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Aleppo, the endgame

APSA Aleppo-souk-AFPGetty-Feb201

Syria’s civil war came late to Aleppo. It was July 2012. But after four years of bitter bloodshed between its regime-held west and rebel east, the beating heart of Syria’s commercial and industrial capital has entered cardiac arrest. The Castello Road, last rebel artery north towards the Turkish border, has been choked off by President Assad’s forces backed by Russian air support, Lebanese Hezbollah and Iranian government militia. Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah last month  declared Syria’s “real, strategic, greatest battle is in Aleppo and the surrounding area.”

Aleppo is no stranger to sieges – there have been at least eight recorded across its turbulent history. But this one promises to last longer than all the others put together.

Many of the 400,000 unfortunates trapped inside expect to suffocate and slowly starve as extortionately-priced food, medicine and fuel supplies are systematically blocked. Some will die before then from the Syrian and Russian government barrel-bombing. Latterly supplemented by incendiary cluster munitions burning to 2,500 Centigrade, the bombers are steadily eradicating schools, hospitals and markets from above with impunity. Months of such punishment lie ahead for Aleppo, as the stage is prepared for the Syrian endgame, a game the rebels look doomed to lose, along with their entire anti-Assad revolution.

Aleppo’s dramas have gone largely unnoticed by Europe and the West, preoccupied with their own dramas closer to home – the Nice attacks, the US shootings, the Turkish coup attempt, the Brexit fallout. Last week’s OPCW report accused the Syrian government of failing to declare its stocks of sarin and other illegal warfare agents for the Russian-brokered 2013 chemical weapons deal: it raised barely a murmur in the western media.

Broken promises

Syria’s moderate opposition groups have suffered years of broken promises of support from the international community. Myriad proclamations of “Assad must go” were followed by handwringing from the sidelines. But even the rebels were not prepared for the latest twist that took place in Moscow a few days ago when John Kerry agreed with Sergei Lavrov to coordinate US-Russian military strikes on ISIS and Syria’s Al-Qaeda-affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra.

lavrov and kerry

Nusra’s aim has always been to set up Islamic emirates inside Syria, an ideology at odds with Syria’s FSA-linked moderate opposition, yet the two have often found themselves allies of convenience in the fight against Assad. The dynamics of the battlefield are such that, were Nusra to withdraw their military support or be targeted, the FSA rebels would be left even more vulnerable to attack. North of Aleppo they are already battling on three fronts – against ISIS, the Kurds and the Syrian regime. In Aleppo itself there is no ISIS presence and very little Nusra either – yet civilians on the ground do not trust the bombs will stop simply because of the new US-Russian deal.

Destabilising factors

In Turkey the climate is also changing. Heavily destabilised by a series of ISIS and Kurdish PKK attacks, the subsequent collapse of its tourist industry, the absorption since 2011 of two million Syrian refugees and then by last week’s coup attempt, even Turkey, once solidly pro-rebel, is talking of future ‘normalising’ of relations. Like Europe and the US, it has too many problems at home to worry about Syria.

But therein lies the biggest danger. The international community is forgetting that all these destabilising factors – the surge of refugees, the exporting of ISIS terrorism and Jabhat al-Nusra extremism – have been incubating undisturbed inside Syria for the last five years. The link between our inertia and their rise was denied, leaving Syrian civilians little option but to flee. Thousands more will follow once the new US-Russian deal ‘legitimises’ the bombing.

Aleppo is no stranger to refugees. Across the centuries it welcomed many, as has Syria. Some were Christians escaping persecution from fellow Christians in Europe. Aleppo has long been multi-cultural, a complex mix of Kurds, Iranians, Turkmens, Armenians and Circassians overlaid on an Arab base in which multi-denominational churches and mosques still share the space.

While the West obsesses about fighting ISIS and Nusra, this colourful tapestry of Aleppo’s innately tolerant population is being shredded. Despair will inevitably drive some to copy the extremists. If we help stop the fighting, extremism will become impotent and disappear. But if we turn away and leave Aleppo’s wounds to fester, the infection will spread back to us in an even more virulent form.

This article was published on the BBC website 22 July 2016 in the following format:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-36853689

Related articles:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/a-doctors-plea-to-president-obama-please-act-to-save-civilians/2016/07/21/092e081a-4f42-11e6-aa14-e0c1087f7583_story.html

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jul/27/dozens-dead-in-syria-bomb-blast-qamishli

https://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/news/2016/7/28/syrian-rebels-offered-amnesty-as-regime-tightens-aleppo-siege

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Syria’s War reaches the most dangerous point so far

 

Syria's intractable war feb 2016

No one seriously believes the ‘postponed’ peace talks at Geneva 3 will take place on 25 February 2016 as scheduled by the UN’s Syria envoy, Staffan De Mistura. Like his two predecessors, Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi, both of whom resigned in despair, De Mistura is trying to lead a peace process backed only by the impotence of the UN and its increasingly violated and empty resolutions. While Ban Ki Moon and others express outrage about ‘unacceptable’ behaviour, the realities on the ground are making political and diplomatic posturing irrelevant.

Russia’s unprecedented air bombardment began on 1st February, as the talks in Geneva were trying to splutter into life. With no warning hundreds of bombs were rained down on rebel-held territory north of Aleppo, displacing thousands of families from their homes. Two days later De Mistura suspended the peace talks, exactly what Russia wanted. Intensifying their momentum, the Russian airstrikes within days went on to ‘liberate’ the Shia pro-regime villages of Nubul and Al-Zahra and push north towards the Turkish border at Kilis.

Chief losers in this ongoing battle are what remains of the armed opposition north of Aleppo, the 70,000 displaced families now stuck either in the town of A’zaz or in the no man’s land between the Turkish and Syrian border at Bab Al-Salama. 500 people have lost their lives since the Russian airstrikes began 10 days ago.

azaz refugees feb 2016

Chief winners are the Russians, the Iranian Republican Guard and Hezbollah fighters battling on the ground alongside what remains of the Syrian Assad army, now so depleted by deaths, defections and draft-dodging that it is but a shadow of its former strength.

But the biggest winners of all are the Syrian Kurds, the PYD whose efficient fighters were perfectly placed in northern Syria to take advantage of the Russian bombardment. As the areas were depopulated they moved in to increase the territory of their semi-autonomous region of Rojava. They have made huge progress since 2014, as the maps below show, and now control close to 20% of Syria, consolidating their hold on their three cantons. Their dream is to link up the western canton of Afrin with the two eastern cantons of Kobani and Jazira, currently separated by a tract of lawless land between A’zaz and Jarabulus controlled partly by ISIS, partly by Turkmen and Arab rebels.

map of rojava cantons Map of Aleppo and territory to north map of rojava within syria map of Syria Institute of war 25 Jan 2016

But all this is a nightmare for Turkey, not only because President Erdogan regards the Syrian PYD Kurds as an offshoot of the Turkish Kurdish militant PKK group, but also because the US under the Obama administration has in recent days even sent a delegation under Brett McGurk, the US’s special envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition, to visit Rojava, and has pronounced them not terrorists but allies in the fight against ISIS.

Erdogan is furious, accusing his supposed ally America of self-interest and betrayal. Even worse, Russia is arming and training the PYD Kurds, so both Russia and the US are together supporting Kurdish aspirations.

Will he be able to contain his rage and not send in Turkish troops to challenge Russia, Iran, Assad and the Kurds? Is he prepared to lose control of his whole southern border to a new Kurdish entity? Will Saudi Arabia (and the UAE and Bahrain) make good on its offer to send 150,000 ground troops onto that same patch of disputed land?

The thousands of displaced refugees now building up on the Syrian side of the border may give him that chance, to enter Syria on a humanitarian ticket and create the safe zone he has wanted to set up since summer 2011 but which was never supported by NATO and the international community. Up to 400,000 additional refugees could flee from Aleppo itself and add to the thousands at the border if the city, once Syria’s biggest, is encircled and put under siege.

Turkey’s position today is stronger than at any previous time in this five-year war, because of its powerful role in controlling the flow of migrants into an overwhelmed and vulnerable Europe. Erdogan’s AK party won a convincing election last November. But Turkey’s position is also more dangerous than ever before. Setting up a safe zone four and a half years ago would have been child’s play compared to now, when so many external actors are involved. ISIS did not even exist then. But the threat of ISIS pales into insignificance compared to the danger of Turkey and Russia sparking a confrontation in exactly the territory around Dabiq, where ISIS propaganda tells us the stage is set for Armageddon.

Syria’s war, after five years of unexpected twists and turns, is now way out of control, with a dynamic all of its own. No single state or actor, or group of states can dictate its course, not even Russia. Putin may consider himself invincible but even he cannot control what happens next inside Syria. As each day brings new escalations and dangers the spectre of World War III no longer seems like a far-fetched threat. How much worse can it get?

putin and obama

Related articles:

http://rudaw.net/english/middleeast/turkey/08022016

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-35541003

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-35488073

http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2016/02/turkey-syria-united-states-possible-military-intervention.html?utm_source=Al-Monitor+Newsletter+%5BEnglish%5D&utm_campaign=f2cfd6b451-Feb_10_2016&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_28264b27a0-f2cfd6b451-93116701

Syria peace talks – what hope?

lavrov and kerry

While the outside players frantically shuttle between world capitals trying to convene peace talks in Geneva before the end of January, it seems there are only two things about Syria all can agree on: that a solution must be found to the five-year catastrophic war and that neither ISIS nor the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra can be part of that solution.

But there the unity ends. Calling the fighting inside Syria a ‘civil war’ seems wrong when there are so many outside players – Russia, Iran and Hezbollah supporting the Assad government, America, Europe, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey supporting the rebel opposition – and those are just the key actors. Certainly many Syrians inside Syria feel it is no longer a war over which they can exert any control. Interventions by outside interested actors, most recently Russia, mean that Syrian territory is being used as a battlefield with scant regard for those who once lived there. Small wonder so many are leaving, giving up on their country, heading for the ‘safe haven’ of Europe. One million refugees made it to Europe in 2015. Unless the war stops, projections for 2016 are that 3 million will come. The urgency for peace talks is real.

All previous attempts have failed, but this time the hope is that the UN Resolution unanimously passed on 18 December 2015 gives the necessary mandate. It sets a timetable for talks to begin in January 2016, form a transitional government within six months, followed by free UN-supervised elections a year later, in which all Syrians, even those abroad in the diaspora will be eligible to vote, something which Assad banned in the 2014 elections where he was re-elected for his third 7-year term. A recent secret poll conducted inside regime areas is said to have shown a maximum of 25% support for Assad, so there is little doubt that his fate in fair elections would be a resounding rejection by his people.

Brinkmanship games are rife as the talks approach. Media and propaganda wars between Russia and the West’s versions of the truth on besieged areas like Madaya are matched on the ground by escalations of Russian air strikes and rebel offensives desperate to gain a few extra centimetres in case a ceasefire is forced upon them. The death toll has risen sharply and thousands more have been displaced from their homes.

The UN peace envoy Staffan de Mistura has refused to send out invitations to Geneva till the list of attendees on both sides has been agreed by the US and Russia. The Assad regime has named its delegation, headed by Bashar al-Ja’fari, Syria’s UN representative. The rebel opposition has named its team, approved in Riyadh. The chief negotiator is Muhammad Alloush, brother of Zahran Alloush, former head of powerful rebel group Jaysh al-Islam, who was assassinated on Christmas Day in a Russian air strike. George Sabra, a Christian dissident who spent time in Assad’s prisons, has been named as the deputy.

Needless to say, Russia and Assad are not happy with this ‘revolutionary’ opposition and are now trying to pressure the US and other parties into accepting its own list of ‘approved’ opposition as well, so that there would be two opposition delegations. Included in the Russian list would be Saleh Muslim, leader of the PYD Syrian Kurds, with whom both the US and Russia have recently been partnering in their fight against ISIS. But the ‘revolutionary’ opposition does not see the Syrian Kurds as part of the solution, since they never fought Assad, but simply took advantage of the power vacuum when Assad’s troops pulled out of the northern Kurdish areas and seized the territory for themselves. The Syrian Kurds argue that they must sit at the negotiating table now that they control such a big chunk of territory in the north with their semi-autonomous region of Rojava.

Assuming some kind of formula can be found to reach agreement on who is invited, the delegations will then hold ‘proximity talks’, not sitting in the same room or even the same building, with Staffan de Mistura and his team shuttling between the delegations trying to find enough common ground to keep talking.

That will be the easy bit. For whatever may be agreed in these peace talks, it will all be worthless unless it is enforced on the ground. No Syrians I know are holding their breath.

Relevant articles:

Negotiated Settlements of Civil Wars vs. Victories

http://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/news/2016/1/22/syrian-opposition-pulls-plug-on-peace-talks

http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-01-23/u-s-russia-said-to-near-compromise-to-unlock-syria-peace-talks

http://gulfnews.com/news/mena/syria/with-few-men-left-in-syria-women-run-the-show-1.1656924

http://syrianobserver.com/EN/Commentary/30413/Putin_Syria_Plans_Worry_Both_His_Opponents_His_Allies

http://syrianobserver.com/EN/Commentary/30438/Lavrov_Proposal_Geneva_Russian_List_Battles_With_Riyadh_List

 

 

 

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