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Nusra Front

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The Syrian Truce

So far the Russian plan for a ceasefire in Syria is working remarkably well. The truce that came into effect on Saturday had been observed with only minor violations on all the relevant fronts, and the UN’s humanitarian coordinator in Syria, Yacoub el-Hillo, called it “the best opportunity that the Syrian people have had over the last five years for lasting peace and stability.”

Notice the choice of words there: not Syria’s best chance for democracy or reunification, just for “peace and stability”. In fact, the truce is a big step towards the partition of the country. But the old Syria cannot be revived, and at least this way the killing will stop for most people – if the truce can be converted into a permanent ceasefire, which is far from certain.

When the Russian military intervention in Syria began only five months ago (30 September), even this unsatisfactory outcome seemed to be out of reach. Indeed, the likeliest futures for Syria were a collapse of the Assad regime and the rapid conquest of the whole country by extreme Islamist forces, or years more of a civil war that had already killed 300,000 Syrians and driven half the country’s citizens from their homes.

The immediate effect of the Russian intervention was to foreclose the “collapse” option. Whatever else happened, Russian air power would be able to prevent the Islamist forces from winning a decisive victory over the government army that would bring them to the borders of Lebanon and Jordan (and possibly right across them).

But the Russian planners had no wish to be comitted to an endless and expensive military campaign in a stalemated war. They needed an “exit strategy”, and they had one. The Russian political strategy was to secure the Assad regime’s hold on the more populous parts of Syria, cut the flow of arms and volunteers across the Turkish border to the rebel forces, and then split the alliance between the Islamist and non-Islamist rebels.

This was a direct challenge to the strategy of the American-led “coalition” that has been bombing the Islamists who rule the so-called Islamic State (but not the other Islamists in Syria) for the past two years. The US strategy envisaged destroying both the Assad regime and Islamic State, and accomplishing both these objectives without the help of any ground troops except the Syrian Kurds.

It was more a fantasy than a strategy, and many people in the US State Department and the Pentagon were aware that its practical result would probably be to hand Syria over to the Islamists. Those people were secretly grateful when Russia intervened to save the Syrian government, and they managed to limit the American reaction to general statements of “concern” that the Russians were bombing the wrong targets.

“Wrong targets” or not, unstinting Russian air support for Assad’s army won it time to regain its balance, and then to push the rebel troops away from Syria’s key cities. In the past month the Syrian army, in de facto alliance with the Syrian Kurds, has cut the main rebel supply line from Turkey.

Only the last part of the Russian strategy remains to be accomplished: split the alliance between the Islamist rebels and the non-Islamists. And that is best done by politics: negotiate a ceasefire between the regime and the non-Islamist rebels that excludes the Islamists. That game is now afoot, and the people whom the US government calls “moderate” rebels are clearly willing to play.

They might as well, for the “moderates” have been whittled down to less than a fifth of the troops who are actually fighting the regime. All the rest of the rebel troops in Syria serve Islamic State or its equally extreme Islamist rivals, the Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham.

Since the “moderates” have accepted the truce while the Islamists were not even offered it, the split in the rebel forces has now been accomplished. And since the United States now officially accepts this new definition of the “good” rebels and the “bad”, the final stage of the Russian strategy has been accomplished: the great powers are all on the same side.

If this temporary truce can be converted into a permanent ceasefire, then the only remaining fighting in Syria will be around the borders of Islamic State in the north and east, and around the territory controlled by the Nusra Front and its ally Ahrar al-Sham in the northwest. (There will also be continued “coalition” bombing within the borders of Islamic State, and Russian bombing in both sectors.)

The main risk to this truce is the fact that the Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham have wrapped small non-Islamist groups around them in a broad “coalition” called the Army of Islam. They have no real influence on the fighting, but in the past their presence has allowed the United States to claim that the Russians are bombing the wrong people, the “moderates”.

If the US can swallow the bitter reality that this truce leaves the Assad regime in charge of the territory it now controls (and around two-thirds of the Syrian population), then the Syrian civil war could eventually be shrunk to a war of everybody else against the Islamists. And along the way it would give the US and Russia a chance to rebuild a more cooperative relationship.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10, 11 and 13. (“They might…side”; and “The main…moderates”)

Turkey’s Choice

“We will defend Aleppo: all of Turkey stands behind its defenders” – Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, Wednesday, 10 February.

“Turkey and Saudi Arabia may launch an operation (into Syria) by land” – Turkish Foreign Minister Mehmed Cavusoglu, Saturday, 13 February.

“There is no thought of Turkish soldiers entering Syria” – Turkish Defence Minister Ismet Yilmaz, Sunday, 14 February.

Between Wednesday of last week and Sunday night, the Turkish government, in league with Saudi Arabia, made a tentative decision to enter the war on the ground in Syria – and then got cold feet about it. Or more likely, the Turkish army simply told the government that it would not invade Syria and risk the possibility of a shooting war with the Russians.

The Turkish government bears a large share of the responsibility for the devastating Syrian civil war. From the start Turkey’s leader, Recep Tayyib Erdogan, was publicly committed to overthrowing the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. For five years he kept Turkey’s border with Syria open so that arms, money and volunteers could flow across to feed the rebellion.

Erdogan’s hatred of Assad is rooted in the fact that he is a militant Sunni Muslim while Assad leads a regime dominated by Shia Muslims. Both men rule countries that are officially secular, but Erdogan’s long-term goal is to impose Islamic religious rule on Turkey. Assad is defending the multi-ethnic, multi-faith traditional character of Syrian society – while also running a brutally repressive regime. Neither man gives a fig for democracy.

Saudi Arabia has been Erdogan’s main ally in the task of turning Syria into a Sunni-ruled Islamic state (although 30 percent of Syrians are not Sunni Muslims). Together these countries and some smaller Gulf states subverted the original non-violent movement in Syria that was demanding a secular democracy, and then armed and supplied the Sunni-dominated armed rebellion that replaced it.

The US government also wanted to see Assad’s regime destroyed (for strategic reasons, not religious ones). So for years Washington turned a blind eye to the fact that its allies, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, were actually supporting the extremists of Islamic State (ISIS) and the Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s franchise in Syria.

Largely as a result of that support, these two extremist organisations now completely dominate the Syrian revolt against Assad’s rule, accounting for 80-90 percent of the active fighters. Turkey and Saudi Arabia finally broke their ties with Islamic State last year, but they still back the Nusra Front, which has camouflaged itself behind an array of minor “moderate” groups in the so-called “Army of Islam”.

When the Nusra Front, with strong Turkish support, overran much of northwestern Syria last spring, Russia finally went to the aid of its long-standing ally, the Syrian government. Russian air power helped the Syrian army push back the troops of both the Nusra Front and Islamic State. Erdogan pushed back, ordering Turkish fighters to shoot down a Russian bomber last November.

Even at the time, however, it was clear that the Turkish army was very unhappy about the prospect of a military clash with Russia. It doesn’t share Erdogan’s dream of an Islamist-ruled Syria either. Meanwhile the Russian bombs kept falling, the Syrian army went on advancing, and now it has cut the main supply line from Turkey to the rebels in and around Aleppo.

Erdogan is frustrated and angry, and he now has an equally reckless ally in Prince Muhammad bin Salman, the Saudi deputy Crown Prince and defence minister. Over the past week these two men appear to have talked themselves into a limited military incursion into Syria to push the regime’s troops back and reopen the supply lines to the rebels.

This would also have allowed the Turkish army to whack the Syrian Kurds, who are building a de facto independent state in the Kurdish-majority territory along Turkey’s southern border. (Erdogan is already at war with Turkey’s own Kurdish nationalists, having broken a four-year truce with them last summer.)

On Saturday the Turkish army began shelling Syrian Kurdish forces. On Sunday Assad’s government complained to the UN that about a hundred “Turkish soldiers or mercenaries” had crossed the border into Syria. But at that point the grown-ups took over, and the Turkish defence minister denied that there was any intention to invade Syria.

France publicly warned Turkey to end its attacks on Saturday, and there were doubtless secret but frantic warnings to the same effect from Turkey’s other NATO allies. Turkey (and Saudi Arabia) have almost certainly been put on notice that if they choose to start a local war with Russian forces in Syria, they will have to fight it alone.

So that is probably the end of that, and everybody can get back to the business of partitioning Syria – which is what all the talk of a “cessation of hostilities” is really about.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 12. (“Erdogan’s…democracy”; and “This would…summer”)

Syrian Peace Talks

A new round of UN-sponsored peace talks to end the ghastly civil war in Syria is scheduled to open in Paris on Friday, but even now it is not clear who will be attending. Islamic State will certainly not be invited, and the UN special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, has not yet revealed whether he has invited the other main Islamist groups, the Nusra Front and its ideological twin and ally, Ahrar al-Sham.

Together these extreme Islamist groups account for up to 90 percent of the rebel forces fighting Bashar al-Assad’s brutal regime, and even if invited they probably wouldn’t come. The remainder, a ragbag of small groups sometimes called the Free Syrian Army, might show up (under American pressure), or maybe not.

Assad’s representatives, by contrast, would certainly go to Paris, because he knows that there is no risk that he would be forced into a deal that removes him from power. His strategy for survival has worked well enough that he can now afford to negotiate with some of the rebels.

When peaceful mass protests demanding democracy spread to Syria in early 2011 as part of the “Arab Spring”, Assad’s forces responded at first with cautious violence. Snipers killed people in the unarmed crowds of protesters, but the army didn’t machine-gun the lot. Maybe he was just afraid the army wouldn’t obey his orders, but he may also have hoped that that level of intimidation would be enough to end the demonstrations.

However, Assad called all the protesters “terrorists” from the start – and he released hundreds of extreme Islamists from prison. This has been widely interpreted as an attempt to create a real armed Islamist rebellion. Then he could claim to be fighting foreign-backed “terrorism”, thus winning support from abroad and from Syria’s own frightened minorities.

Whether he intended from the start to push the country into full-scale civil war is impossible to know. At the very least, he quickly realised that the non-violent, non-sectarian protest movement was a greater threat to his survival than an armed uprising that would only be backed by Sunni Muslim Arabs (only 60 percent of the population).

Assad got some inadvertent help from Turkey and the Arab Gulf states, whose leaders wanted to see a Sunni sectarian victory in Syria, not an inclusive and non-sectarian democracy. So they lavished money and weapons on Sunni Arabs who were willing to fight the regime, thus undermining and discrediting the non-violent movement.

The slide from non-violent protest to armed uprising gave Assad an excuse to use far more violence. By October of 2011 his forces were bombing and shelling rebel-held areas of Syrian cities – and jihadi extremists, including many released from his jails, were taking over the rebel forces with the help of Saudi Arabian and Turkish money and guns.

So the rebellion fell largely into the hands of Sunni Arabs of the extremist Salafi persuasion. The country’s large non-Arab, non-Muslim and Shia Muslim minorities, together with much of its Sunni Arab population, reluctantly decided that Assad’s regime was the least bad option – and the result is the Syria we see today.

The exodus of refugees has reduced the population to 16 million, of whom 10 million, including almost all the minorities, live under government control. There are about two million Arabs in the Syrian part of Islamic State, another two million under the control of other rebel forces (also dominated by Sunni Arab Islamists), and two million Kurds who now have their own proto-state. It’s a calamity for Syria, but it means that the regime will survive.

There was a brief wobble last summer, when Islamist rebels enjoying increased support from Turkey and Saudi Arabia started driving the very tired Syrian army back on several fronts, but the Russian military intervention on Assad’s side in September stabilised the situation.

It’s now clear that nobody can win the war – but nobody can lose it either. Broadly speaking, Syria has been partitioned into four more or less sovereign territories. The government rules only one-fifth of Syria, but it includes most of the cities, industry and agriculture, and almost two-thirds of the population.

The Kurds control a band across the north of the country along the Turkish border. Islamic State runs a large swathe of sparsely populated territory in the east of the country. And the Islamist extremists of the Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda affiliate, dominate the north-west behind the non-Islamist facade of the Jaysh al-Islam.

The “peace talks” that Russia has been promoting since it intervened are not really about creating a reunified post-Assad Syria. All Moscow is looking for (and increasingly Washington too) is a ceasefire between all the other players that leaves them in control of their own territory and isolates Islamic State.

Even that is probably too much to hope for. At Turkey’s insistence, the Kurds have not been invited to the talks. The Nusra Front will not show up either, and even the smaller non-Islamist rebel groups are threatening to boycott the talks – which would leave Assad’s regime looking like the only party interested in “peace”.

The war will continue for some time yet.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 6, 7 and 11. (“Whether…movement”; and “There…situation”)

Syria: Not a Peace, But Maybe a Ceasefire

Abu Muhammad al-Golani is an Islamist fanatic, a head-chopper (although only in moderation), and the leader of the Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda affiliate that is classified by the United States as “terrorist”. He spent almost a decade killing American occupation troops and Shia civilians in Iraq as a loyal member of the Sunni extremist organisation that is now called Islamic State before going home to Syria in 2011.

He was sent home to create a Syrian clone of what was then called ‘Islamic State in Iraq’, on the orders of Abu Baqr al-Baghdadi, the leader of Islamic State and now the self-proclaimed “Caliph” of all the Muslims. Golani named the Syrian branch the Nusra Front, and it did so well that he broke with Islamic State and went out on his own in 2013.

There was a three-month turf war between Islamic State and the Nusra Front in Syria in early 2014 that killed an estimated 3,000 jihadis. Islamic State won it and now controls most of eastern Syria (and all of western Iraq). Golani managed to hang on to northwestern Syria, where the Nusra Front and another extreme Islamist organisation, Ahrar al-Sham, now completely dominate a rebel alliance that also includes several smaller “moderate” outfits.

So you would not expect Golani to favour a peace deal that left the brutal Assad regime, secular in form but Shia-dominated, in power in Damascus. And indeed he does not: in a rare interview recently, he condemned the peace deal being cooked up by the US and Russia as “unacceptable”. It was, he said, a plot to merge more moderate rebel fighters with Assad’s forces in order to fight extremist groups like his own and Islamic State.

Golani was right to be suspicious, and yet he may go along with the deal in the end, because it isn’t really a permanent peace settlement that is being discussed. It’s actually just a ceasefire that will leave all the players in Syria in control of the territory they now hold – except for Islamic State, which they can then all concentrate on destroying.

This is the sort of Machiavellian thinking that caused Russian President Vladimir Putin to accuse Washington recently of “dividing terrorists into good and bad ones,” but it’s just as much a part of Russian thinking. When Moscow started bombing the rebels in Syria in September to save the Assad regime from collapse, it bombed them all indiscriminately: the Nusra Front, Islamic State, even the “moderates”, if it could find them.

But it quickly became clear that what Russia had in mind, after stabilising the battlefronts, was precisely what Golani was condemning: a ceasefire that would effectively partition Syria between the Assad regime and the various rebel groups, and enable them all to turn on Islamic State.

You can’t admit that that’s what you are doing, of course, so you talk in terms of a peace settlement. That’s what Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Foreign Secretary John Kerry were doing in Moscow on Tuesday, and the result is that a United Nations Security Council resolution endorsing the Syrian peace process will probably be passed on Friday.

The current round of “peace talks” began in Vienna on 23 October, with no Syrians present, just Russia, the United States, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. It subsequently expanded to include about twenty countries, and the organisers are now deciding which Syrians can attend the next round of talks, probably early in the new year.

On one side, obviously, will be the the representatives of the Assad regime. On the other side will be some of the leaders of the armed opposition, but not all of them. Islamic State won’t be there, of course, and at the moment the Nusra Front says it won’t be either. Since those are the two most powerful groups fighting the Assad regime, what’s the point of talks?

But the Nusra Front’s close ally, Ahrar al-Sham, did show up at last week’s meeting in Riyadh where decisions were being made on which groups could attend the peace talks. At one point it walked out – and then, after some further thought, it added its signature to the joint declaration.

The Islamists of the Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham are clearly in two minds about a ceasefire (disguised as a peace agreement). On one hand, it would leave the Assad regime in power. On the other, it would give them time to consolidate their control over the territory they now hold, and maybe to eliminate their most dangerous rival, Islamic State. So in the end, they may go along with the idea.

It wouldn’t be perfect, and it wouldn’t necessarily be permanent either. But it would stop most of the killing, it would at least contain if not eliminate Islamic State, and it might even let some of the refugees go home. It’s basically a Russian initiative, but Moscow is wisely letting the US take the lead now. If anybody has a better idea, please let us all know.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“This is…State”)