Assad tries to force the West to choose between regime and ISIS

The Wall Street Journal reports: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his inner circle are engaged in a high-stakes gamble for the future of their fractured nation, betting Russian attacks on rebel positions will shift momentum in the conflict and shore up support from their core constituency.

Russia’s intervention is lending credence to what is widely believed to be Mr. Assad’s ultimate aim: Leave only one opponent in the multisided war—Islamic State—and force the West to choose between the extremist group and his regime.

Jubilant Assad loyalists have boasted that Moscow’s expanded involvement has foiled more than four years of efforts by the West and its allies to dislodge the strongman by backing Syria’s more-moderate armed opposition. The U.S. and its Western allies have said Russian airstrikes are primarily targeting these rebels, and not Islamic State.

“The heroic and extraordinary move by our friends in the Russian Federation will create a new history and geography for the region,” Faisal al-Mekdad, Syria’s deputy foreign minister, said on state television late Wednesday. “This is a transitional period, not for us, but for those in the enemy camp. It is they who will make the shift,” he added, referring to the U.S. and its Arab allies. [Continue reading…]

The Washington Post reports: Islamic State militants advanced against rival insurgents in wide swaths of Aleppo province Friday, activists and local media said, as Russia ramped up its campaign to recapture rebel-held territory for the Syrian government.

In a surprise advance — marking some of the Islamic State’s biggest gains in recent months — jihadists routed Syrian rebels from at least five villages and threatened the outskirts of Aleppo city, Syria’s second-largest city, activists said. [Continue reading…]


Iranian general killed in Syria by ISIS

The Wall Street Journal reports: A top Iranian military commander who played a crucial role in Tehran’s efforts to defend the Syrian regime was killed in the outskirts of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo, Iran’s state media said Friday.

Brig. Gen. Hossein Hamedani died at the hands of “Daesh terrorists” on Thursday while conducting advisory duties, Iranian state media said, quoting a statement by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC.

Although the statement used the Arab acronym for the extremist group Islamic State to describe those responsible for Gen. Hamedani’s death, the circumstances of his demise weren’t disclosed. The Iranian government, like the Syrian regime, tends to use “Daesh” and “terrorists” as catchall terms for all opponents of President Bashar al-Assad.
Gen. Hamedani, a longtime commander in the elite military unit of the IRGC, is believed to have directly overseen the organization of pro-Assad forces into groups such as the Popular Committees, which were later folded into the so-called National Defense Force.

These local militias are now estimated to number anywhere between 150,000 and 190,000 people. They are mainly members of Mr. Assad’s Shiite Muslim-linked Alawite sect, while some belong to Syria’s own small Shiite community. The majority of those fighting Mr. Assad are Sunni.

Before he was dispatched to Syria to provide know-how and training to the Assad regime, Gen. Hamedani was a commander in the IRGC’s elite military unit that led crackdowns on Iranian protesters in 2009. [Continue reading…]


White House hopes to de-escalate the conflict while Assad remains in power

Josh Rogin & Eli Lake write: “The White House somehow thinks we can de-escalate the conflict while keeping Assad in power,” one senior administration official told us.

That view, being pushed by top White House National Security staffers, including senior coordinator for the Middle East Rob Malley, is not new. But it has received fresh emphasis given Russian intervention.

If Assad is staying and there’s no political process in sight, this argument goes, the U.S. might as well focus on alleviating the suffering of the Syrian people and mitigate the growing refugee crisis.

Local ceasefires have been struck sporadically throughout the war, mostly in areas under siege by the Assad regime. The United Nations special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, has been pushing this idea for over a year.

“The current policy of the United States and its partners, to increase pressure on Assad so that he ‘comes to the table’ and negotiates his own departure, must be rethought,” Malley’s predecessor at the National Security Council, Philip Gordon, wrote at Politico as Russia was amassing its forces in Syria.

The NSC view is opposed by top officials in other parts of the government, especially Secretary of State John Kerry and U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power. They are trying to persuade Obama that the only way to solve Syria is to increase the pressure on Assad in the hopes he will enter negotiations.

Yet Kerry and Power now find themselves without any hope that Putin might bring the Syrian regime to the table. Kerry, though always skeptical of Russia, has been the point man on engaging the Russian government through several conversations with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. But it’s now clear the Russians were leading the Obama administration down the primrose path.

“In Syria, much as it did in Ukraine, Russia has hidden its true intentions, using the ruse of joining the fight against ISIL to provide cover for Russia’s military intervention to prop up the Assad regime,” Senate Armed Services Committee ranking Democrat Jack Reed said Thursday. “Russia’s actions, however, increasingly expose their true objectives.”

The de-escalation and delay-Assad’s-departure approach pushed by Malley and Gordon “has always been on the table. It is fully operative now,” former State Department official Frederic Hof wrote in response to Gordon’s Politico article. The problem, he said, is that it won’t work because “neither the regime, nor Tehran, nor Moscow have demonstrated any interest in it.” [Continue reading…]


Russians in Syria due to success of U.S. policy, claims Obama official

The Daily Beast reports: The Russian airstrikes on Syria are a sign that U.S. policy is working, a senior State Department official told shocked Syrian-American advocates in a private meeting on Monday.

The “Russians wouldn’t have to help Assad if we didn’t weaken him,” U.S. special envoy for Syria Michael Ratney said, according to multiple participants in the meeting and contemporaneous notes. Russian intervention, he went on to say, is a sign of success for American policy on Syria. [Continue reading…]


Gulf Arabs ‘stepping up’ arms supplies to Syrian rebels

BBC News reports: Saudi Arabia is responding to the recent Russian air strikes on Syrian rebels by stepping up its supplies of lethal weaponry to three different rebel groups, a Saudi government official has told the BBC.

The well-placed official, who asked not to be named, said supplies of modern, high-powered weaponry including guided anti-tank weapons would be increased to the Arab- and western-backed rebel groups fighting the forces of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian, Iranian and Lebanese allies.

He said those groups being supplied did not include either Islamic State (IS) or al-Nusra Front, both of which are proscribed terrorist organisations. Instead, he said the weapons would go to three rebel alliances – Jaish al-Fatah (Army of Conquest), the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the Southern Front.[Continue reading…]


Obama administration ends Pentagon program to train Syrian rebels

The New York Times reports: The Obama administration has ended the Pentagon’s $500 million program to train and equip Syrian rebels, administration officials said on Friday, in an acknowledgment that the beleaguered effort had failed to produce any kind of ground combat forces capable of taking on the Islamic State in Syria.

Pentagon officials announced the end of the program on Friday, as Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter left London after meetings with his British counterpart, Michael Fallon, about the continuing wars in Syria and Iraq.

The closing of the program comes as the administration’s attention is shifting to northwestern Syria, where it hopes to assemble a group of Sunni tribes in a “Syrian Arab Coalition” to fight alongside Syrian Kurdish forces against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. [Continue reading…]


How fear slammed America’s door on Syrian refugees

Molly O’Toole reports: The United States, which accepts more refugees per year than any other country, has all but closed its door to the millions of Syrians who are part of the world’s largest refugee crisis since World War II. A recent decision to admit more Syrian refugees this year opened that door a crack, but the Obama administration insists that national security concerns constrain it from going further. Yet officials at more than a dozen agencies could not point to any specific or credible case, data, or intelligence assessment indicating that Syrian refugees pose a threat.

The officials generally funnelled questions to the Department of Homeland Security.

“Certain groups have openly stated they will attempt to exploit the current situation with respect to large numbers of migrants seeking asylum in Europe and refugee resettlement,” said a DHS official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because department leaders would not authorize anyone to speak on the record about the threat assessment of Syrian refugees. “We must balance a very real threat with the potential propaganda value here.” [Continue reading…]


‘Those disguised as Arabs’

AFP correspondent, Andrea Bernardi, writes: It’s fairly common to see Israeli agents infiltrate the crowds of Palestinian stone throwers during demonstrations. I’ve witnessed this plenty of times in Jerusalem. The goal of these “mustarabiin” — literally “those who disguise themselves as Arabs” — is to stop the protesters. They usually take out their weapons without using them, or, more often, point them into the sky, as if they were about to shoot into the air.

But today, I filmed these undercover agents for the first time firing live bullets into a crowd of protesters.

I showed up to cover a “Day of Rage” that Palestinian students staged at the Bir Zeit University in Ramallah, in the occupied West Bank. At the end of the demonstration, the protesters headed toward the DCO checkpoint near the Bet-El settlement, which has often been the scene of clashes between the two sides. [Continue reading…]


Official from pro-Assad alliance confirms Russian airstrikes have not been targeting ISIS

Reuters reports: Syrian troops and militia backed by Russian warplanes mounted what appeared to be their first major coordinated assault on Syrian insurgents on Wednesday and Moscow said its warships fired a barrage of missiles at them from the Caspian Sea, a sign of its new military reach.

The combined operation hit towns close to the main north-south highway that runs through major cities in the mainly government-held west of Syria, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based group which tracks the conflict via a network of sources within the country.

Ground attacks by Syrian government forces and their militia allies using heavy surface-to-surface missile bombardments hit at least four insurgent positions and there were heavy clashes, the head of the Observatory, Rami Abdulrahman, said.

The Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia took part in the fighting, according to a regional source who is familiar with the military situation in Syria.

Abdulrahman said later there was no sign that Syrian troops and their allies had made any tangible advances on the ground.

They briefly entered one town, but were forced to pull back, he said, and around 15 of their tanks or armored vehicles had been either destroyed or disabled. [Continue reading…]

The New York Times reports: Russia has focused its earliest operations on the insurgent coalition known as the Army of Conquest, or Jaish al-Fatah, rather than on the Islamic State, according to the official from the pro-government alliance [Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah], because it is the Army of Conquest’s positions that most urgently threaten the crucial government-held coastal province of Latakia, while Islamic State forces are farther to the east and can later be isolated and hit. Latakia is Mr. Assad’s family’s ancestral home and the heartland of his fellow Alawites, who provide a critical bloc of support.

Wednesday was the first time since the spring that the government’s forces had moved “from defense to offense,” the official said.

The assault seemed to focus on an area straddling northern Hama Province and southern Idlib Province, where insurgent command of high ground threatens the coast. The initial ground attacks took place around three villages that insurgents consider the first line of defense of the strategic Jebel al-Zawiyah area.

The bombardment appeared to reach new levels of intensity in some places. One video showed white smoke rising far above a village’s minarets, while another appeared to show at least a dozen explosions — the person filming described the weapons as rockets — in less than five minutes.

A number of times in Wednesday’s fighting, insurgents fired advanced TOW antitank missiles, supplied covertly by the C.I.A., at Syria’s Russian-made tanks, leaving the impression of a proxy war between Russia and the United States. Rebel groups, including two that have received American aid, Division 13 and Suqour al-Ghab, posted videos that showed the guided missiles sailing toward approaching tanks and destroying them. [Continue reading…]


Russia and ISIS simultaneously launch attacks on U.S.-backed Syrian brigade

The Daily Beast reports: On Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s fighter jets rocketed an ammunition storehouse, destroying artillery, armored personnel carriers and even tanks belonging to Liwa Suqour al-Jabal, or The Mountain Eagles, a U.S.-backed brigade of the Free Syrian Army. A video uploaded by the brigade to YouTube shows the burning wreckage of the Russian airstrike, in Mansoura, in the western suburbs of Aleppo, as the local commander known as Abu Mohammed taunts his enemy: “Thank God, we are all fine,” says Abu Mohammed. “We don’t fear Russia or anyone helping the Russians. Bashar, we will remain resistant fighting you even without any ammunition or bullets. We will fight you with knives. We don’t need ammunition, Allahu Akhbar.”

The cameraman then adds that the Russians weren’t the only ones hitting the brigade yesterday. “The Russian airplanes are targeting Suqour al-Jabal’s weapon depots in Aleppo and ISIS attacked the bases with explosives at the same time.”

Hasan Hagali, the top commander for Suqour al-Jabal and a former captain in the Syrian Arab Army, explained via Skype to The Daily Beast: “Yesterday, at 5:30 p.m. a base belonging to Suqour al-Jabal was targeted in two air raids in Mansoura. In each raid, there were three Russian Mig-31 jets. That’s our main arms depot, where we supply all our units. At the same exact time — 5:30 p.m. — ISIS sent a car bomb against us in Deir Jemal, against our base. This is about 130 kilometers away from Mansoura.” An earlier ISIS attack against a Suqour al-Jabal frontline position, he added, occurred in Ehres, also in western Aleppo, at around 3 o’clock. But ISIS locations in the province, no doubt equally visible from the air, were left unscathed by the Russians. [Continue reading…]


Russia has given up on the power of the people

Ivan Krastev writes: the differences between Mr. Putin and Mr. Obama can be boiled down to opposing theories about the sources of the current global instability. America sees global instability primarily as the result of authoritarians’ desperate attempts to preserve a doomed status quo, while Moscow blames Washington’s obsession with democracy.

If the Soviets appealed to proletarians of the world to unite, the Kremlin today appeals to governments of the world to unite — all kind of governments. History is indeed “irony on the move.” Russia, the successor of the revolutionary Soviet Union, has given up on the power of the people.

Most of the popular history books on the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 you can find in Moscow bookstores today tell the story of Lenin and his comrades not as a popular uprising, but as a coup d’état, engineered by — and here you have a choice — the German general staff or British intelligence agents. Any time and any place when people demand power, the situation gets worse. Loyalty and stability are at the center of the Kremlin’s universe, a universe dominated by insecurity and fear of the future. [Continue reading…]


Obama helped rescue thousands of Yazidis — then abandoned them

Politico reports: In 2014, Vian Dakhil’s stirring plea for international intervention helped inspire President Barack Obama to order airstrikes and launch a humanitarian effort to rescue thousands of Yazidi Iraqis who were trapped on a mountainside under assault by Islamic State.

A year later, Dakhil, one of two Yazidi members of the Iraqi parliament, says her people have been abandoned by Washington and the international community.

In an emotional, at times tearful, on-stage interview at POLITICO’s “Women Rule” event Wednesday morning in Washington, Dakhil described a full-blown humanitarian crisis — 420,000 Yazidis living in refugee camps in tents with mud floors, women and girls continuing to be kidnapped, 2,200 girls in captivity as sexual slaves, and survivors returning from the horror of ISIL captivity with no resources for psychological support. Thousands of orphans have no homes.

Dakhil, who is credited with saving many Yazidi women and girls from ISIL captivity, said she was not contacted by U.S. officials after the initial announcement. A letter to Michelle Obama received no response, she said. [Continue reading…]


Why sorry isn’t enough after deadly hospital airstrike

Neil Macdonald writes: Mark Toner, the suave U.S. State Department spokesman, arrived in the briefing room Monday unprepared for what was coming.

Two days earlier, American airstrikes had obliterated a hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, operated by Doctors Without Borders. The attack killed 22 people, including several staff members.

By the time Toner took to his podium, U.S. military officials had already given conflicting versions of what had happened.

But the underlying message was the same: There had been Taliban militants near the hospital and, in defence of American and Afghan troops, an American airstrike had inadvertently and tragically killed civilians.

Clearly, in Toner’s mind, the attack was a Pentagon matter. His briefing book contained some words of condolence to families of the dead, and evidently not much more.

Then Matt Lee of the Associated Press asked a question.

Lee began by reading aloud a State Department statement issued in August 2014 after an Israeli missile attack killed several people at a UN school in Gaza.

“The United States is appalled by today’s disgraceful shelling outside an UNRWA school,” said the State Department at the time. “The coordinates of the school, like all UN facilities in Gaza, have been repeatedly communicated to the Israeli Defence Forces.”

The statement continued: “The suspicion that militants are operating nearby does not justify strikes that put at risk the lives of so many innocent civilians.”

So, asked Lee, does that sentence about the presence of militants not justifying strikes that endanger innocent civilians stand as U.S. government policy?

Toner, having seen where this was going, dived into his official condolences, but quickly ran out of prepared messages.

He looked up: “Uh, you know, these are difficult situations, uh, it was I think … an active combat zone.”

Lee wasn’t going to be put off.

U.S. forces in Afghanistan, he told Toner, had been given the coordinates of the hospital, “much as the IDF had been given the coordinates of the school in Rafah” in Gaza.

Toner evaded: “I think it’s safe to say that, you know, this attack, this bombing, was not intentional,” he replied, asking for “a pass” until the investigations by U.S. agencies are completed.

Lee then expertly closed the trap.

After the “disgraceful” Israeli attack, he pointed out, the State Department declared itself “appalled” even before any investigation had begun.

“So. Can you say now … that this shelling of this hospital was disgraceful and appalling?”

At that, Toner just gave up, and re-read the condolence lines. [Continue reading…]


For Afghans in Kunduz, Taliban assault is just the latest affront

The New York Times reports: From the early days of his presidency last year, President Ashraf Ghani knew he faced a national security threat in the northern Afghan province of Kunduz. He installed a new governor, a new police chief and a new head of intelligence, and spoke of turning Kunduz into an example of what better governance could accomplish. Instead, it has become a sobering testament to the cost of failed governance.

The fall of the provincial capital, Kunduz City, to the Taliban nine days ago was partly born of years of disgust with and distrust in the main representatives of the central government there: a succession of corrupt or ineffective governors and aides, and a horde of Afghan Local Police militiamen who were more often abusive than responsible.

Interviews with officials and residents of Kunduz indicate that despite Mr. Ghani’s vow to improve things, frustrations in the province had been boiling even before the Taliban’s recent assault. [Continue reading…]


Amnesty tells the U.S. to stop selling arms to Saudi Arabia

Mother Jones reports: Citing “damning evidence of war crimes,” Amnesty International has condemned America’s continued support of Saudi Arabia’s air war in Yemen. In a report released yesterday, the human-rights organization called on the United States to stop selling bombs, fighter jets, and combat helicopters to the Saudis

The nearly seven-month-old conflict, which pits Saudi Arabia and a coalition of allied states against anti-government rebels, has claimed thousands of civilian lives. More than two-thirds of those were killed by Saudi-led air strikes, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. While Saudi Arabia claims to only be targeting military targets, bombs have been dropped on power stations, water supplies, schools, hospitals, and a camp for displaced people.

The United States has been aiding the Saudi-led coalition with weaponry, logistics, and intelligence support. Washington and Riyadh inked $90 billion in arms deals between 2010 and 2014, and at least another $7.8 billion in new arms deals have been announced since Saudi Arabia’s air campaign began in March. Among the remnants of American-made bombs Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have found on the ground in Yemen are two types of cluster bombs. Cluster bombs are banned by more than 100 countries because of the risk they pose to civilians. [Continue reading…]


The ‘Iranian project’ is making Assad trust Moscow more than Tehran

Christoph Reuter writes: Just as in Damascus, Latakia and Jabla, increasing numbers of hosseiniehs — Shiite religious teaching centers — are opening. The centers are aimed at converting Sunnis, and even the Alawites, the denomination to which the Assads belong, to “correct” Shiite Islam by way of sermons and stipends. In addition, the government decreed one year ago that state-run religion schools were to teach Shiite material.

All of this is taking place to the consternation of the Alawites, who have begun to voice their displeasure. “They are throwing us back a thousand years. We don’t even wear headscarves and we aren’t Shiites,” Alawites complained on the Jableh News Facebook page. There were also grumblings when a Shiite mosque opened in Latakia and an imam there announced: “We don’t need you. We need your children and grandchildren.”

In addition, Iranian emissaries, either directly or via middlemen, have been buying land and buildings in Damascus, including almost the entire former Jewish quarter, and trying to settle Shiites from other countries there.

Talib Ibrahim, an Alawite communist from Masyaf who fled to the Netherlands many years ago, summarizes the mood as follows: “Assad wants the Iranians as fighters, but increasingly they are interfering ideologically with domestic affairs. The Russians don’t do that.” [Continue reading…]


Putin’s holy war in Syria

Ian Bateson writes: Since the start of his third term, Putin has fostered a close alliance with the Church, relying on it to champion his decisions in overwhelmingly Orthodox-identifying Russia. Religious justifications for actions have become an increasingly important part of Putin’s propaganda strategy at home. Last year Putin justified annexing Crimea by declaring it “sacred” and “like the Temple Mount in Jerusalem for Muslims and Jews” — despite the fact it was only incorporated into the Russian Empire in 1783.

Russian media has been adding to the religious connection by applying the same arguments it used to support separatists in Ukraine. The loosely-defined “Russian world” that the Russian media claimed to include parts of Ukraine has now been expanded to make room for Syria. On a Russian debate program a member of Russian parliament, Semyon Bagdasarov, argued that there was “no Orthodoxy or Russia without Syria” and that the historical tradition of Orthodoxy in now-Muslim-majority Syria makes it a “holy land” for Russians and “their” land.

In his weekly televised monologue Dmitry Kiselyov, head of the government-owned news agency Rossiya Segodnya, linked Russia’s military actions in Syria to the Soviet’s Union’s fight against Nazi Germany. He has made similar comparisons before, accusing Ukraine’s pro-Western government of being a fascist junta that needed to be opposed like Hitler’s Germany. This time he referred to Putin’s claim that the Islamic State posed a Nazi-like threat and required a similar coalition of opponents, calling it a “very precise” rationale for bombing Syria.

Russian media, however, seemed to reach new levels of absurdity when one anchor gave a weather report for Syria, emphasizing that the low winds and minimal precipitation had made October an ideal time for Russian airstrikes. The message seemed to be that even the weather was cooperating with Russian military intervention in Syria.

Many of the people justifying Russia’s involvement in Syria are playing to a system that requires and rewards supporting Putin’s actions once he has declared them. As Putin has re-centralized power in Russia, most governmental, media and civil society organizations function first and foremost to support him. [Continue reading…]


How Iranian general plotted out Syrian assault in Moscow

Reuters reports: At a meeting in Moscow in July, a top Iranian general unfurled a map of Syria to explain to his Russian hosts how a series of defeats for President Bashar al-Assad could be turned into victory – with Russia’s help.

Major General Qassem Soleimani’s visit to Moscow was the first step in planning for a Russian military intervention that has reshaped the Syrian war and forged a new Iranian-Russian alliance in support of Assad.

As Russian warplanes bomb rebels from above, the arrival of Iranian special forces for ground operations underscores several months of planning between Assad’s two most important allies, driven by panic at rapid insurgent gains.

Soleimani is the commander of the Quds Force, the elite extra-territorial special forces arm of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, and reports directly to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Senior regional sources say he has already been overseeing ground operations against insurgents in Syria and is now at the heart of planning for the new Russian- and Iranian-backed offensive. [Continue reading…]