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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Syria Peace: Piece by Piece

Contrary to popular belief, and on perhaps a much smaller scale than is noticeable, the United Nations is actually doing some pretty solid work in Syria. They negotiate mini-deals all over the place — the latest in outer Damascus — to freeze fighting temporarily and pull back the combatants from direct clashes. The deals establish Army-held perimeter checkpoints (satisfies the government even if they temporarily cede ground within the perimeter), hand interim governing authority to the FSA within the perimeter without giving up their guns (satisfies the rebels), and allow the UN to send in food and medical supplies (helps the civilians inside).

Here’s an account of the success in September by Steven Simon and Jonathan Stevenson in The New York Review of Books:

The most realistic short-term policy goal in Syria is to find ways to limit the areas of the country in direct conflict, with the aim of both containing extremist violence and significantly reducing the number of non-combatant deaths. This goal is not as far-fetched as it sounds, and there is already a basis for pursuing it: through a series of local cease-fires that could, if properly implemented and enforced, provide a path toward stability in several regions of the country, even as conflict continues elsewhere. In particular, clusters of cease-fires around Hama, Homs, and Damascus, and possibly Aleppo, could help end the conflict in a larger region along Syria’s principal north-south axis, bringing a degree of normality to daily life in a vital sector of the country.

The regime has recently made efforts to negotiate truces with opposition forces in a number of these areas, and has had some success. In a probing report released in June, the London-based consulting company Integrity Research and Consultancy identified twenty-six truces [implemented or in talks] in 2013 and 2014 […] in the Damascus suburbs, parts of Homs, and elsewhere. These deals have involved Islamist as well as relatively secular opposition groups, though not ISIS.

When an area is no longer viable to resist Army (or pro-Army paramilitary) advances, fighting stops and the FSA fighters evacuate on buses with their weapons and any civilians who want to leave, and then the Army marches in to re-take control. This scenario has played out in places like Homs (the now-fallen middle hub of the western rebellion, centrally located between the capital and Aleppo) and repeatedly in metro Damascus.

The report by Integrity Research & Consultancy, cited in the NY Books article quoted above, found 15 successful local truces had been reached and implemented in Syria by June 2014, while a further 9 proposed or rumored deals were pending. In fact, Integrity’s report found only 2 broken or failed localized truce agreements. Of the 15 successes, 13 were in western Syria (mostly metro Damascus neighborhoods or suburbs) and 2 were with the Syrian Kurds in the Rojava (which may be fueling the questionable allegation that Syria’s Kurds are “collaborating” with the Assad regime).

And it sounds like it might be about to happen in some neighborhoods of Aleppo, in a target area the UN envoy has identified as a potential “building block” for a more extensive peace. Although an Free Syrian Army commander in Aleppo on Friday appeared to reject a UN ceasefire plan), the Syrian government was reportedly favorable to the proposal.

The trend in UN-brokered deals and evacuations definitely speaks to the FSA’s lengthening string of defeats this year — irreversible without a direct western intervention — as well as the growing threat of ISIS to the east. And it’s arguably more self-serving than altruistic for the regime, according to Simon and Stevenson:

Quite apart from the new threat posed by ISIS, military gains by rebel groups in recent weeks [August and September 2014] have sapped the Assad regime’s military momentum. Regime fatalities increased steeply to 1,100 in the month of July. Government insiders, recognizing that the longer the war is prolonged, the more the government’s institutional capacity and material resources will be eroded, have taken to calling the local truces “reconciliations.”

So there is that reason. But I think it should also raise some questions about exactly how severe or unrestrained the Syrian armed forces actually are (since at least after the August 2013 chemical attack anyway) relative to claims of opponents and the West.

The fact that the government forces are willing to accept and abide by these deals is certainly due in part to having the upper hand and a clear sense of impending total victory, while needing to restrain the costs for achieving victory. But, costly or no, the government is winning gradually (and more easily after the US relieved some of the pressure from ISIS). And that means the regime could just keep steamrolling ahead at great cost in lives and money — which would certainly reduce the Sunni opposition population relative to the ruling Alawite and Shia minority populations — but instead is choosing a somewhat more humanitarian option. Not a high bar of conduct to clear, but many wartime governments in history have done worse.

To be sure, regime forces are still massively pummeling and bombing FSA-controlled civilian areas when these truces are not in effect (so did the Allies in World War II), but Assad’s government is also demonstrating a willingness to accept the surrender of specific districts to end the fighting early there. I’d argue, if forced to choose between the two, that it’s a lot better to fight dirty and brutally until a surrender agreement than to fight dirty and brutally to the last man.

Additionally, so far anyway, I haven’t heard of large-scale, non-battlefield atrocities in recaptured cities and towns over the past ten months after the FSA has withdrawn “protection” from a given district, in sharp contrast with cities and towns in Syria and Iraq that have fallen to ISIS control. I do believe that such atrocities at the hands of pro-government forces were indeed a feature of the first half of the war — when field commanders were regularly exceeding their authority, and rogue Shia and Alawite paramilitary leaders were conducting reciprocal slaughters of Sunni civilians and captured fighters out of fear, anger, and desperation — but I think that activity has diminished sharply as Assad has re-asserted his authority over his own supporters and over much of western Syria, while trying to avoid provoking a direct attack by Western military powers.

(Indeed, the unscientific but still informative Wikipedia tally of massacres and mass civilian death incidents in Syria over the course of the war shows just 4 incidents in the tracked first 8 months of 2014, 2 of which were committed by ISIS in numbers approaching 1,000 deaths, whereas 13 incidents from all sides are listed for 2012, along with 21 incidents in 2013. Barrel-bombing is continuing over contested civilian urban centers and more recently a refugee camp, but we haven’t had lots of reports of fallen cities being massacred, as was widely anticipated.)

Assad has proven very savvy, and part of that is knowing that you don’t massacre the inhabitants of a recaptured city after a ceasefire without sharply raising the chances of annihilation by US missiles. Chemical weapons use in August 2013 tested that “red line” and found it at least plausible enough for the regime to want to avoid. The intervention against massacre-happy ISIS a year later probably confirmed to Assad the rationality of playing it cool and preventing massacres.
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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.