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The Russians in Syria: Humbug and Hypocrisy

It’s a week since the Russians began their air-strikes in Syria, and the countries that have already been bombing there for over a year – the United States and some other NATO countries – are working themselves up into a rage about it. The Russians are not bombing the right people, they are killing civilians, they are reckless, dangerous, and just plain evil.

A statement last weekend by NATO’s 28 members warned of “the extreme danger of such irresponsible behaviour” and urged Russia “to cease and desist.” When a Russian warplane attacking Islamist targets in northwestern Syria strayed across the frontier into Turkey for a few minutes, US Secretary of State John Kerry said that the Turks would have been within their rights to shoot it down.

The weather was poor, the target was close to the border, and the Russians apologised afterwards, but NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said that the incursion “does not look like an accident.” So what does he think the motive was, then? Russian pilots are getting bored, and are having a competition to see who can stay in Turkish airspace longest without getting shot down?

And the wicked Russians are killing civilians with their bombs, we are told. Yes, of course they are. So is the American-led coalition with its bombs. Unless you are fighting at sea or in the open desert, there will always be civilians in the same area as the “legitimate” targets.

It’s particularly unbecoming for the United States to act holier-than-thou about the use of Russian air power in Syria, when it is simultaneously trying to explain why American planes bombed a hospital in Afghanistan last Saturday and killed 22 civilians. Neither Americans nor Russians gain anything by killing civilians; it’s just an inevitable by-product of bombing.

But the biggest Western complaint is that the Russians are bombing the wrong people. Contrary to American and European assertions, they are indeed bombing the “right” people, the troops of Islamic State that Western air forces have been bombing for the past year. But the Russians are also bombing the troops of the Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham. They might even bomb the troops of the Free Syrian Army, if they could find any.

Don’t they realise that these people are trying to overthrow the evil Syrian dictator, Bashar al-Assad, whereas the cruel and deluded fanatics who serve Islamic State are trying – well, actually, they are trying to overthrow the evil dictator Assad too.This brings us to the heart of the matter.

Western propaganda makes a systematic distinction between Islamic State (bad) and the “opposition” forces (all the other groups). The problem is that there is really little difference between them: they all want to overthrow the Syrian regime, and they are all Islamist jihadis except for the tattered remnants of the Free Syrian Army.

The Nusra Front was created in 2012 as the Syrian branch of ISIS (now Islamic State), and broke away early last year in a dispute over tactics and turf. It is now the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda. Ahrar al-Sham was also founded by an al-Qaeda member, and is a close military and political ally of Nusra. And until the propaganda needs of the moment changed, even the United States admitted that the “moderate” elements of the Syrian opposition had collapsed.

There are no reliable statistics on this, but a good guess would be that 35 percent of the rebel troops confronting Assad’s regime belong to Islamic State, 35 percent to the Nusra Front, 20 percent to Ahrar al-Sham, and ten percent odds and sods including the Free Syrian Army. In other words, at least 90 percent of the armed opposition are Islamists, and probably no more than 5 percent are secular, pro-democratic groups.

There are not three alternatives in Syria. There are only two: either Bashar al-Assad’s regime survives, or the Islamists take over. Really serious Islamists, who hate democracy, behead people, and plan to overthrow all the other Arab governments before they set out to conquer the rest of the world.

They are probably being a bit over-optimistic there, but they would be seriously dangerous people if they commanded the resources of the Syrian state, and they would be a calamity for Syrians who are not Sunni Muslims. The Russians have accepted this reality, decided that it is in their own interests for Assad to survive, and are acting accordingly.

The United States and its allies, by contrast, are hamstrung by their previous insistence that Assad must go on human rights grounds. They cannot change their tune now without losing face, so they don’t bomb Assad themselves, but they persist in the fantasy that some other force can be created in Syria that will defeat both Assad and Islamic State.

Moreover, the leaders of America’s two most important allies in the Muslim world, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, are determined that Assad should go (mainly because he is Shia, and they are Sunnis), and they would be very angry if the US helped him survive.

That, plus American anger at Russia over Ukraine and lingering hostility from the old Cold War, is why NATO is condemning the Russian intervention in Syria so vehemently. But it is all humbug and hypocrisy.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 5 and 7. (“And the wicked…bombing”; and “Don’t…matter”)

Coalition of the Unwilling

“If Hitler invaded Hell, I would make at least a favourable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons,” said Winston Churchill in 1941, defending his decision to regard Stalin as an ally after Germany invaded the Soviet Union.

If the brutal fanatics of ISIS and their new “Islamic State” in parts of Iraq and Syria were really an existential threat to the United States, then President Barack Obama, using the same logic, would now be treating the governments of Syria and Iran as allies. But he isn’t.

US Secretary of State John Kerry has just ended a recruiting tour of the Middle East, signing up Arab states and Turkey for a new coalition that will allegedly “degrade and ultimately destroy (ISIS).” Moreover, it must do so without ever requiring US “boots on the ground”: the American public would not stand for any more of that.

The US will happily provide air strikes if others will do the dying on the ground, of course, and the Iraqi government will go along with that deal since it has just lost a third of its national territory to ISIS. But it will take a long time to rebuild the Iraqi army after its recent collapse – and the only other US allies who are willing to die to stop ISIS are the Kurds.

Jordan will supply intelligence services. Turkey will make it harder for would-be jihadis to cross its borders with Syria and Iraq (the route by which most of ISIS’s foreign recruits have traveled), but it will not let the US use Turkish air bases for military operations. Egypt murmurs words of encouragement but makes no specific commitments.

Almost all the Gulf states, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait included, have promised to stop the large flow of donations from wealthy individuals to the various jihadi outfits in Syria (including, at least until recently, ISIS). The United Arab Emirates reportedly even offered to carry out air strikes against ISIS. But it’s hardly a mass mobilisation, and it doesn’t involve any “boots on the ground”.

There are plenty of boots available if Washington wants them, but they are on the wrong feet. The Syrian Army has been fighting the jihadis for almost three years now, and after its initial losses it has managed to hold its own against them everywhere except in eastern Syria. Elsewhere, it has actually been gaining back ground for more than a year now.

Then there is Iran, a big, industrialised country whose armed forces do know how to fight. Iran provided the key support for the local Shia militias that stopped ISIS from sweeping into Baghdad last summer, and it has been providing indispensable support to the Syrian government for years.
Finally, there are the “wrong” Kurds. The Kurds of Iraq can be part of the coalition, because they have their own self-governing region and are legitimate recipients of American military aid. But the Kurdish nationalist forces of northeastern Syria and southeastern Turkey, who have lots of combat experience and have been holding their own against ISIS, are classed as “terrorists” by Washington and so cannot be part of the gang.

But Washington has not asked these major players to join its new coalition. Indeed, it has invited everybody in the Middle East to join except those who are actually willing to fight ISIS on the ground. How peculiar.

There are reasons for this odd behaviour, of course. The obsessive American mistrust of Iran goes back to the hostage crisis of the late 1970s, and is reinforced by Israel’s paranoia about Iran.

Turkey would go ballistic if the United States started arming the Kurdish rebels of the PKK, who have fought a long and brutal war (currently in remission) against the Turkish state. And it’s just too abrupt a U-turn for Obama to start doing business with Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, whom he was getting ready to bomb just one year ago.

Maybe a rebuilt Iraqi army can drive ISIS out of Iraq eventually, although ISIS has lots of local support in the Sunni Arab parts of Iraq. But where does Obama think the troops will come from to drive ISIS back in its Syrian heartland?

His only answer is to build a new “Free Syrian Army” composed of “moderates” who will fight on two fronts, defeating ISIS while also overthrowing Assad. But that’s ridiculous, since the old FSA has almost all been absorbed into the various jihadi groups in Syria. There is nothing left to build on.

For added comic effect, this new Free Syrian Army will be trained in Saudi Arabia, the principal supporter and paymaster of those same jihadi groups until ISIS scared it into hedging its bets.

One is tempted to think that Obama is not really all that worried about ISIS as a strategic threat. One is further tempted to speculate that he has learned not to care too much about what happens in the Middle East any more. But those are subjects for another day.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9, 11 and 12.  (“Finally…gang”; and “There…ago”)

Syrian Peace Talks

19 January 2014

Syrian Peace Talks

By Gwynne Dyer

It would be interesting to know just what tidbits of information the US National Security Agency’s eavesdropping has turned up on United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon. He certainly caved in very fast: on Sunday he invited Iran to join the long-delayed peace talks aimed at ending the three-year-old civil war in Syria; on Sunday evening the United States loudly objected, and on Monday he obediently uninvited Iran.

So the peace talks get underway in Switzerland this week after all, and the omens for peace are not that bad. Unless, of course, you were also hoping for the overthrow of the brutal regime of Bashar al-Assad and the emergence of a democratic Syria, in which case the omens are positively awful.

The breakthrough may not happen at Geneva this week, but the Russians and the Americans are now on the same side (although the US cannot yet bring itself to say publicly that it is backing Assad). Moreover, some of the rebels are getting ready to change sides. It won’t be fast and it won’t be pretty, but there’s a decent chance that peace, in the shape of an Assad victory, will come to Syria within a year or two.

What has made this possible is the jihadis, the fanatical extremists of the al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, who have frightened both the United States and a great many ordinary Syrians into seeing Assad’s regime as the lesser evil.

Two years ago, it still seemed possible that Assad could lose. The rebels had the support of the United States, Turkey and powerful Sunni Arab states like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and they still talked about a democratic, inclusive Syria. Assad’s only friends were Iran, Russia and Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

But then the jihadis showed up, alienating local people with their extreme version of sharia law and scaring the pants off the United States with their allegiance to al-Qaeda. It took the United States quite a while to admit to itself that it does not actually want Assad to fall if that means putting the jihadis in power, but it has finally grasped the concept.

The catalyst was the poison gas attacks in Damascus last August, which forced the US to threaten air strikes against the Assad regime (because it had already declared that the use of poison gas would cross a “red line”). However, President Obama was clearly reluctant to carry out his threat – and then the Russians came up with the idea that Assad could hand over all his chemical weapons instead.

Obama grabbed that lifeline and cancelled the air strikes. After that there was no longer any prospect of Western military intervention in the Syrian war, which meant that Assad was certain to survive, because the domestic rebels were never going to win it on their own.

More recently, a “war-within-the-war” has broken out among the rebels, with the secular groups fighting the jihadis and the jihadi groups fighting among themselves. So far in January more people have been killed in this internecine rebel war (over a thousand) than in the war against the regime. And the US and Russia are working on a deal that would swing most of the non-jihadi rebels over to the regime’s side.

General Salim Idris, the commander of the Free Syrian Army (the main non-jihadi force on the battlefield), said last month that he and his allies were dropping the demand that Assad must leave power before the Geneva meeting convened. Instead, they would be content for Assad to go at the end of the negotiation process, at which time the FSA’s forces would join with those of the regime in an offensive against the Islamists.

He was actually signalling that the Free Syrian Army is getting ready to change sides. There will have to be amnesties and financial rewards for those who change sides, of course, but these things are easily arranged. And Assad will not leave power “at the end of the negotiation process.”

The jihadis are not at Geneva this week, of course; just the Russians and the Americans, and the Assad regime and the Syrian National coalition (the Free Syrian Army’s political front), and a few odds and sods to make up the numbers. It is an ideal environment for the regime and the secular rebels to discuss quietly how they might make a deal, with their Russian and American big brothers in attendance to smooth the path.

The fighting in Syria will continue for many months, even if a joint front of the regime and the FSA is formed to drive out the foreign extremists and eliminate the native-born ones. In practice the end game will probably be even more ragged than that, with all sorts of local rebel groups trying to cut their own deals or holding out until the bitter end. But the final outcome has become clear, and it is no longer years away.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 8. (“The catalyst…on their own”)

Gwynne Dyer in an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries