Russia, Turkey, Iran eye dicing Syria into zones of influence

Reuters reports: Syria would be divided into informal zones of regional power influence and Bashar al-Assad would remain president for at least a few years under an outline deal between Russia, Turkey and Iran, sources say.

Such a deal, which would allow regional autonomy within a federal structure controlled by Assad’s Alawite sect, is in its infancy, subject to change and would need the buy-in of Assad and the rebels and, eventually, the Gulf states and the United States, sources familiar with Russia’s thinking say.

“There has been a move toward a compromise,” said Andrey Kortunov, director general of the Russian International Affairs Council, a think tank close to the Russian Foreign Ministry.

“A final deal will be hard, but stances have shifted.”

Assad’s powers would be cut under a deal between the three nations, say several sources. Russia and Turkey would allow him to stay until the next presidential election when he would quit in favor of a less polarizing Alawite candidate.

Iran has yet to be persuaded of that, say the sources. But either way Assad would eventually go, in a face-saving way, with guarantees for him and his family.

“A couple of names in the leadership have been mentioned (as potential successors),” said Kortunov, declining to name names.

Nobody thinks a wider Syrian peace deal, something that has eluded the international community for years, will be easy, quick or certain of success. What is clear is that President Vladimir Putin wants to play the lead role in trying to broker a settlement, initially with Turkey and Iran. [Continue reading…]

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Iran and Russia stand to gain immensely following the fall of Aleppo

Nabeel Khoury writes: Aleppo has fallen to Bashar Al-Assad’s forces, battered by unrelenting Russian bombardment and surrounded by Shiite militias from Syria, Lebanon, Iran, and Iraq. The Syrian regime is poised to reap the rewards of this regional and international onslaught. The rebels’ goal of ousting President Al-Assad has now become virtually impossible, at least in the near term. To be sure, there are further battles to be fought in Syrian territory still beyond the reach of the regime. Idlib is likely the next battlefront, but one can already project an empowered Syria-Iran-Russia axis planning the next steps ahead.

Toward the end of 2012, when Syrian rebel resistance to Al-Assad was gaining in strength and pressing hard against the regime’s bastions in Damascus and Latakia, the regime’s military strategy, no doubt recommended by Iran and Hezbollah, was to secure a line of defense around Syria’s major urban centers that would stretch from the Turkish border in the north to the Jordanian border in the south. Hezbollah started the process by besieging and taking the town of Qusayr in the summer of 2013.

This was a strategic turnaround for the regime, the significance of which the Barack Obama administration completely missed. By not intervening or helping the opposition hold on to Qusayr, the United States allowed the regime to stop arms smuggling to the rebels via Tripoli and the Lebanese border. Qusayr also helped consolidate a defensive line between Latakia and Damascus, allowing the regime to protect its core areas. The three years that followed saw the regime further strengthening its defenses along the Lebanese borders guaranteeing free movement for Hezbollah in and out of Syria. [Continue reading…]

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Pro-regime forces in Syria are stretched thin  – and fighting among themselves

Tom Cooper writes: Five years into Syria’s apocalyptic civil war, there is no more Syrian Arab Army on the country’s battlefields. So who’s fighting for Syrian president Bashar Al Assad?

The answer is a shocking one. Today the forces fighting for the Syrian regime represent a hodgepodge of sectarian local militias, most of which do not fall under the regime’s direct control.

In other words, Al Assad is waging a war with virtually no troops of his own.

The exceptions to this rule are few  — only around a dozen of company-sized formations that survived the collapse of the Syrian army’s Republican Guards Division and 4th Armored Division. And those companies were never within the normal army chain of command, instead personally answering to Al Assad.

The majority of the remaining “regime forces” — some 70,000 combatants  —  belong to the Syrian militias, all of which were established by either the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps or Hezbollah, and the majority of which now fall under Iranian control. [Continue reading…]

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Iran hails victory in Aleppo as Shia militias boost Syria’s Bashar al-Assad

The Guardian reports: Iranian leaders have claimed a military victory in Aleppo, with the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s chief military aide boasting that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s forces would have been unable to retake the besieged city without support from Tehran.

“Aleppo was liberated thanks to a coalition between Iran, Syria, Russia and Lebanon’s Hizbollah,” said Seyed Yahya Rahim-Safavi. “Iran is on one side of this coalition which is approaching victory and this has shown our strength. The new American president should take heed of the powers of Iran.”

Iran’s defence minister called his Syrian counterpart to congratulate him and Mohsen Rezaie, a former commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, wrote on Instagram that Iran’s aim was to cleanse “terrorists and Takfiris [apostates]” from Syria and Iraq.

The parliamentary speaker, Ali Larijani, also congratulated Assad’s government, saying that US and British policies had hit a dead end in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen. [Continue reading…]

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Paddy Ashdown on Aleppo: ‘There must not be another Srebrenica’

 

The New York Times reports: Artillery shelling resumed early Wednesday on besieged eastern neighborhoods of the Syrian city of Aleppo, delaying a promised evacuation of thousands of civilians and medical staff members who had been expecting to leave under the aegis of a deal announced at the United Nations.

Buses that were supposed to evacuate some of the last holdouts in the heavily bombed neighborhoods left, empty, after waiting for hours, the Lebanese television station Al Manar, which is affiliated with the militant Shiite group Hezbollah reported — a sign that the evacuation process might not happen on Wednesday as planned.

The Pan-Arab television network Al Mayadeen showed buses idling at a prearranged evacuation point, waiting to take 5,000 fighters and their families to Atareb, a town west of Aleppo.

The opposition says that Iran, one of the Syrian government’s main allies, and its Shiite militia proxies were obstructing the deal; witnesses said that the militias had prevented a convoy of about 70 wounded people — mostly fighters and their relatives — from departing, despite the supposed deal announced at the United Nations. The militias, observers said, insisted that they would not allow anyone out until rebel groups had ended their siege of Fouaa and Kfarya, two encircled Shiite enclaves in Idlib Province.

Osama Abu Zayd, a legal adviser to Syrian opposition factions, told The Associated Press that the evacuation deal was being resisted by Iran’s field commander in Syria. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group, said it believed that Iran — a major ally of the Syrian government — had balked at the deal, annoyed that Russia and Turkey had not consulted it.

But the Russian Defense Ministry blamed the rebels for the impasse, saying on Wednesday that they had “resumed the hostilities” at dawn, trying to break through Syrian government positions to the northwest.

The impasse could be the sign of a stalling tactic by Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad. His government has often skillfully played its backers — Iran, Russia and others — off one another. The disagreement could provide cover for what the Syrian government has wanted to do all along: finish off the enclave with force. As one Syrian military officer told Reuters in Aleppo recently, rebels must “surrender or die.”

Malek, an activist who has repeatedly moved around eastern Aleppo for his safety, and who asked to be identified only by his first name for fear that he would soon find himself in government territory, said he had looked forward to the evacuation, but that “nothing happened.”

Interviewed over the messaging service WhatsApp, he added, using a mournful idiom, “We didn’t taste the flavor of life.”

Troubles carrying out the accord were not surprising, as there was no international monitoring — United Nations officials said the Syrian government refused their repeated pleas to observe the process — and no mechanism to enforce the agreement. That has been a problem with other deals reached during the conflict.

Within eastern Aleppo, residents were alarmed as Russian news agencies broadcast remarks from the Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, who said he expected the rebels to “stop their resistance within two, three days.” Those remarks alarmed observers, as the evacuation deal says rebels already agreed to stop fighting in exchange for being allowed to leave.

“They are planning to slaughter us all,” said Monther Etaky, a civilian activist who had been hoping to evacuate.

Salem, a dentist who had kept his clinic open until last week, and who finally moved to one of the last rebel neighborhoods when his own was taken by government forces, said he could hear heavy shelling.

“We slept a quiet night, but sadly the shelling is back,” he said Wednesday morning, asking to be identified only by his first name. “Please share my message: The cease-fire collapsed. The situation is bad again.” [Continue reading…]

The Guardian reports: British MPs are deceiving themselves if they believe they do not bear some of the responsibility for the “terrible tragedy” unfolding in Syria, the former chancellor, George Osborne, said on Tuesday during an often anguished emergency debate in the House of Commons on the carnage being inflicted in eastern Aleppo. In one of his first speeches in the Commons since losing office, Osborne said there had been “multiple opportunities to intervene” in Syria as he cited parliament’s decision in 2013 not to take military action after the use of chemical weapons by Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

“Let’s be clear now: if you do not shape the world, you will be shaped by it. We are beginning to see the price of not intervening,” Osborne said.

The Commons voted by a majority of 13 in 2013 to reject military action after Labour combined with Tory rebels to deliver David Cameron his single biggest Commons rebuff. [Continue reading…]

Janine di Giovanni writes: Depending on your personal view, Aleppo has now fallen, or been retaken, or been liberated. But my interest is not with any political side. It’s with victims of state terror, and all the civilians whose lives have been shattered by a war that has been raging for more than five years. It is the most cynical conflict I have seen in 25 years of war reporting. Both the regime and opposition are guilty of war crimes, though one much more than the other.

What I’m considering now, from the comfort of my Paris home, is how a city falls. I am thinking of people cowering in basements and struggling with whether they flee from their city now, or wait. Who is coming to save them, or kill them? I know how that scenario goes. I lived through Sarajevo during the Bosnia war, and was in Grozny when it fell to (or was “liberated” by) Russian forces. I remember hiding in those basements waiting for the Russian tanks to come into the village, and wondering if I would be dead in a few hours.

I am thinking about the civilians – all of those people with whom I sat for hours while writing my book, or writing reports for the UN high commissioner for refugees – and what they are doing to survive. [Continue reading…]

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Iran-backed militias block Aleppo evacuation as shelling resumes

The Guardian reports: Iran-backed militias are preventing civilians and opposition fighters from leaving the besieged districts of east Aleppo as Russia struggles to convince the Assad government and allied militants to abide by a ceasefire agreement.

Shelling of the besieged districts resumed on Wednesday morning despite the agreement brokered by Turkish intelligence and the Russian military on Tuesday that would have offered a respite to tens of thousands of trapped civilians.

It was unclear on Wednesday when residents would be allowed to leave east Aleppo and whether the deal would hold. Turkey’s state-run Anadolu agency quoted the head of the Turkish Red Crescent as saying nearly 1,000 people from east Aleppo were being held at an Iranian militia checkpoint.

Rebels inside east Aleppo said they would support the agreement but Iranian-backed militias on the ground, which led the assault into east Aleppo, were blocking it because the deal was reached without Assad or Iran’s involvement.

“The sectarian militias want to resume the massacre in Aleppo and the world has to act to prevent this sectarian slaughter led by Iran,” said Bassam Mustafa, a member of the political council of Noureddine Zinki, one of the main rebel groups in east Aleppo. “The opposition will continue to abide by the agreement.”

Yasser al-Youssef, a spokesman for the group, said Russia was attempting to convince the Assad government to accept the ceasefire. The Turkish foreign minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, said discussions were ongoing with Russia and Iran to continue the planned evacuations. [Continue reading…]

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Aleppo’s ‘descent into hell’ as the world looks on, impotently

In an editorial, The Guardian says: Exhausted parents clutching terrified children in their arms, young people pushing the old in makeshift carts or wheelchairs and families pulling overstuffed suitcases: the scenes from east Aleppo are those of a new exodus. As Syrian government forces move on the last urban stronghold of the anti-Assad opposition, helped by Shia militias from Iraq, Iran and Hezbollah, hundreds of men have been rounded up and disappeared. Their relatives, as well as human rights activists, fear they may already be dead, or have become victims of Assad’s network of jails and torture centres where thousands have been murdered.

The Syrian and Russian onslaught has been going on for weeks. But now it is at a new intensity, as it approaches what may be the end game. A strategy of indiscriminate bombing, terror and destruction, the UN was told, threatens to turn this part of Syria’s second city into a giant graveyard. Syrian army leaflets dropped on the city warn the inhabitants that they must flee, or face annihilation.

Rebel-held Aleppo seems condemned to utter destruction and defeat. Posted on social media, citizens’ desperate messages resemble final pleas, all hope gone. A UN representative has described the situation as a “descent into hell”. US Department of State officials have made it clear that nothing much can be done; western countries have convened an emergency security council meeting, but beyond words of condemnation and warnings of a humanitarian catastrophe in the making – France has spoken of “what could be the biggest massacres of civilian population since the second world war” – the powerlessness of UN institutions is obvious. In London, at prime minister’s questions, the SNP’s Angus Robertson at least got the Syrian crisis into the discussion. Labour again passed by on the other side. [Continue reading…]

Reuters reports: Syria and its allies aim to drive rebels from Aleppo before Donald Trump takes office as U.S. President, a senior official in the pro-Damascus military alliance said, as pro-government forces surged to their biggest victories in the city for years.

Rebels face one of their gravest moments of the war after pro-government forces routed fighters over the past few days from more than a third of the territory they controlled in the city. Thousands of civilians have fled for safety.

The pro-government official, who declined to be identified in order to speak freely, nevertheless indicated that the next phase of the campaign could be more difficult as the army and its allies seek to capture more densely populated areas.

Rebel fighters fought fiercely to stop government forces advancing deeper into the opposition-held enclave on Tuesday, confronting pro-Assad militias who sought to move into the area from the southeast, a rebel official said.

The attack on eastern Aleppo threatens to snuff out the most important urban center of the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad, who has been firmly on the offensive for more than a year thanks to Russian and Iranian military support. [Continue reading…]

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In Syria’s Aleppo, Shiite militias point to Iran’s unparalleled influence

The Washington Post reports: Syria’s government hopes a brutal siege will vanquish rebel holdouts in the city of Aleppo, a key battleground. But Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s troops aren’t leading the charge.

That task has been taken up by thousands of Shiite militiamen from Lebanon, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan who are loyal to Iran, a Shiite country and perhaps Assad’s most important ally.

For much of Syria’s civil war, these religiously motivated fighters have reinforced Syria’s badly weakened military. Now, they are playing an increasingly critical role in trying to seize opposition-held eastern Aleppo by coordinating their attacks with government forces and warplanes flown by Russia, another ally of Assad’s.

The government, backed by Russian aircraft, launched a major offensive across northern Syria last week that has brought further devastation to eastern Aleppo, Syria’s largest city before the war.

The militias appear to be forming a sophisticated ground coalition that has further bolstered Iran’s influence in Syria, alarming even officials in Assad’s government, said Phillip Smyth, an expert on Shiite militias at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“They are building a force on the ground that, long after the war, will stay there and wield a strong military and ideological influence over Syria for Iran,” he said. “And there is not much Assad can do to curb the rising influence of these groups, even though Syrian officials are clearly concerned about this, because the militiamen are literally preventing the overthrow of his government.” [Continue reading…]

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Assad in person: Confident, friendly, no regrets

Anne Barnard reports: The guns were silent atop Mount Qasioun and the lights on its slopes twinkled over Damascus as President Bashar al-Assad of Syria welcomed a group of Western visitors into his French-Ottoman palace on Monday night, presenting himself as a man firmly in control of his country.

He radiated confidence and friendliness as he ushered a group of British and American journalists and policy analysts into an elegant wood-paneled sitting room where he claimed that the social fabric of Syria was stitched together “much better than before” a chaotic civil war began more than five years ago. It was as if half his citizens had not been driven from their homes and nearly half a million had not been killed in the bloody fighting for which he rejected any personal responsibility, blaming instead the United States and Islamist militants.

“I’m just a headline — the bad president, the bad guy, who is killing the good guys,” Mr. Assad said. “You know this narrative. The real reason is toppling the government. This government doesn’t fit the criteria of the United States.”

It was a surreal meeting for me after years of writing about a devastating and intractable war that has reduced several of Syria’s grand city centers to rubble and prompted accusations of war crimes. While hundreds of thousands of Syrians are besieged and hungry, here was Mr. Assad, secure in his palace because he has outsourced much of the war to Russian, Iranian and Hezbollah forces whose influence has grown to a degree that makes some of his own supporters uncomfortable. [Continue reading…]

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Iran’s man in Beirut

Alex Rowell writes: On the morning of 13 October, 1990, the Syrian Air Force launched fighter jet strikes on the Lebanese presidential palace in Baabda, southeast of Beirut. Their target was a General Michel Aoun, an army commander appointed two years previously by an outgoing president to lead a temporary cabinet until elections could be held, who instead went rogue, moving himself into Baabda Palace and effectively declaring himself ruler of the republic — and happy to fight anyone who said otherwise.

His reign, such as it was, saw thousands killed in quixotic military campaigns against rival warlords and the Syrian army then occupying Lebanon. By October 1990, the Syrians were determined to finish him off, and the United States — of whom he had also managed to make an enemy — was willing to let them, not least as a nod of gratitude for Damascus’ assistance in the liberation of Kuwait from Saddam Hussein. “I am ready to die on the battlefield of honor rather than surrender — be sure I shall die fighting,” Aoun told a crowd of supporters on the 12th, when it was clear a final Syrian push was imminent. By noon the following day, Aoun had surrendered without firing a shot and fled to the French embassy, leaving scores of his men massacred in the ground and air onslaught, and the presidential palace in ruins. Lebanon’s fifteen-year civil war was over.

Today, the same Michel Aoun — now 81 years old — was elected to return as president to the same Baabda Palace, ending Lebanon’s thirty-month leadership vacuum after spending over a quarter of a century between exile in France and Lebanon, tirelessly plotting his eventual comeback with near-Shakespearean ambition. “I can add colours to the chameleon,” boasts the rapacious Richard III in Henry VI; “Change shapes with Proteus for advantages/ And set the murd’rous Machiavel to school.” Aoun’s long life has seen him morph from a Fort Hill-trained commander in a US-backed army (once even photographed in Israeli company) to an anti-American proxy of the Iraqi Baath regime to a Bush-supporting neoconservative fellow traveler (speaking at the Hudson Institute in favor of the Iraq War on a 2003 tour of Washington, during which he also testified to Congress in support of the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act) to, most recently, a stalwart comrade of the Iranian-Syrian “Axis of Resistance.” His election today came after he and his Hezbollah ally boycotted all electoral sessions for more than two years, bluntly refusing to attend unless and until his victory was guaranteed in advance. Earlier in the month, the last of his major remaining opponents — Saad al-Hariri of the Saudi Arabia-backed Future Movement — caved in, endorsing Aoun in what he called a “sacrifice […] for the nation, the state, and stability.” [Continue reading…]

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In Lebanon deal, Iran wins and Saudi retreats

Reuters reports: A veteran Christian leader is set to fill Lebanon’s long-vacant presidency in a deal that underlines the ascendancy of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah movement and the diminished role of Saudi Arabia in the country.

It appears all but certain that Michel Aoun will become president next week under an unlikely proposal tabled by Sunni leader Saad al-Hariri, whose Saudi-backed coalition opposed Hezbollah for years.

Parliament will likely elect Aoun on Oct. 31. This will end one element of a paralyzing political crisis: the 29-month-long presidential vacuum. But it is also creating new tensions that may disrupt the formation of a new government expected to be led by Hariri under a deal with Aoun.

Aoun’s election will also raise questions over Western policy toward Lebanon. Lebanon’s army, guarantor of the country’s internal peace, depends on aid from the United States, which deems Hezbollah a terrorist group.

Hariri’s proposal, unthinkable a few weeks ago, appears to have been forced on him by problems at his Saudi-based construction firm, Saudi Oger, the financial backbone of his political network in Lebanon.

It marks the death throes of the Hariri-led alliance that struggled with Hezbollah for more than a decade, only to see the heavily armed Shi’ite group go from strength to strength in Lebanon and the wider region. [Continue reading…]

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Amid Syrian chaos, Iran’s game plan emerges: A path to the Mediterranean

Martin Chulov reports: Not far from Mosul, a large military force is finalising plans for an advance that has been more than three decades in the making. The troops are Shia militiamen who have fought against the Islamic State, but they have not been given a direct role in the coming attack to free Iraq’s second city from its clutches.

Instead, while the Iraqi army attacks Mosul from the south, the militias will take up a blocking position to the west, stopping Isis forces from fleeing towards their last redoubt of Raqqa in Syria. Their absence is aimed at reassuring the Sunni Muslims of Mosul that the imminent recapture of the city is not a sectarian push against them. However, among Iraq’s Shia-dominated army the militia’s decision to remain aloof from the battle of Mosul is being seen as a rebuff.

Yet among the militias’ backers in Iran there is little concern. Since their inception, the Shia irregulars have made their name on the battlefields of Iraq, but they have always been central to Tehran’s ambitions elsewhere. By not helping to retake Mosul, the militias are free to drive one of its most coveted projects – securing an arc of influence across Iraq and Syria that would end at the Mediterranean Sea.

The strip of land to the west of Mosul in which the militias will operate is essential to that goal. After 12 years of conflict in Iraq and an even more savage conflict in Syria, Iran is now closer than ever to securing a land corridor that will anchor it in the region – and potentially transform the Islamic Republic’s presence on Arab lands. “They have been working extremely hard on this,” said a European official who has monitored Iran’s role in both wars for the past five years. “This is a matter of pride for them on one hand and pragmatism on the other. They will be able to move people and supplies between the Mediterranean and Tehran whenever they want, and they will do so along safe routes that are secured by their people, or their proxies.”

Interviews during the past four months with regional officials, influential Iraqis and residents of northern Syria have established that the land corridor has slowly taken shape since 2014. It is a complex route that weaves across Arab Iraq, through the Kurdish north, into Kurdish north-eastern Syria and through the battlefields north of Aleppo, where Iran and its allies are prevailing on the ground. It has been assembled under the noses of friend and foe, the latter of which has begun to sound the alarm in recent weeks. Turkey has been especially opposed, fearful of what such a development means for Iran’s relationship with the PKK (the Kurdistan Workers’ party), the restive Kurds in its midst, on whom much of the plan hinges. [Continue reading…]

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In fight for Aleppo, Assad’s side is just as fragmented as his opponents

The New York Times reports: The Syrian civil war, and the intense new ground battle in the divided city of Aleppo, is often seen as a contest between a chaotic array of rebel groups and the Russian-backed government of President Bashar al-Assad. But the reality is that Mr. Assad’s side is increasingly just as fragmented as its opponents, a panoply of forces aligned partly along sectarian lines but with often-competing approaches and interests.

There are Iraqi Shiite militiamen cheering for clerics who liken the enemy to foes from seventh-century battles. There are Iranian Revolutionary Guards fighting on behalf of a Shiite theocracy. There are Afghan refugees hoping to gain citizenship in Iran, and Hezbollah militants whose leaders have long vowed to fight “wherever needed.”

The Syrians themselves are in a few elite units from an army steeped in a nominally socialist, Arab nationalist ideology, exhausted after five years of war, as well as pro-government militias that pay better salaries. And, yes, overhead there are the Russian pilots who have relentlessly bombed the rebel-held eastern side of Aleppo — trained to see the battle as supporting a secular government against Islamist extremist terrorists.

“The government’s fighting force today consists of a dizzying array of hyper-local militias aligned with various factions, domestic and foreign sponsors, and local warlords,” said one analyst, Tobias Schneider, in recently summing up the situation.

The battle for eastern Aleppo, where the United Nations says some 275,000 people are besieged, has raised tensions between the United States and Russia to their highest levels in years, but the Cold War rivals do not wield clear control over their nominal proxies. The competing interests on both sides and lack of clear leadership on either one is part of why the fighting has proved so hard to stop: Mr. Assad is desperate to retain power, Moscow is seeking to increase its clout at the global geopolitical table, and Iran is exercising its regional muscle.

While Washington and Moscow say preservation of Syrian state institutions is a priority, a look at the fight for Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, shows that those structures are already atrophying.

At least one elite Syrian Army unit has been filmed seizing positions in Aleppo, but the bulk of the pro-government force is made up militiamen trained and financed by Iran, the Shiite theocracy that is the Syrian government’s closest ally, according to experts, diplomats, regional officials and fighters battling for and against the government.

“Aleppo is Shiite, and she wants her people,” goes a song overlaid onto a video posted online of an Iraqi cleric visiting Iraqi Shiite militia fighters on the front lines south of Aleppo. The message ignores the fact that the mainstream Shiite sect that accounts for the bulk of the Iraqi militias makes up less than 1 percent of Syria’s population. [Continue reading…]

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Sectarian fighters mass for battle to capture east Aleppo

The Guardian reports: As the most intensive air bombardment of the war has rained down on opposition-held east Aleppo this week, an army of some 6,000 pro-government fighters has gathered on its outskirts for what they plan will be an imminent, decisive advance.

Among those poised to attack are hundreds of Syrian troops who have eyed the city from distant fixed positions since it was seized by Syrian rebels in mid-2012.

But in far greater numbers are an estimated 5,000 foreign fighters who will play a defining role in the battle – and take a lead stake in what emerges from the ruins.

The coming showdown for Aleppo is a culmination of plans made far from the warrooms of Damascus. Shia Islamic fighters have converged on the area from Iraq, Iran, Lebanon and Afghanistan to prepare for a clash that they see as a pre-ordained holy war that will determine the future of the region. [Continue reading…]

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Syrian opposition official: ‘Assad is no longer at risk… he has won’

Martin Chulov reports: Just over a month into Syria’s uprising in 2011, the leader of Lebanon’s Druze sect, Walid Jumblatt, travelled to Damascus to visit Syria’s then security tsar, Mohammed Nasif. As well as being the Assad family’s most trusted senior official, he was also the linchpin of Syria’s close ties with Iran and Hezbollah, a man bound more than most to the fate of the regime.

“He said to me at the time, it’s either us, meaning the Alawites, or them, meaning the Sunnis,” Jumblatt recalled. “I knew which way this was going then. He added, ‘even if it cost us a million dead’.”

More than five years later, the toll in the now raging war is well past a quarter of that estimate – international monitors stopped counting last August. The sectarian dimension to the fighting foreshadowed by Nasif is a reality. So is the destruction of much of the country, including the ancient city of Aleppo, which after years of being viewed as the key to Syria’s fate last week slipped from the grasp of the opposition and into the hands of the Syrian regime’s allies, led by Hezbollah.

The encirclement of Aleppo is a significant moment in a war that has led to more unrestrained savagery, international repercussions and unlikely alliances than most others in modern times. Another emerged last week, as Hezbollah and Syrian troops were beating back the al-Qaida-aligned Jabhat al-Nusra from farmlands to the north of the city. As that battle raged, the US was drafting a deal with Russia that would create a joint operations centre to coordinate attacks on al-Nusra and Islamic State.

The move has created despair among the ranks of the Syrian opposition, which insists that a pact between Moscow and Washington will entrench the Syrian leader, whom Russia and Iran have saved from defeat over the past 12 months. Adding to the alarm of the now diminished rebel ranks is a detente, also signed during the week, between Moscow and Ankara, after a seven-month standoff, as well as the Turkish prime minister’s remarks that Ankara was interested in peace with Damascus.

“This all means that Assad is no longer at risk,” said a senior official in the western-backed Syrian opposition. “This means that he has won.” [Continue reading…]

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Should Israel negotiate with Hamas?

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Following reports that Hezbollah might reduce its forces in Syria, Nasrallah promises to boost support for Assad

Middle East Eye reports: Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah on Friday said his Lebanese Shia movement would boost its support for Syria’s government after one of its top commanders was killed there last week.

“We will increase and bolster our presence in Syria,” Nasrallah said in a speech during a ceremony to mark a week since Mustafa Badreddine, the head of Hezbollah’s military wing, was killed near Damascus.

“More commanders than before will go to Syria. We will be present in different ways and we will continue the fight,” he said.

Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria was considered vital in shoring up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government earlier in the more than five-year war against opposition rebels backed by Gulf Arab states and Western countries.

Its fighters secured most of the Lebanese border region, cutting vital rebel supply lines, and reasserted government control in most of the southern suburbs of Damascus, including the Sayyida Zeinab Shia shrine district.

Hezbollah said last week that Badreddine had been killed by rebel artillery fire, with Nasrallah on Friday vowing to avenge his death by inflicting a “great and final defeat” on those responsible.

But the circumstances of Badreddine’s death remain unclear with earlier media reports citing Israeli security sources that he may have been killed by Syrian pro-government or Iranian forces in a dispute over Hezbollah’s role in the conflict.

According to those reports, Badreddine had been planning to withdraw many of Hezbollah’s forces back to Lebanon after suffering heavy losses, possibly a third of his fighters. The area where he was killed is technically under the control of the Syrian army and is also believed to host Iranian fighters. [Continue reading…]

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How the Syrian Revolution transformed this Palestinian activist

Budour Hassan is a law school graduate and freelance writer based in Jerusalem who contributes to Al Jazeera, Electronic Intifada, Middle East Eye, and elesewhere. She writes:

The world revolves around Palestine, or so I thought until 2011.

The Palestinian cause, I argued, was the litmus test for anyone’s commitment to freedom and justice. Palestine was the one and only compass that must guide any Arab revolution. Whether a regime is good or bad should be judged, first and foremost, based on its stance from the Palestinian cause. Every event should somehow be viewed through a Palestinian lens. The Arab people have failed us, and we inspired the entire world with our resistance.

Yes, I called myself internationalist. I claimed to stand for universal and humanist ideals. I blathered on and on about breaking borders and waging a socialist revolution.

But then came Syria, and my hypocrisy and the fragility of those ideals became exposed.

When I first heard the Syrian people in Daraa demand a regime reform on 18 March 2011, all I could think about, subconsciously, was: “If the Egyptian scenario happens in Syria, it would be a disaster for Palestine.”

I did not think about those who were killed by the regime on that day. I did not think of those arrested or tortured.

I did not think about the inevitable crackdown by the regime.

I did not greet the incredibly courageous protests in Daraa with the same elation and zeal I felt during the Tunisian, Egyptian, Bahraini, Yemeni, and Libyan uprisings.

All I could muster was a sigh of suspicion and fear.

“Assad is a tyrant and his regime is rotten,” I thought to myself, “but the subsequent results of its fall might be catastrophic for Palestine and the resistance.” That sacred axis of resistance meant to me back then much more than the Syrian lives being cut short by its defenders.

I was one of those whose hearts would pound when Hassan Nasrallah appeared on TV. I bookmarked loads of YouTube videos of his speeches and teared up while listening to songs glorifying the resistance and its victories.

And while I supported the demands of the Syrian protesters in principle, I did so with reluctance and it was a conditional support. It was not even solidarity because it was so selfish and always centered around Palestine.

I retweeted a blog post by an Egyptian activist calling on Syrians to carry Palestinian flags, in order to “debunk” regime propaganda. The Syrian people took to the streets defending the same universal ideals that I claimed to stand for, yet I was incapable of viewing their struggle outside my narrow Palestinian prism. I claimed to be internationalist while prioritizing Palestinian concerns over Syrian victims. I shamelessly took part in the Suffering Olympics and was annoyed that Syrian pain occupied more newspaper pages than Palestinian pain. I was too gullible to notice that the ordeals of both Syrians and Palestinians are just footnotes and that the breaking news would become too routine, too dull and unworthy of consumption in the space of few months.

I claimed to reject all forms of oppression while simultaneously waiting for the head of a sectarian militia to say something about Syria and to talk passionately about Palestine.

The Syrian revolution put me on trial for betraying my principles. But instead of condemning me, it taught me the lesson of my life: it was a lesson given with grace and dignity.

It was delivered with love, by the women and men dancing and singing in the streets, challenging the iron fist with creativity, refusing to give up while being chased by security forces, turning funeral processions into exuberant marches for freedom, rethinking ways to subvert regime censorship; introducing mass politics amidst unspeakable terror; and chanting for unity despite sectarian incitement; and chanting the name of Palestine in numerous protests and carrying the Palestinian flag without needing a superstar Egyptian blogger to ask them to do so.

It was a gradual learning process in which I had to grapple with my own prejudices of how a revolution should “look like,” and how we should react to a movement against a purportedly pro-Palestinian regime. I desperately tried to overlook the ugly face beneath the mask of resistance worn by Hezbollah, but the revolution tore that mask apart. And that was not the only mask torn apart, many more followed. And now the real faces of self-styled freedom fighters and salon leftists were exposed; the long-crushed Syrian voices emerged. [Continue reading…]

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Hezbollah avoids blaming Israel for death of top commander in Syria

The Washington Post reports: In a surprise announcement Saturday, Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia blamed the recent killing of a militant described as its top commander in Syria on extremist Sunni insurgents. Many expected the powerful Shiite group to point a finger at its traditional nemesis, Israel.

Hezbollah revealed a day earlier that Mustafa Badreddine, one of its most senior figures, died in a mysterious blast in Damascus, the Syrian capital. Before leading thousands of militants in Syria, Badreddine, 55, is suspected of having roles in the assassination of a Lebanese prime minister in 2005, and other bombings that date to the attack on the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983.

Analysts said Friday that ­Badreddine’s killing appeared to bear the hallmarks of an airstrike by Israel, which has targeted a number of the Lebanese militants in Syria in recent years. But in a statement, Hezbollah blamed it on “artillery bombardment carried out by takfiri groups in the area.”

Hezbollah uses “takfiri,” an ­Arabic word, to describe its extremist Sunni Muslim enemies, including al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.

Hezbollah didn’t specify which group killed Badreddine or when he died.

But the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group, said there has been no shelling for more than a week in the area where Hezbollah said Badreddine was killed, Reuters reported.

If Hezbollah had blamed Israel for his death, the group would have come under pressure to launch a tough retaliation that, in turn, would risk triggering war. Israel and Hezbollah fought a brief but devastating war in 2006. [Continue reading…]

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