The green buses that have become a symbol of the Syrian regime’s siege and deportation policy (picture source)
The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, set up by the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in 2011, released a report on 29 May 2018, “Sieges as a Weapon of War: Encircle, Starve, Surrender, Evacuate”. The report examined the effects of the sieges and “evacuation agreements”—deportations—between November 2012 and April 2018.
The Commission notes that the report is based on “over 400 interviews”, though the Commission continues to struggle in gathering information because it is banned from Syria by Bashar al-Asad’s regime and because of the threat the regime poses to potential interviewees. Continue reading →
A series of clashes broke out on 19 January between al-Qaeda’s rebranded Syrian branch, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS), and its heretofore close ally and portal into the Syrian rebellion, Ahrar al-Sham. By 23 January, JFS had expanded its targets, engaging in hostilities with mainstream rebel groups in the “Greater Idlib” area, and specifically trying—and succeeding—in dismantling the positions of Jaysh al-Mujahideen, a moderate group, west of Aleppo. The crisis continued to escalate, forcing many groups to merge with Ahrar al-Sham for protection, until 28 January, when a JFS-led merger was announced under the banner of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), or the Syrian Liberation Committee. HTS announced a ceasefire, and since then individuals and groups—including a significant number from Ahrar—have given allegiance to HTS. This radical reshaping of revolutionary dynamics in northern Syria has undoubtedly created antibodies going forward against al-Qaeda that could be capitalized on by the international community, but the present situation is highly favourable to al-Qaeda. Continue reading →
The United States and therefore the international Coalition is about to step up its operations against Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS), al-Qaeda’s recently rebranded Syrian branch. This is a necessary policy, but pursued in isolation—without replacing the capacities that JFS provides to the insurgency—this action will strengthen the coalition supporting the regime of Bashar al-Assad, the actors chiefly responsible for the humanitarian abomination in Syria that has deliberately given rise to the security menace of the Islamic State (IS) and the flow of refugees into Europe that has destabilized Western security. Assad’s coalition also includes the Islamic Republic of Iran, a more significant global terrorism threat than IS which has repeatedly attacked the West. Continue reading →
First ever picture of the leader of Jabhat al-Nusra (al-Qaeda in Syria), Ahmad al-Shara (Abu Muhammad al-Jolani), 28 July 2016
The leader of Jabhat al-Nusra (al-Qaeda in Syria), Abu Muhammad al-Jolani, whose real name is Ahmad al-Shara, ostensibly broke the link between his organization and al-Qaeda last week. This is another stage in al-Qaeda’s long-term strategy of embedding itself into local societies so that it can more effectively reshape the faith and shield itself from the international community. Continue reading →
After a coalition supporting the regime of Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad conquered the city of Palmyra from the Islamic State (IS) in late March, suggestions were made that this demonstrated the efficacy of the pro-Assad coalition in fighting IS, and doubtless the same will be said if and when the pro-regime forces conquer Tabqa. It isn’t true. From the time of Russia’s direct intervention in Syria on 30 September 2015 to Moscow’s announcement on 14 March 2016 that it was withdrawing “the main part” of its “military” from Syria, IS was almost untouched and al-Qaeda was barely damaged, while the Assad regime was bolstered and the moderate opposition, particularly those components supported by the West, were gravely weakened.
Despite Moscow’s claims that its mission was fighting IS or “terrorism,” Russia’s real goals can be summarized as three:
Rescue the Assad regime, which was assessed to be in mortal peril
Damage the mainstream armed opposition, especially those elements supported by the West, in order that Russia can …
Rehabilitate the Assad regime internationally by inter alia leaving only extremists as its opponents, depriving the international community of credible interlocutors, and therefore strengthening the Russian hand to make peace talks an instrument for re-legitimizing Assad, rather than removing him
In recent days, this basic war strategy has been seen again in southern Syria. Continue reading →
Aftermath of an airstrike by the pro-Assad coalition in Kalasa, Aleppo, 28 April 2016
Whatever pretence there was left in Syria’s “cessation of hostilities” (CoH)—which was never more than a reduction in hostilities—enacted at midnight on 26/27 February is now at an end. Russia and the regime of Bashar al-Assad have never ceased attempts to militarily weaken the armed opposition and escalated with a concerted campaign of aerial bombardment against Aleppo City on 22 April. The insurgency fully mobilized in response on 5 May with a major offensive south of the city. The dynamics set in place by Russia’s intervention—the bolstering of the Assad regime and the strengthening of extremist forces in the insurgency—have been in full view with this latest crisis, as has the longer-term trend of the United States moving toward the position of Assad, Russia, and especially Iran in Syria. Continue reading →
Yesterday, Jeffrey Goldberg’s latest interview with President Obama was published. There have been numerous worthwhile takes on what is a very revealing conversation, such as Max Boot and Nibras Kazimi, and it is very difficult to quarrel with the conclusion of David Frum that “the dominant theme of these interviews is that we, all of us, have grievously let down the president,” who has exactly one self-criticism: “Obama admits he does not make sufficient allowances for how unreasonable other people are.” What I think deserves most attention is that the President has finally aligned his rhetoric, especially on Iran, with his actual foreign policy. Continue reading →
A version of this article was published at NOW Lebanon.
Rebels from the Southern Front in northwest Deraa, March 2015
In early November, the Foreign Affairs Select Committee released a report challenging the British government’s proposal to extend airstrikes from Iraq into Syria against the Islamic State (IS). Among other things, the report asked for a proposed political path to ending the Syrian civil war, a necessary prerequisite to defeating IS. On Thursday, Prime Minister David Cameron released a response, part of which said:
Military action against ISIL will also relieve the pressure on the moderate opposition, whose survival is crucial for a successful transition to a more inclusive Syrian government. Syria has not been, and should not be, reduced to a choice between Assad or ISIL. Although the situation on the ground is complex, our assessment is that there are about 70,000 Syrian opposition fighters on the ground who do not belong to extremist groups.
This number has blown up into a major political row, with many Members of Parliament and pundits taking their personal unfamiliarity with Syria’s military landscape as evidence that it cannot be so. The Labour Opposition has made the number of non-extremist rebels a focal point of their challenge to the Prime Minister’s proposal for moving forward in Syria, and one of Cameron’s own Conservative MPs referred to the number as “magical”. The challenge to the number is part of a longer-term trend, where a narrative has become prevalent that there are no moderate opposition forces left in Syria. The corollary of this view is usually the argument that the West should side with the “secular” Assad regime as the “lesser evil” to put down a radical Islamist insurrection.
In the last few days I’ve written about Russia’s initial military action in Syria, which is intended to prop up the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad, and explained (with my friend James Snell) how U.S. policy has enabled this, both by effectively outsourcing Middle East policy to Vladimir Putin over the chemical weapons “red line” debacle, and by the pro-Iran tilt that is implicit in President Obama’s nuclear deal-facilitated move toward détente with the Islamic Republic: Obama is effectively supporting Iran’s assets in Syria, and Putin is now using those same pieces to prosecute his own war in the Levant. With this in the background, this post will focus on what Putin wants in Syria.
Putin’s aims in Syria can be boiled down to two: (1) Ensure the Assad tyranny survives, which includes the building of a permanent military-colonial outpost on the Mediterranean coast and destroying all the moderate rebels so that Syria can be presented as a choice of Assad or the Islamic State (I.S.), legitimizing Russia’s support for Assad; and (2) humiliating the West on the way to constructing an alternate world order to American hegemony. Continue reading →
Aftermath of a Russian airstrike against U.S.-supported moderate rebels in Talbiseh, Homs (AP)
The situation in Syria could hardly get more desperate. With more than half the population displaced and 300,000 people dead, the civil war in Syria is the greatest humanitarian disaster of our time. But Syria is also a profound challenge to the American-underwritten geopolitical order that aspires toward free institutions and representative rule. As a direct consequence of policies pursued by the Obama administration, Iran and Russia, two enemies of this order, have taken their chance to assert their dominance. Continue reading →