Seven White Helmets members shot dead in northwestern Syria

RFE/RL reports: Unidentified assailants shot dead seven members of Syria’s White Helmets rescue service early on August 12 during a raid on their base in northwestern Syria.

The seven volunteers were all killed by bullets to the head.

“The civil defense center in Sarmin was the target of an armed attack by unknown assailants in which seven volunteers were killed,” the White Helmets said in a statement.

“Two minibuses, some white helmets and walkie-talkies were stolen.”

It was not immediately clear if the raid had political or criminal motives. Sarmin is in Idlib Province, which has witnessed clashes recently between rival insurgent groups. [Continue reading…]

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Syria: The disappeared

Bente Scheller writes: I was first confronted with the fate of political prisoners in Syria fifteen years ago. To this day, I am grateful for the conversations with lawyers such as Anwar al-Bounni who is in attendance today and Razan Zeitouneh, who was abducted in 2013.

One day, Razan Zeitouneh took me along to meet Fares Mourad who had, after twenty years imprisonment, finally been released. First sentenced to death, his sentence was later reduced to seven years imprisonment, and yet he was detained for another thirteen years. Prisoners in Syria were never granted claimable rights.

Fares was sitting across from me. Even though he could no longer raise his head and was only able to look at me with great strain, he smiled: “What irony that the first foreigner I meet happens to be German,” he said and pointed to his overstretched neck: “We call the torture technique with which this was done to me the ‘German chair’.”

Excruciating detention conditions and torture always were defining features of the Syrian state under Assad rule. That did not first begin with the onset of the Syrian revolution.

Thousands were killed in the Hama massacre in 1982, while thousands more disappeared in prisons. To date, no trace of them has been found.

The neighbouring country, Lebanon, saw the Syrian army in their capacity as occupying power deport political prisoners to Syria and to this day 30,000 of those disappeared are not accounted for. [Continue reading…]

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Inside Iran’s mission to dominate the Middle East

Borzou Daragahi reports: Iran has built up a multinational network of tens of thousands of young men from across the Middle East, turning them into a well-drilled fighting machine that is outgunning the US on the battlefield, as Tehran outsmarts the White House in the corridors of power.

These men can be found leading the defense of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, recapturing land from ISIS in Iraq, and fighting for control of the Yemeni capital of Sanaa. The transnational militia of Shiite men — which has no official title — is now the dominant force in the region, enabling Iran to take full advantage in the absence of a coherent strategy from the Trump White House.

Over six months, BuzzFeed News spoke to researchers, officials, and militia fighters who described what they knew about the Iranian program, overseen by the secretive Quds Force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and its infamous commander Qassem Suleimani — who often shows up on front lines in Iraq and Syria. Accounts by the fighters reveal the scale and structure of the program, and although many of the details could not be independently verified, BuzzFeed News was able to confirm all the fighters’ memberships in various armed groups. Their stories, collected independently, match one another — as well as accounts gathered by US military and intelligence officials.

Mustafa al-Freidawi is one of those men.

Freidawi, a compact man with a neatly trimmed black beard, fondly recalls his early days as a member of Iran’s militia. “It was a new adventure,” he said. “We were happy.” Speaking in a noisy restaurant in northern Baghdad earlier this year, Freidawi outlined how he was recruited, trained, and deployed to be part of a fighting force that aims to cement Iran’s influence in the Middle East, and beyond. [Continue reading…]

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Cooperation with Russia becomes central to Trump strategy in Syria

The Washington Post reports: Cooperation with Russia is becoming a central part of the Trump administration’s counter-Islamic State strategy in Syria, with U.S. military planners counting on Moscow to try to prevent Syrian government forces and their allies on the ground from interfering in coalition-backed operations against the militants.

Syria’s once-separate conflicts have moved into close proximity on the battlefield. Part of the plan essentially carves up Syria into no-go zones for each of the players — President Bashar al-Assad’s fight, with Russian and Iranian help, against rebels seeking to overthrow him, and the U.S.-led coalition’s war to destroy the Islamic State.

Some lawmakers and White House officials have expressed concern that the strategy is shortsighted, gives the long-term advantage in Syria to Russia, Iran and Assad, and ultimately leaves the door open for a vanquished Islamic State to reestablish itself.

Critics also say that neither Russia nor Iran can be trusted to adhere to any deal, and that the result will be a continuation of the civil war whose negotiated end the administration has also set as a goal. [Continue reading…]

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We can oppose U.S. intervention, while telling the truth about Assad’s chemical attacks

Stephen Shalom writes: In late June, Seymour Hersh published an article in Die Welt claiming that the Assad government did not attack the town of Khan Sheikhoun with sarin on April 4. His argument aligns with a popular left narrative about American imperialism falsifying or exaggerating events in Syria to justify intervention and regime change.

For example, many commentators — Jonathan Cook, Uri Avnery, among others — have wondered why Bashar al-Assad would use chemical weapons when he was already winning the war. The attack seemed not only unnecessary but also likely to spark a harsh international response.

Soon after the Khan Sheikhoun bombing, the White House responded to these concerns. The short version appeared in a document released on April 11:

The Syrian regime maintains the capability and intent to use chemical weapons against the opposition to prevent the loss of territory deemed critical to its survival. We assess that Damascus launched this chemical attack in response to an opposition offensive in northern Hamah Province that threatened key infrastructure.

That same day, a senior administration official offered a longer version at a background press briefing, noting the Assad regime’s troop shortages and the danger opposition forces posed to an important airbase in Hama.

Especially given its source, this explanation demands more scrutiny, but the commentators who question Assad’s motives never address it. In fact, none even acknowledge its existence.

Indeed, as Anne Barnard reported, the sarin attack fits into Assad’s broader strategy. She writes that, since at least 2012, the Syrian government “has adopted a policy of seeking total victory by making life as miserable as possible for anyone living in areas outside its control.” These attacks are designed to let the opposition know that it remains at the regime’s mercy, that neither international law nor the international community cannot protect it, and that surrender is the only option.

Again, there may be good reasons to doubt Barnard’s analysis or her sources, but those who find it inexplicable that Assad would use chemical weapons have never responded to her argument. [Continue reading…]

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Blaming religion for Middle East violence ignores nuance and absolves governments of their responsibility

Tristan Dunning writes: As the Islamic State group’s territorial project slowly but inexorably comes to an end in Iraq and Syria, the White House is once again trotting out the twin rationales of foreign fighters and the impending apocalypse to absolve itself of any responsibility for the rise and spread of extremist militant Islam.

Last week, US Special Presidential Envoy Brett McGurk revealed that the US-led coalition was compiling a database of foreign jihadists fighting for IS, thereby signalling that the White House may be preparing to shift the focus of its operations from the ongoing recruitment bazaars of Iraq and Syria, to the putative eschatological battle against extremist militant Islam on a global level.

In similar vein, White House Deputy Assistant to the President Sebastian Gorka asserted earlier this year that IS propagated the idea that Judgement Day was nigh and that now was the last chance to engage in jihad and thereby ascend to Paradise.

Invocations of such rationales as official explanations for the rise and persistence of extremist militant Islam are not only misleading, but also potentially counterproductive and dangerous. There are a variety of other more mundane reasons at play aside from supposed religious dogma. [Continue reading…]

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Syrian rebels feel betrayed by U.S. decision to end CIA support: ‘It will weaken America’s influence.’

The Washington Post reports: Syrian rebel commanders said Thursday that they were disappointed in the Trump administration’s decision to end a covert CIA weapons and training program for opposition fighters, an initiative that began under President Barack Obama but fizzled out amid battlefield losses and concerns about extremism within rebel ranks.

“We definitely feel betrayed,” said Gen. Tlass al-Salameh of Osoud al-Sharqiya, a group affiliated with the Free Syrian Army. Salameh and his deputies say that they have received CIA support to rout the Islamic State from areas of eastern Syria but that they have also fought battles against pro-government ­forces.

“It feels like we are being abandoned at a very difficult moment,” Salameh said. “It feels like they only wanted to help when we were fighting [the Islamic State]. Now that we are also fighting the regime, the Americans want to withdraw.” [Continue reading…]

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Trump’s war against ISIS in Syria: Why Putin, Assad, and Iran are winning

Robin Yassin-Kassab writes: In his inaugural address, U.S. President Donald Trump promised to “unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the earth.”

To be fair, he’s had only about six months, but already the project is proving a little more complicated than he hoped. First, ISIS has been putting up a surprisingly hard fight against its myriad enemies (some of whom are also radical Islamic terrorists). The battle for Mosul, Iraq’s third-largest city, has concluded, but at enormous cost to Mosul’s civilians and the Iraqi army. Second, and more importantly, there is no agreement as to what will follow ISIS, particularly in eastern Syria. There, a new great game for post-ISIS control is taking place with increasing violence between the United States and Iran. Russia and a Kurdish-led militia are also key players. If Iran and Russia win out (and at this point they are far more committed than the U.S.), President Bashar al-Assad, whose repression and scorched earth paved the way for the ISIS takeover in the first place, may be handed back the territories he lost, now burnt and depopulated. The Syrian people, who rose in democratic revolution six years ago, are not being consulted.

The battle to drive ISIS from Raqqa—its Syrian stronghold—is underway. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), supported by American advisers, are leading the fight. Civilians are paying the price. United Nations investigators lament a “staggering loss of life” caused by U.S.-led airstrikes on the city.

Though it’s a multiethnic force, the SDF is dominated by the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party, or PYD, whose parent organization is the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK. The PKK is listed as a terrorist organization by the United States (but of the leftist-nationalist rather than Islamist variety) and is currently at war with Turkey, America’s NATO ally. The United States has nevertheless made the SDF its preferred local partner, supplying weapons and providing air cover, much to the chagrin of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Now add another layer of complexity. Russia also provides air cover to the SDF, not to fight ISIS, but when the mainly Kurdish force is seizing Arab-majority towns from the non-jihadi anti-Assad opposition. The SDF capture of Tel Rifaat and other opposition-held towns in 2016 helped Russia and the Assad regime to impose the final siege on Aleppo.

Eighty percent of Assad’s ground troops encircling Aleppo last December were not Syrian, but Shiite militiamen from Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan, all armed, funded and trained by Iran. That put the American-backed SDF and Iran in undeclared alliance.

But those who are allies one year may be enemies the next. Emboldened by a series of Russian-granted victories in the west of the country, Iran and Assad are racing east, seeking to dominate the post-ISIS order on the Syrian-Iraqi border. Iran has almost achieved its aim of projecting its influence regionally and globally through a land corridor from Tehran to the Mediterranean via Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. In this new context, Assad and his backers are turning on the SDF. On June 18, pro-Assad forces attacked the SDF near Tabqa, west of Raqqa. When a regime warplane joined the attack, American forces shot it down. [Continue reading…]

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Trump ends covert CIA program to arm anti-Assad rebels in Syria, a move sought by Moscow

The Washington Post reports: President Trump has decided to end the CIA’s covert program to arm and train moderate Syrian rebels battling the government of Bashar al-Assad, a move long sought by Russia, according to U.S. officials.

The program was a central plank of a policy begun by the Obama administration in 2013 to put pressure on Assad to step aside, but even its backers have questioned its efficacy since Russia deployed forces in Syria two years later.

Officials said the phasing out of the secret program reflects Trump’s interest in finding ways to work with Russia, which saw the anti-Assad program as an assault on its interests. The shuttering of the program is also an acknowledgment of Washington’s limited leverage and desire to remove Assad from power.

Just three months ago, after the United States accused Assad of using chemical weapons, Trump launched retaliatory airstrikes against a Syrian air base. At the time, U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, said that “in no way do we see peace in that area with Assad at the head of the Syrian government.”

Officials said Trump made the decision to scrap the CIA program nearly a month ago, after an Oval Office meeting with CIA Director Mike Pompeo and national security adviser H.R. McMaster ahead of a July 7 meeting in Germany with Russian President Vladimir Putin. [Continue reading…]

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A sustainable solution for Syria will not be found by rehabilitating Assad

Kim Ghattas writes: Twenty-five years ago, French sociologist Michel Seurat penned a series of essays that brought to light what he described as “l’Etat de barbarie,” the state of barbarism, inherent in the Assads’ rule. He detailed their savagery in repressing the Islamist uprising of the early 1980s, with summary executions of dozens of villagers, hundreds of prisoners shot to death in their cells, and indiscriminate shelling of whole towns.

“The crumbling of the political legitimacy of the regime translates on the ground to a reactivation of forms of legitimacy that precede political structures,” he wrote. In other words, the solidarity of ethnic and sectarian groups, rather than sociopolitical organizations, held sway. President Hafez al-Assad’s political vision had devolved to consisting solely of “tying the destiny of the Alawite community to his own destiny.”

Seurat would pay the ultimate price for his work. He was kidnapped in Beirut in 1985, at the height of the civil war, by the Islamic Jihad, a group with ties to Syria and Iran. He was executed in captivity, his body only found and repatriated to France in 2005. As both Trump and Macron broach the possibility of reconciling themselves to Assad’s reign in Damascus, his writings remain a cautionary tale about the costs of that approach.

Bashar al-Assad himself was once the guest of a French president for Bastille Day. Nicolas Sarkozy, eager to do the opposite of everything his predecessor had done, rolled out the red carpet in 2008 for the Syrian leader, who had been transformed into an international pariah by Jacques Chirac and George W. Bush.

But Sarkozy’s solicitousness marked a reversion to an earlier pattern. If the Holy Grail for international diplomats is the achievement of regional peace in the Middle East, peace between Syria and Israel has long been identified as a first step toward it. As Henry Kissinger once said, “You can’t make war in the Middle East without Egypt, and you can’t make peace without Syria.” That one sentence sent endless diplomats and officials on the road to Damascus in a vain quest to persuade Bashar’s father, President Hafez al-Assad, to sign on the dotted line of various peace accords. The signature never came.

At first, there was more hope in Bashar, a British-educated ophthalmologist with a pretty wife, who kept making the right noises about peace and promising domestic reforms — promises that sounded good enough that everyone kept coming back, hoping the next visit would seal the deal.

Assad’s isolation began when his regime was accused of ordering the assassination of Lebanon’s former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in a massive truck bomb on Beirut’s seaside corniche on Feb. 14, 2005. Huge protests ensued in Lebanon, calling for an end to the 30-year Syrian occupation of that country. With Bush and Chirac, a close friend of Hariri, leading the charge, the international community ostracized Assad and forced his 15,000 troops into a humiliating retreat out of the country that the Assad family considered a part of Syria.

Sarkozy’s 2008 invitation to the “well behaved autocrat,” as Le Monde described him then, ended five years of painful isolation for Assad. It was a period during which his political obituary was being drafted and people close to the regime in Damascus would joke to you in hushed tones about who should turn off the lights on the way out of the country.

What motivated Sarkozy was the belief that unlike his predecessor, he could forge a different relationship with Assad, and that his persona and cunning could persuade the ruler of Damascus to change his ways. (The same self-confidence might be said to have motivated Secretary of State John Kerry, who was one of the last to withdraw his faith in Assad after his forces started shooting protesters in 2011.)

One can speculate about an alternative course of events if Sarkozy had not rehabilitated Assad in 2008, one where perhaps the pressure had not let up and Assad would have had to deliver on his vague promises to reform. Or possibly popular dissent would have swelled up sooner than it did in 2011, but would not have earned the same ruthless response from a leader already cowed into submission. In these scenarios Syria could have remained a country intact. We will never know.

But today it’s worth pondering the trajectory on which Macron’s approach is placing Syria and the region. What France wants from Syria is no longer peace with Israel, or even a rejection of its alliance with Iran. Assad, in any case, can deliver neither of those things. Macron’s focus is understandably on counterterrorism and stemming the flow of jihadis from Syria into Europe.

In his much-scrutinized and wide-ranging interview with Le Figaro, Macron made two key points on Syria. The first one was the statement about Assad not being the enemy of France. The other was a clarification of his position on Assad’s future. Having once said that there was no solution to the conflict in Syria with Assad in power, he clarified, “I never said that the destitution of Bashar al-Assad was a prerequisite for everything, because no one has introduced to me his legitimate successor.”

But as France well knows, there’s also a price for keeping Assad in power. In 1981, agents suspected of working for the Syrian secret service assassinated Louis Delamare, the French ambassador in Lebanon, in broad daylight in Beirut. In 1983, the two attacks against the U.S. Marines and French paratroopers in Beirut were blamed on the Islamic Jihad (an early version of Hezbollah), which was tied to Iran and Syria. In the mid-1980s, Paris suffered a string of terrorist attacks that killed dozens and were linked directly or indirectly to groups with ties to Syria.

This may seem like ancient history, but the Assad regime has also made veiled threats against the West far more recently. Assad’s cousin, businessman Rami Makhlouf, warned in a New York Times interview: “Nobody can guarantee what will happen after, God forbid anything happens to this regime. … They should know when we suffer, we will not suffer alone.”

It was another version of a favorite Syrian threat: We can help bring peace to the region, but ignore us at your own peril because we can cause havoc.

At the beginning of the uprising, Syria’s Grand Mufti threatened to send suicide bombers to Europe if Syria came under attack. There is nothing to indicate that the Syrian regime has any connection whatsoever to any of the attacks that recently occurred in Europe, but what dozens of French, Syrian, and Lebanese intellectuals point out in an open letter to Macron is that Assad helps create the environment in which radical groups and jihadis can thrive. Rehabilitating Assad only once again delays a sustainable solution to a problem that has now reached the shores of Europe. [Continue reading…]

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ISIS was a symptom. State collapse is the disease

Thanassis Cambanis writes: The collapse this month of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, has been greeted with joy and relief in many quarters, especially among the millions of civilians who directly suffered the extremist group’s rule. Much of the predictable analysis has focused on long-term trends that will continue to trouble the world: the resonance of extremist jihadi messaging, the persistence of sectarian conflict, the difficulty of holding together disparate coalitions like the clumsy behemoth that ousted ISIS from its strongholds in Raqqa and Mosul.

But jihadis and sectarians are not, contrary to popular belief, the most important engines of ISIS, Al Qaeda, and similar groups. Nor are foreign spy services the primary author of these apocalyptic movements — as many around the world wrongly believe.

No, the most critical factor feeding jihadi movements is the collapse of effective central governments — a trend in which the West, especially the United States, has been complicit.

An overdue alliance of convenience mobilized against the Islamic State three years ago, but only after leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had taken over enough territory to declare statehood. The ISIS caliphate was as much as a state — for as long as it lasted — as many other places in the Middle East. Most of the coalition members detested ISIS, but only the local members from Iraq and Syria whose families were dying or suffering under Islamic State rule were fully invested. For the rest of the anti-ISIS coalition, fighting the caliphate was one of many other priorities.

The glacial, slow-moving, coalition united against ISIS but bound by little else. It is sure to dissolve quickly now that the emergency is over. [Continue reading…]

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Why Macron is wrong about Assad

Muhammad Idrees Ahmad writes: There is much to celebrate in Emmanuel Macron’s ascent to the French presidency. The election was a resounding defeat for the forces of reaction. Macron conducted himself with decency and intelligence and achieved his victory without submitting to the prevailing xenophobic impulse. In acknowledging France’s imperial excesses, in standing up to Vladimir Putin, and in resisting Donald Trump’s provocations, he seemed to herald a bold new politics that would align power with principle.

Since assuming power, however, Macron’s statements have been more equivocal. His recent comments on Syria suggest that in the balance between ideals and pragmatism, the president is leaning heavier on the latter. Speaking to the European press, Macron announced his break with past policy. “I haven’t said the deposing of Bashar al-Assad is a prerequisite for everything,” he said. “Because no one has introduced me to his legitimate successor!” Instead, he emphasised the need for “a political and diplomatic roadmap”; because, “We won’t solve the question only with military force.”

The cliche about military force would be meaningful, if it came from the party that is committed to military victory. But the monopoly on violence in Syria is held by the regime and its allies, Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah. Together, they are responsible for over 90 percent of all civilian deaths. The West has deployed its military force primarily against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) and al-Qaeda, and, occasionally, also against anti-Assad fighters (often indiscriminately). France has never confronted Assad; and only under Trump has the US tackled the regime in five rare instances, the most significant being the cruise missile strike on the Shayrat airbase after the sarin attack on Khan Sheikhoun. [Continue reading…]

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Syria and the case for editorial accountability

Muhammad Idrees Ahmad writes: On June 29, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) published a comprehensive report confirming that the nerve agent used in the Syrian regime’s April 4 attack on Khan Sheikhoun that killed 92 was sarin. The conclusion was no surprise. The World Health Organisation (WHO) and Doctors Without Borders (known by its French initials, MSF) had already found the symptoms of the victims consistent with exposure to a nerve agent. In a separate analysis, the French government had matched sarin samples from the site to regime stock. A Human Rights Watch investigation also found the regime responsible for this and three other chemical attacks since December, and said the latest attack was “part of a broader pattern of Syrian government forces’ use of chemical weapons”.

However, the response from the regime and its supporters followed a familiar pattern. There was denial, deflection and deception. There were conspiracy theories. There was whataboutery. But effluvia from this dung heap merely fouled the air until it was ignited into a noxious fire by an inveterate pyromaniac. Enter Seymour Hersh.

Seymour Hersh, a once celebrated journalist, has been reluctant to cede the limelight. But the pride of place that he earned through hard work he now wants to keep by trading on his legacy alone. Hersh, who once did the legwork for his stories – finding sources, corroborating claims, verifying evidence – is now relying on the uncorroborated claims of anonymous sources to tell tall tales that contradict available evidence. The man who broke world-changing stories from My Lai to Abu Ghraib now hops from publication to publication, writing sensational drivel, sullying his reputation and diminishing his publishers’.

His latest story, published in the German daily Die Welt, was a colourful rendition of an extant conspiracy theory: that the deaths in Khan Sheikhoun did not result from a chemical attack but were caused by toxic discharge from a conventional attack on a jihadi facility. Based on the baroque testimony of an anonymous source, Hersh concludes that there was no sarin involved. [Continue reading…]

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How the Russians suckered Trump in Syria, and Iran comes out the big winner

Chareles Lister writes: The core principles underpinning the Trump administration’s new Syria policy are roughly as follows: The United States is only in Syria to fight the so-called Islamic State (widely known as ISIS) and is not in a position to directly challenge the legitimacy of the Bashar al-Assad regime, despite its many crimes. Meanwhile, it is to be conceded that Russia has invested heavily in Syria and its proposed establishment of “de-escalation zones” is the best path forward to securing stability.

With U.S. troops actively supporting our Syrian partners in a major assault on ISIS-held Raqqa, the second portion of U.S. Syria policy is being newly revealed by our expressed diplomatic support for Russian-mediated ceasefires and our direct role in negotiating one in Syria’s southwest.

While de-escalation by itself is a highly desirable state of affairs for humanitarian reasons, the U.S. is lending diplomatic cover to what is, in all respects, Russia’s foremost strategic mechanism for methodically guaranteeing an Assad victory by selectively freezing front lines in order to free up pro-regime forces to fight elsewhere.

By lending American support to such schemes, the Trump administration is failing to learn from recent history in Syria, where such agreements brought short-term stability to the benefit of one party over the other.

At the core of the agreement, which was sealed during a meeting between Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin in Hamburg last week, the U.S. and Jordan are responsible for coercing opposition groups to stop fighting, while Moscow will ensure the Assad regime, Iran, and Iranian-backed militias do the same.

This is not a new strategy—it is a consolidation of a policy developed by President Barack Obama, whose administration frequently called for Assad’s departure, but never seriously sought to realize it. By acknowledging the limits of our objectives in Syria, the U.S. is effectively admitting its defeat to Russia and Iran. Gone are the days of “leading from behind”; today we are following from the back. [Continue reading…]

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ISIS, despite heavy losses, still inspires global attacks

The New York Times reports: Three years ago, a black-clad cleric named Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ascended a mosque pulpit in the Iraqi city of Mosul and addressed the world as leader of a new terrorist state.

The announcement of the so-called caliphate was a high point for the extremist fighters of the Islamic State. Their exhibitionist violence and apocalyptic ideology helped them seize vast stretches of territory in Syria and Iraq, attract legions of foreign fighters and create an administration with bureaucrats, courts and oil wells.

Now, their state is crumbling.

In Syria, American-backed militias have surrounded Raqqa, the group’s capital, and breached its historic walls. Across the border, Iraqi forces have seized the remains of the Mosul mosque where Mr. Baghdadi appeared and besieged the remaining jihadists in a shrinking number of city blocks.

But the loss of its two largest cities will not spell a final defeat for the Islamic State — also known as ISIS, ISIL and Daesh — according to analysts and American and Middle Eastern officials. The group has already shifted back to its roots as an insurgent force, but one that now has an international reach and an ideology that continues to motivate attackers around the world.

“These are obviously major blows to ISIS because its state-building project is over, there is no more caliphate, and that will diminish support and recruits,” said Hassan Hassan, a senior fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy in Washington and a co-author of a book on the group. “But ISIS today is an international organization. Its leadership and its ability to grow back are still there.”

The Islamic State has overshadowed its jihadist precursors like Al Qaeda by not just holding territory, but by running cities and their hinterlands for an extended period, winning the group credibility in the militant world and allowing it to build a complex organization.

So even while its physical hold slips, its surviving cadres — middle managers, weapons technicians, propagandists and other operatives — will invest that experience in the group’s future operations.

And even though its hold on crucial urban centers is being shaken, the Islamic State is in no way homeless yet.

In Iraq, the group still controls Tal Afar, Hawija, other towns and much of Anbar Province. In Syria, most of its top operatives have fled Raqqa in the past six months for other towns still under ISIS control in the Euphrates River valley, according to American and Western military and counterterrorism officials who have received intelligence briefings. [Continue reading…]

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A new Syrian ceasefire offers an early test of Trump’s friendship with Putin

The Washington Post reports: The first attempt by the Trump administration to cooperate with Russia on an international crisis got underway on Sunday, with the implementation of a cease-fire in southwestern Syria that appeared to be widely holding.

If the truce can be maintained, it could open the door to deeper cooperation between the United States and Russia on ways to quell the violence and to progress on other cease-fire deals being pressed elsewhere in Syria.

The guns fell silent well ahead of a noon deadline, residents in the cease-fire zone said, lending hope that it would stop the violence for at least a while and save lives.

The agreement to work on a cease-fire in Syria was the first publicized achievement of the meeting on Friday between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Details remain vague, however, and it is unclear whether the agreement will lead to cooperation toward an enduring solution to Syria’s six-year-old war.

This cease-fire is being referred to by the two powers as a “de-escalation,” reflecting the modest expectations for success after several previous failed attempts by President Obama to work with Russia to end the fighting.

What makes this effort different, however, is that the peace push is now being driven by Russia, which took the lead in international diplomacy after the defeat of the Syrian rebels in their Aleppo stronghold in December.

The cease-fire signals U.S. acquiescence to a broader Russian plan to end the violence by creating a series of de-escalation zones around the country, to be sponsored by the regional or international powers with influence in each area. An attempt to consolidate a similar de-escalation zone in the north in collaboration with Turkey, Syria’s northern neighbor, has already somewhat reduced the violence there.

This accord creates a separate mechanism for the United States and Jordan to use their influence with allied rebels in southwestern Syria to halt the fighting while Russia exerts pressure on its ally, the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad.

The area affected by the cease-fire includes Daraa, the city where the revolt against Assad first flared in 2011, and where intensified fighting occurred in recent months, with the government launching an offensive aimed at recapturing the city. Also covered is the neighboring province of Quneitra, which has been a flash point in recent months between Israel and government forces, including the Iranian-backed militias whose advances toward the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights have alarmed Tel Aviv. [Continue reading…]

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Mosul liberation will not be end of ISIS

Ali Hashem writes: Beneath the destroyed minaret of Mosul, known as the “hunchback,” rests the rubble of what used to be the great mosque of the city. The historical Grand al-Nuri Mosque was built eight centuries ago by Noureddine Zanki, a medieval Muslim leader who paved the way for Saladin, the founder of the Ayyubid dynasty, to confront the crusaders and take over Jerusalem after the decisive battle of Hattin in 1187 — by making Sunni Muslim orthodoxy prevail over Shiism.

Back then, the Muslims’ lands were annihilated by the crusaders, while their leadership was weak and divided between the Abbasid dynasty in Baghdad and the Fatimid rule in Cairo, alongside other small Islamic princedoms scattered from Persia to Mosul to Aleppo. The Shiite-Sunni rift during that period reached its peak, and Zanki played an important role in restoring Sunni power by defeating the Shiite Hamdanid dynasty that ruled from Mosul to Aleppo in today’s Iraq and Syria.

Mosul itself is a place with geopolitical importance throughout history: The Mongols, the Timurids, the Ottomans and the Persians all either occupied or tried to occupy the city over the past centuries. “Mosul” means “connector” in Arabic, which may be the reason why famous 12th-century Arab geographer and biographer Yaqut al-Hamawi described Mosul as “the gate to Iraq, the key to Khorasan and the road to Azerbaijan.” [Continue reading…]

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Trump gave Putin exactly what he wanted

Masha Gessen writes: While American news media offered differing interpretations of the meeting between President Trump and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, debating whether Mr. Trump had shown resolve or had fallen into a trap set by Mr. Putin, the Russian press disagreed on only one thing: the proper translation of the word “tremendous,” which Mr. Trump used to describe the meeting. Headlines in state-owned media, state-dominated media, and the lone independent Web-based TV channel offered translations that hewed closer to “grand,” “outstanding,” or “amazing.” Those distinctions aside, all agreed: The meeting was a triumph.

Mr. Putin has for years — 17 years, to be exact, for this is how long he has been in power — been clear about what he wanted from his relationship with the United States president: He wants to be treated as an equal partner on the world stage and not to be questioned about or pressed on the Russian government’s actions inside Russia or in what he considers his sphere of influence. Despite the friendly tenor of Mr. Putin’s relationship with George W. Bush and the offer of a “reset” made by Barack Obama’s administration, Mr. Putin never achieved his objective — until now. His fourth American president has given him exactly what he wanted: respect, camaraderie and freedom from criticism.

The one accomplishment of the meeting — a limited cease-fire in Syria — is exactly what Mr. Putin wanted. Not the cease-fire, that is: He wanted an acknowledgment that the United States and Russia are equal negotiating parties in the Syrian conflict. He spent years cajoling and then blackmailing the Obama administration into accepting Russia’s decisive role in the Middle East. Now, Mr. Trump has handed him much more than that. He has demonstrated that Russia and the United States can negotiate Syrian life and death without involving any Syrians. [Continue reading…]

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What Assad has won

Kamel Daoud writes: The Arab springs are nearly all out of season; everywhere except in Tunisia, they are aging poorly.

In the beginning, after a popular uprising, it was the dictator who fled, by airplane, as did president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia in early 2011. Now it’s the opposite that is happening: It’s the people who are fleeing, for instance from Syria, by sea and land.

This reversal raises an essential question, both simple and tragic: Can one still call for democracy after the victory of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, even if that victory turns out to be temporary, as some predict? What does it mean for the peoples of the Maghreb and the Middle East?

For many, the first lesson to be drawn from the Syrian case is obvious: One can’t always win the revolution, or at least not as fast as one would like. So far Assad has come out of the conflict alive, even strengthened — at the cost of the slaughter of half his people. His longevity goes to show that being wrong and facing fierce opposition from dissidents, an army and a large swath of the international community aren’t enough to unseat a dictator.

Assad, by killing so many Syrians, has also killed the dream of democracy for many other Syrians, as well as for plenty of people elsewhere in the Arab world. They can see that a revolutionary often ends up a martyr, a tortured prisoner, a militiaman in the pay of foreign forces or an unwelcome refugee. And neither his children nor his people are the better for it. That’s enough to sow doubt in even the most democratic of minds and the most fervent of revolutionaries.

And so here is the first Assad effect: The perception that democracy is costly — perhaps too costly. [Continue reading…]

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