Aleppo erupts in protests following temporary ceasefire

Riad Alarian reports: After the ceasefire negotiated by the United States and Russia collapsed on September 19, 2016, the Syrian regime and its Russian allies steadily intensified their ongoing bombing campaign against Aleppo. Since then, as many as 740 civilians have been killed, while at least 1900 others have been injured, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

On October 20, 2016, the Syrian and Russian governments instituted another (extremely short-lived) ceasefire. According to Reuters, the “unilateral ceasefire backed by Russia had come into force to allow people to leave besieged eastern Aleppo, a move rejected by rebels who say they are preparing a counter-offensive to break the blockade.”

The purpose behind this ostensibly humanitarian gesture is, however, deeply sinister, and will likely end in even more bloodshed. Sharif Nashashibi, a London-based Syria analyst, argues in News Deeply that “as with previous cease-fires, this is an escalation – part of an overall military solution to the conflict – masquerading as diplomacy and humanitarianism.”

In Nashashibi’s view, the ceasefire’s purpose “is to facilitate the capture of eastern Aleppo by encouraging rebels to abandon their positions, before ramping up the previous onslaught under the pretext that those remaining in rebel-held areas are either fighters or sympathizers.” It should come as absolutely no surprise, therefore, that rebels and residents of the city alike are holding their ground and choosing not to leave.

The city’s residents not only refused to evacuate, but also mobilized a series of protests echoing the very same demands that sparked the uprising against President Bashar Al-Assad five years ago, namely, for freedom and liberty from the tyranny of the regime and its allies.

While these protests have received little attention, they are hardly new. During periods of calm in besieged areas of Syria, protests usually break out. In March of this year, for example, Aleppo, Idlib, and Hama were engulfed in mass protests calling for the fall of the Assad regime, both in between and during periods of constant shelling. [Continue reading…]



Bring Syria’s Assad and his backers to account now

John Allen and Charles R. Lister* write: For 5½ years, the Syrian government has tortured, shot, bombed and gassed its own people with impunity, with the resulting human cost clear for all to see: nearly 500,000 dead and 11 million displaced. Since Russia’s military intervention began one year ago, conditions have worsened, with more than 1 million people living in 40 besieged communities. Thirty-seven of those are imposed by pro-government forces.

While subjecting his people to unspeakable medieval-style brutality, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has sabotaged diplomatic initiatives aimed at bringing a lasting calm to his country. The most recent such diplomatic scheme was trashed not just by Assad, but also Russia, whose aircraft were accused of subjecting a U.N.-mandated aid convoy to a ferocious two-hour attack in September.

Since then, at least 2,500 people have been killed and wounded in eastern districts of Aleppo, amid horrendous bombardment by Syrian and Russian aircraft, and Russia cynically vetoed a U.N. resolution that would have prohibited further airstrikes in the city.

It is time for the United States to act more assertively on Syria, to further four justifiable objectives: to end mass civilian killing; to protect what remains of the moderate opposition; to undermine extremist narratives of Western indifference to injustice; and to force Assad to the negotiating table. The United States should not be in the business of regime change, but the Assad clique and its backers must be brought to account before it is too late. The world will not forgive us for our inaction.

The consequences of continued inaction are dreadful. U.S. policy has never sought to decisively influence the tactical situation on the ground. Unrealistic limitations on vetting and a policy that prohibited arming groups to fight the regime left us unable to effectively fight the Islamic State or to move Assad toward a transition. U.S. policy and strategy on Syria had a major disconnect, in being focused militarily on a group that was a symptom of the civil war without any means to achieve the stated policy objective: Assad’s departure. [Continue reading…]

*John Allen, a retired U.S. Marine general, led the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan from 2011 to 2013 and the international coalition to counter the Islamic State from 2014 to 2015. Charles R. Lister is a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute and author of The Syrian Jihad: Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Evolution of an Insurgency.


Senior administration official says Obama is ‘giving the Russians time to finish the job in Aleppo’

Josh Rogin writes: At last Friday’s National Security Council meeting on the Middle East, top Obama administration officials tabled any decisions on whether to increase the U.S. response to the ongoing Syrian and Russian aerial bombardment of civilians in Aleppo, The Post reported earlier this week. The administration prioritized discussing the new Iraqi-led offensive against the Islamic State in Mosul and the future offensive in Raqqa, for which planning is already underway.

But despite what Secretary of State John F. Kerry has called ongoing Syrian and Russian war crimes in Aleppo, there was no action on any of the several options discussed at lower-level administration meetings, including but not limited to limited strikes against the Assad regime’s air force or an increase in the quantity or quality of arms provided to the moderate Syrian rebels in the area.

One senior administration official pointed toward the slow pace of the bureaucracy in responding to the Aleppo crisis as evidence the White House has decided that Aleppo can’t be saved and therefore the United States should not try.

“They are giving the Russians time to finish the job in Aleppo, in part to tie the hands of the next president,” the official told me. [Continue reading…]


Inquiry finds Syrian government forces responsible for third gas attack

Reuters reports: An international inquiry found Syrian government forces responsible for a third toxic gas attack, according to a confidential report submitted to the U.N. Security Council on Friday, setting the stage for a showdown between Russia and western council members over how to respond.

The fourth report from the 13-month-long inquiry by the United Nations and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the global chemical weapons watchdog, blamed Syrian government forces for a toxic gas attack in Qmenas in Idlib governorate on March 16, 2015, according to a text of the report seen by Reuters.

The third report by the inquiry in August blamed the Syrian government for two chlorine attacks – in Talmenes on April 21, 2014 and Sarmin on March 16, 2015 – and said Islamic State militants had used sulfur mustard gas.

The results set the stage for a Security Council showdown between the five veto-wielding powers, likely pitting Russia and China against the United States, Britain and France over how those responsible should be held accountable. [Continue reading…]


The siege starts without warning

Miljenko Jergovic writes: I woke one morning 24 years ago to find a war all around me. The night before I had been at a concert for the Partybreakers, a punk band from Belgrade. I’d had too much beer and I had a headache. Bursts of gunfire were audible, along with the explosions of the mortar shells that would rain down on Sarajevo for the next three and a half years.

I don’t know what it was like when the war first came to Aleppo, Syria. Only the people still living there do — thousands of men, women and children who have now been under siege for years. From the perspective of an ordinary citizen, let’s say a 25 year old with literary and musical interests, the siege starts without warning and comes out of nowhere.

Yes, the papers and the TV have been reporting for months about how the situation in the country is growing more complicated, how conflict is brewing among political opponents, and how in the provinces there has already been fighting. But as long as a city continues to live its normal, placid life, which is the sort of life it lives up until the very last instant and the final quiet evening, war seems impossible. You look at your dog and your books, the spider in the corner of your room spinning a web that tomorrow will catch its first little fly, and you can’t imagine that the next morning all this, including the dog and the spider, will be caught up in war.

At the beginning of Bosnia’s war, Sarajevo had some 400,000 inhabitants. Aleppo, before its war, was five times larger. Sarajevo was founded about five centuries ago. Aleppo is one of the oldest cities on earth, in the part of the world that brings together Europe and the East, where the Abrahamic religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — were born and grew up. It was there at the emergence of our civilization. Not so long ago, just 150 years back, the two cities were under the same monarch. Sarajevo was the last great city at the western boundary of the Ottoman Empire, while Aleppo was the greatest city on its eastern side.

But none of that is important to an ordinary citizen who is just trying to get through another day of a siege. When the war began, that person probably believed that reason would never allow the bombing and destruction of such a place as Aleppo. We in Sarajevo had the same illusion. [Continue reading…]


The obliteration of Aleppo and the fate of Syria

A conversation between Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel on the Syrian catastrophe and what should be done about it. Hashemi is Director of the Center for Middle East Studies and Associate Professor of Middle East and Islamic Politics at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver. Postel is the Associate Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver. Together they are the co-editors of The People Reloaded: The Green Movement and the Struggle for Iran’s Future (2011), The Syria Dilemma (2013), and Sectarianization: Mapping the New Politics of the Middle East (forthcoming in early 2017).



Syria: Aleppo attack ‘pause’ ridiculed by rebels

Al Jazeera reports: The Syrian military said on Thursday a unilateral ceasefire backed by Russia had come into force to allow people to leave besieged eastern Aleppo, a move rejected by rebels who say they are preparing a counter-offensive to break the blockade.

Rebels say the goal of Moscow and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is to empty opposition-held areas of civilians so they can take over the whole city.

“They talk about humanitarian corridors, but why are they not allowing food into besieged eastern Aleppo to alleviate our suffering? We only need the Russian bombers to stop killing our children. We don’t want to leave,” said Ammar al-Qaran, a resident in Sakhour district.

Syrian state-owned Ikhbariyah television said rebels had fired a mortar barrage near to where ambulances had been heading to take patients from the besieged parts of the city for treatment in government-held areas.

Also on Thursday, a UN aid official for Syria said Russia agreed to extend daily pauses in military action against rebel-held eastern Aleppo for four more days. [Continue reading…]


European leaders threaten new sanctions against Russia

The Washington Post reports: Furious over Russia’s bombardment of Aleppo, European leaders warned the Kremlin on Thursday that it could face consequences if it maintains its offensive against the besieged rebel-held part of the Syrian city, although they fell short of the unity required to impose new sanctions.

The sharp rhetoric was a substantial departure for European leaders, who have long been focused on when they can dial back existing sanctions on Russia, not ramp them up. Instead, Russian actions in recent weeks have upended the conversation. From the Russian-backed pummeling of Aleppo to the shipment of nuclear-capable missiles to ­Kaliningrad, the recent steps have galvanized Western anger and plunged relations to fresh depths. The warnings came as leaders gathered in Brussels for a summit in part to discuss relations with Russia.

Europe’s toughened stance marks a partial victory for Washington, which has struggled to maintain European unity on sanctions and has long taken a harder position on Russia than its partners across the Atlantic. The stand also reflects the toll of Russia’s actions in Syria, where it has partnered with the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in a punishing campaign that has made little distinction between combatant and civilian. [Continue reading…]


The idea that the U.S. can ‘do no harm’ depends on the fiction that it can be ‘neutral’ in foreign conflicts

Shadi Hamid writes: The eight years of the Obama presidency have offered us a natural experiment of sorts. Not all U.S. presidents are similar on foreign policy, and not all (or any) U.S. presidents are quite like Barack Obama. After two terms of George W. Bush’s aggressive militarism, we have had the opportunity to watch whether attitudes toward the U.S. — and U.S. military force — would change, if circumstances changed. President Obama shared at least some of the assumptions of both the hard Left and foreign-policy realists, that the use of direct U.S. military force abroad, even with the best of intentions, often does more harm then good. Better, then, to “do no harm.”

This has been Barack Obama’s position on the Syrian Civil War, the key foreign-policy debate of our time. The president’s discomfort with military action against the Syrian regime seems deep and instinctual and oblivious to changing facts on the ground. When the debate over intervention began, around 5,000 Syrians had been killed. Now it’s close to 500,000. Yet, Obama’s basic orientation toward the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad has remained unchanged. This suggests that Obama, like many others who oppose U.S. intervention against Assad, is doing so on “principled” or, to put it differently, ideological grounds.

Despite President Obama’s very conscious desire to limit America’s role in the Middle East and to minimize the extent to which U.S. military assets are deployed in the region, there is little evidence that the views of the hard Left and other critics of American power have changed as a result. (Yes, the U.S. military is arguably involved in more countries now than when the Obama administration took office, but — compared to Iraq and Afghanistan before him — Obama’s footprint has been decidedly limited, with a reliance on drone strikes and special-operations forces.) As for those who actually live in the Middle East, a less militaristic America has done little to temper anti-Americanism. In the three countries — Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon — for which Pew has survey data for both Bush’s last year and either 2014 or 2015, favorability toward the U.S. is significantly worse under Obama today than it was in 2008. Why exactly is up for debate, but we can at the very least say that a drastic drawdown of U.S. military personnel — precisely the policy pushed for by Democrats in the wake of Iraq’s failure — does not seem to have bought America much goodwill.

Despite the fact that Assad and Russia are responsible for indiscriminate attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure, including hospitals, many leftists have viewed even the mere mention of the U.S. doing anything in response as “warmongering.” We have had the unfortunate situation of someone as (formerly) well-respected as Jeffrey Sachs arguing that the U.S. should provide “air cover and logistical support” to Bashar al-Assad. We have had Wikileaks’ attacks on the White Helmets, who have risked — and, for at least 140, lost — their lives in the worst conditions to save Syrian lives from the rubble of Syrian and Russian bombardment. Of course, it is not an absurd position to be skeptical of any proposed American escalation against Assad, and many reasonable people across the political spectrum have made that case. But it is something else entirely to apply such skepticism selectively to the U.S. and not to others, especially when the others in question deliberately target civilians as a matter of policy. It can be a slippery slope. While no one would accuse Obama of liking Putin, coordinating with and enabling Russia in Syria is effectively U.S. policy. As the New York Times columnist Roger Cohen noted in February, well before the current disaster in Aleppo: “The troubling thing is that the Putin policy on Syria has become hard to distinguish from the Obama policy.”

The Left has always had a utopian bent, believing that life, not just for Americans, but for millions abroad, can be made better through human agency (rather than, say, simply hoping that the market will self-correct). The problem, though, is that the better, more just world that so many hope for is simply impossible without the use of American military force. At first blush, such a claim might seem self-evidently absurd. Haven’t we all seen what happened in Iraq? The 2003 Iraq invasion was one of the worst strategic blunders in the history of U.S. foreign policy. Yet, it’s not clear what exactly this has to do with the Syrian conflict, which is almost the inverse of the Iraq war. In Iraq, civil war happened after the U.S. invasion. In Syria, civil war broke out in the absence of U.S. intervention. [Continue reading…]


Russian air defense raises stakes of U.S. confrontation in Syria

The Washington Post reports: Russia’s completion this month of an integrated air defense system in Syria has made an Obama administration decision to strike Syrian government installations from the air even less likely than it has been for years, and has created a substantial obstacle to the Syrian safe zones both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have advocated.

Deployment of mobile and interchangeable S-400 and S-300 missile batteries, along with other short-range systems, now gives Russia the ability to shoot down planes and cruise missiles over at least 250 miles in all directions from western Syria, covering virtually all of that country as well as significant portions of Turkey, Israel, Jordan and the eastern Mediterranean.

By placing the missiles as a threat “against military action” by other countries in Syria, Russia has raised “the stakes of confrontation,” Secretary of State John F. Kerry said Sunday.

While there is some disagreement among military experts as to the capability of the Russian systems, particularly the newly deployed S-300, “the reality is, we’re very concerned anytime those are emplaced,” a U.S. Defense official said. Neither its touted ability to counter U.S. stealth technology, or to target low-flying aircraft, has ever been tested by the United States.

“It’s not like we’ve had any shoot at an F-35,” the official said of the next-generation U.S. fighter jet. “We’re not sure if any of our aircraft can defeat the S-300.” [Continue reading…]


Syria talks conclude with agreement to carry on talking

The Washington Post reports: Talks in Switzerland on stemming the bloodshed in Syria resulted in no breakthrough Saturday, but the discussions did yield a decision to keep seeking ways to achieve a truce and resume negotiations.

Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who called the meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and diplomats from seven Middle Eastern countries, characterized the gathering that lasted more than four hours as a brainstorming session that brought some new ideas to the table. However, he declined to specify what those ideas were.

No date was set for another meeting of the foreign ministers who took part, but their staffs are expected to continue talking together about possible approaches. [Continue reading…]


ISIS suffers major symbolic defeat with loss of Dabiq

Christian Science Monitor reports: The Islamic State has been dealt a major symbolic blow in the battle for its existence.

Turkish-backed rebels, reportedly supported by United States special forces, seized the Syrian town of Dabiq Sunday, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. According to Islamic prophecies central to the Islamic State’s radical message, Dabiq is the site of an end-of-days battle that ushers in the apocalypse.

Now, having lost control of the town, the Islamic State must scramble to change a narrative that has been a core part of its appeal.

In the short term, the Islamic State can put a positive spin on losing the town of 3,500, which has little strategic value otherwise. Simply by bringing forces and foreign armies to Dabiq, the Islamic State can claim an ideological victory.

“No matter how the battle goes, the fact that they are fighting there is a justification that their entire reason for existence is correct and is fulfilling the words of the prophet,” says Malcolm Nance, terrorism expert and author of two books on the Islamic State. “In the near-term, they can spin this to boost the morale in Raqqa and Mosul and to boost recruitment.”

But longer-term, the group will struggle to reconcile the loss of Dabiq with nearly a decade-old narrative dating back to the group’s origins as Al Qaeda in Iraq.

“No matter how they try to spin it, the optics of a defeat in Dabiq are bad for ISIS,” says Mathew Lester, analyst at the Soufan Group, a New York-based strategic security firm. [Continue reading…]