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…]


Iran said to have lost 60 generals fighting on behalf of Assad regime

NOW reports: In the past month, at least 20 Iranian officers and soldiers have been killed in Syria, where Tehran has reportedly deployed hundreds of troops to fight alongside regime forces against rebels in the northwest of the country.

Last Monday, Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps deputy chief Hossein Salami admitted that that his country was sending additional advisors to Syria, which was leading to increased casualties.

However, the IRGC official did not provide a death toll and insisted that Tehran was only sending advisors, and not combat troops.

An Italian news agency on Monday reported that Iran has lost 60 generals fighting on behalf of the Bashar al-Assad regime since the start of the Syrian civil war.

Adnkronos news on Monday cited “leading media sources in Hezbollah” as saying that only the names of 18 killed generals close to Tehran’s ruling authorities have been publicly disclosed.

“Human losses in Syria are suppressed,” the sources said, adding that “60 Iranian generals have been killed in Syria while supporting the Syrian army as advisors or military planners.”

The unnamed sources also claimed that the high number of casualties was due to “the weakness of the Syrian army, the large number of militias and their failure to keep to the plans drawn up by the Iranians in cooperation with the Syrian army’s most important officers.” [Continue reading…]


U.S.-backed offensive against ISIS in northern Syria suffers devastating setback

McClatchy reports: The newest U.S.-backed offensive against the Islamic State in northern Syria suffered a devastating setback when the extremist group detonated an explosive-laden vehicle near a Kurdish-led column of armored vehicles, an Arab militia commander said Monday.

The Islamic State said the suicide bomber, with five tons of explosives, attacked a convoy of 70 vehicles Sunday, including tanks and armored personnel carriers, killed dozens of Arabs and members of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG.

Such vehicles are a favorite tactic of the Islamic State in northeastern Syria, according to another commander in the region, Abu Issa, of the Liwa Thurwar Al-Raqqa, or Raqqa Revolutionaries. He said between mid-July and mid-October, the Islamic State had sent 45 such vehicle bombs against his force, which is based north of Raqqa, the Islamic State’s self-styled capital. Among those killed were five of the 20 men who had been trained by the U.S. in the use of TOW anti-tank missiles.

“They empty out a 10-ton armored personnel carrier. They remove the seats and everything. There’s one driver, and he comes really fast,” Abu Issa told McClatchy in an interview last month. He said a TOW missile can stop the vehicle, but he said the U.S. had not supplied his forces with those missiles.

Abu Issa’s is not the only group hoping for U.S. arms in order to take on the Islamic State. Even the Sanadid militia, which took part in the fighting near al Hawl, has yet to receive U.S. ammunition, Bandar told McClatchy on Monday.

“We got nothing yet from the Americans,” he said. [Continue reading…]


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…]


Israel now neutral on ousting Syria’s Bashar al-Assad

The Forward reports: Israel is no longer taking a public position on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s prospects of staying in power, its defense minister said on Tuesday, citing the opposing goals of the United States and Russia as they intervene in the civil war.

Seeing enemies on all sides of the insurgency that erupted in the neighboring Arab state in 2011, Israel has been formally neutral but initially called for Assad to be toppled, arguing this would deny its arch-foe Iran a key ally in the Levant.

That view hewed to the strategy of the United States and its Arab partners, which back some Syrian rebels and say Assad has lost legitimacy to lead. But with Assad holding on and now helped by a Russian military intervention, Israel has gone mum.

“What is our policy in Syria? We say: We do not intervene. We have an opinion as to what we would like to be there. But we are not in a position nor do we have the status, for sensitive reasons, to say we are in favor of Assad or against Assad,” Yaalon said in a speech to a farm collective near Jerusalem. [Continue reading…]


U.S.-backed ‘Syrian Democratic Forces’ created to fight ISIS, exist only as a name

The New York Times reports: A newly appointed spokesman for the alliance briefed reporters in Syria beneath a yellow banner bearing its name in Kurdish, Arabic and Assyrian. But the meeting took place inside a Kurdish militia facility because the alliance does not have its own bases yet, nor flags to put on its cars or a defined command structure, said the spokesman, Talal Sillu.

The combined force is to be commanded by a six-person military council, Mr. Sillu said. But he acknowledged that only one member had been selected so far — Mr. Sillu himself.

Last week, President Obama announced plans to deploy dozens of Special Operations troops to support the new alliance. And before that, American officials said 50 tons of ammunition had been airdropped for Arab fighters with the new group.

But already, things have not always gone as planned. Since the ammunition airdrop, American officials have privately acknowledged that the Arab units it was intended for did not have the logistical capability to move it. So, again, the Kurds were called to help.

An array of smaller groups have allied with the Kurds, including Arab and Turkmen rebels, Christian militias and Bedouin fighters loyal to a sheikh who considered the Libyan leader Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi a friend.

While these groups hate the Islamic State, most are small, and some have been repeatedly routed by the very jihadists the United States now hopes they will defeat.

While the Kurds have become used to securing territory, with uniformed forces and a clear chain of command, their Arab allies often leave teenagers with Kalashnikovs at checkpoints who stop and release cars at random, scaring drivers.

A commander of one Arab group lamented that while Kurdish commanders could simply order their fighters to move, he could only make suggestions and hope his men complied. [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…]


Far-right extremists blamed after Syrians beaten in Germany

NBC News reports: Violence against refugees in Germany reached new heights over the weekend as armed groups attacked Syrians in several towns.

The incidents included a group of at least 20 dark-clothed people — including some armed with baseball bats — targeting a group of asylum seekers early Sunday in Magdeburg, police said. Three Syrian men had to be treated in hospital for bruises and injuries to their faces. One of the attackers was arrested near the scene.

In Wismar, two Syrian men had to be treated in hospital after they were assaulted outside a building which is used as a shelter for refugees. Police said masked attackers armed with baseball bats and other weapons threatened and then beat the pair.

A 26-year-old asylum seeker was injured in Freital, Saxony, after an explosive device detonated in front of his bedroom window. A police spokesperson told NBC News they suspect that the act was motivated by right-wing extremism. [Continue reading…]


They freed a Syrian town from ISIS. Now they have to govern it.

The Washington Post reports: When Islamic State fighters fled this northern Syrian town in June, they took with them the electricity generators, the water pumps, the hospital equipment and pretty much everything else that had helped sustain the semblance that they ran a functioning state.

They left behind their graffiti, their instruments of torture, the block of wood on which they beheaded their victims, the cage in which they punished smokers — and a community riven with suspicion and distrust.

Today, Tal Abyad is a tense and troubled place. Its new Kurdish masters are seeking to assert their control over a mixed town that, at least until recently, had an Arab majority — some of whom were not entirely unhappy to be governed by the Islamic State.

“As long as you didn’t bother them, they didn’t bother you,” said Sarkis Kaorkian, 60, who is one of the town’s few Christians who remained behind and is now deeply relieved the Islamic State is gone. He claims he drank and smoked his way through the group’s 17-month rule by staying out of their way and paying on time the $100 tax, or jizya, leveled twice a year on Christian residents. [Continue reading…]


Details revealed in chilling plot to kill anti-ISIS activists in Turkey

NBC News reports: The double murder achieved its goal. It sent the message that, even here in the relative safety of Turkey, ISIS and its supporters can reach its critics.

The bodies of 22-year-old Ibrahim Abdel Qader and 20-year-old Fares Hammadi were found early Friday in an apartment in the Turkish town of Sanliurfa. Qader had been stabbed dozens of times and both men were, in the gruesome fashion that has become ISIS’s trademark, beheaded.

The deaths of the two young Syrians, both members of a citizen-journalist group called “Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently,” sent shockwaves through the exile Syrian community here.

How did two young men, known targets of ISIS who took measures to protect themselves, end up dead?

NBC News has now learned the answer to that question: In an exclusive interview, Ibrahim’s brother, Ahmed, explained what happened. [Continue reading…]


70 babies have drowned since Aylan

The Daily Beast reports: More than 70 babies have drowned since the fragile body of 4-year-old Aylan Kurdi washed up on Turkish shores last month. The outrage over the loss of his young life faded all too soon, but the drive to keep the world focused on the continuing tragedy has not.

One person who vows not to let the world forget about what has become the biggest refugee crisis since World War II is Melissa Fleming, a 51-year-old American who is the chief communications and spokeswoman for the United Nations Refugee Agency. She says she ends and begins every day obsessing over the human stories about refugees that she can share with the world in hopes someone is listening. On Friday, she tweeted a horrific video of a dying baby being given CPR. The day before, she tweeted a body count. “Dozens missing after refugee boat sinks off Lesvos. 11 dead. Kids! All in one terrible day.”

“What kills me is that even the biggest tragedies are headline news for just one day,” she told The Daily Beast. “My family reminds me I am obsessed, but I have to be. I get a report several times a day on statistics, which, to me, are human beings with the tears dried off. The stories that kill me the most are when I hear about a mother or father losing a child to the waves. As a mother myself, to lose them this way is incomprehensible.” [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…]


At least 70 killed and 550 wounded in horrific market-bombing in Damascus besieged area

Médecins Sans Frontières reports: At least 70 people have been killed and 550 injured in an air strike on a marketplace in the Douma neighbourhood near Damascus, Syria.

As the nearest makeshift hospital had been bombed the previous day, medical workers struggled to cope with the influx of injured people. MSF fears the intensification of bombing that has been seen in northern and central Syria over the course of October could become even more horrific if it spreads to besieged areas around Damascus, where almost a million people are trapped with no way to escape, few medical facilities, and no options for medical evacuations of seriously wounded.

The devastation caused by the initial air strike on the market was exacerbated by further shelling on the rescue teams who were attending to the wounded. Two hundred and fifty patients required surgery, and a further 300 patients have been treated for non-surgical wounds. The multi-trauma wounds are described by medics as being worse than anything they have seen before.

“This was an extremely violent bombing,” says the director of a nearby MSF-supported hospital who assisted in the first wave of mass-casualty response. “The wounds were worse than anything we’ve seen before, and there were large numbers of dead. We had to do many amputations. And a lot of the wounded had massive blood-loss, which means we needed large amounts of IV-fluid and blood bags. We did out best to cope, but the number of critically wounded was far beyond what we could handle with our limited means.”

Because so many hospitals have been destroyed in Syria’s conflict, many facilities have moved services underground or split up services across different locations in a bid to remain operational. The entrance gate of the Douma makeshift hospital had been struck by bombing on Thursday, causing 15 dead and 100 wounded. Because the services had recently been split across several buildings, the hospital was able to respond to part of the mass casualty influx. However, the overwhelming numbers of critically wounded meant that no one single hospital could have coped, and six other makeshift hospitals also launched mass casualty response plans to help treat the wounded from the marketplace bombing. [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…]


Why U.S. government officials are so often viewed with contempt

“Public diplomacy – effectively communicating with publics around the globe – to understand, value and even emulate America’s vision and ideas; historically one of America’s most effective weapons of outreach, persuasion and policy.” Jill A. Schuker (former Senior Director for Public Affairs at the National Security Council), July 2004

To be persuasive, you have to be believable. But who, inside or outside the Syrian opposition, thinks that the following pledge holds an iota of credibility?

Syria is an issue on which the Obama administration has never been fully engaged. It has instead been an issue that refused to go away — however persistently it was ignored. Some officials inside the State Department might sincerely claim they are “with” the Syrian opposition, yet the support provided by the U.S. government as a whole, has proved to be less than worthless.

Following nine hours of talks in Vienna on Friday, Josh Rogin says:

European diplomats at the conference told me they were concerned the new U.S.-led diplomatic effort was an empty gesture, to allow the Obama administration to claim it was working in earnest to solve the Syria crisis.

If U.S. diplomacy rings hollow even among America’s closest allies, then it will predictably and reasonably be ignored by every party directly involved in the war in Syria.