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Meanwhile on Israel’s Lebanese Border: Barry Rubin, PJ Media, Dec. 16, 2013 — On December 15, an Israeli jeep was driving along the Israel-Lebanese border near the coast, in a quiet area, which hadn’t seen war for decades. Suddenly a shot rang out.
Israel-Syria Border a Tinderbox: Yaakov Lappin, Gatestone Institute, Dec. 9, 2013 — Three instances of cross-border fire have occurred along Israel's frontier with Syria in the past week, reinforcing the Israel Defense Force's assessment that this border is set to present a mass of security threats in the near future.
Syrian FSA Fades in Shadow of Saudi-Backed Opposition Front: Edward Dank, Al Monitor, Dec. 11, 2013 — The bombshell that Gen. Salim Idriss of the Free Syrian Army (FSA)'s Supreme Military Command dropped last week, that he would be willing to join forces with the regime against al-Qaeda-affiliated groups in Syria, came without too much scrutiny, especially when he subsequently tried to backtrack and sugarcoat his statement.
Kerry’s Self-Defeat Ahead of Syria Conference: Michael Rubin, Commentary, Dec. 16, 2013 — Sometimes it seems that Secretary of State John Kerry lives in an alternate universe, one in which the Palestinian Authority seeks peace, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is liberal, Iran’s Islamic Republic seeks only to generate electricity, and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is a leader who for the good of humanity might give up power to an opposition against whom he maintains a military edge.
Fragmented Syria: the Balance of Forces as of Late 2013: Jonathan Spyer, Gloria Center, Dec. 11, 2013 — As the Syrian civil war moves toward its fourth anniversary, there are no signs of imminent victory or defeat for either of the sides.
Obama Wanted U.S. Action in Darfur. Why Not in Syria?: Fred Hiatt, Washington Post, Dec. 15, 2013
Rise of Islamic Front Disaster for Syria: Al Monitor, Dec. 15, 2013
Syria’s Saudi Jihadist Problem: Jamie Dettmer, The Daily Beast, Dec. 16, 2013
Syria's Spreading Bloodshed: Molly Crabapple, New York Times, Dec. 6, 2013
PJ Media, Dec. 16, 2013
On December 15, an Israeli jeep was driving along the Israel-Lebanese border near the coast, in a quiet area, which hadn’t seen war for decades. Suddenly a shot rang out. A warrant officer fell dead, but he wasn’t killed by a “terrorist.” Apparently he had been shot by a uniformed soldier of the Lebanese army. Let’s consider this situation under the America’s supposed security protection of Israel. Is Lebanon going to court martial this soldier? Is the United States going to demand that he be punished? Will the United States do anything? Remember that the U.S. will be subsidizing Iran, and who knows what else. Moreover, the United States will try to restrain any Israeli actions. This person is going to get away with murder, and no one will criticize him, but rather compliment him.
This is going to pose daily questions of U.S. policy (true I know this is a Lebanese not Palestinian soldier, but the principal is the same). What if the soldiers had been a few dozen miles away? The United States is obviously going to regret this action but is not going to do anything. It will try to restrain Israel. And meanwhile Lebanon, Syria, and other countries are going to act like they are at war with Israel, but the United States will not allow Israel to act like it is at war with them. How about if Hizballah had shot the soldier. This means that an Israeli soldier was shot by what is a de facto ally of the United States. After all, the United States has likely provided Iran with some 20 billion dollars, cut sanctions, and won’t do anything about the situation. What do Israelis gain? A “frequent friar [Hebrew for sucker] card”? Does the United States want to get into this situation, the middle of an Arab-Israeli conflict that has gone on for 66 years? As I have pointed out many times, this will be a disaster.
The current stage of peace negotiations are the following: The U.S. has offered American troops to be in the West Bank and Gaza Strip for 10 years. How many soldiers will there be? What is their designated mission? Do you really think the U.S. will have thousands of soldiers in Israel and Palestine for a decade? I don’t believe this will happen. I repeat, either this will be a disaster or will not happen. Here is an interesting option. Suppose the Obama administration draws negotiations out to the end of 2014? Certainly parties would like to do that; they are in no hurry. Then negotiations are drawn out during the campaign, and then the day after voting, they collapse. Wouldn’t the Democratic Party achieve a great voter turnout, considering the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Iran conflicts are solved? And then Obama would announce that U.S. interests cannot make the concessions to create peace. In other words, he would get the value of the campaign slogans but then does not deliver. In other words, if you want this conflict, you can keep this conflict. Don’t be surprised at this prediction.
Gatestone Institute, Dec. 9, 2013
Three instances of cross-border fire have occurred along Israel's frontier with Syria in the past week, reinforcing the IDF's assessment that this border is set to present a mass of security threats in the near future. In the most recent incident, a bomb planted by unknown attackers along the border fence, detonated as an IDF patrol passed by, damaging the vehicle. It represents just the sort of incident that, if repeated, could escalate into a potential kidnapping or deadly attack on soldiers, precipitating an Israeli response — which in turn could lead to a wider escalation. The IDF's Northern Command has, in fact, been preparing intensively for this scenario, training patrol units to respond quickly to attacks, and constructing a missile-proof border fence with hi-tech sensors and an early warning system to provide some cover.
The Israeli military has not yet been able to determine who carried out the recent border bombing, but foremost among the suspects are Syrian jihadi elements that form part of the armed opposition to the Assad regime. Extremist jihadi factions, such as the Al Nusra Front (Al-Qaeda's official branch in Syria), and The Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria maintain a continuous presence in southern Syria along sections of the Israeli border, taking part in daily armed clashes with Assad loyalist forces for control of villages in the area. The jihadis may be busy with Assad's army, but in line with their radical ideology, could still choose to strike out at Israel. Such groups are difficult to deter: they are not sovereign rulers of clearly demarcated territory, meaning that there is no clear "return address" for an Israeli retaliation, and they have not experienced Israeli counter-terrorism action. The opposite is true of both Hezbollah in south Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, which have their own territory and, despite being heavily armed, are, for the time being, deterred by previous Israeli operations against them.
The Syrian army too poses a danger, as demonstrated last week, when a Syrian soldier decided to open fire on Israeli paratroopers along the border. The paratroopers wasted little time in returning fire, striking their attacker. According to the IDF's evaluation, the Syrian soldier acted alone, and his decision to fire was spontaneous. But in the chaotic border region, this type of incident could also act as a spark, setting off a chain reaction of clashes that might escalate into a wider conflict. On the same day, a mortar shell fired from Syria hurtled over the Israeli border, and exploded near the Druse town of Majdal Shams. The mortar was a stray shot fired in the midst of the Syrian civil war, but had it landed inside a populated area of the Golan Heights and caused casualties, an Israeli response would be a certainty. Stray fire is also a possible trigger for escalation .
Israeli military planners say that the Syrian arena has become intrinsically linked to Lebanon. With many thousands of Hezbollah operatives fighting in Syria, and with Syrian jihadi organizations branching out into Lebanon, an incident that begins as an attack on Israel from Syria could quickly end up spreading to the Lebanese border. Counteracting the explosiveness of the situation are a few stabilizing factors. No side in Syria is keen on opening a front with Israel and facing the IDF's firepower when it is neck-deep in a fight to the death in the Syrian civil war. Additionally, localized incidents, as again demonstrated last week, can, through a careful combination of firm responses and restraint, be contained by Israel. In today's chaotic and unpredictable regional reality, however, Israel is not relying on these factors. Senior Israeli military commanders are telling their units to assume that war could erupt — swiftly and unpredictably — tomorrow, and to make all necessary preparations.
Al Monitor, Dec. 11, 2013
The bombshell that Gen. Salim Idriss of the Free Syrian Army (FSA)'s Supreme Military Command dropped last week, that he would be willing to join forces with the regime against al-Qaeda-affiliated groups in Syria, came without too much scrutiny, especially when he subsequently tried to backtrack and sugarcoat his statement. But for the observant, the subtle message was all too clear: The “moderate” Western-backed FSA rebels in Syria are on their last legs, pushed to the limit and desperate. They are making their last stand, here and now. That this statement came out of desperation, from an organization that swore it would never deal with President Bashar al-Assad and that its only stated goal was to topple him from power, speaks volumes about the machinations, intricacies and subterfuges of the Syrian conflict, now nearing its third year and drawing ever deeper into a chaotic and messy quagmire.
On the face of it, Idriss’ moderate rebels have had crushing military setback after setback, being no match for the regime’s superior fire power and usurped on their own turf by better financed and organized jihadist Islamist rebels, who maintain a totally conflicting agenda and ideology. This position between the hammer and the anvil might have proven the last straw, as Idriss’ men threw in their lot with that of the other hapless opposition organization, the Syrian National Coalition, whose leader Ahmad al-Jarba also triumphantly announced that they were going into the fray after being provided with “assurances” by global powers. This has much to do with the Geneva II conference, set for Jan. 22, which promises to be a veritable who’s who of top players on the Syrian pitch, with each side fielding their best team in the hopes of outmaneuvering and scoring as many points as possible against the other, while gaining as many concessions as can be achieved in the time allotted.
The fact that some sides aren’t playing ball — or at least not by the agreed-upon rules, most notably the Saudis, who have opted to create their very own “Islamic Front” team — throws a spanner into the works. This new Saudi-backed Islamic Front is a fusion of Salafist jihadist Islamist groups, not as extreme in Ideology as al-Qaeda’s Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) or Jabhat al-Nusra, but nevertheless by no means mainstream like the FSA. It openly calls for Islamic Sharia rule instead of secular democracy, and was even implicated in sectarian war crimes like the Latakia province incidents documented by Human Rights Watch. Meant to counter the growing power and influence of al-Qaeda, especially in the north of Syria, it has none the less undermined the Western-backed FSA. One need only look to the recent assassination of two FSA officers blamed on ISIS in the north, as well as the subsequent ISIS attack on the strategic border crossing of Bab al-Hawa on the Turkish border, held for over a year by FSA units. As ISIS attacked, the FSA called on Ahrar al-Sham — now part of the Islamic Front — for help. Ahrar al-Sham obliged, driving out ISIS, but at the same time taking over FSA positions, warehouses and heavy weaponry for "safe keeping."
It is this sort of cannibalization of the moderate FSA that has alarm bells ringing in Western capitals. Pretty soon there won’t actually be any FSA, at least not in terms of actual physical presence. To make matters worse, what was left of the FSA in the northeast of Syria, namely in the al-Qaeda-dominated Raqqa province, has disintegrated. As the Ahfad al-Rasoul Battalion splintered into different groups, many later pledged allegiance to ISIS. The same story was repeated in oil-rich Dier Ezzor, where tribal leaders opted to accept al-Qaeda’s presence instead of challenging it. In Aleppo, the FSA are being squeezed even further with ISIS openly threatening their leadership and positions in the north, just as the regime gains ground and consolidates its hold over the southern countryside of Aleppo.
And so begins the race, even against allies, to put together a workable solution that can be implemented in Syria. It is a given that many fighting factions, most notably the extremist Islamist militants, will not abide by any such agreements, and will therefore become the future enemy of a “new Syria,” should one be agreed upon by the various players. In the frantic buildup and diplomatic arm-twisting before Geneva II, it seems the main priority is to get everyone on board with tackling the imminent al-Qaeda menace, which friend and foe alike admit is now the biggest threat to their interests and to regional and global stability. Neither the Americans nor the Russians nor their respective allies want to see Syria turned into a launching pad for a global jihadist movement. The nervousness is particularly acute in Europe, some of whose own citizens have joined the ranks of al-Qaeda in Syria. The blowback from those radicalized militants returning home has even prompted some to send high-level security officials to Damascus.
Apparently, removing Assad has taken a backseat to a more pressing need. Building a feasible coalition of regime and opposition forces to tackle the al-Qaeda threat seems to be the first goal of any political settlement, a priority which has the backing of all the major players in the Syrian conflict except for Saudi Arabia. The Saudis' overt backing and funding of the Islamic Front seems specifically geared toward scuttling any such deal. In terms of Saudi calculations, curbing Iranian influence in the Middle East is their number-one strategic goal. As far as Riyadh is concerned, a failed state ruled by Sunni extremists seems preferable to the existence of any Iran-friendly regime in Syria. But despite deploying its cards via the Islamic Front, it remains to be seen whether Saudi Arabia will actively defy an US attempt to form an anti-al-Qaeda coalition in Syria.
Commentary, Dec. 16, 2013
Sometimes it seems that Secretary of State John Kerry lives in an alternate universe, one in which the Palestinian Authority seeks peace, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is liberal, Iran’s Islamic Republic seeks only to generate electricity, and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is a leader who for the good of humanity might give up power to an opposition against whom he maintains a military edge. Hence, Kerry is moving full-steam ahead with plans for the “Geneva II” conference to discuss Syria’s future. Thirty-two countries—including Iran—will participate, because in Kerry world, having as many countries as possible attend a conference makes it easier to reach a solution. Even Iran will attend because, again in Kerry’s alternate reality, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps answers to Iranian diplomats.
One group will not be attending the Geneva II talks, but not for lack of desire. That group—which embraces secularism, fights actively against the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, and controls thousands of square miles inside Syria—has found its participation in Geneva II actively blocked by Kerry. The Democratic Union Party (PYD), led by Salih Muslim, is Kurdish and runs its own autonomous government in and around Qamishli, the largest town in northeastern Syria. In its effectively autonomous zone, children attend school, businesses remain open, and women can go shopping or walk in the street without fear of kidnapping, rape, or murder. The PYD’s sin, it seems, is its affiliation with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey, a group which once waged an insurgency against the Turkish army and which the United States continues to designate a terrorist group, less on its merits and more out of deference to Turkey. Herein is the irony: the Turkish political leadership has for years engaged with the PKK, and the two sides have negotiated a ceasefire. The PYD is to Syria what the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) are to Iraq. Of course, both the Clinton and Bush administrations engaged with the KDP and PUK; they recognized it was in the United States’s interest to do so.
How sad it is that terror sponsors receive the enthusiastic embrace of the Obama administration, but those groups which not only talk about peace and stability, but also achieve it are given the cold shoulder. The PYD’s sin seems to be its neutrality: It has long claimed that the Syrian opposition is too radical, a position for which the United States has sought to punish it, even as most in Congress come to recognize the truth of that position. The State Department also claims that the PYD is pro-Assad. This is a misreading: The PYD has sought to be neutral in the conflict; that neutrality has meant keeping lines open to Assad, which is exactly what Kerry is doing at Geneva II. That Kerry and crew seek to ban the PYD and undo its success demonstrates once again the administration’s skewed values and strategic incompetence. It’s time to give the PYD a seat at the table.
Gloria Center, Dec. 11, 2013
As the Syrian civil war moves toward its fourth anniversary, there are no signs of imminent victory or defeat for either of the sides. The military situation has reached a stalemate. The result is that Syria today is divided de facto into three identifiable entities, each of which is capable of defending its existence against threats from either of the others. These three entities are: first, the Asad regime itself, which has survived all attempts to divide it from within. The second area is the zone controlled by the rebels. In this area there is no central authority. Rather, the territory is divided up into areas controlled by a variety of militias. The third area consists of majority-Kurdish northeast Syria. This area is under the control of the PYD (Democratic Union Party), the Syrian franchise of the PKK…
The emergence of a de facto divided Syria is the result first and foremost of the Asad regime’s response to its strategic predicament in the course of 2012. By the end of 2011, the uprising against the regime had transformed from a largely civilian movement into an armed insurgency, largely because of the regime’s very brutal and ruthless response to civilian demonstrations against it. This response did not produce the decline of opposition, but rather the formation of armed groups intended initially to defend protests. These armed groups then began to conduct their own independent actions against the regime’s armed forces. The Asad regime initially tried to hold all parts of the country against the insurgency. Yet it was unable to muster the required number of reliable troops to mount a classic campaign of counterinsurgency. This soon became evident in the rebel heartlands of northern Syria, close to the border with Turkey.
Beginning in late 2011, the opposition and Free Syrian Army began to occupy ground, taking control of a number of towns and villages in the Idlib province. In January 2012, Zabadani was taken. Douma, near Damascus, fell in the same month. The rebels also took control of the greater part of Homs city, for a few months. In January 2012, some additional Damascus suburbs fell under partial opposition control. Asad hit back. The regime first attempted to launch a concerted effort to recapture these areas, in the late winter of 2011/2012. In February 2012, a counterattack was mounted. It began by retaking Douma, then moved on to Homs, and then began the pacification of Idlib–in time for the beginning of the “ceasefire” brokered by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, which was due to take effect in April 2012. The regime’s counterinsurgency tactics were characteristically bloody and brutal. Human Rights Watch, in a document based on field research carried out in the Idlib province described how 95 civilians died and hundreds were wounded in the period between March 22 and April 6, 2012, as Syrian armor and infantry swept methodically through the towns of Sarmin, Saraqib, Taftanaz, Hazana, and Killi.
Similar actions took place throughout the country in areas affected by the uprising, including in Homs, Hama, Idlib, Deir al-Zor, Rastan, Dar’a, and Douma near Damascus. The pacifications involved the use of helicopters, artillery, and armor against civilians as well as large scale roundups, disappearances, and many deaths. Yet it became apparent at that time that the regime did not have sufficient wherewithal to place all areas in revolt under permanent occupation. A pattern therefore emerged in which rebel fighters would leave an area before the regime military arrived. The regime’s retribution would be taken out on the civilian population. Then, when the armed forces moved on as their limited numbers obliged them to do, the uprising reemerged. The failure of the counteroffensive of February and March 2012, and the predictable still birth of Annan’s ceasefire, left the regime in a dilemma. Resources and lives of soldiers were being wasted on seeking to hold the entirety of the country. In the Sunni rural northwest, the regime ruled against the direct opposition of the population. In the course of July and August 2012, therefore, regime forces regrouped, effectively ceding large parts of northern and eastern Syria to their opponents, and establishing new defensive lines further south.
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Obama Wanted U.S. Action in Darfur. Why Not in Syria?: Fred Hiatt, Washington Post, Dec. 15, 2013 — If you had said in 2008 that the administration of Susan Rice, John Kerry and Barack Obama would do nothing while a dictator deliberately starved more than a quarter-million of his people, no one would have believed you.
Rise of Islamic Front Disaster for Syria: Al Monitor, Dec. 15, 2013 — On Dec. 11, The Wall Street Journal and other publications reported that Islamist rebels had seized the northern Syrian headquarters of Maj. Gen. Salim Idris, chief of staff of the Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and warehouses containing equipment provided to the FSA by Western countries.
Syria’s Saudi Jihadist Problem: Jamie Dettmer, The Daily Beast, Dec. 16, 2013 — Saudi jihadists are flocking in growing numbers to join al-Qaeda affiliates in northern Syria and despite public expressions of disquiet, Saudi Arabian officials are doing little to try to stop them flying out from the Riyadh airport—a further sign, say Western diplomats, of the Kingdom throwing caution to the wind when it comes to the Syrian civil war.
Syria's Spreading Bloodshed: Molly Crabapple, New York Times, Dec. 6, 2013 — I was in Tripoli to draw, documenting the Syrian refugee crisis; that was what I was doing when I met Samar. She was queuing for food vouchers, along with fellow Syrian refugees, at the office of a local Sunni leader.
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