‘Gaps of trust’ with Russia bar a Syrian truce, Obama says

The New York Times reports: The Obama administration’s latest effort to broker a cease-fire in Syria’s civil war fell short on Monday, after a 90-minute meeting between President Obama and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia failed to resolve problems between them.

“Given the gaps of trust that exist, that’s a tough negotiation, and we haven’t yet closed the gaps in a way where we think it would actually work,” Mr. Obama declared at a news conference at the end of a Group of 20 summit meeting in Hangzhou, China.

He did not describe the points of contention. Other officials have said they involve technical issues like how to staff checkpoints in combat areas. But the checkered history of Syrian cease-fires — the United States agreed to one with Russia in February, only to watch it unravel weeks later — has left the president deeply leery. [Continue reading…]

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Lebanon indicts Syrian officers for twin 2013 mosque bombings

Reuters reports: Lebanon indicted two Syrian intelligence officers on Friday in connection with twin bombings at mosques in Tripoli in 2013, state media said, the deadliest attack in the city since the end of Lebanon’s civil war in 1990.

The two blasts, at the Sunni Muslim Taqwa and al-Salam mosques in the northern Lebanese city, happened within minutes of each other in August 2013 and killed more than 40 people and injured hundreds.

A Lebanese military court accused Syrian intelligence officers Muhammad Ali Ali, of the “Palestine Branch”, and Nasser Jubaan, of the “Political Security Directorate,” of planning and overseeing the attacks, Lebanon’s National News Agency said.

The court ruling announcing the indictment said investigators were still trying to uncover the names of the officials responsible for giving the two officers their orders.

According to NNA, the ruling said “the order was issued from a high-level security body within the Syrian intelligence service”. [Continue reading…]

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Obama lets Kerry spin diplomatic wheels with Russia since U.S. has no ‘plan B’ for Syria

The New York Times reports: The image of a 5-year-old Syrian boy, dazed and bloodied after being rescued from an airstrike on rebel-held Aleppo, reverberated around the world last month, a harrowing reminder that five years after civil war broke out there, Syria remains a charnel house.

But the reaction was more muted in Washington, where Syria has become a distant disaster rather than an urgent crisis. President Obama’s policy toward Syria has barely budged in the last year and shows no sign of change for the remainder of his term. The White House has faced little pressure over the issue, in part because Syria is getting scant attention on the campaign trail from either Donald J. Trump or Hillary Clinton.

That frustrates many analysts because they believe that a shift in policy will come only when Mr. Obama has left office. “Given the tone of this campaign, I doubt the electorate will be presented with realistic and intelligible options, with respect to Syria,” said Frederic C. Hof, a former adviser on Syria in the administration.

The lack of substantive political debate about Syria is all the more striking given that the Obama administration is engaged in an increasingly desperate effort to broker a deal with Russia for a cease-fire that would halt the rain of bombs on Aleppo.

Those negotiations moved on Sunday to China, where Secretary of State John Kerry met for two hours with the Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, at a Group of 20 meeting. At one point, the State Department was confident enough to schedule a news conference, at which the two were supposed to announce a deal.

But Mr. Kerry turned up alone, acknowledging that “a couple of tough issues” were still dividing them.

“We’re not going to rush,” he said, “and we’re not going to do something that we think has less than a legitimate opportunity to get the job done.”

Mr. Kerry said he would stay in China another day to keep trying. But his boss, Mr. Obama, voiced skepticism.

“If we do not get some buy-in from the Russians on reducing the violence and easing the humanitarian crisis, then it’s difficult to see how we get to the next phase,” the president said after a meeting with the British prime minister, Theresa May, in Hangzhou.

Whatever progress Mr. Kerry has made, officials said, could easily be unraveled by external events, whether a new offensive by Turkey or the Nusra Front — which until recently had publicly aligned itself with Al Qaeda — or intensified bombing raids by the government of President Bashar al-Assad. And it is clearer than ever that if Mr. Kerry’s latest attempt at diplomacy falls short, there is no Plan B. [Continue reading…]

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In northern Syria, outside powers have exploited Arab-Kurdish tensions to consolidate counter-revolutionary interests

Michael Karadjis writes: A week after the United States rushed to defend its Kurdish allies, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), against the Assad regime in Hassakeh, Washington supported the intervention of the Kurds’ Turkish nemesis to expel IS from the border town of Jarabulus.

These events suggest the outlines of a regional understanding over a reactionary solution in northern Syria.

It follows the recent diplomatic back-flips by Turkey’s Erdogan government – including Ankara’s reconciliation with Russia and Israel (who themselves have formed a very close alliance over the past year), the further strengthening of relations with Iran (which have remained strong despite Tehran’s backing of Assad), and the declaration by Prime Minister Yildirim that Turkey was no longer opposed to a role for Assad in a “transitional” government consisting of elements drawn from both the regime and opposition.

The YPG – connected to the Democratic Union Party (PYD) – has had a long-term, pragmatic non-aggression pact with Assad, sometimes leading to minor conflict, while at other times collaborating more closely – including during the recent siege of rebel-held Aleppo.

However, Hassakeh was the first time Assad launched his airforce against the YPG, possibly in response to Turkey’s feelers. An official from Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) recently noted that Assad “does not support Kurdish autonomy… we’re backing the same policy”. Despite YPG pragmatism, Assad has forcefully rejected Kurdish autonomy, while the rise in the Kurdish struggle in Iran suggests recent Turkish-Iranian meetings are likely anti-Kurdish in content.

Both Russia and the US have been key backers of the YPG. Russian airstrikes helped the Afrin YPG in February seize Arab-majority towns from the rebels in northern Aleppo, including Tal Rifaat. But Putin’s reconciliation with Erdogan suggests that Russia has dropped the YPG. [Continue reading…]

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Assad regime to besieged Aleppo: Surrender or starve

Roy Gutman reports:  Aleppo is under siege again. Once again, some 300,000 civilians in the rebel-held eastern part of the city must eke out their survival with no fresh produce and a dwindling food supply, in addition to the other perils of life for those in the Assad regime’s political opposition.

That means barrel bombs that destroy houses and bury their children, and missiles that destroy their schools, mosques, and hospitals.

The siege crept up almost without notice over the past 10 days, as the regime closed the Alramousa road, the sole supply route into the old town, first by intense bombing and then by targeted missile attacks just weeks after a surprise rebel offensive had opened it.

State television on August 27 showed a missile attack against vehicles traversing the road that it said were carrying “mercenaries and armed elements.” Two days later, rebel media activists reached the scene, where they found the body of driver Abdo Rawas splayed out on the road, alongside his destroyed truck and its cargo of fruits and vegetables. The activists couldn’t find the body of Adnan, Rawas’s 12-year-old son, who was driving with him. They fear he was incinerated in the attack, leaving no remains.

The siege of Aleppo, like any siege, will come to an end at some point, but the question is on what terms. If the other sieges against other rebel-held towns in Syria are any guide, the terms will be take it or leave it: Surrender or starve. [Continue reading…]

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The decay of the Syrian regime is much worse than you think

Tobias Schneider writes: … after five years of war, the regime’s force structure today is not entirely different from that of opposition militias. While much better supplied by the Syria Arab Army’s still-standing logistics skeleton, 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. Aymenn al-Tamimi’s profiles of loyalist militias provide some insight into their diverse backgrounds. Among these groups, only a handful are still capable of anything close to offensive action. Much more so than sectarian or demographic limitations, this fragmentation is the direct result of the interaction between national and local economic and governance pressures. As the once totalitarian Syrian central state atrophies, its constituent parts — be they sectarian, rentierist, or simple brutes — have gained a stunning degree of political and economic independence from Damascus. Contrary to what others have claimed, Assad’s regime has not struck some grand bargain with a large section the Syria’s urban Sunni population. Instead, he has elevated to power the most brutish elements of the country and doubled down on the sectarian, tribal, and thuggish inclinations of its base.

Today, where briefing maps now show solid red across Syria’s western governorates, they ought to distinguish dozens and perhaps even hundreds of small fiefdoms only nominally loyal to Assad. Indeed, in much of the country, loyalist security forces function like a grand racketeering scheme: simultaneously a cause and consequence of state collapse at the local level. [Continue reading…]

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Turkey’s intervention in Syria, with tacit Russian backing, has raised tensions with Washington

The Daily Beast reports: Russia and Iran have raised no serious objections to Turkey’s intervention. The Political Directorate of the Syrian Arab Army now speaks of the Kurdish guerrilla force [the YPG] as the “PKK.”

As Aron Lund of the Carnegie Endowment’s Middle East Center observes, “Over the past five years, Damascus has more often referred to the pro-PKK factions in Syria by simply using their official names (such as YPG, Asayish, and so on) or by some quaintly patriotic workaround, such as ‘loyal Kurdish citizens.’ It is rare for them to employ the ‘PKK’ term and even rarer to blast it across state media.” The shift is obviously meant as much for Turkish ears as for Syrian ones.

Also remarkable is how Russia’s English-language propaganda outlet Sputnik has unblinkingly about-faced on who’s who in this war.

This week, it took the unprecedented step of referring to the Turkish-supported Free Syrian Army as having “liberated” villages in Aleppo from “terrorists,” citing the Turkish General Staff’s press release. As for the terrorists, Sputnik left it an open question as to whether or not these were ISIS militants or the YPG.

Washington, meanwhile, appears to have been outflanked. The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that the U.S. and Turkey had been discussing a joint intervention in Syria but that President Obama had delayed approving Pentagon plans.[Continue reading…]

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Does anyone in Syria fear international law?

Ben Taub writes: The horror of Syria’s war is in the millions of pictures that are too gruesome to circulate—charred limbs stacked outside hospital wards, bloated bodies rotting in sniper alleys, a toddler plucked from the rubble without a head. It is in a group of relatives trying to carry the sixty-pound corpse of a man who died of hunger — the boiled grass he’d been living on could no longer sustain him — but struggling under his weight, because they, too, are starving to death. It is in a generation of orphans, of children who never learned to read but can tell you the difference between the sounds of shelling and those of air strikes. It is in the intentional bombing of hospitals and clinics, the targeted assassinations of medical workers, the forced displacements, the chemical-weapons attacks. It is in a death toll so high, and so impossible to verify, that the U.N. stopped counting two years ago.

Following the horrors of the First World War, a British lawyer named Hugh Bellot spent years beseeching the League of Nations to establish an international criminal court at The Hague, to prosecute war crimes and “all offenses committed contrary to the laws of humanity.” For Bellot, allowing the “outrages” committed during the war — which included the widespread use of chemical weapons — to go unaddressed was as “dangerous to humanity and civilization” as the atrocities themselves had been. Bellot’s efforts fell short; it took the Holocaust for the international community to set up the world’s first international war-crimes tribunal, and another half century of atrocities in South America, Asia, Africa, and Eastern Europe for his vision to be fully realized. In 1998, after the widespread killings in Rwanda and Bosnia, the United Nations convened a five-week assembly in Rome, to draft a treaty that would establish an international criminal court that could prosecute war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity. In theory, the U.N. believed, the very existence of such a court would give pause to dictators and warlords prone to brutality; perpetrators living anywhere in the world could be hunted until their dying breaths.

Nowhere has the supposed deterrent of eventual justice proved so visibly ineffective as in Syria. Like most countries, Syria signed the Rome Statute, which, according to U.N. rules, means that it is bound by the “obligation not to defeat the object and purpose of the treaty.” But, because Syria never actually ratified the document, the International Criminal Court has no independent authority to investigate or prosecute crimes that take place within Syrian territory. The U.N. Security Council does have the power to refer jurisdiction to the court, but international criminal justice is a relatively new and fragile endeavor, and, to a disturbing extent, its application is contingent on geopolitics. In 2014, when a measure to give the I.C.C. jurisdiction in Syria came before the council, Russia and China blocked it. Meanwhile, since 2011, not a minute has passed in which the Syrian government has not been committing multiple, simultaneous, widespread war crimes and crimes against humanity. The body of court-ready evidence against top officials within the Syrian government is more complete and damning than any that has ever previously been collected during an active conflict. And yet there is no clear path for prosecuting the highest-level offenders. [Continue reading…]

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The world may never know if Syria really destroyed all its chemical weapons

Colum Lynch reports: Twelve years ago, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government embarked on a top-secret mission to produce large batches of mustard gas, a crude World War I-era blister agent that Syria manufactured as part of a broader chemical weapons deterrent against militarily superior enemies, including Israel.

Between 2004 and 2007, Syria made some 385 metric tons of sulfur mustard, enough to fill thousands of artillery shells. But Syria has admitted to building only 15 Scud missiles capable of delivering 5 to 6 metric tons of the chemical agent, leaving a yawning gap that has left weapons inspectors questioning whether Syria may have retained a stockpile of tactical chemical munitions it has never acknowledged. That’s the conclusion of a highly confidential, 75-page report by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) reviewed exclusively by Foreign Policy.

Syria’s claims raised a number of red flags. The OPCW’s inspectors, as members of the watchdog’s Declarations Assessment Team (DAT), initially expressed skepticism over Syria’s claim that it only intended to fill Scud missiles with sulfur mustard; the blister agent “is most effectively delivered through small-caliber [tactical] munitions,” including artillery projectiles and battlefield rockets, they noted, not through medium-range missiles.

“The discrepancy between the amount of sulfur mustard produced and the capacity of its designated munitions could indicate that some munitions and/or delivery means for sulfur mustard have not been declared,” the DAT report stated.

The United States and its allies also expressed alarm over the potential for hidden Syrian stockpiles of forbidden weapons.

“Syria has engaged in a calculated campaign of intransigence and obfuscation, of deception, and of defiance,” Kenneth Ward, the U.S. representative to the OPCW, said at a meeting of the group’s executive council in July. “We … remain very concerned that [the chemical warfare agents] and associated munitions, subject to declaration and destruction, have been illicitly retained by Syria.”

The Assad regime claims it destroyed almost all the munitions. Syria said Branch 450, a secret military department responsible for filling chemical munitions, destroyed the vast majority of the stockpile — some 365 metric tons’ worth of sulfur mustard — in May 2012, about two months before Syria publicly acknowledged for the first time the existence of its chemical weapons program. The remaining 20 metric tons were disposed of under U.N. supervision after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov brokered a deal in September 2013 to eliminate the country’s remaining chemical weapons. [Continue reading…]

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Kurds carve out a home in Syria, testing U.S. ties with Turkey

The Wall Street Journal reports: Amid the chaos of Syria’s war, the Kurds have carved out a semiautonomous region called Rojava that is home to about four million people, is as big as Belgium and stretches nearly the full length of the 565-mile border between Syria and Turkey.

The emergence of Rojava also has added complexity to a region in turmoil, bringing resistance from outside and dissent from within.

Rojava’s continuing territorial expansion has alarmed Turkey, which is battling Kurdish separatists within its own borders and has pushed deeper into Syria to attack Islamic State forces and rein in the Syrian Kurds. The U.S. is stuck uncomfortably in the middle because it relies on Syrian Kurds to fight Islamic State yet considers Turkey a crucial ally.

And as Rojava gets mightier and realizes long-held ambitions of self-rule for Kurds, some of its own people feel alienated by what they claim are heavy-handed tactics that feel reminiscent of the Syrian regime.

Instead of helping Jude Hamo finish his junior year of college, his parents sold the family car and borrowed money to smuggle the 23-year-old to Germany so he wouldn’t be drafted into the Kurdish armed forces fighting Islamic State. “We chose the lesser of two evils,” says Jude’s father, Radwan.

Since late 2014, at least 6,000 young Syrian Kurds have been compelled to serve in the military, according to the regional administration’s military ministry. More than two dozen died in battle. [Continue reading…]

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The disastrous nonintervention in Syria

Three years after President Obama erased his “red line” on the use of chemical weapons in Syria, Anne Applebaum writes: Maybe a U.S.-British-French intervention would have ended in disaster. If so, we would today be mourning the consequences. But sometimes it’s important to mourn the consequences of nonintervention too. Three years on, we do know, after all, exactly what nonintervention has produced:

Deaths. Estimates of war casualties range from about 155,000 to 400,000, depending on who is counted. This month, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights had registered a total of 14,711 dead children. Since the Islamic State created its caliphate in Syria, an estimated 2,350 civilians have been executed by the group. Life expectancy in Syria has dropped from almost 80 to 55.

Refugees. According to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there were 4.8 million registered Syrian refugees as of Aug. 16. There are thought to be an additional 2 million refugees who remain inside Syria but are displaced from their homes. Three-quarters of those who have fled their homes are women and children. Most own nothing except what they are wearing. To give some perspective, the refugee crisis caused by the Yugoslav wars in the early 1990s produced 2.3 million refugees, a number then considered to be the worst refugee crisis since the 1940s. The Syrian crisis is three times larger. [Continue reading…]

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Why I go to Aleppo

Samer Attar writes: The hospital where I work in Aleppo, Syria, is in a basement. The building above has been bombarded so many times that the top floors are too dangerous to use. Barrels and sandbags line the entrance to fortify it as a bunker.

Aleppo is a long way from my home in Chicago. That city, too, has its share of human suffering. Any Chicago surgeon who takes emergency duty can attest to the gun violence that plagues local communities. But the hospital where I work has state-of-the-art resources and some of the best doctors and nurses in the world. Scalpels are sharp, operating rooms are sterile, and specialists are abundant.

Aleppo, too, has some of the best doctors and nurses in the world, but there are so few left. They are exhausted, endangered, and they need help. That is why I volunteer for medical work in Syria; even the few weeks a year that I can offer provide some respite for the handful of surgeons who serve a population of 300,000 in a war zone. It is a heavy responsibility, but I feel I cannot ask world leaders to risk their citizens’ lives to save people there if I myself am unwilling to take such risks. [Continue reading…]

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