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


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Iran’s response: the ‘Strategy of Tension’ 

Jerusalem Post, 1/6

The United States and its allies are currently in the opening stages of the pursuit of a strategy to contain and roll back the Islamic Republic of Iran from a number of points in the Middle East.  This strategy is set to include an economic element (renewed sanctions, a military aspect (involving Israeli action against Iran in Syria, and the Saudi/UAE campaign against the Houthis in Yemen, and a primarily political effort (in Iraq and to a lesser extent in Lebanon).

Iran can be expected to respond with a counter-strategy of its own, designed to stymy and frustrate western and allied efforts.  What form will this Iranian response take?  What assets does Iran possess in the furtherance of this goal?

First of all, it is worth noting what Iran does not have:  Teheran is deficient in conventional military power, and as such is especially vulnerable when challenged in this arena.  The Iranians have neglected conventional military spending, in favor of emphasis on their missile program, and their expertise in the irregular warfare methods of the Revolutionary Guards Corps and its Qods Force.

In Syria over the last months, Israel has demonstrated that Iran has no adequate conventional response to Israeli air actions.

In Yemen in recent days, as government forces close in on the vital Hodaida port, so Iran’s weakness in this field is once more revealed.  Hodaida, held by the Houthis, is the main conduit for Iranian supplies to the rebels.  It is likely to fall in the period ahead.

Economic sanctions may also limit Iran’s ability to finance its various proxies.  Nevertheless, Iran possesses in the Qods Force of the IRGC a doctrine and praxis for the establishment, assembling and utilization of proxy political-military forces which still has no serious rival in the region.  It will be these assets and these methods which Teheran will be seeking to utilize to strike back at its enemies in the period ahead.

In Lebanon, thanks entirely to the use of these methods, Iran is at its strongest.  There is no prospect in the immediate future for Iran’s opponents to challenge Teheran’s de facto domination of this country through its proxy Hizballah.  Recent statements by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo suggest the beginnings of an acknowledgement by the US that Lebanon  is  effectively controlled by Hizballah.  But it is difficult to locate within the country any mechanism today capable of seriously challenging the Shia Islamist party.

The recent events in Gaza may well offer an example of the kind of options available to Iran in its efforts to counter US and allied moves against it.  Palestinian Islamic Jihad is a wholly owned franchise of the IRGC.  While the apparent ‘motive’ for its commencement of rocket fire was the killing of three of its militants by the IDF after a failed IED attack.  This incident, however,  would not normally have been of sufficient magnitude to generate the largest barrage of rockets since Operation Protective Edge in 2014.  It is probable, therefore, that the escalation in Gaza this week was an example of Iran’s ability to mobilize a proxy on one front to place pressure on an adversary, as a result of events taking place in another arena.

Yet this week’s events also demonstrate Iran’s limitations.  Hamas is not a wholly owned franchise of Teheran.  And the joint interest of Israel, Hamas and Egypt in avoiding a descent to a 2014 style conflagration served to put a lid on the escalation.

As noted above, in Syria, Iran has so far found no adequate response to Israel’s intelligence domination, and its willingness to take air action against Iranian infrastructure.

Further east, however,  in the Kurdish-administered, US-dominated 30% of Syria east of the Euphrates, the Iranians may find an arena more to their liking.  Here, a fledgling, US-associated and Kurdish dominated authority rules over a population of about 4 million people, including many Sunni Arabs.   In this situation, the IRGC’s methods of agitation, assassinations, the fomenting of unrest from below are directly relevant.

Unidentified gunmen are already operating in this rea.  A prominent Kurdish official, Omar Alloush, was assassinated on March 15th.  Graffiti denouncing ‘Ocalan’s dogs’ has appeared in Arab-majority Raqqa city.   This week, demonstrations took place at four locations across the city demanding that the Kurdish dominated YPG quit the area.

It is more usual to attribute the guiding hand behind this activity to Turkish state bodies, rather than Iran.  But an IRGC officer looking for vulnerabilities and areas of potential counter pressure on the US and its allies in the neighborhood would surely focus his eyes on this US guaranteed enclave.

More broadly, while Israeli air action may make the Iranians think twice in terms of deployment of heavy weapons systems in Syria, the broader Iranian project of establishing local client militias and stationing proxy forces on Syria soil remains largely untouched and invulnerable to Israeli air action.

Similarly, in Iraq, the ongoing coalition negotiations and Iran’s domination of the Popular Mobilization Units and their political iteration the Fatah list offers Teheran ample scope for action. Fatah came second in the elections, with 47 seats to 54 for Moqtada al-Sadr’s Sairoon list.  Much will depend on the nature of the government that will emerge from the 90 day coalition building period now under way.

But whatever coalition emerges, the independent, Iran-controlled, armed element is there to stay in Iraq.  For Iran, a controlling influence in Iraq is a necessity, not a luxury. And with Saudi efforts to build influence in the country under way, this looks set to form a central arena for competition.

Again, the evidence of recent years shows that where Iran enjoys an advantage over its rivals in such arenas is in its greater ability to utilize paramilitary and terrorist methods.   There are already some indications of possible targeting of elements linked to the Sairoon list.  Unknown assailants bombed two offices linked to the Sadrists on May 15th.   One was placed at an office of the Saraya al-Salam, the Sadrist militia. The other targeted a religious organization linked to Sadr, Malek al-Ashtar.  In addition, on May 25, a double IED attack on the Iraqi Communist Party’s headquarters in Baghdad took place. No group has claimed responsibility for any of these attacks.

The evidence suggests that Iran’s methods are at their strongest where it can take on its opponents within a populated area, in a mixed political and military context, and weakest where it faces conventional resistance and a hard border separating it from its enemies.  This means that in the emergent contest, Iran is strongest in Lebanon and regime-controlled Syria, powerful and dangerous in Iraq and potentially in the Kurdish controlled, US guaranteed part of Syria, and weaker and with fewer options in Yemen and Gaza.

Iran enjoyed and benefited from the moment when the Arab world was at its most fragmented, and the west at its most rudderless.   That period may now be coming to an end. The ‘strategy of tension’, utilizing political and paramilitary means, eschewing conventional ones, remains the IRGC’s preferred method of struggle.  The period now opening up in the region will determine its continued efficacy.





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Game on: The New Strategy of the US and its allies in the Middle East

Jerusalem Post, 25/5

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s outlining of 12 conditions that Iran would need to meet in order to make possible a new nuclear deal amounts to a call for the wholesale reversal of Iranian regional strategy.  The conditions stated are not only, or primarily, concerned with the nuclear program.  In addition to a call for the IRGC’s Qods Force to end ‘support for “terrorists” and “militant” partners around the world,’ there are specific demands for cessation of support to Lebanese Hizballah, the Iraqi Shia militias, the Houthis in  Yemen and the Assad regime in Syria.

These are not a list of demands issued with the expectation that they will be met.  Rather, they are a clear setting down of US goals in an emerging strategy to contain and roll back Iran’s advance in the region.

So what are the practical aspects of such a policy?  And what might Iran’s response be to an attempt to implement it?

Iran today is a country in the midst of an economic and environmental crisis.  The Rial has fallen 47% against the dollar since January.  The country is blighted by drought. Precipitation across the country fell by 46% in the last 50 years. Tehran has seen a 66% drop in rainfall in just a year. This is impacting on the agricultural sector.  Bad management, corruption and a failure of the JCPOA to generate expected levels of foreign investment compound the problem.  Unrest and demonstrations continue in many parts of the country.

At the same time, Iran is in danger of imperial overstretch.  It is heavily committed in two ongoing regional conflicts – in Syria and Yemen – and also has major assets requiring investment in Lebanon (Hizballah), Iraq (the Shia militias) and among the Palestinians (Islamic Jihad, Hamas).  While Iran is dominant in Lebanon, and ascendant in Syria and Iraq, it has achieved final and conclusive victory in no area.

A strategy seeking to contain further Iranian gains and then to roll Iran back is likely to focus on increasing the cost of Iran’s adventures abroad, to exacerbate internal tensions, while subjecting Iran to tactical humiliations and defeats, in order to reduce any domestic benefit to be accrued from Iranian regional commitments.  Teheran will thus be forced either to spend more on its commitments, exacerbating the problems at home, or to pull back, with the accompanying humiliation and loss of prestige.

Thus, the intention will be to raise the cost, and reduce the benefits accruing to Iran from its policy of interference and sponsorship of proxies in neighboring countries.

What precise form is this effort likely to take? Firstly, it is important to note that this is not to be a US effort alone.  Rather, the clear intention is to mobilize US allies who share the concerns regarding the Iranian threat.

There are three areas in which the effort is likely to be undertaken – military, economic and political.

Regarding military activity, there are currently two fronts of active conflict occurring in the region between Iran and US allies. These are the Saudi/UAE intervention in Yemen, and Israel’s actions to prevent Iranian consolidation and entrenchment in Syria.

It is unlikely that the events of May 10th will prove the final round of conflict between Israel and Iran. It is notable that this round came from an unsuccessful Iranian attempt to respond through missile fire for earlier Israeli operations.  Apart from their practical application, the Israeli operations have the value of forcing the Iranians into an arena in which they are very weak – that of air power and air defense – thus hitting at their prestige.  The Iranians currently have the choice of appearing to desist from further attempts at developing their infrastructure, or facing the certainty of Israeli action in an area in which they have little ability to respond.

In Yemen, it has become commonplace to describe the Saudi/Emirati intervention as a quagmire and a failure.  In reality ,however, the intervention prevented the Iranian supported Houthis from reaching the strategically crucial Bab al-Mandeb Strait.  Houthi advances have stopped, and since the killing of former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, it is not clear what the goals of the Houthis’ rebellion are, beyond survival.

A third important conventional military front is eastern Syria, where US and French forces in cooperation with local allies hold around 30% of Syrian territory, including the greater part of the country’s oil and gas resources.  This territorial holding prevents the operation of a contiguous Iranian land corridor from Iran to the Mediterranean and to the border with Israel.  It also offers an example of a successful US partnering with a local proxy. Its maintenance is crucial.

Regarding the economic front,  the US policy of renewed sanctions is already in operation.  New sanctions have been imposed in recent days on five Iranian officials suspected of involvement in the Iranian program to provide missiles to the Houthis.  The US Treasury Department, meanwhile, imposed sanctions on officials of Iran’s Central Bank in the days following the decision to quit the nuclear deal.  The officials were suspected of helping to move IRGC funds to Hizballah in Lebanon.  The Treasury has announced new sanctions on members of Hizballah’s Shurah Council.   Notably, US and UAE officials also cooperated in recent days in disrupting a currency exchange network maintained by the Qods Force of the IRGC.

There is more to come.  Sanctions are due to be placed on the acquisition of dollar banknotes by Iranian institutions.  Penalties for institutions dealing with Iran’s Central Bank and other designated bodies are also forthcoming.  All are designed to stretch the Iranians to the limit, producing either retreat or internal unrest.

In the political field, Iraq is now the central arena.  The Iranians suffered a setback in the recent elections. With the 90 day coalition forming period under way, the issue will be the make up of the new government.  The key player here on the pro-US side will be Saudi Arabia.  The Saudis have been quietly growing their involvement in Iraq in recent months.  Saudi Arabia has pledged $1 billion in loans and $500,000 in export credits for reconstruction following the war against IS.  Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman hosted Moqtada al-Sadr, the main winner of the elections, in Riyadh last year.  Direct flights have been resumed.  The Saudi goal is to revive Iraqi Arab identity, as a counterweight to Iran’s sectarian,non-Arab appeal to Iraq’s Shia Arab majority.   Oil rich Basra province is a focus of Saudi activity.

The issue in Iraq will not be the complete expulsion of the Iranian influence, but rather to set up a counterweight to the Iranians, again forcing Teheran to spend time and energy on preventing the erosion of its position.

Lastly, it is possible that clandestine activity is underway in connecting those in Iran itself opposed to the Iranian regime with the expertise and funding of US allies.

Will this project succeed?  It appears to derive from an attempt to locate Iran’s weak spots and exploit them.  The Iranians, without doubt, will be seeking to develop a counter strategy along similar lines against the US and its allies.  The region, as a result, is entering a new strategic chapter.  The game is afoot.


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