The Great Distraction of Punitive Airstrikes

New Republic, 16/4

Despite escalating worries about Russia in past weeks, the skies did not fall in as a result of the American-led punitive raid on Syria’s chemical weapons storage and research facilities Saturday morning.  Great care was taken to avoid hitting the many facilities and sites within ‘Assad-controlled’ Syria which are in fact administered by powers other than the Syrian dictator – namely, Russia and Iran. .  “A perfectly executed strike,” the president declared on Twitter.  “Mission accomplished.” US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley struck a similar tone of satisfaction.  ‘“If the Syrian regime uses this poisonous gas again,’ she told an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council,  ‘the United States is locked and loaded.”

A great victory, then—depending on whom you ask. Damage was done to Assad, a tyrant responsible for the deaths of an increasingly uncountable number of his own civilians.   The careful planning seems to have prevented anything but angry rhetoric from Russia. And the participation of France and the United Kingdom lent at least some air of multilateralism.

But while the tactical prowess of western armed force over Syrian air defenses was confirmed, it is not quite clear what else has been achieved. Assad will remain in power. The humanitarian crisis persists. Rule-of-law fans and anti-interventionists are displeased by yet another questionable strike under U.S. and international law. And arguably, the focus on checking off proportionate punishment for chemical substances represents a diversion from the issues really at stake in Syria.

U.S. and western officials were keen to note that the operation of recent days did not represent an intervention in the Syrian civil war. A “one time shot,” Defense Secretary James Mattis called it. It may therefore be assumed that the western stance toward that war remains unchanged.  Earlier this month, President Trump declared his intent to  withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, “ideally” within six months. These forces are currently guaranteeing a western-aligned, Kurdish-dominated entity that controls 28% of Syria, including the greater part of its gas and oil assets.

If the withdrawal of these forces means that U.S. air power will also no longer be employed to keep Assad, the Iranians and the Russians out of this area, then the region will certainly be reconquered by the regime and its allies. Support for the non-jihadi rebels in the provinces of Deraa and Quneitra, meanwhile, was ended in December, and renewed regime bombardment, despite last year’s “de-escalation zone” truce, began in March — the removal of chlorine from the equation is unlikely to change rebels’ fate.

Right now, therefore, the Syrian war seems likely to end in strategic triumph for Assad, Iran, and Russia. Western allies, including Israel, are deeply concerned at what is likely to follow from a geopolitical perspective.

Iran is currently engaged in the construction of an extensive infrastructure in Syria. This comprises, according to a recent article by leading researcher Ali Alfoneh, three elements: the construction of permanent bases, the maintenance of Revolutionary Guards and proxy militia forces on Syrian soil in considerable numbers, and the recruitment of local ‘Syrian Hizballah’ type forces such as Quwat al-Ridha from the Homs area, al-Ghalibun from the Sayida Zeinab area in Damascus Governorate and the 313 Brigade from the Deraa area.

Tehran seems to intend to extend this structure to the area immediately east of Quneitra Crossing and the Golan Heights, in order that it may serve as a tool of pressure and potential aggression against Israel. Currently, the enclave controlled by the U.S. and its allies—including the non-Islamist rebel-controlled enclave in Deraa, which birthed the Syrian revolt—blocks Iran’s ability to develop the contiguous land corridor it seeks to extend all the way from the Iraq-Iran border.

U.S. withdrawal of support for these areas, and their subsequent collapse, would mean that Israel would be facing this advance alone—a scenario which has already sparked concern in Israeli media.

Israeli officials have made clear that the entrenchment of this Iranian project and its extension to the border are utterly unacceptable to Jerusalem. The large-scale raid last week on the T4 base outside Palmyra, in which seven Iranian personnel including a colonel were killed, was an indication of the direction of Israeli policy. As Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman stated following this operation, “Accepting Iranian entrenchment in Syria would be to accept Iranians putting a chokehold on us. We cannot allow that.”

In other words, although the U.S. and Russia appear to have avoided conflict over Syria, the current strategy seems almost guaranteed to leave Iran and Israel on a collision course. When the current western barriers to Iranian advancement are removed, Iran and its allies will finish off the rebel and Kurd forces that remain. Thus consolidated, Iran will then be the dominant actor in a giant land area stretching from the Iraq-Iran border to the Mediterranean Sea and the Syrian border with Israel. Israel will at this point seek Russian assurances to curb a further Iranian advance — which it is unlikely to get. What happens after that is the stuff of strategists’ nightmares.

When seen from this point of view, the destruction of a number of Assad’s CW research facilities might be seen as at best a diversion from the main point. Not only Syria’s humanitarian nightmare, but also the practical geopolitical problems, remain unchanged. The strikes were a tale full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

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Erdogan’s Shadow Army 

Jerusalem Post, 13/4

In the collapsed and fragmented space that comprises much of today’s Middle East, the key to success increasingly lies in the ability to combine political strategy with military muscle, under a single banner and in a single structure.   Examples abound.

Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) are today the foremost practitioners of political and revolutionary warfare in the region.  Their skills in this regard are the primary reason for the situation in which Iran today controls Lebanon, and has a dominant hand in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.

Turkey is the latest country to enter this crucial, if shadowy, field.  The SADAT Defense Consultancy, founded on February 28, 2012 by former Brigadier General Adnan Tanriverdi, is Ankara’s instrument in this area.  Its activities are testimony both to the changing nature of the Turkish state, and to the process by which power and influence are currently built and held in the Middle East.

To understand the role that SADAT is set to play, lets first take a look at the advantages that similar structures afford the states that utilize them.

The IRGC, unlike the Iranian conventional armed forces, or ‘Artesh,’ is commanded by people absolutely loyal not to the state, but to the governing regime and its goals.  These are ‘political soldiers’, notably available for mobilization both in defense of the regime at home, as well as in the furtherance of its goals abroad.

The proxy party-militia structures which the Iranian IRGC excels at creating and controlling in turn have the advantage of informality, and deniability, when compared with conventional forces.  They permit Teheran to support and engage in paramilitary and terrorist activity globally – attacks on Jewish civilians in Burgas and Buenos Aires, assassination of Kurdish politicians in Vienna and Berlin etc – while continuing to take its place in the halls of diplomacy and trade as a supposedly conventional member of the ‘international community.’

The IRGC remains the exemplar for this type of warfare. Other countries have been slower to develop structures able to perform a similar function.  But the gaps are closing.

The Russians, predictably, have entered the game over the last half decade.  Irregular ‘volunteers’ were the Kremlin’s preferred tool for sparking the ferment in Donetsk and Lugansk Provinces of eastern Ukraine which led to the Russian conquest of these areas in 2014.  Military contractors connected to Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner company have played a crucial role as auxiliaries and deniable ground cannon fodder for the Russians in Syria.  Many of the individuals engaged with this company are themselves veterans of the fight in Ukraine.

So, to SADAT: According to its website, the company’s mission is to ‘establish a Defensive Collaboration and Defensive Industrial Cooperation among Islamic Countries to help Islamic World take the place where it merits among Super Powers by providing Consultancy and Training Services.’

The Turkish version of the website sounds a little less like a run of the mill private military contracting firm.  Western states are described as ‘imperialist’, ‘crusader’ countries.

SADAT’s founder Adnan Tanriverdi is an artillery officer who later specialized in asymmetric warfare. A former head of the Home Front Command in Northern Cyprus, he was expelled from the army because of his Islamist convictions in 1997.   Tanriverdi’s ties to President Recep Tayepp Erdogan and the circles of the ruling AKP are of long standing.

A recent analysis by longtime Turkey-watcher Michael Rubin for American  Enterprise Institute noted eyewitness reports of armed SADAT personnel involved in the suppression of the coup attempt of July 2016. The failed coup heralded the beginning of a comprehensive attempt by the Turkish president to re-make the Turkish armed forces along lines more amenable to himself.

As part of this process, hundreds of officers dismissed for Islamist leanings are being reinstated.

And as part of this process, Adnan Tanriverdi was himself appointed Chief Military Advisor to the President in late 2016.

SADAT has been heavily involved in Turkey’s training of Syrian Sunni Arab rebels for the fight against Assad.  The company established a number of facilities in the Marmara region for this purpose at the beginning of the Syrian war.  According to a 2012 report in the oppositionist Aydinlik newspaper,at least one of these training facilities was located at a Turkish military base in the Golcuk district of Kocaeli,  formerly maintained as a training center by the Turkish Navy.

The Syrian rebellion in northern Syria is today only able to survive because of the support of Turkey.  SADAT has played a key role in the development and facilitation of this relationship.

Tanriverdi himself does not deny SADAT’s contacts with the ‘Free Syrian Army,’ but in a July, 2016 article in Cumhurriyet he was quoted as noting that both the Turkish state and the US supported the Syrian opposition, and that SADAT’s contacts were carried out with the knowledge of the Turkish authorities.

Of course, the term ‘Free Syrian Army’ is a wide one, and considerable evidence exists to suggest that elements of the Turkish state were directly offering assistance to the al-Qaeda linked Jabhat al-Nusra at certain stages during the war in Syria.

With crucial elections approaching in 2019, there are widespread fears in opposition circles that the government is training militias for use to intimidate government opponents.  One opposition politician, Meral Aksener, founder and leader of the nationalist Good Party, told a leftist newspaper that SADAT was behind these training camps.  The company denied the allegations.

Unsurprisingly, there is an Israel angle to SADAT’s activities.  In an article quoted by MEMRI, Tanriverdi described Israel as ‘the outpost of the new Crusade and a dagger in the heart of Islam.’ In the article, Tanriverdi envisions the equipping and training of a Palestinian conventional army which would, in partnership with a united army of Islam, defeat and destroy Israel.

 Turkish academic Cemil Tekeli, was arrested in January by Israeli authorities and deported from the West Bank because of suspicions that he was assisting Hamas in money-laundering.  Tekeli is a close associate of Adnan Tanriverdi, according to a report in Makor Rishon, which published a picture of the two together.

So – engagement in assisting proxies abroad, providing muscle for a repressive political strategy at home and planning war with Israel. President Erdogan is engaged, according to many, in a historic project of dismantling the republic created by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk nearly 100 years ago and replacing it with a new, Islamic entity. This new entity will require new institutions.   The shadow warriors of SADAT appear to be in the process of establishing one of the most notable of these.

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The Sultan’s Pleasure: Turkey Expands its Operations in Syria and Iraq

Jerusalem Post, 30/3

Turkish forces this month entered Afrin City, bringing Operation “Olive Branch,” launched on January 20, to a successful conclusion. Latest reports suggest that the Turks are now set to seek to enter the neighboring Kurdish-controlled town of Tal Rifaat, after reaching an agreement with the Russians allowing them to contest its control.

According to the pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, 78 Turkish soldiers were killed in the Afrin fighting, along with 437 Turkey-aligned Syrian Sunni rebels. SOHR puts Kurdish casualties as 1,500 killed in the operation.

All indications suggest that for Turkey, the recent battles were only a phase in a larger process. So where might Turkey turn next? And what is the goal of the Turkish campaign?

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said, following the fall of Afrin, that “we marked a comma. God willing, a full stop will come next…. Now we will continue this process, until we entirely eliminate this corridor, including in Manbij, Ayn al-Arab [Kobani], Tel-Abyad, Ras al-Ayn (Sere Kaniyeh) and Qamishli.”

These are the main towns of the Kurdish-controlled area further east. A Turkish push toward them would mean a comprehensive attempt to destroy the Kurdish autonomous zone that has been in existence east of the Euphrates since the withdrawal of Assad’s forces from the area in July 2012.

It would also mean the near certain prospect of a collision between Turkish and US forces. Officially, there are 2,000 US military personnel in the area. The real number is probably considerably larger, perhaps twice this figure. The US maintains a number of facilities east of the Euphrates. These are held in cooperation with the Syrian Democratic Forces, which is the US partner in the war against Islamic State, but which would also form the main element resisting a Turkish push eastward.

The town of Manbij is currently the main issue of contention. West of the Euphrates and with a mixed Arab and Kurdish population, it is nevertheless currently controlled jointly by the SDF and the Americans. Turkey has made clear that it intends to remove its Kurdish opponents from the town.
Given the extreme risks inherent in any such drive eastward, however, it appears more likely that Turkey will satisfy its immediate appetites for further strikes at its enemies elsewhere.

Despite Erdogan’s grammatical metaphors, the taking of Afrin did represent a kind of “full stop” for the Turks. It completed the acquisition by Ankara of a sizable, contiguous enclave in northwest Syria. The Afrin canton was a “missing piece” separating two areas of de facto Turkish control.

In Operation “Euphrates Shield” in late 2016, the Turks carved out an area of control between the towns of Azaz and Jarabulus along the Syrian-Turkish border.

Meanwhile, Turkish forces also entered northern Idlib province, which remains under the control of Sunni Islamist rebels.

The destruction of Afrin joins these two areas, giving Turkey a contiguous area of control, from Jarabulus to northern Idlib. The Turks have made clear they have no intention of handing these areas over to the Assad regime. So Ankara now has its own little bit of fragmented Syria, alongside the various enclaves of other powers.

This is of importance to Erdogan. He will be able to present himself as the champion of the Sunni Arab population of Syria, and the guarantor of the remnants of its rebellion against the Assad regime.

As the earliest and most consistent supporter of the Syrian Sunni rebellion, the Turkish leader stood to appear humiliated by the final eclipse of their cause. The Russians, by permitting the Turks and their rebel foot soldiers to enter Afrin, have allowed Erdogan to salvage some dignity from his situation. In affording him this concession (against the will of the Assad regime), Moscow has served its broader goal of drawing the Turks further away from their already severely eroded alliance with the West.

With their northwest Syrian enclave largely secured, and the area further east dangerous to approach, because of the American presence, there are indications that the Turks are looking further afield for further victories against the Kurds.

Turkish aircraft have in recent days been in action over the skies of northern Iraq, bombing what Ankara claims to be a presence of PKK guerrillas in the Qasr-e area of Erbil province. The Turkish military is presently engaged 15 km. across the border into the Kurdish Regional Government area, in the Sidakan area in northern Iraq.

Erdogan has threatened in recent days to carry out a military operation against PKK guerrillas located in the Sinjar Mountain area of northern Iraq. The fighters of this Kurdish organization have been in this area since the summer of 2014, when they opened a corridor to rescue Yazidi civilians trapped on the mountain by the advance of ISIS.
The PKK has announced its willingness to leave Sinjar and has begun to hand security facilities over to the local Yazidi YBS forces. Given the links between these forces and the PKK, however, it is not yet clear if this will be sufficient to prevent a Turkish incursion into the area.

There are those among the Iraqi Kurds who fear that these activities may presage a more general Turkish attempt to comprehensively root out and destroy Ankara’s PKK enemies in northern Iraq.

A larger-scale Turkish assault into Dohuk and Nineveh provinces to carve out an enclave between the Kurdish areas in Iraq and Syria is not an impossibility. But it would be carried out against the wishes of the US, Iran, and the government of Iraq, and may be too large a morsel for Turkey to attempt at the present time. Nevertheless, the lower-level attacks on Kurdish targets in Iraq look set to continue and intensify.

Meanwhile, inside the area of Kurdish control in eastern Syria, a mysterious organization called Harakat al-Qiyam has carried out a number of attacks on individuals linked to the Kurdish-led authorities in recent months. Many observers calculate that this group may be backed by the Turks, constituting an irregular accompaniment to overt military action further east and west.

IN ALL three areas – the Afrin operation, the (alleged) links to Harakat al-Qiyam and the air activity and threatened incursion into Sinjar and northern Iraq – the contours and direction of Turkish activity are clear.
Ankara has set as a strategic goal to destroy the Kurdish gains that resulted from the fragmentation of Syria and Iraq over the last half decade. Turkey also wishes to present itself as the natural leader and patron of Sunni Arab communities in both countries.

In asserting these goals, Ankara will partner with or oppose other local powers (Iran, the government of Iraq, the Assad regime), according to immediate tactical needs. Similarly, Turkey is likely to tread carefully around the larger powers, whose will it cannot oppose (the US, Russia), seeking to draw neither too close nor too far away from either.

After the capture of Mosul from ISIS, speaking of Turkey’s activities in Iraq, Erdogan said, “We cannot draw boundaries to our heart, nor do we allow that.” The surrounding territories and populations in the nominal states of Syria and Iraq appear set to receive the full and heartfelt attention of Turkey, to the sound of revived Ottoman marching tunes – whether they like it or not.


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What a Crown Prince Wants

New Republic, 20/3

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud is here to rebrand. If all goes well, his visit to the US this week will wow Americans with Saudi Arabia’s new progressivism, increase US investment in the Saudi economy, and align US and Saudi strategies in the Middle East.

That final task is the most problematic. Saudi and US officials largely agree on the most urgent issues facing the region. They disagree on what is to be done—and, more specifically, who is going to do it.

On re-branding and investment issues, the cheekily nicknamed ‘MBS’ shows every sign of genuine commitment to overhauling core elements in Saudi society and its economy. Saudi Arabia has until now combined dependence on the west with deep internal dysfunction, but the crown prince’s ‘Vision 2030’ strategy for his country aims to change this: diversify the economy, end the dependence on hydrocarbons, and remove some of the ultra-conservative social norms which impede development.

Some significant changes have already been enacted. Women are now permitted to drive and attend concerts and sporting events, and are no longer required to wear headscarves. Cinemas have reopened. The arrest of a slew of senior royals and their incarceration for two months from November 4th at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Riyadh demonstrated the seriousness of Mohammed Bin Salman’s determination to address the issue of corruption. (Some observers also saw in it a perhaps reckless attempt to neutralize potential rivals.)

MBS will seek over the next two weeks in the US to reap the PR benefit of these changes, presenting Saudi Arabia as a country on a new path.

The crown prince needs American money for a number of flagship projects intended to spearhead the diversification of the Saudi economy. These include Neom, a planned mega city intended to rival Dubai as a business center — with a sleek, East-meets-West name generated from the prefix “neo” and the Arabic word for “future,” “mustaqbal” — and Qiddiya, an entertainment city imagined in similar dimensions to Las Vegas, to be built close to Riyadh. Whether Mohammed Bin Salman will convince investors and the US public of the viability of his social and economic projects, set down as they are in the deeply conservative Saudi realities, remains to be seen.

With regard to the regional political issue, the problem is deeper. Both President Trump and the Crown Prince are clear opponents of Iran’s efforts at empire building in the region. Both are also set in their opposition to Sunni jihadism. Trump made his first visit abroad as President to Saudi Arabia in May 2017, appearing to cast Saudi Arabia as the main US ally in the pursuit of common goals.

But there are serious questions as to whether each can or wishes to play the role that the other would like to allot him in the pursuit of these goals.

In part, the problem is that Iran is winning. MBS has been pro-active in challenging the Iranian advance. The Saudis are engaged in a costly and unfinished war in Yemen, and have prevented the Iran-supported Houthi rebels from reaching the crucial Bab el Mandeb Strait. But the Houthis are far from defeated and the conflict is bleeding money and resources from a Saudi Arabia that can no longer afford limitless profligacy.

Elsewhere, Saudi efforts have been even less successful. In Syria, their early efforts to support the Sunni Arab rebels have led nowhere. The remnants of the rebellion now work largely under the Turkish banner, but they are set to remain in control only of outlying areas of the country. The Iranian effort on behalf of Assad has preserved him in power and in control of the central and most populated part of Syria.

In Iraq, the Iranians are represented in government through proxies such as the veteran pro-Teheran Shia Islamist Badr Organization, have their own armed forces on the ground in the key militias of the Popular Mobilization Units, and look set to increase their influence in government following elections in May. Saudi Arabia has tried to play catch up, courting non-Iran aligned politicians such as popular religious figure Moqtada al-Sadr. But in the influence game, they hardly register in comparison to Teheran.

In Lebanon, the Saudis supported the now defunct pro-western March 14 movement, which emerged from the popular mobilization against Syrian occupation following the assassination of then Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri in 2005. It has now been comprehensively outplayed and outfought by Iran’s clients in the rival, Hizballah dominated bloc. In mid-2016 Riyadh suspended $4 billion of aid to the Lebanese armed forces and police. It was a tacit admission of failure. The Iranians have won in Lebanon.

As indicated by the unimpressive track record, the Saudis lack the strength and skill to lead in rolling back the Iranians. MBS therefore probably wants firm commitments from the US and a declaration of leadership: for example, a clear strategy to mobilize available assets to halt and roll back Iranian gains in Syria; support for the Saudi/UAE cause in Yemen; and acknowledgement of the strength and depth of Iran’s penetration of Iraq, or that further aid to the Lebanese state means strengthening Hizballah.

He may well be disappointed. The latest reports suggest the Administration is looking for Saudi Arabia to increase its own commitments on the anti-Iran file—and even pledge $4 billion for reconstruction in eastern Syria.

The Administration continues to speak in different voices on its own plans.  So far, despite the difference in rhetoric, the Trump Administration’s practical commitment to rolling back Iranian regional influence has not differed markedly from that of its predecessor (with the significant exception of Trump’s commitment to tightening implementation or abandoning the Iran nuclear deal). And certainly the president’s vague comments in a brief press conference from the Oval Office with bin Salman did not suggest a concrete plan of action.

So Saudi Arabia wants very much to set about pursuing shared goals, but lacks the strength and skill to do so. The United States, meanwhile, clearly has the necessary ability, but appears unsure whether it wishes to use it.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud may find fans for his reform agenda, and even investors for his mega cities in the US over the next two weeks.

But rebranding may not yet be able to buy him the partnership he wants.

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A Talk about Days of the Fall at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy


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Interview with Ynet TV (Hebrew)


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Podcast: Inside the Syrian and Iraqi Wars

Podcast with Dr. Amichai Magen of IDC, Herzliya about ‘Days of the Fall’ and the wars in Syria and Iraq, 26/2:

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