Table of Contents:
Iran Across the Border: Israel’s Push back in Syria: Michael Herzog, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, July 2019
Kurds and Arabs in Northeast Syria: Power Struggle or Power-Sharing?: Amy Austin Holmes and Wladimir van Wilgenburg, The National Interest, Aug. 11, 2019
Hard Questions in Syria About the Civilian Toll of U.S. Strategy: Raja Abdulrahim, Wall St. Journal, Aug. 2, 2019
At the start of July, media reports surfaced regarding an alleged widespread wave of Israeli strikes on Iranian axis targets across Syria. The reports serve as a reminder of the ongoing shadow war that is raging between Jerusalem and Tehran, and bring into the spotlight Israel’s long-term strategic objective. The strikes allegedly hit Iranian and Hezbollah weapons sites. They included development, storage, and transfer facilities, some of which appear to have been embedded in Syrian regime military bases. Targets around Damascus, Homs, and western Syria were all reportedly hit, resulting in a number of casualties.
Long before the US began its policy of maximum economic pressure on Iran, Israel had been applying its own policy of maximum – yet low profile – prevention in Syria, and that policy continues. Using advanced intelligence coupled with precision firepower, the Israeli defense establishment has prioritized the objective of disrupting the construction of an Iranian war machine in Syria. Israel has also acted on many occasions to prevent Iran from using Syria as a transit and production zone for advanced weapons, such as guided missiles, for the benefit of Hezbollah in Lebanon. This effort involves tracking flights, weapons factories, suspicious ground convoys, and an array of Iranian weapons production and smuggling activities throughout the Middle East.
According to reports, Israel’s War Between Wars campaign has also included strikes against Iranian efforts to build a land corridor linking Iraq to Syria for the purpose of transferring weapons and Iranian-backed militias. The reports of alleged Israeli strikes represent the tip of a very large iceberg. For every reported preventive action by Israel, it can be assumed that there are many more that go unreported and remain unknown to the general public. Israel is determined not to allow Iran to build offensive drone bases, missile factories, and proxy terror networks with which to threaten its citizens, and the Israel Air Force operates at a high tempo around the clock to monitor and disrupt emerging threats. Israel’s overall strategic objective in these strikes was spelled out by Mossad Director Yossi Cohen hours after the alleged July 1 attack, when he stated at the Herzliya Conference, “I believe that Iran will reach the conclusion that it is just not worth it.”
This statement reflects the wider Israeli goal, which is not limited to just physically stopping Iran’s force build-up in Syria. Rather, Israel’s goal is getting Supreme Leader Khamenei, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its Quds Force to reach the conclusion that they will not be able to slip offensive capabilities into Syria without Israel’s noticing and taking action where it feels it is necessary. Hundreds of Israeli strikes in recent years were designed to push Iran into changing its course and scaling back its Syria project. It is hoped that the net result of the strikes will be that Iran is forced to perform a cost-benefit analysis and conclude that its investments in Syria are going to waste. … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]
In the last few years, Israeli pushback has succeeded in thwarting significant parts of Iran’s military plans in Syria specifically. But the larger dynamic of Iranian moves and Israeli countermoves has catapulted these two determined actors into a mode of direct military showdown, carrying the potential for a major collision in the not-too-distant future. Escalation remains a real possibility, notwithstanding Israeli deterrence and Russian efforts to constrain the parties. It could also be heightened by the emerging tensions between the United States and Iran in both the regional and nuclear contexts. As the United States weighs its options to block and deter Iran, Israel’s experience in confronting Iran in Syria may offer some valid lessons.
Iran’s Designs in Syria
Seeking to exploit the turmoil that has swept across the Middle East since the Arab Spring, Iran has embarked on a long-term strategic project to fill resulting voids and establish itself as the dominant power in the heart of the region. Granted legitimacy and room to act by the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the nuclear deal is known, and emboldened by its success in helping turn the tide of war against the Islamic State in 2016 in Iraq and Syria, Iran has since labored relentlessly to create a contiguous zone of direct influence and power projection, spanning historical Mesopotamia and the Levant and toward the Mediterranean, an area now commonly known as the land corridor or land bridge. These Iranian efforts have been based primarily on an active on-the-ground presence, influence over weakened and dependent governments in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, military infrastructure and sizable “legions” of armed sectarian proxies serving as its muscle in regional wars, and initiatives to expand its economic leverage and extract economic benefits. Joining these ambitions to gather and project power in the region has been Iran’s desire to create “strategic depth” against perceived U.S. schemes to undermine and ultimately topple the Islamic regime.
War-torn Syria is a critical link in this strategic plan, providing as it does a conduit to the Mediterranean and to Hezbollah—Iran’s most important and potent proxy—while also bordering Israel. Recognizing that the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad owes its survival to Tehran, the Iranian leadership has been pushing hard to further integrate Syria into its regional fold as a subordinate partner: politically; economically, with an eye to potential benefits from postwar reconstruction and access to natural resources; and militarily. … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]
The victory of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) over the Islamic State caliphate in March has left the SDF in effective control of one-third of Syria. Encompassing 20,698 square miles of northern and eastern Syria, it is a large terrain about the size of West Virginia, or three times the size of Kuwait. Some five million people live there, including Arabs, Kurds, Syriac-Assyrian-Chaldean Christians, as well as Yazidis and Turkmen. Stabilizing and rebuilding this diverse and complex region may prove even more difficult than defeating ISIS.
The challenges are many. Assad continues to refuse to make any concessions to the region, although his forces lost control of the north more than seven years ago. Erdogan continues to threaten to invade. ISIS sleeper cells carry out attacks on a regular basis. And numerous countries around the world refuse to take back their own citizens who voluntarily joined ISIS, forcing the Self Administration to feed and house thousands of detained foreign ISIS fighters for an indefinite amount of time.
Given the enormity of the challenges and precarity of the situation, it is of utmost importance to carefully calibrate and implement U.S. policy at this watershed moment. Recently, some analysts have questioned whether the Self Administration is able to govern effectively. In a piece entitled “Kurdish-Arab Power Struggle in Northeastern Syria” Elizabeth Tsurkov and Esam Al-Hassan asserted that Kurds are not willing to share power with their Arab counterparts, that the SDF is not able to negotiate tribal politics, and that the Self Administration is not guided by experienced professionals, but by ideological cadres. Based on our own extensive research in northeastern Syria, we believe these assertions at best offer a surface-level understanding of the reality on the ground, and at worst potentially inflame tensions, rather than offering an evenhanded analysis of them. Ultimately, the authors recommend that the seventy-nine-member Global Coalition should use its leverage to push for “real self-administration.” We agree that the coalition needs to increase its support to the Self Administration. Providing effective assistance requires a cogent analysis that can account for complexity.
Tsurkov and Al-Hassan use unnamed sources to claim that some Kurdish SDF commanders believe Arabs are “deeply tribal, prone to internal conflict, unprincipled and untrustworthy.” They say this although Arabs, Kurds, and Christians have fought side-by-side in the SDF to defeat ISIS. An estimated eleven thousand members of the SDF were killed in battle, and they are buried side-by-side in cemeteries across the region.
The People’s Protection Units (YPG) forces have cooperated with exclusively Arab, or Arab-majority, armed groups throughout the course of the conflict. The YPG began actively recruiting Arabs since at least late 2012, during a series of battles for control over the city of Ras al-Ayn (Serekaniye in Kurdish) along the Turkish border. This effort began years prior to the creation of the SDF in October 2015. Further, Arabs have continued to join the SDF even after the caliphate was defeated in March.
Currently, at least more than half of SDF fighters are Arabs. A number of regional commanders are also Arabs, although the top SDF leadership is still Kurdish. This is in part because Kurds were the ones who provided the initial leadership in the fight against ISIS starting in Kobani. People from Deir Ezzor who could have potentially led the fight against ISIS either fled, or joined ISIS. As a result, there was a lack of local leadership that the SDF is now trying to solve through the creation of military training academies. The current commander of the Deir Ezzor Military Council is Abu Khawla (an Arab) who leads some 4,000 fighters. However, the whole Eastern Region commander is Chia Firat (a Kurd). Furthermore, all commanders and battalion commanders in Deir Ezzor are Arabs, although there are Kurdish commanders who accompany them. … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]
One day during the final weeks of the U.S.-led coalition’s battle to dislodge Islamic State from Raqqa, Syria, in October 2017, Randa Ismail heard two of her brothers say they were going out to fill up a few jerrycans at a well just a block away. The family was running low on water. Soon after they left, Ms. Ismail says, she heard a warplane overhead and then the sound of a rocket strike. “I felt my heart clench,” she recalled recently, standing behind the counter of her family’s convenience store. No remains were found of her brother Sharif, 37, or Ismail, 39. Two cousins were killed in the same attack.
Wells became dangerous destinations during the Raqqa battle; most of them were controlled by Islamic State and were known locally as targets of coalition airstrikes “There was a real pattern of people being killed when they went to go get water,” said Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International’s senior crisis response adviser, who has been tracking civilian deaths in Syria. For its part, the coalition said it reviewed two allegations of civilians killed at wells at that time and didn’t find them credible.
The coalition’s five-year war against Islamic State, which began in 2014, relied on using local forces, some of them lightly trained, to help direct airstrikes. The aim was to inflict damage on the enemy at minimal risk to American and other coalition forces. “Our political leadership made the determination we don’t want to put so many people on the ground that we own this, that we are the principal force; we want to keep this the local forces doing that,” Gen. Joseph Votel, who as head of U.S. Central Command overseeing the battle from 2015 until March oversaw much of the war against Islamic State, said in an interview in June. “They own the aftermath.”
Months after the coalition declared victory in March, the human costs of that strategy are still emerging. Groups that document civilian casualties from the conflict have compiled tallies that far outstrip Pentagon estimates.
By its own latest count, updated monthly, the U.S.-backed coalition says that, since 2014, it has killed 1,321 civilians in Syria and Iraq combined. But Amnesty International says that more than 1,600 civilians were killed in Raqqa alone, where entire blocks in civilian neighborhoods were flattened. A combined study by the rights group and Airwars, an NGO that monitors civilian deaths from military strikes, called the coalition’s barrage on Raqqa inaccurate “to the point of being indiscriminate.” Airwars estimates the total civilian death toll from strikes in Syria and Iraq between 8,106 and 12,980—figures that the coalition disputes.
In Afghanistan, too, the U.S. has faced criticism over its approach. The United Nations said this week that U.S. airstrikes and Afghan forces have killed more civilians in the first half of this year than insurgents did; the U.S. disputed the findings.
The coalition investigates reports of civilian casualties by assessing its own records, but it doesn’t do on-the-ground follow-up work. Groups such as Amnesty and Human Rights Watch take into account local casualty estimates from Syrian monitoring groups and sometimes do their own ground investigations into allegations that coalition airstrikes have killed civilians. Islamic State, meanwhile, killed at least 5,002 Syrian civilians, including in gruesome public executions, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights. … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]
On Topic Links:
Syrian Army Takes Strategic Town from Rebels in New Advance: Reuters, Aug. 11, 2019 — Syria’s army has captured a strategically important town in Idlib in the rebels’ last major enclave, a war monitor and a military media unit run by its ally Hezbollah reported on Sunday.
Iran Moves to Cement Its Influence in Syria: Raja Abdulrahim and Benoit Faucon, WSJ, Mar. 26, 2019 — In Islamic State’s former eastern Syrian stronghold, the Islamic Republic of Iran is parlaying its military and economic might into a lasting foothold.
Assad’s Thinking: How Did Syria Get Here, and Where Does the Regime Want to Go Now?:Michel Duclos and Ambassador Robert S. Ford, The Washington Institute, June 21, 2019, Includes Video — On June 18, Michel Duclos and Robert Ford addressed a Policy Forum at The Washington Institute. Duclos is a former French ambassador to Syria (2006-2009), a special advisor to Institut Montaigne, and author of the new book La Longue Nuit Syrienne. Ford, the U.S. ambassador to Syria from 2011 to 2014, is a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute and the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. The following is a rapporteur’s summary of their remarks.
Five Conundrums: The United States and the Conflict in Syria: Michael A. Ratney, Institute for National Strategic Studies, Strategic Perspectives 32, July 31, 2019 — For the past 8 years, two U.S. administrations, the United Nations (UN), and numerous foreign governments have sought to end the catastrophic war in Syria and reach a negotiated political settlement to the conflict.
Declassified: When a ‘Loaded’ Nixon Confused Syria and Egypt During Yom Kippur War: David B Green, Haaretz, Aug. 11, 2019 — In October 11, 1973, day six of the Yom Kippur War, Henry Kissinger informed U.S. President Richard Nixon that Israel had already advanced 20 kilometers (12 miles) into Syria during its offensive on the northern front.
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