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The Remapping of Syria: Amotz Asa-El, Jerusalem Post, May 17, 2014— US campaign advisers Arthur Finkelstein and James Carville have not been hired, but Bashar Assad will still win next month’s election, and proceed to a third seven-year term as president of Syria.
Mr. Obama is Choosing Not To Act on Syria: Washington Post, May 15, 2014— The principal achievement the Obama administration might claim in an otherwise tragically failed response to Syria’s civil war is eroding.
Wars Within Wars: Jonathan Spyer, Weekly Standard, May 26, 2014 — With Syrian presidential elections scheduled for June, the incumbent and shoo-in for reelection, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, is campaigning on the promise that 2014 will be the year in which military operations in Syria end.
Islam is What Happens When Civilization Loses: Daniel Greenfield, Sultan Knish, Apr. 8, 2014— Saudi Arabia and Qatar aren't talking to each other. Syria and Turkey are shooting at each other.
Syrian al-Qaida Reach Foothills of Golan Heights: Jerusalem Post, May 22, 2014
U.S.-Armed Syrian Rebel Group Seeks ‘All Syrian Land Occupied by Israel’: Adam Kredo, Washington Free Press Beacon, May 19, 2014
Syrian Fighting Gives Hezbollah New but Diffuse Purpose: Ben Hubbard, New York Times, May 20, 2014
Radical Islamists Take Hammer to Syrian Artifacts: Ilan Ben Zion, Times of Israel, May 22, 2014
Syrian War Takes Heavy Toll at a Crossroad of Cultures: Anne Barnard, New York Times, Apr. 16, 2014
Jerusalem Post, May 17, 2014
US campaign advisers Arthur Finkelstein and James Carville have not been hired, but Bashar Assad will still win next month’s election, and proceed to a third seven-year term as president of Syria. Coupled with Egypt’s election – to be held one week earlier, with Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s victory also predestined – and the world may be resigned to the conclusion that three-and-a-half years of upheaval have landed the Arab world back at square one. This impression may be right in Egypt, but it is unfounded in Syria, whose future will be markedly different from its past. The feeling of déjà vu is justified in Egypt, where Sisi is indeed a product of the previous establishment, and where the country has survived its upheaval intact, if bruised. Syria’s situation is entirely different. Though Assad has indeed defied early assessments that his political days are numbered, and despite gains on the battlefield, the process of Syria’s breakup is under way – and irreversible.
Impressions that Syria is also returning to square one were enhanced this week, with the resignation of Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN special envoy who has spent nearly two years trying to get Assad and his enemies to agree to a cease-fire. Brahimi, a seasoned Algerian diplomat who had been an effective negotiator in Afghanistan and Iraq, gave up after two unfruitful rounds of talks in Geneva were followed by Assad’s announcement that he would hold the election as planned. That move has rendered Brahimi’s efforts obsolete, because the splintered Syrian opposition’s most common denominator, and most consistent demand, has been that Assad depart.
Assad’s diplomatic success has been more than defensive. Not only has he managed to stem the momentum that might have unseated him, he also cultivated alliances with two superpowers, Russia and China, and with one regional power, Iran, all of which keeps arms supplies and cash flowing in, if insufficiently. This configuration has so far proved far more solid and efficient than the much more reluctant and loosely connected counter-alliance behind Assad’s enemies. With the US failing to deliver on its vow to attack Syria’s chemical weapons installations, Assad saw the rest of the coalition he faced, including Turkey, France, Saudi Arabia and the Arab League, all fail to unseat him, or even seriously equip and train the rebels. At the same time, Assad’s cause has been consistently backed by Moscow and Beijing, so much so that UN Secretary- General Ban Ki-moon this week decried the Security Council’s failure to bring an end to the bloodshed – which has cost over the past three years some 150,000 fatalities, and displaced an estimated 6.5 million Syrians.
Assad’s diplomatic success has been compounded by gains in the battlefield. After having consolidated his grip on Damascus, Assad has just registered a significant breakthrough in Homs, just outside Lebanon’s northeastern tip. The town that now looks as devastated as Stalingrad the morning of its liberation, last week saw its last 1,000 rebels leave through a negotiated corridor. The triumphant return of Assad’s troops to the city where three years ago thousands filled the streets demanding his regime’s end, understandably enhanced the impression that he is in the process of fully offsetting the effort to topple his regime and reinvent his land. North of there, in Aleppo, Assad’s air force has been dropping so-called barrel bombs on neighborhoods where the rebels have also been pushed to the defensive, this while, according to France, the Syrian president launched multiple gas attacks – even after signing the deal to dismantle his chemical weapons.
Chances are Assad’s troops will in upcoming months be marching into Aleppo, prewar Syria’s commercial heart, thus consolidating the impression that his victory is nearly complete. Assad the son, many will rush to conclude, has done in 2014 what his father did in 1982 when he leveled the town of Hama. It may not have been as swift, conventional wisdom will go, but like his father, the son will lord over Syria for many more years, having bled its dissenters white. Well, he won’t. Back when he inherited his father’s estate, many wondered whether Bashar Assad, a soft-spoken ophthalmologist, was built to deploy the kind of brutality that animated his father’s 30-year reign. That question has since been answered, as the son has already killed more than his father, and is apparently not done. However, while the individuals at play may not be significantly different, times have changed. Assad the father could surround a city with artillery batteries and pound it with its inhabitants inside, knowing the world would take months to learn what he did. Assad the son has to contend with Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, all of which empower the masses in ways the father would doubtfully manage to address any more efficiently than the son. That is why the formula on which Syria ran in recent decades, which imposed the Alawite minority over the Sunni majority, will not be fully restored. Assad has lost most Syrians’ respect, even to the minimal extent necessary for dictatorial rule, and the people have learned how to stand up to authority, even the Syrian leadership’s. There are accumulating indications – geographic, ethnic and social – that this assumption is shared by many on all sides of the civil war.
Geographically, Assad’s offensive is limited to the west. That is why Homs, which sits between Damascus and Aleppo, not far from the coast and also on Lebanon’s edge, is so vital to him. That is also why Assad’s army has been fighting hard to defend Quneitra, which borders Israel on the Golan Heights, and is on the southern end of the western realm that he seems out to carve. Indeed, even here Assad’s grip is shaky, as local rebel groups this week seemed to be closing in on Quneitra while Assad was unable to send them sufficient reinforcements…
[To Read the Full Article Click the Following Link –Ed.]
Washington Post, May 15, 2014
The principal achievement the Obama administration might claim in an otherwise tragically failed response to Syria’s civil war is eroding. Last September President Obama brokered an agreement with Russia under which the regime of Bashar al-Assad was to give up its stockpile of chemical weapons and join the Chemical Weapons Convention, which prohibits production or use of those horrific arms. Yet months after the expiration of the February deadline for removing all chemical stocks from Syria’s territory, the regime not only retains a substantial stockpile but also has returned to assaulting civilian areas with chemicals. The Obama administration’s response is all too familiar: It is trying to avoid acknowledging those facts.
Administration spokesmen boast that 92.5 percent of Syria’s chemical weapons and precursors have been removed from the country for destruction by the end of June. But Damascus is dragging its feet on delivering the last 27 tons of chemicals used to make deadly sarin gas. According to The Post’s Ernesto Londoño and Greg Miller, U.S. officials believe the Assad regime is using the stocks as leverage to retain a network of tunnels and buildings that could be used as storage or production facilities, which the Organisation for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons wants destroyed. Meanwhile, British, French and U.S. intelligence analysts have concluded that Syria is probably hiding part of its arsenal that it failed to declare, including stocks of sarin and mustard gas, according to news reports . State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki confirmed last week that the United States has been skeptical about whether Assad has revealed the extent of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile.
Finally, evidence is piling up that Assad’s forces have been dropping bombs filled with chlorine on opposition-held areas. France’s foreign minister told reporters in Washington on Tuesday that there had been at least 14 such attacks since October. Laurent Fabius, who said “things would have been different” had Mr. Obama not backed away from using force in response to a chemical weapons attack last August, said the “regime is still capable of producing chemical weapons and is determined to use them.” Ms. Psaki said April 21 that the United States had “indications” of the use of chlorine, which is not one of the chemicals Syria was obliged to surrender. But the Obama administration has taken the position that it must await an investigation by the OPCW before reaching a definite conclusion. Meanwhile, the chlorine attacks have continued. An unnamed senior U.S. official offered Mr. Londoño and Mr. Miller a frank explanation of this filibuster: “There’s reluctance to call attention to it because there’s not much we can do about it.”
There are, of course, many actions Mr. Obama could take to punish Syria for its use of chemical weapons and to prevent their further deployment. He could begin by granting the opposition’s request for antiaircraft missiles to use against the helicopters that are dropping chlorine bombs. He could revive his plan to launch U.S. military strikes against Syrian infrastructure that supports those attacks. In reality, Mr. Assad is being allowed to disregard his chemical weapons commitment with impunity not because there’s nothing the United States can do but because Mr. Obama chooses to do nothing.
WARS WITHIN WARS Jonathan Spyer
Weekly Standard, May 26, 2014
With Syrian presidential elections scheduled for June, the incumbent and shoo-in for reelection, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, is campaigning on the promise that 2014 will be the year in which military operations in Syria end. However, the situation in northern Syria, exemplified by the conflict in the canton of Kobani, an area stretching from the Turkish border to south of Kobani city, and from Tell Abyad in the east to Jarabulus in the west, casts doubt on Assad’s optimism.
Kobani is under Kurdish control, but cuts into a larger section of territory controlled by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, a jihadist organization. ISIS aims to hold a clear, contiguous area stretching from Syria’s border with Turkey into western Iraq, where it controls territory in the provinces of Ninewah and Anbar. The existence of the Kurdish canton of Kobani interferes with this plan, and since March ISIS has launched daily attacks against positions held by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) at the edges of the enclave. The Kobani situation offers a window into the Syrian conflict, a fragmented reality where in large parts of the country the regime is little more than a memory, and well-organized rival militias representing starkly different political projects are clashing. Last month, I traveled to the Kobani enclave, entering from the Turkish border with Kurdish smugglers. The road was short but perilous—a sprint toward the border fence in the dark and a rapid, fumbling climb over it.
Kobani was the first of three cantons established by the Kurdish Democratic Union party (PYD) since the Assad regime withdrew from much of northern Syria in the summer of 2012. There are two other such enclaves: the much larger Jazeera canton to the east, which stretches from the town of Ras al-Ain to the border with Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq, and the smaller area around the city of Afrin further west. In all three of these areas, the PYD has set up a Kurdish-dominated autonomous administration. The intention of the Kurds is to consolidate their independent government and eventually to unite the three cantons. In the meantime, however, the stark reality of siege conditions in the Kobani canton was immediately apparent to me. The main electricity supply had been cut off, with only intermittent power from hastily rigged-up generators. The water supply, too, had been interrupted, and the local Kurdish authorities were busy digging wells in the hope of reaching natural springs located deep underground. Yet for all this, life in the city functions in a way closely resembling normality. The two hospitals in the city lack medical equipment and medicines, but they are open. “We are improvising, we are innovating, and we are not dying,” a doctor told me at Ayn al-Arab hospital in Kobani city. The school system is functioning, too, and in northern Syria at present these are no small achievements.
The Kurdish enclaves are almost certainly the most peaceful and best-governed areas in Syria. However, the Kurds are aware of the precariousness of their achievement. Ali, a member of the Kurdish Asayish paramilitary police, told me that “Assad doesn’t want to open another front now. But if he finishes with the radical groups, then he’ll come for us, inevitably.” In the meantime, as one PYD official said, “We take a third line, neither with the regime nor with the Free Syrian Army. We hope in the future to unite all the cantons. We accept a role for the Arabs, so we don’t see a problem with this. And right now, we have one goal—keeping out ISIS.” The PYD’s “democratic autonomy” project in northern Syria put it on a collision course with ISIS, which is trying to lay the basis for an Islamic state run according to its own floridly brutal interpretation of sharia law. The resulting conflict then is not simply about territory, or who will rule northern Syria; it is also about how this land will be ruled. Mahmoud Musa, a Syrian political analyst and a refugee from the town of Jisr al-Shughur, told me that “there are three serious and well-organized forces in Syria today—the Assad regime, ISIS, and the Kurds.” The last two regard themselves as at war with the regime. In reality, the rival mini-states they have carved out of a fragmented Syria are mainly in conflict with each other.
ISIS has emerged as one of the strangest and cruelest of the many political-military movements now active in Syria. I spoke with a young Kurdish man named Perwer who had spent a week in ISIS captivity. He was arrested at the Jarabulus border crossing, while returning to Syria from Istanbul. First detained by members of another Islamist unit, the Tawhid Brigade, he was then handed over to ISIS and kept for five days in one of the movement’s jails in Jarabulus town, just west of the Kobani enclave. Perwer related that a Kurdish man who had been caught raising the YPG flag in a village near the border with the Kurdish enclave was tortured to death. He also noted that among his fellow prisoners were Arab residents of Jarabulus held for drinking wine. They too were tortured. The Kurdish prisoners were regularly insulted and called apostates by the ISIS guards, who came from a variety of countries. Copies of the Koran were handed out to the Kurdish detainees, and the days in their crowded cell were broken up by prayer sessions, in which ISIS would seek to instruct their Muslim captives in what they regard as the correct method of Muslim prayer.
ISIS’s mini-state reaches from the edges of Kobani to deep inside western Iraq. I visited the frontlines on the eastern edge of the Kobani enclave, where the positions of the YPG and ISIS push up against each other. In Tell Abyad, the two sides are camped in abandoned villages, where the ruined landscape has a slightly lunar quality. Eyewitnesses told me that ISIS forced the villagers to leave when the fighting began. Young fighters of the YPG moved carefully around their positions in the abandoned village, ever mindful of the presence of ISIS snipers. In places, the two sides are less than 500 meters apart. ISIS favors mortar fire by night and sniping by day. This has taken a toll on the male and female fighters of the YPG. Around 80 of them have died since the fighting erupted in March. Many more ISIS men, however, have been killed in their wild and uncoordinated attacks.
In Jarabulus on the western side, the frontline villages are still inhabited. Some of the local Arab clans are backing ISIS. A sort of de facto mini-transfer of populations has taken place in the area, largely, though not solely, along ethnic lines. I met a couple of Sunni Arabs among the ranks of the YPG fighters. There are also Kurdish volunteers among the ISIS men, including some commanders. They hail mainly from the villages of Iraqi Kurdistan, in particular from the Halabja area. Yet these details aside, it is clear the main dynamic of the conflict in this area is ethnic and sectarian, with Kurds faced off against Sunni Arab Islamists. The attitude of the YPG fighters to their ISIS enemies combines a certain contempt for their military prowess, with a sort of fascinated horror at their savage practices. “They outnumber us, often. But they lack tactics,” said Surkhwi, a female fighter and the commander of the Kurdish fighters in the village of Abduqli. “We think many of them take drugs before entering combat, and they attack randomly, haphazardly. They desecrate bodies of our fighters, cutting off heads, cutting off hands. They don’t respect the laws of war,” Surkhwi told me. “We also know that ISIS look at us women fighters as something not serious, because of their Islamic ideology. They think that if they are killed by a woman, they won’t go to paradise.”…
[To Read the Full Article Click the Following Link –Ed.]
Sultan Knish, Apr. 8, 2014
Saudi Arabia and Qatar aren't talking to each other. Syria and Turkey are shooting at each other. Not only are the Shiites and Sunnis killing each other in Syria, but the Sunni groups have been killing each other for some time now. There are even two or three Al Qaedas fighting each other over which of them is the real Al Qaeda while, occasionally, denying that they are the real Al Qaeda. There's something about Syria that splits down everything and everyone. Even Hamas had to split between its political and military wings when choosing between Iran's weapons and Qatar's money. Doing the logical thing, the military wing took the weapons and the political wing took the money so that the military wing of Hamas supported Assad and its political wing supported the Sunni opposition.
It's not however money and weapons that splits Muslims over Syria. Money and weapons are only the symbols. What they represent is Islam. And what Islam represents is the intersection between identity and power. A modern state derives its power from its identity. That is nationalism. The Japanese and the Russians were willing to die in large numbers for their homeland during WW2. Both countries had undergone rapid de-feudalization turning peasants into citizens with varying degrees of success. Japan and Russia however had historic identities to draw on. The rapid de-feudalization in the Arab world had much messier results because countries such as Jordan and Syria were Frankenstein's monsters made out of bits and pieces of assembled parts of history stuck together with crazy glue.
The Middle East is full of flags, but most are minor variations on the same red, green, black and white theme. The difference between the Palestinian flag and the Jordanian flag is a tiny asterisk on the chevron representing the unity of the Arab peoples. The Iraqi, Syria and Egyptian flags differ in that the Egyptian flag has an eagle sitting on its white strip and the Iraqi flag had three green stars (now it only has Allahu Akbar) while the Syrian flag has two green stars. The Iraqi flag was originally the same as the Jordanian and Palestinian flags. So are most of the flags in the region which are based on the Arab Revolt flag which was in turn based on the colors of the Caliphates. Every time you see the Al Qaeda "black flag" of Jihad, it's already represented in the black stripes on the flags of every Arab nation. What Al Qaeda has done is strip out the other colors representing the various succeeding caliphates and gone back all the way to the black of Mohammed's war flag…
Syria is split, roughly speaking, between the Kurds, who want their own country, Greater Kurdistan, to be assembled out of pieces of Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey, the Sunnis, many of whom want to form it into a Greater Syria, to be made out of pieces of Israel, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq, and the Neo-Shiite Alawites. Greater Syria was the original agenda of the Palestine Liberation Organization. It's still the agenda of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria. And Al Qaeda in Iraq has become the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and is fighting for its own version of a Greater Syria tying together Iraq and Syria. What is Syria? The civil war answered that question. Like the USSR, it's a prison of nations. It exists only by virtue of men pointing guns at other men. As long as all the men with the guns agreed on what Syria was, the country existed. Once they no longer did, there was no longer a Syria. The same is true of much of the Middle East.
There are questions that you can resolve with democracy within a functioning country, but when your country has less of an existence than the conflicting religious and ethnic identities of its people, democracy only makes the problem worse. Democracy in Iraq means Shiites voting to be Shiite, Sunnis voting to be Sunni and Kurds voting to be Kurds. Democracy in Syria would mean the same thing. And that way lies a federation and then secession and civil war all over again. The problem in the Middle East isn't a lack of democracy. It's the lack of anything to be democratic about. Everyone in the Middle East (who isn't a Jew, Christian, Kurd, Bahai, Zoroastrian, Armenian, Circassian, Druze, etc.. ) agrees on the importance of Arab and Islamic unity and that their specific flavor of it, their clan, their tribe and their Islamic interpretation should be supreme.
It's not surprising that the Middle East is constantly at war. It's only a wonder that the fighting ever stops. Arab nationalism is the ideology that Arab elites used to complete the de-feudalization of their population from peasants into citizens. But what worked in Japan and Russia fell flat in the Middle East where tribe and religion are still supreme. The peasants didn't become Egyptians or Syrians. They remained Ougaidat or Tarabin. After that, they were Muslim. Their national identity came a distant third. What the Arab Spring truly showed is how little national identity mattered as democracy and the fall of governments demonstrated that there was no national consensus, only the narrower one of class, tribe and institution. It's not something that Americans should be too smug about. The left's efforts are reducing the United States to the same balkanized state in which there is a black vote and a white vote, a rich vote and a poor vote, but no national identity that transcends them. We too are becoming ‘Sunnis’ and ’Shiites’. It's no wonder that Islam finds the post-American United States and the disintegrating territories of the European Union fertile ground for its work. It's the same reason why Islam is rising in the Middle East. The rise of Islam is a striving for an era before nations and before whatever remnants of civilization accreted to the Mohammedan conquerors over the years. It's a desire for pre-civilization, for the raid, the noble savage and the twilight of morality. It's a heroic myth dressed up as a religion cloaking the naked savagery of it all…
[To Read the Full Article Click the Following Link –Ed.]
Syrian al-Qaida Reach Foothills of Golan Heights: Jerusalem Post, May 22, 2014— Atop the hill of Tel Ahmar just a few kilometers from Israeli forces on the Golan Heights, Syrian Islamist fighters hoist the al-Qaida flag and praise their mentor Osama bin Laden.
U.S.-Armed Syrian Rebel Group Seeks ‘All Syrian Land Occupied by Israel’: Adam Kredo, Washington Free Press Beacon, May 19, 2014—One of the militant Syrian rebel groups provided access to advanced U.S. missiles said that it is seeking “the return of all Syrian land occupied by Israel,” a stance that could potentially complicate U.S. military support to the armed rebel group.
Syrian Fighting Gives Hezbollah New but Diffuse Purpose: Ben Hubbard, New York Times, May 20, 2014 —For many months, Shiite communities across Lebanon lived in fear as car bombs tore through their neighborhoods, punishing Hezbollah and its supporters for sending fighters to aid President Bashar al-Assad in the civil war in neighboring Syria.
Radical Islamists Take Hammer to Syrian Artifacts: Ilan Ben Zion, Times of Israel, May 22, 2014—Fighters with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, a radical militia that controls a large swath of eastern Syria, confiscated and destroyed illegally excavated antiquities from an ancient Mesopotamian site.
Syrian War Takes Heavy Toll at a Crossroad of Cultures: Anne Barnard, New York Times, Apr. 16, 2014—The imposing stone colonnades still stand, below stark hills dotted with tombs. They still glow peach-pink in the afternoon sun, impassive, as if unimpressed by what is, after all, not their first war.
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