Syria’s doctors on the frontline

Borzou Daragahi reports: Just a few more days, the pediatrician assured his friend, and he would come back. Doctor Hatem, as he is known in the tight-knit community of Syria war physicians, had an important exam to take in Istanbul, a half-hearted attempt at career development in the midst of the chaos that had engulfed his homeland. Hatem asked his fellow pediatrician and friend, Muhammad Waseem Moaz, to delay his own long-planned break a little while longer so he could sit for the test.

“You stay, and I will change places with you later,” he promised his friend.

The last couple weeks of April had been a particularly stressful stretch of the war. A shaky cessation of hostilities between pro- and anti-Syrian regime forces was crumbling in Aleppo, Syria’s commercial capital and largest city. Casualties were mounting again as helicopters and planes pounded the city with barrel bombs. One day a missile landed in the city, barely missing the Children’s Hospital, where Hatem is the senior doctor.

Then there was the daily battle to stock up on essential supplies. Transit routes to opposition-held territory in eastern Aleppo had closed as rebels lost control to fighters from the regime of Bashar al-Assad, to ISIS, or to Kurdish militias. Only the dangerous Castello Road leading to the northwest, through Idlib province, remained open. Doctors had stocked up on six months of supplies, but the regime appeared to be targeting their warehouses. “We used to get supplies through Kilis, but now everything is affected by the siege,” Hatem said. [Continue reading…]

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Not just Russia: The Iranian surge in Syria

Aron Lund writes: When the Russian Air Force intervened in Syria on September 30, 2015, it changed the tide of battle. After a year of painful defeats in places such as Idlib, Jisr al-Shughour, Palmyra, and the Hawran region, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government managed to regain its balance. By the end of the year, Assad’s forces were again moving forward in the northern Latakia region, east of Aleppo, and on several other fronts. In February 2016, his army cut a key rebel supply route between Aleppo and the Turkish border, and, in late March, Assad’s Russian-backed troops retook Palmyra from the self-proclaimed Islamic State. They are now moving on the Ghouta enclave east of Damascus, exploiting weeks of disastrous infighting among the local rebels.

Assad’s advances have slowed down recently, partly due to a brittle cessation of hostilities agreement monitored by the United States and Russia. The government even lost some ground in the Aleppo, Latakia, and eastern Homs regions. More significantly, the Syrian economy is in disastrous shape, and this might undermine Assad’s military progress. But there is no question that Assad’s position has greatly improved due to the Russian intervention, or that Moscow’s influence over the conduct of the war in Syria has grown significantly.

That is the conventional narrative, at least. However, it is missing something.

What happened in autumn 2015 was not just that Russia began operating in Syrian airspace. The reason the Russian intervention was so successful was that it was also accompanied by Iranian intervention on the ground. Let’s take a closer look at how that happened. [Continue reading…]

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ISIS ‘destroys Syria airbase’ used by Russia

BBC News reports: A strategically significant Syrian airbase, used by Russia, appears to have been almost completely destroyed – according to new satellite imagery exclusively seen by the BBC.

The Tiyas facility – near the recently re-captured city of Palmyra in Syria – was repeatedly hit – with the so-called Islamic State presumed to be behind the attack. [Continue reading…]

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What’s left of the Syrian Arab Army? Not much

Tom Cooper writes: The general impression is that the Syrian Arab Army remains the largest military force involved in the Syrian Civil War, and that  —  together with the so-called National Defense Forces — — it remains the dominant military service under the control of government of Pres. Bashar Al Assad.

Media that are at least sympathetic to the Al-Assad regime remain insistent in presenting the image of the “SAA fighting on all front lines”  — only sometimes supported by the NDF and, less often, by “allies.”

The devil is in the details, as some say. Indeed, a closer examination of facts on the ground reveals an entirely different picture. The SAA and NDF are nearly extinct.

Because of draft-avoidance and defections — — and because Al Assad’s regime was skeptical of the loyalty of the majority of its military units  —  the SAA never managed to fully mobilize.

Not one of around 20 divisions it used to have has ever managed to deploy more than one-third of its nominal strength on the battlefield. The resulting 20 brigade-size task forces  — each between 2,000- and 4,000-strong  —  were then further hit by several waves of mass defections, but also extensive losses caused by the incompetence of their commanders.

Unsurprisingly, the regime was already critically short of troops by summer of 2012, when advisers from the Qods Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps concluded that units organized along religious and political lines had proven more effective in combat than the rest of the Syrian military had.

Thus the regime’s creation, in cooperation with Iran, of the National Defense Forces. Officially, the NDF is a pro-government militia acting as a part-time volunteer reserve component of the military. Envisioned by its Iranian creators as an equivalent to the IRGC’s Basiji Corps, the NDF became an instrument of formalizing the status of hundreds of “popular committees” created by the Syrian Ba’ath Party in the 1980s.

According to Iranian claims, the NDF’s stand-up resulted in the addition of a 100,000-strong auxiliary to Syria’s force-structure. Moreover, the NDF functioned as a catalyst for the reorganization of the entire Syrian military into a hodgepodge of sectarian militias. [Continue reading…]

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Obama ‘pleased’ with Syria policy while Kerry warns Assad about unspecified ‘Plan B’

The New York Times reports: Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergey V. Lavrov, said on Tuesday that if President Bashar al-Assad of Syria continues to block access of humanitarian aid to besieged cities and towns, they were prepared to help the World Food Program airdrop food and emergency supplies.

The very fact that they had to threaten the airdrops — which are expensive and often inaccurate — amounted to an admission of how little progress has been made in achieving either the lasting cease-fire or the regular humanitarian relief that European and Arab nations, along with Iran, laid out as the first steps toward a broader peace agreement.

The threat to conduct airdrops came after a meeting in Vienna of the International Syria Support Group, made up of the nations that drafted a largely unimplemented plan to end the country’s civil war. They gathered at a low point: A once-promising “cessation of hostilities” has largely collapsed, an effort to start negotiations between the opposition and the government broke down, and there has been no progress toward negotiating a “political transition” that was supposed to begin on Aug. 1.

Bolstered by Russia’s intervention to help prop him up, Mr. Assad is in a stronger position than he has been in years, many experts say, and has rejected the idea that any new government would have to exclude him. He has the strong support of Iran, his longtime provider of security, though Russian officials seem less concerned about whether Mr. Assad himself remains in power or is replaced by another leader from his Alawite Shiite sect.

At a news conference on Tuesday afternoon with Mr. Lavrov, Mr. Kerry rejected a suggestion that, in dealing with Mr. Assad, he was operating without the kind of leverage he had in Vienna last year during the Iran nuclear negotiations — when American sanctions and sabotage of the Iranian program created the pressure that led to a deal.

But Mr. Kerry — who White House aides say has complained in Situation Room meetings about the lack of clout to force Mr. Assad to make good on his commitments — argued that the Syrian leader would be making a mistake to believe he would pay no price for refusing to cooperate.

“If President Assad has come to a conclusion there’s no Plan B,” he said, referring to more coercive action to force him to comply, “then he’s come to a conclusion that is totally without any foundation whatsoever and even dangerous.”

Mr. Kerry added later that Mr. Assad “should never make a miscalculation about President Obama’s determination to do what is right at any given moment of time, where he believes that he has to make that decision.” Mr. Assad, he said, has “flagrantly violated” the United Nations resolution calling for a nationwide cease-fire and allowing humanitarian assistance.

Yet in making public a case that there would be consequences for Mr. Assad’s intransigence, Mr. Kerry was touching on one of the hardest issues facing Mr. Obama and his national security team in their last eight months in office. The president has repeatedly defended his decision not to authorize a military strike against Mr. Assad after he crossed what Mr. Obama had described as a “red line” against using chemical weapons. He also rejected a no-fly zone to protect fleeing civilians and opposition forces.[Continue reading…]

The Daily Beast reports: White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Monday that President Obama was “certainly pleased” with his administration’s policy on Syria, while simultaneously acknowledging that the country now poses a “heightened risk” to America and its interests.

“We’ve seen terrible violence in Syria, it’s an awful humanitarian situation, and it’s a genuine human tragedy. And it’s a dangerous place, and it’s a place that poses a heightened risk to the United States and to our allies and interests around the world,” Earnest said.

Earnest, who was asked by Yahoo’s Olivier Knox about The Daily Beast’s reporting, argued that the president’s Syria policy had “advanced the national security interests” of the U.S., placing the blame squarely on the Assad regime.

“There’s no denying that what has happened in Syria has changed millions of lives — and not for the better. And that’s a testament to the failed political leadership of Bashar al-Assad, it’s a testament to the way the political chaos in that country has propagated so much violence,” Earnest said at Monday’s White House press briefing.

The Daily Beast reported Friday that senior White House official Ben Rhodes allegedly told Syrian-American activists that he was “not proud” of the administration’s policy on Syria. [Continue reading…]

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The U.S. and Russia are fighting about missile defense when they should be settling differences

Fred Kaplan writes: The Standard Missile 3, or SM-3 as it’s called, is purely defensive; it works not by blowing up a missile in midair but by slamming into it with great force; in other words, it couldn’t be turned into an offensive weapon, even if some future Western leader wanted it to be.

But from Russia’s point of view, that’s not the issue. As one military adage has it, the only purely defensive weapon is a foxhole, and a battery of antimissile missiles doesn’t change this fact. In the odd world of nuclear strategy, a nation deters an attack by posing a credible threat of “retaliation in kind.” Side A attacks Side B; Side B strikes back against Side A; therefore, Side A doesn’t attack in the first place. But imagine that Side A has an effective missile-defense system. Side A attacks Side B; Side B strikes back, but most of its missiles get shot down before reaching their targets; therefore, Side B is unable to “retaliate in kind.” Both sides do the calculation and understand the strategic imbalance, and therefore (so goes the theory), Side A dominates Side B — intimidates it into doing certain things in A’s favor — without having to go to war.

This is why Russian officials see missile defense systems as a threat. It’s a concept they learned from the Americans. In the 1950s and early ’60s, many American nuclear strategists, notably Herman Kahn, author of the best-seller On Thermonuclear War, advocated anti-ballistic-missile systems as an explicit adjunct to an offensive first-strike strategy: The U.S. launches a nuclear attack on the USSR; the USSR strikes back with the few nuclear missiles that survived the first strike; the U.S. shoots them down with its antimissile missiles. Or, more to the point, the U.S. has the capability to do these things — which puts the U.S. in a dominant position in international confrontations.

In the mid-1960s, when Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara proposed a treaty banning anti-ballistic missiles in the United States and Soviet Union, some Russian officials were puzzled: Why ban defensive weapons, they asked? McNamara schooled them on nuclear strategy; he essentially wanted to avoid the destabilizing situation that Herman Kahn wanted to foster and exploit. The Russians learned the lesson. [Continue reading…]

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For Twitter, ties to CIA create worse ‘optics’ than links to Russian government

L Gordon Crovitz writes: Silicon Valley’s hostility to U.S. intelligence and law enforcement reached a new low last week when Twitter rejected the Central Intelligence Agency as a customer for data based on its tweets — while continuing to serve an entity controlled by Vladimir Putin.

The Wall Street Journal broke the news that Twitter decided U.S. intelligence services could no longer buy services from Dataminr, which has a unique relationship with Twitter. Dataminr is the only company Twitter allows to have access to its full stream of hundreds of millions of daily tweets and sell the resulting intelligence to customers. Dataminr applies “big data” algorithms to identify unusual developments in real time. Customers who can profit from knowing about events instantly, such as hedge funds and news publishers, pay a hefty price for the alerts.

For the past two years, Dataminr provided its service to the CIA under a pilot program. The CIA and Dataminr then negotiated a contract to continue the service, but sources say Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey vetoed the contract at the last minute because he objects to the “optics” of continuing to help intelligence agencies. It’s unclear what happens to a small agreement Dataminr previously made with the Department of Homeland Security. With the new policy dictated by Twitter, Dataminr should drop the claim on its website that it includes “clients in the public sector, providing information first when there are lives at stake.”

Among the customers still getting the Dataminr alerts is RT, the broadcaster created and funded by the Russian government. Vladimir Putin has said that the government runs RT to “try to break the Anglo-Saxon monopoly on the global information streams.” RT disclosed it is a Dataminr customer in its news account of Twitter barring the CIA. Agents of Russia’s Federal Security Service, formerly known as the KGB, have full access via RT to the alerts now being denied to the CIA. [Continue reading…]

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Why Putin tolerates corruption

Ivan Krastev writes: Russian elites have the right to be corrupt, but only if they have proved their loyalty. Paradoxically, the West’s sanctions against business figures closest to the Russian president helped whitewash some of the most notoriously corrupt Russian oligarchs and allow Russian propaganda to present them as selfless defenders of the motherland.

Ultimately, the most important reason for Mr. Putin’s reluctance to declare a war on corruption is that any anti-corruption campaign will inspire the public to demand change. It plays not only on the public’s anger, but also on its aspirations. And it is precisely this demand for change that the Kremlin fears most. Unlike in China, leaders in Russia avoid promising that life will be better tomorrow; what they promise is that things will not get worse. And unlike in China, they can afford to do so because the Russian economy is driven not by the entrepreneurial energy of the masses, but by natural resources.

This is why the Russian government is ready to acknowledge corruption’s ubiquity — the slickest propaganda couldn’t convince people otherwise. But the government also advances the idea that corruption is a way of life and is thus a natural phenomenon. In a way, corruption is like vodka: You know it hurts, but Russia is unimaginable without it. [Continue reading…]

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How Russia allowed homegrown radicals to go and fight in Syria with ISIS

Reuters reports: Four years ago, Saadu Sharapudinov was a wanted man in Russia. A member of an outlawed Islamist group, he was hiding in the forests of the North Caucasus, dodging patrols by paramilitary police and plotting a holy war against Moscow.

Then his fortunes took a dramatic turn. Sharapudinov, 38, told Reuters that in December 2012 Russian intelligence officers presented him with an unexpected offer. If he agreed to leave Russia, the authorities would not arrest him. In fact, they would facilitate his departure.

“I was in hiding, I was part of an illegal armed group, I was armed,” said Sharapudinov during an interview in a country outside Russia. Yet he says the authorities cut him a deal. “They said: ‘We want you to leave.’”

Sharapudinov agreed to go. A few months later, he was given a new passport in a new name, and a one-way plane ticket to Istanbul. Shortly after arriving in Turkey, he crossed into Syria and joined an Islamist group that would later pledge allegiance to radical Sunni group Islamic State.

Reuters has identified five other Russian radicals who, relatives and local officials say, also left Russia with direct or indirect help from the authorities and ended up in Syria. The departures followed a pattern, said Sharapudinov, relatives of the Islamists and former and acting officials: Moscow wanted to eradicate the risk of domestic terror attacks, so intelligence and police officials turned a blind eye to Islamic militants leaving the country. Some sources say officials even encouraged militants to leave. [Continue reading…]

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Syrian activists keep alive the revolutionary spirit of 2011 uprising

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Why Brexit would be the perfect gift for Vladimir Putin

Garry Kasparov writes: olitics often makes for strange bedfellows. Far-right parties in the UK and across Europe push for anything that will weaken the European Union – a goal shared by Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump. This week, their fellow Brexiteer Boris Johnson went as far as to repeat the Kremlin line that Europe is partly to blame for Putin’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine.

One does not expect clear policy statements from Trump or Johnson, but Putin’s reasoning is irrefutable. His goal is to weaken the institutions, including Nato and the EU, that could thwart his neo-Soviet ambitions. The Kremlin was in mourning when Scotland narrowly voted to stay in the UK. Putin sees Europe as his enemy and wants his adversaries to be divided, smaller and weaker.

Divide and conquer isn’t new, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t effective. During his 16 years in power, Putin has done a good job of picking off the weakest, most pliable members from the herd of European leaders and using them as a wedge against a united Europe. He had Silvio Berlusconi, who boasted he was Putin’s personal advocate. He had Gerhard Schröder – and in fact still has him as chairman of the Nord Stream gas pipeline connecting Russia to Germany, which Schröder signed into effect as German chancellor.

Brexit isn’t simply an item on Putin’s wish list. Russia Today and Sputnik, Kremlin propaganda outlets that are inexplicably treated as legitimate news sources in the west, are full of Brexit articles (next to the pro-Trump ones).

Putin always supports the most divisive elements in European politics, and hopes they will repay the favour by voting to end the EU sanctions placed on Russia after his invasion of Ukraine. Europe’s anti-immigrant parties, the quasi-fascists and the not-so-quasi fascists, openly venerate the man who has annexed European territory and continues his military assault in Ukraine – a country Putin wishes to punish for following the dream of joining the EU, a dream some in Britain would freely abandon. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. activates Romanian missile defense site, angering Russia

Reuters reports: The United States switched on an $800 million missile shield in Romania on Thursday that it sees as vital to defend itself and Europe from so-called rogue states but the Kremlin says is aimed at blunting its own nuclear arsenal.

To the music of military bands at the remote Deveselu air base, senior U.S. and NATO officials declared operational the ballistic missile defense site, which is capable of shooting down rockets from countries such as Iran that Washington says could one day reach major European cities.

“As long as Iran continues to develop and deploy ballistic missiles, the United States will work with its allies to defend NATO,” said U.S. Deputy Defence Secretary Robert Work, standing in front of the shield’s massive gray concrete housing that was adorned with a U.S. flag.

Despite Washington’s plans to continue to develop the capabilities of its system, Work said the shield would not be used against any future Russian missile threat. “There are no plans at all to do that,” he told a news conference.

Before the ceremony, Frank Rose, deputy U.S. assistant secretary of state for arms control, warned that Iran’s ballistic missiles can hit parts of Europe, including Romania. [Continue reading…]

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Russia’s new missile means the nuclear arms race is back on

French nuclear test "Licorne",  French Polynesia, July, 1970

David Axe reports: Russia has a new nuclear missile — one that Zvezda, a Russian government-owned T.V. network, claimed can wipe out an area “the size of Texas or France.”

Actually, no, a single SS-30 rocket with a standard payload of 12 independent warheads, most certainly could not destroy Texas or France. Not immediately. And not by itself.

Each of the SS-30’s multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle warheads, or MIRVs, could devastate a single city. But Texas alone has no fewer than 35 cities of 100,000 people or more.

Which is not to say the instantaneous destruction of a dozen cities and the deaths of millions of people in a single U.S. state wouldn’t mean the end of the world as we know it.

Nobody nukes just Texas. And if Russia is disintegrating Texan cities, that means Russia is also blasting cities all over the United States and allied countries — while America and its allies nuke Russia right back.

Moscow’s arsenal of roughly 7,000 atomic weapons — 1,800 of which are on high alert — and America’s own, slighly smaller arsenal — again, only 1,800 of which are ready to fire at any given time — plus the approximately 1,000 warheads that the rest of the world’s nuclear powers possess are, together, more than adequate to kill every human being on Earth as well as most other forms of life.

One new Russian rocket doesn’t significantly alter that terrible calculus.

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be alarmed. The SS-30 is only the latest manifestation of a worrying trend. After decades of steady disarmament, the United States and Russia are pouring tens of billions of dollars into building new and more capable nuclear weaponry that experts agree neither country needs, nor can afford.

The SS-30 by itself is just slightly more destructive than older Russian missiles. It’s what the new weapon represents that’s frightening. The post-Cold War nuclear holiday is over. And apocalyptic weaponry such as Russia’s new SS-30 are back at work making the world a very, very scary place. [Continue reading…]

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UN investigators tell states to stop Syria war crimes

Reuters reports: States backing Syria’s peace process must stop the warring parties from attacking unlawful targets such as hospitals and other civilian sites, U.N. war crimes investigators said in a statement on Wednesday.

Air strikes, shelling and rocket fire had been consistently used in recent attacks on civilian areas, the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Syria said in a statement.

“Failure to respect the laws of war must have consequences for the perpetrators,” its chairman, Paulo Pinheiro, said. [Continue reading…]

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Russia’s military in Syria: Bigger than you think and not going anywhere

CNN reports: Last week the Russian military brought more than a hundred international journalists, including our CNN crew, to Palmyra. The trip was orchestrated to showcase Moscow’s role in liberating the ancient heritage site but it also said a lot about the Russian army’s capabilities and the scale of their assets in Syria.

Ferrying that many people from Russia’s air base in Latakia halfway across a war-torn country — to a place that until recently was a combat zone — is a massive logistical and security operation.

The convoy involved five buses full of journalists, at least eight armored vehicles with heavy machine guns, two fighting vehicles and the constant presence of two attack helicopters hovering overhead. During the more than six-hour journey, choppers were switched out several times and the vehicles were shadowed by a variety of gunships, including Mi-28, KA-52, and the modernized Mi-35s. As we made our way across Syria we passed several bases with Russian helicopters along the Western coastline, near Homs and in the Palmyra area.

Russia deployed dozens of strike aircraft and jet fighters to Syria at the end of 2015, bombing in support of Syrian president Bashar al Assad’s forces. But Moscow also appears to have built up substantial ground forces in various locations in Syria. There are no reliable numbers on Russian troop levels in the country but it appeared to us that there were at least several thousand troops on the ground along with modern weaponry and infrastructure. [Continue reading…]

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