Geneva talks doomed: Turkey’s changing position in Syria is pushing Russia into more aggression

 

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The US- Russia relationship over Syria will be blown apart and pushed into opposition

Erdogan is hiding behind Saudi Arabia and mimics the US hostility towards Iran

The Sukhoi return is expected more aggressive than ever

Key words: Syria, Russia, Geneva, USA, Turkey, ISIS, AQ.

By Elijah J. Magnier: @EjmAlrai 

After the collapse of 9 months of peace negotiations, Geneva hosts today a meeting about  Syria amid differences between the main regional influential players and an unclear US stance, which will inevitably be reflected in the results of the talks. The main player, Turkey, with troops on the ground in northern Syria, is constantly changing position and plans, creating not only confusion but renewing hostility in the country: a warning of the pessimistic outcome to come.

The US stand:

President Donald Trump’s foreign policy is still unclear, and towards Syria in particular. The US administration has expressed its will to fight terrorism, but mentions only the “Islamic State” (ISIS) group in Syria, and disregarding al-Qaida who are represented by “Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (ex-Nusra). Moreover, Trump is expressing his wish to form “safe zones” in the north, asking the Gulf countries to pay for these “zones”. He is also sending military equipment and special forces support for training and guidance to the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). His aim is to push the Kurds, working alongside and leading the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), towards the ISIS Syrian capital in north-east Syria: Raqqah. Nevertheless, the US plan is unclear and doomed for several reasons:

  1. Declaring “war on terrorism” can’t be limited to ISIS. Al-Qaida is well-established and announced its presence in all the Syrian fronts with two-thirds of the forces on each front. The group is against democracy or any election run by the UN or any other establishment. It is also against any peace talks and has already attacked and split the Syrian rebels, leaving these no choice but to join its ranks or join Ahrar al-Sham, the second biggest rebel groups in Syria.
  2. The US can’t combine a support for the YPG and the Turkish forces and an interest in Syria at the same time, specially in relation to the forthcoming attack against Raqqah. Turkey considers the YPG to be a Syrian affiliation of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). This  organisation (not the YPG) is considered terrorist by Turkey as well. The PKK is waging a ruthless military campaign against Ankara, claiming the right to a Kurdish autonomous state within Turkey.
  3. The US plan to “liberate” Raqqah with 10.000 or 20.000 Kurds and Arabs is not a feasible plan. In Mosul, Iraq is pushing forces between 50.000 to 60.000 strong, supported by Iraqi and coalition helicopters and jets to retake Mosul. The battle for Mosul is far from being a piece of cake, any more than Raqqah, even if that Syrian ISIS city is much smaller than the Iraqi one and holds less than half a million civilians.
  4. The US is promoting “safe zones” for immigrants to stay in Syria and refrain from travelling to Europe or the US. Actually, there is no need for a safe zone or zones because the number of displaced Syrians is no longer increasing and quite static at the moment, following the battle of Aleppo. Any safe zone is considered to be part of an American plot to occupy the north-east of Syria and to establish military bases in the country. Such a step will be faced with a harsh response from Damascus and its allies who would be more than happy to revive the 1983 Beirut barracks and attack the American forces, similar to the 2003-2011 Iraq occupation.

Turkey:

Several months ago, the key for the success of any political talks in Syria was the Turkish involvement, due to Ankara’s influence over rebels and jihadists. This is what pushed Iran and Russia to restore their relationship with Ankara and bring it into the Asatan (Kazakhstan) negotiation. Nevertheless, Turkey was unable to bring to the table one of the biggest rebel groups in northern Syria, Ahrar al-Sham.

Following the coup of al-Qaida against groups who participated in the Astana talks, the rebels are more divided than ever, afraid of any move that could increase their partition and make them easy to overwhelm by the Syrian Army and its allies. Nevertheless, Turkey continues its attack on al-Bab (the ISIS stronghold), unable to get a quick victory. But Turkey is changing position and turning its political guns against yesterday’s allies. Ankara understands today that Trump is aggressive toward Iran and gave his blessing to Saudi Arabia. Therefore Erdogan is taking a new position: hiding behind Saudi Arabia, mimicking the US hostility towards Iran and, in consequences, declaring himself  once more against the Syrian President Bashar Assad.

  1. Turkey has harshly attacked Iran, considering it to be the source of terrorism in the region. This shows a real u-turn in Turkish policy that will definitely be reflected in the situation on the ground in Syria. In fact, Damascus and Iran, along with their allies, are pushing forces to counter al-Bab and prevent any expansion of territory of the Turkish forces toward Raqqah.
  2. Turkey is applauding the US plan of “safe zone(s)” only to offer its forces inside the US Trojan horse. This upsets Russia and Damascus, confirming that Turkey, no longer a partner, is disrespectful of the previous commitment to keep Syrian away from partition. Establishing safe zone(s) can only lead to dividing Syria and disrupting the Russian plan to establish itself in a stable united country. Such a move will have serious practical repercussions on the advance of the Turkish forces and their allies in Syria.
  3. The Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared that his forces “will liberate the Syrian town of Manbij”, already liberated from ISIS by the US-backed SDF and YPG Kurdish forces last year. Erdogan’s verbal intention is considered “a pipe dream” by the Syrian government and Russia. Russia considers the Syrian Kurds as potential allies and Damascus is certain that, once the war is over, it will be possible to reach a win-win deal with the Syrian Kurds, keeping the country safe from partition. Damascus will, not only oppose Turkey in this manoeuvre, but is ready to fight back any force advancing towards its army in the north of Syria, particularly the Turkish forces and their proxies at this moment since, as we have seen, Turkey is shifting its policy, veering towards the unknown.
  4. Turkey offered to the US to go to Raqqah: such a plan is far from being possible. The distance between al-Bab and Raqqah is over 200km, and the territory is controlled by the Syrian Army, ISIS and the Kurds (who are considered by Ankara to be terrorists). The performance of the Turkish forces and their proxies in al-Bab is far from being encouraging. Therefore, the Turkish offer to go to Raqqah is unrealistic and unrealisable.

Syria:

The Syrian Army and its allies considered the Astana talks premature but went along with Russia, believing it was possible to reach a global cease-fire and split al-Qaida from other rebels who will join the peace talks. Turkey was unable to bring Ahrar al-Sham around the negotiation table and al-Qaida turned the table on everybody, forcing a return to the combat.

The Syrian Army is moving today on several fronts:

. from al-Bab toward deir-Hafer, to create a demarcation line with Turkey and its proxies and cutting the road toward Raqqah, preventing Turkey and its proxies from occupying further land in northern Syria;

. Palmyra (Tadmur) to regain control of the ancient city and push toward Deir-ezzour and Raqqah from the east. Again, the aim is to prevent any force from reducing the geographic seize of Syria as its is known today;

. Gathering forces on the rural Aleppo fronts to enlarge the control of its forces toward tel el-Eiss and Fua/Kefraya and move toward Idlib, the al-Qaida stronghold.

All this indicates that Russia will find itself engaged in a broad combat before forcing the rebels to sit at the negotiation table and shift Turkey out of its unrealistic “multi-front dream”. Turkey is showing that it is not an adequate partner for Russia and Damascus. It is unstable in its strategy in Syria and its shifting alliance making it untrustworthy. Therefore, a more aggressive Syrian Army will be seen in the coming months on several fronts with the return of the Sukhoi more active than ever. Russia is waiting to see how Trump’s policy materialises in Syria. The Kremlin is refraining from being the initiator of further hostilities so as to avoid a rapid US blow back.

The US policy in Syria seems frantic and far-fetched without efficient powerful allies on the ground, and is unable to retake cities from ISIS with its Kurdish proxies alone. And the “honeymoon” between Washington and Riyadh will certainly have a substantial negative effect on the war in Syria. This will increase the closeness between  Russia and Iran, but the tension between US and Russia is also expected to increase: one side (the US) wants the partition and the other (Russia) wants a unified Syria without al-Qaida and ISIS, and without Turkey occupying the north of Syria and a Saudi Arabia return to the Bilad al-Sham. At this stage one can only speculate on what this clash of incompatible objectives will produce on the ground in Syria.

 

 

 

Hezbollah and Syria will find themselves partnered in any future war against Israel

 

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A war between Israel and Hezbollah will be the most devastating ever for both sides, and what about Russia?

Key words: Israel, Hezbollah, Hizballah, Syria, Iran, Lebanon.

Publish here:    via

Damascus, by Elijah J. Magnier – @EjmAlrai

“Hezbollah and Syria will find themselves partnered in any future war aiming to hit the Iranian proxy in its bases in Lebanon and Syria because they share the same destiny”.

This is what a decision-maker in the Syrian Capital told Al Rai when asked about the reason behind Hezbollah’s escalation threat against Israel issued by Secretary General Sayed Hasan Nasrallah. Nasrallah warned that the Dimona nuclear reactor and ammonia containers in Haifa will be targeted by the hundreds of long range missiles provided by Iran, if Israel decides to go to war against his group.

Hezbollah maintains a solid military presence in Syria with all its various branches and institutions related to the presence of tens of thousands of its militants since 2013. The mountains dividing Lebanon and Syria provide excellent shelter for hosting and protecting the highly destructive Fateh-110 4th generation and other similar solid fuel missiles, which are capable of carrying between 250 to 500 kg of explosive and cover the entire geography of Israel. For years, Hezbollah has been involved in constructing underground shelters for its missiles launchers in Syria, an essential stage that Hezbollah and the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad agreed upon in the case of a future war.

Israel maintains over 200 atomic bombs at the Negev Nuclear Research Centre referred to as the Dimona reactor. This nuclear reactor was built in the 50s with the French assistance, following the Protocol of Sèvres agreement. Israel has never acknowledged its possession of nuclear arms. It was only in 1986 when Mordechai Vanunu, a former technician at Dimona, fled to the United Kingdom, that top-secret evidence about the Israeli’s nuclear facility and capability was revealed.

Iran, Syria and Hezbollah believe the US President Donald Trump is aiming to cripple Iran in the Middle East and is escalating its (for now) verbal attack with the full support of the Middle Eastern countries. This verbal attack may well be translated into serious attacks against Iran proxies in the Middle East but not necessarily a direct attack on Iran. The possibility of a military campaign against Iran is ruled out by Iran’s retaliatory capability, with effects that could seriously damage several countries of the Middle East. It would be more appropriate to attack Hezbollah – it is believed – which represents the main and strongest Iranian arm in the Middle East.

Hezbollah is on the “terror list” of the US, some European countries, but it is feared above all, by Middle Eastern countries, including the Arab League who have it on their own list. Therefore, any attack against Hezbollah would be viewed positively by the main countries of the region (i.e. Saudi Arabia, Emirates, Bahrein) and could also be supported financially. Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in his speech last September to the United Nations General Assembly: “Many other states in the region recognize that Israel is not their enemy. They recognize that Israel is their ally. Our common enemies are Iran and ISIS (the “Islamic State” terrorist group)”.

“So countries in the Middle East are ready to finance a war against Hezbollah, considered a terrorist organization and a spoiler of their plans in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. And Hezbollah’s forces prevented the fall of Damascus in 2013 when al-Qaida and rebels were in the heart of the capital. Hezbollah was and still is the spearhead of forces in Quseyr, Qalamoun, Zabadani, Homs, Aleppo, Lattakia, Daraa- all over the Syrian geography, in fact. The war against ISIS and al-Qaida is far from over. It would be a blow to Syria itself if Hezbollah were attacked and pulled away from the Syrian war. Therefore, there is no doubt that Syria will be part of any war between Israel and Hezbollah,” said the source.

Israel bombed Syria more than 15 times during recent years. It is Syria’s right to retaliate, regardless of the consequences. Targeting Hezbollah means targeting the stability of Syria and the possibility of ending the war in that country”.

Syria and Hezbollah believe that a war with Israel would force Russia to intervene not in favour of one side against the other but to stop the war. A war in Syria would destabilise the Russian plan in Bilad al-Sham, aiming to end the war and establish Russia in the Middle East for at least the next 50 years.

“Hezbollah is not willing to start a war. Nasrallah’s words on “red lines” and his will to target Haifa and Dimona aim at creating a strategic balance: the destruction on both sides would be devastating, therefore it is better to avoid starting a war. It doesn’t mean he wants war. Both sides are aware of the impossibly high loss of life and damage to infrastructure. His words therefore serve as a reminder of the destructive scenario which will ensue if Israel, supported by direct US military assistance and the blessing and finance of Middle Eastern countries, decides to go to war”, said the source.

The Hezbollah threat was indeed on the schedule discussed between Netanyahu and Trump at the White House. Nasrallah believes Trump wants to be part of the history and is focusing on Iran. Hezbollah, representing of Iran’s arm in the Middle East, has lost over 1,600 men and 8,000 wounded in Syria and could be under strain. Therefore, there will be a time (if the US were to be a direct participant in this war) maybe around this coming summer, when the best opportunity presents itself.

This is the scenario that Hezbollah believes feasible, but it can’t be adamant about it happening. The military apparatus in Hezbollah offer Israeli banks of objectives that are constantly updated, and recalled back to Lebanon some of the most experience special forces units, the “Ridwan forces”, freed from several parts of Syria due to reconciliation between the government and rebels around Damascus and in other parts of the country.

The long war in Syria and the presence of a non-hostile (to Hezbollah) new Lebanese President, Michel Aoun have spared Lebanon a much more aggressive Hezbollah approach toward the many hostile groups in Lebanon. This organisation is much stronger than the Lebanese Army or any other non-state group in the Middle East. It is better armed, superior in men and infrastructure, and managed to control a surface larger than Lebanon during its war in Syria. Hezbollah is exerting a very high level of self-control so far, and is navigating in the middle of a boiling Middle East with overwhelming sectarianism. The umbilical cord linked directly to Iran imposes on Hezbollah a state-like behaviour rather than a group or organisational impulsive attitude, domestically. The 7 Mai 2008, when Hezbollah took control of the Lebanese Capital in few hours with minimum casualties was the only moment when Hezbollah showed some of its real strength and demonstrated highly sophisticated planning in the way Beirut was occupied. If  wounded by any war – which is impossible to eliminate because it is embedded in the Shia population and certainly not detached from it – will Hezbollah be able to continue exerting such a control? That is the question!

Syria prepared for new round of violence: over 85% of belligerents are excluded from the ceasefire

 

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Published here:  v

Key words: Russia, Turkey, Syria, Iran, Hezbollah.

Elijah J. Magnier: @EjmAlrai

Belligerents in Syria are preparing for a new round of violence despite the ongoing preparations by the main two guarantors (Russia and Turkey) for the Astana-Kazakhstan peace talks.

These coincide with the end of the US Obama administration and the beginning of the new era led by President Donald Trump.

 

The main reason for this war preparation and the ceasefire rejection is the exclusion of the main groups who represent tens of thousands of militants. These are: the “Islamic State” (ISIS), Al-Qaida (Nusra/Fateh al-Sham) and similar jihadist groups, plus pro-Turkey Ahrar al-Sham.

 

Despite the agreement on the ceasefire between Moscow and Ankara, essential countries involved in the Syria war, i.e. Saudi Arabia and Qatar, were excluded from the first round of the Astana peace talks and did not delegate their wishes to Turkey to negotiate on their behalf. These Middle Eastern countries refuse, to-date, to raise the white flag, and they still enjoy significant influence over tens of thousands of militants fighting in Syria, demonstrating  the failure of the Russian-Turkish meeting in Kazakhstan. The exclusion of the US and Europe is also a factor presaging an unsuccessful outcome, a by-product of Russia’s pressing determination to end the Syrian conflict. Turkey has not said its last word: it has not committed to abide by Russia’s terms in reaching the end of the war in Syria. Moreover it has refrained from imposing on its proxy, Ahrar al-Sham, the signature and agreement on the ceasefire, and abandoning the choice of war: this despite the loss of Aleppo.

 

Also, Damascus and its allies consider Russia is in too much of a hurry, trying to reach an immature political compromise for fear of being stuck in the Syrian quagmire. The “Afghanistan nightmare” seems to dominate the Russian politicians, causing the failure of two out of three ceasefires “imposed” by Russia these last months. It looks as if – at least according to Damascus and its allies –  the third ceasefire is will fail dramatically, simply because conditions and circumstances for its success are absent.

 

The Russian announcement to pull out its forces from Syria is irrelevant because the 4,500 officers and soldiers are still spread all over Syria, operating on the ground.The group of ships led by the Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier is due to leave as part of its routine end-of-mission and the presence of the naval group was in any case a political move directed at the US, asserting Russia’s determination to face all challenges in Syria.

 

Damascus and Tehran believe that Russia’s absence for over 30 years from the Middle Eastern arena accounts for its inadequate negotiation skills.. The Middle East understands the language of “forceful negotiation” and many players have their own agenda, willing to fight to defend their interests in the region and trying to have an influence over the course of events, mainly in Syria and Iraq.

 

The Turkish role is crucial but still unclear, its political approach in Syria fluctuating  depending on the circumstances: in al-Bab where Turkish forces are engaged against ISIS, Ankara is in need of Russian support to operate in the area and push forces further towards Raqqah. Turkey is waiting for the Obama administration’s exit, marking a distance from the US until a clear stand toward the Middle East is materialised by the new President Trump. Turkey is trying to contain the reaction of its proxies in Syria who reject any compromise unless it includes the end of the President Bashar al-Assad’s rule.

 

Turkey is avoiding any hits against al-Qaida in Syria to avoid repercussions on its national security and circumvent a possible war declaration like the already existing ones with the Kurdish PKK and ISIS. The Turkish President RecepTayyipErdogan has demonstrated that he understands Russia’s impatience to end the war in Syria and its urgent need to end the conflict in order to register a politico-military-regional-international victory. The Turkish stand, multi-faceted and complex as it is, will certainly affect the course of the war in Syria, either in prolonging or reducing its length.

 

However, Turkey’s window for manoeuvre cannot be very long, otherwise its troops in Syria will be in direct danger from the Russian and Syrian Air Forces. Its stand will therefore be clearer the day jihadists and rebels initiate a wide attack against the Syrian Army and its allies around Aleppo or on other fronts. And then Turkey will no longer be considered a viable partner.

For reasons mentioned above, Damascus does not trust Ankara and looks sceptically at the possibility of the ceasefire’s success and that of Russia’s generally premature initiatives. They know that the language of war will continue to prevail until the danger is pushed away from Damascus, eastern Ghouta, south, west and north Aleppo, rural Hama and Homs, and rural Latakia. Only then would the possibility of any ceasefire success be significant: when all jihadists and those aiming to continue fighting are pushed towards a particular area in the north of Syria.

 

It seems the resurgence of battles in Syria is an inescapable fact in the light of prevailing mistrust, the manoeuvres by various players and the rejection and exclusion of most of the powerful organisations and jihadi groups operating in the Syria of the ceasefire. It also seems that Turkey is doing exactly what Washington resisted in its negotiations with Russia: splitting the jihadists from the rebels. Players like Saudi Arabia and Qatar stand against this move because, indeed, they haven’t announced their defeat. Moreover, the lack of maturity of this peace process and the differences between Russia and its allies inevitably mean that battles are expected to regain their intensity, this until the main parties involved are seriously and demonstrably committed to ending the war in Syria. Even though the Astana process is not expected to be successful it still represents the first step in that thousand mile journey.

 

 

 

 

 

Are Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and al-Qaida winners in Syria?

 

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Published here:  via

Key Words: Syria, Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, al-Qaida, ISIS.

By Elijah J. Magnier: @EjmAlrai

With the new year 2017 knocking at the door of the Syrian war, there are many players in Bilad al-Sham: some are directly present with their forces on the ground, the others through their proxies with differing goals. After five and a half years of war there are winners and there are losers.

Russia:

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Russia had been politically hibernating, unwilling to engage in the Middle East despite cries from the region for a balanced superpower situation, one that the US held for many decades, precisely since the Perestroika reform. The Libyan war was a good example of the lack of Russian political engagement, allowing a failed state situation to take place, and triggered by the international community whilst removing Moammar Ghaddafi without drawing up any plans to preserve stability in the country. This allowed jihadists to move in and create insurgency for many years throughout Libya and to-date.

Even when the “Arab Spring” (Tsunami really rather than Spring) blew over the Middle East and the war in Syria started, Russia was still hiding in its lair..

The re-awakening started only when a media campaign blew up in the face of Damascus, accusing the Syrian government of using chemical weapons against rebel-controlled areas soliciting a call for an international military action against Assad. The US administration prepared domestic and international opinion generally for a military intervention which would hit Damascus and change the regime, despite the complete lack of any alternative.

This is when Russia woke up, pushed by Iran. Iranian officials visited Moscow with a clear message: if Damascus is bombed, Israel will be next. Still, the Kremlin acted as a mediator, late 2013, and coordinated a way out, with Washington, to end this critical period for the Middle East by outlining a plan for Assad to cede control of its chemical arsenal. The US took the Iranian threat seriously and wanted to avoid a wider Middle Eastern war without any visibility of the possible devastating consequences. Russia however remained shy about its involvement in Syria until, again, Iran pushed for a direct intervention to save the Syrian government in April 2015. This is when Russia saw the opportunity and was ready to jump.

Russia sent its forces to Syria, enlarged its naval base in Tartus, took hold of a military airport in Hamymeen, signed a 50 year contract with Damascus for its long term free base with a wide window on the Mediterranean, trained its pilots and special forces on real war scenarios.

So doing it increased by additionall $10bn its armament sales and it imposed itself on the Middle Eastern and International arena: it showed the world its capacity to exclude and marginalise the US and Europe from the peace process (previously Washington’s exclusive arena for decades): it managed to create a breach between an important NATO member (Turkey) and the US. It achieved all that and more through the Syrian gateway, where Russia became the dominant international player.

The cost for Moscow in human lives was, to-date, less than 30 officers and soldiers, and a few dozen private military contractors. Russia used up its MOD budget allocated for training in Syria but exceeded the original financial commitment, a “deficit” largely covered by the sale of weapons and the live trials of dozens of new weapons in Syria in full view of the world.

Iran:

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The Islamic Republic of Iran enjoyed excellent relationship with the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad until 2011 when the war started. Assad was part of the “axis of the resistance” who supported Iran on the international arena, supported the Palestinian cause and groups (Hamas, the Islamic Jihad, Popular Front-General command…) against Israel and allowed Tehran to send weapons via Damascus into Lebanon to supply the Iranian proxy: Hezbollah.

Over the five and a half years of war, Iran has spent over $25bn in Syria to support the Syrian government and people by supplying Damascus with financial aid to pay salaries, build roads, reconstruct parts of destroyed cities, offer medical support to hospitals, sending oil and hundreds of advisors to prevent Assad from falling. Iran sent thousands of Iraqis, Afghan and Pakistani to fight, hold the ground or carry out offensives to recover land from jihadists and rebels. The Iran Air Force supplied many embattled Syrian cities. Many pilots were present in Syria offering support to their Syrian counterparts. Iran invested in the reconstruction of the Syrian armament industry to meet the significant missile and rocket demands during the five and a half years of war.

Politically, Iran was behind the Russian involvement in Syria by explaining the critical situation it was in in April 2015 when Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Brigade, visited Moscow for that purpose . A year later, Tehran reopened its gates to the Turkish President RecepTayyib Erdogan to repair the catastrophic relationship with Russia following the downing of the Sukhoi-24 late in 2015. Moreover, Iran exerted serious pressure on Turkey to join the peace process and brought it to Moscow to start a ceasefire excluding the US administration and Europe, to the delight of Russia.

All the above represent serious investment, diplomatic efforts and huge financial and human losses (Iranian advisors and their proxies) for Tehran to regain the position it used to enjoy with Damascus and with President Assad prior 2011.

Hezbollah:

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Prior to 2011 Hezbollah enjoyed full support from President Assad. In fact, Assad visited Hezbollah positions in the south of Lebanon, and established robust relationships with its leadership before his mandate as President. He helped removed key intelligence officers in Lebanon (Brigadier General Ghazi Kanaan and his team) and the vice President (Abdel Halim Khaddam) so as to favour Hezbollah’s position and relationship.

Between 2003 and 2006, Assad was under serious regional and international pressure to give up on supporting Hezbollah and cut the supply road between Iran and Lebanon that used to flow via Damascus. He resisted this pressure and, when the occasion presented itself, supplied Hezbollah with most advanced anti-tank missiles, a crucial weapon and a major contribution changing the course of the second Israeli-War in 2006. Furthermore, he supplied Hezbollah, under the full control of the Israeli Air Force during the 30 days war in 2006, with a new version of al-Fateh missiles offering his M-600 long range and most accurate and destructive missiles to Hezbollah, waved in the face of Israel through its Secretary General Sayed Hasan Nasrallah’s famous sentence: “We shall hit Haifa and targets much beyond Haifa if Beirut is targeted”.

Syria was also Hezbollah’s favourite nearby backyard where commanders and top ranking officials considered the country as a breathing space with a friendly entourage: Syria was Hezbollah’s Switzerland.

In 2012, Hezbollah intervened in Syria to protect the holy shrines around Damascus. Assad rejected any support in the first year of the war. It was not until 2013 that Hezbollah became fully engaged, with tens of thousands of militants distributed all over the Syrian geography to secure the borders and the major Syrian cities.

Due to the vast engagement in a huge geographic area like Syria (Lebanon is 10.500 km2 while Syria is 180.000 km2), the number of Hezbollah fighters seriously increased to the point where Nusrallah told commanders (in a private meeting) to be ready because “there will be a martyr in every single house to stop jihadists in Syria and prevent these from moving the fight to Lebanon”. Commanders enrolled their own sons into training programs and these were sent to fight in Syria.

Hezbollah used to run battles (against Israel) at the level of battalions or units. Today, it is fighting at the level of division, with different branches harmonised: the artillery, armoured divisions, infantry, developing and modifying weaponry, armed drones and the coordination of air strikes with the troops’ advance.

Hezbollah used to attack Israeli positions in the south of Lebanon or military patrols on the borders. During the last years of war in Syria, Hezbollah attacked cities, strategic mountains, fought in the desert, in open fields, and engaged in dense urban warfare in all weather conditions.The Lebanese organisation used to fight in small zones, today it is fighting an operational theatre on multiple zones and fronts, imposing challenges on its planning command and troops support by every means possible.

The military engagement on several fronts turned Hezbollah from a guerrilla group to a non-regular organised army with tens of thousands of men and a huge infrastructure in Syria. It was therefore no longer possible for Hezbollah to return to Lebanon and leave Syria permanently, but it improvised new bases, mainly along the Syrian-Lebanese borders, both away from and within residential areas. The Syrian mountains offer an adequate hideout for Hezbollah’s strategic long-range missiles, causing a real threat to Israel.

But Hezbollah has lost around 1.600 militants (including top ranking field commanders and a member of the Jihadi council, the highest level among decision makers) and more than 7.000 wounded to stop cities and strategic positions from falling to the Jihadists and rebels. It took, to-date, four years of war with full engagement to regain the position Hezbollah enjoyed in 2011 and to keep Syria as a friendly country and passage for its weapon supply and continuous existence in Lebanon.

What was allowed for Hezbollah in Syria prior to 2011 is still allowed in 2017. Moreover, Hezbollah enjoyed a wide support among Sunni, even Salafi radicals, following its second war with Israel in 2006. Due to its decisive military role in Syria, Hezbollah has lost considerable support among these to the point that countries of the region now feel comfortable in labelling it a “terrorist organisation”.

Al-Qaida:

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When the leader of “Islamic State in Iraq” (ISI) Abu Baker al-Baghdadi sent a group of commanders led by Abu Mohamad al-Joulani in May-June 2011 to establish a base in Syria, he was unaware that this move would cost him dearly and will lead later on to a serious split among the jihadists.

From 2011 to 2013, Joulani managed to build a robust reputation among Syrian rebels, leading attacks with suicide bombers and effective planning under the name of his organisation, Jabhat al-Nusra. This “success” alarmed Baghdadi (informed about Joulani’s intention to “play solo”): in April 2013, the leader of ISI declared the merger between ISIS and Nusra creating the “Islamic State in Iraq and Sham” (ISIS/ISIL). To protect his achievement and save his neck, Joulani announced the split from ISI and self-declared his organisation as part of al-Qaida, without even consulting Ayaman al-Zawaheri, AQ Central Emir. To his delight, Zawaheri adopted Joulani: it was a mutual convenience opportunity for both men. Al-Qaida (AQ) was growing bigger than ever with a strong presence in the heart of the Middle Eastern events.

Throughout the years, AQ in Syria became bigger, stronger, richer and formidably equipped with weapons. It has developed remote-controlled Vehicle with Improvised Explosive devices (VIEDs), used drones, tanks, US most advanced anti-Tank TOWs and managed to combine guerrilla and classical warfare. Today AQ in Syria counts over 10.000 militants and have managed to infiltrate the Syrian society in rural Aleppo and Idlib mainly.

Even if Nusra has rebranded to become JabhatFath al-Sham, militants are part of Qaidat al-Jihad, holding the same aims, ideology, creed and goal: establish an Islamic Emirate.

Regardless of what 2017 could bring to AQ in Syria, AQ central has managed to reboot itself following the death of Oussama Bin laden and many core leaders in Yemen and Syria. It will continue to represent a threat to the regimes and monarchies of the Middle East for a very long time to come.

Syria:

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In 2011, the SyrianPresident Bashar al- Assad was watching the “Arab Spring” effect all around him, confident it wouldn’t reach his country. He was unaware of the regional and international intentions to remove him. The “Islamic State in Iraq” (ISI) was also planning to create chaos in Bilad al-Sham, a perfect ambiance for its militants to proliferate.

Assad was badly advised by his entourage who discouraged him from implementing serious reforms in the first months to contain the “revolution”. No one, among the high ranking officials in Syria, believed that a plan to destabilise the country was already in operation regardless of any domestic reforms: thousands of jihadists travelled to Syria from all over the world and billions were spent to arm the “revolution”.

The world was watching how Jihadists were infiltrating the “revolution” and hijacking it. That didn’t create a problem or a reaction simply because Assad was due to fall in few months.

Throughout the years of war, Bilad al-Sham became the Mecca of all Jihadists, creating a real split in Syrian society and pushing it toward sectarianism.

Cities changed hands, hundreds of small groupings were formed, the inevitable infighting among rebels and jihadists was noticed, and defections of officers and soldiers of the Syrian Army weakened it. Syria is the second country, according to the United Nations, to host so many different nationalities on its soil with the difference that all these are armed and fighting each other. The number of victims among civilians, soldiers and militants is unknown but fluctuates between 300 and 400.000 and the number of wounded largely surpasses the million. The devastating economic destruction (infrastructure, agriculture, industry and commerce) is beyond $280bn. There are 5 million refugees outside the country and 6 million internally displaced people. Whoever will control Syria, it will be an almost impossible task to regain the state of affairs prior to 2011.

Who are the winners? Syria as a country and Syrians as a population are certainly not among the winners. Their country has been turned into a battleground for many different kinds of opposing forces.

 

 

 

 

Equilibre régional et international au Levant (1): Tournant pour la Turquie dans la guerre de Syrie

 

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Elijah J. Magnier:

Tandis que la fin de 2016 approche, la guerre de Syrie entre dans sa 6ème année, laissant morts environ 310.000 combattants et civils, un nombre encore plus élevé de blessés, et plusieurs millions de déplacés à l’intérieur et à l’extérieur du pays. Les destructions d’infrastructures, d’habitations et de bureaux dépassent les 250 milliards de dollars. En outre, la Syrie a bien failli être le point de départ d’une troisième guerre mondiale, entre les Etats-Unis d’Amérique et la Russie.

La guerre de Syrie a donné naissance à des organisations terroristes telles que l’”Etat Islamique” (ISIS/Daesh) et la franchise d’al-Qaeda (Jabhat al-Nusra, aka Fatah al-Sham). De nombreuses factions rebelles sont nées et de nombreux petits groupes se sont fondus dans des groupes plus puissants. D’autres organisations rebelles ont quitté l’arène syrienne malgré les centaines de millions de dollars investis en entrainement et en armes dans l’espoir de changer le régime syrien.

A partir de la Syrie, le terrorisme s’est répandu au-delà de ses frontières, frappant la Jordanie, le Liban, la Turquie, et d’autres pays de la région, et plus loin encore, allumant des sirènes d’alarme et augmentant les budgets du contre-terrorisme dans le monde entier.

Les êtres humains en Syrie ont été confrontés à l’humiliation et à la mort au nom de la religion et de la doctrine. Les principaux médias ont largement contribué à entretenir le conflit sectaire en donnant des informations bien loin de la réalité, citant des activistes anti-gouvernementaux sectaires, et présentant la guerre de Syrie comme une guerre entre minorité Alawite et majorité Sunnite. La guerre est bien loin d’être exclusivement entre des belligérants religieux. La majorité de l’armée syrienne est sunnite, combattant pour la survie du gouvernement, des infrastructures et l’unité du pays, contre des djihadistes dont le crédo est le rejet de la démocratie, tout ce qui n’est pas musulman sunnite, et tout gouvernement non religieux. La réputation des média internationaux a été sérieusement mise à mal, perdant leur crédibilité en raison d’une couverture pauvre et biaisée de la guerre de Syrie.

Les acteurs changent tout comme leur rôle et les conséquences de leur contribution : la Syrie est passée d’une situation à une autre plus stable qu’il sera plus facile de définir en 2017.

 

Le rôle de la Turquie :

C’est celui qui a le plus d’influencé la guerre en Syrie contre les djihadistes et les rebelles. L’intervention de la Turquie a été importante et décisive pour le sort de la Syrie politiquement et sur le champ de bataille, formant diverses alliances où les ennemis d’hier sont aujourd’hui tolérés.

L’intervention de la Turquie dans la guerre de Syrie a commencé il y a 5 ans et demi. L’objectif Président turc Recep Tayyip Erdogan se limitait alors à chasser le Président syrien Bashar al-Assad du pouvoir, mais comportait l’annexion de la “ceinture de sécurité” (zone de sécurité) le long de la frontière nord. Il est ensuite allé plus loin dans ses plans, préparant une action au sol pour se rendre maitre de la ville d’Alep, une ville qui restait hors de ce qui a été appelé à tort le “printemps syrien” pendant un an après la crise en Syrie. Cette ville profitait de sa puissance économique et politique, l’influence sunnite en Syrie étant représentée par les villes d’Alep et Damas.

Cette intervention turque est venue avec la tentative des puissances occidentales pour chasser Assad, pour plusieurs raisons : les EU ont étendu leur influence pendant la présidence de George W. Bush, à la suite de l’invasion de l’Irak. La Syrie était la suivante sur la liste pour construire un “nouveau Moyen Orient” ; le projet Qatari du gaz qui devait traverser la Syrie jusqu’en Europe dans  le but d’affaiblir l’économie russe, actuellement le principal fournisseur de gaz pour l’Europe; le rôle d’Assad dans cet “axe de la résistance” et son soutien à des organisations que Washington considère comme des groupes terroristes (Hezbollah, Hamas et Djihad islamique); le soutien de la Syrie à l’Iran qui est en travers du chemin entre rapprochement entre Israël et les pays arabes. Toutes ces influences étaient présentes derrière le “Printemps arabe,” mettant la Syrie au sein d’un véritable ” tsunami arabe” sans grand bénéfice apparent.

Dès les premiers jours de la guerre en Syrie, la Turquie a ouvert ses frontières à quiconque voulait rejoindre la guerre. Beaucoup d’étrangers (européens et non-européens) sont allés en Syrie en passant par la Turquie, pour rejoindre les organisations djihadistes, connues plus tard sous le nom d’“Etat islamique” (ISIS/Daesh) et les branches d’al-Qaeda en Syrie (Jabhat al-Nusra, aka Fateh al-Sham). Ces gens sont partis au su et, dans la plupart des cas, avec l’accord des pays occidentaux (la France, les EU, la Grande Bretagne…). Beaucoup de ces mêmes combattants sont revenus par la suite dans leurs pays respectifs, représentant une véritable menace pour ces sociétés, mais particulièrement en Turquie même parce qu’il était demandé aux combattants de s’installer dans ce pays afin d’y construire une société radicale. En fait, ISIS a demandé à beaucoup de combattants étrangers de s’arrêter en Turquie et de fonder une famille et une société où il se pourrait bien qu’un jour il leur soit demandé de servir la “Nation islamique”, instaurant un noyau pour le futur.

Le monde libre prévoyait la chute d’Assad dans les 3 mois…6 mois…1 an… La situation devint glauque après ce délai. La chute d’Assad ne pouvait plus être prévue. Dans les premières années de la guerre, l’armée syrienne a résisté malgré d’importantes fissures dans ses rangs, pour être mise à mal dès 2013. C’est alors qu’Assad a appelé ses allies à la rescousse. Le responsable des services secrets français et sa contrepartie britannique ont tous deux dit “la carte du Moyen Orient ne sera plus jamais la même”. A la lumière d’aujourd’hui, tous deux se sont bien trompés, confirmant que de nombreux politiciens, officiers des services secrets, analystes et média se sont également trompés dans leur analyse parce qu’ils prenaient leurs désirs pour des réalités. C’est exactement ce qui est arrivé au Président Erdogan, pensant qu’il tenait la partition de la Syrie.

Erdogan a par conséquent permis à ISIS de s’installer dans le pays, d’avoir des échanges commerciaux, surtout de pétrole, et de mettre en place une route pour fournir en armes les djihadistes d’al-Qaeda aussi. Ceci était considéré comme un processus transitoire parce qu’“Assad devait partir dans quelques mois”.

Comme le temps passait et le gouvernement syrien tenait toujours, la Turquie a bâti des alliances solides avec des groups syriens comme Ahrar al-Sham (15-20,000 combattants), Nur ad-Din Zengi (3,000 combattants), Sultan Murad (2,000 combattants) et d’autres qui ont été par la suite rappelés du “bouclier de l’Euphrate” et combattre sous le commandement direct des forces turques en Syrie. Ces mêmes groupes ont établi de bonnes relations avec les groupes modérés et les djihadistes en Syrie.

La Turquie a contribué de façon effective à la chute de la          ville de Kessab dans la partie rurale de Lattaquié en permettant aux djihadistes d’utiliser leur territoire pour pénétrer en Syrie et contrôler les collines entourant la province nord-ouest de la Syrie. En plus, la Turquie a joué un rôle déterminant en armant et en offrant la logistique nécessaire pour permettre aux djihadiste et aux rebelles d’occuper les villes d’Idlib et de Jisr al-Shoughour. Tout se passait comme la Turquie l’espérait jusqu’à ce qu’Assad appelle l’Iran et ses alliés à la rescousse.

Ankara a soutenu le contrôle exercé par les djihadistes et l’opposition sur une grande partie d’Alep. Elle a joué rôle actif, permettant à l’Iran de prendre part à la bataille avec ses alliés. La présence de l’Iran a changé l’équilibre en faveur du Président Assad, mais pas assez pour contrer le soutien turc continu dans la région, soutenu par les EU et les pays de la région (Arabie saoudite et Qatar). Malgré des gains significatifs faits à Damas, Qalmoun et dans d’autres régions, le régime et ses alliés ont décidé de se retirer dans les principales villes pour les protéger.

Ici la Russie est intervenue pour abîmer les plans de tous ceux qui voulaient diviser la Syrie, et changer la carte de leurs projets et de leurs espoirs. Cela a changé l’équilibre du champ de bataille imposant la solution initiale qui demandait que tous s’assoient autour d’une table de négociations et reconnaissent le rôle d’al-Assad, qui avait été marginalisé. Mais quand la Turquie a abattu le Sukhoi-24 en Novembre 2015, tout le jeu syrien a été bouleversé. La partition de la Syrie n’était plus à l’ordre du jour et la Russie a montré qu’elle ne voulait pas d’un équilibre entre les acteurs. L’événement a marqué un tournant dans l’histoire de la guerre de Syrie : la Russie a déployé plus de forces, des missiles anti-aériens sophistiqués et a lancé son poids militaire dans la bataille, offrant au Président Assad la possibilité d’une victoire.

Un second tournant dans la guerre de Syrie a été quand le Président Erdogan a dû faire face à un coup d’état manqué. Les renseignements fournis par Moscou par l’intermédiaire de l’Iran ont contribué à prévenir le Président Turque à temps pour qu’il prenne les mesures de sécurité nécessaires, pour contrer le coup et rester en vie. Erdogan a accusé implicitement les EU d’avoir été derrière le coup et a tourné son énergie politique vers la Russie.

La perception de la Syrie par la Turquie, la Russie et l’Iran a isolé la présente administration US (au moins jusqu’à ce que la prochaine administration reprenne les choses en mains). Ce consensus entre les 3 pays a permis au gouvernement syrien de reprendre le contrôle d’Alep. Cela a aussi empêché la partition de la Syrie méridionale avec la création d’une large zone d’influence américains dans la région contrôlée par les Kurdes, entre al-Hasaka et Afrin.

La Russie a béni cette implication de la Turquie sur le champ de bataille : les forces turques et leurs alliés ont pris le contrôle de Jarablous, Dabiq et atteint les portes de la ville d’al-Bab. C’est alors que les Russes ont arrêté Erdogan de nouveau quand le manque de coordination a permis que des forces anti-gouvernementales (les alliés Syrien de la Turquie) se trouvent face à l’armée syrienne aux portes d’Alep. Il eut été critique qu’al-Bab tombe entre les mains d’Ankara. Les forces turques ont été bombardées à quelques kilomètres d’al-Bab, envoyant un message fort et dessinant la ligne de ce qui serait la limite de déploiement des forces. Une fois encore, la Turquie a compris le message et demandé une réunion immédiate avec la Russie et l’Iran pour coordonner les étapes suivantes.

Une réunion importante a donc eu lieu à Moscou entre les ministres des Affaires étrangères de Russie, d’Iran et de Turquie pour définir la stratégie et distribuer/ coordonner les tâches durant l’année 2017 en Syrie. Cette réunion a exclu les EU et l’Europe. L’exclusion des militants d’Alep et l’avance des troupes turques (avec leurs milices sous le “bouclier de l’Euphrate”) à al-Bab ont été les premiers résultats visibles de cette réunion.

La brutalité avec laquelle ISIS a brûlé deux soldats turcs a calmé l’envie du Président Erdogan de soutenir les groupes terroristes. Au contraire, l’élimination de ces organisations est maintenant devenue une priorité de la Turquie. Pourtant, l’harmonie entre la Russie, la Turquie et l’Iran, si elle continue à ce rythme, aura moins pour but de détruire ISIS que d’autres groupes djihadistes agissant parmi les rebelles syriens.

La Turquie a abandonné Alep et contribué à battre les militants et les djihadistes. Bien qu’Ankara ait longtemps soutenu al-Qaeda (Nusra, aka Fatah al-Sham), le rapport ne peut plus être le même. En effet, Al-Qaeda a refusé à plusieurs reprises de se courber devant Erdogan bien que le soutien militaire, médical et logistique, et la sécurité, viennent de la frontière syro-turque.

La Turquie a annoncé qu’al-Qaeda en Syrie (Jabhat al-Nusra) était sur sa liste des groupes terroristes. Mais cette décision n’a jamais été implémentée : au contraire, Ankara a effectivement contribué à la formation de “Jaish al-Fath” où les alliés d’al-Qaeda et de la Turquie (et d’autres groupes) étaient sous un même parapluie.

Pourtant, al-Qaida s’est dressé contre la Turquie quand elle a annoncé son rejet d’une zone de sécurité à sa frontière “parce que ce n’est pas dans l’intérêt du djihad,” et a fait partir ses djihadistes du nord de la Syrie, laissant les alliés de la Turquie seuls face à ISIS. Mais la goutte qui a fait déborder le vase a été quand al-Qaida a interdit de demander l’aide de l’armée turque à tous les groupes participant au “bouclier de l’Euphrate”.

Les factions soutenues par la Turquie n’accepteront jamais de fusionner avec al-Qaeda parce qu’en Syrie cette organisation va être la cible dans les prochains mois. Ceci a aussi été clairement annoncé par la Turquie et approuvé durant la réunion de Moscou avec la Russie et l’Iran.

La Turquie est maintenant l’acteur principal sur l’arène syrienne. Ses forces sont déployées sur le champ de bataille pour contribuer à changer les règles du jeu et les alliances. Les soldats d’Ankara sont dans le bourbier syrien (combattant ISIS à al-Bab pour commencer), perdant plus d’hommes en une semaine que la Russie en 18 mois. Le Président Erdogan ne peut plus renoncer à son engagement pour en tirer les avantages après la guerre. Par conséquent, les djihadistes ne voulant pas fusionner avec des groupes djihadistes modérés (y compris islamistes) ne pourront pas bénéficier d’une amnistie. En Syrie, il ne peut pas y avoir de place pour les combattants étrangers d’al-Qaeda, ni ISIS ni ceux qui refusent une solution pacifique pour arrêter la guerre.

Par conséquent, d’importantes différences et des déchirures sont attendues entre les différentes factions situées dans la ville septentrionale d’Idlib dans le processus qui devrait conduire à une solution politique et épargner à Idlib un bain de sang semblable à celle qui a aplati la ville d’Alep.

La Turquie reste donc un des principaux acteurs, consciente du fait que toute alliance avec l’actuelle administration américaine (sous Obama) en Syrie sera aussitôt avortée, tandis qu’une alliance avec la Russie a permis à Ankara de rester en Syrie. Le Président syrien devra négocier avec Ankara et prendre en considération ses intérêts, le jour où la guerre de Syrie se terminera.

 

Traduit par lie professeur Olivier duLac.

Suite : Equilibre régional et international au Levant (2) : le rôle de la Russie

 

 

 

Russia and Turkey imposing a ceasefire but how long can it hold? Turkey humiliated at the gates of al-Bab

2536296 01.12.2014 1 декабря 2014. Президент России Владимир Путин (второй слева) и президент Турецкой республики Реджеп Тайип Эрдоган (второй справа) перед началом заседания Совета сотрудничества высшего уровня в Анкаре. Михаил Климентьев/РИА Новости

 

Published here: 

Key words: Turkey, Russia, Iran, Syria, Damascus, U.S. , NATO.

By Elijah J. Magnier: @EjmAlrai

 

A general ceasefire was announced by Moscow and Damascus over the entire Syrian territory. The official announcement excluded the “Islamic State” (ISIS) and al-Qaida (Nusra or JabhatFateh al-Sham) and all jihadists fighting on Syrian soil. This statement issued by Russia and Syria has multiple goals, but above all excludes the US administration and any current European role in this Middle Eastern war, regardless of the outcome of the ceasefire. Iran, according to well-connected sources, agrees on the ceasefire but looks at it with suspicion. So the main issue is: how long can this ceasefire hold? Who would feel damaged by its implementation? What would be the reaction on the ground?

This general ceasefire came with the Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement of his wish to pull some forces out of Syria, reminding observers of the previous Russian step taken when a similar deal was reached between Moscow and Washington, but failed weeks later, earlier this year.

This time, however, the ceasefire was not announced by the superpowers (Russia and USA) but by the two main players in Syria, Moscow and Ankara, who both have important control over the most influential militants and soldiers engaged in the Syrian war. The influence role of the US cannot be ruled out, especially if they count on their allies (Saudi Arabia and Qatar) who themselves enjoy significant influence and certainly cannot be excluded from any peace talks.

Russia has the upper hand over the Syrian Army, Iran and its proxies, while Turkey is capable of exerting considerable pressure over many rebel groups, excluding al-Qaida and some jihadist groups linked to it. Because Russia is dealing with officials representing their respective countries (Damascus and Tehran), its leverage is guaranteed. This may not be the case for Turkey, having to deal with many sub-groups among the jihadists and the rebels, supported by the US and countries of the region, and who would do everything in their power to see Moscow-Tehran-Turkey failing in Syria.

In fact, Ahrar al-Sham, the biggest group among rebels, is already divided between “Ahrar” and “Jaish al-Ahrar”, showing differences in ideology, belonging and goals. “Jaish al-Ahrar” is more keen to merge with al-Qaida, a step described by Turkey as “self-condemnation to the militants’ own destruction”, because they would thus become a legitimate target for Russia and Turkey in the months to come. If many rebels and jihadists reject the ceasefire, these will weaken Turkey’s position even further, following the stagnation of its forces at the gates of the northern Syrian city of al-Bab.

Russia may see in Turkey a strong partner due to its influence over rebels and jihadists. If the result turns out to be weak and inefficient, Turkey, a NATO member and a custodian of over 50 US nuclear bombs, will be under Russian influence and Russia will no longer deal with it as a partner but as one of the minor players in Syria.

Damascus and its allies are watching with great suspicion this general ceasefire, imposed by Russia as a test of Turkish capabilities and influence in Syria. It is in Damascus’ interest to see Turkey sinking into the quagmire of Syria, showing its limitations rather than the image the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan wishes to present, as a Middle Eastern superpower and “spokesman” for the region’s Sunnis.

This is what is pushing Damascus and its allies to reject a Russian proposal to push forces toward Palmyra, under the control of ISIS. In fact, Damascus and its allies would like to allow ISIS to feel less under pressure on that front so its main force will be dedicated to fight Turkey. The Syrian Army and its allies have the task of consolidating the T4 airport and defend it against any ISIS attack. For the rest, the Syrian Army allies are refusing to send forces- as AL RAI have learned – to Palmyra for now. The more Turkey sinks into the war and suffers losses, the better Damascus feels about its intervention in the northern part of the country.

This doesn’t apply for al-Qaida: Iran is pushing Russia to continue the war in the direction of al-Qaida controlled areas and other jihadists and rebels. The general idea is simple: any conquest of ISIS territory represents no leverage around the negotiation table with Turkey or with the international community. This is not the case of any other territory under the control of rebels and jihadists. The land under their control is preciously negotiated by the Middle Eastern countries involved with their proxies on the ground. Moreover, the weaker that Turkey is represented in Syria, the more it will be dependent on Russia to intervene and offer its own intelligence and air force.

Turkey lost over 38 officer soldiers (among these the commander of the Turkish Special Forces enaged in Syria) at al-Bab and more than 60 wounded. More than 100 militants of its proxies fighting with the Turkish Army have been killed. Moreover, ISIS is humiliating captured Ankara soldiers and burning prisoners, and announces that more officers were captured and are still in captivity, waiting for a new video to come out. Civilians are suffering from the Turkish Air Force bombing, killing dozens.

Despite all this, Ankara is announcing its will to establish a “safe zone” in the north. For this to work, it needs Russia, Damascus and the Kurds’ approval because no foreign force could hold the ground in the long term without being subject to insurgency. Damascus will never agree to a long presence of the Turkish forces, neither would Russia. But as long as there is the danger of a possible US intervention to divide Syria (as a façade to its military bases in the Kurdish controlled area), and as long as ISIS is present, Turkey is considered most welcome to bang its head against all its enemies in the north.

Whatever the outcome is going to be, ISIS’s humiliation of the Turkish army is manifested at the gates of the city of al-Bab (meaning gate or door in Arabic). Over 2000 estimated ISIS members fight one of the strongest armies in the Middle East, and they shake it, forcing Ankara to ask for US air intervention, and forcing Erdogan to implement a total blackout and disinformation on the social media platforms and local media. The aim is to make them refrain from publishing the result of his first battle against ISIS, and is especially manifested when official sources declare that the images of the burned Turkish soldiers (by ISIS) “are fake”.

Russia is in need of a good partner or even a weak partner to dominate the political chess game in Syria and impose its will, as it has done successfully in a time of war, when peace knocks the doors of Syria. Indeed the ceasefire may not hold for long because many parties involved don’t feel comfortable to laying down their arms before witnessing the real intention of the new US President Donald Trump. Only then can the length of the war in Syria be measured, but this step certainly lies in the path of any peace process.

 

 

 

Regional and international balance in the Levant (2): Russia’s role in the Syrian war and the tactical differences with Iran

 

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Published here:  v

Key words: Russia, Iran, U.S. , Syria

Elijah J.Magnier: 

Following the request of President Bashar al-Assad to his allies for an urgent intervention to prevent the fall of Damascus in March 2013, Iran and its proxies moved into Syria to restore some balance to the battlefield. But the flow of jihadists from many countries in the area and internationally, plus indiscriminate external military and financial support to all groups fighting the Syrian government: all this created a serious threat to several cities.

Among them was the province of Lattakia where millions of Syrian of all religions had found shelter away from the war. The city was hosting millions of displaced Syrians, also the Russian naval base in Tartus. The danger reached also Aleppo: Damascus and its allies were certain Aleppo was about to fall and were ready to accept the defeat and the loss of the second biggest Syrian city. The Syrian Army and its allies were about to pull out their forces from all rural areas and regroup around the main cities to defend and create a demarcation line: this was at the beginning of 2015. The partition of Syria was more than ever a real possibility, and the north of Syria was about to be invaded by Jihadists and their rebel allies. It was not possible to win this war with an unceasing flow of men and weapons from the north, east and south into Syria.

The Iranian leadership, after consultation with Damascus, decided in April 2015 to send the commander of the Quds Forces of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) QassemSoleimani to Moscow to explain to the Russian leadership the danger Syria, and above all Latakia and Aleppo were facing. Jihadists coming from Turkey to rural Latakia shelled the Russian naval base. The US administration’s plan to divide Syria was about to take effect and Iran and its allies were powerless to stop it. Iran would have to provide tens of thousands of its own troops, but that option, which seemed realistic at the time, was rejected due to the treaty between Saudi Arabia and Turkey which allowed them to move their own forces into Syria. This would have added another dimension to the war in Syria and opened the gates to a wider regional and even more destructive conflict. The Russian intervention was the only solution left.

Moscow was convinced: a few months later, in mid 2015, Russia sent its planes, refurbished the Hamemeen military airport (which became its air base) and the command centre, from where it would run its Syrian operation to re-create the lost balance among forces on the ground.

But the reasons behind Russia’s intervention were not, at the outset, to save the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but to stop the Syrian state from disintegration and prevent the US from threatening Moscow’s access to the Mediterranean. Syria also allowed the Russian President Vladimir Putin to reaffirm Moscow’s role in the Middle East, as a superpower and main player after a long absence. The challenge was worth attempting even in thisdifficult country called Syria where the US, the UK, France, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar and Iran were all in the same theatre and on the same stage.

Russia decided to fully engage in Syria on condition that Iran would provide the ground forces, a move which would take advantage of the Russian air force intervention. Russia was not ready to involve troops because for fear of the Syrian quagmire, so it confined its ground force intervention to limited and specialised units. Iran asked the Lebanese Hezbollah to secure tens of thousands of fighters and brought from Iran and Iraq a total of 8,000 men. Iran’s stance was adamant: a battle against ISIS and al-Qaeda ideologists needs similar fighters on the other side to hold the ground in equal confrontation. The regular Syrian Amy was certainly not sustained by a similarly strong ideology and firm objectives to fight and hold the ground, given the disproportionate number of attacking forces in many battles across Syria.

But Russia’s views and objectives differed from those of Iran in Syria. Iran believed Assad in person was the key essential partner, and represented the guarantee needed for the “axis of resistance”. Tehran was convinced that any other Syrian President during a time of war would not be able to cope with so much pressure: multinational alliances were gathering against him in response to his partnership with Iran, Hezbollah and various Palestinian groups, and the countries of the region were directing a considerable flow of finances to the opponents of the Syrian government. Iran, moreover, strongly believed (and still believes) that the war in Syria must end with the total elimination of the “Islamic State” (ISIS/Daesh) and al-Qaeda (Nusra or Fatah al-Sham) together with all the other jihadist ideologists. These jihadists, if not eliminated, would certainly spill over into neighbouring countries on the Lebanese and Iraqi borders, representing a huge potential threat to Iran’s allies and, in consequence, to its own national security.

Russia engaged in the war in Syria, imposing its own priorities, to liberate the land considered the most crucial for its own benefit and its own national security.Tehran and Damascus on the other hand wished to widen the involvement on multiple fronts. The organisation of military operations here raises complex issues, because Russia maintains and seeks to continue a good politico-economic relationship with the many countries involved in the war, especially Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Israel.

Russia learned a lesson from Afghanistan, avoiding the involvement of large numbers of troops on the battlefield, limiting its presence to small artillery units, Special Forces, intelligence units, and commanding staff officers to support its air strikes. The Russian Ministry of Defence allocated the same budget usually spent on training domestically to be invested in Syria for its new pilots and officers to train on real objectives.

Contrary to the predictions of most western analysts and media expectations, Russia was able to establish, in the first six months of its intervention, the balance of forces needed to impose President al-Assad as a negotiator and as an essential part of the solution to end the war in Syria.

In March 2016, President Putin – despite the objection of all of his allies on the ground – announced the end of military operations and his willingness to negotiate a peace process, imposing his will over Syria and Iran. But he has not been able to impose his will on the West, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and these have certainly not yet said their last word.

Iran opposed Russia over the first cease-fire agreed between Moscow and Washington. Tehran believed the US was looking to gain time for the jihadists and rebels to re-organise themselves. The Americans have more experience than the Russians in stopping battles when they believe those they are supporting are losing. In fact, a few weeks later, while the US Foreign Secretary John Kerry failed to separate the US and its allied proxies from jihadists, these launched a massive attack, regaining in days what took Iran and its allies months to recover in the first battle of Aleppo.

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Russia was focused, with concern, on the mainstream media which was largely directed against Moscow, even at the cost of turning a blind eye to jihadists like al-Qaida. Both Washington’s foreign policy and the international press tolerated those who had committed the biggest single and most destructive act of terrorism against the US (9/11). And even if Russia went along with the US, its aim was still not to liberate all of Syria as Iran and Assad wanted, but to reach a politically negotiated settlement with Assad as a partner, though not the only one.

The Russian offer was unsuitable for a game with so many players: the US wanted to halt the air force activity but avoid Assad and his allies victory; Qatar and Saudi Arabia wanted to remove Assad by diplomacy or military means as the Saudi Foreign Minister declared endlessly; Iran wanted to eliminate all jihadists to avoid seeing these back on tract again, which is exactly what happen with ISIS several years after its defeat in 2008 in Iraq; Assad wanted to fight, taking advantage of Russian air force and his allies ground forces supporting the Syrian Army.

Moscow ignored the allies’ wishes until new elements imposed themselves and pushed Russia to change its mind: the turkish downing of the Sukhoi 24. This changed Russia’s stance into an aggressive one towards Turkey and its proxies in Syria. At the same time, the US Foreign Secretary was unable to keep his promise (and the agreement) to separate jihadists from rebels : this wasdue to an internal power struggle with the Pentagon (as he himself declared).

It was obvious to Russia, to the great joy of Iran, that Washington was only buying time, even when the jihadists and their allies managed to break the siege of east Aleppo and recover important strategic hills in Homs.

Events effectively re-imposed Russian – Iranian harmony. Russia pushed its whole weight into the battlefield after the jihadists’ and rebels’ second battle of Aleppo, brought its fleet to the Mediterranean,enlarged its naval and air bases on the Syrian coast and decided to offer Aleppo, all of Aleppo, to Assad and disregard any call from Washington. In fact, Iran and Russia agreed to bring in Turkey because of its strong influence over many (– though not all) – of the jihadists and rebel groups operating in Syria.

Following thousands of Russian airstrikes, the Syrian government regained control over the second biggest city of Syria, the industrial capital, Aleppo, ending any dialogue between Moscow and the present US administration.

Again, Damascus, Iran and Russia disagreed on Aleppo: Moscow agreed to evacuate thousands of jihadists and rebels from the east of Aleppo, despite the objections of both allies to the agreement, which was offering free access to jihadists and rebels without any return. The two partners wanted to exchange all prisoners of war captured and detained in east Aleppo, and wanted the evacuation of a similar number of civilians from the two besieged cities of Fua and Kfarya in rural Idlib.

Russia wanted to put on one side the east Aleppo issue and conclude a deal as soon as possible. For Russia, regaining territory and a city like Aleppo was more important than engaging in an exchange of prisoners and civilians that might take weeks to achieve. Turkey offered to allow 1250 wounded to exit the two Shia cities to calm Russia’s partner, in exchange for 13,000 jihadists, rebels and their families. The deal was considered possible by Russia who managed to impose it on all partners. With the withdrawal of the last militants from east Aleppo, Damascus found the bodies of dozens of soldiers executed.

Today, Moscow is uninterested in dealing with the actual US administration in its last days of power. Nevertheless, Obama decided to embarrass his successor, President Donald Trump, by signing a decree to arm the Syrian rebels (those operating closely with al-Qaeda and other jihadists) with anti-aircraft missiles. The effect of such a decision won’t change the course of the war in Syria for as long as Turkey continues to work closely with Russia and Iran to distance the Islamists and rebels from the jihadists. Despite the fact that President Putin announced it was time to negotiate a cessation of hostilities over all the Syrian territory, his American counterpart is still engaged with the language of war. In fact, Obama’s policy is in line with Iran’s policy. Iran doesn’t consider the potential deal with jihadists to be achievable.

Tactically, there are differences of priority regarding the next step after Aleppo: today, Russia sees a military priority for ground troops to go to Palmyra to re-take it from ISIS whereas Iran considers that the battle should concentrate on enlarging the security perimeter around Aleppo from Rashideen-4 to abu-Duhur and Khan al-Asal up to the Idlib area, restoring Tel el-Eis and breaking the siege of the cities of Fua and Kefraya. The Syrian government believes the priority lies in liberating the whole Damascus area, Duma and the south of Damascus.

Russia could agree on multiple fronts as long as ground forces are available to benefit from its air bombing. Moscow always sees Syria from its own perspective, taking into consideration its allies’ views in many but not all cases. Moscow keeps in mind its relationship with the other important players in the Middle East, i.e. Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Syria is headed toward more battles but a peace deal is visible on the 2017 horizon. Sometimes diplomacy necessitates the language of guns and fire to impose peace on the participants. One thing is certain: the jihadists certainly will not be laying down their arms for the simple reason that this would blow away the essence of their ideology: they would have to choose to migrate to a country outside Syria.

Yet despite what Tehran and Damascus believe, there are already many rebels ready to be reconciled and lay down their arms. The last word over the future of Syria has not yet been said. The Middle Eastern policy of the forthcoming US president, Donald Trump, will be important in prolonging the war or pushing, along with Russia, towards the end of it. Whatever Trump’s decision, Moscow is headed towards consolidating itself in Bilad al-Sham to achieve the end of this war before it reaches the end of its seventh year: it won’t be practically possible to stop all belligerents before May-June 2017.

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