Speaking in London the same day, US President Barack Obama said that the cessation of hostilities is “fraying,” adding that although he has “always been skeptical about Mr. (Russian President Vladimir) Putin’s actions and motives inside of Syria … we are going to play this option out. If, in fact, the cessation falls apart, we’ll try to put it back together again even as we continue to go after ISIL (Islamic State).” The day before, in remarks in Riyadh with Saudi King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, Obama said, “The cessation of hostilities is obviously under tremendous strain, including continued violations by the (Bashar al-) Assad regime. This violence is yet another reminder that there’s only one way to end this civil war, as our GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) partners agree — a transitional governing body, a new constitution with free elections, including a transition away from Assad.”
In American parlance, there have just been three sides– the regime of Bashar al-Assad, the Free Syrian Army, and Daesh (ISIS, ISIL). The Free Syrian Army is depicted as democrats deserving US support (only some of them are).
There is a fourth force, however, al-Qaeda, which has been among the more successful fighting groups and which holds key real estate. They led a coalition of hard line Sunni Salafi groups into Idlib city last year. They have a position around Aleppo and inside it.
Even the 33 “vetted” guerrilla groups that are supported by the US CIA via Saudi intelligence often make ad hoc, battlefied alliances with al-Qaeda, and US munitions from other groups flow to the latter.
Al-Qaeda in Syria reports to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, a mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, so it is quite disturbing to see American allies coordinating with it. (...)
Syrian militias armed by different parts of the U.S. war machine have begun to fight each other on the plains between the besieged city of Aleppo and the Turkish border, highlighting how little control U.S. intelligence officers and military planners have over the groups they have financed and trained in the bitter 5-year-old civil war.
The fighting has intensified over the past two months, as CIA-armed units and Pentagon-armed ones have repeatedly shot at each other as they have maneuvered through contested territory on the northern outskirts of Aleppo, U.S. officials and rebel leaders have confirmed.
In mid-February, a CIA-armed militia called Fursan al Haq, or Knights of Righteousness, was run out of the town of Marea, about 20 miles north of Aleppo, by Pentagon-backed Syrian Democratic Forces moving in from Kurdish-controlled areas to the east. (...)
The best way to help Israel deal with Iran's growing nuclear capability is to help the people of Syria overthrow the regime of Bashar Assad.
Negotiations to limit Iran's nuclear program will not solve Israel's security dilemma. Nor will they stop Iran from improving the crucial part of any nuclear weapons program — the capability to enrich uranium.
At best, the talks between the world's major powers and Iran that began in Istanbul this April and will continue in Baghdad in May will enable Israel to postpone by a few months a decision whether to launch an attack on Iran that could provoke a major Mideast war. Iran's nuclear program and Syria's civil war may seem unconnected, but they are.
For Israeli leaders, the real threat from a nuclear-armed Iran is not the prospect of an insane Iranian leader launching an unprovoked Iranian nuclear attack on Israel that would lead to the annihilation of both countries. What Israeli military leaders really worry about — but cannot talk about — is losing their nuclear monopoly.
An Iranian nuclear weapons capability would not only end that nuclear monopoly but could also prompt other adversaries, like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, to go nuclear as well. The result would be a precarious nuclear balance in which Israel could not respond to provocations with conventional military strikes on Syria and Lebanon, as it can today.
If Iran were to reach the threshold of a nuclear weapons state, Tehran would find it much easier to call on its allies in Syria and Hezbollah to strike Israel, knowing that its nuclear weapons would serve as a deterrent to Israel responding against Iran itself.
Back to Syria.
It is the strategic relationship between Iran and the regime of Bashar Assad in Syria that makes it possible for Iran to undermine Israel's security — not through a direct attack, which in the thirty years of hostility between Iran and Israel has never occurred, but through its proxies in Lebanon, like Hezbollah, that are sustained, armed and trained by Iran via Syria.
The end of the Assad regime would end this dangerous alliance. Israel's leadership understands well why defeating Assad is now in its interests.
Speaking on CNN's Amanpour show last week, Defense Minister Ehud Barak argued that "the toppling down of Assad will be a major blow to the radical axis, major blow to Iran.... It's the only kind of outpost of the Iranian influence in the Arab world...and it will weaken dramatically both Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza."
Bringing down Assad would not only be a massive boon to Israel's security, it would also ease Israel's understandable fear of losing its nuclear monopoly. Then, Israel and the United States might be able to develop a common view of when the Iranian program is so dangerous that military action could be warranted. Right now, it is the combination of Iran's strategic alliance with Syria and the steady progress in Iran's nuclear enrichment program that has led Israeli leaders to contemplate a surprise attack — if necessary over the objections of Washington.
With Assad gone, and Iran no longer able to threaten Israel through its, proxies, it is possible that the United States and Israel can agree on red lines for when Iran's program has crossed an unacceptable threshold. In short, the White House can ease the tension that has developed with Israel over Iran by doing the right thing in Syria.
The rebellion in Syria has now lasted more than a year. The opposition is not going away, nor is the regime going to accept a diplomatic solution from the outside. With his life and his family at risk, only the threat or use of force will change the Syrian dictator Bashar Assad's mind.
The Obama administration has been understandably wary of engaging in an air operation in Syria like the one conducted in Libya for three main reasons.
Unlike the Libyan opposition forces, the Syrian rebels are not unified and do not hold territory. The Arab League has not called for outside military intervention as it did in Libya. And the Russians are opposed. Libya was an easier case. But other than the laudable purpose of saving Libyan civilians from likely attacks by Qaddafi's regime, the Libyan operation had no long-lasting consequences for the region.
Syria is harder. But success in Syria would be a transformative event for the Middle East. Not only would another ruthless dictator succumb to mass opposition on the streets, but the region would be changed for the better as Iran would no longer have a foothold in the Middle East from which to threaten Israel and undermine stability in the region.
Unlike in Libya, a successful intervention in Syria would require substantial diplomatic and military leadership from the United States. Washington should start by expressing its willingness to work with regional allies like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar to organize, train and arm Syrian rebel forces.
The announcement of such a decision would, by itself, likely cause substantial defections from the Syrian military. Then, using territory in Turkey and possibly Jordan, U.S. diplomats and Pentagon officials can start strengthening the opposition. It will take time. But the rebellion is going to go on for a long time, with or without U.S. involvement.
The second step is to develop international support for a coalition air operation.
Russia will never support such a mission, so there is no point operating through the UN Security Council. Some argue that U.S. involvement risks a wider war with Russia. But the Kosovo example shows otherwise. In that case, Russia had genuine ethnic and political ties to the Serbs, which don't exist between Russia and Syria, and even then Russia did little more than complain.
Russian officials have already acknowledged they won't stand in the way if intervention comes. Arming the Syrian rebels and using western air power to ground Syrian helicopters and airplanes is a low-cost high payoff approach. As long as Washington's political leaders stay firm that no U.S. ground troops will be deployed, as they did in both Kosovo and Libya, the costs to the United States will be limited.
Victory may not come quickly or easily, but it will come. And the payoff will be substantial. Iran would be strategically isolated, unable to exert its influence in the Middle East. The resulting regime in Syria will see the United States as a friend, not an enemy.
Washington would gain substantial recognition as fighting for the people in the Arab world, not the corrupt regimes.
For Israel, the rationale for a bolt from the blue attack on Iran's nuclear facilities would be eased. And a new Syrian regime might well be open to early action on the frozen peace talks with Israel.
Hezbollah in Lebanon would be cut off from its Iranian sponsor since Syria would no longer be a transit point for Iranian training, assistance and missiles. All these strategic benefits and the prospect of saving thousands of civilians from murder at the hands of the Assad regime (10,000 have already been killed in this first year of civil war).
With the veil of fear lifted from the Syrian people, they seem determine to fight for their freedom. America can and should help them — and by doing so help Israel and help reduce the risk of a wider war.
The news that Turkey has begun military strikes against the Kurdish People’s Defense Units (YPG) militia inside Syria marks an ominous chapter in that country’s civil war. Turkey acted after YPG forces and allied units from the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) seized the strategic Mennagh Military Airport in northern Aleppo from a coalition of Islamist rebel groups fighting against Damascus. Turkish artillery strikes have also targeted regime forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad in a major escalation of border tensions between the two countries.
The new round of violence reveals the tangled and conflicting motives of the main actors operating in Syria at present. The Islamists and allied local militias were losing ground to a Russian-backed Syrian army offensive that is threatening to destroy rebel strength in the north-west of the country, taking back the whole of Aleppo for the regime and potentially sealing the border with Turkey again. That would be a blow for Ankara, which together with Saudi Arabia, has been sponsoring various rebel fronts as a counterweight both to the growth of Kurdish power in Syria, and to fight the Assad regime. (...)
In the Milwaukee debate, Hillary Clinton took pride in her role in a recent UN Security Council resolution on a Syrian ceasefire:
But I would add this. You know, the Security Council finally got around to adopting a resolution. At the core of that resolution is an agreement I negotiated in June of 2012 in Geneva, which set forth a cease-fire and moving toward a political resolution, trying to bring the parties at stake in Syria together.
This is the kind of compulsive misrepresentation that makes Clinton unfit to be President. Clinton's role in Syria has been to help instigate and prolong the Syrian bloodbath, not to bring it to a close.
In 2012, Clinton was the obstacle, not the solution, to a ceasefire being negotiated by UN Special Envoy Kofi Annan. It was US intransigence - Clinton's intransigence - that led to the failure of Annan's peace efforts in the spring of 2012, a point well known among diplomats. Despite Clinton's insinuation in the Milwaukee debate, there was (of course) no 2012 ceasefire, only escalating carnage. Clinton bears heavy responsibility for that carnage, which has by now displaced more than 10 million Syrians and left more than 250,000 dead.
As every knowledgeable observer understands, the Syrian War is not mostly about Bashar al-Assad, or even about Syria itself. It is mostly a proxy war, about Iran. And the bloodbath is doubly tragic and misguided for that reason.
Saudi Arabia and Turkey, the leading Sunni powers in the Middle East, view Iran, the leading Shia power, as a regional rival for power and influence. Right-wing Israelis view Iran as an implacable foe that controls Hezbollah, a Shi'a militant group operating in Lebanon, a border state of Israel. Thus, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Israel have all clamored to remove Iran's influence in Syria.
This idea is incredibly naïve. Iran has been around as a regional power for a long time—in fact, for about 2,700 years. And Shia Islam is not going away. There is no way, and no reason, to "defeat" Iran. The regional powers need to forge a geopolitical equilibrium that recognizes the mutual and balancing roles of the Gulf Arabs, Turkey, and Iran. And Israeli right-wingers are naïve, and deeply ignorant of history, to regard Iran as their implacable foe, especially when that mistaken view pushes Israel to side with Sunni jihadists.
Yet Clinton did not pursue that route. Instead she joined Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and right-wing Israelis to try to isolate, even defeat, Iran. In 2010, she supported secret negotiations between Israel and Syria to attempt to wrest Syria from Iran's influence. Those talks failed. Then the CIA and Clinton pressed successfully for Plan B: to overthrow Assad.
When the unrest of the Arab Spring broke out in early 2011, the CIA and the anti-Iran front of Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey saw an opportunity to topple Assad quickly and thereby to gain a geopolitical victory. Clinton became the leading proponent of the CIA-led effort at Syrian regime change.
In early 2011, Turkey and Saudi Arabia leveraged local protests against Assad to try to foment conditions for his ouster. By the spring of 2011, the CIA and the US allies were organizing an armed insurrection against the regime. On August 18, 2011, the US Government made public its position: "Assad must go."
Since then and until the recent fragile UN Security Council accord, the US has refused to agree to any ceasefire unless Assad is first deposed. The US policy—under Clinton and until recently—has been: regime change first, ceasefire after. After all, it's only Syrians who are dying. Annan's peace efforts were sunk by the United States' unbending insistence that U.S.-led regime change must precede or at least accompany a ceasefire. As the Nation editors put it in August 2012:
The US demand that Assad be removed and sanctions be imposed before negotiations could seriously begin, along with the refusal to include Iran in the process, doomed (Annan's) mission.
The U.S. policy was a massive, horrific failure. Assad did not go, and was not defeated. Russia came to his support. Iran came to his support. The mercenaries sent in to overthrow him were themselves radical jihadists with their own agendas. The chaos opened the way for the Islamic State, building on disaffected Iraqi Army leaders (deposed by the US in 2003), on captured U.S. weaponry, and on the considerable backing by Saudi funds. If the truth were fully known, the multiple scandals involved would surely rival Watergate in shaking the foundations of the US establishment.
The hubris of the United States in this approach seems to know no bounds. The tactic of CIA-led regime change is so deeply enmeshed as a "normal" instrument of U.S. foreign policy that it is hardly noticed by the U.S. public or media. Overthrowing another government is against the U.N. charter and international law. But what are such niceties among friends?
This instrument of U.S. foreign policy has not only been in stark violation of international law but has also been a massive and repeated failure. Rather than a single, quick, and decisive coup d'état resolving a US foreign policy problem, each CIA-led regime change has been, almost inevitably, a prelude to a bloodbath. How could it be otherwise? Other societies don't like their countries to be manipulated by U.S. covert operations. (...)
Robert Ford was US Ambassador to Syria when the revolt against Syrian president Assad was launched. He not only was a chief architect of regime change in Syria, but actively worked with rebels to aid their overthrow of the Syrian government.
Ford assured us that those taking up arms to overthrow the Syrian government were simply moderates and democrats seeking to change Syria’s autocratic system. Anyone pointing out the obviously Islamist extremist nature of the rebellion and the foreign funding and backing for the jihadists was written off as an Assad apologist or worse.
Ambassador Ford talked himself blue in the face reassuring us that he was only supporting moderates in Syria. As evidence mounted that the recipients of the largesse doled out by Washington was going to jihadist groups, Ford finally admitted early last year that most of the moderates he backed were fighting alongside ISIS and al-Qaeda. Witness this incredible Twitter exchange with then-ex Ambassador Ford:
Then late last year the McClatchy News Service ran an article in which Ambassador Ford admitted that his “moderates” regularly collaborated with ISIS and al-Qaeda to the point where he no longer thought the US government should be arming them.
So those who pointed out that the rebellion in Syria was foreign-driven and jihadist from the start were no longer crazy conspiracy theorists, but were rather conspiracy factists.
Did that stop Ford from pushing radicals, though? Hardly!
As the Syria peace talks are scheduled to begin within days in Geneva, with a main sticking point being whether to admit groups that have allied with al-Qaeda to the negotiating table as potential leaders of “new Syria,” it is extremely instructive to recall what Ambassador Ford said about one such group, Ahrar al-Sham, to a BBC interviewer last October.
Ahrar al-Sham, according to experts including those at Stanford University, “was founded by members of Al Qaeda and maintains links to AQ’s core leadership.” The group vigorously rejects the notion of an elected government in Syria after the overthrow of Assad, instead calling for:
…a Divine system prescribed for his Caliph and slaves… It is the system where the rule is for the pure Islamic law. Allah’s law is complete, and you need only consider the texts and derive rules.
Ahrar al-Sham has been reported by Christian rights groups in Syria to have executed Christians in Idlib, Syria, after they captured the town last year. The Christians committed the “crime” of not following Sharia law.
Sounds like a pretty bad group, but nevertheless it still has its Western cheerleaders…including Ambassador Robert Ford!
Stephen Sackur BBC: “Ok, let me ask bluntly, Ahrar al Sham (The Free Men of Syria) group, one of the most powerful groups you would call “moderate”, is it really moderate when a group like that proclaims its desire to see Sharia as the driving force of a “future Syria”.. which clearly makes comments which suggest that Alawites and Christians would find it very difficult to find a place in their Syria…. Are these moderate?? You regard this as moderation?”
Robert Ford: “This is how I define as a moderate in the Syrian context, Stephen; a moderate is a group that accepts there has to be a political negotiation and there has to be a political process after a transition government is set up.. a political process to determine the future permanent government of Syria.. That there must be pluralism in that process… and it’s one that works with other groups/ factions in a pluralistic setting… I don’t agree at all with Ahrar al Sham’s desires to set up an Islamic State (in Syria).. but I have to admit that they accept the needs to be a political negotiation.. I have to admit they’re willing to work with other groups and they do on the ground with great effect…This is one of the reasons, they’re strong as they are, as you mentioned… It’s not a group I ever want my daughter to marry into… I don’t agree with their vision of society…but I would not call them Jihadis, they’re not looking to impose an Islamic State at sword point… Different, they’re therefore, from al Qaida… Different therefore from the Islamic State..And they’re willing to accept even such things as Parliament…and some kind of government institutions… So, yes they want Sharia … but the kind of Sharia they want may in fact, in the end, not look like the kind of Sharia the “Islamic State” already imposing over most of central and Eastern of Syria…”
Is it any surprise that Syria is in the current disastrous state, where hundreds of thousands have died in a war instigated by those who knew from the beginning would only benefit radical Islamist extremists? Is there no justice for those who push such murder and mayhem on such a grand scale? Today, as civilized people recognize International Holocaust Remembrance Day, is Nuremberg dead?
Russia is so far winning big in Syria, and making Moscow’s projection of force in the Middle East a reality that the other great powers have to recognize. As Russia has emerged as a major combatant against Syrian al-Qaeda and against Daesh (ISIS, ISIL), it is being accepted back into a Europe traumatized by two major attacks on Paris. France is signalling that it hopes to end sanctions on Russia over Ukraine by this summer. While the Minsk peace process is going all right, the motivation here is to ally more closely with Moscow against Muslim radicals in the wake of Russia’s successes against them in Syria.
Russia’s intervention in Syria last October was in many ways a desperate measure and a gamble. It is said that in mid-summer of 2015, Iranian special forces commander Qasem Soleimani flew to Moscow with a blunt message. The Syrian regime was going to fall if things went on the way they were going and Iran did not have the resources to stop it.
Vladimir Putin, still smarting from having lost Libya as a sphere of influence, was determined to stop the fall of Syria.
The regime of Bashar al-Assad has to to control a y-shaped area and set of transportation routes if it is to survive. The ‘Y’ is anchored at the bottom by Damascus, the capital. In its metropolitan area, given shifting population, live around 5 million Syrians who are afraid of the two major forces battling the regime, al-Qaeda (the Nusra Front) and Daesh (ISIS, ISIL).
The trunk of the ‘Y’ stretches up to Homs and then veers off to the left, to the key port city of Latakia. The right branch of the ‘Y’ goes up through Hama to Aleppo, a city of 4 million before the war, which is divided in half, with the west in the hands of the regime.
Controlling this huge ‘Y’ where 70% of Syrians live is a tall order. It is vulnerable at several key points, of which the rebels have attempted to take advantage.
1. Deraa province to the south of Damascus is largely Sunni and rural and its clans could sweep up and take the capital, with Jordanian, US and Saudi support. If that happened, game over.
2. The Army of Islam, backed by Saudi Arabia, has strong positions besieging the capital just to its north. If it could come down into Damascus, game over.
3. If the rebels could take and hold Homs and Qusayr in the middle of the ‘Y’, they could cut Damascus off from resupply by truck from the port of Latakia.
4. If the rebels, who took all of Idlib Province in the northwest last April, could move west from Idlib and take Latakia, they could cut Damascus off from its major port and deny it ammunition, arms, even some foodstuffs.
5. If the rebels can move from south of Aleppo to cut off the road from Hama and strangle West Aleppo, they could take all of the country’s largest city, making it difficult for the regime to survive.
Along this Y set of trunk roads, the most effective fighting force has been al-Qaeda in Syria, which reports to 9/11 mastermind Ayman al-Zawahiri. This affiliate, called the Support Front or the Nusra Front, is formally allied with other Salafi jihadis in the Army of Conquest coalition and is tactically allied with many small groups in what’s left of the Free Syrian Army. The CIA has sent medium weaponry, including T. O. W. anti-tank weapons to 30 “vetted” groups in the FSA, via Saudi Arabia. Many of these weapons have made their way into the hands of al-Qaeda and been used against regime tanks and armored vehicles to devastating effect.
So when Soleimani when to Moscow, it seemed that the road from Hama to West Aleppo had been lost and Aleppo would fall. Al-Qaeda had also made advances in the south, taking al-Sheikh Miskin just south of Damascus, and preparing for a push on the capital. Idlib had fallen and Latakia might well have been next.
So when Putin sent in his air force, it concentrated on protecting the red ‘Y’ in the map above. It mainly hit al-Qaeda, the primary threat to regime control of the Y, but also struck at Free Syrian Army groups backed by the US, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, which were tactically allied with al-Qaeda. This move was necessary to defend the ‘Y’. It drew howls of protest from Washington, Ankara and Riyadh demanding to know why Russia wasn’t instead targeting Daesh/ ISIL.
The answer was simple. Except at Aleppo and at a point below Hama, Daesh for the most part posed little threat to the ‘Y’. Al-Qaeda and its allies were the big menace, so Putin concentrated on them.
Air support to a determined local ground force can be an effective strategy. It worked for Bill Clinton in Kosovo. It worked for George W. Bush in Afghanistan in 2001, when the US-backed Northern Alliance handily defeated the Taliban. It worked again in March-April 2003, when US air support to the Kurdish Peshmerga guerrillas, allowed them to defeat the Iraqi Baath army in Kirkuk, Mosul and elsewhere in the north.
And so this strategy has been working for Putin. He appears to have rearmed and retrained the Syrian Arab Army, which has new esprit de corps and is making significant headway for the first time in years. It is of course aided by Hizbullah, over from Lebanon, and by a small contingent of some 2000 Iranian spec ops forces (many of them actually Afghan).
So what has the Russian air force accomplished?
1. It allowed the reopening of the road from Hama to West Aleppo, ending the siege of that regime-held part of the city and pushing back the rebels from it.
2. It retook most of Latakia Province, safeguarding the port. Yesterday came the news that the major northern al-Qaeda-held town of Rabia had fallen to the government forces, meaning that Latakia is nearly 100% in government control. These advances into northern Latakia involved hitting Turkmen proxies of Turkey, which is why Turkey shot down a Russian plane last fall. Likely the next step will be to take back cities in Idlib like Jisr al-Shughour, which fell last spring to an al-Qaeda-led coalition, and which could be used as a launching pad for the taking of Latakia port.
3. It strengthened regime control of Hama and Homs, ensuring the supply routes south to Damascus.
4. It hit the Army of Islam as well as al-Qaeda and Daesh around Damascus, forcing the latter two to withdraw from part of the capital and killing Zahran Alloush, leader of the Army of Islam.
5. It hit al-Qaeda and FSA forces in Deraa Province and yesterday the key town of al-Sheikh Miskin fell to the Syrian Arab Army. This is a Deraa crossroads and its loss affects the rebels ability to maneuver in this province.
The Russian air force, in conjunction with Syrian troops and Hizbullah and a few Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps fighters has therefore profoundly braced regime control of the ‘Y’ where most Syrians live and along which the capital’s supplies flow. If in July through September it appeared that the regime could well fall, and quickly, now al-Assad’s minions are on the march, pushing back their opponents.
It shouldn’t need to be said, but I want to underline that the above is analysis, not advocacy. Be that as it may, in the past 4 months, Putin has begun winning in Syria, which means so has al-Assad. And the spillover effects on Russian diplomacy are huge.
The graphic images of death and starvation coming out of the besieged Syrian town of Madaya have not been independently confirmed by aid groups or CNN. However the United Nations on Thursday said it has received "credible reports" of people dying of starvation and that the Syrian government had agreed to allow aid convoys into the besieged cities of Madaya, Foah and Kefraya.