Assad’s military momentum

TSG IntelBrief: On February 2, Syrian government forces, backed by Russian air support, continued a major push to cut rebel supply lines north of Aleppo. On top of recent successes against the rebels elsewhere, it appears that President Assad is determined to maintain military momentum even while peace talks stutter along in Geneva. In fact, given the opposition demand for a ceasefire against civilians—as called for by Security Council resolution 2254 (2015) adopted in mid-December—Assad’s actions appear calculated to bring the peace talks to a halt.

This is understandable for Assad, but unfortunate for Syria. Opposition groups have come a long way towards agreeing to a common position since the last attempt to hold talks in early 2014, and their representatives are far more likely to be able to implement an agreement now. The previous talks suffered from a disconnect between the political opposition around the table and the fighters on the ground, as well as from disagreements surrounding objectives. Efforts by Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia—aided by the United States—have brought the majority of rebel groups together as the High Negotiations Committee (HNC). And although the alliance is fragile—and the extent to which it also represents Ahrar al-Sham, a key element of the opposition, remains unclear—the HNC has more credibility than any opposition alliance that has emerged previously.

The so-called Islamic State and al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (JaN) are expressly excluded from the HNC, as they are from the peace talks. Ahrar al-Sham, though a deeply conservative Islamist group that was originally seen as a sister organization to JaN, has steadily distanced itself from the global aspirations of al-Qaeda towards a strictly nationalist platform with no stated ambition beyond Syria. This has created divisions among its supporters and led to the assassinations of its leaders, but the group has nonetheless survived as a major force. JaN has tried repeatedly to merge with Ahrar al-Sham before it drifts too far away, but recent talks collapsed when JaN agreed to change its name, but not to abandon its affiliation to al-Qaeda. Tensions between the two groups have risen as a result and have led to armed clashes. JaN now faces an impending split as pressure builds to relax its hard line. [Continue reading…]


Britain says Russia trying to carve out mini-state for Assad in Syria

Reuters reports: Britain said on Tuesday Russia could be trying to carve out an Alawite mini-state in Syria for its ally President Bashar al-Assad by bombing his opponents instead of fighting Islamic State militants.

Russia and Britain have been trading barbs after British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond told Reuters he believed President Vladimir Putin was worsening the Syrian civil war by bombing opponents of Islamic State.

Hammond dismissed Russian criticism that he was spreading “dangerous disinformation”, saying there was a limit to how long Russia could pose as a promoter of the peace process while bombing Assad’s opponents, who the West hopes can shape Syria once the president is gone.

“Is Russia really committed to a peace process or is it using the peace process as a fig leaf to try to deliver some kind of military victory for Assad that creates an Alawite mini state in the northwest of Syria?” Hammond told reporters in Rome.

The comments indicate growing frustration in Western capitals about Putin’s intervention, alongside Iran, in Syria but also give a frank insight into the Western assessment of the Kremlin’s potential objectives for Syria. [Continue reading…]


UN suspends Syrian peace talks in Geneva

BBC News reports: The UN has suspended peace talks aimed at ending Syria’s five-year civil war, the organisation’s special envoy has said.

Staffan de Mistura called the temporary halt, saying there had been a lack of progress in the first week.

It comes as the Syrian government claimed to have broken a siege of two towns north-west of Aleppo.

The advance, reported on Syrian state television, severs a key rebel supply route into the city.

On the talks, Mr de Mistura admitted “there’s more work to be done”. They are due to resume later this month. [Continue reading…]


Russia’s manipulation of Germany’s refugee problems

Judy Dempsey writes: Russia’s propaganda machine—which went full blast against members of the Ukrainian government during the Ukraine crisis, labeling them fascists and anti-Semites—is in full swing again. This time, the target is Germany, once considered Russia’s closest ally in Europe.

Ever since Chancellor Angela Merkel declared her intention to allow refugees from Syria to enter Germany, the Russian media have been reporting every twist and turn of the opposition that is building up in her conservative bloc and among sections of the German public to her open-door refugee policy.

But in recent days, the Russian state media, joined by none other than Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, have taken a different turn. They are tapping into Germany’s community of 1.2 million ethnic Russians to criticize Merkel’s policies and boost those who are unequivocally against Germany taking in refugees. The community is known for its conservative if not xenophobic views, as witnessed during demonstrations by Germany’s anti-Islam Pegida movement, in which ethnic Russians participate.

Now, Russia may be using Germany’s Russian-speaking community to create further opposition to Merkel, similar to the way it tries to instrumentalize the ethnic Russian communities in the Baltic states. Merkel is an easy target, certainly for many Russians living in Germany and for Russians back home. To the surprise and annoyance of the Kremlin, Merkel has managed to keep the EU united over maintaining sanctions on Russia after it annexed Crimea in March 2014 and subsequently invaded eastern Ukraine. [Continue reading…]


Russia beefs up air group in Syria with advanced fighters

The Associated Press reports: The Russian military has beefed up its air group in Syria with state-of-the art fighter jets amid tensions with Turkey.

Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said Monday that Su-35 fighters have been deployed to Hemeimeem air base in Syria. Konashenkov on Monday didn’t say how many Su-35s had been sent to Syria, but Russian media reports said there were four of them and state television showed them parked in Hemeimeem.

Russian warplanes so far have flown about 6,000 missions since Moscow launched its air campaign four months ago. [Continue reading…]


Putin’s dragon in Chechnya


Joshua Yaffa writes: Since 2001, to keep the peace, the Russian government has flooded Chechnya with cash, including at least fourteen billion dollars for postwar reconstruction. Today, more than eighty-five per cent of Chechnya’s budget comes from Moscow. Another untold sum comes from an opaque fund named after Kadyrov’s father, which is financed by business owners and public employees — who are informally required to pay a portion of their income to the fund — and by Chechen oligarchs paying tribute to [Chechnya’s leader, Ramzan] Kadyrov. The fund, in turn, disburses money for everything from repairing local hospitals to sending Chechens to Mecca for the hajj. Chechen officials have said that donations to the foundation are voluntary, but a staff member at a public institution in Grozny told me that as soon as the workers’ salaries are deposited they get a call from a superior, asking for around thirty to fifty thousand rubles, or four to six hundred dollars. “One time, he explained it was for organizing a big soccer match,” the person said. “Other times, he doesn’t give any explanation at all.” The fund, an indulgence granted to no other Russian governor, frees Kadyrov from complete financial dependence on the Kremlin.

Since succeeding his father, Kadyrov has wrested power not just from the Russian generals and intelligence officers who once oversaw Chechnya but also from internal rivals hailing from other prominent Chechen clans. In this, he resembles Putin, who built what has been called a “vertical of power” across the whole of Russia under his centralized authority. Chechnya is far smaller and more homogenous, so Kadyrov’s power is even more pronounced. Putin has eliminated opponents largely through political trickery and co-optation, reserving outright force for rare occasions. Kadyrov prefers blunter, unmistakably violent means.

For many years, Kadyrov’s chief rivals were the Yamadayev brothers, who had powerful patrons in Moscow. In 2008, Ruslan Yamadayev, a member of the Russian parliament, was shot and killed in his car, outside the Russian White House, the chief office of government administration in Moscow; in 2009, his younger brother Sulim was killed in the parking garage of a luxury apartment tower in Dubai, where he was living under an assumed name. A Dubai court tried and convicted two men, including an Iranian who worked as a stable hand for Kadyrov—Kadyrov keeps racehorses in Dubai — for carrying out the assassination. Dubai police testified in court that Adam Delimkhanov — Kadyrov’s closest ally, enforcer, and heir apparent — provided the killers with the murder weapon, a gold-plated 9-mm. pistol, and they put him on the Interpol wanted list. Delimkhanov denied involvement. He is a deputy in the Russian parliament, and maintains an unblemished legal record in Russia—though he once got into a fistfight with another deputy inside the parliament building in Moscow and a gold-plated handgun fell to the floor beside him. A third Yamadayev brother, Isa, published an open letter in a Moscow newspaper in 2009, claiming that Kadyrov had tried to kill him, but he reached an apparent truce with Kadyrov the next year. The end of the Yamadayev brothers as a political force left Kadyrov with nearly unchecked power. “These were strong guys with connections to the F.S.B.,” the successor agency to the K.G.B., Alexey Malashenko, an expert on the Caucasus at the Carnegie Moscow Center, told me. “But it turns out that even the F.S.B. couldn’t defend them, because Kadyrov isn’t protected by the F.S.B., or by the state writ large, but by Putin himself.” [Continue reading…]


Will Turkey risk military confrontation with Russia?


Semih Idiz writes: Tensions between Russia and Turkey continue to escalate following the downing in November of a Russian Su-24 fighter jet that strayed into Turkish airspace.

Questions are being raised now whether the two countries are heading for a military confrontation. A leading Turkish military expert told Al-Monitor that such a Russian move could spell disaster for Turkey.

Turkey accused Russia of violating its airspace again last week and summoned Russia’s ambassador in Ankara to lodge a formal protest. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu also warned Moscow that it was playing with fire and would have to face the consequences. [Continue reading…]


Pentagon won’t say how many troops are fighting ISIS

The Daily Beast reports: In the war against the self-proclaimed Islamic State, there are two ways to count the number of U.S. boots on the ground. There’s the one that officials admit to. Then there’s the ground truth.

Officially, there are now 3,650 U.S. troops in Iraq, there primarily to help train the Iraqi national army.

But in reality, there are already about 4,450 U.S. troops in Iraq, plus another nearly 7,000 contractors supporting the American government’s operations. That includes almost 1,100 U.S. citizens working as military contractors, according to the latest Defense Department statistics. [Continue reading…]


Pankaj Mishra on Arundhati Roy: Hindu nationalists ​have many ways to silence writers

Pankaj Mishra writes: he governments of Egypt and Turkey are brazenly leading a multi-pronged assault on writers, artists and intellectuals. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan last month denounced his critics among Turkish academics as treasonous fifth columnists of foreign powers; many of them have been subsequently dismissed and suspended. Both Turkey and Egypt have imprisoned journalists, provoking international protests. But the suppression of intellectual and creative freedoms is assuming much cannier forms in India, a country with formal and apparently free democratic institutions.

Controlled by upper-caste Hindu nationalists, Indian universities have been purging “anti-nationals” from both syllabuses and campuses for some months now. In a shocking turn of events last month, Rohith Vemula, a PhD student in Hyderabad, killed himself. Accused of “anti-national” political opinions, the impoverished research scholar, who belonged to one of India’s traditionally and cruelly disadvantaged castes, was suspended, and, after his fellowship was cancelled, expelled from student housing. Letters from Modi’s government in Delhi to university authorities revealed that the latter were under relentless pressure to move against “extremist and anti-national politics” on campus. Vemula’s heartbreaking suicide note attests to the near-total isolation and despair of a gifted writer and thinker.

The extended family of upper-caste nationalists plainly aim at total domination of the public sphere. But they don’t only use the bullying power of the leviathan state – one quickly identified by local and foreign critics – to grind down their apparent enemies. They pursue them through police cases and legal petitions by private individuals – a number of criminal complaints have been filed against writers and artists in India. They create a climate of impunity, in which emboldened mobs ransack newspapers offices, art galleries and cinemas. [Continue reading…]


The U.S. is killing more civilians in Iraq and Syria than it acknowledges

Paul Wood and Richard Hall report: Al Gharra is a mud-brick village built on hard, flat Syrian desert and populated by the descendants of Bedouin. It is a desolate place. Everything is dun colored: the bare, single-story houses and the stony desert they stand on. There is not much farming — it is too dry — just a few patches of cotton and tobacco.

Before the war, villagers got a little money from the government to look after the national park on Mount Abdul-Aziz, a barren rock that rises 3,000 feet behind the village and stretches miles into the distance. Mount Abdul-Aziz is named after a lieutenant of the 12th-Century Muslim warrior Saladin, who built a fort to dominate the plain below. There is a military base there today too, which changes hands according to the fortunes of Syria’s civil war. In 2011, the regime of Bashar al-Assad held the base; next it was the rebels of the Free Syrian Army; then the so-called “Islamic State” (IS); and finally the Kurds, who advanced and took the mountain last May under the cover of American warplanes.

Abdul-Aziz al Hassan is from al Gharra, his first name the same as the mountain’s. He left the village while the Islamic State was in charge, but it is because of a bomb from an American plane that he cannot go back. What happened to his family is the story of just one bomb of the 35,000 dropped so far during 10,000 missions flown in the US-led air war against the Islamic State. [Continue reading…]


From Iraq, general rebukes Ted Cruz’s plan to ‘carpet-bomb’ ISIS

The Washington Post reports: The top U.S. general in Iraq on Monday addressed recent political rhetoric in the presidential campaign that the United States should “carpet-bomb” the Islamic State, saying that the Pentagon is bound by the laws of armed conflict and does nt indiscriminately bomb civilian areas.

“We’re the United States of America, and we have a set of guiding principles and those affect the way we as professional soldiers, airmen, sailors, Marines, conduct ourselves on the battlefield,” MacFarland said. “So indiscriminate bombing, where we don’t care if we’re killing innocents or combatants, is just inconsistent with our values. And it’s what the Russians have been accused of doing in parts of northwest Syria. Right now we have the moral high ground, and I think that’s where we need to stay.”

The comments came in response to a question from CNN’s Barbara Starr during a Pentagon news conference. The general was asked why the military isn’t engaged in “so-called carpet-bombing,” a phrase that has been used often by presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz (R.-Tex.). [Continue reading…]


The U.S. botched the Syria talks before they even began


Steven Heydemann writes: When the latest negotiations to end Syria’s long, bloody conflict began on Friday, Jan. 29 — the first round of U.N.-sponsored talks in two years — one party was conspicuous by its absence. As diplomats and representatives of the Assad regime gathered in Geneva, the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), the main opposition umbrella group, refused to attend unless airstrikes and city sieges stopped — conditions that were not met. Over the weekend, the HNC traveled to Geneva, but the status of the talks remained uncertain. Even as this standoff all but derailed the meeting, however, the Obama administration has been steadfast in its determination that the Geneva talks proceed. Expressing cautious optimism in the months leading up to the meeting, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry described the talks as the best chance to “chart a course out of hell.”

Success in Geneva is unlikely, however — but not because of opposition intransigence. Rather, the Obama administration itself has increased the odds of failure. Its recent tilt toward Russia’s position on the fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — accepting that he might have a role in a future political transition — has undermined prospects for success, damaged U.S. credibility with the opposition, and further eroded America’s leverage in the Middle East. This shift in U.S. policy has almost certainly made a negotiated settlement in Geneva less likely. Even worse, it could well spur the continued escalation of the Syrian conflict.

It is not too late for the administration to change course, but the odds that it will do so are slim. President Barack Obama has verged on the self-righteous in defending his approach to the brutal war that has battered Syria for nearly five years, destabilized the Middle East, and driven waves of refugees into Europe. He has made clear that he remains determined to take only those measures necessary to “contain” the conflict, but nothing more. Even though the evidence that no aspect of the Syrian conflict has been contained is overwhelming, Obama has continually brushed aside criticism that he has not been sufficiently assertive, characterizing the options he’s been offered as “mumbo jumbo.” Senior White House officials have complained that proposals to expand U.S. involvement recommend a course of action but do not take into account what happens next.

If we take the U.S. president’s claims about the rigor of his policy process seriously, what are we to make of the pivot, led by Kerry, to align with Russia in rejecting regime change — a goal the administration once embraced? Or of the administration’s flip-flop in accepting the possibility that Assad, who is complicit in war crimes and crimes against humanity, and is currently starving besieged civilians in Madaya, might remain in power in Syria indefinitely? These concessions to Russia violate a core Obama principle: “Don’t do stupid shit.” Moreover, they reflect the administration’s own failure to think through what happens next, or how shifts in policy would help the United States to achieve its objectives. [Continue reading…]


How Saudi Arabia’s grip on oil prices could bring Russia to its knees

By James Henderson, University of Oxford

When Saudi Arabia led an OPEC decision to end a restraint put on oil production in November 2014, it marked the beginning of a new era in oil economics. It has given us a tumbling oil price, prompted huge losses and job cuts at oil firms like BP and might yet give us economic and political drama in the heart of Moscow. To understand why, it’s worth drilling down to the start of the whole process, and the costs of getting oil out of the ground in the first place.

Historically, the OPEC cartel of oil-producing nations has been able to manage oil prices because of the lack of flexibility in global supply. The whole business of setting up wells, operating pipelines and building rigs entails large and long-term investments which makes producers slow to respond to price movements. And a small cut in OPEC supply can have a significant impact on the global oil price.

The advent of the US shale oil boom changed this dynamic. The industry has lower fixed costs but higher variable costs and is more like an industrial process than a major one-off investment. That makes it more responsive to price movements and more flexible in adjusting short-term output.

Overall though, shale is a relatively high cost source of oil, especially compared to Middle East production. As a result, when US shale threatened OPEC’s market share, the cartel allowed a position of global oversupply to develop. It was a simple trick: make oil prices fall to make shale unprofitable.

[Read more…]


U.S. fortifying Europe’s east to deter Putin

The New York Times reports: President Obama plans to substantially increase the deployment of heavy weapons, armored vehicles and other equipment to NATO countries in Central and Eastern Europe, a move that administration officials said was aimed at deterring Russia from further aggression in the region.

The White House plans to pay for the additional weapons and equipment with a budget request of more than $3.4 billion for military spending in Europe in 2017, several officials said Monday, more than quadrupling the current budget of $789 million. The weapons and equipment will be used by American and NATO forces, ensuring that the alliance can maintain a full armored combat brigade in the region at all times.

Though Russia’s military activity has quieted in eastern Ukraine in recent months, Moscow continues to maintain a presence there, working with pro-Russian local forces. Administration officials said the additional NATO forces were calculated to send a signal to President Vladimir V. Putin that the West remained deeply suspicious of his motives in the region.

“This is not a response to something that happened last Tuesday,” a senior administration official said. “This is a longer-term response to a changed security environment in Europe. This reflects a new situation, where Russia has become a more difficult actor.” [Continue reading…]


Iran still ranks as one of the most repressive states in the world

In an editorial, The Guardian says: The government was probably looking for a public relations bonus in the west when it recently released a number of journalists, but the statistics tell another story: in 2015 Iran executed at least 830 people, including juveniles, many for non-violent crimes. The security services continue to harass and detain activists, writers and journalists. The methods used by the regime to crush the pro-democracy Green movement in 2009 are still very much in use today.

Nor has Iran become in any way more “moderate” in its behaviour in the Middle East. In Syria, Iran’s militias and Republican Guards are direct participants in the war crimes that the Assad regime inflicts on its own population. Iran’s close ally Hezbollah played a key role in the siege of Madaya, where children died of hunger as a result, and it is part of similar operations elsewhere.

It is to be hoped that a sustained implementation of the nuclear agreement will improve international security. But to draw from that the notion that Iran must now be spared any reproach would be foolish. Iran’s hardliners sought economic relief through the nuclear deal because they desperately want to keep their hold on power, not because they want to pursue a more democratic path at home or more rational policies abroad. Diplomacy is important, but it must not come at the expense of clearsightedness, nor should it be accompanied by the kind of simplistic analysis that puts the sole onus on Saudi Arabia rather than on Iran as far as human rights are concerned. The records of both countries are equally dismal. [Continue reading…]