The cost of stepping back so others could step in

Joyce Karam writes that Syria is the epicenter of Barack Obama’s train wreck in the Middle East: Even before the Arab Spring started in 2011, Obama’s larger doctrine for the Middle East and North Africa was defined by the “US stepping back so others can step in,” and doing so “regional actors can rise to the occasion and take responsibility,” says Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

The “leading from behind” approach shaped the early thinking of the Obama administration by prioritizing the withdrawal from Iraq, cutting civil society aid programs to Egypt, allowing the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to take a lead role in Yemen, and later leading to Russia’s intervention in Syria.

There was a small caveat that the Obama team missed: This approach “doesn’t work in the Middle East,” says Hamid, because “the US has the misfortune of having bad actors in the region, so while it’s true that others stepped in, they were countries that didn’t share our interests or values.”

Frederick Hof, director of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council, says Obama’s main pitfall was the Syrian war. Hof, who served as a special adviser on Syria and coordinator for regional affairs at the State Department in Obama’s first term, tells Arab News that Obama’s failure over Syria “transcends the Middle East.”

The former US official says: “By combining florid rhetoric with dogged inaction in the face of civilian slaughter in Syria, Obama facilitated a humanitarian catastrophe that spilled into Europe, undermining the continent’s political unity and compromising its trans-Atlantic relationship with the US.”

Hof blames Obama’s “enormous gap between talk and action” in Syria, by calling on Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down in 2011 without a Plan B. It was also by drawing a red line for the Syrian regime over the use of chemical weapons, which Obama altered in 2013.

These levers “emboldened a Russian president to alter European boundaries and to intervene militarily in Syria… and are behind the loss of confidence in Washington by long-time regional partners of the US,” says Hof. [Continue reading…]

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In President Obama’s last year in office, the United States dropped 26,171 bombs

Micah Zenko and Jennifer Wilson write: In President Obama’s last year in office, the United States dropped 26,171 bombs in seven countries. This estimate is undoubtedly low, considering reliable data is only available for airstrikes in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya, and a single “strike,” according to the Pentagon’s definition, can involve multiple bombs or munitions. In 2016, the United States dropped 3,027 more bombs — and in one more country, Libya — than in 2015. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. military aid is fueling big ambitions for Syria’s leftist Kurdish militia

The Washington Post reports: In a former high school classroom in this northeastern Syrian town, about 250 Arab recruits for the U.S.-backed war against the Islamic State were being prepped by Kurdish instructors to receive military training from American troops.

Most of the recruits were from villages surrounding the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed capital of Raqqa, and the expectation is that they will be deployed to the battle for the predominantly Arab city, which is now the main target of the U.S. military effort in Syria.

But first, said the instructors, the recruits must learn and embrace the ideology of Abdullah Ocalan, a Kurdish leader jailed in Turkey whose group is branded a terrorist organization by both Washington and Ankara.

The scene in the classroom captured some of the complexity of the U.S.-backed fight against the Islamic State in Syria, where a Kurdish movement that subscribes to an ideology at odds with stated U.S. policy has become America’s closest ally against the extremists.

The People’s Protection Units, or YPG, is the military wing of a political movement that has been governing northeastern Syria for the past 4 1 / 2 years, seeking to apply the Marxist-inspired visions of Ocalan to the majority Kurdish areas vacated by the Syrian government during the war.

Over the past two years, the YPG has forged an increasingly close relationship with the United States, steadily capturing land from the Islamic State with the help of U.S. airstrikes, military assistance and hundreds of U.S. military advisers. [Continue reading…]

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Turkey in grip of fear as Erdoğan steps up post-terror attack crackdown

The Observer reports: Turkey’s strongman president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, rarely goes on the defensive. Yet in his first public appearance since the New Year’s Eve massacre in an Istanbul nightclub, he felt obliged to publicly reject the notion that his government’s intolerant approach to civil society could possibly have encouraged the attack claimed by Islamic State that left 39 people dead.

Erdoğan was speaking before a regular gathering of elected community leaders, an opportunity he usually uses to glad-hand political support.

However, the shock of the attack has further rent an already divided country. While no one believes that the government is directly responsible, it is accused of creating an atmosphere in which a religious fanatic could get away with murder.

“Nobody should be forced to share the same kind of lifestyle,” said Erdoğan, adding that if anyone had come under pressure to conform to an alien way of life it had been “this brother” – meaning himself.

Erdoğan’s rise from street urchin to inhabiting a palace that architects estimate to have cost more than £1bn has indeed been hardscrabble. In 1998 he was removed from office as mayor of Istanbul and briefly imprisoned for reciting a well-known nationalist poem which the prosecutor deemed “an incitement to violence and religious hatred”.

However, greater obstacles might lie ahead. The difficulties that are already facing Erdoğan’s Turkey hardly need rehearsing. A civil war across the Syrian border has led to an influx of what may be as many as three million refugees. A once booming economy is now ailing. In 2015 – in order to woo the nationalist vote – the government shredded its attempt to secure an agreement with dissident Kurds. On top of this, there is the debilitating drip, drip of terrorist incidents. [Continue reading…]

The Associated Press reports: Turkey’s Parliament on Monday kicked off debate on proposed constitutional amendments that would hand Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s largely ceremonial presidency sweeping executive powers and Erdogan himself the possibility to serve two more five-year terms.

Erdogan, who has dominated Turkish politics for 14 years, has long pushed imbuing the presidency with greater political powers, arguing that strong leadership would help Turkey grow.

The main opposition party fears that if approved, the reforms would concentrate too much power in Erdogan’s hands, turn the country into a de facto dictatorship and move Turkey away from democracy and its anchor in the West. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. military aid is fueling big ambitions for Syria’s leftist Kurdish militia

The Washington Post reports: In a former high school classroom in this northeastern Syrian town, about 250 Arab recruits for the U.S.-backed war against the Islamic State were being prepped by Kurdish instructors to receive military training from American troops.

Most of the recruits were from villages surrounding the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed capital of Raqqa, and the expectation is that they will be deployed to the battle for the predominantly Arab city, which is now the main target of the U.S. military effort in Syria.

But first, said the instructors, the recruits must learn and embrace the ideology of Abdullah Ocalan, a Kurdish leader jailed in Turkey whose group is branded a terrorist organization both by Washington and Ankara.

The scene in the classroom captured some of the complexity of the U.S.-backed fight against the Islamic State in Syria, where a Kurdish movement that subscribes to an ideology at odds with stated U.S. policy has become America’s closest ally against the extremists.

The People’s Protection Units, or YPG, is the military wing of a political movement that has been governing northeastern Syria for the past 4 1 / 2 years, seeking to apply the Marxist-inspired visions of Ocalan to the majority Kurdish areas vacated by the Syrian government during the war.

Over the past two years, the YPG has forged an increasingly close relationship with the United States, steadily capturing land from the Islamic State with the help of U.S. airstrikes, military assistance and hundreds of U.S. military advisers. [Continue reading…]

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Assad’s newest war tactic: dehydration

The Daily Beast reports: Wadi Barada, Damascus, was once an area known for summer picnics, cool breezes and popular cafes. As a born Damascene, I went there regularly during the summer to attain relief from the scorching heat. My cousin, who now has four kids, even met his wife in Wadi Barada after the two of them happened to picnic near each other one lucky weekend.

But last week, as the bombs started falling, Wadi Barada turned into hell on earth.

Napalm, explosive barrels, and tank shells rained down and left dozens of civilians killed and wounded. Hospitals and other civilian infrastructural facilities were deliberately targeted. The result was not only a humanitarian catastrophe but also perhaps the worst environmental catastrophe of the entire war.

Let’s take California for a comparison. California is currently experiencing a historic water shortage, including nearly three years under a drought state of emergency. Homes and businesses have faced long-term water rationing that stands to be extended under the conservation plan released by state authorities last month. But at least in California, the state works to mitigate the crisis. In Syria, the state is the cause of it. [Continue reading…]

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Vladimir Putin’s newest export: terrorists

The Daily Beast reports: With the establishment of ISIS’s “caliphate,” veterans of the Caucasus or Central Asia insurgencies have found a new port of call, and ISIS has even gone so far as to declare a wilayat, or province, on Russian Federation territory, more out of bluster than anything approaching the medieval reality it has been able to impose on now-dwindling areas of Syria and Iraq.

According to Jacob Zenn, a fellow at the Jamestown Foundation, “not including al-Qaeda and also not including Uighurs, if you’re looking at Russian-speaking jihadists, you’re looking at mostly Uzbeks.” And very few of them actually come from Uzbekistan but are rather cultivated as migrant laborers inside Russia. “They get picked up by a jamaat,” he said, referring to the Arabic word for an Islamic council, “with professional ISIS recruiters in Russia who get money for each guy they send to ISIS in Syria. The route is through Turkey. There hasn’t been much done about it.”

The reason for that, Zenn says, is that either Russia has willfully turned a blind eye to the exodus or because the FSB can’t keep track of everyone leaving, particularly from networks in Siberia or the Russian regions away from Moscow.

One of the fiercest battalions in ISIS is actually called the Uzbek Battalion; members from it were reported to have fought in Fallujah and kept the city from falling earlier to pro-Iraqi-government forces last year.

“A large number of the Uzbeks in Syria are actually Kyrgyz citizens. Their motivation is the Kyrgyz nationalist movement in Kyrgyzistan.”

Almost all Tajiks join ISIS as opposed to other Islamist or jihadist factions in Syria, according to Zenn.

As for Russians, the total number fighting with ISIS in Syria and Iraq is impossible to know for sure, as official or semiofficial sources have given varying figures at varying points of time.

Ilya Rogachev, director of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Department on New Challenges and Threats, put the total at “more than 3,200” in November 2016. A year earlier, the FSB estimated that it was closer to 2,900. FSB Director Alexander Bortnikov said in December 2015, that of the 214 jihadists who had repatriated to Russia, “They have all been placed under tight control in law-enforcement agencies: 80 have been tried, 41 more are under arrest.”

Meanwhile, Chechen intelligence, according to the New Yorker, claims that as many as 3,000 to 4,000 Chechens alone have joined ISIS, that is, not counting Russian citizens from other parts of the country.

Indeed, some believe that Chechen republic leader Ramzan Kadyrov, himself a former Islamist insurgent turned Russian state hireling, saw the rise of ISIS as a convenient opportunity to solve his own domestic terrorism problem by exporting it to the Middle East — an allegation that has already been leveled with increasing evidence against Russia’s security services, writ large.

Elena Milashina, a reporter for Russia’s investigative opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta, concluded in 2015, based on field research in Dagestan, that “Russian special services have controlled” the flow of jihadists into Syria in the lead-up to the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, when the Kremlin feared a terror atrocity would scandalize the international sporting competition it spent so many millions of rubles hosting. “In our village there is a person, a negotiator,” Akhyad Abdullaev, the head of a Dagestani village, told Milashina. “He, together with the FSB, brought several leaders out of the underground and sent them off abroad on jihad.”

The FSB’s so-called “green corridor” for transiting these violent fighters, as The Daily Beast reported, included helping them to obtain passports and other necessaries to migrate to Turkey and/or Georgia, and then ultimately to Syria. The belief was that they’d either be killed on a foreign battlefield and thus become one less headache for law enforcement to worry about, or they’d be picked up upon their return home. One unnamed FSB officer confirmed this policy to the International Crisis Group: “We opened borders, helped them all out and closed the border behind them by criminalizing this type of fighting. If they want to return now, we are waiting for them at the borders.”

A year later, in May 2016, Reuters also, “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.”

Many Russian-speaking jihadists have gone on to positions of great prominence in the organization. [Continue reading…]

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Aleppo’s survivors have nowhere to go

Akram al-Ahmad writes: Samira Sabagh was sitting on the ground when I met her, and the first thing I noticed was that her hands and face were almost black. She was wearing a traditional green dress that smelled of smoke. She was about 65, just one of more than 100,000 former residents of eastern Aleppo forced to leave the rebel-held area under threat of annihilation by the Syrian regime and its Russian and Iranian allies.

Sabagh was disoriented. Her children and all her family had been killed in Aleppo, with the exception of a daughter living in Idlib, not far from here. “I don’t know how to go to Idlib,” she said, referring to the rebel-held northwestern Syrian province where many of the displaced Syrians were fleeing.

I asked her about the soot on her face. It’s bitterly cold in Aleppo now, she explained, and people were living in the streets for a week waiting for the evacuation to begin. So everyone had to burn shoes, plastics — anything they could get to stay warm, and that left her face and hands covered in soot. She told me the story through tears.

Rashidin, the town on the western edge of Aleppo city where the buses arrived with the newly displaced, is the last place on the Aleppo-Damascus highway that one can reach from rebel territory. Rebels call it point zero. Every exiled Syrian brought here had soot on their hands and faces. Their clothes reeked. Their bodies smelled as if they hadn’t bathed for a month. Almost everyone said they had burned their furniture, automobile tires, even clothes and blankets, for heat. And some burned their possessions rather than let them fall into the hands of the pro-government militias.

I had driven here with a cameraman from the news bureau I manage in Idlib, a journey of a little more than an hour. In the gas station parking lot where the buses arrived, I heard tale after tale of what residents of eastern Aleppo endured during the devastating bombing campaign and starvation siege of the rebel-held enclave — traumas that were exacerbated by the mocking of pro-regime militiamen as they abandoned their city. And now they were stranded in the bitter cold with no idea what comes next, forced to rebuild their shattered lives once more.

The Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) and the International Committee of the Red Cross had organized the buses after rebels reached a deal with the government to withdraw from eastern Aleppo in exchange for safe passage for their families and other civilians who feared the revenge of the militias. When they came off the buses, everyone was shivering from the cold. They were hungry, and local charities handed out fruit and small food packages. They looked tired and depressed as they sat on the ground, eating them. The best organized were the rebel groups, which sent buses and minibuses to fetch the families of fighters and transport them to secure lodging.

But most had no idea where to go and sat on the ground debating their next move. “I hear Atarib is a good town to stay in. I will go and look for an apartment,” one man told me, speaking of a town close to the Turkish border that is often the target for regime airstrikes.

The only joyful sound came from some of the children, who acted as if they’d landed in paradise. The elders were silent and bewildered, looking as though they’d just stepped out of the grave. [Continue reading…]

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Syrian cease-fire crumbles as government forces advance around Damascus

The Washington Post reports: A Syrian cease-fire backed by Russia and Turkey is crumbling five days after it began, with government forces pushing offensives around Damascus and rebels threatening to suspend participation in new peace talks.

The truce was to have been followed by a meeting between government representatives and mainstream rebel factions in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan.

But while fighting has largely ebbed in Syria’s north, where Turkey wields influence over most rebel groups, troops loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have continued strategic offensives in the Damascus suburbs.

In a statement published Monday, 10 rebel factions said they were suspending discussions regarding the Astana conference or the cease-fire “until it is fully implemented.” The groups cited “major and frequent violations” in the rebel-held areas of Wadi Barada and Eastern Ghouta outside the Syrian capital. [Continue reading…]

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ISIS’s Jihad on Turkey

Roy Gutman reports: Ten days before the New Year’s attack on an Istanbul night club for which the so-called Islamic State now claims responsibility, it posted a grisly video on social media showing its forces burning two Turkish soldiers alive — and coupled it with a warning of worse atrocities to come.

Turkey “has become the land for Jihad,” a Turkish ISIS fighter calling himself Abu Hasan declared in the immolation video. He urged the group’s sympathizers in Turkey to “burn it, blow it up and destroy it.” It may well have been a signal to proceed with the attack early Sunday, which killed at least 39 and wounded 65.

“A hero soldier of the caliphate attacked one of the most famous nightclubs, where Christians celebrated their pagan holiday” and “transformed their celebration into mourning,” the group said in a message posted on an Internet app early Monday.

The message, a rare example of ISIS taking responsibility for an attack in Turkey, went on to condemn the Turkish intervention in northern Syria, where its forces along with Syrian rebels now encircle the ISIS-held town of Al Bab. “The government of Turkey should know that the blood of Muslims, which it is targeting with its planes and its guns, will cause a fire in its home by God’s will,” it said.

The Turkish government, which has clamped down severely on news reporting on the assault, responded defiantly, vowing to continue the cross-border operation. [Continue reading…]

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How Syria defeated the Sunni powers

Emile Hokayem writes: Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, three of the Middle East’s major Sunni powers, once equated their standings in the region with the outcome of the war in Syria. Since the uprising broke out in 2011, they have been stalwart — if often divided — supporters of the rebels in their fight against the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

In the last several months, it became clear they were on the losing side. Recent events, including the fall of eastern Aleppo this month, are compelling these countries to adjust their strategies. A cease-fire agreement brokered by Russia and Turkey and announced on Thursday has only made it clearer that in the Middle East, force drives diplomacy.

The mainstream rebel groups that Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have backed since 2011 are now morphing into a rural insurgency. This will mean they are less of a threat to the Assad government, but more vulnerable to being defeated by jihadist groups — or lured into joining them. Supporting these rebels will soon become even more difficult, especially if President-elect Donald J. Trump follows through on campaign pledges to end American aid to rebel groups and to work more closely with Russia to fight jihadists in Syria. [Continue reading…]

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Trump’s Syria policies could create a hotbed for ISIS to plan attacks

Mohamad Bazzi writes: Since Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime and its allies forced out the last rebels from eastern Aleppo and regained full control over Syria’s largest city, the six-year-old Syrian civil war has now entered a new phase. The next major battle will be to drive out the Islamic State group from the city of Raqqa, but that fight is far more dependent on the United States than Assad and his allies.

Donald Trump wants to stay out of Syria’s complicated war. But as soon as he’s inaugurated on Jan. 20, the new American president will face a crucial decision: Will he continue the Pentagon’s support and training for a coalition of Syrian rebel groups leading the offensive to oust ISIS from Raqqa, the capital of its self-proclaimed caliphate?

That campaign began Nov. 6 with a mobilization of some 30,000 rebels to encircle Raqqa and cut it off from all sides and deny ISIS the ability to resupply with weapons and fighters. The battle to push the Islamic State out of Raqqa could take months. If it falters under a fledging Trump administration, ISIS would continue to have a safe base from which it would unleash new terror attacks in Syria and Iraq, and inspire and possibly direct operations around the world.

After the fall of eastern Aleppo, there are signs of an emerging division of labor in Syria between the incoming Trump administration and that of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Russia would continue its intensive air strikes and logistical aid to help Assad recapture territory from rebels, while Washington would take the lead in the fight against ISIS. On Dec. 10, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announced that the Pentagon would send 200 additional special forces to Syria — for a total of 500 US troops on the ground — to help train and advise Syrian opposition groups who are fighting ISIS, especially around Raqqa. [Continue reading…]

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