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Nusra Front

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Syria: Another Ceasefire Bites the Dust?

As the Syrian ceasefire arranged by the United States and Russia teeters on the brink of collapse, it’s clear that the main problem lies in Washington. Moscow’s goal has never been in doubt: it wants the regime of Bashar al-Assad to survive. The Obama administration has been reluctantly moving towards the same conclusion, but it simply can’t admit it, even to itself.

The Russian government bitterly condemned the American air strike that killed sixty to eighty Syrian army personnel on Saturday, but everybody knows that air strikes sometimes hit the wrong people. It was a mistake, that’s all, and the Russians really understand that – but it was a mistake that tells us a lot about how far the US has moved.

Until recently the United States, still formally pledged to overthrow the Assad regime, would not attack Islamic State troops if they were fighting the Syrian army. (That’s why Islamic State captured the historic city of Palmyra two years ago: the US air force would not strike the long and vulnerable IS line of communications across the desert, because that would have been “helping Assad”.)

But the US air attack that went astray at Deir es-Zor last weekend was targeting Islamic State troops who were in direct contact with the Syrian army. It’s because the two sides were so close together that the planes hit the Syrian troops by mistake. American diplomats still deny it, but the US is now willing to help Assad, at least sometimes.

The strategic calculation that has driven US Secretary of State John Kerry into this uncomfortable position is brutally simple. If Assad’s regime does not survive, then the extreme Islamists will take over all of Syria. The fantasy of a “third force” in Syria, made up of democracy-loving non-Islamist rebels who could defeat both the Islamists and Assad, has died even in the US State Department and the Pentagon.

The “moderate” rebels that the United States has backed for so long make up no more than ten or fifteen percent of the real fighting strength of the anti-Assad forces, and most of them are actually allied to the Islamists. In fact, the “moderates” wouldn’t survive long without their Islamist alliance – so it’s time for Washington to abandon them.

The ceasefire terms show that Kerry has implicitly accepted that logic, for they demand that the Syrian government and the “moderates” stop shooting and bombing, whereupon the American and Russian air forces will cooperate in bombing the Islamists. And the targets will not only be Islamic State but also the al-Qaeda-linked group that was known until recently as the Nusra Front.

The Nusra Front saw this coming, so last month it changed its name to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (Front for the Conquest of Syria) and said that it has cut its ties with al-Qaeda. (An al-Qaeda spokeman said that the terrorist organisation understood the Nusra Front’s need to break the public link, and wasn’t angry at its Syrian branch.) But even Washington could see through this flimsy disguise, and Nusra (under its new name) is still on the hit list.

Unfortunately, the “moderate” groups are not only in close alliance with Nusra, but are physically mixed in with the Islamist forces. They will get bombed too if they do not break their links with the Islamist extremists and somehow move away from them, so the ceasefire co-sponsored by the US and Russia demands that they do exactly that. Unfortunately , they can’t.

They can’t do it because on their own they could never hope to overthrow the Assad regime – and also because the Islamists will start killing them as traitors if they even try to break away. So the “moderates” haven’t really accepted the ceasefire either, and the Russians are quite right to complain that they have “not met a single obligation” of the truce.

Everything we know about the ceasefire argues that the Obama administration has accepted the regrettable necessity of leaving the Assad regime in power, although it still cannot bring itself to say so publicly.

This conclusion would probably be even clearer if we knew the full text of the Russo-American ceasefire agreement, but the US insists on keeping it secret. (The Russians, naturally, are pushing for it to be made public, but so far they have respected the deal.)

So the ceasefire, as such, is probably doomed, but the crabwise, deeply embarrassing shift of American policy towards a recognition of the strategic realities in Syria will continue. There is therefore hope that the fighting will stop one day.

A year from now, the areas controlled by the Assad regime, including at least three-quarters of the Syrian population, will probably be the same as now or maybe a little bit bigger. The surviving “moderates”, having detached themselves from al-Nusra, will hold little bits of territory and will be observing a real ceasefire.

The Kurds will still control a band of territory across the extreme north of Syria unless Turkey has waged and won a full-scale war to conquer it. And the Russians and the Americans will both be bombing the territories still controlled by Islamic State and the former Nusra Front, although in less than perfect harmony.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 12. (“The Nusra…list”; and “This conclusion…day”)

The US and Russia Agree on Syria

Great states hate to admit error, so when they have to change course they generally try to disguise the fact. That’s why you may not have heard much about the way that the United States has changed course in Syria in the past three months.

You will recall how Washington insisted for years that it was determined to see the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian dictator, and was at the same time working to destroy his mortal enemy, Islamic State – without, of course, committing any US ground troops to Syria. You may also recall how the US government regularly and vehemently condemned Russia’s military intervention in Syria last year.

Well, that’s all over now. Two weeks ago (16 July), US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met in Moscow and agreed to take “concrete steps” together in Syria. These included coordinating air strikes against both Islamic State and the Nusra Front, the two Islamist offspring of al-Qaeda that dominate the rebel forces in Syria.

Russia is the Assad regime’s main ally in the Syrian civil war. By agreeing to these coordinated “concrete steps” against Assad’s main domestic enemies, Washington is effectively conceding that it now wants him to survive. Assad, it has finally recognised, is the lesser evil compared to a take-over of all of Syria by the Islamist fanatics.

It has taken five years to get here. The United States bombs Islamic State forces every day, but when IS troops advanced to seize Palmyra last year, no American bombs fell on the vehicles that took the IS fighters across the desert to the historic city. That would have been “helping Assad” – and so the US let Palmyra be captured and trashed by the fanatics. (Assad’s troops took Palmyra back last March – with Russian air support.)

The Obama administration fell into this now obviously hopeless strategy back in the days of the “Arab Spring” in 2010-11. Like most people, Obama was convinced that the Assad regime would fall quickly, and that the government that replaced him would be better both for American interests and for the Syrian people. It was, after all, a brutal and corrupt regime. It still is.

As the opposition fell increasingly into the hands of Islamist extremists in 2012-13, the prospect of a peaceful, democratic successor regime vanished. But rather than biting the bullet and switching its support to Assad, the lesser evil, Washington embarked on a forlorn attempt to build a “third force” that would defeat both Assad and the Islamists. It spent billions on the project, but never produced a credible fighting force that could accomplish that miracle.

Governments do not easily admit error, so right down to late last year Washington clung to the illusion that somehow or other it could avoid having to choose between Assad and the Islamists. Now it has accepted that necessity, and the deal with Lavrov clearly signals that the United States now wants Assad to survive.

It still won’t say that, of course, but bombing both Islamic State and the Nusra Front means that it will effectively be bombing the great majority of the Syrian rebels. There are still some non-Islamist rebels fighting Assad in the “Free Syrian Army”, but most elements of the FSA have been coerced into joining the Nusra Front in an unequal alliance called the “Army of Islam”.

The Nusra Front created this alliance specifically to ward off American bombs by wrapping non-Islamist groups around itself. It worked for a while, although Russia was never fooled and has bombed them all without discrimination since it intervened militarily last September. Now the US has signed up to bomb them too.

The Nusra Front’s leader, Abu Mohamed al-Julani, responded last week by breaking his organisation’s formal ties with al-Qaeda and changing its name, but that will not stop the bombs. The Nusra Front does not indulge in the spectacular acts of cruelty that are Islamic State’s trademark, but they both come out of al-Qaeda and in terms of ideology and goals they are practically identical. Washington is not fooled.

The Obama administration has at least learned from its mistakes, and this de facto US-Russian alliance may actually have the power to weaken the Islamist forces drastically and impose a real ceasefire on everybody else. Syria will not be reunited under Assad or anybody else, but at least most of the killing would stop.

Unfortunately, if this approach does not deliver results in the next five months it is likely to be abandoned. Hillary Clinton seems committed to going back to the old, discredited “third force” strategy if she wins the presidency in November, which would mean years more of killing. And If Trump wins….
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 11. (“The Nusra…fooled”)

What Would a Syrian Peace Deal Look Like?

After the Syrian army recaptured the city of Palmyra from Islamic State a week ago, US State Department spokesman John Kirby admitted that the liberation of the ancient city was a “good thing”. But he could not resist adding: “We’re also mindful, of course, that the best hope for Syria and the Syrian people is not an expansion of [President] Bashar al-Assad’s ability to tyrannise the Syrian people.”

This was entirely in line with the long-standing US policy of seeking to destroy both Islamic State and the Syrian government (i.e. the Assad regime) at the same time. But that was never more than wishful thinking, especially as the United States was quite sensibly determined not to commit its own ground troops to the conflict.

If the Syrian army actually had collapsed (as was looking quite likely before the Russians intervened to save it last September), nothing could have prevented Islamic State and the rival Islamist forces of the Nusra Front from taking the whole country. They might then have fought each other for control, but all of Syria would have ended up under extreme Islamist rule.

But the opposite is not true. The revival of the Syrian army, and even its reconquest of Palmyra, does not mean that the Assad regime can destroy Islamic State, let alone regain control of the whole country. Nor does Russia have any intention of helping President Assad to pursue such an ambitious goal, as Moscow made clear by withdrawing most of the Russian combat aircraft from Syria two weeks ago.

Russia’s strategy has been more modest and realistic from the start. It was to restore the military stalemate that had persisted until the spring of 2015, and to convince the remaining non-Islamist rebel groups that they had no chance of somehow riding to power on the coat-tails of an Islamist victory over the Assad regime.

This hope was as delusional as the American policy in Syria. By mid-2015 between 80 percent and 90 percent of the Syrian rebels actively fighting the Assad regime belonged to Islamic State or to al-Qaeda’s Syrian franchise, the Nusra Front, and its Islamist allies in Ahrar al-Sham. Moreover, the remainder of the rebels, the non-fanatics or so-called “moderates”, were mostly allied to the Nusra Front.

This curious alliance came to pass mostly because the Nusra Front wanted to avoid the American and “coalition” bombs that were falling on Islamic State. So it created a broader alliance called the “Army of Islam” that wrapped these small “moderate” groups around the Islamist core, and the United States fell for it. Or at least American propaganda fell for it.

The Russians cheerfully bombed all these forces indiscriminately, making no distinction between Islamists and the allies of Islamists. The United States ritually condemned the attacks on the latter groups (always described as “moderates”), and the Russians cheerfully ignored that too.

And after five months, when most of the “moderates” had been persuaded that they were never going to gain power through an alliance with the Islamists, Moscow proposed a ceasefire that would include the “moderates” but exclude the Islamists. That ceasefire has now been in effect for almost a month.

The negotiators for these moderate groups are still demanding the departure of Assad from power as the price of a permanent ceasefire. They haven’t a prayer of getting such a sweet deal, but the Russians are putting pressure on Assad to come up with a formula of words, however vague, that will persuade them to accept amnesty and come in from the cold without losing too much face.

The Islamists, although largely surrounded and blockaded, will not be defeated any time soon by military force, but they are growing weaker and may fall to fighting among themselves.

And the Syrian Kurds, the only American allies on the ground in Syria, will probably manage to hold on to the long strip of territory they control along the border with Turkey. However, they may have to settle for being an “autonomous province” within Syria if they wish to avoid a Turkish invasion.

President Vladimir Putin’s goal was to isolate the Islamists and reconcile the rest of the rebels with the Assad regime, and it is well on the way to accomplishment. It will not be a happy ending for any of the groups involved in the Syrian civil war, but it is the least bad outcome that can now be realistically imagined.

It will not put an end to all the fighting on Syrian territory. Not all the refugees will want to come home to such a country, and the terrorism abroad will continue. (But then, it would continue even if Islamic State disappeared – you don’t need a state to plan terrorist attacks.)

When no decisive victory is possible for any side, it makes sense to stop as much of the shooting as possible.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 12 and 14. (“And the Syrian…invasion”; and “It will…attacks”)

Russians in Syria: Mission Accomplished

He wasn’t standing on an aircraft carrier with a banner saying “Mission Accomplished” behind him, but Russia’s President Vladimir Putin was a lot more credible than former US president George W. Bush when he declared his country’s military intervention in the Middle East a success. And most of the Russian forces in Syria are going home after only five months, not the eight years that American troops stayed in Iraq.

“The effective work of our military created the conditions for the start of the peace process,” said Putin on 14 March. And it has indeed been a remarkably intelligent and successful intervention.

The Russians said right from the start that it would be a limited operation both in scope and in time, and that their goal was not to help the Assad regime reconquer Syria but to restore the military stalemate in the civil war as the necessary preliminary to a ceasefire and peace talks. And that is exactly what they did.

Western media were surprised by Putin’s announcement on Monday, but only because they had come to believe their own governments’ propaganda. If you have convinced yourself that the evil Russians are backing the evil Syrian regime in order to extend its evil rule, and that the preferred Russian tactic is the deliberate bombing of hospitals and schools, then you are bound to be bewildered when reality intrudes.

The real reason for the Russian air campaign in Syria was not to “reestablish Russia as a major player” in the great power game, or to demonstrate the effectiveness of their new-generation weapons to potential buyers overseas, or to maintain their access to a small naval base on the Syrian coast. All these petty explanations were offered by Western politicians and journalists who diligently ignored the obvious reason for the intervention.

Last summer, the Syrian army was at the breaking point. If it cracked then the whole Assad regime would go under, and all of Syria would fall under the control of the Islamist extremists of the loathsome “Islamic State” and of the Nusra Front, a branch of al-Qaeda. (By 2015 the “good” rebels fighting Assad were only a small fraction of the opposition forces.)

A triumphant and vastly expanded “Islamic State” was definitely not in the national interest of Russia, which has an 8 percent Muslim minority and is not that far away from Syria. So the Russian air force was sent in to save Assad from defeat – but not to win him a decisive victory.

Even with Russian air support, the Syrian army was too weak to destroy all the rebel forces and retake the whole country. Moscow just wanted to make sure that the Islamists didn’t win, and to push the other rebels back far enough to make them understand that they couldn’t win either. Then it would call for a ceasefire and a peace conference that specifically excluded the Islamists.

Russian aircraft carried out more than 9,000 combat sorties in five months, according to Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, and helped the Syrian army to regain control over 10,000 sq. km. of lost territory. That done, Moscow started pushing hard for ceasefire talks between the Assad regime and the non-Islamist rebels.

Both sides needed to be pushed, so Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov enlisted the aid of US Foreign Secretary John Kerry to put pressure on the rebels. Meanwhile he started twisting the arm of Bashar al-Assad, who sometimes fantasised aloud that with enough Russian help he might one day reunite Syria by force – and Lavrov’s main tool of persuasion was the prospective withdrawal of the Russian air force.

Each great power delivered its Syrian partners to the ceasefire talks, and the ceasefire was agreed two weeks ago. Both great powers agreed that the two parts of Syria controlled by the Islamists (al-Nusra in northwest Syria, “Islamic State” in the east) would be excluded from the talks, and would remain legitimate targets for attack.

And both parties also agree that Assad will not be allowed to stonewall and simply refuse to discuss the question of his own departure from power as part of a compromise peace settlement. That is why Moscow has made an early announcement of Russia’s troop withdrawal (without any published timetable): to make Assad understand Moscow’s real position.

Russia doesn’t care whether Assad stays in power personally in Syria, although they would clearly like to see a friendly government in Damascus that continues the long-standing alliance with Moscow. In fact, they see Assad as a brutal and inflexible man who should be replaced by a more acceptable figure when it is safe to do so.

But it will probably not be safe to do that until the Islamist-controlled territories are isolated, blockaded and besieged, so Assad will remain in power for a while yet.

It has been an elegant diplomatic operation backed by a very precise and effective military strategy. There is still a chance that it could all go wrong, but the Russians may have actually given Syria a chance for a decent future.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“Western…intervention”)