Navalny was recently released after being arrested for organising an anti-corruption march in Moscow
Assad killed over eighty-nine people, including 33 children and 18 women and maimed many others in the most horrible way in a gas attack. The Russian excuse that the Syrian air force mistakenly bombed a rebel chemical stockpile is not credible. This was an air launched chlorine gas attack in which Sarin gas was also present. Sarin is a deadly nerve agent which Assad has used before.
Hamish de Bretton Gordon, director of Doctors Under Fire and former commanding officer of the UK Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) Regiment, said “I think this [claim] is pretty fanciful…Axiomatically, if you blow up Sarin, you destroy it”.
Come on Russia, Assad shouldn’t have been breaking the ceasefire anyway. Come down on him before Trump does, or you will lose Turkey. The Astana process involving you, Turkey and Iran is worth saving isn’t it?
Unsurprisingly, since Russia sent its special forces to the Eastern Libyan desert, the troops led by Khalifa Haftar and representing the interests of the House of Representatives (HoR) in Tobruk, which defies the mandate of the UN-backed government in Tripoli, announced the recapture yesterday 14th March, of the two key oil installations Ras Lanuf and Es Sidr, recently overrun by the Tripoli-backed Benghazi Defence Brigades (BDB).
In true capitalist fashion Russia is multiplying the numbers of private contractors being used across the Middle East. Giving backing to ex-CIA asset renegade general Khalifa Hiftar in Libya is just one of the many loose ends left by the Obama administration Putin looks to tie up. Also backing junta leader Sisi in Egypt, and PYD Kurdish leader Salih Muslim in Northeastern for instance allows these US creations the latitude to look gift horses in the mouth, making US foreign policy in the Middle East much harder and less predictable, while reinforcing the dominance Russia has gained from its bases in Syria.
The news coming in from Libya is that the Benghazi Defense Brigade (BDB) took over the oil ports of Ras Lanuf and Es Sidr with their refineries from Hiftar’s forces in a stealth attack this last weekend on 5th March. Apparently, they have handed the ports over to the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA). The balance of power in Libya will now shift in the GNA’s favour away from the House of Representatives (HoR) ensconced in Tobruk (which had hired Hiftar to do its heavy lifting), and this will strengthen the position of beleaguered UN-approved prime minister Fayez al-Sarraj. After these events, Russia now appears to see the need to back its contractors in Libya by sending in élite special forces.
The Turkish-Syrian border: another wall in the Middle East
Erdoğan’s visit to Moscow has clarified the status of Russo-Turkish relations. Russia does not want to open up a “front” with the US in Syria, by opposing the new Syria Kurdish US-sponsored government (PYD) . Therefore, despite the Turkish president’s pleas, the PYD office in Moscow will remain open, and cooperation between Russia and the Syrian Kurds continue. This cooperation came to light when evidence was uncovered that the YPG, the armed militia of the PYD, was using Russian satellite imagery to plan its military campaigns.
Turkish-Russian relations, on the other, have actually blossomed, and have reached the point that Erdoğan is even considering buying S-400 systems for Turkish air defence. The core of the two countries’ fast growing commercial relations centers on the building of the Turkstream pipeline through Turkey to Europe for Gazprom to avoid using Ukraine to transit its gas. However, when the Turkish army set about organising to assert its claim over the town of Manbij, where the YPG is ensconced, thus broadening its ‘safe’ region in Syria , Russia forestalled the move. It quickly brokered an agreement between the Syrian régime and the PYD to install régime forces in the path of Turkey forces, across the villages on Manbij’s western front.
It thus becomes clear that the region now dominated by Turkey and its rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA), from A’zaz to el-Bab and across to Jarablus, is considered by Russia to be a sufficient concession to Turkish demands to secure its borders with Syria. Russia, on the other hand, seems to be happy with Turkey’s relationship with the Ukrainian government in Kiev, recently consolidated by a visa-free travel agreement between the two Black Sea neighbours, despite Russia’s problems with Kiev.
Meanwhile, Turkey is building a massive wall along its southeastern border to separate it from the new Syrian Kurdish cantons. Turkey is nevertheless allied with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) led by Mahmoud Barzani and the Rojava Peshmerga forces, which are the armed wing of the Syrian Kurdish National Council (ENKS). The ENKS is the umbrella group for Kurdish political parties in north Syria, excepting for the PKK terrorist organization’s Syrian political wing, the Democratic Union Party (PYD). Despite the visit of an ENKS delegation to Washington, which aimed at highlighting the PYD administration’s oppression of other Kurdish political groups in northern Syria, the Pentagon seems to be firmly wedded to the PYD for its Northern Syrian strategy.
listen to Gilbert Doctorow on the Scott Horton Show
The neocons – Nuland, Kagan, Kristol have all gone over to Clinton and the Democrats with their war of words against Russia, and the US is deploying nuclear missiles all along the East European border. Putin has promised a nuclear attack if there are any untoward moves. Trump is vague on foreign policy, but one thing he has said is that there is no reason why the US can’t be friends with Russia.
Obama’s withdrawal from the Middle-East after the failure of the policy initiated in 2009 to overthrow Bashar al-Assad in order to isolate and destroy Hezbollah was grasped by the Iranians with both hands. They were quick to reinforce Assad as guarantee of their link with Hezbollah’s territories in Southern Lebanon. Qasim Suleimani, the supreme commander of Iranian strategy in the Arab world, visited Moscow covertly in August 2015. He studied the possibilities with the Russians of redressing the situation in Syria, and this Vladimir Putin quickly saw as an opportunity to reinforce the Russian navy base in Tartus, as well as acquire a new airbase near Latakia.
The DAESH/ISIL threat was used by Putin as an excuse for a prospective intervention in Syria to offer the Americans and Europeans. They were in no position to put up resistance to the idea. Russia decided on its action under the guise of joining the ‘fight against terror’ full-time and the US, facing the contradictions inherent in its policies in the Middle-East, had no choice but to welcome the idea.
The collapse of US foreign policy in the Middle-East
A US plan had been in place for régime change in Syria ever since 2006, in order to break the Iran-Damascus-Hezbollah axis by proxy, with the help of Saudi Arabia and Egypt in fomenting sectarian divisions in the country (Assange 2015: 267). Hezbollah was a central piece of Iran’s strategy of asymmetric warfare across the region, and a prime example of Iran’s cultivation of ideologically-motivated militias, of which the Houthis in Yemen and the Badr brigades in Iraq would be other examples, to extend its influence. Hezbollah had demonstrated itself to be a formidable opponent against Israel in the 2006 Lebanon War, launching thousands of rockets into Israel territory during the conflict and surviving a ferocious air attack by what was supposed to be one of the world’s most powerful air forces.
By the time Barak Obama became President in 2009 and Hillary Clinton his Secretary of State, the policy was formally articulated to topple Assad and install a régime in his place, using jihadi forces. When Hillary Clinton was revealed by WikiLeaks saying that donors in Saudi Arabia constituted the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide (Wikileaks Embassy Cables: 30Dec2009), this was not to be a prelude for dismantling these connections, but for gaining control of them to serve the new Obama doctrine of achieving the same imperial aims which had eluded G W Bush II, only this time by proxy (DOD Aug2012).
In 2009, Inderjeet Parmar predicted that Obama’s foreign policy wouldn’t differ much from that of G W Bush, irrespective of his much-vaunted vocal opposition to the Iraq War and his Senate vote against the ‘Petraeus surge’ in 2004. Parmar wrote that the liberal internationalists in the Democratic Party’s Progressive Policy Institute (PPI) – often known as Clinton’s think tank – were at one with neo-conservatives from the Iraq War onwards, and demanded that America “rally the forces of freedom and democracy around the world to defeat [the] new menace and build a better world” (Parmar 2009: 4).
But just as the democracy-promotion myth would be shown up to be the malformed abortion that it was under Bush when Hamas won their elections in Gaza 2006, US policy in Syria would soon have face up to the fact that the Muslim Brothers would become a major player in the Syrian National Congress (SNC), the Syrian opposition group established in Istanbul in 2012. It was Hillary Clinton who killed off any chance of making a success of the SNC because of her outright opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood, calling the it a waste of time and a mere ‘talking-shop’. The U.S. State Department’s policy opposition to the freely and fairly elected Egyptian Freedom and Justice Party backed by the Muslim Brothers would also later become clear (House Foreign Affairs Committee 29Oct2013), consistent with Jason Browlee’s assessment of overall US policy against the Muslim Brothers of “keeping critics of their [U.S.] Middle-eastern policies out of power” (Brownlee 2012: 10).
Once again, the Emperor had no clothes. Democracy and freedom was clearly not the principle on which the US could conduct itself abroad in any systematic way. These contradictions would short-circuit spectacularly with the Ghouta chemical attack in August 2013, when Obama showed himself unwilling to act even on his own red lines with respect to Assad’s crimes, now that the US had become conflicted over the need for his removal. And there is little doubt that it was Assad who committed this war crime, if one follows UN Chief Weapons Inspector Ake Sellstrom’s arguments. Israeli army sources had reported at the time that Assad’s forces had launched the heinous attack, although the irony always is with Israeli reports that they are rarely believed. Seymour Hersh, however, subsequently reported that the finger of blame should have been pointed at Turkish Intelligence, but Hersh’s single source method of reporting seems to have let him down.
The quick reaction of the Russians, anxious to protect Assad, and offering to defuse the situation by having Assad surrender his arsenal of chemical weapons, should have told us everything we needed to know at the time about the real culprit. Obama was off the hook, thanks to Putin.
The Iran Nuclear Deal
On invading Iraq, G. W. Bush had threatened Iran and Syria that they were next on his list. Both countries understandably then backed the Sunni insurgency which scuppered the US army’s occupation. This lead to David Petraeus’ call for the 2004 surge (which Obama voted against), and this eventually only succeeded through the payment of massive bribes to the Sunni tribes. As Dexter Filkins would later report in the New Yorker Magazine in 2013, Qasim Suleimani actively organised Sunni jihadi groups that became al-Qaeda in Iraq, and the Assad régime in Damascus also became a staging post for European jihadis travelling to Iraq. It should hardly have been surprising when Hassan Abboud, the leader of the jihadi group Ahrar el-Sham in Syria (up until he was killed in September 2014), accused the Iranians of having created DEASH/ISIL. Assad himself would militarise the 2011 Arab Spring by releasing incarcerated jihadis from Sednaya prison into the swelling crowds of protesters.
Iran’s strategy for survival against US threats using asymmetric warfare didn’t rely only on the creation of militias around the Arab World with ideological fealty to the Iranian régime, which harked back to the policies of Shah Ismail I Safavi against the Ottomans in the 1500s. It also clearly promoted groups with opposite ideologies, as and when they were needed in order to destabilise the US hegemon’s grip on the region. Iran thus didn’t rely only on its control of the Straights of Hormuz, on developing ballistic technology, and on creating a ‘nuclear problem’, to dissuade the US from military action against it, but relied also on posing a serious region-wide threat through its octopus-like presence across the region.
Clearly, Iranian policy succeeded, which is why by March 2013 Obama had begun conducting secret negotiations with Iran in order to unwind the ‘nuclear problem’. The current shape of the Middle-East can be said to have resulted in large measure from Iran’s strategy during the years of siege. Iran in its new phase, on the other hand, faces the entirely new problem of how to deal with the consequences of its actions, in the face of Saudi Arabian reaction. Saudi Arabia has recently decided to fight fire with fire to redress the regional balance of power with the launch of a military coalition of Muslim nations.
The Iran deal set a course for US-Russian relations prior to the Ukraine/Crimea crisis, which was difficult if not impossible to change. The Russians were crucial to Obama’s plans to manage Iran’s stockpile of nuclear material and central, therefore, to achieving a deal with Iran. This deal was intended by Obama to be the final legacy of his second term in office. In any event, whatever other problems such as Ukraine there might have arisen in US-Russia relations, both powers always have had the common interest of working to monopolise nuclear power and to control its proliferation. Russia entered Syria confident that the US couldn’t object.
The Russian interest in Syria
The Russian interest in Syria is entirely a matter of energy policy, which required developing a strong military presence in Syria. Effectiveness of the Tartus naval base would require the new Latakia airbase as a complement whilst, in order to fully reinforce the new air capacity for the long term, the airbase itself would need to be equipped with state of the art S-400 air defence system. This would give Russia unquestioned air superiority in the region.
However, the S-300 and the S-400 have been the subject of much diplomatic manoeuvring by the US and Israel over the years. It would have been difficult to justify transferring this system to Syria in normal circumstances, and some kind of military escalation on the conventional front would be necessary to provide the grounds for such a move. The constant incursions into Turkish airspace by Russian warplanes during October/November 2015, together with ferocious airstrikes against Turcoman tribesmen seem to have been devised to solicit a reaction from the Turks and thus enable Russia to act as it wished. The result sought was forthcoming when the Turks downed a Russian warplane on November 24, during yet another incursion into Turkish airspace.
No other possible explanation exists for Russia engaging in intensive activity military activity in western Syria right on the Turkish border, 350 km away from Raqqa, the Syrian base of DAESH/ISIL, the ostensible target of the Russian campaign if Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was to be believed. Putin thus sacrificed a Russian warplane to achieve his military strategy. Claims that the warplane hadn’t violated airspace were discredited and finally put to rest in the course of Putin’s theatrics over the downed jet’s black box. The withdrawal now of the majority of Russian forces on the basis of ‘mission accomplished’, leaving behind re-equipped naval and air bases in Northern Syria, without a dent having being made in DAESH/ISIL forces in Northern Syria, presents us with an overwhelming circumstantial confirmation of the narrow Russian objectives in Syria described here.
Although one could call the Tartus/Latakia military objective narrow, an important strategic objective results from it in respect of Russian energy strategy.
Up until the Russian incursion into Syria, Turkey had gained an important strategic position in respect of energy supplies to Europe as a result of the conflict in Ukraine and the cancellation by the EU of the South Stream gas pipeline project to Europe through Bulgaria. Turkey was open to Russia’s idea of diverting South Stream through Turkey. However, Turkey was also building the Trans-Anatolian pipeline (TANAP) to Azerbaijan through Georgia, which would supply Turkey and Europe with Caspian and Iranian gas. Furthermore, the Southern Gas Corridor (SGC) in Syria and Southern Turkey provide the main route for the supply of oil and gas to the refinery hub at the port of Ceyhan, from Iraqi Kurdistan (KRG). This route would be the route of choice for any prospective pipelines carrying Qatari gas. This would become a serious competitor for Russian gas to Europe, if supplied more cheaply overland, rather than by sea using the current LNG conversion system.
The recurrent Middle-Eastern nightmare thus repeats itself, as Syrian civilians killed and wounded in Russian airstrikes since September 2015 have paid the price for a foreign power’s energy strategy. Russia has sought in the period up to the current disengagement to apply leverage to Turkish decision-making on energy flow to Europe, standing as it does now in the way of the close Turkish Qatari alliance (formalised with a prospective Turkish military base in Qatar), becoming realised in the form of an overland gas pipeline. Russia also warned Israel over a possible rapprochement with Turkey, which would see yet another source of gas open up for Turkey. The Russian intent so to encircle Turkey was not only evident in its Syria policy, which included support for the Syrian-Kurdish (PYD) branch of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), plainly and actively involved in terrorist action in Turkey at the time, but also in openly reinforcing its Armenian military base at Gyumri with a squadron of attack helicopters, to shadow the development of TANAP.
It is clear, however, that the energy trading hub that Turkey represents is only half the story. The current price of energy is a major problem and Russia’s economy is in recession as a result of a combination of EU sanctions, and the sharp drop in government revenues resulting from oil and gas prices.
It isn’t enough for Russia to ensure priority for its gas transfers through Turkey through its strong-arm tactics. It is also necessary for it to try to manage the energy markets in order to organise an orderly rise in prices, for which coming to an agreement with Saudi Arabia is an absolute necessity. The current disengagement in Syria was a foregone conclusion ever since energy negotiations began with Saudi Arabia in early February. Leaving Assad now to his own devices, although in a stronger position than had been, is a precursor to an important state visit by King Salman of Saudi Arabia, whose policy is unbendingly one of removing Assad from power. Russia’s disengagement was a condition of improving relations with Saudi Arabia.
The current oil and gas markets are clearly problematic for producers. Although downward price movements in these markets are traditionally reinforced by increased production as producers seek to capture more revenue, and although the US shale overhang will remain in place for decades to come to form a price ceiling for these markets, it is clear that Russia and Saudi Arabia see the possibility for collaboration on achieving a middle-of-the-road solution from their perspective within the shadow of the shale overhang somewhere around the $50-$60 p/b range. This is significant, as it would represent almost a doubling of current prices.
It is crucial for these calculations that Iranian energy production policy can now by influenced by Russia and that Iraq, in turn, can in fact be influenced by Iran, contrary to the judgement of some analysts. Not only does the new regional political set-up permit a scenario where Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq cooperate, it makes eminent commercial sense for them to do so.
The future shape of the Middle-East
The new phase will have crucial implications for political developments in the region, especially in regard to the Kurdish question. The head of steam that the PKK and YPD built up as a result of the possibilities for them to exploit the Syrian chaos to their advantage has not only clearly unsettled Turkey, but also Iran. Just as Turkey seeks to maintain the integrity of the Syrian state in order to avoid increasing secessionist demands by Turkish Kurds, Iran has always sought to maintain the integrity of the Iraqi state to avoid just such a fate with respect to its own Kurds. The Russian rapprochement with Iran culminating in the Syrian intervention is now strained because of Russian backing of the PKK/YPD in the context of its encirclement policy of Turkey, setting off processes which Iran views with horror.
The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey has in fact formally pursued a policy of democratic pluralism ever since 2009, when the Kurdish language was accepted as an official language in the educational system, and Kurdish culture promoted across schools and universities with the launch of new degree courses in the language and related subjects. The Turkish political process also became wide open to Kurdish parties, and the Kurdish Democratic Party (HDP) in fact made substantial gains in the first of the two sets of parliamentary elections that took place in 2015 (the June elections). This, however, did not stop the PKK from engaging in a series of violent acts of terror, and the HDP to publicly back these actions, with the aim of achieving an independent state under its rule in South-Eastern Turkey.
The PKK and the HDP are unlikely to succeed in their efforts. With the second set elections in 2015 (the October elections), and after the PKK had aggressively re-launched its terror campaign, two million Kurdish voters instantly switched allegiance from the HDP to the AKP, with the AKP ending up with well over three times the number of Kurdish MPs than the HDP itself. What, therefore, will defeat extremism in Turkey is an open democratic system and a fast-growing liberal economy that seems to be able to absorb even millions of Syrian refugees into its cities (three-quarters of these refugees are housed in towns and cities offering education and jobs and only a quarter in camps). This politico-economic capacity is not necessarily available in Iran as its polity is currently constituted. Therefore, although Turkey is suffering terribly from the effects of the Syrian civil war, fomented originally by US foreign policy decisions and then exacerbated by US foreign policy indecision, it is a country which is more likely than Iran to return to a state of peaceful growth. Iran, faced now with its new opening, will have to deal with a whole host of problems that this new phase will bring.
In addition, Iran has to deal with the Saudi Arabian reaction to the past policies of regional militia-promotion, no longer appropriate to the new phase. The Rouhani régime is particularly embarrassed by the recent fall from grace of Hezbollah on the Arab street, changing as it has done from Arab hero to regional pariah, as a result of its support of the Assad régime, and it role in the particularly gruesome siege of Madaya and the starving of its people.
Implicit in the Russian disengagement implicitly is an acceptance of the new difficulties that will begin to beset its Iranian ally. Continued intervention in Syria would also damage its own prospects for limiting the spread of extremism through a pro-Kurdish stance, as Sunni rebels began to threaten to make common cause with DAESH/ISIL against a coalition of Assad and Kurdish forces. The fluidity of the jihadi phenomenon means that continuing such a policy will backfire on Russia itself as DAESH/ISIL enters Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. Clearly supporting the integrity of all states in the region, especially Syria (despite misunderstood comments by various officials over ‘federal’ solutions), and putting its weight behind an ongoing mediated political dialogue, is seen by Russia now as the only way of eradicating extremism.
Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia are the three powers that will determine the future of the region east of Suez, and all three are committed to the territorial integrity of both Syria and Iraq. Iran and Saudi Arabia will clearly differ as to the nature of the régime that should rule in each capital, however. The likely result of this is a stalemate, with the situation de juro in each country showing a different de facto reality on the ground. This will not be to the disadvantage of those three powers, who will each have their clients and their spheres of influence, more than likely displacing the traditional influence of the US, UK and France, in Syria and Iraq. Particularly important will be the prospective relationship between Saudi Arabia and the Sunni tribes in Iraq. Saudi Arabia is the only country that will be able to offer support and ‘sympathy’ to these Sunni tribes to stabilize their situation in the face of a hide-bound and inflexible (despite its protestations to the contrary) Shia régime in Baghdad, and thus pull the rug from under DAESH/ISIL.
In contrast with these prospects for the region east of Suez, great uncertainty will continue to cloud the future of Egypt and Libya.
The US, UK and France being edged out of their traditional roles east of Suez, they are making up for this west of Suez, which region is witnessing a colonial resurgence through the employment of local satraps.
While the ambitions Libya’s strongman Haftar, backed by Egypt and the UAE, has been partially stemmed by the imposition of UN mandated unity government, Egypt was put under the rule of a completely insane and delusional strongman, in order to protect Israeli interests. While democracy was scuppered in Egypt, just like everything else in the region that the US has done in the course of this century, the eventual outcome will be the opposite of what it intends. The descent of the country into economic and financial chaos, and the rise of extremism as a result of the persecution of the moderate Freedom and Justice Party backed by the Muslim Brothers, and the even more moderate al-Wasat Party, not backed by the Muslim Brothers, could have consequences far worse than the experience in Syria so far unless all these moderates return to power. There will be no other option. The ageing cadres surrounding the Egyptian régime have become as threadbare are the country itself, and their hangers-on are parasites and thieves with no wealth-creation capacities, and could not possibly redress the now desperate Egyptian economy.
The greatest disservice the US has done to its policy of dictator-promotion is to have completely discredited the military as a political and even as a technocratic actor on the Egyptian stage. It is only the arrogance of US and Israeli élites that makes them unable to see that the descent of Egypt on their watch into what can only be described as a bloody morbid circus will backfire spectacularly on them.
Emile Hokayem writes
What a difference a year makes in Syria. And the introduction of massive Russian airpower.
Last February, President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and its Shiite auxiliaries mounted a large-scale attempt to encircle Aleppo, the northern city divided between regime and rebels since 2012 and battered by the dictator’s barrel bombs. Islamist and non-Islamist mainstream rebels — to the surprise of those who have derided their performance, let alone their existence — repelled the offensive at the time. What followed was a string of rebel advances across the country, which weakened Assad so much that they triggered Moscow’s direct intervention in September, in concert with an Iranian surge of forces, to secure his survival.
Fast-forward a year. After a slow start — and despite wishful Western assessments that Moscow could not sustain a meaningful military effort abroad — the Russian campaign is finally delivering results for the Assad regime. This week, Russian airpower allowed Assad and his allied paramilitary forces to finally cut off the narrow, rebel-held “Azaz corridor” that links the Turkish border to the city of Aleppo. The city’s full encirclement is now a distinct possibility, with regime troops and Shiite fighters moving from the south, the west, and the north. Should the rebel-held parts of the city ultimately fall, it will be a dramatic victory for Assad and the greatest setback to the rebellion since the start of the uprising in 2011.
In parallel, Russia has put Syria’s neighbors on notice of the new rules of the game. Jordan was spooked into downgrading its help for the Southern Front, the main non-Islamist alliance in the south of the country, which has so far prevented extremist presence along its border. Turkey’s shooting down of a Russian military aircraft that crossed its airspace in November backfired: Moscow vengefully directed its firepower on Turkey’s rebel friends across Idlib and Aleppo provinces. Moscow also courted Syria’s Kurds, who found a new partner to play off the United States in their complex relations with Washington. And Russia has agreed to a temporary accommodation of Israel’s interests in southern Syria.
Inside Syria, and despite the polite wishes of Secretary of State John Kerry, the overwhelming majority of Russian strikes have hit non-Islamic State (IS) fighters. Indeed, Moscow and the Syrian regime are content to see the United States bear the lion’s share of the effort against the jihadi monster in the east, instead concentrating on mowing through the mainstream rebellion in western Syria. Their ultimate objective is to force the world to make an unconscionable choice between Assad and IS.
The regime is everywhere on the march. Early on, the rebels mounted a vigorous resistance, but the much-touted increase in anti-tank weaponry could only delay their losses as their weapons storages, command posts and fall-back positions were being pounded. Around Damascus, the unrelenting Russian pounding has bloodied rebel-held neighborhoods; in December, the strikes killed Zahran Alloush, the commander of the main Islamist militia there. In the south, Russia has fully backed the regime’s offensive in the region of Daraa, possibly debilitating the Southern Front. Rebel groups in Hama and Homs provinces have faced a vicious pounding that has largely neutralized them. Further north, a combination of Assad troops, Iranian Shiite militias, and Russian firepower dislodged the powerful Islamist rebel coalition Jaish Al-Fatah from Latakia province.
But it is the gains around Aleppo that represent the direst threat to the rebellion. One perverse consequence of cutting the Azaz corridor is that it plays into the hands of the al Qaeda-affiliate Jabhat Al-Nusra, since weapons supplies from Turkey would have to go through Idlib, where the jihadist movement is powerful. Idlib may well become the regime’s next target. The now-plausible rebel collapse in the Aleppo region could also send thousands of fighters dejected by their apparent abandonment into the arms of Nusra or IS.
The encirclement of Aleppo would also create a humanitarian disaster of such magnitude that it would eclipse the horrific sieges of Madaya and other stricken regions that have received the world’s (short-lived) attention. Tens of thousands of Aleppo residents are already fleeing toward Kilis, the Turkish town that sits across the border from Azaz. The humanitarian crisis, lest anyone still had any doubt, is a deliberate regime and Russian strategy to clear important areas of problematic residents — while paralyzing rebels, neighboring countries, Western states, and the United Nations.
Assad all along pursued a strategy of gradual escalation and desensitization that, sadly, worked well. Syrians already compare the international outcry and response to the IS’ siege of Kobane in 2014 to the world’s indifference to the current tragedy.
To complicate the situation even more, the regime’s advances could allow the Kurdish-dominated, American-favored Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to conquer the area currently held by the Free Syrian Army and Islamist militias between the Turkish border and the new regime front line north of the Shiite towns of Nubl and Zahra. This would pit the SDF against IS on two fronts: from the west, if the Kurds of Afrin canton seize Tal Rifaat, Azaz and surrounding areas, and from the east, where the YPG is toying with the idea of crossing the Euphrates River. An IS defeat there would seal the border with Turkey, meeting an important American objective.
The prospect of further Kurdish expansion has already alarmed Turkey. Over the summer, Ankara was hoping to establish a safe zone in this very area. It pressured Jabhat al-Nusra to withdraw and anointed its allies in Syria, including the prominent Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham, as its enforcers. True to its record of calculated dithering, President Barack Obama’s administration let the Turkish proposal hang until it could no longer be implemented. Turkey faces now an agonizing dilemma: watch and do nothing as a storm gathers on its border, or mount a direct intervention into Syria that would inevitably inflame its own Kurdish problem and pit it against both IS and an array of Assad-allied forces, including Russia.
Turkey and Saudi Arabia, the rebellion’s main supporters, are now bereft of options. No amount of weaponry is likely to change the balance of power. The introduction of anti-aircraft missiles was once a viable response against Assad’s air force, but neither country — suspecting that the United States is essentially quiescent to Moscow’s approach — is willing to escalate against President Vladimir Putin without cover.
Ironically, this momentous change in battlefield dynamics is occurring just as U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura yet again pushes a diplomatic track in Geneva. But the developments on the ground threaten to derail the dapper diplomat’s peace scheme. Fairly or not, de Mistura is tainted by the fact that the United Nations is discredited in the eyes of many Syrians for the problematic entanglements of its Damascus humanitarian arm with the regime. Despite U.N. resolutions, international assistance still does not reach those who need it most; in fact, aid has become yet another instrument of Assad’s warfare. Neither Kerry nor de Mistura are willing to seriously pressure Russia and Assad for fear of jeopardizing the stillborn Geneva talks.
Seemingly unfazed by this controversy, de Mistura’s top-down approach relies this time on an apparent U.S.-Russian convergence. At the heart of this exercise is Washington’s ever-lasting hope that Russian frustration with Assad would somehow translate into a willingness to push him out. However, whether Putin likes his Syrian counterpart has always been immaterial. The Russian president certainly has reservations about Assad, but judging by the conduct of his forces in Chechnya and now in Syria, these are about performance– not humanitarian principles or Assad’s legitimacy. For the time being, Moscow understands that without Assad, there is no regime in Damascus that can legitimize its intervention.
Ever since 2011, the United States has hidden behind the hope of a Russian shift and closed its eyes to Putin’s mischief to avoid the hard choices on Syria. When the Russian onslaught started, U.S. officials like Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken predicted a quagmire to justify Washington’s passivity. If Russia’s intervention was doomed to failure, after all, the United States was not on the hook to act.
Russia, however, has been not only been able to increase the tempo of its military operations, but also to justify the mounting cost. And contrary to some pundits, who hailed the Russian intervention as the best chance to check the expansion of IS, Washington knows all too well that the result of the Russian campaign is the strengthening of the jihadist group in central Syria in the short term. This is a price Washington seems willing to pay for the sake of keeping the Geneva process alive.
The bankruptcy of U.S. policy goes deeper. The United States has already conceded key points about Assad’s future — concessions that Russia and the regime have been quick to pocket, while giving nothing in return. In the lead-up to and during the first days of the Geneva talks, it became clear that the United States is putting a lot more pressure on the opposition than it does on Russia, let alone Assad. Just as Russia escalates politically and militarily, the Obama administration is cynically de-escalating, and asking its allies to do so as well. This is weakening rebel groups that rely on supply networks that the U.S. oversees: In the south, the United States has demanded a decrease in weapons deliveries to the Southern Front, while in the north, the Turkey-based operations room is reportedly dormant.
The result is a widespread and understandable feeling of betrayal in the rebellion, whose U.S.-friendly elements are increasingly losing face within opposition circles. This could have the ironic effect of fragmenting the rebellion — after years of Western governments bemoaning the divisions between these very same groups.
It’s understandable for the United States to bank on a political process and urge the Syrian opposition to join this dialogue in good faith. But to do so while exposing the rebellion to the joint Assad-Russia-Iran onslaught and without contingency planning is simply nefarious. Washington seems oblivious to the simple truth that diplomacy has a cost, as does its failure — probably because this cost would carried by the rebellion, for which the United States has little respect or care anyway, and would be inherited by Obama’s successor.
The conditions are in place for a disastrous collapse of the Geneva talks — now delayed until late February — and a painful, bloody year in Syria. All actors understand that Obama, who has resisted any serious engagement in the country, is unlikely to change course now. And they all assume, probably rightly, that he is more interested in the appearance of a process than in spending any political capital over it. As a result, all the parties with a stake in Syria’s future are eyeing 2017, trying to position themselves for the new White House occupant. This guarantees brinksmanship, escalation, and more misery. 2016 is shaping up as the year during which Assad will lock in significant political and military gains.
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David Hearst writes
Nearly four months into its intervention, Russia is an active combatant in the Syrian civil war. This is not just an assertion. It is borne out by casualty figures and the refugee flows.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirm in their latest figures that Russian air strikes have killed more Syrian opposition fighters than they have Islamic State group fighters. The figures are 1,141 to 893 respectively. Both the Observatory and the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) put the civilian death toll from Russian strikes at between 1,000 and 1,200.
A similar picture is revealed by refugee movements since 30 September when the bombing campaign began. Over a hundred thousand refugees have fled to the Turkish and Jordanian borders. Between 5 and 22 October last year the UN reported that Russian air strikes led to the displacement of 120,000 people from Aleppo, Hama and Idlib.
The number of Syrians seeking refuge on the Jordanian border was 3,000 in late September. That reached 12,000 by December and 17,000 by last week. Brigadier General Saber Taha Al-Mahayreh, who is in charge on Jordan’s Syrian and Iraqi borders told Middle East Eye that the majority of refugees at Ruqban came “[in a] short period of time, when [the Russian] attacks intensified.”
The Russian military say that if a drone detects a weapons dump under a hardened cover, it is legitimate to bomb it, no matter whom it belongs to. It could always be sold on to IS. But even on targets defined as terrorist, the civilian casualty toll is great. A Russian strike recently on a prison run by Al-Nusra Front near a popular market in Idlib province killed almost as many civilians and detainees as it did Nusra fighters – 26 of the former and 29 of the latter.
More than 20 opposition leaders have been assassinated since the Russian intervention, mostly from Ahrar al-Sham, one of the biggest groups fighting Assad. Zahran Alloush, leader of Jaish al-Islam rebel group was the most high-profile victim, and his assassination by Syrian Army was thought to have been aided by Russian surveillance.
The list includes Abu Rateb al-Homsi, an Ahrar al-Sham leader in Homs area. Homsi was one of the men Assad released from Sednaya Prison to Islamise the opposition when it was largely secular and unarmed. Homsi went on to lead the Liwa al-Haqq rebel group before it merged with Ahrar al-Sham. In Riyadh, they signed an agreement supporting negotiations with the Syrian government, despite threatening to walk out of the talks.
The bombing raids and assassinations are both ways to re-arrange the chairs at the negotiating table before one has even been convened. Far from helping the peace talks take place in Geneva, the bombing campaign is killing them.
There is no agreement between Russia and America on whom in the Syrian opposition should live and whom should die, who is a “moderate” and who is a “terrorist”, who is legitimate and who is not. Russia reserves the right to decide for itself, although it has Arab allies in Jordan and Egypt who agree with it. There is no dialogue between Russia and Turkey, and therefore no agreement on which Kurdish groups should be represented at the talks. There is no possibility of an Iranian delegation sitting at the same table with a Saudi one. And even if the outer ring of combatant states agree, they lack control over the militias they arm and finance.
It is clutching at straws to think that Putin has bought himself leverage with Bashar al-Assad or indeed with Barack Obama after the sanctions imposed after the Ukrainian conflict. When Putin attempted to persuade Assad to soften his response to the unarmed uprising in Deraa in 2011, the Syrian leader ignored him. Now that the war has become a question of life or death for Assad, his wife and mother, there is little likelihood of that lever working more effectively now, even if we rashly assume that peace is on Putin’s agenda.
Obama is relaxed about letting Syrian fires burn, as any Syrian lobbyist in Washington will unhappily relate. He is deeply sceptical about the prospect of an early solution to the war. He knows Russia will get itself deeper and deeper into this conflict but he is not bothered. It was Putin’s fundamental mistake to think that he was.
What, then, led Putin to make such a fundamental decision on 30 September? He and Assad were contemporaries as heads of state, but they were never close. Assad ignored Putin for the first five years preferring visits to Western capitals instead. It was only when Russia came to a deal on Syria debt that the first Moscow visit materialised in 2005. Similarly, Syria was not on Russia’s radar until the Arab Spring and 2011 when Assad first crushed an unarmed civilian uprising in Deraa.
At the time, Putin would have listed his main regional allies as Turkey, Israel and Iran, in that order. When the Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu flew secretly to Moscow in a private jet to persuade Putin not to supply Iran with the latest surface to air missiles, Putin sacrificed his Iranian interests for his Israeli ones. The missiles were taken off the flat bed railway trucks destined for Tehran.
What prompted such a radical and risky decision ? Was it the imminent collapse of Assad? Was it part of a grandiose geopolitical project to restore a Soviet or indeed an Imperial Russian presence?
How Putin found his voice
One clue is a personal one, and it is to be found when Putin had no voice, no public record, and no following. 1999 was a bad year in Russia. Rival oligarchs were running riot. Not for the first time since 1992, the Russian state felt as if it was being shaken apart. Enter an unknown and untested hireling from Petersburg.
Putin, often described as a creature of the KGB, owed his rapid promotion to Moscow to the Family, Yeltsin’s self-serving band of oligarchs and neoliberal economists, which were thought of by Bill Clinton as Russia’s future. The nemesis of US’s plans to reshape Russia in its image did not emerge from the communist party, but from the bowels of the regime Washington was supporting. Putin’s career very nearly foundered on a scandal in which Petersburg lost $100m of food imports as barter for Russian timber, oil and other raw materials.
Putin needed more than just sponsorship to become known in times of turmoil. He needed something bigger like a war. Chechen militant attacks in Dagestan and around Moscow provided him with one.
Russia lost its first campaign in Chechnya and it sued for peace. An uneasy one followed. Aslan Maskhadov, the Chechen leader, ran out of money and the better financed and equipped Wahabi-influenced field commanders under the rival leadership of the warlord Shamil Basayev began to take over. Foreigners were kidnapped. A raid was staged in Dagestan and Russia was hit by a series of apartment bombings in which over 300 died.
In one of them, a group of FSB agents in a car with Moscow plates was caught by local police in Ryazan, a city outside Moscow, planting a device. The FSB said it was a training exercise. It was never proven, but the suspicion that the bombings could have been mounted by the FSB to justify a second war in Chechnya never went away either. The ex-Russian spy who joined MI6, Alexander Litvinenko, claimed to have more evidence on the apartment bombings. A British inquiry found that his poisoning was “probably ordered” by Putin.
Putin found his voice, which he took from the street: “We’ll get them anywhere. If we find terrorists in the shithouse, then we’ll waste them in the shithouse. That’s all there is to it.” That voice is still the one he uses today in Syria.
The Second Chechen war made the first seem restrained in comparison. The savagery was not one sided. The Nord-Ost theatre siege, the Moscow metro bombings were Chechen militant atrocities. Pure terrorism which in the case of Beslan, targeted Russian children. The savagery of Russian counter-insurgency in Chechnya was however sustained. The following is a taste of it.
The late and much missed Anna Politkovskaya described in her last book ” A Russian Diary” a video taken during a transfer of Chechen prisoners by the Special Operations Unit of the Russian Ministry of Justice. These fighters were allegedly “amnestied” after an assault on the village of Komsomolskoye in February to March 2000. Anyone interested in the fate of Syria should re-read this.
“The video is like a feature film from a fascist concentration camp. This is precisely the way the guards behave, their assault rifle at ready lined down a hill, at the bottom of which is the railway track with the waiting wagons. The men and boys (one is clearly 15 to 16 ) are flung from vans or themselves jump to the ground. They are all in bad physical shape, some being carried by their friends. All are wounded. Some are without legs, some without arms; the ear of one of them is hanging off, half-severed. The soldiers can be heard commenting: “Look they did not take that one’s ear off properly.” Many are completely naked, barefoot, covered in blood. Their clothing and footwear are tossed out of the vehicles separately. The fighters are completely exhausted. Some do not understand what is required of them and stumble about in confusion. Some are insane. On the video the soldiers beat them in a routine, automatic sort of way, as if they are doing it out of habit. There are no doctors to be seen. Some of the stronger fighters are ordered to pull from the vans the bodies of those who have died during the transfer and drag them to one side. At the end of the video there is a mountain of corpses of the amnestied prisoners by the railway track.”
Politkovskaya’s report is posthumous. She was to lose her life for reports like this, along with human rights activist Natalya Estemirova, the two members of the parliamentary commission investigating the flat bombings and a host of other honest souls. The trail of blood usually led back to the man Putin put in charge of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, the younger son of an assassinated Chechen rebel turned Moscow placeman.
Politkovskaya was the daughter of a Soviet diplomat, probably also a senior KGB man. As a child of the Soviet elite, she had the fearlessness of an insider. When she reported about abuses perpetrated by Russian servicemen, she also reported abuses on Russian soldiers, such as treatment terrified conscripts received from hazing. Politkovskaya was a Russian patriot.
George W. Bush had Putin’s back during this period, although the European Court of Human Rights in Strasburg was overwhelmed with referrals. It was a marriage of convenience. Russia supported the War on Terror, as long as Bush subsumed Russia’s campaign in Chechnya into it. The same process continues to this day, although there is more reason to conflate the insurgency in the North Caucasus with IS, as this is what the militants themselves do. The Russian response to Chechnya is a textbook example of how to breed a generation of suicide bombers. Russia went out of its way to assassinate the middle ground as it, and Assad, is now seeking to do in Syria.
The war that Putin restarted in 2000 has never left him, just as the Iraq invasion three years later has never left America or Britain. Russian military intelligence today claims there are 3,000 Russian Federation nationals and 4,000 from the post-Soviet space fighting Assad in Syria. That is 7,000 fighters ready to return and fight on the streets of Moscow. When Putin sees IS or Syrian opposition forces, he sees the same enemy that Russia has been fighting in the North Caucasus and in Tajikistan in Central Asia for the past three decades.
The second driver of his calculations in Syria is Libya. Dmitry Medvedev’s career has not recovered from his decision to abstain in the vote for the UN resolution that paved the way for the NATO intervention. When Gaddafy was killed (Russians claim with French and British involvement) a hue and cry went up in Moscow. Medvedev was denounced as traitor. A high-quality film appeared on the internet saying as much. Russia’s worst fears were realised when the Libyan state fell apart and they say they are determined not to repeat the experience in Syria.
“In general the issue of regime change, toppling regimes and promoting democracy or whatever, it was what Putin was afraid of. It was regarded as a form of pressure on behalf of the West, there was a regional balance in the Middle East, and to remove Assad, to destroy this country, it was regarded as a disaster. To turn Syria into another Libya was totally unacceptable. This was the thinking.” one Russian expert said.
Putin then is set not just on keeping the Syrian state intact. With this objective many would agree. He is also fighting against the Arab Spring in all forms and with all the means at his disposal. His praise of, and support for the military coup leader Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Egypt is based on nothing less.
What follows is a contest of wills, trench warfare, First World War style. The campaign will be fought as much on the economic as the military front. Putin claims he has the foreign reserves to see the current crisis created by record low oil prices out. He said in his last interview with Die Zeit, that his central bank has $350bn in gold and foreign currency reserves along with two reserve funds of $70bn each: “We believe that we will be steadily moving towards stabilisation and economic growth,” he said.
Russian economists such as Vladislav Inozemtsev and Stanislav Tkachenko are more sceptical. Tkachenko said the cost to Russia of severing ties to Turkey could exceed $30bn. “The fragile shoots of economic growth in Russia, after nearly a year of recession, would be torn out of the ground,” he added.
Saudi Arabia has bigger pockets than Russia, and several other reasons to keep the price of a barrel at records lows – squeezing shale oil out of them market and doing its best to hamper Iran’s re-entry into global markets.
All the signs point to a prolonged and protracted Russia military intervention. Look for accommodation blocks being built for the families of Russian pilots in Latakia. Six-week rotations will not do.
Each foreign intervention in Syria creates its own dynamic. Russia’s is no exception. Their bombing raids have left thousands more Syrian fighters with a score of their own to settle. They have TOW missiles and they pray for Russian tanks to come into range. The popular rage is great. Putin should not think he can re-arrange the Muslim House in Syria any more successfully than he has done so in the North Caucasus. If he were wise, he should plan his exit strategy now.
Dmitry Sidorov writes
This month COLTA.RU published three articles about what it’s like to work for federal television networks in Russia. These organisations have long been controlled by the authorities: they work as a single propaganda machine. The first two included an account by Liza Lerer, a former editorial manager of Russia 1’s marketing board, and a profile of Yulia Chumakova, Channel One’s South bureau chief, and the author of the infamous ‘crucified boy’ story.
The third article, published here in a translation by Anna Aslanyan, comprises four accounts: two former employees of the All-Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company (VGTRK) and a former producer at the private channel REN TV share their experiences anonymously, while Stanislav Feofanov, a TV Center (TVC) producer, speaks under his real name.
The conversations with the ex-VGTRK staffers were first recorded by Aleksandr Orlov, former deputy editor of Russia 24 and Russia 2. Orlov lost his job in July 2013 for supporting Alexei Navalny on social media, and is now working on a forthcoming book on Russian TV. Orlov has collected oral testimonies from several federal TV employees, former and present, and here he shares two of them with us and COLTA.RU. The other two stories have been told to Dmitry Sidorov, who prepared the article for publication.
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