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Syria

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The Old Man Rages

I will do such things,—
What they are, yet I know not: but they shall be
The terrors of the earth.
King Lear, Act II, Scene 4

There are occasions when only Shakespeare will do, and Donald Trump was really, really cross.

There’s still no proof that the Assad regime was responsible for the poison gas attack that killed, according to various reports, forty or seventy-five or even more people in the besieged Syrian town of Douma. Indeed, the Russians, Bashar al-Assad’s faithful ally, maintain that the attack did not even happen.

Moscow suggests that the video footage was faked by the Islamist rebels, or perhaps taken from some previous occasion. There has been no proper investigation, although the Russians offered to escort a team from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to the site of the alleged attack as early as Tuesday. But Trump saw the footage on Fox News, and he was determined to punish the evil ones.

And he did act, although his actions were not exactly ‘the terrors of the Earth’. The missile strike, according to the US defence secretary, General James Mattis, involved “double” the number of missiles that were used in last year’s similar attack. So that’s around 120 Tomahawk cruise missiles, costing around $100 million, delivered on three or four targets that were almost certainly evacuated last weekend.

There were also a few smaller missiles, delivered by British or French aircraft that tagged along after the Americans. They probably came within range of the Russian S-400 air defence system, by general assent the best in the world, but there was no risk of their being shot down. The Russians didn’t turn their system on.

It was a big enough attack to re-arrange the landscape around the alleged “chemical weapons-type targets”, even if Syrian anti-aircraft fire shot down a few of the unmanned missiles (as the Syrians claim). Essentially, however, it was a pantomime event designed to impress a small and unsophisticated audience: Donald J. Trump.

It would appear that the grown-ups really are still in charge in the White House. They couldn’t actually disobey orders, but they could arrange things so that nobody got seriously hurt. They specifically chose targets that would “mitigate the risk of Russian forces being involved,” and the Syrians obviously had time to get their people out of the likely targets too.

The United States even warned the Russians to clear the airspace along the tracks the missiles would follow, so that there would be no accidental encounters with Russian (or Syrian) aircraft. “We used the normal deconfliction channel to deconflict airspace,” explained the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Joseph Dunford. And the Russians obligingly turned off their air defences, since the Western attacks weren’t going to do any serious harm anyway.

President Trump did say that “We are prepared to sustain this response until the Syrian regime stops its use of prohibited chemical agents,” but that is a perfectly meaningless commitment since Syria is not using them now. If it did use them last week, it has already stopped. As General Mattis said: “Right now, this is a one-time shot.”

So move along, folks. Nothing more to see here. And spare us all the talk (most recently by United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres) about a ‘new Cold War’. There can’t be a new Cold War, because the Russians don’t have the resources to hold up their end of it.

The Russian Federation has half the population of the old Soviet Union, and its economy is about the same size as Italy’s. If Italy spent its budget the way Russia does, it too could have big conventional forces and a nuclear striking force big enough to deter even the United States from attacking it – but it could not sustain a global military confrontation with the NATO powers for even one year. Neither could Russia.

Moscow only commits its forces to areas that really threaten its security (or at least appeal to its own sometimes paranoid definition of what constitutes a security threat). Syria is quite close to Russia, whose own population is more than one-tenth Muslim, so Moscow was unwilling to let Islamist extremists win the Syrian civil war, and in September 2015 it intervened to stop them.

The Russia intervention in Syria has been almost entirely successful: Bashar al-Assad has won the war, and already controls all the big cities and most of the country’s ‘useful’ land. The Washington foreign policy establishment hates this outcome, but it never had a plausible alternative to peddle, nor (after Afghanistan and Iraq) was there the political will in the United States for a major military intervention in Syria.

The Syrian war will end in a year or two, and fleabites like this week’s air strikes will have no influence on the outcome. And Moscow will stop there: it has no further ambitions in the Middle East.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 12. (“There were…on”; and “The Russian…Russia”)

Islamic State: Is It Over?

Late last month, Russian President Vladimir Putin met the leaders of Iran, Turkey and Syria, allegedly to discuss a final peace settlement in the Syrian civil war. On Monday he was in Syria to announce a partial withdrawal of Russian troops from the country because they had inflicted a “total rout” on the jihadist militants of Islamic State. Is the war really over?

Islamic State, formerly known as ISIS, no longer exists as an actual, physical state in either Iraq or Syria. Last summer it lost Mosul, Iraq’s second city, to Iraqi troops backed by US air power. Over the past four months it has lost all of eastern Syria, including its capital Raqqa, to a variety of forces including Kurdish, Syrian, and Iranian troops and American and Russian bombers.

Just one year ago, Islamic State controlled a territory the size of Belgium and the Netherlands, with 7 or 8 million people. Now it is homeless, and even its propaganda output has dropped by 90 percent as its video production facilities were overrun one after the other. Its credibility among the faithful has taken an even bigger hit.

When the ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared the re-founding of the traditional Islamic Caliphate in the territory controlled by ISIS in mid-2014, he was claiming quite specifically that the enterprise had God’s blessing. So it’s deeply embarrassing when it loses all that territory again within 30 months to the local ‘enemies of God’ and their infidel foreign allies.

The standard tactic of prophets, when their prophecies don’t come true, is to say that God is just testing people’s faith. We are already seeing some of this in ISIS propaganda, but the people who watch it are not complete fools. If they are fanatics interested in waging jihad, they will not abandon the idea, but they will look for some other organisation that has a better claim to divine support.

That alternative organisation, at least in Syria, is al-Qaeda. It still has credibility because it planned and carried out the 9/11 attacks, and its Syrian branch still controls most of the province of Idlib in northwestern Syria. It was never as interested as Islamic State in attracting foreign volunteers, but if you’re a Syrian jihadi, it’s now the destination of choice.

The Syria branch of al-Qaeda was known as al-Nusra for a long time, but in the past two years it has changed its name approximately every second weekend in a bid to disguise its origins. It wasn’t trying to hide its loyalties from potential recruits. It was pretending to be a ‘moderate’ rebel group so that it wouldn’t get hit by American bombers.

This didn’t actually fool the Americans, of course, but it did allow them to denounce the Russians – who WERE bombing al-Nusra/al-Qaeda – as evil allies of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad who were killing ‘good’ rebels. Oh, and killing innocent civilians, too, as if American bombs never hit civilians.

Al-Nusra was the Russians’ main target because it was a bigger threat to the survival of the Syrian government than Islamic State. It was al-Nusra, for example, that controlled the eastern half of Aleppo, Syria’s biggest city, until Assad’s forces took it back a year ago with the help of Russian bombers and artillery.

Remember how the Western media covered the end of that siege? They never mentioned al-Qaeda or al-Nusra, and you never saw a fighter in the video clips coming out of east Aleppo. They just ran the footage of suffering civilians without any further comment or context.

It was hard to tell whether Barack Obama’s State Department was being delusional or merely hypocritical, but it insisted that there was a ‘third force’ of non-jihadi Syrians that was also trying to overthrow Assad. The US was supporting them, and the wicked Russians were trying to kill them. But the ‘third force’ didn’t exist: it had been swallowed up by al-Nusra years ago.

So the US bombed Islamic State and nobody else, while the Russians only did that occasionally. Instead, they concentrated on bombing al-Nusra, which held territory much closer to Syria’s big cities. And Washington scored propaganda points by claiming that the Russians were bombing innocent civilians and ‘good’ rebels.

Now, with Islamic State defeated, the US forces will probably leave eastern Syria. (They have no legal status there, since they were never invited in by the Syrian government or authorised to intevene by the United Nations.) But most of the Russian forces will stay, because it will probably take another year to destroy al-Nusra in Idlib province.

So why was Putin in Syria to announce a Russian troop withdrawal? Because there’s a presidential election coming up in Russia, and he wanted to declare a victory and bring some troops home now. But the war goes on.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“al-Nusra…context”)

The First Bit of Kurdistan

The neighbours are very cross about Monday’s independence referendum in the Kurdish part of Iraq, which is currently known as the Kurdistan Autonomous Region (KAR). They can’t go on calling it that if and when it gets formal independence, and the leading candidate for the new name is “South Kurdistan”. Which is precisely what annoys the neighbours.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who governs the Arab majority (80 percent) of Iraq’s population, says he will impose an air blockade on the KAR if it doesn’t hand over control of its airports to Baghdad by Friday. Iran has already stopped direct flights to the Kurdish region, and Lebanon’s Middle East airlines will observe the ban from Friday.

The Iraqi prime minister also said that Baghdad will fight to prevent Kurdish secession, if necessary, and he has sent Iraqi troops to take part in joint exercises with the Turkish army on the KAR’s northern border. As for the Turkish government, President Recep Tayyib Erdogan is enraged and warns that this “adventure” (the independence referendum) “can only have a dark end.”

Turkey is the great power of the region (80 million people and a big, modern economy), so Erdogan’s threats to shut off the pipeline that delivers Kurdish oil to the world and to stop exporting food to Iraqi Kurdistan have to be taken seriously. The KAR is landlocked, and Turkey is its main trading partner (about $10 billion of cross-border traffic a year).

Erdogan tried very hard to persuade Masoud Barzani, the president of Iraqi Kurdistan, to call off the independence referendum. He accuses Barzani of “treachery” for going ahead with it anyway, and warns that “If Barzani and the Kurdish Regional Government do not go back on this mistake as soon as possible, they will go down in history with the shame of having dragged the region into an ethnic and sectarian war.”

Most of us were under the impression that that war has already been underway for around five years, mainly in Syria, with Erdogan eagerly feeding the flames. But his interventions in Syria were just dabbling in other people’s problems; an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq, he thinks, would be an existential threat to Turkey itself.

He may be right, because one-fifth of Turkey’s population is also Kurdish, and most of them live in the part of Turkey directly across the border from Iraqi Kurdistan. He is terrified that Turkey’s Kurds will catch the independence bug too, and he’s willing to take strong measures against Iraq’s Kurds to stop it.

That’s why the talk of “South Kurdistan” is so incendiary. Seen through this Kurdish nationalist prism, it is the first bit of a big, united Kurdistan: south-eastern Turkey is “North Kurdistan”, southwestern Iran is “East Kurdistan” and north-eastern Syria is “West Kurdistan.” The 30 million Kurds are one of the biggest stateless ethnic groups in the world, but giving them all a national state would require dismantling Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria.

That’s why it has never happened, although the Kurds were first promised a state of their own when the Western powers were planning the carve-up of the Ottoman empire after the First World War. The Kurds have been seeking it ever since, but everybody else always lines up against them.

Iran has just said that it too will close its border with Iraqi Kurdistan, and Erdogan is confident that Turkey can bring it to its knees: “It will be over when we close the oil taps, all their revenues will vanish, and they will not be able to find food when our trucks stop going to northern Iraq,” he said this week.

The United States is preparing to abandon its Kurdish allies in both Iraq and Syria, although they have done much of the fighting against ISIS, because it doesn’t want borders to start to move in a region that is already turbulent enough. The Kurds haven’t got a friend in the world, and it is an old international tradition to use them and then betray them.

So why did Barzani hold the independence referendum now? Preliminary results suggest that it was hugely successful at home – a 91 percent “yes” vote on a 72 percent turn-out – but there’s going to be a big, ugly backlash from the neighbours. There could even be a war, and the likelihood that anybody will actually recognise South Kurdistan’s independence is minimal.

Barzani’s motives are partly personal: he must step down before the elections scheduled for November, and he wants to stamp his own name on the independence project. But many Kurds would argue that there will never be a “good” time to go for independence, and that they must just push on and hope for the best. After a hundred years of oppression and division, you can see their point.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 11. (“The United…them”)

Russian Victory in Syria

Two years ago this month, the Russian air force was sent in to save the tottering Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad from collapse. The air was thick with Western predictions that Moscow had made a dreadful mistake.

“These (Russian) military actions constitute a further escalation and will only fuel more radicalisation and extremism,” said the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey in a joint statement three days after the first Russian bombs fell. The evil, stupid Russians were backing Assad, they were bombing the wrong groups of fighters, they were bombing civilians, and they would end up trapped in an endless war.

Why didn’t the Russians listen to such expert advice, especially from the United States, which has more experience in losing wars in the Muslim world than anybody else? Nobody likes to be patronised, but the Russians didn’t get into a slanging match about it. They just kept quiet and carried on doing what they were doing.

Two years later, they have won. “All the conditions are in place for the final stage of defeating ISIS in Syria,” said General Alexander Lapin, the commander of the Russian army in Syria, and that is the simple truth. Only parts of the eastern cities of Raqqa and Deir-es-Zor remain under ISIS control, and both cities will fall before the end of the year.

It’s a bit tricky in the east of Syria, where Western, mostly US troops and their Kurdish and Arab allies are still in the game, so Deir-es-Zor, at least, will probably end up partitioned between the Syrian government and the Americans in the short run. But in the long run Assad gets it all back.

All that remains to do is reconquer the big enclave around Idlib in north-western Syria that is ruled by the al-Qaeda affiliate that used to be known as the Jabhat al-Nusra. (It has taken to changing its name every month or so in an attempt to disguise its origins.) But the Russian have promised to help Assad reconquer that territory too.

“The operation to destroy the fighters of the Isis and Jabhat al-Nusra terrorist groups on Syrian territory will continue until their complete and guaranteed destruction,” promised General Lapin last week. Taking down al-Nusra will be a major enterprise, but it is quite doable because the Islamist outfit’s former supporters in Turkey and Saudi Arabia have abandoned it.

Indeed, the Russian and Iranian effort to save Assad has been so successful that what once seemed impossible is becoming a reality: the whole country will be reunited under Assad’s rule.

Much of the population that falls back under his control will hate it, and it is far from clear what will happen to the six million Syrians who fled abroad during the war. Most were anti-Assad, and many will never go home. Losing a civil war is a bitter experience, but one way or another everyone will have to come to terms with that fact.

How did the Russians (and their Iranian allies, who provided most of the fighting strength on the ground) win the war in two years when the United States had fumbled unsuccessfully with the issue since 2011? By being cold-blooded realists, deciding which was the lesser evil (Assad), and then single-mindedly focussing on a military victory.

By 2015 it was absolutely clear that there were only two possible victors in the Syrian civil war: the brutal but secular and reasonably competent men of the Ba’ath Party that has ruled Syria for the past half-century, or the violent religious fanatics of Isis and al-Nusra.

So while the US, equally appalled by both parties, spent years trying to find or invent a third ‘moderate’ option that never existed, Russia and Iran just went flat out to save Assad. (The Syrian army was within months of collapse when the Russians intervened in 2015.) They have succeeded, and the US will eventually have to pick up its marbles and go home.

And do bear in mind, as you contemplate the Syrian tragedy, that there are degrees of iniquity. Neither the Russian nor the Iranian regime is a model of democratic virtue, but Syria’s Ba’ath Party is a great deal nastier, and there have certainly been times when its foreign saviours have had to hold their noses.

So do not exclude the possibility that the Russians might pressure the Ba’athists to change their leader once the fighting stops. Sending Bashar al-Assad into a safe and comfortable retirement at that point wouldn’t really change anything in Syria, but it would put Russia’s intervention in the war in a somewhat better light.

And what did Moscow get in return for its intervention? First and foremost, it prevented the emergence of an Islamist-ruled terrorist state quite close to Russia’s own southern borders. (The Russian population is around one-tenth Muslim.) But it also demonstrated that it can be a very useful ally for other regimes that run into trouble. Unlike you-know-who.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 5. (“Why…doing”; and “It’s…back”)