Bursting bubbles on the Syria war

“Getting Real: Facing Necessary Facts in Syria and Iraq” by Michael J. Brenner for The Globalist:

Washington only compounds its culpability while simultaneously reducing the chances of finding a tolerable way out of the jam if it remains addicted to fanciful thinking.

And yet it remains wedded to a set of totally unrealistic propositions. This results in the creation of a make-believe world that bears no relation to reality.

Bursting bubbles

Here are some of the biggest fictions that must be abandoned:

  • Jihadist Syrian frontrunners al-Nusra/al-Qaeda can be transmogrified into mere expressions of genuine Sunni grievances.
  • Nusra jihadists can be converted into the instrument for militarily crushing ISIS just because there is nobody else willing or able to a job America won’t take on.
  • Saudi Arabia and the Gulfies will give priority to defeating the various Salafist groups rather than to the removal the Alawite regime in Damascus.
  • ISIS’s financial lifeline can be cut without destroying the infrastructure of its oil trade and without getting Turkey to cease and desist its complicity in sustaining the oil trade.
  • The Russians can be “isolated” and denied a major role in determining Syria’s future by calling Putin dirty names and reciting the number of worthless partners in Obama’s ersatz coalition.
  • Phantom Syrian rebel armies devoted to tolerance and democracy – that don’t exist except in the escapist visions of Washington’s strategic non-thinkers – can be relied upon to win battlefield victories.
  • Establishing a no-fly buffer zone in northern Syria would do something other than satisfy Erdogan’s ambition to keep open his supply line to al-Nusra and his lucrative commercial dealings with ISIS.
  • Such a no-fly buffer zone would not contradict our purposes in Syria and would be tolerated by Russia.
  • It is within the power of the United States to shape the Middle East to its own specifications while contesting a legitimate place for Iran, Russia, Yemenese Houthis and anyone else who doesn’t hew the Saudi-Israeli-Erdogan line Washington has endorsed.


Flag of the Syrian government.

Flag of the Syrian government.

Which awful jihadists will be our new pretend friend in Syria?

Arsenal Bolt: Quick updates on the news stories we’re following.

Gareth Porter explains how the U.S. is about to be forced by its own allies to accept certain anti-democratic terrorist groups over other anti-democratic terrorist groups in Syria, unless it (sensibly) revises its policy there quite dramatically:

British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond has revealed that the next phase [of the Vienna talks] will turn on bargaining among the international sponsors of anti-Assad groups about who would be allowed to join a new government.

Those decisions, in turn, would depend on which of the groups are deemed by the foreign sponsors of those very groups to be “terrorists” and which are deemed acceptable.

As Hammond acknowledges, the Saudis are certainly not going to agree to call Ahrar al-Sham or other extremist jihadist groups allied with it – or perhaps even al-Nusra – “terrorists”.

They may have to give up al-Nusra Front, which has expressed support for the Islamic State terrorist assault on Paris. But they rest they are likely to continue to back.

Unless Obama is prepared to face a rupture in the U.S. alliance with the Sunni Gulf Sheikdoms over the issue, the result will be that the same anti-democratic groups committed to overthrowing the remnants of the old order by force will be invited by the United States and its Gulf allies to take key positions in the post-Assad government.


Pictured: Destroyed Syrian Army tanks, August 2012, after the Battle of Azaz. (Credit: Christiaan Triebert via Wikipedia)

Pictured: Destroyed Syrian Army tanks, August 2012, after the Battle of Azaz. (Credit: Christiaan Triebert via Wikipedia)

Is Iran sending refugees to Syria as cannon fodder?

Arsenal Bolt: Quick updates on the news stories we’re following.


The Daily Star (Lebanon) — “Iran enlists Afghan refugees as fighters”

But interviews with Afghan fighters and relatives of combatants killed in Syria point to a vigorous – and sometimes coerced – recruitment drive of Shiite Hazara refugees by Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard Corps propping up Assad’s floundering regime. […]
Haider, she said, was lured by the monthly salary of $700 – a tidy sum for a laborer with no combat experience – and the promise of an Iranian residency permit, an attractive inducement for refugees who otherwise live in constant fear of deportation. […]
Haider’s premonition came true – a few days after he left, an Iranian official informed his relatives, also refugees in Tehran, that he had been killed in battle.


Syria for the Syrians – or for everyone else?

From the very first days of the uprising in Syria, dictator Bashar al-Assad has maintained that foreign jihadists (his version of “outside agitators” I suppose) were dominating and leading the violence and preventing the return of peace for ordinary Syrians. It remains a standard line in the propaganda of those supporting Assad. As time has gone on, however, this initially dubious claim has increasingly seemed accurate, as foreign fighters have flooded the country by the thousands.

(To be sure, President Assad can hardly deflect the qualifying facts that he played host, for years before the war, to the Baathist command structure of the Iraqi insurgency that evolved into ISIS and then intentionally allowed hundreds of foreign jihadists to join ISIS in the first three years of the civil war.)

The currently heavy foreignness of the opposition now seems evident to most observers, whatever its original composition might have been. Although it remains difficult to get accurate counts to determine the relative balance of foreign insurgents to Syrian-born rebels, it is clear the both ISIS and Nusra Front are heavily dominated by non-Syrians, particularly at the leadership level. ISIS has had effective control of the eastern anti-government forces and territory since last summer, while Nusra Front now has effective control over the main western insurgency forces in the primary conflict arena.

What then are the consequences for native Syrians of flooding Syria’s civil war with foreign combatants?

Pictured: Destroyed Syrian Army tanks, August 2012, after the Battle of Azaz. (Credit: Christiaan Triebert via Wikipedia)

Pictured: Destroyed Syrian Army tanks, August 2012, after the Battle of Azaz. (Credit: Christiaan Triebert via Wikipedia)

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Syria’s war is not over, but the revolution definitely is

The Syrian Civil War may still have a long hard slog ahead of it, but the Syrian Revolution is definitely over and the “moderate fighters” are now commanded by the religious extremists (not “moderate civilian leaders”), according to new reporting by The New York Times:

In northern and eastern Syria, where Mr. Assad’s opponents won early victories and once dreamed of building self-government, the nationalist rebel groups calling themselves the Free Syrian Army are forced to operate under the extremists’ umbrellas, to go underground or to flee, according to Syrian insurgents, activists and two top commanders of the American-financed F.S.A. groups.

The recent Nusra Front victory at the besieged Syrian military base at Wadi al-Deif — which had held out against rebels for two years on the primary north-south artery in Western Syria — seemed to crystallize the entire situation in one place, according to the Times sources:

The fall of the army base at Wadi al-Deif, which straddles an important supply route in Idlib Province, proved the Nusra Front’s dominance, they said. Other insurgents had long besieged the base without victory. Nusra succeeded after seizing much of the province from Harakat Hazm and the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, two of several groups that until recently, American officials were calling the opposition’s new hope.

Back in November I noted a story about Nusra Front crushing the CIA-backed Harakat Hazm rebel group and stealing their weapons, which was believed to include some pretty heavy hardware. That seems to have played a role in the Nusra Front victory at Wadi al-Deif:

Those groups had received sophisticated American-made TOW antitank missiles, and their commanders expected to act as the ground force in the American-led campaign against ISIS. But lately they say the flow of American aid has dwindled as Washington’s strategy shifts to building a new force from scratch.

How exactly the Wadi al-Deif battle unfolded remains murky, with different commanders giving different versions. But reports and images from the operation make two things clear: antitank missiles were used, and Nusra claimed the victory. That means that the American-backed fighters could advance only by working with the Nusra Front, which the United States government lists as a terrorist group, or that they have lost the weapons to the Nusra fighters, effectively joined the group or been forced to follow its orders.

One commander of a group that received antitank missiles said that some F.S.A. fighters were forced to operate them in the battle on behalf of the Nusra Front, which had captured them from American-backed groups — a turn of events that he worried would lead the United States to cut off support.

Earlier this month I was also reading a whole bunch of articles about how miserable life under the Syrian rebels is (in stark contrast with how normal things have returned to under regime-held areas). Based on those reports, the rebels spend most of their time attacking each other, looting their own occupied zones down to the studs, profiteering from the populace, and generally causing mayhem and misery. In some communities, such as Douma, residents are openly staging protests against the rebel authorities and counting down the days until “liberation” by the government they once opposed.

Maybe I’m biased in favor of seeing what I want to see (because I’ve been opposed to intervention and as opposed to the rebels as the regime for 2.5 years now) or maybe I’m just reading slanted sources. But the more I keep reading about what’s going on in Western Syria, the more open I am to considering that the regime might actually be the real lesser-of-two-evils at this point, even if they didn’t start out that way.

Is the regime criminal and horrific? Yes absolutely. But probably not more so than the rebels, who at this point are the ones really dragging out the misery for civilians, through direct cruelty and indirectly by refusing to concede a severely lost cause. Did the regime wildly mishandle the first year-plus of the war, to everyone’s detriment and pain? Agreed. Is the regime viscously sectarian, as critics still maintain? Yes, but so are the opponents.
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Assad’s air power returns to west Syria, as US handles east

This seems kind of predictable by now: Assad has, quite logically, decided to ignore the coalition air incursions in eastern Syria — not taking the bait to try to stop them — and concentrate on daily air raids on western Syrian cities and towns. In the weeks preceding the start of US-led airstrikes in eastern Syria, the Syrian government forces had finally been forced to start splitting their energies between western rebels and ISIS control in the east. The new situation means the regime can refocus on one side of the three-way civil war: the Free Syrian Army / Nusra Front fighters that form the western opposition.

The result? Loyalist planes and helicopters are pounding away at them again, now unencumbered by either ISIS attacks on eastern Syrian bases or any kind of coalition no-fly zone anywhere in the country. A U.S. official observed to the New York Times, “Essentially, we’ve allowed them to perform an economy of force” — although this is unintentional and not in any way coordinated, as far as we have been told publicly.

Worse, some of the air raids are hard to source, especially because first-day US airstrikes on so-called “Khorassan Group” targets in western Syria (specifically the rebel-dominated Aleppo area) made it seem like the US was planning to strike targets all over the country instead of focusing on strategic eastern ISIS targets. This confusion has led to the US being incorrectly blamed for some of the high civilian casualty bombings the regime has ordered since then.

If nothing else, we are learning that the accidental president, Bashar al-Assad, and his top strategists know how to play a full-scale civil war like a delicate instrument. They don’t bite off more than they can chew, they work with anyone who will help, they avoid or delay taking on stronger enemies (whether ISIS or the United States) directly whenever possible, and they play everyone off everyone else. This is some of the most pragmatic, high-level Machiavellianism — devoid of nostalgia or ideological considerations — that we’ve seen lately in the world and the region.

A map of government territory in northwestern Syria as of October 7, 2014. (Red = government, gray = ISIS, yellow = Syrian Kurds, green = other rebels.) Map via Wikimedia

A map of government territory in northwestern Syria as of October 7, 2014. (Red = government, gray = ISIS, yellow = Syrian Kurds, green = other rebels.) Map via Wikimedia. Click to enlarge.

Assad versus the ISIS administrators: The next stage of Syria’s war

I’ve been arguing for several months now that the durability of ISIS over the long-run is going to be a lot less about ability to rapidly take over territory with mobile light infantry than about ability to hold the territory they already have. Beheadings, massacres, and general intimidation can keep people docile for a while, but in the end every territorial administration — whether a state or a non-recognized/non-state actor — has to balance that with substantial provision of basic services, governmental functions, and food access. Otherwise people just get hungry enough and angry enough to overthrow you no matter how many gunmen you have on payroll.

Fluid terrorist organizations that move easily between physical locations and do not attempt to run a state can basically do whatever they want and be as vicious as they want. But organizations that set themselves up in a defined physical space (a territory) and attempt to take over or establish a new state (or pseudo-state) quickly find that the administration capacity question is what makes or breaks their ability to remain in control.

Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and al-Shabab in southern Somalia, have all proven that they can gain a ton of local support by providing government functions effectively and providing food and services to their constituent populations effectively (particularly when compared to the alternative vacuum). They are so good at the “welfare” part of the welfare state that they can take actions that directly or indirectly cause harm to their populations and they will still remain highly popular within their territories. For example, as I examined previously, al-Shabab has spent millions of dollars since 2011 on serious, long-term agro-infrastructure development in southern Somalia to reduce famine risk and create and independent local food production capacity that breaks the cycle of dependence on food imports.

ISIS has declared itself to be “The Islamic State” and has carved out an entirely new administrative district, Forat Province, based on the Arabic name for the Euphrates River, which spans part of eastern Syria and western Iraq. They have clearly established themselves in the territorial-control model of terrorist organizations.

Contrary to much of the breathless media reporting focusing on their rapid traversing of desert highways, the expansion of ISIS is far from unstoppable or perfectly stable. Already they have reached the point where they have disrupted local administrative functions so heavily that they need to slow down and resume bureaucratic operations to keep everything spinning smoothly enough for people to remain accepting of their rule in the places they’ve already captured.

In particular, the core of the ISIS sphere of control poses a lot of challenges for the organization. A lot of local community leaders in eastern Syria are economic mercenaries, exploiting the civil war’s chaos, with only the thinnest of allegiances to ISIS, who will turn on them without a moment’s notice if a better opportunity comes along that ISIS can’t outmatch.

According to reporting from Reuters, however, ISIS has actually been making some disturbingly long strides in eastern Syria in terms of rebooting the administrative activities after their initial wave of terror: Read more