Will the U.S. become the Syrian rebels’ air force?

United Press International, on the United States’ latest terrible idea for the Syrian war:

The U.S. will provide Toyota Hi-Lux pickup trucks to some Syrian rebels that will be equipped with machine guns, GPS devices and radios. The rebels can use the radios to call in airstrikes carried out by American B-1B bombers, as reported by the Wall Street Journal. Mortars and more sophisticated anti-tank weapons may be provided as well.

 
Oh boy, this should work out great, based on our track record of arming the CIA’s private rebel army in Syria, Harakat Hazm, whose easy battlefield defeat resulted in Nusra Front (Syrian al Qaeda) getting anti-tank weapons.

Except this time it’s an even greater move, because now some of these incompetent rebels will be able to call in American airstrikes on god-knows-what, probably triggering an accidental war with Bashar al-Assad or some dramatic escalation.

I’m glad that coordinated air support helped save Kobani, but that’s just not the same situation as this proposal at all. Most worryingly, the people cheering the loudest for this idea are explicitly, openly hoping this will cause the United States to hit Syrian Armed Forces targets. These neo-cons want the United States to go to war in Syria. To quote The Wall Street Journal’s reporting, directly, on this:

Kimberly Kagan, founder of the Institute for the Study of War, said providing air support for the rebels is critical. But, she said, if the Obama administration doesn’t target the regime’s forces as well, it will inadvertently empower other extremists in Syria.

 
To re-state: Those favoring coordinated air support want the U.S. to attack the Syrian government directly.

As the article notes, even if this somehow didn’t lead to U.S. entanglement in Syria itself, it would certainly derail all the progress with Iran — both in Iraq’s war with ISIS (and problems with factionalism) and directly on nuclear negotiations.

Aircraft participating in U.S.-led coalition airstrike missions in Operation Inherent Resolve against ISIS. (Credit: Dept. of Defense via Wikimedia)

Aircraft participating in U.S.-led coalition airstrike missions in Operation Inherent Resolve against ISIS. (Credit: Dept. of Defense via Wikimedia)

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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Texas to Syria: The Jihadist Journey of a Used Pickup Truck

Woops:

Texas plumber says he has no idea how his old company truck ended up in a jihadi photo from the front lines of the war in Syria produced by the militant group ISIS.

The New York Daily News reported that Mark Oberholtzer of Texas City traded the company car in at a dealership in 2013 and hadn’t thought of it since.

On Monday, however, the Ansar al-Deen Front, a Syrian militant group, posted a photo featuring the black Ford F-250 pickup with an anti-aircraft gun mounted on the truck bed and the logo of Oberholtzer’s Mark-1 Plumbing Company and contact information emblazoned on the doors.

 
Ansar al-Deen Front (aka “Supporters of the Religion” Front) is one of the newer Syrian militant coalitions, operating as an alliance of three “neutral” rebel fighters (mostly foreigners) only since July 2014. They are based in western Syria and claim not to be aligned with either ISIS or the various FSA and Nusra Front groups opposing ISIS. This isn’t terribly surprising since they are apparently mostly not Syrians — hailing from farther flung places such as Morocco and Chechnya — which probably reduces their stake in the internal divisions of the anti-Assad groups.

But back to the poor plumber in Texas. Apart from the death threats from stupid people who can’t figure out this was obviously unintended, I love this story for its globalized absurdity. It is the perfect distillation of all the dedicated but under-appreciated reporting for about 10 years by all the Iraq correspondents noticing pre-owned/stolen North American vehicles repeatedly showing up in bombing attacks and trying to figure out how they got there but not being able to trace them very far. Even FBI investigations didn’t make definitive progress. See this 2005 account:

The inquiry began after coalition troops raided a bomb-making factory in Fallujah last November and found a sport utility vehicle registered in Texas that was being prepared for a bombing mission.

Investigators said they are comparing several other cases where vehicles evidently stolen in the United States wound up in Syria or other Middle East countries and ultimately into the hands of Iraqi insurgent groups — including Al Qaeda in Iraq, led by Jordanian-born Abu Musab Al Zarqawi.

 
Of course, Al Qaeda in Iraq was subsequently renamed the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), bringing the whole thing full circle to today’s conflict.

And this new story also involves another of my favorite topics (dating to the Libyan Revolution in 2011): Militants Driving Fast With Stolen Anti-Aircraft Guns on Pickup Truck Beds That Should Not Be Used That Way.

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Free Syrian Arms

A gem from a Washington Post report on CIA plans to scale up their existing “secret” project to vet, train, and arm a faction of vaguely pro-American Syrian rebels in the so-called (and largely ambivalent on America) “Free Syrian Army”:

The latest setbacks came this month, when CIA-backed factions were routed by Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s primary affiliate in Syria. Fighters with militias including Harakat Hazm — one of the biggest recipients of U.S. arms — fled positions in towns across northern Syria, with many leaving their weapons to be scooped up by al-Nusra. […] The weapons distributed have been mostly light arms, although Harakat Hazm was among a select group of units to be given U.S.-made TOW antitank missiles.

 
Cool, cool, cool. Such amazing results for Harakat Hazm (Hazzm Movement) bodes well for the even slower, still-under-development Pentagon program to train rebel fighters.

They sound about as effective and reliable as the Iraqi Army and almost as much of an accidental U.S. arms conduit to Nusra Front as the Iraqi Army was to ISIS in Mosul. Hazzm must be the inept military counterpart to the spectacular incompetence and ridiculousness of the supposed “civilian leadership” of “the Syrian opposition.”

Another funny story: Nusra Front — which the Free Syrian Army, the purported parent organization to Hazzm, has repeatedly hailed as a valued ally in the fight against Bashar al-Assad — reportedly just signed a military cooperation pact with ISIS after a year of animosity and infighting. Battlefield cooperation has already begun. (Edit on November 19, 2014: Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi argues that there is very little credible evidence of a serious agreement between Nusra Front and ISIS.)

You may also remember Nusra Front for their greatest hits including the kidnap and ransom of dozens of United Nations peacekeepers captured from Golan Heights. I’m super glad we probably just accidentally gave them anti-tank weapons. I’m sure they’ll find some nice tanks to use them on, and, to be fair, we probably wouldn’t have gotten much use out of them ourselves.

Flag of the CIA-backed Hazzm Movement in Syria. (Credit: MrPenguin20 - Wikimedia)

Flag of the CIA-backed Hazzm Movement in Syria. (Credit: MrPenguin20 – Wikimedia)

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.

Joe Biden made to apologize for publicly saying fact about Turkey

Folks, let’s talk about how Joe Biden was just forced to apologize for saying a true thing out loud because it was inconvenient for the Turkish government.

Here’s what he reportedly said:

Speaking at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Mr. Biden said allies including Turkey, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates had extended unconditional financial and logistical support to Sunni fighters trying to oust the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad.

“President Erdogan told me,” he said, according to the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet, “ ‘You were right. We let too many people through. Now we are trying to seal the border.’

“Our allies poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against al-Assad,” he said, including jihadists planning to join the Nusra Front and Al Qaeda.

 
And here was the angry response from the Turkish leadership:

“If Mr. Biden has said such a thing at Harvard, he needs to apologize to us,” Mr. Erdogan told reporters here.

Mr. Erdogan, despite widespread evidence to the contrary, denied that Turkey’s long, porous border had enabled thousands of militants to cross onto the Syrian and Iraqi battlefields since the Syrian civil war began in 2011. “Foreign fighters never crossed into Syria from our country,” Mr. Erdogan said. “They would cross into Syria from Turkey on tourist passports, but nobody can claim that they have crossed with arms.”

 
Oh, ok, that’s super convincing. Just like Russia trying to claim that all its active duty troops fighting in eastern Ukraine are merely on holiday — like a separatist sabbatical — and can’t possibly be stopped or controlled.

Look, I’m probably way more understanding and favorable toward Turkey and the ruling AKP than most people in the US “commentary industry” — who tend to cherry-pick complaints or instinctively bash Turkey’s civilian leaders and non-secular population without mentioning any historical or modern context for certain actions — but I have my limits.

Along with the infamous “Article 301” of the Turkish Penal Code — banning insults to the nation or national symbols — and denial of the Armenian genocide, this is just part of a pattern of Turkish leaders demanding that the entire rest of the world (including elected US officials) bend around their weird alternate reality where only pro-Turkish things can be said unless you want to be an enemy of the state.

For years, Turkey manipulated its status as a key NATO military power and a friend of Israel to block Washington from doing or saying anything critical of Turkey. That’s deteriorated a bit as Turkey has grown apart from Israel and the protective embrace of the Israel lobby on Capitol Hill, but this episode and the speed of Biden’s apology at the insistence of the senior Turkish leadership prove they’re still somewhat untouchable. Vice President Biden maybe said something impolitic, but it wasn’t false, the issue he cited has been a real problem.

And lest you think this is some kind of “Biden problem” or punishment for “Biden being Biden,” let’s just note that President Obama himself is now more than five and a half years into trying to get out of a promise to recognize the Armenian Genocide.

I have a great respect for Turkey, the Turkish people, and its history — and I have consistently defended Turkey from unfair and offensive (racist or anti-Muslim) critiques — but the loud efforts at blindly shielding the country from criticism and mentions of past or present abuses or other policy failings are a serious problem that undermine and constantly form a negative backdrop to anything positive Turkey tries to do as it approaches its 100th anniversary since independence.

640px-Flag_of_Turkey.svg

Update, Oct 5, 2014: On Sunday, Vice President Biden called the leadership in the United Arab Emirates to make a similar apology to the UAE for including them, alongside Turkey and Qatar, in the blanket list of supporters of extremists in Syria. While Turkey was a bit fast and loose with border and arms controls, they did not intentionally support terrorist groups specifically, unlike Qatar. In contrast with both, the United Arab Emirates has been especially active militarily in fighting Islamist fighters in Syria and in Libya, and they claim to have a strong position against terrorist financing (although many private citizens seem to ignore that). Saudi Arabia — which I’m not sure was explicitly mentioned — has not publicly commented on Biden’s remarks. Qatar, which is openly financing and arming Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front in Syria, did not respond.