Tag Archives: Bashar al-Assad

The Syrian Chess Board

Syria’s Chess Board

Dispatches From The Edge

Oct. 10, 2018

 

 

The Syrian civil war has always been devilishly complex, with multiple actors following different scripts, but in the past few months it appeared to be winding down. The Damascus government now controls 60 percent of the country and the major population centers, the Islamic State has been routed, and the rebels opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are largely cornered in Idlib Province in the country’s northwest. But suddenly the Americans moved the goal posts—maybe—the Russians have fallen out with the Israelis, the Iranians are digging in their heels, and the Turks are trying to multi-task with a home front in disarray.

 

So the devil is still very much at work in a war that has lasted more than seven years, claimed up to 500,000 lives, displaced millions of people, destabilized an already fragile Middle East, and is far from over.

 

There are at least three theaters in the Syrian war, each with its own complexities: Idilb in the north, the territory east of the Euphrates River, and the region that abuts the southern section of the Golan Heights. Just sorting out the antagonists is daunting. Turks, Iranians, Americans and Kurds are the key actors in the east. Russians, Turks, Kurds and Assad are in a temporary standoff in the north. And Iran, Assad and Israel are in a faceoff near Golan, a conflict that has suddenly drawn in Moscow.

 

Assad’s goals are straightforward: reunite the country under the rule of Damascus and begin re-building Syria’s shattered cities. The major roadblock to this is Idlib, the last large concentration of anti-Assad groups, Jihadists linked with al-Qaeda, and a modest Turkish occupation force representing Operation Olive Branch. The province, which borders Turkey in the north, is mountainous and re-taking it promises to be difficult.

 

For the time being there is a stand down. The Russians cut a deal with Turkey to demilitarize the area around Idlib city, neutralize the jihadist groups, and re-open major roads. The agreement holds off a joint Assad-Russian assault on Idlib, which would have driven hundreds of thousands of refugees into Turkey and likely have resulted in large numbers of civilian casualties.

 

But the agreement is temporary—about a month—because Russia is impatient to end the fighting and begin the reconstruction. However, it is hard to see how the Turks are going to get a handle on the bewildering number of groups packed into the province, some of which they have actively aided for years. Ankara could bring in more soldiers, but Turkey already has troops east of the Euphrates and is teetering on the edge of a major economic crisis. Pouring more wealth into what has become a quagmire may not sit well with the Turkish public, which has seen inflation eat up their paychecks and pensions, and the Turkish Lira fall nearly 40 percent in value in the past year. Local elections will be held in 2019, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party ‘s power is built on improving the economy.

 

In Syria’s east, Turkish troops—part of Operation Euphrates Shield—are pushing up against the Americans and the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces fighting the Islamic State (IS). Erdogan is far more worried about the Syrian Kurds and the effect they might have on Turkey’s Kurdish population, than he is about the IS.

 

Ankara’s ally in this case is Iran, which is not overly concerned about the Kurds, but quite concerned about the 2,200 Americans. “We need to resolve the difficulty east of the Euphrates and force America out,” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said in early September.

 

That latter goal just got more complex. The U.S. Special Forces were originally charged with aiding the Kurdish and Arab allies drive out the IS. President Donald Trump told a meeting in March, “we’ll be coming out of Syria like very soon.” But that policy appears to have changed. National Security Advisor John Bolton now says U.S. troops will remain in Syria until Iran leaves. Since there is little chance of that happening, the U.S. commitment suddenly sounds open-ended. Bolton’s comment has stirred up some opposition in the U.S. Congress to “mission creep,” although Trump has yet to directly address the situation.

 

The Kurds are caught in the middle. The U.S. has made no commitment to defend them from Turkey, and the Assad regime is pressing to bring the region under Damascus’ control. However, the Syrian government has made overtures to the Kurds for talks about more regional autonomy, and one suspects the Kurds will try to cut a deal to protect them from Ankara. The Russians have been pushing for Assad-Kurd détente.

 

Turkey may want to stay in eastern Syria, but it is hard to see how Ankara will be able to do that, especially if the Turks are stretched between Idlib and Euphrates Shield in the east. The simple fact is that Erdogan misjudged the resiliency of the Assad regime and over reached when he thought shooting down a Russian fighter-bomber in 2015 would bring NATO to his rescue and intimidate Moscow. Instead, the Russians now control the skies over Idlib, and Turkey is estranged from NATO.

 

The Russians have been careful in Syria. Their main concerns are keeping their naval base at Latakia, beating up on al-Qaeda and the IS, and supporting their long-time ally Syria. Instead of responding directly to Erdogan’s 2015 provocation, Moscow brought in their dangerous S-400 anti-aircraft system, a wing of advanced fighter aircraft, and beefed up their naval presence with its advanced radar systems. The message was clear: don’t try that again.

 

But the Russians held off the attack on Idlib, and have been trying to keep the Israelis and Iranians from tangling with one another in the region around the Golan Heights. Moscow proposed keeping Iran and its allies at least 60 miles from the Israeli border, but Israel—and now the U.S.—is demanding Iran fully withdraw from Syria.

 

The Assad regime wants Teheran to stay, but also to avoid any major shootout between Iran and Israel that would catch Damascus in the middle. In spite of hundreds of Israeli air attacks into Syria, there has been no counter attacks by the Syrians or the Iranians, suggesting that Assad has ruled out any violent reaction.

 

That all came to end Sept 17, when Israeli aircraft apparently used a Russian Ilyushin-M20 electronic reconnaissance plane to mask an attack on Damascus. Syrian anti-aircraft responded and ending up shooting down the Russian plane and killing all aboard. Russia blamed the Israelis and a few days later, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that Moscow was sending its S-300 anti-aircraft system to Syria, along with a series of upgrades in Damascus’ radar network. Syria currently uses the S-200 system that goes back to the ‘60s.

 

The upgrade will not really threaten Israeli aircraft—the S-300 is dated and the Israelis likely have the electronics to overcome it—but suddenly the skies over Syria are no longer uncontested, and, if Tel Aviv decides to go after the Syrian radar grid, the Russians have their S-400 in the wings. Not checkmate, but check.

 

How all of this shakes down is hardly clear, but there are glimmers of solution out there. Turkey will have to eventually withdraw from Syria, but will probably get some concessions over how much autonomy Syria’s Kurds will end up with. The Kurds can cut a deal with Assad because the regime needs peace. The Iranians want to keep their influence in Syria and a link to Hezbollah in Lebanon, but don’t want a serious dustup with Israel.

 

An upcoming Istanbul summit on Syria of Russia, France, Turkey and Germany will talk about a political solution to the civil war and post-war reconstruction.

 

Israel will eventually have to come to terms with Iran as a major player in the Middle East and recognize that the great “united front” against Teheran of Washington, Tel Aviv and the Gulf monarchies is mostly illusion. The Saudis are in serious economic trouble, the Gulf Cooperation Council is divided, and it is Israel and the U.S. are increasingly isolated over in hostility to Teheran.

 

—30—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Why Did Turkey Shoot Down That Russian Plane?

Syria: Shooting Down Peace?

Dispatches From The Edge

Dec. 8, 2015

 

Why did Turkey shoot down that Russian warplane?

 

It was certainly not because the SU-24 posed any threat. The plane is old and slow, and the Russians were careful not to arm it with anti-aircraft missiles. It was not because the Turks are quick on the trigger. Three years ago Turkish President Recap Tayyip Endogen said, “A short-term violation of airspace can never be a pretext for an attack.” And there are some doubts about whether the Russian plane ever crossed into Turkey’s airspace.

 

Indeed, the whole Nov. 24 incident looks increasingly suspicious, and one doesn’t have to be a paranoid Russian to think the takedown might have been an ambush. As Lt. Gen. Tom McInerney (ret), former U.S. Air Force chief of staff commented, “This airplane was not making any maneuvers to attack the [Turkish] territory,” the Turkish action was “overly aggressive,” and the incident “had to be preplanned.”

 

It certainly puzzled the Israeli military, not known for taking a casual approach to military intrusions. Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon told the press Nov. 29 that a Russian warplane had violated the Israeli border over the Golan Heights. “Russian planes do not intend to attack us, which is why we must not automatically react and shoot them down when an error occurs.”

 

So why was the plane downed? Because, for the first time in four years, some major players are tentatively inching toward a settlement of the catastrophic Syrian civil war, and powerful forces are maneuvering to torpedo that process. If the Russians had not kept their cool, several nuclear-armed powers could well have found themselves in a scary faceoff, and any thoughts of ending the war would have gone a glimmering.

 

There are multiple actors on the Syrian stage and a bewildering number of crosscurrents and competing agendas that, paradoxically, make it both easier and harder to find common ground. Easier, because there is no unified position among the antagonists; harder, because trying to herd heavily armed cats is a tricky business.

 

A short score card on the players:

 

The Russians and the Iranians are supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and fighting a host of extremist organizations ranging from Al-Qaeda to the Islamic State (IS). But each country has a different view of what a post civil war Syria might look like. The Russians want a centralized and secular state with a big army. The Iranians don’t think much of “secular,” and they favor militias, not armies.

 

Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and most the other Gulf monarchies are trying to overthrow the Assad regime, and are the major supporters of the groups Russia, Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah are fighting. But while Turkey and Qatar want to replace Assad with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, Saudi Arabia might just hate the Brotherhood more than it does Assad. And while the monarchies are not overly concerned with the Kurds, Turkey is bombing them, and they are a major reason why Ankara is so deeply enmeshed in Syria.

 

The U.S., France and Great Britain are also trying to overthrow Assad, but are currently focused on fighting the IS using the Kurds as their major allies—specifically the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party, an offshoot of the Kurdish Workers Party that the U.S. officially designates as “terrorist.” These are the same Kurds that the Turks are bombing and who have a friendly alliance with the Russians. Indeed, Turkey may discover that one of the price tags for shooting down that SU-24 is the sudden appearance of new Russian weapons for the Kurds, some of which will aimed at the Turks.

 

The Syrian war requires a certain suspension of rational thought.

 

For instance, the Americans are unhappy with the Russians for bombing the anti-Assad Conquest Army, a force dominated by the Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s franchise in Syria. That would be the same al-Qaeda that brought down the World Trade towers and that the U.S. is currently bombing in Yemen, Somalia and Afghanistan.

 

Suspension of rational thought is not limited to Syria.

 

A number of Arab countries initially joined the U.S. air war against the Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda, because both organizations are pledged to overthrow the Gulf monarchies. But Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar have now dropped out to concentrate their air power on bombing the Houthis in Yemen.

 

The Houthis, however, are by far the most effective force fighting the IS and al-Qaeda in Yemen. Both extremist organizations have made major gains in the last few weeks because the Houthis are too busy defending themselves to take them on.

 

In spite of all this political derangement, however, there are several developments that are pushing the sides toward some kind of peaceful settlement that doesn’t involve regime change in Syria. That is exactly what the Turks and the Gulf monarchs are worried about, and a major reason why Ankara shot down that Russian plane.

 

The first of these developments has been building throughout the summer: a growing flood of Syrians fleeing the war. There are already almost two million in Turkey, and over a million in Jordan and Lebanon, and as many as 900,000 in Europe. Out of 23 million Syrians, some 11 million have been displaced by the war, and the Europeans are worried that many of those 11 million people will end up camping out on the banks of the Seine and the Ruhr. If the war continues into next year, that is a pretty accurate assessment.

 

Hence, the Europeans have quietly shelved their demand that Assad resign as a prerequisite for a ceasefire and are leaning on the Americans to follow suit. The issue is hardly resolved, but there seems to be general agreement that Assad will at least be part of a transition government. At this point, the Russians and Iranians are insisting on an election in which Assad would be a candidate because both are wary of anything that looks like “regime change.” The role Assad might play will be a sticking point, but probably not an insurmountable one.

 

Turkey and Saudi Arabia are adamant that Assad must go, but neither of them is in the driver’s seat these days. While NATO supported Turkey in the Russian plane incident, according to some of the Turkish press many of its leading officials consider Erdogan a loose cannon. And Saudi Arabia—whose economy has been hard hit by the worldwide fall in oil prices—is preoccupied by its Yemen war that is turning into a very expensive quagmire.

 

The second development is the Russian intervention, which appears to have changed things on the ground, at least in the north, where Assad’s forces were being hard pressed by the Conquest Army. New weapons and airpower have dented a rebel offensive and resulted in some gains in the government’s battle for Syria’s largest city, Aleppo.

 

Russian bombing also took a heavy toll on the Turkmen insurgents in the Bayirbucak region, the border area that Turkey has used to infiltrate arms, supplies and insurgents into Syria.

 

The appearance of the Russians essentially killed Turkey’s efforts to create a “no fly zone” on its border with Syria, a proposal that the U.S. has never been enthusiastic about. Washington’s major allies, the Kurds, are strongly opposed to a no fly zone because they see it as part of Ankara’s efforts to keep the Kurds from forming an autonomous region in Syria.

 

The Bayirbucak area and the city of Jarabulus are also the exit point for Turkey’s lucrative oil smuggling operation, apparently overseen by one of Erdogan’s son, Bilal. The Russians have embarrassed the Turks by publishing satellite photos showing miles of tanker trucks picking up oil from IS-controlled wells and shipping it through Turkey’s southern border with Syria.

 

“The oil controlled by the Islamic State militants enters Turkish territory on an industrial scale,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said Nov. 30. “We have every reason to believe that the decision to down our plane was guided by a desire to insure the security of this oil’s delivery routes to ports where they are shipped in tankers.”

 

Erdogan did not get quite the response he wanted from NATO following the shooting down of the SU-24. While the military alliance backed Turkey’s defense of its “sovereignty,” NATO then called for a peaceful resolution and de-escalation of the whole matter.

 

At a time when Europe needs a solution to the refugee crisis, and wants to focus its firepower on the organization the killed 130 people in Paris, NATO cannot be happy that the Turks are dragging them into a confrontation with the Russians, and making the whole situation a lot more dangerous than it was before the Nov. 24 incident.

 

The Russians have now deployed their more modern SU-34 bombers and armed them with air-to-air missiles. The bombers will now also be escorted by SU-35 fighters. The Russians have also fielded S-300 and S-400 anti-aircraft systems, the latter with a range of 250 miles. The Russians say they are not looking for trouble, but they are loaded for bear should it happen. Would a dustup between Turkish and Russians planes bring NATO—and four nuclear armed nations—into a confrontation? That possibility ought to keep people up at night.

 

Some time around the New Year, the countries involved in the Syrian civil war will come together in Geneva. A number of those will do their level best to derail the talks, but one hopes there are enough sane—and desperate—parties on hand to map out a political solution.

 

It won’t be easy, and who gets to sit at the table has yet to be decided. The Turks will object to the Kurds, the Russians, Iranians and Kurds will object to the Conquest Army, and the Saudis will object to Assad. In the end it could all come apart. It is not hard to torpedo a peace plan in the Middle East.

 

But if the problems are great, failure will be catastrophic, and that may be the glue that keeps the parties together long enough to hammer out a ceasefire, an arms embargo, a new constitution, and internationally supervised elections.

 

—30—

 

 

 

 

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The U.S./Turkey Deal-Disaster in the Making

U.S.-Turkish Deal: Disaster in the Making

Dispatches From the Edge

July 29, 2015

 

The recent agreement between Turkey and the U.S. to cooperate against the Islamic State (IS) in Syria brings to mind the sociologist C. Wright Mills description of those who make American foreign policy as “crackpot realists”: realists about advancing their careers, crackpots about the policies they pursue.

 

The plan will allow the U.S. to use Turkish airbases to bomb the IS in exchange for Washington’s support for Ankara re-igniting its 40 year old war with the Kurds. The U.S. will also buy in to creating a “buffer zone” on Syria’s northern border that, according to Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, will allow “Moderate forces like the Free Syrian Army…to take control of areas freed from the ISIL,” or IS. One U.S. official describe the agreement as “a game changer.”

 

In reality it will entangle the U.S. more deeply in the Syrian civil war and give cover to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’ gambit to deepen ethnic divisions in Turkey as part of a strategy to bring his conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) back into power.

 

The “plan” will also toss the Kurds, one of Washington’s most reliable allies in the fight against the Islamic State, under a bus. “The Americans are not very clever in calculating this sort of thing,” Kamran Karadaghi, former chief of staff to Iraqi President and Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani, told the Independent’s Patrick Cockburn. “Maybe they calculate that with Turkey on their side, they don’t need the Kurds.”

 

While Turkey is also bombing the IS, the major focus of its attacks have been the Kurds. On July 23 a few Turkish F-16s bombed a handful of IS targets in Northern Syria. In contrast, 75 Turkish F-16s and F-4Es pounded the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) with 300 smart bombs, striking hundreds of targets.

 

Asked about the bombings, U.S. State Department official Brett McGurk said that Washington recognized Turkey’s “right to self-defense.”

 

The massive bombing attack on the PKK in Iraq’s Qandil Mountains shatters a two-year truce in a four-decade old war that has killed more than 40,000 people. The ostensible reason for re-starting a war with the Kurds was a PKK assassination of two Turkish policemen following an Islamic State bombing that killed 31 young Kurdish activists in the Turkish border town of Suruc July 20. The Kurds have long complained that the Erdogan government has encouraged the Syrian insurgents, including turning a blind eye to the activities of the IS.

 

The real reason behind ending the truce, however, was not the assassination of the two policemen, but Erdogan’s calculated campaign to spin up a new round of ethnic hated and force another election.

 

First, there are no “moderate” forces in the Syrian civil war. The Free Syrian Army is, at best, a marginal player. The major antagonists of the Assad regime are Islamic extremists, the al-Qaeda associated Nusra Front , Ahrar al-Sham, and the Islamic State. Indeed, one reason why the Turkish Army is so wary of getting involved in Syria is because it doesn’t want to be allied with the groups leading the fighting. A “buffer” zone will allow those extremist groups to take refuge in a zone protected by Turkish air power.

 

Erdogan is fixated on overthrowing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, arguing that a regime change in Damascus will weaken the IS. But many analysts think the exact opposite and cite the Libya experience as an example. If the Assad regime falls, the extremists, not the moderates, will fill the vacuum. A spillover of violence into Jordan and Lebanon is almost guaranteed, just as the Libya debacle has spread unrest throughout Central Africa.

 

The “buffer” is also directed at the Kurdish forces that have been so effective in fighting the IS, successfully defending the city of Kobani and liberating several other towns.

 

Bombing is only effective if it is coordinated with ground forces, and right now the only effective ground forces fighting the IS are the Kurds, the ones we just threw under a bus. Bombing by itself has never worked, as the Saudis are rapidly finding out in Yemen.

 

As for the Kurds, a little history.

 

One of Erdogan’s major accomplishments as prime minister was a 2012 ceasefire with the PKK and a promise to deliver more autonomy to Turkey’s 25 million Kurds. Erdogan saw the ceasefire as a way to bring the Kurds on board in his campaign to change the Turkish constitution and create a centralized and powerful presidency. With this in mind, he successfully ran for President in 2014.

 

But the promised reforms in governance, education and language rights—the Kurds speak several dialects, none of them Turkish—never came through, because the AKP also wanted to attract rightwing nationalist voters who were deeply hostile to anything that smacked of Kurdish autonomy.

Nor is the Kurdish community monolithic. Many Kurds—most of them older, rural, and deeply religious—supported the AKP because for them Islam trumped Kurdish nationalism.

 

But then AKP made a major mistake.

 

When the Islamic State besieged the town of Kobani, Turkey refused to help the Kurdish defenders. Indeed, Erdogan equated “Kurdish terrorists” with the IS. Demonstrations demanding that Turkey come to Kurds’ aid were brutally suppressed by the police, and scores of Kurds were killed. Kobani and the police attacks shifted sentiment in the Kurdish community and former AKP backers transferred their support to the left wing People’s Democratic Party (HDP).

 

The HDP also transformed itself from a Kurdish-based party to a national organization, winning 1.1 million non-Kurdish votes and 80 seats in the 2015 parliamentary elections, effectively denying the AKP its majority and derailing Erdogan’s drive to create a powerful executive.

 

The rightwing nationalist Nation Action Party (MHP) also did well in those elections, winning 80 seats.

 

Erdogan has maneuvered ever since to force new elections. By attacking the Kurds, he hopes to make the HDP once again into a Kurdish party by forcing it to choose between its base and the rest of Turkey. And he is gambling that the assault on the Kurds will rally right-wing nationalists to abandon the MHP and move to the AKP. If a lot of Kurds and Turks die because of this cynical stratagem, so be it.

 

Why is the White House going along with this madness?

 

In part, because a number of U.S. State Department officials have the same obsession with overthrowing Assad as Erdogan does. In part because the U.S. military generally manages to convince civilians that dropping a lot of bombs will work, all experience to the contrary. And partly that crackpot thing.

 

As Hugh Roberts points out in his excellent analysis of Syria in the London Review of Books, there is a possible path out, but it is almost exactly the opposite of the one Turkey and the U.S. are pursuing.

 

To begin with, the primary demand that Assad has to go before there can be serious talks is aimed at torpedoing any prospect of negotiations. No one—least of all Assad—is going to negotiate his own demise, and the Syrian Army and the country’s Alawite, Christian and Druze minorities know exactly what will happen to them if the Damascus regime collapses. The Nusra Front may not as brutal as the IS, but al-Qaeda only looks good if your standard of comparison is the Islamic Front. Anyone who believes the “moderates” will take over should consider unicorn hunting as a profession.

 

In the long run Assad should go, and one suspects that Syrians will vote him out at some point. But the “out first” demand is just a way to continue the war. The only real hope is a ceasefire and a national unity government representative of Syria’s enormously diverse population. An arms embargo on all parties, and a commitment to block fighters infiltrating the country would encourage the parties to step back from the current stalemate and consider negotiations.

 

Will that get rid of IS? Nope. The Islamic State is an actual state, with a large population, a lot of whom are not just waiting to rise against their Islamic captors. The IS is brutal—though the Arabs suffered far more deaths in the invasion of Iraq—but it is not corrupt. To imagine that the inept and corruption-riddled Iraqi Army is up for a serious scrap is delusional.

 

The Shiite militias are tough and capable, but also very sectarian, and many Sunnis simply don’t trust them.

 

The Turkish Army does not want to go into Syria, and there is zero support in any Western country for a replay of Iraq and Afghanistan. On top of which, a U.S. or NATO invasion is exactly what the IS would like to provoke. Ironically, the only force that could possibility defeat the Islamic State is the Syrian Army. Getting from here to there, however, will require a diplomatic sea change in the region. But one thing is certain: the current U.S.-Turkish “plan” will make everything worse.

 

How do these crackpots come up with this stuff?

 

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