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US should ditch ‘plan B’ for Syria

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The failure to date of Turkish-backed Syrian armed groups to retake the Syrian border town of al-Rai from the Islamic State (IS) should be a warning to US intelligence officials reportedly preparing a “plan B” for Syria, should the cessation of hostilities collapse.

According to The Wall Street Journal, the Central Intelligence Agency and its regional partners are drawing up plans to provide more advanced arms, possibly including anti-aircraft weapons, to Syrian opposition forces as a contingency plan. Old habits and bad ideas seem to die hard in some Washington policy circles. One might recall, for example, the failure of the ill-fated initial train and equip mission, which cost $382 million to train 180 fighters, 95 of whom are reportedly still active. But instead of coming to a reasonable conclusion of “been there, done that, that didn’t work,” for many understandable reasons, the CIA is consulting with Turkey and Saudi Arabia on a scheme to ramp up the capabilities of Syrian proxies, which would of course be devastating for the Syrian people who have enjoyed a mild reprieve from the bloodbath of the past five years, as Mohammed al-Khatieb reported from Aleppo last week.

The divide between the United States and Turkey over the role of Syrian Kurdish groups has further complicated the campaign against Jabhat al-Nusra and IS in northern Syria, and is a major reason why a plan B would fail.

Fehim Tastekin writes that the Turkish-backed operation in al-Rai has turned into a “fiasco.” The weeklong campaign has so far gone poorly, with IS putting up a fierce defense. The plan appears to have been hatched after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appealed to US President Barack Obama to back off support for the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the leading force in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and instead work through armed groups linked to the Turkish National Intelligence Service, “a composite force of Turkmens, Free Syrian Army factions and Salafists,” according to Tastekin.

Turkey’s Syria policies will only become more problematic as there is little or no hope for a “cessation of hostilities” with the Kurdistan Workers Party. Metin Gurcan writes, “The milder meteorological conditions will allow the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) to become more mobile. With improved logistics support, the PKK could integrate its urban units, which have been operating independently, and transform them into a regional force and escalate fighting. Security forces, which are aware of these realities, are frantically preparing. Security officials in Ankara expect multiple, simultaneous PKK operations on the ground or actions in the cities at the end of April. Ankara has reacted by increasing the number of special operations teams trained in urban warfare, appropriate vehicles and weaponry.”

Tastekin concludes, “Turkey’s tactical moves designed to keep the YPG away from the area are impeding a real and meaningful struggle against IS. The expectation is that if the Kurds and their Arab allies move against Menbic, Turkey will arrange for a repeat of the al-Rai offensive. If the Syrian army succeeds in the “Great Aleppo War,” the northern front will be even more complicated, so much so that even Turkey won’t be able to cope with it. Then, the ‘with Kurds or without Kurds’ debate will become irrelevant.”

Despite the leaks of a plan B, UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura is not ready to write off progress since the US-Russian agreement in February, despite a breathless report in The Washington Post on April 14 about the “apparent collapse” of the cessation of hostilities. At the start of a new round of Syrian peace talks in Geneva, de Mistura told reporters April 13, “We need to make sure, at any cost, that the cessation of hostilities, in spirit and in substance, continues to give hope to the Syrian people, because that is what made all of them believe that, in fact, even if they have to wait for the intra-Syrian talks, their lives are at least improved.”

Laura Rozen reports that US concerns about the challenges to the cessation of hostilities are in part the result of disputes over the targeting of Jabhat al-Nusra in and around Aleppo by the Syrian military and its backers, especially Iran and Russia, as some of the armed groups supported by the United States and its regional partners are in close proximity to Jabhat al-Nusra, which is al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria.

The relationship and proximity of other Syrian armed groups to Jabhat al-Nusra is a matter of some urgency. UN Security Council Resolution 2254 reiterates that the cessation of hostilities does not apply to Jabhat al-Nusra “and all other individuals, groups, undertakings, and entities associated with al-Qaeda or [IS].” This column has zero tolerance for those who run with al-Qaeda, even if for tactical reasons or a shared hatred of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Plan B, in our score, should be kept on the shelf for good, if not a candidate for the shredder. The thought of advanced arms, including anti-aircraft weapons, falling into the possession of sectarian Salafi groups such as Jaish al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham, which are fellow travelers with Jabhat al-Nusra, and are backed by Saudi Arabia and Turkey, should be something to be avoided, not discussed.

The bottom line is that the US-Russia partnership on Syria is mostly working, and is Syria’s best bet for an end to the war. Rather than a plan B, a better approach would be to build on what is working and establish a mechanism for both monitoring potential cessation violations, which is under discussion, and enhanced intelligence coordination among the United States, Russia and its regional partners in the International Syria Support Group about Jabhat al-Nusra and IS, especially in and around Aleppo, in anticipation of a likely offensive to retake the city, which would be a turning point in the war.

Kamal Sheikho reports from Kobani that “the latest military movements by the SDF and armed Syrian opposition factions in northern Syria aim to cut off the supply route to IS, which links the eastern and northern Aleppo countryside to Raqqa, and to bottleneck IS militants by cutting off the remaining border passages with Turkey. Analysts and experts in Syrian affairs believe it is likely for the coming days to witness heated and decisive battles between conflicting parties, changing the balance of power in favor of the forces fighting IS.”

As we wrote in January, “If the Syrian army, backed by its Iranian and Russian allies, retakes Aleppo, the city’s liberation will come by directly defeating terrorists and armed groups that are already deserting the battlefield. A government victory would be of a different order and have a different impact than the negotiated departures of besieged armed opposition forces in Homs and around Damascus. The people of Aleppo would experience a flat-out victory by the government and a defeat, and exodus, by the armed groups. … A Syrian government victory in Aleppo could be the beginning of the end of the sectarian mindset that would have been alien to the city prior to 2011. There is no more appropriate city to begin Syria’s healing. A Syrian government victory in Aleppo will make it harder to rationalize Western backing for jihadi groups that want to keep up the fight against long odds in the rest of the country. IS and al-Qaeda may prefer, over time, to begin to relocate to Libya and other countries where they can avoid the pounding from the US-led anti-IS coalition and Russian- and Iranian-backed Syrian forces. This may already be happening, and if so, it is to be cheered by those who seek a unified, secular and nonsectarian Syria, as outlined in the Vienna Communique, and as is Aleppo’s tradition.”


6 reasons not to intervene in Syria

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By going to the UN to defend France’s position at a time when his popularity is at its lowest in France, François Hollande is persisting in his strategic mistake and his wish to make a military intervention in Syria part of a UN resolution. This proposition will never be accepted by the Security Council because, although the use of chemical weapons in Syria is recognized by the UN, there is no direct proof that this was initiated by Assad’s regime, allowing Russia to affirm the opposite.
A part from there being no legitimate international right without a UN authorization -that the Americans did without when they went to war in Iraq, pretexting the presence of mass destruction weapons- here are six reasons why a military intervention in Syria would be a strategic and geopolitical mistake.

1. War would be added to war. What will happen if an occidental missile hits a chemical weapon depot and causes the deaths of thousands of Syrians? This may be what already happened on the outskirts of Damas. According to UN inspectors, shots were fired by Al Assad’s forces but chemical weapons experts have suggested that these shots could have hit the clandestine lab of a rebel group making Sarin: “Sarin is not a difficult substance to manufacture, with a few chemical engineers and explosives experts it’s possible to produce enough to destroy a city. Remember the attacks perpetrated on the Tokyo underground by the Aum sect on March 20, 1995. Haruki Murakami’s excellent book “Underground” illustrates this well. There are also risks for the people preparing the Sarin. Mistakes are always possible and could have dramatic consequences on their environment. A loyalist’s artillery or mortar shot could also have hit such a laboratory ”. What will happen if after the air strike Al Assad’s regime does not fall? If the Russian ships crossing the Mediterranean also hit the rebel positions or if Iran sends thousands of fighters to support Assad, will we be able to contain such a progression?

2. We would be jumping out of the frying pan into the fire. By delivering weapons to the FSA we will be taking the risk of finding them between the hands of Al Qaida Islam radicals. Who can be sure that Islam Radicals have not infiltrated the FSA? They fight side by side in the field and who could stop a member of Al Qaida getting hold of the weapon of a dead or injured FSA rebel? That is also the opinion of Arnaud Danjean, president of the Security and Defense sub-commission of the European Parliament who doesn’t hide his scepticism: “such deliveries will be totally uncontrollable”, adding that “those that are will concern only the non-central units and are therefore not decisive”. This ex DGSE (Direction générale de la Sécurité extérieure) member who served in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990’s was already opposed to lifting the embargo on weapons destined to the Bosnian government or anti-Albanian rebels of the UCK at the time of the conflict in ex-Yugoslavia. The European deputy concluded that “the main problem is still the absolute fragmentation of the rebel groups”.

3. We are openly taking sides in a confessional civil war. It is not a revolution that is taking place in Syria. If al Assad is still in power after two and a half years it’s because he is supported by all religious minorities (Alawites, Shiites, and Christians of all denominations) who lived in peace on Syrian lands. For them, a Sunni Islamist victory would mean death or exile. In Islam, the Alawites are considered to be traitors . In fact in the XIVth Century this induced a fatwa from the Salafist scholar Ibn Taymiyya, predecessor or the current Wahhabism, ordering their persecution and genocide. The fatwa has never been condemned and is still in practice today especially among Salafists, Wahhabists and the Muslim Brotherhood. Persecuted for centuries the Alawites didn’t take their revenge until Hafez al Assad (Bachar’s father)’s coup. The confessional civil war is linked to Syrian History. In 1980 a Muslim Brotherhood commando soldier entered the Army cadets’ school in Alep; getting rid of student Sunnite officers he massacred 80 Alawite cadets with a knife and assault rifle in application of the fatwa. The Muslim Brotherhood paid the expenses in 1982 in Hama –the community’s fief– that was practically destroyed by his brother Rifaat al-Assad causing more than 10,000 victims.

4. We would be openly joining a coalition dominated by religious obscurantism. Saudi-Arabia, the first sponsor of the rebels in this confessional war, is a monarchy from the Middle Ages that promotes the Hanbalist School, the most traditionalist of Sunni Islam that abolishes women’s rights and is the origin of the radical Wahhabist current and the terrorist organizations the Muslim brothers and the Al Qaida Salafists. The second sponsor, the Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan close to the Muslim Brotherhood wants to impose a rigorous Islam and who is arming “katibas” that are composed of Turkish and Kurdish radical Islamists.

5. We are exposing ourselves to retaliation from the other camp: boycotting of French companies in Iraq and Iran, or even terrorist attacks against our expats and on our territory. Indeed, Iraq and Iran, mainly Shiite-dominated countries, support al Assad because they know that an Islamist caliph would export civil war to their country. This is already the case in Iraq where the Sunnite minority (20% of the population) abused by Maliki, is rebelling against Shiite power and is protecting the terrorists claiming to be part of the Al Qaida movement. Iraq is already polluted by the Syrian civil war (in August 570 dead and 1200 injured were counted on Iraqi soil).

6. We would contribute to creating a new cold war climate with Russia. This would serve American interests at a time when Europe’s security, economic and political interests should lead Europe to seal a strategic alliance with Russia. The country is home to 25 million Muslims –as is Europe-, and owns raw material that we need and would allow the voice of Europe to be heard in international relations that will be dominated in the near future by the Sino-American condominium.

General (2S) Jean-Bernard PINATEL