Syria – the Beginning of the End?: Sarit Zehavi, Jerusalem Post, Feb. 15, 2017— In the past two months, several things happened in Syria that oblige us to examine the question of where this five-year civil war is going.
Pitting Russia Against Iran in Syria? Get Over It: Frederick W. Kagan, Fox News, Feb. 15, 2017— Faced with the Syrian debacle, Trump administration officials, among others, claim that the U.S. can exploit the weakness of the growing strategic coalition between Russia and Iran…
Trump’s Bid to Keep Syrian Refugees Safe — at Home: Benny Avni, New York Post, Feb. 8, 2017— President Trump’s refugee restrictions dominated days’ worth of news cycles, but it’s only half of his approach to Syria.
Syrian Refugees Are the New Jews. So Who Are the Nazis?: Lee Smith, Tablet, Feb. 2, 2017— For the last week, protestors have been filling American airports from JFK to LAX…
Iraq Takes the Fight Against ISIS to Syria: Ben Kesling, Wall Street Journal, Feb. 24, 2017
The Fall of Aleppo: Fabrice Balanche, Middle East Forum, Feb. 7, 2017
A Journey Through Assad's Syria: Fritz Schaap, Spiegel, Feb. 20, 2017
Syria and the Failure of the Multicultural American Left: Yoav Fromer, Tablet, Feb. 12, 2017
Jerusalem Post, Feb. 15, 2017
In the past two months, several things happened in Syria that oblige us to examine the question of where this five-year civil war is going. Namely the fall of Aleppo, followed by the cease-fire declaration and the peace talks in Astana. Seemingly, the talks are just another failed attempt at halting the fighting while the regime and the Russians continue to attack areas and organization that have signed on to the cease-fire. Despite this, why is it that we are now able to point to a changing trend in contrast with the previous cease-fires that were signed?…
Much has been written on the numerous deaths that have resulted from Russian and Syrian bombing. Aleppo was the symbol of this carnage. But very little has been written about the implications of the convoys of buses that evacuated the rebels and their families from the city and the resulting demographic and geopolitical ramifications. The fall of Aleppo symbolizes Syrian President Bashar Assad’s victory. This was the largest city in Syria, with some 2.5 million inhabitants prior to the civil war. Aleppo possesses a history and heritage dating back thousands of years; it is in fact one of the world’s most ancient cities.
Up until the beginning of the 20th century, it was considered to be the commercial center for the region lying between Mesopotamia in northern Iraq and the Mediterranean. However the city descended from its high position over the past several decades, mainly due to the development of alternative commercial routes as Damascus evolved into the capital of the A-Sham (Levant) region.
Aleppo residents were primarily Sunni, while the city also had a Christian quarter. The city’s demographics reflect a process that all of Syria underwent prior to the civil war. The Sunni population has grown significantly over the years. However, this sizable population lived in poverty and oppression. This is in contrast with only a moderate increase in the population of the minorities. Thus, the Sunnis became an absolute majority in the country, and therefore endangered the coalition of minorities headed by the dictatorship of the Alawite Assad family.
As in many cases of revolutions in history, the phenomenon of people taking to the streets is linked with socioeconomic conditions among others; often, this serves as fertile ground for the sprouting of ideological, religious and other conflicts. In mostly Sunni Aleppo, with the city’s magnificent history etched in the DNA of its residents, the poor neighborhoods rebelled, while the revolutionary movements were much less successful in the rich neighborhoods.
After a sustained siege of the city’s rebel- controlled quarters and virtually indiscriminate killing of citizens, the largest human evacuation of the Syrian war took place in Aleppo. In an interview with Fatma, the mother of Bana, a seven-year-old girl who last year told the entire world of the happenings in Aleppo via Twitter, she said: “I left my soul there, they make us leave our country. I don’t want to be like a refugee in other countries.” From Fatma’s words it appears that she doesn’t envision the possibility of returning to Aleppo in the foreseeable future. The evacuation of Aleppo residents, under UN protection, is not really aimed at saving their lives; rather, it is aimed at vacating the city of its Sunni rebel residents and bringing about a change in its demographic composition.
A website identified with the Syrian opposition’s Southern Front (Al-Jabha al-Janoubiya) aptly described it this way: “Control of this historic and important city…has been taken by Iran, the Persian state, together with the Assad regime. This conquest is of a totally clannish hue.” Even if it is not entirely clear how many Sunnis remain in Aleppo, the tour of the city’s streets by Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps commander Qasem Suleimani after the city’s fall only strengthens this perception. This method was also used in other areas of Syria prior to the fall of Aleppo. However, it was particularly effective after the city’s collapse because Aleppo has become a model. That being the case, the war in Syria has not ended with the fall of Aleppo as there are highly active pockets of resistance in the large cities.
However, the fall of the city enables the regime to fulfill its goal in a far more methodical and easy manner – to bring about a demographic change in Syria and create a 50-100 km. wide “strip” in western Syria, from north to south. The strip comprises the large cities, which would have a less than 50% Sunni minority facing a coalition of minorities headed by Shi’ites of different varieties. Thus, for example, Shi’ites were settled in villages along the Syria-Lebanon border from which Sunnis were expelled/evacuated in order to create a Shi’ite continuity between the Lebanese Bekaa Valley and Shi’ite villages on the Syrian side of the border. Several Arab sources have coined the term “La Syria Utile” for this policy, taken from the term used by the French Mandate following the First World War.
In his speech of July 2015, prior to Russia’s intervention in the fighting, President Assad stated: “The Syrian army must withdraw from certain areas in order to protect other, more important areas.” Then, Assad was ready to temporally forgo Aleppo as part of this policy to ensure his control in western Syria, however Russian intervention two months later allowed him to expand the boundaries of his ethnic cleansing and include Aleppo…
[To Read the Full Article Click the Following Link—Ed.]
Frederick W. Kagan
Fox News, Feb. 15, 2017
Faced with the Syrian debacle, Trump administration officials, among others, claim that the U.S. can exploit the weakness of the growing strategic coalition between Russia and Iran, ultimately using Russia to contain Iran in Syria and throughout the Middle East. The Obama administration had this idea too, and it remains wrong. Circumstances could arise that might split the partners, but American outreach to Moscow won’t do it. A bigger question for the U.S. right now is whether we can prevent other nations vital to our interests from shifting toward the new Russian-Iranian orbit.
There are reasons why the Russia-vs-Iran fantasy is attractive. Historical tension between Iran and Russia is real, and neither state knows how to be a good ally. Russia sees itself as a superpower and disdains to treat other states as equals. Iran sees itself as the natural hegemon of the Middle East and leader of the vast Shi’a Muslim denomination. Marginalization and persecution of Shi’as over the centuries makes it hard for the Islamic Republic to trust outside powers. Tehran also has had tensions with Russia over Caspian Sea resources and oil.
Thinking too much about these historical disagreements, however, obscures the deep commonality of aims shared by Moscow and Tehran–driving the U.S. from the Middle East being the chief of these common goals. Iran’s leaders constantly assert that the Middle East should be free of the influence of outside powers. They never point that argument at Russia or China, but rather at the U.S., Britain, and their allies. Russia’s leaders and doctrines assert that the U.S. must abandon its position as a global power and yield to a multipolar world order in which Russia is its equal.
Russia and Iran also share allies and goals around their periphery. Both back Armenia over Azerbaijan in the Caucasus. Russia has kept a military base in Armenia since the end of the Cold War, while Iran fears that Azerbaijan could attempt to stir up separatism within Iran’s large Azeri population. Both seek stability in Afghanistan and prefer to work with local Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras rather than Pashtuns. Both have, however, worked with, and even supported, Taliban factions when it suited them.
Only extreme circumstances will split the Russo-Iranian coalition in Syria—if the Assad regime faces defeat, or the pro-regime coalition succeeds enough that it can move on to consider its next goals. Neither is likely. Vladimir Putin would give up on Bashar al Assad long before Ayatollah Khamenei would, but right now Putin needs an Alawite government like Assad’s to let him keep his new military base on the Mediterranean. Ayatollah Khamenei needs the Assad regime to give the Revolutionary Guards’ Qods Force and its Hezbollah allies a secure rear-area from which to confront Israel. Russia needs Iran in Syria at least as badly as Iran needs Russia.
The Assad regime and army are kept alive artificially by tens of thousands of Iranian, Hezbollah, Iraqi Shi’a militia, and Afghan and Pakistani militia troops, all provided, paid for and commanded by Iranians. The Russians neither can, nor would, replace these forces with their own. If the Russians agreed to drive the Iranians from Syria, the Assad regime and Russia’s position would collapse. Russian and Iranian aims in the region diverge significantly on two points. The Islamic Republic is committed to destroying Israel and containing or collapsing Saudi power. Moscow shares neither goal. But Moscow has done nothing to protest or contain Iran’s harassment of Israel using Hezbollah and Hamas.
The Russians have also reached out to the Saudis and Gulf states to mitigate damage their support for Iran has done to their position in the region. Moscow would prefer a Sunni power to balance Iran, where Tehran prefers unquestioned hegemony. There is some surprising overlap even in this divergent effort, however. Egypt is drifting away from the Saudi bloc and toward Moscow and even Tehran. President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi voted for Russian initiatives in Syria at the U.N. and even sent a small number of Egyptian troops to Syria on behalf of the Russo-Iranian coalition.
The Iranians have no quarrel with Sisi, and have never directed against him the kind of vitriol they reserve for the Saudis and their Gulf Arab allies. Russia and Iran may, in fact, come to see Cairo as a mutually acceptable contender for leadership of the Sunni Arabs in the region at the expense of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. This would be a formidable new challenge to American strategy and statecraft. American policy-makers must get past facile statements about the supposed limits of Russian and Iranian cooperation and back to the serious business of furthering our own interests in a tumultuous region. The Russo-Iranian coalition will no doubt eventually fracture, as most interest-based coalitions ultimately do. Conditions in the Middle East and the world, however, offer no prospect of such a development any time soon.
New York Post, Feb. 8, 2017
President Trump’s refugee restrictions dominated days’ worth of news cycles, but it’s only half of his approach to Syria. The other half is designed to keep Syrians from becoming refugees in the first place. The idea of creating “safe zones” in Syria was high on the agenda Wednesday when Trump spoke on the phone with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Turkish sources tell me the two leaders didn’t get into details, but CIA Director Mike Pompeo will visit Turkey on Thursday to try to flesh it out.
Trump vowed back in November to build “a big beautiful safe zone,” where, he said, Syrian refugees will “have whatever it is so people can live, and they’ll be happier.” And in his first week at the White House, he once again promised to “absolutely do safe zones in Syria.” That’s where Erdogan comes in. He’s long advocated carving out an area in Syria where refugees can feel safe under Turkish protection and stem the tide of migrants into neighboring Turkey and on to continental Europe.
But President Obama shot the idea down. He was wary of any serious American involvement in the Syrian crisis, and, just as importantly, he had soured on Erdogan by the time the idea was broached. That was a big change from early in his presidency, when Obama consulted Erdogan more than any other regional leader and cited Turkey as proof that democracy can flourish under an Islamist ruler.
Erdogan liked to brag about Turkey’s foreign-policy doctrine of “no problems” with its neighbors, but even Obama eventually woke up to the reality that Turkey was in fact at war with each of its neighbors — and that Erdogan methodically suffocated Turkey’s democracy. Erdogan, meanwhile, was angry with Obama for supporting the YPG, a Kurdish faction that became our only fighting ally in Syria. (Turkey considers it a terrorist organization.)
For better or worse, Trump’s leadership style prioritizes transactional realism over America’s traditional moralism. As such, he might have more patience with authoritarians like Erdogan. Erdogan is also working with Vladimir Putin on Syria because, with Iran, Russia is the most powerful foreign actor in the conflict. And Putin doesn’t necessarily oppose creating humanitarian safe zones. And why not? Half of Syria’s population is homeless. Its neighbors — Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey — carry most of the burden of handling the refugees.
And they’re exhausted. Europe is facing a populist backlash against its permissive refugee resettlement. Same here, though Obama took in just a minuscule number of Syrians to begin with. Hence, despite the obvious challenges in getting under control a bloody civil war that has so far killed a half-million, keeping Syrians in Syria is starting to look like it’s worth the effort. With nearly 2 million Syrians in camps inside Turkey, Erdogan would love to move them back into Turkish-controlled areas inside Syria. Meanwhile, Trump could answer critics of his immigration ban: Safe zones, he’ll argue, will alleviate the humanitarian crisis better than taking in asylum seekers.
The catch: Moscow, always fearing an American occupation and US military “mission creep,” won’t bless any of this before seeing the details. Ah, the details. “We have in history different examples of safe zones, and some of them were tragic,” new UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said recently. Specifically, the United Nations is traumatized by Srebrenica, a supposedly “safe” zone in Bosnia, where in one 1995 week, 8,000 Muslims were massacred as UN guards helplessly watched. Would anyone have better luck in similarly bloody Syria? Can any zone, no matter how well guarded, be completely safe? Also, occupying a slice of Syria could turn expensive and bloody. Trump indicated that Gulf states would finance the project. Turkey, which already occupies parts of northern Syria, would shoulder most of the military burden. But America would still need to take a larger military and diplomatic role, which was more than Obama was willing to do.
Done right, safe zones could ease one of the biggest challenges the Syrian war presents to the West. Yes, it’s a complex operation, but not necessarily undoable. Question is, can Trump (or more likely Pompeo, Defense Secretary James Mattis and the rest of the team) work out the details? Because, good or bad, no idea will succeed unless it’s well-planned and well-executed. For that to happen, the chaotic early days of the Trump presidency will have to give way to competence and order — and soon.
Tablet, Feb. 2, 2017
For the last week, protestors have been filling American airports from JFK to LAX, demonstrating against President Donald Trump’s “Muslim Ban”—the executive order that in fact suspends for 90 days the issuance of visas to seven countries that are either major state sponsors of terror, or failed states without functioning governments where terror groups like ISIS, Al-Qaida, and their various off-shoots are flourishing. But the EO also suspends indefinitely the issuance of visas for Syrian refugees. And the opinion of protesters, as well as much of the press, is that Syrian refugees are like the Jews—fleeing genocide in search of safe shores: How can we have forgotten the past so completely that we deny entry to those whose suffering and want must serve as a reminder of our past failures to protect others, like the Jews that America so coldly turned away in the 1930s and 1940s?
In December, my Tablet colleague James Kirchick warned that “invoking the Holocaust for contemporary political debates is an inherently tricky business.” Nonetheless, it’s become the consensus take in the media, as seen with The Washington Post, Politico, Cokie Roberts on “Morning Joe,” and, of course, The New York Times, including a signature Nicholas Kristof column arguing that “Anne Frank Today Is a Syrian Girl.” Former President Barack Obama may have been among the first to make the comparison. In a December 2015 address to newly minted American citizens, Obama said: “In the Syrian seeking refuge today, we should see the Jewish refugee of World War II.” Obama’s conviction that the suffering of Syrian refugees is directly similar to that of Europe’s Jews is perhaps why he appointed his former top lieutenant Ben Rhodes to the Holocaust Memorial Council, responsible for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. Maybe Rhodes will ensure that the Museum commemorates the trials of the Syrian people, a people who suffered, as the Jews suffered at the hands of the Nazis, at the hands of…
Wait, at whose hands did the Syrian people suffer something like genocide? If they are like European Jews fleeing the Nazis, then who are the Nazis? In the various articles, statements, tweets, Facebook posts making explicit comparisons between Syrian refugees and Jewish refugees, no one, it seems, has bothered to identify the agents responsible for the murder, suffering, and dislocation of so many Syrians. So where are the Nazis? Who are they? It has to be Trump. Well, it is true that the new president has indefinitely suspended issuing visas to Syrian refugees, but the Nazis didn’t simply turn Jews away, they murdered them—and the analogy was popular well before Trump became President. Trump is rather more like FDR in this scenario, the American president who refused to provide sanctuary for victims of a genocidal regime.
So who has actually been exterminating Syrians—Syrian men, women, children and the elderly—as if they were insects, as the Nazis exterminated Jews? It is true that ISIS murders Christians and other minorities and has also killed members of its own Sunni sect, but the vast majority of those who have been murdered in Syria are Sunni Arabs. The Sunnis have been the target of a campaign of sectarian cleansing and slaughter since the earliest days of the nearly six-year-long Syrian conflict. The Sunnis therefore also make up the preponderance of those seeking refuge the world over, from Turkey and Lebanon, to Europe and North America.
At first, the Sunnis were fleeing Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, but Assad has become a relatively insignificant factor in the war. In this scenario, Assad is rather like Mussolini, a dictator in charge of incompetent and dwindling forces incapable of holding ground. The Alawite sect (around 11 precent of a country with a pre-war population of 22 million) that Assad depended on for his survival was too small to ensure his survival against the country’s Sunni majority, 74 percent of the population, 80 percent of which are Sunni Arab. Hence, Assad needed to mobilize his allies, especially the regime’s chief protector, the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Iran sent in its crack troops, the Quds Force, led by Qassem Soleimani, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ expeditionary unit. Also at Iran’s disposal was a large number of regional organizations, ranging from the elite Lebanese militia Hezbollah to less prestigious fighting outfits, like Iranian-backed paramilitary groups from Iraq, or ragtag bands of Shia fighters recruited from Afghanistan and Pakistan and trained by Iran. It was these groups, later joined by Russia, that hunted Sunni Arabs like animals and slaughtered them or sent them running for their lives. These are the Nazis. That’s who sent the Syrians running for their lives like Jews fleeing Hitler.
It is terrible that Syrian refugees are suffering. It is wrong that the Trump Administration has cruelly shut America’s doors on children who have known nothing in their short lives except to run from the jaws of a machine of death. But America’s shame is much, much worse than that. For in securing his chief foreign policy initiative, Barack Obama made billions of dollars and American diplomatic and military cover available to Iran, which it has used to wage a genocidal war against Syria’s Sunni Arab population.
Not only have we failed so far to protect today’s Jews by stopping today’s Nazis, the 44th president of the United States assisted them in their campaign of mass murder. That’s why when people liken Syrian refugees to Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis, no one dares to complete the analogy and identify today’s Nazis—it’s Iran. America’s shame is worse than anything that the protesters at airports imagine. Donald Trump is a latecomer who has arrived mid-way through the final act of a tragedy which has been unfolding for the past five years, and in which the US has been something more than an idle or disinterested bystander. The refugees are real, the genocide they are fleeing is real, and the Nazis are also real. What we have done is unspeakable.
Iraq Takes the Fight Against ISIS to Syria: Ben Kesling, Wall Street Journal, Feb. 24, 2017—Iraq’s air force on Friday carried out its first-ever strikes against Islamic State in neighboring Syria, the country’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said, marking a dramatic escalation in its effort to roll back the insurgency by pounding a sanctuary across the border.
The Fall of Aleppo: Fabrice Balanche, Middle East Forum, Feb. 7, 2017—The fall of Aleppo was a turning point in the Syrian civil war. In an impressive feat, the Russian-backed Syrian army dealt a crushing blow to the rebel forces, driving many of them to entertain a compromise with the Assad regime.
A Journey Through Assad's Syria: Fritz Schaap, Spiegel, Feb. 20, 2017—On an icy January evening in eastern Aleppo, a grotesque scene of destruction, five men are standing around a fire in a battered oil drum in a butcher's shop.
Syria and the Failure of the Multicultural American Left: Yoav Fromer, Tablet, Feb. 12, 2017—Among the countless heartbreaking images that came out of the earthly inferno of Aleppo, one remains particularly haunting: that of a grief-stricken mother cradling the lifeless body of her child emerging out of the rubble and raising her face to the heavens in a deafening cry of despair. The human tragedy in the war-ravaged Syrian city mercilessly bombarded by Russian jets operating in the service of Bashar Assad was so disturbing because it was so familiar.