Syria’s Phony Peace Talks: Wall Street Journal, Jan. 29, 2016 — Regarding the Syrian peace talks that began over the weekend in Geneva, allow us to raise two questions: What peace—and what talks?
Israel and the Russian Challenge: Caroline Glick, Breaking Israel News, Jan. 24, 2016— Israeli Air Force commanders are reportedly deeply worried about Russia’s military presence in Syria.
Turkey's Syria Problem: Lee Smith, Weekly Standard, Feb. 1, 2016 — Even before Vice President Joe Biden met with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara last week, the Turks were displeased.
In Syria and Iraq, Canada Needs to go Big or go Home: Terry Glavin, National Post, Jan. 28, 2016— It’s bad enough that the House of Commons resumed its sittings this week without a clue about how Canada’s new government intends to participate in the global struggle against Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State of Iraq & the Levant (ISIL).
Syrian Diplomatic Push Doomed to Fail: A.J. Caschetta, The Hill, Jan. 22, 2016
Russian Strikes in Syria Have Stabilized Assad, Top U.S. General Says: Helene Cooper, New York Times, Jan. 20, 2016
The Secret Pact Between Russia and Syria that Gives Moscow Carte Blanche: Michael Birnbaum, Washington Post, Jan. 28, 2016
In Syria, Locals Take the Fight Back to Islamic State: Jonathan Spyer, The Australian, Jan. 23, 2016
Wall Street Journal, Jan 29, 2016
Regarding the Syrian peace talks that began over the weekend in Geneva, allow us to raise two questions: What peace—and what talks? The regime of Bashar Assad is intensifying its longstanding “starve or kneel” policy against besieged enclaves containing an estimated half a million people. The regime has also scored recent battlefield victories against moderate opposition forces, aided by a combination of Russian air power, Hezbollah ground fighters and Iran’s elite Quds Force.
Meantime, the Institute for the Study of War reports that Islamic State (ISIS) has responded to its recent losses in Iraq by launching a fresh offensive in eastern Syria to consolidate control of the Euphrates River valley, while the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front is gaining strength in Aleppo, once Syria’s commercial capital. Neither ISIS nor Nusra are at the talks, and they will continue to fight regardless of what comes out of Geneva. Also not represented are Kurdish forces, which have been the most effective ground fighters against ISIS but were excluded due to Turkish sensitivities.
Instead, the opposition is represented by an umbrella group backed by the U.S. and Saudi Arabia called the High Negotiations Committee, which is demanding that the regime lift its starvation sieges and end air strikes as a precondition to “proximity negotiations”—so named because the two sides won’t agree to sit in the same room. But the opposition’s diplomatic leverage has fallen with its battlefield fortunes, so any deal it might strike in Geneva would have little effect inside Syria.
None of this augurs well for the talks called Geneva III after the collapse of Geneva I and II. Why hold them at all? For President Obama, the effort fulfills his pledge after the San Bernardino terrorist attack to renew U.S. diplomatic efforts over Syria, regardless of the prospects for success. It also gives Hillary Clinton an opening to say on the campaign trail that Mr. Obama is “finally” on the right course in Syria, after her previous disagreements with Mr. Obama while Secretary of State.
The Assad regime welcomes talks because they offer international legitimacy as well as new opportunities to extract political concessions from its opponents. Russia sees the talks as a vehicle for its own diplomatic rehabilitation amid Western sanctions, even as it defends its clients in Damascus and extends its influence in the Middle East.
Less clear is how this helps the Syrian people. “As usual, the regime imposes the siege on the city before each conference or an important event,” a councilman in one starved and encircled town recently told the Journal. Creating catastrophes it can then “solve” in exchange for Western concessions is an Assad family specialty. It has already parleyed this into U.S. acquiescence in Mr. Assad’s participation in a “transitional” future government with no fixed timetable for his departure.
The tragedy for Syria is that, even as talks enhance Mr. Assad’s legitimacy and strengthen his hand, they will further discredit the moderate opposition, which is being pressured to participate in a transitional government with the same regime most Syrians are desperate to overthrow. The dragooning may further embitter moderates toward the U.S., while strengthening claims by Islamic State and the Nusra Front that they are the only serious Sunni opposition to the Shiite regime.
That point is worth underscoring as Republicans like Ted Cruz and Rand Paul argue that intervening against Mr. Assad would strengthen the jihadists. In reality, the regime and Islamic State are symbiotic enemies, each drawing political strength from the other’s brutality even as they both target more moderate forces. There’s a reason Russian warplanes have rarely targeted Islamic State and the Assad regime buys Islamic State oil.
Next month marks the fifth anniversary of the Syrian war. Nobody can claim there’s an easy solution to what has become the greatest geopolitical disaster of the decade. But a plausible solution isn’t possible as long as Islamic State controls much of the country and the Assad regime feels free with Russian help to force Syrians into exile with barrel bombs and hunger sieges. The only peace likely to come out of Geneva is if the U.S. bludgeons the moderate Sunni opposition into surrender.
Breaking Israel News, Jan. 24, 2016
Israeli Air Force commanders are reportedly deeply worried about Russia’s military presence in Syria. When Russian President Vladimir Putin deployed his forces to Syria last year, he claimed that the deployment would be brief. Russian forces were placed in Syria, Putin said, to protect Assad and would leave once he was able to defend himself. Last week, when the terms of the deployment agreement concluded between Russia and Syria were made public, we discovered that those early claims were false. Under the terms of the deal, Russia can maintain permanent bases in Syria.
Israel’s Air Force is no match for Russia’s. The S-400 anti-aircraft system Russia is deploying to Syria covers half of Israeli territory. Russia’s deployment means that Israel has lost its regional air superiority. To be sure, Putin’s decision to set up permanent bases in Syria is not directed against Israel. He is interested in defending Russian interests in areas like oil and Syria where Israel is not an actor. This is the reason that Russia and Israel have been able to reach tactical agreements over Syria. Among other things, the sides agreed to de-conflict their aircraft flying over Syria.
But Israel’s ability to reach tactical understandings with Russia doesn’t mean Israel can trust that Russia’s operations in the area will not harm its national security in significant ways. For instance, the reports that Russia is transferring arms to Hezbollah are deeply worrying. For the past five years, according to reports in foreign media, the Air Force has repeatedly bombed shipments of Iranian weapons destined for Hezbollah forces in Lebanon.
Israel is not in a position to contemplate bombing Russian military shipments to Lebanon. It is also not in a position to challenge a Russian decision to allow Hezbollah to use advanced weapons like Yakhont anti-ship missiles against naval ships either from Lebanon or Syria. And there is no reason to believe that Russia won’t do so. Russia has been acting in alliance with Hezbollah, Assad and Iran since the 1980s. Putin’s reported willingness to cooperate with Israel in various areas does not mean that Russia is no longer Iran’s partner in supplying Hezbollah and facilitating its operations.
The government and military have no options for dealing with Russia’s sudden emergence as a major power in our backyard. And there is nothing new in Israel’s helplessness. We’ve never had an option for reining in Moscow. But until Barack Obama came into office, Israel never had to worry about Russia. For 65 years, the US forced Russia to curb its activities in the Middle East.
Until Barack Obama entered the White House, every US president from Franklin Roosevelt on believed it was a US economic and strategic interest of the first order to curb Russian power in the Middle East. The chief reason the US began its strategic alliance with Israel after the 1967 Six Day War was because by defeating Russian clients Egypt and Syria, Israel proved its value to the US’s Cold War strategy. In the succeeding decades, Israel and the US had a division of labor. It was Israel’s job to defeat or deter Russian – or Soviet – clients in the Arab world. It was the US’s job to deter Russia – or the Soviet Union.
Now, in the final year of the Obama presidency, all that is gone. Obama is content to see Russia exert power and influence that none of his predecessors would have countenanced. And so, for the first time, Israel finds itself standing alone against Russia, with no clear means of protecting its vital national security interests. Obama’s refusal to take any steps to curb Russia’s deployment and ambitions in the region is not surprising.
It not that he doesn’t understand that Russia’s rise means America’s fall. He undoubtedly has been warned of the implications of Russia’s return to region by the relevant government agencies and the military. But none of that matters to him. The only thing that Obama cares about is his legacy. Obama cannot take action against Russia without discrediting his entire Middle East policy, and so destroying his own legacy.
Obama’s policy in the region is based on the assumption that the US is responsible for instability and war in the Middle East. As a consequence, Obama’s regional policy is one that requires the US to abandon those who benefited from US protection and partnership – first and foremost Israel and Saudi Arabia, and appeasing those who most oppose the US and its allies – first and foremost Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood…
[To Read the Full Article Click the Following Link—Ed.]
Weekly Standard, Feb. 1, 2016
Even before Vice President Joe Biden met with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara last week, the Turks were displeased. The day before, Biden had granted interviews only to opposition media and slammed the government for stepping on freedom of speech. “That's not the kind of example that needs to be set [for the rest of the region]," said Biden. He was referring to, among other issues, the arrest of two Turkish journalists who published information, almost certainly false, claiming that Ankara sends arms across the Syrian border to the Islamic State. He was also referring to the detention of 15 academics for signing a petition denouncing Erdogan's counterinsurgency against the Kurdistan Workers' party (PKK).
The Turkish government overreacted in both cases, and under normal circumstances, it would have been unexceptional for a visiting American vice president to make remarks like Biden's. But circumstances aren't normal. The Obama White House has been putting regional allies like Israel, Saudi Arabia, and now Turkey in the deep freeze. At the same time, it has excused Iran for setting fire to Saudi diplomatic missions and taking American sailors hostage. The Turks understood Biden's remarks—and were likely correct in doing so—as being aimed less at free speech than at bullying them into following the administration's lead on regional policies, especially on Syria.
Secretary of State John Kerry's peace talks in Geneva are about one big thing: ending the war against Syria's Bashar al-Assad. Iran and Russia are in full agreement—indeed, it is they who dictated the terms that Kerry delivered last week to the Syrian opposition. Instead of a transitional governing body that would ease the Syrian dictator out, Kerry explained, there will be a national unity government—in other words, Assad stays.
Turkey is opposed to the plan, and has threatened to boycott Geneva. Erdogan's defiance is not simply a matter of protecting the prestige he staked when he demanded that Assad step down more than four years ago. The Syrian conflict has created a domestic crisis, leaving Turkey to care for, by some estimates, nearly two million Syrian refugees. Many of them are here in Istanbul, where they have better chances of finding work but are competing for jobs and services with Turks in a difficult economy. If Assad stays in power, few of the refugees will return to be ruled by a man who has waged war against them. Turkey will be saddled with millions of refugees for the foreseeable future, maybe permanently, as much of Europe is starting to shut its doors.
Administration officials say they want Turkey to close its border with Syria to stop ISIS, but that's code, which the Turks have no problem understanding. It's meant to implicate the Turks as supporters of ISIS and embarrass them into doing what the White House really wants, which is to stop providing logistical support to anti-Assad fighters. Without Turkey, the rebels would no longer be able to mount a fight against Assad and his Iranian and Russian allies.
The way the administration sees it, with the war against Assad over, the war against ISIS can continue. To that end, the Syrian Kurds of the Democratic Union party (PYD), who have proven themselves the most effective fighting force against the Islamic State, will continue to campaign against ISIS. This is fine with Iran and Russia. "As for specific ways of sealing the border between Turkey and Syria," Russian foreign minister Segei Lavrov has said, "Kurdish militia forces . . . could be used."
But the plan is anathema to Turkey. The PYD is the Syrian affiliate of the PKK—the U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization that broke a ceasefire in June to resume its three-decades-long war against Turkey. In short, Biden was in Turkey to strongarm a longstanding ally into letting a deadly enemy control its long border with Syria. Biden insisted that the White House is not partnered with the PKK. "The PKK is internationally accepted as a terror organization and will remain to be so," he said here last week. He also recited the administration's familiar talking points—that there's a big difference between the PKK and the PYD. But that's not how Turkey sees it.
As Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told the U.N. in October, "We consider the PYD the same way we consider the PKK." Yes, said Davutoglu, PYD is part of the fight against ISIS, but from Ankara's perspective that hardly makes them benign. "Fighting against [ISIS] does not make PYD a legitimate organization." In this case, the PKK agrees with Turkey—they and the PYD are the same thing. As one PKK fighter told the Wall Street Journal, "It's all PKK but different branches." Indeed, just last week, it was the PYD, ostensibly distinct from the PKK, that called for attacks on "the institutions of the Turkish state all over the world."
So why does the White House want to empower a terrorist group targeting a fellow NATO member? The ostensible reason is that the United States will work with anyone to crush ISIS, even another terrorist group like the PKK. But that's not the whole story. The fundamental requirement of any successful anti-ISIS campaign would be to get the region's Sunni Arab majority on board. But that won't happen so long as Washington is indulging the Iranian axis, including Assad. The surge in Iraq is the model. Al Qaeda was finally turned back there when the Sunni Arab tribes agreed to join Americans in fighting them. The tribes turned on al Qaeda only because the Bush White House resolved to simultaneously fight the tribes' other enemy, the Iranian-backed Iraqi Shiite militias.
The path to defeating ISIS is hardly shrouded in mystery—Obama knows it as well as anyone in the field and all the other actors in the region. It would require empowering the Sunnis of Syria and Iraq. But there is no way to do this without a U.S. turn against Iran, the opposite of Obama's policy. He gives every sign of sticking by Iran, even if it means undoing the alliance system in the Middle East built by Washington over more than half a century. The Obama pattern is more than clear: To secure his deal with Iran, he has been more than willing to downgrade allies and upgrade adversaries.
To be fair, Obama doesn't exactly see the world in terms of allies and adversaries. Sure, Iran misbehaves, as he's told many interviewers, but Saudi Arabia is no great shakes either. The problems of our friends in the Gulf Arab states, as Obama has said, come from among their own populations, not Iranian terrorism. The Israelis, from his perspective, won't grow up and make peace with the Palestinians, or with Iran for that matter. And Turkey, as Biden said last week here in Istanbul, doesn't set a good example.
There are no allies or enemies, as Obama sees it, just forces that he will bring into balance with each other. Bring some in closer, like Iran or the PKK, and push some a little further away, like Israel and Turkey. Obama couldn't be clearer: It's time for everyone in the Middle East to learn how to live with each other, or at least find ways to deter each other, without having to call in America all the time to solve their problems.
It's a nice academic theory but riddled with problems in the real world. Foremost among them: Iran is a revolutionary regime, a destabilizing force that seeks to overturn the status quo. Then there's the fact of the increasingly large and calamitous war in the middle of the region, which continues to pull all its neighbors into its gravitational field. There's no way around it: For the sake of theory, Obama is endangering U.S. allies and interests and putting millions of lives at risk.
National Post, Jan. 28, 2016
It’s bad enough that the House of Commons resumed its sittings this week without a clue about how Canada’s new government intends to participate in the global struggle against Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State of Iraq & the Levant (ISIL). Worse, Parliament began its proceedings against the backdrop of a recent meeting, in which our NATO allies had apparently sidelined us, or “snubbed” us, because of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s embarrassing incoherence on the subject.
It can be taken as a given that Trudeau and his ministers have utterly failed in their attempts to explain their rationale behind withdrawing the half-dozen Royal Canadian Air Force fighter jets from the U.S.-led coalition against ISIL. As for having been rudely cold-shouldered last week when the United States convened coalition defence ministers from Britain, Germany, France, Italy, Australia and the Netherlands in Paris, it is just as plausible that that the White House simply wanted to avoid embarrassing us any further. In any case, knowing what everybody knows now about U.S. President Barack Obama’s abysmal failures throughout the Middle East, and particularly his catastrophic response to the Syrian debacle, what shame is there in Canada being slightly less implicated in the wreckage?
Being “snubbed” by Obama in these matters could just as easily be taken as a badge of honour. It would at least place Canada in the company of the only good guys involved in the Syrian mayhem. When the Islamic State’s campaign of genocide against the Yazidis finally shamed the Obama administration into authorizing airstrikes in Iraq and Syria in September 2014, it was the U.S.-based Coalition for a Democratic Syria and the Istanbul-based National Coalition for Syrian and Revolutionary Forces that got snubbed. Obama’s air campaign began with “absolutely no coordination with moderate Opposition forces on the ground,” the coalition protested. Since then, Syria’s pro-democracy revolutionaries have been sidelined ever further. The Syrian corpse heaps have grown only higher. Half the Syrian population — 12-million people — have been rendered homeless, due almost entirely to the war that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the Iranian proxy Hezbollah and lately Russia have been waging upon the Syrian people, mostly by means of barrel bombs and cluster munitions.
Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has been reduced to working as an errand boy for Russian President Vladimir Putin, instructing Syria’s rebel forces on what they may and may not put on the table in the latest United Nations’ “peace talks” charade, and making plain to everyone that Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani are on the same page: forget about sending Assad to the International Criminal Court. The point of the talks is to secure Assad a place in some sort of gerrymandered, power-sharing transitional government arrangement. To be absent from the invitation list to “world stage” proceedings this disgraceful is not something that should hurt Canada’s feelings. The Opposition Conservatives are not helping to clarify matters by aping the New Democratic Party’s habit of construing Canada’s foreign-policy usefulness by what they imagine Canadians would want to see in a vanity mirror. “The Liberals’ incoherent and indecisive messaging has diminished Canada’s reputation on the world stage,” Conservative MP James Bezan told the House on Monday. Good grief.
When they were in power, we could at least count on the Conservatives to not particularly give a damn about what “the international community” thought. But now that the Liberals are calling the shots, or leaving everybody waiting to learn what shots they’re going to call, it suddenly matters? It doesn’t — certainly not to the people of Syria, whose agonies should be foremost in these considerations. The apocalyptic sundering of Syria has quite properly remained front-and-centre in the rumpus-making about the role Canada’s military might play in the paltry U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State. This makes it particularly weird that Canada’s Operation Impact contribution has had practically nothing to do with Syria from the outset…
[To Read the Full Article Click the Following Link—Ed.]
Syrian Diplomatic Push Doomed to Fail: A.J. Caschetta, The Hill, Jan. 22, 2016—The Obama administration will spend its final year attempting “to de-escalate the conflict in Syria…through a political transition.”
Russian Strikes in Syria Have Stabilized Assad, Top U.S. General Says: Helene Cooper, New York Times, Jan. 20, 2016—Russia’s campaign of airstrikes against opponents of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria has stabilized Mr. Assad’s government, America’s top general said Wednesday.
The Secret Pact Between Russia and Syria that Gives Moscow Carte Blanche: Michael Birnbaum, Washington Post, Jan. 28, 2016—When you are a major nuclear power and you want to make a secretive deployment to a faraway ally, what is the first thing you do? Draw up the terms, apparently, and sign a contract.
In Syria, Locals Take the Fight Back to Islamic State: Jonathan Spyer, The Australian, Jan. 23, 2016—In late December, I travelled to northern Syria to take a closer look at how things were working out. Is Islamic State being contained and eroded? And if it is, who are the forces on the ground that are achieving this?