Syria: Is Putin preparing to dump Assad?

By Scott Lucas, University of Birmingham

The answer from Russia’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova was blunt. Asked on November 3 if saving Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, was a matter of principle for the Russians, Zakharova replied: “Absolutely not, we never said that.”

Driving home the point, she added: “We are not saying that Assad should leave or stay”, declaring that it was up to the Syrian people to decide his fate.

In October, Russia began bombing rebel positions inside Syria, as well as the Islamic State, to prop up an Assad regime facing military defeat. At the end of the month, Moscow’s efforts for an international conference to confirm Assad’s short-term hold on power produced a meeting in Vienna.

But is it now reconsidering that situation and preparing to ditch the Syrian leader? The question deserves more than a yes or no answer. Russia is having to rethink its approach because its political-military strategy to prop up the Assad regime, if not the president, has not been successful. It has also led Moscow to diverge from Assad’s other main ally, Iran.

Assad supporters, both inside and outside Syria, quickly rallied to say that Zakharova’s statement was merely a reiteration of a long-standing Russian position. They cited declarations from Russian president, Vladimir Putin and his officials, throughout 2012, such as: “We aren’t concerned about Assad’s fate, we understand that the same family has been in power for 40 years and changes are obviously needed.”

The line – similar to yesterday’s statement – was that: “this issue has to be settled by the Syrians themselves”.

But then Russia regularly has changed its Syria policy. After Iran and Hezbollah stepped up political, economic, and military intervention for the Assad regime in early 2013, for example, Russia pulled back from that earlier “he can go” rhetoric and began contributing strategic support themselves.

[Read more…]


Russia dismisses questions about airstrikes on hospitals in Syria

EA Worldview reports: Russia’s Defense Ministry has tried a new line to dampen bad publicity over its airstrikes on hospitals in Syria, saying the medical facilities do not exist.

Major-General Igor Konashenkov said the accusations of several damaged hospitals, with the deaths of staff and patients, were “traditionally made without any proof, without any factual backing”. He claimed that, of six hospitals said to have been struck, only one is real. [Continue reading…]

Médecins Sans Frontières reports: Airstrikes in Syria have killed at least 35 Syrian patients and medical staff in 12 hospitals in northern Syria since an escalation in bombings began in late September, the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) said today.

According to staff at the hospitals, the attacks, which have also wounded 72 people, targeted medical facilities in Idlib, Aleppo, and Hama governorates, including six supported by MSF. Overall, six hospitals have been forced to close, including three supported by MSF, and four ambulances were destroyed. One hospital has since reopened, yet access to emergency, maternity, pediatric, and primary health care services remains severely disrupted. [Continue reading…]


Flash was detected as Russian jet broke apart, U.S. military officials say

The New York Times reports: American military officials said Tuesday that satellite surveillance had detected a large flash of light just as a Russian chartered jet broke apart and fell from the sky over the Sinai Peninsula on Saturday, killing all 224 people aboard.

The United States military is not part of the multinational investigation into the crash, but officials said the satellite images were the first indication that the plane had exploded, because of either a bomb or the ignition of a fuel tank. But it will probably take several more days for the authorities to better understand what occurred.

The disaster has set off waves of hand-wringing in Egypt, Russia and elsewhere about whether mechanical failure, human error or terrorism was the cause. But here in the resort area where the plane took off minutes before the crash, thousands of sun-seekers from Russia and other European countries arriving daily say they are undeterred. Most have already written off the possibility that the crash was terrorism. [Continue reading…]


U.S. brings F-15C dogfighters to counter Russians over Syria

The Daily Beast reports: The U.S. Air Force is deploying to Turkey up to a dozen jet fighters specializing in air-to-air combat—apparently to help protect other U.S. and allied jets from Russia’s own warplanes flying over Syria.

Officially, the deployment of F-15C Eagle twin-engine fighters to Incirlik, Turkey—which the Pentagon announced late last week—is meant to “ensure the safety” of America’s NATO allies, Laura Seal, a Defense Department spokesperson, told The Daily Beast.

That could mean that the single-seat F-15s and the eight air-to-air missiles they routinely carry will help the Turkish air force patrol Turkey’s border with Syria, intercepting Syrian planes and helicopters that periodically stray into Turkish territory.

But more likely, the F-15s will be escorting attack planes and bombers as they strike ISIS militants in close proximity to Syrian regime forces and the Russian warplanes that, since early October, have bombed ISIS and U.S.-backed rebels fighting the Syrian troops.

Seal declined to discuss the deployment in detail, but hinted at its true purpose. “I didn’t say it wasn’t about Russia,” she said.

Russia’s air wing in western Syria is notable for including several Su-30 fighters that are primarily air-to-air fighters. The Su-30s’ arrival in Syria raised eyebrows, as Moscow insists its forces are only fighting ISIS, but ISIS has no aircraft of its own for the Su-30s to engage.

The F-15s the U.S. Air Force is sending to Turkey will be the first American warplanes in the region that are strictly aerial fighters. The other fighters, attack planes and bombers the Pentagon has deployed — including F-22s, F-16s, A-10s and B-1s—carry bombs and air-to-ground missiles and have focused on striking militants on the ground.

In stark contrast, the F-15s only carry air-to-air weaponry, and their pilots train exclusively for shooting down enemy warplanes. It’s worth noting that F-15Cs have never deployed to Afghanistan, nor did they participate in the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq. The war in Syria is different. [Continue reading…]


Russia stance on Assad suggests divergence with Iran

Reuters reports: Russia does not see keeping Bashar al-Assad in power as a matter of principle, the Foreign Ministry in Moscow said on Tuesday in comments that suggested a divergence of opinion with Iran, the Syrian president’s other main international backer.

Fuelling speculation of Russian-Iranian differences over Assad, the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps suggested on Monday that Tehran may be more committed to him than Russia, saying Moscow “may not care if Assad stays in power as we do”.

While Russia and Iran have been Assad’s foremost foreign supporters during Syria’s four-year-old war, the United States, its Gulf allies and Turkey have insisted the president must step down as part of any eventual peace deal.Talks in Vienna on Friday among the main foreign players involved in diplomatic efforts on Syria failed to reach agreement on Assad.

Asked by a reporter on Tuesday if saving Assad was a matter of principle for Russia, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said: “Absolutely not, we never said that.” [Continue reading…]


Putin’s logic: The only way to maintain peace is to wage war

Masha Gessen writes: Much like the American gun lobby today, the Soviet rulers claimed that the only way to stay safe was to be armed to the teeth. Mr. Putin has now taken this logic a step further by claiming that the only way to maintain peace is to actually wage war.

“Peace, a life at peace, has always been and continues to be an ideal for humanity,” said Mr. Putin [speaking recently at the Valdai Discussion Club, a gathering of international political scientists and commentators]. “But peace as a state of world politics has never been stable.” In other words, peace is an anomaly, a fragile state of equilibrium that, Mr. Putin explained, is exceedingly difficult to sustain. The advent of nuclear arms helped, he said, by introducing the specter of mutually assured destruction, and for a while — from the 1950s through the 1980s — “world leaders acted responsibly, weighing all circumstances and possible consequences.” He thus cast the Cold War as the golden era of world peace.

Since the Cold War ended, the world has descended into disarray. “In the last quarter-century, the threshold for applying force has clearly been lowered,” said Mr. Putin. “Immunity against war, acquired as a result of two world wars literally on a psychological, subconscious level, has been weakened.” The United States is the primary culprit because it has thrown the world out of equilibrium by asserting its dominance. Mr. Putin, who has cited different examples of this American behavior in the past, this time focused on the missile defense system and its recent tests in Europe.

Mr. Putin’s speech then took a short detour as he ranted about the United States not playing well with others, including France and Japan. Then he got on the topic of Syria. He repeated what he has said before: Russian military intervention there is legitimate because Russia is protecting Syria’s sole legal government, that of Bashar al-Assad, and the United States can choose to accept this and negotiate with Russia, or find itself fighting a war against it.

It is important to listen to what Mr. Putin is saying. His narrative of resisting U.S. world domination is familiar, but the key point he made at his meeting concerns his views on war — and peace. The strategic purpose of his wars is war itself. This is true in Ukraine, where territory was a mere pretext, and this is true of Syria, where protecting Mr. Assad and fighting ISIS are pretexts too. Both conflicts are wars with no end in sight because, in Mr. Putin’s view, only at war can Russia feel at peace. [Continue reading…]


Russians to Putin: We won’t forget Stalin’s crimes

The Daily Beast reports: From the early morning into the late night, thousands of Muscovites poured into Lubyanka Square, home of the former KGB, now the FSB.

The protest, devoted to naming the victims of Stalin’s “Great Terror,” has taken place on Lubyanka every October for the last nine years. Russians pay tribute to the one million people executed by the Soviet regime in 1937 and 1938, including more than 40,000 people killed in Moscow alone. But never before has Moscow seen so many people willing to participate in the memorial as last week.

Each participant had a piece of paper in hand with the names of two victims, their ages, professions, and dates of execution. There were 40,000 names all together. Shivering in the cold, damp wind, Tatyana Lokshina, the Russia program director and a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, waited in line to make her point: The victims were killed secretly and now the time had came to speak their names out loud. Lokshina’s piece of paper said: “Alexander Smirnov, 51, an ordinary collective farmer, was executed by shooting on July 10, 1938; Aleksey Smirnov, 67, a senior security guard at a savings bank in the Ukhtomsky region, was executed by shooting on February 17, 1938.”

Lokshina’s husband, Alexander Verkhovsky, had also been waiting in line to read his two names for almost three hours. The protest on Lubyanka Square was symbolically important for Lokshina and thousands of other Russian families. “The KGB secretly executed hundreds of thousands of people, as if on a death conveyer, depriving victims of their lives and the victims’ families of their right to remember,” she said. “By our collective readings of names, we return their memory to Moscow residents.”

To many Russians, Moscow is a big monument of mass terror with Lubyanka Square at its heart. Nowadays, Moscow’s dark history is hidden underneath layers of luxurious hotels, restaurants, bars, beautiful public parks with WiFi and bike trails. But the shadows still exist in people’s memories. [Continue reading…]


Russia confirms jet broke up in mid-air; was 2001 ‘tail strike’ the cause?

Clive Irving writes: The head of Russia’s aviation accident investigation body has confirmed that the Russian Airbus A321 that crashed in the Sinai on Saturday broke up in mid-air. Victor Sorochenko said that the wreckage was spread over an area of eight square miles — not concentrated in one debris field.

This would be consistent with a severe and very sudden structural failure that resulted in the airplane literally falling out of the sky from its cruise altitude of 31,000 feet. (An Egyptian statement that the pilot had reported a technical problem and asked for a diversion to the nearest airport was later withdrawn.)
The Airbus A321 was 18 years old, and had made 21,000 flights, a relatively low number when compared with the much higher daily frequency of flights made on budget airlines. With a modern airplane like this and regular maintenance its age is not in itself a cause for concern.

What does, however, jump out from this particular airplane’s record is an accident that it suffered on November 16, 2001, while landing at Cairo (while owned and operated by Middle East Airlines). As it touched down the nose was pointing at too high an angle and the tail hit the tarmac — heavily enough to cause substantial damage.

Tail strikes like this are not uncommon. The airplane was repaired and would have been rigorously inspected then and during subsequent maintenance checks. (Although the airplane was owned by a Russian company, Kogalymavia, operating as Metrojet, it was registered in Ireland and the Irish authorities were responsible for its certification checks.) Nonetheless investigators who will soon have access to the Airbus’s flight data recorder will take a hard look at what is called the rear pressure bulkhead, a critical seal in the cabin’s pressurization system. [Continue reading…]


Syria’s horror shows the tragic price of Western inaction

Natalie Nougayrède writes: t is a rare thing for a high-level official to admit they got something completely wrong. Frederic Hof, the former special adviser on Syria to Hillary Clinton (as secretary of state), has had that temerity – or that kind of despair. He recently wrote an article (for Politico magazine) headlined “I got Syria so wrong”. It is a painful analysis of how early hopes, in 2011, of seeing Bashar al-Assad overthrown by a popular revolt were either naive or blind. It also contains stark criticism of the Obama presidency, which apparently never fully intended to do anything about Syria’s killing fields, preferring to let the problem fester, unaddressed.

It’s tempting to believe that the latest rekindling of international diplomacy over Syria will lead to a brighter outcome. But a few days before ministerial talks were to begin in Vienna, Hof seemed to dash these hopes at a meeting on Syria’s human rights catastrophe in the House of Commons. The walls were covered with photos of tortured bodies smuggled out of Syria two years ago by “Caesar”, a military photographer who believed that if the world could see the slaughter going on in Assad’s jails, it would act. Nothing happened. Now Hof says he can see “no evidence yet of a change of policy” from the US side. Basically, his warning is: don’t be fooled by the new round of talks.

The Obama administration may be sending envoys to talks, and even a special forces unit into northern Syria to fight Isis, but it is nevertheless intent on keeping the Syrian dossier at arm’s length. This is what suits its long-held narrative of withdrawing from conflicts, and it is what the American public wants. There are only 14 months of the Obama presidency left, so the likeliest scenario is that the White House will wait this crisis out. The US has mostly outsourced Syria to regional actors, and all the signs are that it is set to outsource it some more, this time to Russia – whatever the human cost. [Continue reading…]


Russian raids said to deliberately target rebel field hospitals in Syria

RFE/RL reports: Russian air strikes in Syria have deliberately targeted field hospitals in strategic opposition-controlled areas of Syria, killing and injuring staffers, disrupting their work and in some cases disabling hospitals altogether, opposition sources in Syria claim.

The head of the opposition-controlled Free Health Directorate of Aleppo, Yasser Darwish, told RFE/RL’s correspondent in Syria this week that since the Russian air campaign started on September 30, Russian warplanes had carried out over 40 raids on field hospitals in the southern Aleppo countryside, as well as in Hama and Idlib provinces.

The raids have damaged field hospitals in the southern countryside of Aleppo, including in Al-Eis, Al-Hadher, Khan Tuman, and Al-Zirba, Darwish said.

Civilian casualties were reported in Al-Zirba and Al-Hadher in Russian raids on October 15.

Other doctors, including Dr. Muhammad Tennari, the director of Sarmin hospital in Idlib Province, where at least 12 people were killed in an air raid last week, have also claimed that Russia is deliberately targeting medical facilities. [Continue reading…]


Reports: Israel launches airstrikes on Hezbollah in Syria

The Times of Israel reports: The Lebanese and Syrian media said Saturday that Israel Air Force warplanes have attacked targets in Syria linked to the Lebanon-based terror group Hezbollah. Reports varied, however, on the exact targets and location of the strikes.

According to a report on the Lebanese Debate website, six IAF jets carried out the strike over the Qalamoun Mountains region of western Syria, and targeted weapons that were headed for Hezbollah, Channel 10 said.

Syrian opposition groups, for their part, claimed Israeli planes had attacked targets in the Damascus area, in two strikes in areas where Hezbollah and pro-Assad forces were centered.

Syrian media, however, said that Israeli warplanes hit several Hezbollah targets in southern Syria.

Israel’s defense establishment declined to comment on the reports of the strikes, which would be the first since Russia boosted its involvement in the Syrian civil war. [Continue reading…]


How the U.S. government condemns or ignores indiscriminate bombing

Micah Zenko writes: If you watch U.S. government press conferences, you will occasionally come across a moment of incidental but illuminating honesty. Yesterday, one such moment occurred during a routine press briefing with Col. Steve Warren, spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR), the command element for the war against the self-declared Islamic State. Col Warren was asked about the growing number of disturbing allegations of Russia’s indiscriminate use of airpower in Syria. Just the day before, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter told the Senate Armed Services Committee that, “it appears the vast majority of [Russian] strikes, by some estimates as high as 85 percent to 90 percent, use dumb bombs.” Warren echoed Carter’s assessment, claiming that, “Russians have chosen to use a majority of really, just dumb bombs, just gravity bombs, push them out the back of an airplane, and let them fall where they will.”

Col. Warren went further to castigate Russia for its use of one particular type of ordinance: “You know, there’s been reporting that the Russians are using cluster munitions in Syria, which we also find to be irresponsible. These munitions have a high dud rate, they can cause damage and they can hurt civilians, and they’re just, you know, not good.”

That cluster munitions are “not good,” except as a reliable method for killing noncombatants outside of an intended target field, is a well-known and established fact. According to one UN estimate, the failure rates for cluster munitions vary from between 2 and 5 percent (according to manufacturers) to between 10 and 30 percent (according to mine clearance personnel). They were subsequently banned by the UN Convention on Cluster Munitions, which entered into force in August 2010 and has been endorsed by ninety-eight states parties. Notable states that have refused to sign and ratify the convention include those that consistently uses airpower to achieve their military objectives, such as Russia, the United States, and Saudi Arabia. [Continue reading…]


A surgeon’s struggle to save the victims in a war the West failed to stop

Dr David Nott writes: In 2014, as in 2013, I worked in Aleppo in two hospitals in an opposition neighbourhood. Many of the medics had fled to Turkey and many hospitals had been bombed. The use of barrel bombs dropped by the Assad regime on civilian areas meant the largest proportion of patients admitted to the hospital were women and children. The nature of their injuries was such that often all we could do was try to make their final moments less painful. As a surgeon, I felt close to despair.

I came back to the UK and once again spoke about what was happening in Syria. I called it for what it was – a genocide perpetrated by Assad – but still was met with government apathy. There were efforts made by the US and UK to train some rebel groups and provide assistance to refugees; there was talk of humanitarian corridors and no-fly zones – but ultimately, without a protective military presence, such initiatives would never succeed.

It was vacillation on the part of the US and UK that emboldened not only the Assad regime but Putin too. The first Russian air strikes, against targets in the West of Syria, were an audacious attempt to shore up Assad’s Alawite heartland. They struck far from the Isil zones of control.

That Assad is an effective ally in the battle against Isil is a fiction repeated by many commentators. When the revolution commenced in 2011, Assad emptied Syria’s jails of radical Salafists, who went on to become Isil’s leaders and commanders. It suits Assad to have a villain against which he can defend his regime, and in Isil he has one that he has fed and watered to great effect.

The only way to win this war is to put boots on the ground, and that should have been done two years ago when there was an opportunity to help the Free Syrian Army and actively remove Assad from power and stem the rise of Islamic extremism. Instead there was a lack of insight and leadership from the West.

An oft-repeated line was that all the anti-government protagonists are equally extreme, equally impossible Western allies. I can say that from my experience that they are not. Towards the end of my time there in 2014, I went to visit a Catholic Church in Aleppo. There, having tea with the priest, were a group of Free Syrian Army fighters, their rifles slung across their chests as they chatted amicably. The Church had been protected by the Free Syrian fighters and the priest respected for the kindness he showed to many sick and dying people. In March this year, I was shocked to hear that this kindly priest had been killed. Not by supposed Islamist rebels intent on destroying all those of other religions; but by a barrel bomb dropped by one of Assad’s helicopters.

The West has so far abrogated its moral responsibility to the Syrian people and has paid a price not only in the hundreds of thousands of desperate refugees flocking to Europe’s shores but also in Putin’s audacious power play, so that we find ourselves in a situation where Russia, Iran and Hizbollah are leading this brutal dance. [Continue reading…]


If Assad stays on, then Syria will never be saved

H A Hellyer writes: The regime in Damascus has powerful backers in Russia and Iran who are willing to intervene. Opponents of that regime have no such comparable sponsors. The help they receive is limited.

Now the search is on for a compromise solution to the crisis in Syria. But the motives have little to do with the civilian body count, which is now in excess of 200,000 since the start of the crisis. The impetus also has little to do with the destruction of much of Syria’s civilisational heritage either. Rather, the critical factors are the flow of refugees to Europe and the threat of ISIL spreading. Bearing these factors in mind, it’s entirely possible Mr Al Assad will get something of a free pass.

But the compromise solution is not the extension of Mr Al Assad’s rule in Damascus. A full solution in Syria would be the radical reform of the regime structure in the country – a full reform of the apparatus, so that not only would Mr Al Assad leave, but the Baathist edifice would change. That wouldn’t necessitate the destruction of the edifice in the same way as in Iraq, but it would mean more than the departure of Mr Al Assad. A compromise, therefore, that includes Mr Al Assad, is not a compromise in the slightest.

But judging from the moves that are currently being entertained in Europe and the US, it may be that any solution that sees the reduction of refugee flows, and increased activity against ISIL, will be deemed as acceptable. [Continue reading…]


U.S. signals Bashar al-Assad can take part in political transition in Syria

The Wall Street Journal reports: On Thursday, Thomas Shannon, President Barack Obama’s nominee to be undersecretary of state, said Mr. Kerry is seeking to ascertain whether Russia and Iran are prepared “to convince Mr. Assad that during a political transition process, he will have to go.”

During his confirmation hearing, Mr. Shannon said Mr. Kerry “thought it was time to bring everybody together and effectively call their bluff.”

The U.S. diplomacy is placing the Arab states and Turkey in a bind, as many of them have provided significant arms and funding to the largely Sunni rebel forces seeking to overthrow Mr. Assad.

Saudi Arabia, in particular, has publicly criticized Russia’s military intervention in Syria, arguing it could strengthen Mr. Assad and Shiite-dominated Iran, his closest Middle East ally.

Still, Saudi Arabia is finding it difficult to oppose the new round of diplomacy because of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s heavy military investment in Syria. Saudi officials have been holding their own direct talks with the Kremlin and have also pressed for a clear time line for when Mr. Assad would be forced to stand down, senior Arab officials said.

Mr. Obama’s position in the early days of Syria’s civil war was that Mr. Assad had to step down immediately as part of any resolution to the conflict, but that position shifted as the regime held together and the spread of Islamic State has become a higher priority.

The administration’s primary aim now is to get warring parties to abide by a cease-fire, so the U.S. can more effectively zero in on Islamic State and give new momentum to the stalled fight.

As a result, the administration’s view is Mr. Assad’s future can be dealt with later.

Current and former U.S. officials say the White House’s acceptance of Russian and Iranian demands on keeping Mr. Assad in power at least temporarily will make it hard — if not impossible — for the administration to get the different rebel factions fighting the regime to sign on to a cease-fire. [Continue reading…]


Selective anti-imperialism: Why some bombings provoke more outrage than others

Sam Charles Hamad writes: Earlier this month in the Afghan city of Kunduz, the U.S. committed an apparent war crime. At some point in the early hours of Oct. 3, a U.S. gunship fired on a hospital run by Medicins Sans Frontieres, destroying the facility, killing 22 people and injuring over 30. There is no doubt of the criminality of this act — even if, as the U.S. and Afghani governments have suggested, the attack occurred due to Taliban militants having some presence within the hospital compound (a claim vigorously denied by eyewitnesses and victims), it was still a crime.

In the hours following the attack, many people of all political persuasions from around the world rightfully condemned it, but perhaps most vocal were those on the political left. Public outrage over war crimes is of course not just to be welcomed passively, but it can be actively useful in terms of demanding accountability from those who committed the crimes, while giving a voice to its victims. All too often, when it comes to activity against these acts of criminality, it is organizations, political parties, and individuals who identify with the left that lead the charge on these matters — the consequences of this can be impressive.

And the left are no longer marginal. The so-called “alternative media” is catching up with the mainstream media in terms of its reach, while political forces that identify as left-wing are now once again in the mainstream of politics, whether it’s forces like SYRIZA in Greece or Jeremy Corbyn’s new role as the leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition in the U.K. What these people do and say now matters on a global scale. Millions of politically-aware people from around the world hang on every word that prominent leftists write and say, whether it’s a figure such as Glenn Greenwald, whose news site The Intercept has become the go-to place for so-called “anti-imperialists,” or a leading politician such as Corbyn.

For a self-identified leftist like me, you might think I’d be over the moon at the way things were steadily — or exponentially, if you consider the rise of the left in this era relative to its fate in the past two decades — developing for the global left, but you’d be wrong. For there’s a bitter catch to all this. [Continue reading…]


ISIS on recruitment spree in Russia

The Associated Press reports: The Russian province of Dagestan, a flashpoint for Islamic violence in the North Caucasus, is feeding hundreds of fighters to the Islamic State in Syria — and now some are coming back home with experience gained from the battlefield.

The departures mean that the region itself has become markedly less violent recently with fewer bombings and shootings. And the returning fighters have either landed in jail or been kept under close police surveillance. But there are long-term concerns that the presence of radical Muslims trained in IS warfare could lead to greater instability and violence.

“We can’t allow them to use the experience they have just gained in Syria back home,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said recently.

Eduard Urazayev, a former minister in Dagestan’s provincial government, and now a political analyst, said that poverty and unemployment in the region made the IS recruiters’ job easier. “If the high level of corruption and unfavorable socio-economic situation remain,” Urazayev said, “it may further fuel protest sentiments and increase sympathy for the IS.” [Continue reading…]


After a U.S. shift, Iran has a seat at talks on war in Syria

The New York Times reports: Just a few weeks ago, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said any new talks with the United States were forbidden. He described the United States as a persistent enemy of the Islamic revolution, and said that despite the nuclear agreement, it needed to be kept at a distance.

But participating in the multination Syria talks does not contradict Mr. Khamenei’s dictums, some Iranian analysts say.

“Our leader has banned the bilateral relations between Iran and America or any negotiation aimed at resuming relations,” said Hamidreza Taraghi, a political analyst in Tehran considered close to the ayatollah. “Case-by-case negotiations or finding solutions for regional problems on a multilateral basis is all right.”

So, while publicly siding with the hard-liners, the Supreme Leader may well be giving more negotiating room to President Hassan Rouhani, who has advocated more open engagements with the rest of the world. There has already been an unspoken cooperation between Iran and the United States in Iraq, where both are fighting the Islamic State.

“We should thank President Rouhani for his efforts in reaching out to the international community, and the nuclear deal,” said Farshad Ghorbanpour, a political analyst close to the government in Tehran. “Now we are seeing the rewards: We are playing an increasing active role in the international arena.”

That role is something that Iran has desperately sought: Diplomatic weight and respect that bolsters its claim that it, not Saudi Arabia, is the most influential power in the region. “It’s very important because it shows that, following the nuclear agreement, Iran is now ready to cooperate on crisis management in the Middle East,” Seyed Hossein Mousavian, a former Iranian diplomat and nuclear negotiator who now teaches at Princeton, said in a telephone interview. “I’m not surprised, because the leader had said that if the deal were done fairly, with face-saving for all parties, Iran would agree to next steps on other issues. This is a big step forward.”

Cliff Kupchan, an Iran specialist and chairman of the Eurasia Group, a Washington political consultancy, said that given Russia’s recent intervention in Syria to support Mr. Assad, it was clear he would remain in charge for a while, which meant Iran would be attending the Vienna talks from a position of strength.

Still, Mr. Kupchan said in an email, “as U.S.-Iran contacts spread to a broader array of issues, it will be harder and harder for Iranian conservatives to quarantine cooperation.” [Continue reading…]