As Syria Sees One of the Bloodiest Periods of its War, UN Calls for Immediate Cease-Fire: 'The War is Far From Over': Liz Sly, Washington Post, Feb. 7, 2018— The United Nations appealed for an immediate cease-fire in Syria on Tuesday as spiraling violence pushed the country to the brink of one of the worst humanitarian crises in the seven-year war.
As Russia Carves up Syria, US May be Drawn into War: Benny Avni, New York Post, Feb. 6, 2018— It turns out trying to stay on the sidelines of the Syrian civil war may be the very thing that drags us into it with both feet.
Trump’s Obligation to Syria’s Gas Attack Victims: Noah Rothman, Commentary, Feb. 6, 2018— In the space of a single month, the Syrian regime has reportedly deployed chlorine gas in civilian neighborhoods on six separate occasions.
Welcome to Syria 2.0: Jonathan Spyer, Foreign Policy, Jan. 25, 2018— The idea that Syria's civil war is winding down has been repeated so often in recent months as to become a cliché. It has never been entirely true.
U.S.-Led Forces Kill an Estimated 100 Syrian Regime Troops: Jacqueline Klimas, Politico, Feb. 7, 2018
Syrian State Media: Air Defenses Intercept Israeli Missiles: Anna Ahronheim, Jerusalem Post, Feb. 7, 2018
On Northern Syria Front Line, U.S. and Turkey Head Into Tense Face-off: Rod Nordland, New York Times, Feb. 7, 2018
Haunted by Memories of Syrian Torture, Saved by Art: Aida Alami, New York Times, Feb. 2, 2018
Washington Post, Feb. 7, 2018
The United Nations appealed for an immediate cease-fire in Syria on Tuesday as spiraling violence pushed the country to the brink of one of the worst humanitarian crises in the seven-year war. A halt to the fighting for at least a month is vital to allow urgently needed aid to reach 2.9 million stricken people living around the front lines of the latest fighting, the UN mission in Damascus said, warning of “dire consequences” if the current levels of violence are sustained.
The appeal coincides with the collapse in recent weeks of a year-old Russian effort to tamp down the violence through “de-escalation zones,” which had helped contribute to a perception that the war in Syria finally was winding down. Instead, the first weeks of 2018 have turned into one of the bloodiest periods of the conflict yet, with hundreds killed in airstrikes, nearly 300,000 displaced in northwestern Syria and 400,000 at risk of starvation in a besieged area east of Damascus that has not received food since November.
“The war is far from over,” Panos Moumtzis, the United Nations’ humanitarian coordinator in Damascus, said at a briefing for journalists in Beirut. “This is a really critical stage. The humanitarian situation has dramatically deteriorated, and that’s why we are ringing alarm bells.” There has also been a spike in the number of reports of attacks by the government using chlorine as a chemical weapon, prompting warnings from the United States to the Syrian government to desist and to Russia to pressure its ally to halt the attacks. There have been six reported attacks using bombs laden with chlorine in the past month, the State Department said, adding that Washington is “gravely alarmed” by the continued allegations of the use of chlorine gas.
The latest surge in violence began in late December and coincides with the winding down of the fight against the Islamic State in eastern Syrian, which freed up thousands of Syrian government forces to take on rebels and al-Qaida-allied fighters in their last few enclaves elsewhere in the country. Since then, nearly 300,000 civilians have fled a new government offensive to recapture territory in the northwestern province of Idlib. They have taken refuge in the north of the province in one of the biggest displacements of the war so far, Moumtzis said. Aid workers are struggling to find space to accommodate them, and as many as 750,000 more could flee if the violence continues, he said.
A separate crisis is developing east of Damascus, in the rebel-held enclave of Ghouta, where over 400,000 people surrounded by government forces have been reliant on UN aid for the past four years. The Syrian government has prevented all deliveries of food to the area since November, putting the population at risk of starvation, and has refused to allow the evacuation of about 600 people injured in the fighting to hospitals in nearby Damascus, Moumtzis said.
Syrian warplanes pounded the area Tuesday, conducting over 40 strikes and killing at least 37 people, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors violence in Syria. Activists in the area later said more than 70 people had died in the raids. Later in the day, five civilians died when rebels fired shells into government-controlled neighbourhoods in Damascus, including three in the historic Bab Touma district of the Old City, according to the official Syrian news agency SANA.
Those strikes followed an onslaught of airstrikes by both Russian and Syrian warplanes against rebel-held towns and villages in Idlib on Sunday and Monday, in apparent retaliation for the downing of a Russian warplane in the province Saturday. At least three hospitals or health facilities were hit in the strikes, which recall some of the worst periods of the war. The Syrian Network for Human Rights said that at least 260 civilians had died in airstrikes in Syria since December, including 88 children and 71 women. The Observatory said that more than 500 people had died in the recent upsurge of violence.
“We’re in emergency mode,” Moumtzis said as he described the numbers of people who are hungry, displaced or in need of immediate medical treatment. “There’s a dramatic deterioration . . . and the situation is desperate for the people on the ground.” The incursion by the Turkish army into the Kurdish-controlled enclave of Afrin has further complicated the war, displacing more than 15,000 people and adding new obstacles to efforts to resolve the war.
New York Post, Feb. 6, 2018
It turns out trying to stay on the sidelines of the Syrian civil war may be the very thing that drags us into it with both feet. For three weeks now Turkish jets have bombarded America’s Kurdish allies in northern Syria. Kurdish fighters, known as YPG, have battled hard on our behalf for years. More than anyone they’re responsible for chasing ISIS out of its Syrian strongholds.
And US Special Forces are still stationed alongside YPG Kurds near that area. Washington has warned Ankara, but how long before an American is, God forbid, hit in a Turkish air attack? Yes, Ankara is increasingly at odds with Washington on a host of issues, but Turkey’s still a NATO member. A deadly incident is bound not only to further sour relations, but also create a rift within the wider alliance.
Meanwhile, Iran has condemned Ankara’s airstrikes even while it’s been just as aggressive in its zone of influence, establishing a military foothold in southwest Syria, just across from Israeli positions on the Golan Heights. Last week, Russia hosted Turkey and Iran at Sochi, where the three allies continued their attempts to carve up postwar Syria. At the same time, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu popped up in Moscow to deliver a warning to President Vladimir Putin: Israel, he made clear, will prevent Iran from establishing a beachhead near its border — by force, if necessary.
But Staffan de Mistura, UN Secretary General António Guterres’ Syria envoy, told me Israel’s concerns weren’t even discussed at Sochi, and aren’t being considered in the Geneva-based peace process established by the UN Security Council. Fact is, Russia, Turkey and Iran increasingly dominate the endgame of the long Syria war, taking over the diplomatic effort to shape the country’s future the same way Moscow stepped in on the battlefield to help create the conditions ripe for its diplomatic and geopolitical coup.
Once America made clear it was all but disinterested in Syria, Russia took over, leading a military effort to save the hide of the Damascus butcher, Bashar al-Assad. Even as Assad, with Russia’s help, mops up the remaining Sunni rebel holdouts, the war’s horrors are as vivid as they’ve been throughout its seven-year duration. Just this past Sunday, Assad attacked in the Idlib region with what looks, smells and kills like chemical weapons. Syrian civilians, displaying the now-too-familiar symptoms of gas poisoning, including foaming mouths, crowded local hospitals — at least the ones that weren’t recently bombed by the Syrian army and its Russian allies.
We can’t say for sure whether chlorine, sarin or another substance was used, or who used it, because Russia recently vetoed several attempts to renew the mandate of a United Nations team charged with investigating such things. (Moscow was angry the team previously concluded Assad was responsible for earlier chemical attacks.) UN Ambassador Nikki Haley denounced Russia Monday during an emergency Security Council meeting, but so what? After initially Tomahawking a Syrian chemical-manufacturing base early on in the Trump presidency, America is reverting to doing little beyond expressing outrage.
And we lag behind on the diplomatic front as well. Initially, Guterres and de Mistura were supposed to lead the Geneva process. That process is stuck now, and even de Mistura takes his cues from Moscow, bowing to the facts on the ground. And anyway, has Sochi, where Russia dominates, replaced Geneva, where all powers, including America, were supposed to shape Syria’s future collectively? “I hope so,” Russian UN Ambassador Vasilly Nebenzia told me Monday. (Since Russia is ostensibly committed to the Geneva process, he then quickly corrected himself, saying the Sochi sessions just give a “major boost” to the Geneva process.)
So unless America flexes some diplomatic muscle, Russia, Turkey and Iran will settle Syria’s future, and carve it up according to their interests. They’re already doing so on the ground. Yes, the eventual division of Syria is all but inevitable. That’s why those with even a minimal stake in the future of the country must try to assure their interests are maintained. And us? For years, America mostly sat out the Syrian war, allowing Russia & Co. to dominate it. We’re playing catch-up now, but will that suffice to stop them from dictating the “peace” in the same bloody manner they’ve led the war?
Commentary, Feb. 6, 2018
In the space of a single month, the Syrian regime has reportedly deployed chlorine gas in civilian neighborhoods on six separate occasions. The Trump administration admirably declined to look away. The State Department demanded that the world “speak with one voice” in condemning these attacks, and was particularly hard on Syria’s benefactors in Moscow. “Russia ultimately bears responsibility for the victims in East Ghouta and countless other Syrians targeted with chemical weapons since Russia became involved in Syria,” said Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Let’s suppose, though, that the world does not speak with one voice on Syria. What then? The Trump administration cannot now fall back on perfunctory statements of disapproval amid mass murder using chemical weapons. That is, unless this White House is prepared to abandon the laudable precedent it has set in defense of the defenseless.
Donald Trump did not waste time censuring Damascus in April of 2017, following reports that 80 civilians were subsequently killed and another 400 injured in a chemical attack on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun. The president acted. “Tonight, I ordered a targeted military stroke on the air base in Syria from where the chemical attack was launched,” Trump said. “Years of previous attempts at changing Assad’s behavior have all failed.” Trump proceeded to connect the global instability that has resulted from the metastatic Syrian civil war to the crimes against humanity executed by Assad and defended by the regime’s allies. “It is in this vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons,” Trump concluded. He was correct; it would be a tragic shame if this administration proved they never meant a word of it.
The 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles that targeted aircraft, shelters, radar and air defense, ammunition bunkers, and fuel stores at the Al Shayrat airfield were dismissed as inconsequential by the Trump administration’s critics. They alleged that the strike was too small to have any lasting effect on Assad regime behavior, particularly since the administration informed Russia ahead of the strikes, which allowed for the evacuation of Syrian military personnel from the strike zone. But the targeted missile strikes did have the effect of deterring the Assad regime from using chemical weapons against civilians, and not just the Sarin that was used on Khan Sheikhoun; chlorine, too.
Amid reports that Syria was preparing another chemical attack on civilian populations, the White House confronted the threat early. “[If] Mr. Assad conducts another mass-murder attack using chemical weapons,” former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer warned in June, “he and his military will pay a heavy price.” These threats worked. At least, for a time.
That time has passed. Today, surface-to-surface missiles containing chlorine gas are raining down on populous towns like Saraqeb in Idlib Province and the Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta. The United Nations is still investigating these attacks, but it has blamed Damascus for similar chlorine strikes on civilians in the recent past. Despite disappearing from the headlines in the West, the situation in Syria is growing worse by the day. The fighting is flaring up again, and civilians are suffering. “Humanitarian diplomacy seems to be totally impotent, we’re getting nowhere,” United Nations humanitarian adviser Jan Egeland said last week. He added that Assad’s forces had prevented UN humanitarian relief missions from accessing certain besieged areas, and aid convoys have not reached some parts of Syria in two months.
The Trump administration now faces a moment of truth. It could preserve the moral authority it purchased after declining to merely scold the Syrian regime for deploying weapons of mass destruction against civilians, or it could retreat into a defensive crouch and act like the Syrian regime’s de facto defense counsel. That, to their everlasting shame, was the Obama administration’s approach to the use of chlorine munitions in Syria.
At a May 2015 press conference in which he defended his administration’s efforts to secure a deal to stall Iran’s nuclear weapons development, Barack Obama was asked about reports of over 30 chlorine bombings in Syria in the space of just two months. His response was devoid of moral clarity. “We have seen reports about the use of chlorine in bombs that have the effect of chemical weapons,” Obama told reporters. “Chlorine itself is not listed as a chemical weapon, but when it is used in this fashion, can be considered a prohibited use of that particular chemical.” He went on to say that addressing the potential use of chemical weapons was a job for the international community and Russia, and added that the deal he made with Moscow that supposedly neutralized Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile was a wild success. “Those have been eliminated,” Obama insisted.
Chlorine is a dual-use chemical that has industrial applications and, as such, is not subject to the same global prohibition that nerve agents like Sarin and VX are. But the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons lists chlorine as a choking agent with potentially lethal battlefield applications. This revelation should surprise no one who has a cursory familiarity with the events of World War I. The last administration’s efforts to downplay the severity of chlorine attacks in Syria were grotesque. Obama’s appeal to Russia as a source of relief for the people of Syria—a nation that now actively blocks the international community’s efforts to extend the mandate of chemical weapons inspectors in Syria—was craven.
The last administration wanted to avoid the demands that history made on it, and it was a disgrace. Will the Trump administration abandon the course correction it embarked upon last April? Will it retreat to the same obtuse legalisms to which Obama appealed, even as the worst humanitarian and military crisis of this century intensifies? Will this president shirk his duty to humanity and to history, too?
Foreign Policy, Jan. 25, 2018
The idea that Syria's civil war is winding down has been repeated so often in recent months as to become a cliché. It has never been entirely true. U.S. officials recently confirmed Washington's intention to indefinitely retain effective ownership of around 28 percent of Syrian territory, in partnership with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces. But those plans are increasingly in conflict with the other major international players in the war-torn country. That includes America's erstwhile ally, Turkey, which recently launched "Operation Olive Branch," an incursion into the Kurdish-held Afrin canton in Syria's northwest. Meanwhile, President Bashar al-Assad's regime is assaulting mainly Sunni Arab rebels to the south, and completing its conquest of the Abu Duhur airbase in the northern Idlib Province.
All this bloodshed doesn't just spoil Washington's plans — it also calls into question whether the participants in the Syrian war are anywhere close, to quote another cliché, to "bleeding themselves out." Even if the dynamics driving the overlapping conflicts of Syria's war are drawing to a close, they aren't generating a peaceful and orderly future for long-suffering Syrians. Rather, new conflicts are emerging fully formed from the wombs of the old.
Since mid-2014, there have been two parallel wars taking place on Syrian soil. The "original" war is the fight between the Sunni Arab rebels and the Bashar al-Assad regime, which is centered on the more densely populated area of western Syria. The second war is the contest between the Islamic State and the U.S.-led global coalition assembled against it. Both these wars are indeed close to conclusion. The former war was decided in Assad's favor on Sept. 30, 2015 — the day that Russian aircraft appeared over the skies of Syria. The rebellion, lacking any but the most rudimentary anti-aircraft capacity, has found itself helpless against the combination of Russian air power and Iran-supported and supplied manpower.
The regime's survival, therefore, is no longer in doubt. But it is a different entity to the one that launched the war against anti-Assad protesters in the summer of 2011. Seven years later, the regime in Damascus is no longer about to dictate events in Syria as it once did, and instead it must defer to the wishes of those powers that ensured its survival.
The events of recent days in Afrin offer an instructive example. Assad himself expressed his adamant opposition to the Turkish incursion, saying that "[t]he brutal Turkish aggression on the Syrian town of Afrin cannot be separated from the Turkish regime's policy from the first day of Syria's crisis, which was essentially built on supporting terrorism and terrorist organizations." Faisal Mekdad, the regime's deputy foreign minister, told reporters in Damascus that Syria's forces were "ready to destroy Turkish air targets in the skies of the Syrian Arab Republic."
But Assad's Russian patrons evidently took a different view of the Turkish operation. Russian military personnel in the Kurdish enclave were withdrawn prior to the commencement of the Turkish operation. Turkish aircraft currently being used to bomb Kurdish positions in the Afrin region could not have crossed the border without Russian permission, given the presence of two Russian S-400 air defense batteries guaranteeing that Moscow can rid Syria's skies of any unwanted presence. Assad's government was required by the actual decision-makers to tolerate this situation — and true to form, it has not followed through on its threat to shoot down Turkish jets.
Similarly, recent events demonstrate the extent to which the rebellion is no longer essentially a Syrian phenomenon. The rebels taking part in the Afrin operation against Kurdish forces are effectively military contractors working on behalf of Turkish interests. These northern rebel groups — such as Faylaq al-Sham, Nour al-Din al-Zenki, and the Levant Front — have played this essentially subaltern, proxy role since the summer of 2016, when it became clear there was no longer any possibility of a strategic rebel victory over Assad.
Rebel factions are mainly now fighting for survival. Those based in Turkey or close to the border have no option but to serve as proxies for Ankara's ambitions. (Even the al Qaeda-associated Hayat Tahrir al-Sham group, which now dominates Idlib province, has a curious relationship of "soft coordination" with Turkey made necessary by the group's desire not to face Russian airpower.) The rebels farther south play a similar role for their Jordanian, American, or Israeli patrons…
[To Read the Full Article Click the Following Link—Ed.]
U.S.-Led Forces Kill an Estimated 100 Syrian Regime Troops: Jacqueline Klimas, Politico, Feb. 7, 2018—In a major clash the U.S.-led military coalition in Syria has killed more than 100 troops allied with the regime of Bashar Assad — after some 500 soldiers backed by tanks launched what appeared to be a "coordinated attack" on a headquarters of rebel fighters being trained by American advisers, military officials revealed late Wednesday.
Syrian State Media: Air Defenses Intercept Israeli Missiles: Anna Ahronheim, Jerusalem Post, Feb. 7, 2018—Syrian air defenses intercepted several Israeli missiles targeting an Iranian base west of the capital of Damascus, Syrian state media claimed on Wednesday. Describing it as “a new Israeli aggression,” Syria’s official news agency SANA said Israeli fighter jets flying in Lebanese airspace fired a number of missiles toward the area of the Jamraya research center, targeting an Iranian base.
On Northern Syria Front Line, U.S. and Turkey Head Into Tense Face-off: Rod Nordland, New York Times, Feb. 7, 2018 Two senior American generals came to the front line outside the Syrian city of Manbij on Wednesday flying outsized American flags on their vehicles, in case pro-Turkish forces just the other side of the no man’s land, 20 yards away, did not realize who they were.
Haunted by Memories of Syrian Torture, Saved by Art: Aida Alami, New York Times, Feb. 2, 2018—Najah al-Bukai cannot forget. As an accomplished artist in Syria before the war, Mr. Bukai had long thought his photographic memory was his greatest asset, allowing him to recreate scenes on his sketch pads and canvases days, months and even years after he witnessed them. But now, after he has survived two stretches in the Syrian government’s notorious detention centers, his sharp memories only serve to haunt him.