The Return of ISIS

Jerusalem Post, 2/11

The jihadi organization is currently stirring in outlying areas of Iraq and Syria

Islamic State fighters operating in the Lower Euphrates river valley this week killed 68 fighters of the US-supported Syrian Democratic Forces.  Under cover of a sandstorm that severely reduced visibility, the Sunni jihadis of IS launched a wave of suicide bombings against SDF positions.  The Coalition rushed 500 fighters from the Kurdish YPG to the area (the SDF in the area consisted mainly of Arab fighters from the Deir a Zur Military Council).  Intense Coalition air and artillery strikes followed.  For now the situation has returned to an uneasy stability.  The SDF and coalition offensive against the last significant IS-controlled pocket of territory around the town of Hajin continues.

It would be mistaken to see the latest Hajin incidents as merely the last stand of a few IS bitter-enders, a final if gory footnote in the often horrifying trajectory of the Caliphate declared by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi at the al-Nuri Mosque in Mosul on June 29, 2014.  Rather, the evidence shows that IS doesn’t care for last stands under which a line can be drawn.  It had the opportunities for such  gestures in its main urban conquests of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria.  It avoided them – leaving a core of fighters to carry out the last battles, while key leaders and cadres escaped to reorganize for the next chapter.

The Hajin incidents should rather be seen as reflective of a larger reality: namely, that the Islamic State organization has not been destroyed. Reports of its demise have been much exaggerated.  It is currently in a process of reorganization and regrouping. And it may well recommence major operations in the not too distant future.

This process is itself part of a broad strategic picture.  Two large and inter-related Sunni Arab insurgencies have arisen in the Levant and Iraq in the last decade – these are the ‘Syrian rebellion’ and the Caliphate of the Islamic State.  Both have, in conventional terms, been defeated.  The Syrian Sunni Arab rebel groups remain  in existence only in a part of north west Syria, and only because of the protection of Turkey.

The Caliphate, meanwhile, consists today only of the Hajin pocket and a few other isolated desert enclaves.

But the defeat of these armed campaigns has not resolved the issues that caused them to come into existence.  A very large, discontented and disenfranchised Sunni Arab population remains in the area of Syria and Iraq.  Its needs, to put it mildly, are not set to be addressed by either the Alawi-dominated Assad dictatorship in Damascus, or the Shia-led and Iran inclining Iraqi government in Baghdad.  The language which can mobilise this population, meanwhile, as the events of recent years confirm, is Sunni political Islam.

All this creates a ripe atmosphere for ISIS 2.0 to grow – on condition that the organization can extricate from the ruins of the Caliphate something resembling a coherent organizational structure for the rebuilding of an insurgent network. The evidence suggest that IS has achieved this.  It is therefore now regenerating itself.

What form is this taking? A recent report by the Institute for the Study of War entitled ‘ISIS’ Second Resurgence’ quotes a US State Department estimate of August 2018 which puts the number of fighters currently available to Islamic State in Iraq and Syria at 30,000.  These fighters, the report suggests, are evenly divided between Iraq and Syria.

ISW notes that the Islamic State infrastructure does not lack for funding, the organization having smuggled $400 million out of Iraq, where it has been invested in businesses across the region.  IS also engages in kidnapping, extortion and drug smuggling within the area of Syria and Iraq itself.

Embedded deep in the Sunni Arab communities from which it draws its strength, IS maintains networks of support and de facto control in a number of areas identified by the report.  These include the Hamrin Mountains in Diyala Province, the Hawija area, eastern Salah al-Din Province, the area south of Mosul city and Daquq.

Local government officials also in the Sinjar area have reported sharp increases in IS activities in the area to the south of Sinjar and in the Ninawah plains in the recent period.

In all these areas, IS relies on the fear of the local populace, their lack of trust in the Shia-dominated, often sectarian-minded Iraqi security forces,  and in turn the unwillingness of those security forces to make a real effort to root out the IS presence. To do so would require determined and risky deployments of a type which the security forces lack the determination or motivation to undertake.

Sheikh Ali Nawfil al-Hassan of the Al-Shammar Beduin tribe which has lands in eastern Syria and western Iraq, recently said in an interview with the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis (MECRA) that ‘in these areas ISIS is coming and going as they want freely. They move about as they wish.’

There is an additional problem in that the US-led coalition is reluctant to share information with some elements of the Iraqi security forces, because of their closeness to the IRGC and Iran.

In Syria, meanwhile, IS maintains a presence in the desert east of Damascus, from which it can launch attacks.  Less visibly, the organization is engaged in efforts to reorganize sleeper cells among the Sunni Arab communities that once lived under its rule across Syria – as was confirmed to this author in a recent conversation with senior security officials in the city of Raqqa.

The security of the porous border between the two countries also remains a major issue – with IS fighters able to utilize the erratic efforts of the Iraqi security forces to avoid the coalition war effort in eastern Syria by slipping across the border to Iraq’s Anbar Province, and the sympathetic Sunni communities there.

So IS as an organization has survived the successful US-led destruction of the quasi-state it created in 2014.  It has a leadership structure, money, fighters, weaponry and it is currently constructing a network of support in Sunni Arab areas of Iraq and Syria. These areas take in territory under the nominal control of the government of Iraq, the US-aligned Syrian Democratic Forces and the Assad regime.  Small scale attacks have already begun in some areas. The return of the Islamic State in the dimensions it reached in the summer of 2014 does not look likely or imminent.  But  an IS-led ongoing Sunni insurgency, with roots deep in the Sunni Arab outlying areas of Syria, Iraq and the border between them is an increasingly likely prospect.  The Caliphate may be in ruins.  But Islamic State is back.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Iran’s ‘Phoney War’

Jerusalem Post, 9/10

Teheran prefers to strike directly only at weak and peripheral enemies, while acting against stronger ones through proxies. Is this distinction sustainable?

The effort by the US and its allies to contain and ultimately roll back the gains made by Iran in the region over the last half decade is currently taking shape, and is set to form the central strategic process in the Middle East in the period now opening up.  New sanctions in the export of Iranian oil are due to be implemented from November 4th.  Israel’s campaign against Iranian entrenchment in Syria is the most important current file on the table of the defense establishment.  The US appears set now to maintain its assets and its allies in Syria as part of the emergent strategy to counter Iran.  InIraq, the contest between Iran-associated forces and those associated with the US is the core dynamic in the country, with the independent power on the ground of the Iran-associated Shia militias the central factor.  In Yemen, the battle of attrition between the Iran supported Ansar Allah (Houthis) and the Saudi and UAE-led coalition is continuing, with limited but significant gains by the latter.

Iran’s response is also becoming clear.  At the present time, Teheran’s ballistic missile capabilities appear to be the preferred instrument for Teheran to express its defiance.

Notably, for the moment at least, Iran appears to be erring in the side of caution in its choice of targets.  This phase is unlikely to last, however, assuming the US is serious in its intentions.

In the early hours of Monday, October 1st, the Fars News Agency, associated with the Revolutionary Guards, reported that the IRGC had fired a number of Zulfiqar and Qiyam ballistic missiles at targets east of the Euphrates river in Syria.  The strike came in response to an attack on  an IRGC parade in Iran’s Arab majority Khuzestan province on September 22nd.

According to Fars, the missiles fired were decorated with slogans including ‘Death to America,’ ‘Death to Israel,’ and ‘death to Al Saud’.

It is noteworthy, however, that the missiles were not directed at any of the aforementioned enemies of the Islamic Republic of Iran.  Rather, the IRGC targeted the Hajin pocket, a small enclave east of the Euphrates still held by the Islamic State.  This was in response to a claim of responsibility by IS for the September 22 attack.  (A somewhat more credible claim was made by the Ahwaziya, or Ahvaz national resistance, an Arab separatist group in Khuzestan).  Iranian Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Shamkhani later tried to frame the attack as a response to American threats, because of the close proximity of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces to the area targeted.

Similarly, on September 8th, the IRGC fired 7 Fateh-110 short range missiles at a base maintained by the PDKI (Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan) in the city of Koya in eastern Iraq.  The PDKI is engaged in an insurgency against the IGC and the Iranian regime, centered on the Kordestan Province of western Iran.  11 people were killed in the attack.

In both these cases, Teheran chose to make its demonstrations of strength against the very weakest of the forces opposed to it (in the case of Islamic State, a force indeed mainly itself engaged against the enemies of Iran).  Shamkhani’s bluster after the fact tends to draw attention to this, rather than detract from it.

By contrast, when Iran wishes to act against or threaten the interests of any of the powerful states whose names were written on the missiles fired at IS in Hajin, it takes care to do so in ways that avoid attribution.  Thus, the Lebanese Hizballah organization, in military terms a direct tributary of the IRGC, is the force entrusted with the missile array facing Israel.

When ballistic missiles are fired at Riyadh from Yemen, the act is claimed by the Houthis, and the missiles are identified as ‘Burkan 1’ and ‘Burkan 2’ missiles, developed in Yemen.  These missiles are considered by the US State Department and senior US officers to be Iranian in origin, possibly the Qiam 1 or Shihab 2 system with minor modifications.  Certainly, the Houthis, a lightly armed north Yemeni tribal militia, did not acquire the knowledge required to operate ballistic missiles locally.  There is evidence to suggest that Lebanese Hizballah operatives are engaged by Iran in Yemen to carry out these launches.

In Iraq, according to a Reuters report in August, the IRGC has begun to transfer ballistic missiles to its militia proxies in that country, presumably with the intention of using these against Israeli or US personnel.

So Iran acts through deniable proxies in its wars against powerful states, but acts directly only against small and marginal non-state paramilitary groups.  The purpose, of course, is to enable the Iranian state to avoid retribution, while gaining benefit from the acts of the militias.

This practice has proven effective in recent years, though it projects weakness as much as strength.  It is of use only for as long as Iran’s enemies are willing to participate in the fiction of separation between the IRGC and its client militias.

At a certain point, if the US and its allies are serious about rolling back Iran from its regional gains, the question will arise as to whether success in this endeavor can co-exist with the tacit agreement to maintain this fiction.  In Israel’s case, the decision to cease adherence to this convention was taken earlier this year, when Israeli aircraft began openly targeting Iranian facilities in Syria.

For the US, such a decision is likely to emerge, if it emerges, as a result of the dynamics set in motion by the decision to challenge Iran’s advances.  At the moment, what is taking place is something of a ‘phoney war:’ missile strikes against peripheral targets, grandiose threats from the IRGC leadership, supplying of militias with that or that weapon system.

If Teheran begins to feel that its interests are truly threatened, however, this period is likely to come to an end.  When it does so, Teheran is likely to seek to hit at the US at its most vulnerable points –  the US forces and official facilities in Iraq and Syria.  Such actions will almost certainly be taken not by the IRGC itself, but rather by this or that proxy set of initials.  It may come through the use of missiles, or by a variety of other means.

At this point, the US will need to decide whether retribution will be inflicted only on the proxies, or on those sending them.  The pattern of Iran’s behavior suggests a great sensitivity toward not including Iranian personnel within the sphere of conflict.  This is a vulnerability that should be exploited. The success or the frustration of the effort to turn back Iran’s advance across the region may thus  depend on the decision taken as and when Iran chooses to end the current ‘phoney war.’  .

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Leveraging  Murder

Jerusalem Post, 27/10

Turkey and Qatar seek to turn the death of Jamal Khashoggi to political advantage

 

The killing of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi represents a golden opportunity for all those forces opposed to the current direction of US Middle East policy.  Unsurprisingly, these disparate elements are seeking to exploit the situation to the maximum.   Will their efforts succeed?

The Middle East strategy of the Trump Administration has taken time to emerge, but its essential contours are now clear.  The advance of Shia Islamist Iran and its allies is perceived as the central threat system – the need to rally and organize allies to face down and turn back this threat the salient imperative.

Sunni political Islam, in both its Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi forms, is an additional enemy to be confronted.  This challenge is less centralized.

With the eclipse of the Islamic State, the Salafis continue to constitute a latent threat. But at present this threat does not have an immediate focus, and is mainly a matter for intelligence and specialized military attention rather than politics and grand strategy.

The Muslim Brotherhood axis of Turkey, Qatar, Hamas and the various other franchises of this movement  is a far more potent and significant gathering than the Salafis.  Unlike Iran, its intention is the slow and  incremental establishment of Islamist polities, rather than the rapid subversion of Arab societies by a combination of political and military means.

In the longer term, given the uncompromising anti-western core outlook of the Brotherhood, the legitimacy gap faced by Iran because of its Shia nature, and the ongoing dysfunction of Sunni-majority Arab countries, this may constitute a challenge of no less or greater magnitude.

The US strategy to hold back these three enemies (all of whom, it is worth noting, are particular manifestations of political Islam), rests on alliances with a number of regional allies.  Israel, by far the most powerful of all regional forces opposed to them, is a central lynchpin.  President Sisi in Egypt, who is responsible for preventing the disaster of the consolidation of Brotherhood power in Egypt, is another.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain are additional vital links in the chain.  In the persons of Crown Princes Mohammed Bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, and Mohammed Bin Zayed of the UAE, the current US Administration thought it had found the right personalities in their respective countries for the advancement of this strategy.

The inbuilt flaw or weakness in this US regional strategy is the relative fragility of the Gulf monarchies.  Iran and Turkey, the enemy and emergent rival states to the west respectively, are the most powerful and well organized states in the Middle East, with the exception of Israel.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE, meanwhile, are states possessing great wealth, but only semi-modernized political systems.  In so far as they are able to produce effective military organizations, this is largely because of direct western involvement (see the UAE’s Presidential Guard, for example, commanded by former commander of the Australian SAS General Mike Hindmarsh).  The indifferent performance of the Saudis and Emiratis in Yemen, and the Saudi failure in backing the rebels in Syria offer evidence of their limitations.

The current US strategy, of course, has many enemies.  These include, unsurprisingly, partisans of Iran, Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood.  The list also includes supporters and adherents of the Middle East policy of the previous US President.  The latter stood for a policy of cooperation with Teheran, and tolerance of the Muslim Brotherhood (on the Salafis,by contrast, Obama took a relatively hard line).

Unsurprisingly, therefore, partisans of AKP Turkey, the Iranian regime and the Middle East policy of the previous Administration which favored the interests of both are currently engaged in an effort to leverage the death of the unfortunate Jamal Khashoggi in order to dismantle the recently emergent Middle East strategy of the present Administration.  Forcing the US to turn on Riyadh, or creating discord and strife between the USA and KSA is the goal.

This is not, (to put it mildly), part of a consistent pattern of concern for human rights and dignity on the part of these forces.  Turkey is among the most energetic jailer of journalists in the world.  150 journalists have been imprisoned in Turkey and 180 media outlets shut down since the failed coup attempt of July, 2016.

Turkish forces have been in recent months presiding over grave violations of human rights in the Afrin area of Syria (largely unreported by global media).  These have included looting, confiscation of properties, and ‘honor killings’.  Forced disappearances and arbitrary detentions have taken place, according to Amnesty International.  Several Turkish journalists seeking to comment on these matters on social media have been detained under Turkey’s ‘anti-terror’ laws.  Turkish forces also killed a Kurdish journalist, 22 year old Tolhaldan Walati, during the invasion.  For some reason, Walati’s killing did not subsequently become a cause celebre for large parts of the western media.

Qatar, meanwhile, whose state-run al-Jazeera channel is the main current outlet for nightly features about the Khashoggi killing, routinely arrests and detains media groups seeking to investigate the slave -like conditions endured by foreign workers in the emirate.

Turkey and Qatar’s evident desire to leverage Khashoggi’s killing to derail current Administration policy on the Middle East derives rather from the fact that they and their Muslim Brotherhood allies and clients stand to be among the chief non-beneficiaries of this policy.

Khashoggi was himself an energetic advocate for a soft-line toward the Muslim Brotherhood. In a Washington Post article on August 28th, for example, he argued that ‘The eradication of the Muslim Brotherhood is nothing less than an abolition of democracy and a guarantee that Arabs will continue living under authoritarian and corrupt regimes… There can be no political reform and democracy in any Arab country without accepting that political Islam is a part of it.’

The article was not merely a general discussion piece – rather it was written to specifically oppose calls for the designation of the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization.

Articles of this type, and the current efforts of the Turkey and Qatari camp to leverage the Khashoggi killing into policy benefit, are part of a broader political war being fought out for influence on US Middle East policy, and in turn for ascendancy in the region. The killing of the journalist himself appears also to have formed a particularly foolish and inept move in this conflict.

What will be the result?  Despite anger in the US, major policy shifts appear unlikely.  Firstly, this is because Saudi Arabia’s status as the world’s largest exporter of oil gives it the ability to hit back at any proposed sanctions by reducing oil exports and forcing a rise in oil prices.  The mere possibility of such a move may well deter significant US moves to sanction Saudi Arabia.

More broadly, the strategic imperatives that first produced the Trump Administration’s orientation toward Riyadh have not disappeared as a result of the Khashoggi killing.  Political Islam, in its Muslim Brotherhood, Shia and Salafi forms remains the key threat to western interests and to stability in the Middle East.  Despite the present media-generated mood, this is likely to ensure that US Mid-East strategy weathers the storm and continues broadly along its current lines for the immediate future.

 

 

 

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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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