He asked them what they were doing.  They said they had captured some PKK members and were going to execute them.   The Emir said that we weren’t PKK but were just civilians with women and children. An argument started.  All this while we were waiting by the side of the road, kneeling.  Eventually, they agreed to call their commanders. It seems that they told them not to kill us so they put us back in the cars and took us to Tel Abyad.

There were basements in Tel Abyad where they were holding prisoners.  One for men, and one for women.  We were the first to arrive there.  But in the days that followed, more Kurds came. There were maybe 200 people packed in down there. They gave us some soup once a day.  The commander down there was a guy called Abu Quteybeh.’

Mohammed said all this while keeping his eye on the road from Ein Issa to Kobani.  I told him we should talk more back in the town, so I could write down what he was saying, and he agreed.  After that, there was silence as we covered the ground.

Back at Kobani, in the garden of the makeshift hotel where journalists and aid workers stayed, we sat with Mohammed Waisi and he continued his account.

‘After we’d been there about a week, Abu Quteybeh brought a captured YPJ fighter. He held her by her hair and showed her to us and he said that in two hours they were going to behead her in the square and we would be brought out to watch it.  So two hours later we were all gathered there, and they brought her out and cut her head off.  She had been tortured a lot and she didn’t resist.  One man sat on her legs so she couldn’t move.  The other one, on the top half.  Everyone had to watch it. Even the children..’

We were silent for a bit, the three of us, and then P. said, ‘ISIS would do this,you know, to frighten people.’

Mohammed continued; ‘They took us outside once, when the jets were coming, and they made us stand next to a building, they stood about 200 meters away, and shone a light on us.’

‘We got out because my neighbor from Raqqa, who had escaped to Turkey, had a cousin who was an emir with ISIS, and when he heard that we had disappeared he contacted them, and so after a while we were released.  They said they’d investigated us and found that we weren’t from the PKK.  So they gave us three days to get out of Raqqa, after which they couldn’t ‘guarantee’ our safety, they said.  We got through the checkpoints and to Bab al Salameh, then into Turkey and finally across the border into the KRG. We stayed there til ISIS was driven out of Kobani.’

There was silence and we sat around the table.  And finally, ‘While we were out of Raqqa my house was bombed and damaged. Now the neighbors began to build and repair it and they are living there.  We’re trying to get it back.  I spoke to Haval Chia, he’s a relative of mine. But he told me to be patient as they don’t want to inflame problems between Kurds and Arabs in Raqqa. ‘

Mohammed Waisi told us his story in low tones and never became animated.  Only later, in Raqqa city, when he took us to the site where his house had been, he began to weep and could not continue. Not knowing what to do, I have him a manly slap on the shoulder, of the type that army comrades give one another. It felt absurd then, as it sounds now.

Later, I asked him how the experience of all this had changed him.  He thought for a moment, and replied ‘I don’t enjoy anything anymore,or even feel anything. I used to like taking my grandson to the market and introducing him to people and so on.  But nothing really makes me feel anything anymore.’

We worked with Mohammed Waisi for another couple of days. We didn’t mention any of this again.  After that I left and crossed the border back to the KRG.

Islamic State brought out the monstrous element that waits not that far from the surface in any human situation.  It is important also of course to remember the specifically Arab and Sunni Islamic context in which it arose.    What it has mainly left along the landscape and in the minds of people are a series of horrifying monuments to itself and to the brief moment when it exercised its insane sovereignty across eastern Syria and western Iraq.

The Caliphate might have been short lived. But the forces that engendered it have not disappeared or been replaced by others.  In north east Syria, there is a contrast between the tranquility that seems evident, the solidity of it which one feels, and the extreme fragility which your intellect tells you is surely the reality.  In such cases, one should distrust ones’ feelings and emotions.  For now, the land is quiet.  But the war and the things that generated it are latent, and alive, and will manifest themselves again soon.  In the meantime, the monuments remain.

 

 

 

 

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Basra Heat: Unrest in the city reflects underlying instability in Iraq

Jerusalem Post, 14/9

Over the past week, violent protests have swept the southern Iraqi city of Basra. Twelve people have been killed in the protests and hundreds injured.

The protests focused on the dire living conditions in the city, which is located in a province that is home to 70% of Iraq’s oil reserves. Corruption and chronic mismanagement have produced a daily reality of electricity shortages, lack of drinking water, and high unemployment. There are fears of a cholera outbreak resulting from poor sanitary conditions. Thirty thousand people have been hospitalized after drinking polluted water in recent weeks.

The protests are a violent reaction to all this. No coherent demands or united leadership have yet emerged from the unrest. But the targets of the rioters do not appear to be entirely random. According to the Arabic-language Asharq al-Awsat newspaper:

“Protesters set fire to the building of the neighboring provincial council and a number of party and faction headquarters, including the headquarters of the ruling Dawa Party, the Islamic Supreme Council, the Badr Organization – the largest Shi’ite armed group supported by Iran in Iraq, the headquarters of the Brigades of Imam Ali, and Asaib Ahl al-Haq, led by Qais al-Khazali, and the movement of the former deputy leader Hanan al-Fatlawi. The protesters also attacked offices of the state-run Al-Iraqiya TV and the office of the al-Furat channel of Hakam al-Hakamah, led by Ammar al-Hakim.”

In addition, protesters attacked the facilities of the Ktaeb Hezbollah, Khorasani and Hezbollah al-Nujaba militias.

With the exception of the TV channel, all the above-mentioned targets have one thing in common – they are all clients or proxies of the Iranian regime in Iraq. This orientation of the protests culminated in the burning of the Iranian Consulate in Basra by protesters on Friday, September 7. Protesters chanted “Iran out, Basra remains free,” according to a report in Gulf News.

It is worth noting that Basra is a largely Shia city. The protests were not sectarian in nature. The demonstrators were evidently acting upon a simple and entirely accurate calculation: the situation in the city is intolerable. Those in power are to blame. And the visible power in Iraq today, particularly in the majority-Shia Basra Governorate, is Iran.

The demonstrators in Basra evidently understand something about their country that remains elusive to much Western commentary.

In the aftermath of the military defeat of Islamic State in Iraq, a narrative became widespread in the Western media that a strong and independent Iraqi state was reasserting itself. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi was depicted as the leader who had brought Iraq back together. He had, according to this view, defeated the Sunni Arab/jihadi challenge to Iraqi sovereignty posed by Islamic State. He had then defeated Kurdish hopes of secession in late 2017, forcing the Kurds back into the Iraqi fold by force (and dismissing the results of their referendum, in which 93% had opted to leave the country).

Abadi, according to this telling, would now move forward heading a new government to focus on the pressing matters of governance facing his newly reunited country.

Unfortunately, it turns out that much or most of this is illusion. The May 12 elections resulted not in a victory for Abadi’s prematurely named Nasr (Victory) list. Rather, Moqtada al-Sadr’s Sairoon goup, running specifically on an Iraqi nationalist platform seeking to distance the country from both Tehran and the US, emerged with the largest parliamentary representation. The second-largest was the pro-Iranian Fatah list of Hadi al-Ameri. Abadi came in third. The subsequent coalition negotiations have resulted in deadlock.

But in any case, it is clear that even if a coalition dominated by Sadr and Abadi eventually emerges, the independent Iran-directed military power of the Shia militias will remain.

The pro-Iranian militias and their political representatives blame the US and Saudi Arabia for the unrest in Basra. There are indications that they are preparing their own violent response. On September 7, three mortar shells were fired at Baghdad’s Green Zone, the center of Iraqi government institutions and associated with the US presence in Iraq.

The Iran-supported Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia has claimed responsibility for the attack. It came just two days after a statement by Iran-supported militias promising to strike at US targets in the country.

The statement read: “We look with anger at the illegal military presence of foreign forces in Iraq under any name, and we state clearly that our patience is limited and that we will deal with them as an occupying force, and it is our legitimate right to use all means to get it out of our country.”

Ameri has also threatened to “overthrow” any “collaborating” government formed with US assistance “within two months.”

So what is taking place within Iraq is a sharp polarization against a backdrop of political deadlock.

The events in Basra appear to reflect popular anger against Iran’s de facto power in Iraq. But the militias and their Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) backers are unlikely to be deterred or made to change course by popular unrest. Rather, the signs are they will dig in and mobilize their own counterforce. In the by now familiar pattern of Iranian penetration of neighboring countries, political and military activity will complement each other. The ultimate threat of independently wielded force will lie behind all political moves.

The latest evidence suggests that as the US-Iran confrontation grows in intensity, so the curtain dividing the Iranian state from its proxies is growing increasingly frayed. Both the US and Israel are today involved in a region-wide attempt to contain and roll back the Iranian advances of recent years. Iraq is one of the arenas in which Iran is at its strongest, and where it is evidently determined to resist any attempt to push it back.

Over the weekend, as the riots in Basra raged and the mortar shells landed on the Green Zone, Iran launched seven ballistic missiles at the offices of two Iranian Kurdish parties on Iraqi soil, near the town of Koya. The strike killed 18 people and wounded another 49, according to a report on the Kurdistan 24 news website. The IRGC has since claimed responsibility. It was an open display of contempt for the very Iraqi sovereignty whose return was lauded not so long go by Abadi’s promoters in the West. Iran regards Iraq not as a country, but as a territory within which it wields power both openly and by proxy.

Tehran also evidently views Iraq as an ideal territory to begin the pushback against the US and allied moves against it of recent months. As this contest intensifies in the period ahead, the country looks set to experience further instability.

 

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Syrian War: Uneasy Calm in US-protected Kurdish Enclave

The Australian, 8/9

The Syrian-Turkish border area in the early morning hours is calm and almost serene. Driving from the town of Kobane to the border crossing at Semalka one may get the impression that there is not much of a war remaining at all in the country.

Every few kilometres, to be sure, one runs into a checkpoint of the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces or the Asayish security police.

But their close presence on the ground, for anyone who knows Syria, is reassuring rather than disturbing. It is evidence of solid central authority. Such authority is the best guarantee against the arbitrary activity of armed bands that for a while constituted the chief danger to foreigners travelling through northern Syria.

The forces staffing these checkpoints were partners of the US and the West in its almost completed bid to destroy Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The successful prosecution of that war led to the present reality in which the US and its partners are the joint de facto sovereign of a large, resource-rich swath of Syria.

The calm, however, and indeed the solidity of the authorities in whose name the check­points on the Kobane-Semalka route are staffed, is illusory. The Syrian situation is in flux.

Northeastern Syria, in which Kobane and Semalka are located, remains the largest part of the country outside the control of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. It is controlled by the SDF and its US and French allies.

The Assad regime has effectively defeated the rebellion launched against it in March 2011. The independent rebel enclaves in Deraa and Quneitra fell last month. Russian and regime forces are assembling for an offensive against the final area of independent rebel control in Idlib province in the northwest.

Once Idlib is secured, this will leave the regime in control of about 65 per cent of Syria. This area will include the capital Damascus, the city of Aleppo and another eight of Syria’s 14 main cities.

The SDF-controlled area east of the Euphrates river will remain the second largest area of control.

There is also an area of the northwest likely to stay for now under direct Turkish supervision. This zone contains the remnants of the rebellion — Sunni Islamist militias now effectively working for Ankara.

The situation is not stable. Assad is determined to reunite Syria in its entirety under his rule. In May he said he would first seek to negotiate with the representatives of what he called the “temporary structures” in eastern Syria. But if talks failed, “the Syrian army will be forced to liberate areas occupied by the SDF, with the Americans or without the Americans. This is our land, it’s our right, it’s our duty to liberate these areas and the Americans should leave. Somehow, they’re going to leave.”

The authorities in the SDF-controlled enclave take this threat seriously. Their response, however, appears not yet fully crystallised. In the main, clarity is prevented by the larger ambiguity of US regional policy, American air power being the main guarantor of the enclave against an ­assault by Assad’s forces.

Are the Americans staying or going? What will be the results in either case? And what are the hopes and aspirations of the inhabitants of this small but strategically important corner of Syria as the war in their country enters its eight year? In late July, Inquirer travelled to the SDF-controlled part of Syria seeking answers to these questions.

The emergence of the Kurdish-dominated enclave east of the Euphrates is one of the least likely success stories of the Syrian war.

Before the civil war, Syria’s Kurds were among the most severely oppressed, and among the most invisible minorities, of the Middle East. Numbering between 10 per cent and 15 per cent of the pre-war Syrian population, they were prevented from educating or even naming their children in their native language. A section of the Kurdish population was deprived of travel and passport rights. Some, the so-called maktoumeen (unrecorded), lacked even citizenship and access to education.

The emergence of a de facto Kurdish enclave following the withdrawal by the Assad regime from a swath of the county’s north in 2012 changed all this. The enclave successfully defended itself against an early attempt by the rebels to destroy it. In 2014 the Kurds formed a de facto alliance with the US and the West in the war against Islamic State. This war, along with the regime’s (and Russia and Iran’s) war against the rebels, now is in its closing stages.

“The Syrian crisis has passed out of the hands of the Syrian people and is now in the hands of outsiders,” Manbij Military Council spokesman Shervan Darwish tells the Inquirer.

Darwish is speaking in his dilapidated office in a base in Manbij town. We have just witnessed a group of US special forces soldiers leaving a meeting. (Our Kurdish hosts told us to stay out of sight: the Americans are camera-shy and disapprove of civilians coming on the base.)

Manbij is a good place to begin to take the temperature of northern Syria. It is the farthest point west that the area of de facto Kurdish and US domination reached. Just west of the Euphrates, it is one of the points at which the rival camps now operating in Syria nudge up against one another. Darwish, with a laugh, describes it as “the Bermuda Triangle.”

“On one side, Euphrates Shield and the Turks; another side, the regime and Iran. And another side, the Americans and us. The situation is complicated,” he says.

Manbij was liberated from Islamic State by the SDF in a bloody fight in 2016. So far it remains under SDF control. The regime is just to the south, in al-Khafsa. The Turks and their rebel clients, meanwhile, are just to the west. The Turks regard the Kurdish ­forces as a branch of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is in an insurgency against Ankara. As a result, under US tutelage, in a complicated arrangement, the Kurdish armed element has withdrawn from the town. The non-sectarian Manbij Military Council is responsible for security. The Turks patrol a line to the town’s north jointly with their US-NATO allies. Assad’s forces and their allies wait to the south.

In the meantime, the town has come back to life. There is little damage visible a year on. The covered market is flourishing and crowded at midday. The civic council is noisy with good-natured bustle. One would not suspect that just behind all this normality a complicated and combustible international stand-off is brewing.

For as long as the Americans are patrolling the Sajor line, no one — neither Assad and the Iranians nor the Turks and the rebels — is going to seek to break in. But are the Americans staying? In March, Donald Trump vowed to bring home American troops within the year. There are 2000 declared US special forces personnel in the SDF-controlled area. The real number is probably twice that.

The US President’s statement added to the sense of insecurity. SDF officials and their civilian counterparts in the Syrian Democratic Council remain, at least for public consumption, optimistic about the possibility of a long-term US presence to underwrite their enclave.

Aldar Khalil, one of the top officials in the enclave, tells Inquirer: “It is not logical that the US will leave immediately or soon: after ISIS (Islamic State), the US will fight Iran. And they will fight Iran within Syria.”

From this point of view, the SDF enclave would be “folded” into an emergent US strategy to contain and push back the Iranians. “Many projects are in Syria — that of the Turks, of the Russians, of the Iranians. The Americans see us as the least dangerous, the most moderate,” Khalil says.

Mustafa Bali, chief media officer of the SDF, concurs: “US interests require them to be here,” he tells Inquirer, speaking at a dusty SDF base in the town of Ein Issa. “The US is concerned by the Iranian crescent” — that is, the desire of the Iranians for a contiguous line of control stretching from the Iraq-Iran border via Iraq, Syria and Lebanon to the Mediterranean Sea.

As SDF spokesman Nuri Mahmoud notes: “We have been in coalition with the US since the Kobane battle. There has been media speculation regarding imminent withdrawal. (Russian President Vladimir) Putin also once said that his forces were leaving, but the opposite took place. Syria today is a place of international confrontation in which all forces seek to strengthen their allies on the ground. The US will not leave Syria without stability on the ground. And we see no evidence of imminent withdrawal.”

These sentiments are to a degree supported by the latest statements of US officials. Defence Secretary Jim Mattis, speaking in early June, said: “As the operations ultimately draw to a close, we must avoid leaving a vacuum in Syria that can be exploited by the Assad regime or its supporters.

A report on July 27 in Britain’s The Times, meanwhile, cited “Gulf sources” as confirming that Trump declared in his meeting with Putin in Helsinki that US troops would remain in Syria until Iranian forces withdrew.

The Times article also noted that national security adviser John Bolton told US network ABC that US forces would remain “as long as the Iranian menace continues throughout the Middle East”. All this sounds like a commitment that ought to offer reassurance to Washington’s Kurdish allies.

Actions, however, are a better guide than sentiments. And it ­appears the SDF-SDC leaders remain sceptical regarding long-term US plans. Last week, the first direct negotiations took place in Damascus between their representatives and those of the Assad regime.

All SDF and SDC representatives who spoke to Inquirer were at pains to point out they did not seek to partition Syria permanently. The talks with the regime, according to regional media, focused on practical arrangements in the fields of health, education, water and electricity provision, and the maintenance of the Euphrates Dam, captured by the SDF from Islamic State in 2016.

Ilham Ahmed, who led the SDC delegation in Damascus, told Inquirer: “We want to start with service negotiations and then move on to political negotiations.”

But while the prospects for practical co-operation seem real, the broader visions of the Assad regime and the SDC are entirely irreconcilable. Ahmed says SDC demands in the negotiations include “a decentralised state, federalism, democratic autonomy, all to be reflected in a new Syrian constitution. Also language rights, also oil to be distributed to all Syrians, not specific to this or that ethnic group.”

All this flies in the face of the far grimmer vision of the Assad regime, according to which the entirety of Syria is to be returned to its exclusive and dictatorial rule.

According to a report on the pro-Assad Al Mayadeen television channel, regime representatives in Damascus dismissed these demands out of hand when they were raised by the SDC delegation.

Al Mayadeen reported that regime representatives proposed a minor strengthening of existing laws regarding local representation and emphasised that only Assad’s military — the Syrian Arab Army — would be permitted to carry arms. Accession to such demands would represent a wholesale surrender of the SDC. But the regime’s positions as ­reflected here are entirely unsurprising and in line with its publicly known stances.

So the uncertainty remains. Ordinary people in the SDC areas are acutely aware of it, even as they go about their daily lives in relative security. Ali, an Arab fighter with the SDF, begins by dutifully repeating the official line, telling Inquirer: “There’s no way the regime’s coming back here. Of course not.” Then he adds: “Well maybe, just to provide services and so on, but not in force.” Before concluding, with a smile: “Well, if they do come back, I’ll need to get out of here pretty fast anyway.”

According to Hogir from Kobane: “People just don’t want another war. And they’d like to be able to travel throughout the country, to go to Damascus and the coast, to study in university.”

The effects of eight grinding years of conflict, not yet concluded, are there just below the surface. People tell, hesitantly at first, stories of the terrible summer of 2014, when Islamic State and other jihadis swept across the countryside.

This author was there at the time and the details of such stories are familiar. It is nevertheless astonishing to remember in detail the extent of Islamic State cruelty and barbarism: the public executions that families were forced to watch; the severed heads impaled on spikes at Raqqa City’s central intersection. Islamic State now has gone. In its aftermath, the prospect of capitulation or potential further conflict appears to be the unpalatable choice facing the residents of the SDC-administered 30 per cent of Syria.

Ultimately, all this shows once again the extent to which the “Syrian” war is no longer mainly about Syrians. Larger conflicts are being played out on Syrian soil. The Assad regime depends on Iranian involvement on the ground and Russian support in the air to move forward. The SDC is watching anxiously for the US decision that will make the difference between inevitable surrender and the possibility of resistance. To the west of its enclave are Turkey and its Sunni Islamist allies.

For now, at least, the action is to be conducted in negotiating rooms while the situation on the ground remains static. That is unlikely to remain the case for long. After eight years of bloody conflict, the normality of the market scenes in Manbij and the quiet on the road from the Semalka border crossing to rebuilt Kobane are deceptive. The crisis in Syria remains far from resolution.

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Erdogan’s Dilemmas

Jerusalem Post, 1/9

Turkey Faces Few Good Options as Idlib offensive looms

Syrian regime and Russian forces are currently preparing for an offensive into Idlib Province in north west Syria. The attack on Idlib is set to mark the final major action in the war between the Assad regime and the insurgency against it.  Moscow has moved 10 warships and two submarines into the waters off the western coast of Syria.  This represents the largest concentration of Russian  naval forces since the beginning of Moscow’s direct intervention into the civil war in Syria in September, 2015.

The regime, meanwhile, is dispatching ground forces from further south, as its forces complete a recent offensive against Islamic State fighters in the Sweida area.

Idlib is set to form the final chapter in a Russian-led strategy that commenced nearly three years ago.   According to this approach, rebel-controlled areas were first bombed and shelled into submission and then offered the chance to ‘reconcile’, ie surrender to the regime. As part of this process, those fighters who did not wish to surrender were given the option of being transported with their weapons to rebel-held Idlib.

This approach was useful for the regime side.  It allowed the avoidance of costly last-stand battles by the rebels.  It also contained within it the expectation that a final battle against the most determined elements of the insurgency would need to take place, once there was nowhere for these fighters to be redirected. That time is now near.  There are around 70,000 rebel fighters inside Idlib.  The dominant factions among them are Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, (the renamed Jabhat al-Nusra, ie the al-Qaeda franchise in Syria), and the newly formed, Turkish-supported Jaish al-Watani (National Army), which brings together a number of smaller rebel groups.

The presence of the Turkish-supported Jaish al-Watani among the Idlib rebels reflects the complex, broader political/diplomatic situation surrounding the upcoming Idlib offensive.   The offensive will not mark the end of conflict in Syria.  Rather, once Idlib is returned to the regime, the dynamic in Syria will conclusively shift – from one at least partially led by autonomous political-military organizations, to one entirely directed from above by sundry state interests, which make use of various militia groups as proxies.

As this dynamic emerges, it represents a particular dilemma for Turkey.  Ankara in the early stages of the war abandoned a burgeoning relationship with the Assad regime to throw its full weight behind the Sunni Arab rebellion.  It saw the insurgency (correctly) as one of a number of conservative Sunni Arab movements then sweeping the Middle East.  The AKP government envisaged itself as the natural patron and leader for these movements. Unfortunately for the Turks, the Sunni Islamist wave was brief and has left little permanent imprint on the region.

With the entry of the Russians onto the Syrian battlefield, and the decision by the US not to offer major support to the rebels, the insurgency lost any hope of defeating the Assad regime.

Turkey then transferred its focus in Syria to two areas: preventing the Kurdish area of control in the north east from extending across the 900 km Syrian-Turkish border in its entirety, and, slightly more nebulously, preventing the complete defeat and destruction of the rebels, which if allowed to happen would represent a  humiliating failure for the government of President Recep Tayepp Erdogan.

The first goal was achieved in two stages: in August 2016, in Operation Euphrates Shield, the Turks established an area of control in northern Syria from Jarabulus to Azaz, leaving the Kurdish Afrin canton isolated. In January 2018, in the creatively named Operation Olive Branch, they then destroyed and occupied Afrin, thus creating an area of exclusive Turkish control stretching from Jarabulus to Jandaris in the Aleppo Governorate.

The second goal appeared for a while to be progressing in a satisfactory way.  The Turks have invested in administration and education in their area of control in north west Syria.  Signs in Turkish, Turkish trained police, Turkish administration in schools and hospitals are all features of the ‘Euphrates Shield Zone.’  The authorities there have even issued new i.d cards for residents of the area, marked with the opposition flag and translation in Arabic and Turkish.  The formation of the Jaish al Watani forms a key element of this effort.

But this project is placed into question by the prospect of the regime offensive into Idlib. There are 3.5 million civilians in the province. Turkey fears the possibility that this offensive could generate a new rush of refugees for Turkey’s borders or into the Euphrates Shield Zone.  Also, given Assad’s determination to reconquer Syria in its entirety, a successful Idlib offensive will surely be followed by pressure on the Turks to quit this zone. It would at that point constitute the last remaining barrier to Assad’s full reincorporation of north west Syria.

But for Turkey to quit this area would be to accept the final and total eclipse of the  Sunni Arab cause, and the clear and humiliating total defeat of Turkey’s aims.  To do so while the PKK-associated Kurds retain a large de facto area of control east of the Euphrates would represent a double defeat.

Turkey is currently engaged in diplomacy to forestall this possibility.  Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu last week warned against a military operation into Idlib, saying it would be a ‘disaster.’ Cavusoglu, notably, was speaking to reporters in Moscow, after meeting with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov.

Russia is key here.  A notional Moscow-brokered truce has been in place in Latakia, Idlib and Hama provinces for the last three weeks. But it is subject to daily violations by regime forces, and seems likely to go the way of previous Russian brokered agreements in other parts of Syria which preceded regime and Russian assaults.

President Erdogan is due to travel to Iran on September 7th, to meet with Presidents Putin and Rouhani.  The future of north west Syria is set to dominate the discussions.

Why is the Russian position pivotal?  Iran, of course, supports the reunification of Syria by the regime. Turkey clearly prefers the status quo.  Russia, meanwhile, has broader interests.   On the one hand, it is in alliance with the regime and Iran.  On the other, Moscow has a clear interest in drawing the government in Ankara further away from its fraying connections with the US.  Offering Turkey at least part of what it wants in northern Syria would be useful in this regard, but would have a cost for Moscow’s relations with  its allies. It is probable that Putin will seek some face saving formula for Turkey.  But the dilemma showcases the fragility of Russia’s current stance as the supreme arbiter in Syria, enjoying positive relations with all forces.

Erdogan will be seeking in Teheran to use the Russian desire to draw him away from NATO, and perhaps Iranian hopes that Ankara may act as an oil-sanctions buster for Iran after November, to salvage something of Ankara’s project in Syria.  As the Syrian revolution goes down to  military defeat, the great game of the presidents and the diplomats over the ruins of the country is moving into high gear.

 

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Is southern Syria heading for ‘Lebanonization’? 

Jerusalem Post, 13/7

The raid on the T4 base at Tiyas in southern Syria this week was, according to global media reports, the third such action by Israeli air power against this facility in the course of 2018.  It is the latest move in an apparently ongoing campaign to prevent the entrenchment and consolidation (these are the words favored by Israeli officials) of the Iranian military infrastructure in Syria.

Meanwhile, the Assad regime is moving into the final stages of its offensive against the rebellion in Deraa Province.  Evidence has emerged of the presence of Iran-supported Shia militias among the forces operating on behalf of the regime in Deraa.  The two forces whose commanders were photographed in the area are Liwa al-Zulfiqar and the Abu Fadl al-Abbas Brigade.

Haidar al Jubouri, Zulfiqar’s commander, was photographed in the operations room of the Syrian Arab Army’s 4th Division in Deraa.  Commanders of the Abu Fadl al Abbas brigade, meanwhile, were seen in the area of Tafas.  Notably, the latter individuals were pictured in Syrian army uniform, and in conversation with Russian officers.

A number of Israeli commentators this week downplayed the significance of these revelations.  They argued that the apparently minor and limited presence of the Shia militias in the Deraa offensive was testimony to the success of Israeli diplomatic efforts to impress upon the Russians the importance of limiting the Iranian presence in the offensives in south western Syria.

The Israeli concern is not primarily with Deraa.  Rather, Jerusalem is watching carefully to see which forces will be involved in the regime’s advance on Quneitra province, adjoining the Israeli-controlled part of the Golan.

If the Quneitra offensive involves a similar mixing of forces to that in Deraa, this will enable officials to claim that Russian pressure is working, while presumably restating Israel’s determination to continue efforts to expel Iran from Syria in its entirety.  Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said this week that ‘“The fact Iranian forces are present in Syria at all is unacceptable, and we will act against any Iranian consolidation in the area.’ Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, meanwhile met this week with Russian President Vladimir Putin.  Prior to the meeting, the Prime Minister’s Office issued a statement reiterating that ‘“Israel will not tolerate a military presence by Iran or its proxies anywhere in Syria and that Syria must strictly abide by the 1974 Separation of Forces Agreement.”

So Israel makes clear its determination that Iran should quit Syria in its entirety, acts against specific Iranian targets, and appears to ignore or downplay those elements of the Iranian presence against which air action would have more limited or problematic application (such as pro-Iranian units integrated into the Syrian Army).  The Iranians, meanwhile, appear at present to be absorbing the blows with little apparent attempt at response, while maintaining their overall presence in Syria.  Where may all this be headed?

First of all, it is important to understand the nature and dimensions of the Iranian project in Syria.  Iran’s deep alliance with Assad’s Syria goes back to the first days of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and to Hafez Assad’s support or Teheran in the Iran-Iraq War.  Over the last seven years of civil war, however, the nature of the relationship has changed.  Iranian provision of manpower and organization of paramilitary forces has been essential to the regime’s survival.  Teheran has invested upwards of $30 billion in Syria.  The IRGC has established bodies within the formal structures of the Syrian state (the National Defence Forces), recruited young Syrians into locally based IRGC-associated paramilitary groups, (Quwaat al-Ridha, 313 battalion), and of course brought its paramilitary proxies onto Syrian soil, along with IRGC personnel.

This is a major, far-reaching process, resembling in its key particulars parallel projects in Lebanon and Iraq.  The intention is to establish political-military structures which will serve to enable the projection of Iranian power over the long term.  The Iranian expertise in this area is without parallel in the region.  As a result of this approach, Teheran now dominates Lebanon and has the upper hand in Iraq.  Assad’s Syria, which has an openly dictatorial system, is a different political context to these, of course.  But the evidence suggests that the Iranians are digging in to stay.

Will the Russians act as the lever for the removal of this Iranian project?  This appears to be the hope of Israeli policymakers.  But the facts would appear to indicate that Russia has neither the will, nor even the ability, to achieve this objective.

Regarding the former, on July 4th, Russian foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov described US and Israeli demands for a complete Iranian withdrawal as ‘completely unrealistic.’  The Iranian pro-regime media is full of fear and speculation at the prospect of Russian betrayal.  The Russian agenda in Syria does not directly parallel that of the Iranians (Moscow seeks good relations with all interested parties, the better to make itself the essential arbiter).  But Moscow also has no interest in seeing the Iranians humiliated or their project reversed, particularly because they remain essential to the viability of Assad’s regime.

In any case, the Russian intervention in Syria has been predicated on a modest ground presence.  It is thus not clear by which mechanism Russia could seek to induce such a withdrawal, even if it wished to

So the Iranian project in Syria is likely to continue, and Iranian-associated forces in one guise or another are likely in the period ahead to be operating close to the border with Israel.  Israel, meanwhile, is likely to maintain its intelligence domination across Syria, and to continue periodically to strike at Iranian and Iranian associated targets, in order to build deterrence and prevent the consolidation of weapons systems and deployments.

Does this sound familiar? It ought to.  It is in its essentials the situation that pertains in south Lebanon, and (in a far less threatening way) the Gaza Strip.

What we see here is a contest between two systems with entirely different areas of expertise.   The Iranians excel in establishing and utilizing  political and paramilitary clients to build power within regional spaces.  They are however sharply deficient in conventional military skills.  Israel, meanwhile, is outstanding in the fields of air warfare and intelligence, and seeks to avoid being sucked into involvement in the complex and cut throat world of proxy warfare within Arab societies (the now soon to be abandoned cooperation with the rebels of Quneitra represented only a partial exception to this rule).

The likely emergent picture in Syria, as in Lebanon, is therefore the ongoing consolidation of another IRGC project, in the framework of a weakened and truncated Arab state, along with an ongoing Israeli effort to deter the masters of this project from acts of aggression, or to confine such acts to the realm of rhetoric.   Such a state of affairs is by its nature precarious, and potentially combustible.  At the same time, the Israeli system has shown considerable skill  in recent years precisely in the management of comparable situations.

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The Rebellion at Twilight

Jerusalem Post, 29/6

Deraa offensive marks endgame for the Syrian rebellion – but strife in Syria set to persist

The Syrian regime’s offensive on the rebel held areas of Syria’s Deraa province commenced on June 25th. The Syrian Arab Army’s premier units are among the forces engaged. The Tiger Forces of Colonel Soheil Hassan, and the 4th Armored Division are in Deraa.  So too are fighters from Lebanese Hizballah, in Syrian army uniform, according to a Hizballah associated website.

This offensive is of symbolic as well as practical significance.  Deraa, after all, was where the Syrian rebellion began.  It was demonstrations by schoolchildren in this south west Syrian province, and the Assad regime’s brutal response to them, which set in motion the chain of events that set Syria on the road to civil war.  Now, six years on, and with 500,000 dead in the war, the final battle of the independent Syrian insurgency has begun, in the very same province.

Its outcome is known in advance.  Sources close to the rebels, however, indicate that there will be no mass surrender. They have chosen to fight it out to the end.

The significance is not only symbolic, of course.  The details emerging regarding the campaign have implications for Israel’s hope that Russian good offices can prevent the arrival of Iranian and Iran-associated forces to the border with the Golan Heights.

Deraa had been the subject of a ceasefire agreement brokered by the US, Russia and Jordan last year.   It differs, though, from other areas in Syria currently lying outside of the control of the Assad regime in that there was and is no state clearly prepared to stand behind its continued defense from the regime.

As a result, the regime evidently assessed that despite various US ‘warnings’ against a regime incursion in recent weeks, no serious efforts would be made to prevent or resist an advance in the area.

The US had sought to deter the regime, warning that any attempt to violate the ‘de-escalation’ zone would result in ‘serious repercussions’ and ‘firm and appropriate measures.’

These words did not have the presumably desired effect (of deterring the regime and the Russians).  They did, however, result in widespread hopes among the rebels of Deraa that US intervention on their behalf would take place in the event of a determined regime attempt to re-conquer their enclave.

In order to tamp down this enthusiasm, a further message from Washington to the leaders of rebel groups (leaked to Reuters) advised the insurgents that while “We in the United States government understand the difficult conditions you are facing and still advise the Russians and the Syrian regime not to undertake a military measure that violates the zone…you should not base your decisions on the assumption or expectation of a military intervention by us”.

This was as clear as it gets. Washington did not deny the message.  Despite earlier statements, the southern rebels were on their own.  Their fate was sealed.

In addition to the Deraa/Quneitra area, there are three other parts of Syria outside of regime control, which together constitute roughly 40% of the territory of the country.

These are: the area around the US-maintained base at al-Tanf, in the south of Syria.  This is a desert area, in which the US is cooperating with a small rebel group called Maghawir al-Thawra.

The densely populated area of north west Syria controlled by Islamist rebels and partially under the direct control of Turkey.

The large area east of the Euphrates currently administered by the self-declared, Kurdish-dominated Federation of Northern Syria, with the presence of at least 2000 US troops.

These areas are at present directly guaranteed by the military forces of foreign states – of Turkey in the case of the north west, and the US in the case of the area east of the Euphrates and that surrounding al-Tanf.  Assad is on record as intending to conquer all of them. But the patron-less and hence most vulnerable and exposed Deraa/Quneitra area was the natural next target for the regime’s attentions.

At present, regime forces are massing for an assault on Deraa city itself.  Russian air power is backing Assad’s forces.  With no air power, and precious little anti-aircraft capacity, artillery or heavy armor, the rebel controlled area’s fate appears clear.

So what are the implications of the likely fall and eclipse of the remaining rebel held areas in Deraa and neighboring Suweida provinces?

Firstly, the fall of Deraa and Suweida, and then neighboring Quneitra will mark the end of the rebellion as an independent force.  As noted above, all the other enclaves named above are either controlled by foreign powers who use the rebels effectively as military contractors (al-Tanf, the Turkish controlled north west) or else involve fighters other than the Sunni Arab rebels (the areas east of the Euphrates, where the Kurdish YPG predominates).

As such, the battle currently beginning will conclude with the end of the Sunni Arab rebellion that began in late 2011 with the intention of toppling the Assad regime, and which came close to victory in 2013 and then again in 2015, but which was thwarted by Iranian and then Russian intervention.

This will not, however,  mean the reunification of the country under Assad’s rule. That will depend on the will of Turkey and the US regarding whether they wish to maintain their areas of control, and the role of Russia, whose involvement alone makes regime offensives feasible, but which permitted the Turkish incursions in August 2016 and January 2018, and which is unable to dislodge the US unless it wants to go.

Secondly, given the apparent presence of Hizballah fighters re-badged as SAA personnel in the offensive, the latest events must cast doubt on the ability of Russia to enforce the non-arrival of pro-Iran elements with the advancing SAA as it enters Quneitra, which it surely must.

This means that direct confrontation between Israel and the pro-Iranian element in southern Syria is likely to continue.  On June 18th, tens of members of a pro-Teheran militia, the Iraqi Ktaeb Hizballah, were killed as a result of an air raid on a facility maintained by the group close to the Syria-Iraq border.  US Central Command, which has never attacked the Shia militias, flatly denied any involvement.  Israel was silent.

The apparently imminent final eclipse of the rebels in southern Syria, the evident inability of the Russians to prevent pro-Iranian elements from joining the advancing regime forces, and the possible involvement of Israel in a direct strike on militia personnel indicate that while the Sunni Arab rebellion seems nearly over, strife in Syria looks set to remain.

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Interview on ABC News

19/6

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