Tag Archives: Syria

Trump ain’t seen nothing yet, Iran to top agenda

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani registers to run for a second four-year term in the May election, in Tehran, Iran, April 14, 2017. President.ir/Handout via REUTERS

JONATHAN MANTHORPE: International Affairs
April 22, 2017

Donald Trump’s first rounds on the international putting green have not been a great success.

His firing of 59 cruise missiles at a Syrian airfield after telling the Russians – and therefore the Syrians – what was about to happen had the flavour of a farcical diversionary tactic. Too much attention for comfort was being paid at home to the part Russian leader Vladimir Putin and his people played in Trump’s election campaign, and to Trump’s business links to Russia in general.

Trump said it was his outrage at the use of toxic gas against civilians by the Damascus government of President Bashar al-Assad that pushed him into attacking the airfield. But there is no basic difference between Assad’s occasional use of chemical weapons and his far more common use of barrel bombs – oil drums packed with shrapnel and explosives – against rebel civilians. Both are crimes against humanity, and it would be foolish to debate whether a child is better off being killed by poison gas or shrapnel.

That little episode reinforced the already solidifying judgement on Trump. He is a man without vision or strategic purpose for the United States. He lashes out in response to immediate events. His only interest is being the centre of attention and to ensure that he will say whatever outlandish thing comes into his head, whether or not it is true or makes sense.

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As then-U.S. Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump at a campaign roundtable event in Manchester, New Hampshire, U.S., October 28, 2016. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri/File Photo

That verdict was strengthened a few days later as North Korea test fired long range missiles as the country prepared to mark the 105th anniversary of the regime’s founder, Kim Il-sung. In an obvious response, the Trump regime dropped a 9,800 kg (9.6 tons) Massive Ordnance Air Blast bomb – better known as MOAB or “Mother Of All Bombs” – on what was claimed to be an Islamic State group (ISG) hideout in tunnels in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan. Afghan authorities who inspected the site later say over 90 ISG fighters were killed.

The dropping of the MOAB came as Trump warned North Korean leader Kim Jong-un that he would not be allowed to develop a serviceable nuclear weapon and a missile capable of launching it at the U.S.

But if Trump and the Pentagon wanted to suggest that the MOAB is the sort of weapon Washington has that can knock out Kim’s nuclear program, they were wrong. MOAB is not a high penetration bomb that could make its way into the underground and mountain caverns where Kim has his bombs and missiles hidden. Short of using nuclear weapons and turning North Korea into a parking lot, there is no simple military sanction, which is why Kim feels emboldened to carry on developing his nuclear weapons system. MOAB is an anti-personnel bomb pure and simple. It explodes well above ground level and kills people below either by incinerating them, or by suffocating them because the massive explosion sucks all the oxygen out of the air over a considerable area.

And again, Trump’s bluster became farce when it turned out that what he called a “very powerful” aircraft carrier battle group, led by the USS Carl Vinson, was not heading for North Korean waters as a warning to Kim as he and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson claimed. Instead it was weaving its way through the Indonesian archipelago en route to Australia.

Thus Trump and Tillerson’s bumptious bluster that in dealing with Pyongyang “the era of strategic patience is over” flopped like a deflated balloon. Instead of striking out on a new, manly and robust policy towards North Korea, Trump is adopting exactly the same “strategic patience” approach taken by Barrack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. That policy is based on the hope that at some point the Chinese regime in Beijing will get uncomfortable enough with Kim’s nuclear program to rein him in.

Trump is going to have to up his game if he wants to be taken seriously on the world stage and regarded as anything more than a gormless and dangerously unpredictable Vaudeville act.

His opportunity is looming as Iran, its nuclear development program and its involvement in Middle East conflicts in Syria, Yemen and Iraq, bubble to the top of the Trump agenda.

During the election campaign, Trump called “disastrous” the 2015 deal by which Tehran limited its nuclear development to electricity generation in return for the lifting of economic sanctions. He went on to pledge to “rip up” the deal, for which he blamed Obama.

But the 2015 deal was not a U.S.-Iran bilateral agreement. It was an agreement Washington reached with Tehran in partnership with China, Russia, France, Britain and Germany (representing the European Union). All six countries negotiated with Tehran on behalf of the United Nations, which approved the deal.

So Trump can pull the U.S. out of the agreement if he wants. However, that won’t change the fact that Iran and the international community have a pact by which Tehran agrees to have its nuclear program limited and monitored in return for being allowed back into the community of nations.

Farce again slipped into the Trump regime’s international affairs discourse this week when, on Tuesday April 18, Tillerson and his department published a regular update on the Iran deal and “certified” that Tehran was keeping to its part of the bargain. It quickly occurred to Tillerson that that was not what he was meant to say. On Wednesday he strode out with an approved bellicose statement that the deal “only delays (Tehran’s) goal of becoming a nuclear state,” and does not address Iran’s “alarming ongoing provocations” in the Middle East.

Yet, with elections coming in Iran on May 19 and persistent reporting that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is ailing fast, it is going to take far more dexterity that the Trump administration appears to possess to manage a functional Iran policy.

Iran’s Guardian Council, which vets candidates for elected office for their religious and general moral worthiness, has picked six men from over 1,200 people who applied to run for president in next month’s election. At the moment, the favourite is incumbent President Hassan Rouhani, who is reputed to be a moderate, but in the context of Iran’s theocracy that is a relative term.

And assuming for the moment that Rouhani is re-elected, that will have only marginal affect on the issues around Iran’s involvement in the wars in Yemen, Iraq and Syria. Iran’s President and his administration run foreign policy only in name. The real power in Iran’s foreign policy is Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei through his control over the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), and especially the Quds Force, the foreign expeditionary arm of the IRGC. The Quds Force is led by Maj.-Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who is devoutly loyal to Ayatollah Khamenei and who has been described as the most powerful single figure in the Middle East today.

At this moment, Soleimani is conducting three wars. He is overseeing his proxy Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon as they work with Russia to confront Syrian rebels and keep Assad in power. In Yemen he is backing Shia Houthi rebels, who now control most of the country and are battling a coalition led by Tehran’s arch rival, Saudi Arabia. And in Iraq, where Soleimani has great influence because of his affinity with the majority Shia Muslim sect, he is aiding in the battle against the ISG terrorists, who still control large areas of north-western Iraq and across into eastern Syria.

U.S. forces are also operating against the ISG in this part of Iraq. Some kind of arrangements have been made to ensure that U.S. forces and Soleimani’s Quds Force keep a safe distance from one another. It may be the same kind of soldier-to-soldier arrangement the U.S. forces have with the Russian military in Syria.

Washington has understood for a long time Soleimani’s importance as a political influence, and consummate military commander and strategist. After the September 2001 al Qaida attacks on New York and Washington, U.S. officials made contact with Soleimani and tried to make some sort of pact with him as a Shia leader against Osama bin Laden and his followers, who belonged to the Sunni sect. There are credible reports that Soleimani gave some assistance to the U.S. forces in identifying al Qaida targets in Afghanistan. But any chance of the relationship developing further came to a screaming halt in January 2002 when President Bush said in a speech that Iran was part of an “axis of evil,” along with Iraq and North Korea.

If Trump and Tillerson really want to confront Tehran they are going to have to work out a strategy for pushing back against Soleimani, the Quds Force and the Revolutionary Guards Corps.

As Trump has already made clear, he doesn’t do strategy. It smacks of long-term planning and vision, and that’s not his shtick. Even so, there are some suggestions floating around Washington about how to attempt to rein in Tehran’s operations in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. One element is to declare the Revolutionary Guards a terrorist organization, and subject them to sanctions, which could blunt their activities. Coupled with that could be using the U.S. Navy to board ships taking arms and equipment to Iran’s client fighters, and impound the cargoes.

That would almost inevitably lead to conflict. The Iranians have shown themselves very adept at countering the U.S. Navy and they would quickly devise tactics that would embarrass and enrage Trump.

Another option for Washington is to copy Tehran’s tactic of using proxies to do the fighting. This would mean giving more military assistance to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States both for the war in Yemen and to support rebels in Syria. This seems to be the favourite tack at the moment. Defense Secretary James Mattis was in the Riyadh this week and promised Washington will not desert the Saudi Arabian government and its allies. Mattis told Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, who is also the Defence Minister, he and Trump recognize the importance of co-operating and boosting Saudi security in order to “reinforce Saudi Arabia’s resistance to Iran’s mischief.”

A hundred days into Trump’s presidency, what is emerging is that he is getting pulled day-by-day into the swamp of Middle Eastern politics and wars, something as a candidate he vowed to avoid and which he said was none of Washington’s business.

Copyright Jonathan Manthorpe 2017

Contact Jonathan Manthorpe, including for queries about syndication/republishing: jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com

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Correction: This article was changed April 22 to correct a typo in the date of the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center.

Manthorpe B&WJonathan Manthorpe is a founding columnist with Facts and Opinions and is the author of the journal’s International Affairs column. He is the author of “Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan,” and has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. Manthorpe’s  nomadic career began in the late 1970s as European Bureau Chief for The Toronto Star, the job that took Ernest Hemingway to Europe in the 1920s. In the mid-1980s Manthorpe became European Correspondent for Southam News. In the following years Manthorpe was sent by Southam News, the internal news agency for Canada’s largest group of metropolitan daily newspapers, to be the correspondent in Africa and then Asia. Between postings Manthorpe spent a few years based in Ottawa focusing on intelligence and military affairs, and the United Nations. Since 1998 Manthorpe has been based in Vancouver, but has travelled frequently on assignment to Asia, Europe and Latin America.

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Battle Ends, Bloody Syrian War Grinds On

By Laila Bassam, Angus McDowall and Stephanie Nebehay 

Rebel resistance in the Syrian city of Aleppo ended on Tuesday after years of fighting and months of bitter siege and bombardment that culminated in a bloody retreat, as insurgents agreed to withdraw in a ceasefire.

The battle of Aleppo, one of the worst of a civil war that has drawn in global and regional powers, has ended with victory for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his military coalition of Russia, Iran and regional Shi’ite militias….

However, the war will still be far from over, with insurgents retaining major strongholds elsewhere in Syria, and the jihadist Islamic State group holding swathes of the east and recapturing the ancient city of Palmyra this week. …. Read our full report here  

Related on F&O:

In 2013 F&O partner Jonathan Manthorpe called Syria our modern Gordian knot. Here are F&O’s works that explain and put Syria’s agony in context:

Aleppo will fall, but Syrian war will go on — Analysis, by By Samia Nakhoul October, 2016

Syria’s mobile amputee clinic, photo-essay, By Khalil Ashawi April, 2016

Heartbreak in starving Syrian town, By Lisa Barrington and Stephanie Nebehay January 12, 2015

Our selective grief: Paris, Beirut, Ankara, and Syria, by  Tom Regan November, 2015  Column

Syria: new weaponry test bed By David StupplesCity University London  October, 2015

Ethnic groups flee as Syrian Kurds advance against Islamic State, By Humeyra Pamuk July, 2015

Al-Qaida Jihadists Suspicious of Iraq-Syria Caliphate, by Jonathan Manthorpe July 16, 2014   Column

Putin supports Syria for fear of revolution spreading to Russia’s Muslims, by Jonathan Manthorpe  : September 6, 2013 Column

Cutting Syria’s Gordian knot no simple feat, by Jonathan Manthorpe   August 28, 2013  Column

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Recommended:

Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is funded by our readers. It is ad-free and spam-free, and does not solicit donations from partisan organizations. To continue we require a minimum payment of .27 for one story, or a sustaining donation. Details here; donate below. Thanks for your interest and support.

F&O’s CONTENTS page is updated each Saturday. Sign up for emailed announcements of new work on our free FRONTLINES blog; find evidence-based reporting in Reports; commentary, analysis and creative non-fiction in OPINION-FEATURES; and image galleries in PHOTO-ESSAYS. If you value journalism please support F&O, and tell others about us.

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Battle of Aleppo Ends

A man carries a child with an IV drip as he flees deeper into the remaining rebel-held areas of Aleppo, Syria December 12, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

A man carries a child with an IV drip as he flees deeper into the remaining rebel-held areas of Aleppo, Syria December 12, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

By Laila Bassam, Angus McDowall and Stephanie Nebehay 
December 13, 2106

Smoke rises as seen from a governement-held area of Aleppo, Syria December 12, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

Smoke rises as seen from a governement-held area of Aleppo, Syria December 12, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

ALEPPO, Syria/BEIRUT/GENEVA (Reuters) – Rebel resistance in the Syrian city of Aleppo ended on Tuesday after years of fighting and months of bitter siege and bombardment that culminated in a bloody retreat, as insurgents agreed to withdraw in a ceasefire.

The battle of Aleppo, one of the worst of a civil war that has drawn in global and regional powers, has ended with victory for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his military coalition of Russia, Iran and regional Shi’ite militias.

For rebels, their expected departure with light weapons starting on Wednesday morning for opposition-held regions west of the city is a crushing blow to their hopes of ousting Assad after revolting against him during the 2011 Arab uprisings.

However, the war will still be far from over, with insurgents retaining major strongholds elsewhere in Syria, and the jihadist Islamic State group holding swathes of the east and recapturing the ancient city of Palmyra this week.

“Over the last hour we have received information that the military activities in east Aleppo have stopped, it has stopped,” Russian U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin told a heated U.N. Security Council meeting. “The Syrian government has established control over east Aleppo.”

Rebel officials said fighting would end on Tuesday evening and a source in the pro-Assad military alliance said the evacuation of fighters would begin at around dawn on Wednesday. A Reuters reporter in Aleppo said late on Tuesday that the booms of the bombardment could no longer be heard.

Fighters and their families, along with civilians who have thrown in their lot with the rebels, will have until Wednesday evening to quit the city, a Turkish government source said on Tuesday. The ceasefire was negotiated by Turkey and Russia, without U.S. involvement.

A commander with the Jabha Shamiya rebel group said that Aleppo was a moral victory for the insurgents. “We were steadfast … but unfortunately nobody stood with us at all”, the commander, who declined to be identified, told Reuters.

People walk as they flee deeper into the remaining rebel-held areas of Aleppo, Syria December 13, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

People walk as they flee deeper into the remaining rebel-held areas of Aleppo, Syria December 13, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

“UNCOMPROMISING VICTORY”

The plight of civilians has caused global outrage in the wake of a sudden series of advances by the Syrian army and its allies across the rebel enclave over the past two weeks.

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“We appear to be witnessing nothing less than … a total uncompromising military victory,” U.N. Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon told the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday.

The rout of rebels from their ever-shrinking territory in Aleppo sparked a mass flight of terrified civilians and insurgents in bitter weather, a crisis the United Nations said was a “complete meltdown of humanity”. There were food and water shortages in rebel areas with all hospitals closed.

The United Nations earlier on Tuesday voiced deep concern about reports it had received of Syrian soldiers and allied Iraqi fighters summarily shooting dead 82 people in recaptured east Aleppo districts. It accused them of “slaughter”.

“The reports we had are of people being shot in the street trying to flee and shot in their homes,” said U.N. spokesman Rupert Colville. “There could be many more.”

“They have gone from siege to slaughter,” British U.N. Ambassador Matthew Rycroft said. “Aleppo will join the ranks of those events in world history that define modern evil, that stain our conscience decades later – Halabja, Rwanda, Srebrenica and now Aleppo,” said U.S. ambassador Samantha Power.

The Syrian army has denied carrying out killings or torture among those captured, and its main ally Russia said on Tuesday rebels had “kept over 100,000 people in east Aleppo as human shields”.

An official with an Aleppo rebel group said the bulk of about 50,000 people was expected to be evacuated.

Fear stalked the city’s streets. Some survivors trudged in the rain past dead bodies to the government-held west or the few districts still in rebel hands. Others stayed in their homes and awaited the Syrian army’s arrival.

For all of them, fear of arrest, conscription or summary execution added to the daily terror of bombardment. “People are saying the troops have lists of families of fighters and are asking them if they had sons with the terrorists. (They are) then either left or shot and left to die,” said Abu Malek al-Shamali in Seif al-Dawla, one of the last rebel-held districts.

Damaged buildings are seen in the government-held al-Shaar neighborhood of Aleppo, during a media tour, Syria December 13, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

Damaged buildings are seen in the government-held al-Shaar neighborhood of Aleppo, during a media tour, Syria December 13, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

WASTELAND OF RUBBLE

A Syrian military source said the evacuation of fighters would start at 5 a.m. (0300 GMT) on Wednesday. The source said fighters’ families would also leave, but did not mention other civilian evacuations.

Behind those fleeing was a wasteland of flattened buildings, concrete rubble and bullet-pocked walls, where tens of thousands had lived until recent days under intense bombardment even after medical and rescue services had collapsed.

The once-flourishing economic centre with its renowned ancient sites has been pulverised during the war which has killed hundreds of thousands of people, created the world’s worst refugee crisis and allowed for the rise of Islamic State.

The U.N.’s Colville said the rebel-held area had become “a hellish corner” of less than a square kilometre. Its capture was imminent, he added.

The Syrian army and its allies could declare victory at any moment, a Syrian military source had said earlier, predicting the final fall of the rebel enclave on Tuesday or Wednesday, after insurgent defences collapsed on Monday.

Terrible conditions were described by city residents. Abu Malek al-Shamali, a resident in the rebel area, said dead bodies lay in the streets. “There are many corpses in Fardous and Bustan al-Qasr with no one to bury them,” he said.

“Last night people slept in the streets and in buildings where every flat has several families crowded in,” he added.

People carry their belongings as they flee deeper into the remaining rebel-held areas of Aleppo, Syria December 13, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

People carry their belongings as they flee deeper into the remaining rebel-held areas of Aleppo, Syria December 13, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

TIDE OF REFUGEES

State television broadcast footage of a tide of hundreds of refugees walking along a ravaged street, wearing thick clothes against the rain and cold, many with hoods or hats pulled tight around their faces, and hauling sacks or bags of belongings.

One man pushed a bicycle loaded with bags, another family pulled a cart on which sat an elderly woman. Another man carried on his back a small girl wearing a pink hat.

At the same time, a correspondent from a pro-Damascus television station spoke to camera from a part of Aleppo held by the government, standing in a tidy street with flowing traffic.

In some recaptured areas, people were returning to their shattered homes. A woman in her sixties, who identified herself as Umm Ali, or “Ali’s mother”, said that she, her husband and her disabled daughter had no water.

They were looking after the orphaned children of another daughter killed in the bombing, she said, and were reduced to putting pots and pans in the street to collect rainwater.

In another building near al-Shaar district, which was taken by the army last week, a man was fixing the balcony of his house with his children. “No matter the circumstances, our home is better than displacement,” he said.

“The crushing of Aleppo, the immeasurably terrifying toll on its people, the bloodshed, the wanton slaughter of men, women and children, the destruction – and we are nowhere near the end of this cruel conflict,” U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein said in a statement.

Copyright Reuters 2016

(Reporting By Laila Bassam in Aleppo, Orhan Coskun in Ankara, Lisa Barrington, John Davison and Tom Perry in Beirut, Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman and Tom Miles and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Angus McDowall in Beirut; Editing by Peter Millership)

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Russia declares Aleppo offensive over; U.S. calls its violence “modern evil”

By Michelle Nichols

A man pushes a cart with belongings as he flees deeper with another man into the remaining rebel-held areas of Aleppo, Syria December 13, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

A man pushes a cart with belongings as he flees deeper with another man into the remaining rebel-held areas of Aleppo, Syria December 13, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – A Syrian government military offensive in Aleppo, backed by Russia and Iran, was over, Russia’s U.N. envoy said on Tuesday as the United States described the violence in the besieged city as “modern evil.”

Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said an agreement had been struck for rebels to evacuate the north-western city and he said civilians would be unharmed, despite western and U.N. accusations of the intentional killing of civilians.

“Over the last hour we have received information that the military activities in east Aleppo have stopped, it has stopped,” Churkin told a heated U.N. Security Council meeting called by France and Britain. “The Syrian government has established control over east Aleppo.”

A surrender or withdrawal of the rebels from Aleppo would deliver Syrian President Bashar al-Assad his biggest battlefield victory in the nearly six year conflict.

The United Nations said on Tuesday it had reports that Syrian soldiers and allied Iraqi fighters had summarily shot dead 82 civilians in recaptured districts of Aleppo, which was Syria’s largest city before the civil war began in 2011.

“They have gone from siege to slaughter,” British U.N. Ambassador Matthew Rycroft told the 15-member council.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, in his briefing to the council, called on the Syrian government, Russia and Iran to urgently allow civilians to escape Aleppo.

“There was an abundance of early warning given to this council regarding the situation in Aleppo,” Ban said. “We have collectively failed the people of Syria … History will not easily absolve us.”

Churkin told reporters that Russian military personnel had not seen “any abuses of international humanitarian law.” The Syrian army has denied carrying out killings or torture among those captured.

The U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, said the Syrian government, Russia and Iran would be responsible for atrocities committed in Aleppo.

“By rejecting U.N./ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) evacuation efforts you are signalling to those militia who are massacring innocents to keep doing what they are doing,” Power said.

“Aleppo will join the ranks of those events in world history that define modern evil, that stain our conscience decades later – Halabja, Rwanda, Srebrenica and now Aleppo,” she said.

A crackdown by Assad on pro-democracy protesters in 2011 led to civil war and Islamic State militants have used the chaos to seize territory in Syria and Iraq. Half of Syria’s 22 million people have been uprooted and more than 400,000 killed.

U.N. Syria mediator Staffan de Mistura told reporters after the meeting that the United Nations wants its representatives to be allowed to be there when civilians are evacuated and opposition fighters withdraw.

De Mistura said there were an estimated 50,000 civilians still in rebel-held territory of Aleppo, along with 1,500 opposition fighters of which he said about 30 percent belong to jihadist group Nusra Front.

Copyright Reuters 2016

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; editing by Grant McCool)

Related on F&O:

In 2013 F&O partner Jonathan Manthorpe called Syria our modern Gordian knot. Here are F&O’s works that explain and put Syria’s agony in context:

Aleppo will fall, but Syrian war will go on — Analysis, by By Samia Nakhoul October, 2016

Syria’s mobile amputee clinic, photo-essay, By Khalil Ashawi April, 2016

Heartbreak in starving Syrian town, By Lisa Barrington and Stephanie Nebehay January 12, 2015

Our selective grief: Paris, Beirut, Ankara, and Syria, by  Tom Regan November, 2015  Column

Syria: new weaponry test bed By David StupplesCity University London  October, 2015

Ethnic groups flee as Syrian Kurds advance against Islamic State, By Humeyra Pamuk July, 2015

Al-Qaida Jihadists Suspicious of Iraq-Syria Caliphate, by Jonathan Manthorpe July 16, 2014   Column

Putin supports Syria for fear of revolution spreading to Russia’s Muslims, by Jonathan Manthorpe  : September 6, 2013 Column

Cutting Syria’s Gordian knot no simple feat, by Jonathan Manthorpe   August 28, 2013  Column

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Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is funded by our readers. It is ad-free and spam-free, and does not solicit donations from partisan organizations. To continue we require a minimum payment of .27 for one story, or a sustaining donation. Details here; donate below. Thanks for your interest and support.

F&O’s CONTENTS page is updated each Saturday. Sign up for emailed announcements of new work on our free FRONTLINES blog; find evidence-based reporting in Reports; commentary, analysis and creative non-fiction in OPINION-FEATURES; and image galleries in PHOTO-ESSAYS. If you value journalism please support F&O, and tell others about us.

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Aleppo will fall, but Syrian war will go on — Analysis

The sun sets over Aleppo as seen from rebel-held part of the city, Syria October 5, 2016.  REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

The sun sets over Aleppo as seen from rebel-held part of the city, Syria October 5, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

By Samia Nakhoul
October, 2016

A public garden converted to a graveyard due to overcrowding is pictured in the rebel held Salah al-Din neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria October 6, 2016. The text on the grave reads in Arabic: "Unknown, Salah allah." REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

A public garden converted to a graveyard due to overcrowding is pictured in the rebel held Salah al-Din neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria October 6, 2016. The text on the grave reads in Arabic: “Unknown, Salah allah.” REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

BEIRUT (Reuters) – It may take weeks or months, but Aleppo is likely to fall to Syrian government forces backed by Russian air power and the most lethal bombardment in nearly six years of war.

Capturing the strategically important city, an economic and trading centre which is key to controlling Syria’s northwest, would be an important military triumph for President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies.

It would be a crippling setback for the Western-backed Syrian rebels who, without quick reinforcements from their foreign backers, look set to be bombed out of their stronghold.

But the fall of Aleppo will not mean an end to the war, military and political analysts say.

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Instead it is likely to give way to a long-term Sunni guerrilla insurgency in which the remaining moderate rebel groups, backed by the West and the West’s regional allies, are driven into the arms of militant jihadis.

In a war with so many global and regional actors backing local clients, Assad will survive as leader of a shrunken, broken and fragmented country enduring the world’s worst refugee crisis since World War Two.

“The Russians are doing in Aleppo and Syria what they did in Grozny — it is the same”, said Robert Ford, the U.S. ambassador to Syria in 2011-14, referring to the fierce bombardment that all but destroyed the capital of Russia’s Chechnya region during Moscow’s 1999-2000 war against Islamist separatists there.

The opposition to Assad, he told Reuters, will “go from holding territory … to being an insurgency, a guerrilla war, and that will continue a long time.”

Syria’s war began in 2011 after a popular uprising, against the Assad family’s more than four-decade rule, that was inspired by the Arab Spring revolts across the Arab world.

The war, pitting rebels mostly from Syria’s Sunni majority against a minority rule rooted in Assad’s Alawite community, has killed more than 300,000 people. Half the population has been displaced and much of urban Syria has become a wasteland.

There have been moments during the conflict when it looked like Assad might be toppled. Russia sent its air force to bolster Iran-backed militias a year ago when Moscow and Tehran feared Assad was on the point of succumbing to rebel offensives.

The bombing of eastern Aleppo, with a pro-Assad force on the ground spearheaded by seasoned Iran-backed fighters such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, is meant to deal a decisive blow against the rebels.

People walk past a burnt bus in the rebel held Seif al-Dawla neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria October 6, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

People walk past a burnt bus in the rebel held Seif al-Dawla neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria October 6, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

ASSAD LUCKY WITH FRIENDS AND ENEMIES

A damaged road is pictured in the rebel held al-Shaar neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria October 6, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

A damaged road is pictured in the rebel held al-Shaar neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria October 6, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iran’s clerical leaders have not wavered in their support for Assad.

But the backers of the rebellion — ranging from the United States to Turkey and the Gulf — have been wary of being sucked into a Levantine quagmire and unnerved by concerns that Islamic State will fill the vacuum if Assad’s rule implodes.

Yet, despite the ferocity of the bombardment of eastern Aleppo, it may be too soon to count the rebels out.

Assad loyalist forces encircled the opposition enclave in July. But with manpower shortages, the Syrian army could not keep step on the ground with the Russian aerial assault. In August, rebels broke through government lines southwest of Aleppo, opening a corridor and briefly lifting the siege.

As a harbinger of the future, the rebel counter-offensive was led by Nusra Front, the jihadi force that had just split from Al Qaeda and rebranded itself as the Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, or Front for the (Islamic) Conquest of the Levant.

Even while negotiating the terms of a short-lived ceasefire with Washington, Russia kept bombing the corridor south of Aleppo. When the brief break in hostilities ended, the intensity of the bombing increased.

The Russian and Syrian forces have been using much more powerful “bunker-buster” bombs, which residents of opposition-held areas say have the force to bring down entire buildings.

A boy plays with a bicycle past damaged buildings in the rebel held Seif al-Dawla neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria October 6, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

A boy plays with a bicycle past damaged buildings in the rebel held Seif al-Dawla neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria October 6, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

Western countries say Syria’s government and its Russian allies are guilty of war crimes for targeting civilians, aid deliveries and hospitals. Moscow and Damascus say they target only militants and deny they have hit hospitals.

Despite the intensity of the bombing, the opposition are unlikely to stop fighting, not least because the Syrian establishment has left it nowhere else to go.

“Aleppo is not a turning point, not yet,” said Ford, who is now a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington who has criticised U.S. President Barack Obama for failing to arm the mainstream rebels.

“It shows that the (Assad) regime is winning the war now but there will be no end to the war because the opposition will continue to fight,” he said. “Aleppo will fall but it may not be quick, it may take one year but it will fall.”

Rolf Holmboe, a former Danish ambassador to Lebanon, Syria and Jordan who is now a research fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, says Aleppo’s fall would be devastating for the rebels, who have used it as a major hub throughout the war.

“The rebels will be isolated in enclaves. The regime will continue attacking one after another without difficulty,” he said. “If Aleppo falls, it will be a strategic loss for the rebels … Now there is no getting around the fact you have to make peace with Assad –- basically he would have won the war.”

Holmboe considers it would be very difficult for the West or Turkey to resupply rebels in Aleppo — even supposing they wanted to — and that Russia and Assad have unleashed a two-pronged attack on eastern Aleppo.

Like Ford, he drew comparisons with Russia’s bombardment of Grozny.

People walk near an over-crowded graveyard in the rebel held al-Shaar neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria October 6, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

People walk near an over-crowded graveyard in the rebel held al-Shaar neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria October 6, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

CHANGING DYNAMICS

Crucial to the outcome of the war in Syria is the stance of external powers: how much they support their Syrian proxies and how they interpret their interests in a conflict with regional and global ramifications.

Russia and Iran not only want to salvage Assad but also hope to establish themselves as regional or global powers, though such goals leave Moscow with little way out of a conflict that could be a huge financial burden.

Under Obama, whose presidency ends in January, the United States seems to have more limited goals — the main one being to drive Islamic State out of its strongholds in Iraq and Syria.

An over-crowded graveyard is pictured in the rebel held al-Shaar neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria October 6, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

An over-crowded graveyard is pictured in the rebel held al-Shaar neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria October 6, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

Washington’s attention is divided, with the U.S. presidential election campaign nearing a climax and U.S. forces also focusing on driving IS out of Mosul and Raqqa.

Gulf Arab countries, which supply weapons and funds to the Syrian opposition, have also been distracted — by a war in Yemen against Houthi rebels aligned to Iran, their regional foe.

Ford said some regional powers could have more influence in Syria but no longer had the stomach for the war.

Jordan, he said, has all but shut down a supply route it ran for the so-called southern front of the rebel Free Syrian Army.

Turkey, which backs the Syrian rebels, is now preoccupied with halting Syrian Kurdish advances near its border. It has diverted its proxies away from Aleppo to fight Kurdish militia crossing west of the Euphrates river at the Syrian city of Jarablus, a move seen by some Syrian rebels as ruinous.

But it remains important for Ankara that the rebels are not defeated, not least because this could increase the flow of refugees to Turkey, which is already sheltering 3 million people who have fled the conflict.

Holmboe foresees the rebels becoming “isolated in various enclaves”, with Assad in control of all big cities and “able to dictate a peace solution on his own terms”.

“Maybe it’s going to take five years, maybe it will take 10 years … (but) he (Assad) will be the leader of a broken country,” Ford said.

Sarkis Naoum, a leading Arab commentator, predicted a protracted conflict and the de facto partitioning of the country. But he suggested countries in the region would opt to increase their arming of rebel groups.

“The Gulf states are not pleased with the way things are going. They’re willing to repeat the experience of Afghanistan,” he said in reference to the 1980s when they supplied arms for the Mujahideen to fight the Soviet Union.

“For them this is the war of the century.”

Copyright Reuters 2016

(Additional reporting by Maria Tsvetkova and Christian Lowe, Writing by Samia Nakhoul, Editing by Tom Perry and Timothy Heritage)

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Iranians close in on Aleppo, not Mecca

A boy rides a bicycle near rubble of damaged buildings in the rebel held al-Maadi district of Aleppo, Syria, August 31, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

A boy rides a bicycle near rubble of damaged buildings in the rebel held al-Maadi district of Aleppo, Syria, August 31, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

JONATHAN MANTHORPE: International Affairs
September 10, 2016

 

There will be no Iranians this year among the two million Muslims who make the hajj pilgrimage to the holy sites at Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia that starts on Sunday, September 11.

About 60,000 Iranians joined the pilgrimage last year, but now they are barred as part of the increasingly sharp-edged struggle for power in the Middle East between Tehran and Saudi Arabia.

But at least this religious embargo is a relatively peaceful, diplomatic skirmish. Sixteen hundred kilometres to the north of Mecca in the Syrian city of Aleppo the contest between Iran and Saudi Arabia is being fought street by street. It is a war of barrel bombs, gas attacks, targeted hospitals, artillery barrages, and the threat of snipers lurking on every roof top and in the dark behind every shattered window. As always, civilians are the main casualties in the bloody urban warfare being waged in large part by proxy armies for Riyadh and Tehran.

Iranians may be suffering the embarrassment of being barred from the hajj this year, but on the battlefield it is Tehran’s senior military officers and their allies fighting for Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad who are poised for victory against the Saudi-backed Syrian rebels in the five-year civil war.

The prelude to a cease fire announced on Friday by United States Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov offers a slim sliver of hope. But the central strand of the Washington/Moscow accord is an agreement to co-ordinate their own attacks on the terrorist Islamic State group and the Nusra Front, which is allied to al-Qaida. It is not immediately obvious what benefits the deal offers the Assad regime and its Iranian backers or the Saudi-supported moderate rebels. Even less apparent is what pressure either Moscow or Washington can put on their factions to enforce a cease fire.

The rebel hold on Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and commercial hub, began to slip a year ago when Russia intervened on Assad’s side and backed the regime’s ground forces with its airforce. Since then the Saudi-backed rebel forces and Aleppo’s remaining civilian population have suffered slow strangulation as one after another of the supply routes into the city were cut off by the encircling regime troops.

This week the pro-Assad forces captured the Alramousa Road, the last supply route into the rebel-held areas of Aleppo. It is clear the regime’s coalition is preparing for a final assault on the city, and it seems highly unlikely that the rebels will be able to hold out.

The recapture of Aleppo by the pro-Assad forces will not be the end of the five-year civil war. Rebels still hold other territory, the Kurds control large areas along the northern border with Turkey and the terrorists of the Islamic State group are still well entrenched in the desert regions on both side of the eastern border with Iraq. But the collapse of the rebellion in Aleppo will put most of the Syrian economic heartland – or what remains of it – back in the regime’s hands and almost ensure that Bashar al-Assad himself survives whatever ceasefire process finally ends this calamity.

And Iran’s reputation, influence and power in the Middle East will rise along with Assad’s survival. Saudi Arabia will suffer the ignominy of failure to adequately support the Syrian rebels at a time when it is also bogged down in the civil war in Yemen. The intervention in Yemen ordered by Saudi Arabia’s young heir to the throne and defence minister, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is not going well. The Saudi forces have failed to roll back the advance by Houthi rebels, who are backed by Iran. The partition of Yemen now seems likely.

Iran signalled on Tuesday that it feels confident that it has the upper hand over Saudi Arabia. Several Middle Eastern news outlets published pictures of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani inspecting pro-Assad forces in and around Aleppo during the preparations for the assault on the last rebel hold-outs in the city.

Gen. Soleimani is among the most potent military commanders in the Middle East at the moment. He is the leader of Iran’s elite foreign operations troops, the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, which is the mainstay of the regime of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

There has been a significant change in the make-up of the forces under Gen. Soleimani’s command in recent months after the Quds Force suffered significant losses, especially among officers, who take pride in leading their troops from the front. To counter rising public indignation in Iran at the death toll, more reliance is being put on Iran’s allied and proxy forces. Among the many thousands of troops under Gen. Soleimani’s command are large contingents of fighters of Hezbollah, the Iranian trained and funded militias from neighbouring Lebanon. He also has about 8,000 fighters from Harakat al Nujaba from Iraq, and others from even further afield. There are contingents from the Afghan Fatemiyoun and the Pakistani Zeynabiyoun.

Some military analysts see in this multi-national composition of the Quds Force the development of a foreign legion by Iran that it may use widely throughout the Middle East to serve its perceived interests. It is evident that since Tehran signed an agreement last year with the United Nations and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – the United States, China, Russia, France and the United Kingdom – plus Germany to open its nuclear development program to inspection it has become more active in the region. The removal of economic sanctions and the lifting of diplomatic isolation have given Tehran the confidence and assets to pursue its interests without fear of serious diplomatic repercussions, especially from Washington.

What all the Quds Force militias have in common with Iran as well as with the Assad regime is that they are followers of the Shia faction of Islam. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, is the leader of the orthodox Sunni branch of Islam, which it regards as the only legitimate interpretation of the religion. While this religious divide is undoubtedly a powerful motivator among supporters of both interpretations of Islam, it is also often a convenient distraction from the essentially worldly thrust for power in both the Iranian and Saudi regimes.

The current outbursts on the religious front from both Tehran and Riyadh stem from a deadly stampede during the hajj last year in which about 2,300 foreign pilgrims were killed, including nearly 470 Iranians. Iranian leader Ayatollah Khamenei has been highly critical of the Saudi authorities, saying the hajj was badly organized. He also lambasted Riyadh for showing insufficient remorse for the deadly incident, as well as lack of resolve in trying to find out who was directly responsible.

Matters came to a head on January 2 when Saudi Arabia executed the imprisoned prominent Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr. Nimr had been in custody since 2011, accused of leading a protest movement among the Shia minority in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province.

Riyadh tried to dull the impact of its killing of the esteemed cleric by at the same time executing three other Shia protesters and 43 militants from the al-Qaida terrorist group. It didn’t work. Angry crowds stormed and gutted Saudi Arabia’s embassy in Tehran, and on January 3 diplomatic relations between the two were cut.

They remain severed, hence the inability of Iranians to join this year’s hajj. But the rhetoric has not dimmed. On Monday, Iranian leader Khamenei published a diatribe against the Saudi monarchy calling the Riyadh regime a “small and puny Satan” that has politicised Islam in order to maintain its relationship with Washington.

“The world of Islam, including Muslim governments and peoples, must familiarise themselves with the Saudi rulers and correctly understand their blasphemous, faithless, dependent and materialistic nature,” he wrote in a statement on his website.

The Saudi royal family has shown itself unqualified to act as custodians of Islam’s holy sites in Mecca a Medina, or to administer the hajj, he said. “The world of Islam must fundamentally reconsider the management of the two holy places and the issue of the hajj,” wrote Khamenei.

Saudi Arabia’s leading cleric, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz Al al-Sheikh, responded on Tuesday, saying he was not surprised at Khamenei’s comments.

“We have to understand that they are not Muslims,” he said, adding that Iranian leaders are sons of “magus”, a reference to Zoroastrianism, the dominant belief in Persia until the Muslim Arab invasion of the region that is now Iran 13 centuries ago.

The Saudi regime and its Sunni clerics usually try to hide their disdain for the Shia and believe that they are not true Muslims. But as the power play in the Middle East gathers pace, all courtesies will be abandoned.

Copyright Jonathan Manthorpe 2016

Contact, including queries about syndication/republishing: jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com

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Manthorpe B&WJonathan Manthorpe is a founding columnist with Facts and Opinions and is the author of the journal’s International Affairs column. He is the author of “Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan,” and has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. Manthorpe’s  nomadic career began in the late 1970s as European Bureau Chief for The Toronto Star, the job that took Ernest Hemingway to Europe in the 1920s. In the mid-1980s Manthorpe became European Correspondent for Southam News. In the following years Manthorpe was sent by Southam News, the internal news agency for Canada’s largest group of metropolitan daily newspapers, to be the correspondent in Africa and then Asia. Between postings Manthorpe spent a few years based in Ottawa focusing on intelligence and military affairs, and the United Nations. Since 1998 Manthorpe has been based in Vancouver, but has travelled frequently on assignment to Asia, Europe and Latin America.

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Turkey’s Shock Waves Slam Middle East

JONATHAN MANTHORPE: International Affairs
July 30, 2016

Supporters of Tukish President Tayyip Erdogan celebrate after soldiers involved in the coup surrendered on the Bosphorus Bridge in Istanbul, Turkey July 16, 2016. REUTERS/Yagiz Karahan

Supporters of Tukish President Tayyip Erdogan celebrate after soldiers involved in the coup surrendered on the Bosphorus Bridge in Istanbul, Turkey July 16, 2016. REUTERS/Yagiz Karahan

The fascist coup of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan – for that is what it is – has thrown a large boulder into the boiling, muddy waters of the Middle East.

Turkey’s fellow Sunni Muslim neighbours are apprehensive that Erdogan’s massive purge of his opponents and grabbing of personal power will be accompanied by a reaffirmation of his support for radical Islam. This fear has already thrown off balance efforts by Saudi Arabia to build an Islamic Military Alliance among Sunni Muslim states to battle terrorist groups, such as the Islamic State, and to present a united front to the increasingly assertive Shia Muslim state of Iran.

Erdogan, meanwhile, appears to be oblivious of the wider implications of his actions following what he claims was an attempted coup on July 15 by army officers and others who follow exiled religious leader Fethullah Gulen. In the aftermath of whatever it was that really happened on Friday two weeks ago, Erdogan’s security forces have got about 15,000 people in detention, revoked the passports of nearly 50,000 people, and suspended more than 66,000 people from their jobs. Warrants have been issued for the arrest of 89 journalists.

Erdogan has reacted angrily to disquiet expressed by the United States and European government that his purge of the civil service, military, judiciary and educational establishment is out of all proportion to the coup threat, if, indeed, there was one.

“Instead of thanking this nation that quashed the coup in the name of democracy, on the contrary, you are taking sides with the coup plotters,” Erdogan said on Friday. He is especially upset that Washington will not immediately hand over Gulen, who has been in self-imposed exile in the U.S. since 1999.

In his speech Erdogan went further and suggested Washington might have been behind the failed plot in alliance with Gulen, who was the Turkish leader’s political ally until they fell out. Erdogan became suspicious of the popularity of Gulen’s vision of Islam among the military, judges and judicial officials, and in the education system where the cleric’s organisation operated many schools and colleges. Gulen has denied any involvement in whatever happened on July 15.

This is a major breech between Turkey and its partners in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, to which the Ankara government contributes the second largest military after Washington. And Erdogan’s actions in the last two weeks also put even further out of reach than they already are Turkey’s ambitions to join the European Union. Those negotiations are already stalled on most fronts, and if Erdogan reintroduces capital punishment, as has been widely hinted, his EU membership application will be torn up.

The most immediate effects, however, are on the three-cornered civil war in Syria, the occupation by the Islamic State of large areas of western Iraq and eastern Syria, and even the war in Yemen.

There was a strong indication on Monday this week of the dislocation among Arab Middle Eastern leaders. The 22 leaders of the member states of the Arab League were due to meet in Mauritania for their annual summit with the hammering out of a joint approach to the Syrian civil war high on the agenda.

It didn’t happen. Only eight Arab heads of state showed up, and those were all from irrelevant nations such as Somalia, Sudan, the Comoros, and Djibouti. The big boys, such as Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Jordan, and Egypt, stayed away.

Following on from the upheaval in Turkey, this is a set-back to what had begun to look like positive moves among Sunni Muslims to build an alliance against violent radical Islam. In December last year Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince and Minister of Defence, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, announced the formation of a 34-nation Islamic Military Alliance, which included Turkey and other Muslim countries as far away as Malaysia and Pakistan. The idea is to share intelligence on radical terrorist groups like the Islamic State, al-Qaida and its affiliates, and to train, equip and provide forces to fight together against these groups.

Significantly, the alliance does not include Iran, the leader of Shia Islam with strong links to the Shia majority in Iraq, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Shia minority populations in Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and most other Muslim countries.

The creation of this alliance was welcomed by the U.S., and it appeared to herald the healing of breeches between Turkey and Saudi Arabia in particular. Erdogan went to Riyadh and signed a far-reaching strategic co-operation agreement with the Saudi government. Then, in February this year, Saudi troops were sent to Turkey for joint exercises that for a while looked as though they might be a prelude to a ground invasion of northern Syria.

All this looked like a welcome repair in relations between Riyadh and Ankara, which had plummeted after the Arab Spring at the beginning of 2011. Riyadh accused Ankara of supporting the radical Muslim Brotherhood, which took power in Egypt before being removed by the military, and which is a major underground opposition movement in Saudi Arabia.

The rift widened when rebels in Syria rose up to try to oust the Shia President Bashar Assad, who is supported by Iran and Hezbollah. Riyadh, and many in Washington and the capitals of Europe, believed Erdogan was doing little to assist the moderate opposition to Assad, but was allowing arms, money and recruits easy transit to the Islamic State group and other ultra-radical Syrian rebels like the al-Qaida-linked al-Nusra Front.

As well as doing much in recent months to shut off these channels, and stem the flow of war refugees to Europe, Erdogan has also restored relations with Israel. Previous co-operation with Israel ended in May, 2010, when Israeli special forces boarded a ship trying to break the blockade of the Palestinian Gaza enclave and killed nine Turkish activists.

Erdogan is also back on speaking terms with Russia after months of tense relations following the Turkish shooting down of a Russia warplane supporting the Assad regime’s forces.

Prime Minister of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a meeting of the Russia High-Level Russian-Turkish Cooperation Council. Photo handout, Turkish press office

Prime Minister of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a meeting of the Russia High-Level Russian-Turkish Cooperation Council. Photo handout, Turkish press office

But Erdogan’s purge since July 15, and much uncertainty about the future shape and direction of the Turkish government, overshadows all these advances.

The dislocation in the camp of Sunni Muslim nations comes as Iran, the champion of Shia Islam, is displaying growing self-confidence after last year’s deal with the United Nations, the U.S. and Washington’s allies ended the long-running dispute over Tehran’s nuclear development programme.

When all the underbrush of Middle East politics is cut away, the rivalry for influence between Tehran and Riyadh is the core fault line in the region. With sanctions lifting, much-needed investment beginning to flow in, and Tehran now able to expand its diplomatic reach and grip, Iran is flexing its muscles in the contest with Riyadh.

That has been most visible in Iran’s support for the majority Shia government in Iraq, and the military aid for Assad in Syria. Senior members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) are advising Assad’s forces. Major military elements of Hezbollah, Tehran’s proxy in Lebanon, are also fighting with the Syrian government army.

More recently, Iran has begun stepping up its support for Shia rebels who have control of large parts of Yemen, where Saudi forces are attempting to support the government. In reaction to all this, there have been attacks on the Shia minority in Saudi Arabia. One of the reactions from Iran has been incursions by its military vessels into Persian Gulf waters claimed by Saudi Arabia and Gulf States. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have complained to the UN about these “repeated transgressions and assaults.”

The actions by Iran’s military, especially the elite IRGC, are propelled in part by domestic politics. Since “reformist” president Hassan Rouhani – “reformist” is a relative term in Iran – was elected in 2013 he has been in a slow-motion tussle for influence with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who is not only the arbiter of religious life, but controls the military, the IRGC in particular.

The influence of the Guards Corp within the military establishment is set to rise with the appointment this week of a new chairman of the Armed Forces General Staff – the chief military advisor to the Supreme Leader – with close links to the IRGC. Major General Mohamad Hossein Bagheri’s background is in military intelligence, and that has implications for the ways Iran is likely to continue asserting its influence in the Middle East.

Bagheri is a strong advocate of fighting hidden, intelligence-driven wars. He is likely to push cyberware, the utility of which Iran is well aware after thousands of its uranium enrichment centrifuges were destroyed by the Stuxnet computer virus created by U.S. and Israeli intelligence agencies. Bagheri will probably also emphasise the use of clandestine operations of one sort or another against regional enemies and dissidents abroad. For example, he was behind an operation in 1995 when IRGC units went into northern Iraq to attack and destroy a base of the Iranian Kurdistan Democratic Party.

Bagheri has little history of contact or working with the civilian government, so he can be expected to take uncompromising stances against the Rouhani administration on matters such as military budgets and social reforms.

With Washington primed to take a harder stance against Iran after November’s U.S. election no matter whether it is Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump who wins, the Middle East is set to continue to provide the world with more drama and intrigue than anyone needs.

 

Copyright Jonathan Manthorpe 2016

Contact: jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com. Please address queries about syndication/republishing this column to jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com

 

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Manthorpe B&WJonathan Manthorpe is a founding columnist with Facts and Opinions and is the author of the journal’s International Affairs column. He is the author of “Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan,” and has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. Manthorpe’s  nomadic career began in the late 1970s as European Bureau Chief for The Toronto Star, the job that took Ernest Hemingway to Europe in the 1920s. In the mid-1980s Manthorpe became European Correspondent for Southam News. In the following years Manthorpe was sent by Southam News, the internal news agency for Canada’s largest group of metropolitan daily newspapers, to be the correspondent in Africa and then Asia. Between postings Manthorpe spent a few years based in Ottawa focusing on intelligence and military affairs, and the United Nations. Since 1998 Manthorpe has been based in Vancouver, but has travelled frequently on assignment to Asia, Europe and Latin America.

~~~

Real journalism is not free. If you value evidence-based, non-partisan, spam-free information, please support Facts and Opinions, an employee-owned collaboration of professional journalists.  Details here.

 

F&O’s CONTENTS page is updated each Saturday. Sign up for emailed announcements of new work on our free FRONTLINES blog; find evidence-based reporting in Reports; commentary, analysis and creative non-fiction in OPINION-FEATURES; and image galleries in PHOTO-ESSAYS. If you value journalism please support F&O, and tell others about us.

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EU fate at stake on muddy Greek border

By Lefteris Papadimas and Renee Maltezou
March, 2016

A volunteer (2nd L) gives away goods to stranded refugees and migrants, most of them Afghans, who find shelter on Victoria Square in Athens, Greece, March 3, 2016. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis

A volunteer (2nd L) gives away goods to stranded refugees and migrants, most of them Afghans, who find shelter on Victoria Square in Athens, Greece, March 3, 2016. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis

IDOMENI, Greece (Reuters) – In muddy fields straddling the border with Macedonia, a transit camp hosting up to 12,000 homeless migrants in filthy conditions is the most dramatic sign of a new crisis tearing at Greece’s frayed ties with Europe and threatening its stability.

For the last year, Greece has largely waved through nearly a million migrants who crossed the Aegean Sea from Turkey on their way to wealthier northern Europe.

Now, on top of a searing economic crisis that took it close to ejection from the euro zone a year ago, the European Union’s most enfeebled state is suddenly being turned into what Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras calls a “warehouse of souls”.

At least 30,000 people fleeing conflict or poverty in the Middle East and beyond are bottled up in Greece after Western Balkan states effectively closed their borders. Up to 3,000 more are crossing the Aegean every day despite rough winter seas.

“This is an explosive mix which could blow up at any time. You cannot, however, know when,” said Costas Panagopoulos, head of ALCO opinion pollsters.

Men, women and children from Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq are packed like sardines in a disused former airport terminal in Athens, crammed into an indoor stadium or sleeping rough in a central square, where two tried to hang themselves last week.

The influx is severely straining the resources of a country barely able to look after its own people after a six-year recession – the worst since World War Two – that has shrunk the economy by a quarter and driven unemployment above 25 percent.

After years of austerity imposed by international lenders, who are now demanding deeper cuts in old-age pensions, ordinary Greeks say they feel abandoned by the European Union.

A staggering 92 percent of respondents in a Public Issue poll published by To Vima newspaper last Sunday said they felt the EU had left Greece to fend for itself.

The poll was taken before the European Commission announced 300 million euros in emergency aid this year to support relief organisations providing food, shelter and care for the migrants. But such promises do little to soften public anger.

“I want to spit at them,” said 40-year-old Maria Constantinidou, who is unemployed. “Those European leaders .. should each take 10 migrants home, feed them, look after them and then see how difficult things are.”

While the EU and Turkey will struggle to find a consensus at an emergency summit on Monday on how to stem the influx of migrants, Greece looks set to become Europe’s waiting room for months to come.

At Idomeni, a small border town in northern Greece, men from Syria held screaming babies close to a razor wire fence on Thursday, imploring Macedonian police they be allowed to cross.

Greece says it is a victim of geography; some EU partners say Greek fecklessness forced them to reimpose border controls, putting the future of a border-free Europe at stake.

“Its like watching a slow moving train wreck,” said Theodore Couloumbis, a veteran professor of international relations who is an expert on the Balkans and Greek foreign policy.

Yanis Varoufakis, a former finance minister who took Greece to the brink of a euro zone exit last year by battling creditors over bailout terms, says the crisis was symptomatic of a moral, political and economic trauma in the EU.

“Greece has been, as it always is, the weakest link in the organism and shows the biggest symptoms of disease,” he told Reuters.

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Migrants sleep on Victoria Square, where stranded refugees and migrants, most of them Afghans, find shelter in Athens, Greece, March 3, 2016. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis

Migrants sleep on Victoria Square, where stranded refugees and migrants, most of them Afghans, find shelter in Athens, Greece, March 3, 2016. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis

CRISIS IN A CRISIS

The initial response from the public has been an outpouring of generosity towards stranded migrants, although a neo-fascist party, Golden Dawn, which advocates forcing immigrants out of Greece, has captured 7 percent of the vote in recent elections.

The migrant crisis threatens a nascent economic turnaround forecast in Greece from the second half of 2016, after six years of deep recession. Business leaders and the central bank have warned that the uncertainty could be a drag on the economy.

The main uncertainty factor is stalled negotiations between Athens and its creditors – the euro zone, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

A first review of economic reforms under the bailout plan agreed last August, which Greece wants concluded fast to move on to debt relief talks, has been held up by disagreement among the lenders over how much more Athens needs to save in public spending, notably on pensions.

Finance Minister Euclid Tsakalotos insisted on Thursday that cuts in basic pensions were a “red line” for the government.

Publicly at least, nobody is making linkages between the refugee crisis and the bailout review or discussing trade-offs between the two, which are being handled separately.

“It is certainly not my intention to say, ‘look, I have a refugee crisis and that gives me leeway to operate beyond the framework of the (bailout) agreement’,” Tsipras said in a television interview this week. “The agreement will be kept.”

One of the most hawkish creditors, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte told Reuters that while the EU should give Greece humanitarian aid, the bailout programme must be kept separate.

Greece is funded till July when it faces bond repayments to the ECB, so there is no immediate financial pressure.

But a worsening migrant flow could further complicate Tsipras’ attempts to sell painful bailout reforms to a public which already feels maltreated by its EU partners.

And some policymakers in Brussels, Paris and even Berlin acknowledge that having averted a Greek exit from the euro last year, this would be the worst time for another Greek financial meltdown or political upheaval.

Greeks don’t need much prompting to take to the streets. Mass protests are a regular feature in a volatile country of 11 million where pensions have been cut 11 times since 2010.

Pollster Panagopoulos said he doubted the dual crisis would topple the government, but Tsipras might call another election — after two general elections and a referendum last year — if he felt in a deadlock.

Stranded refugees and migrants, most of them Afghans, are seen on Victoria Square in Athens, Greece, March 3, 2016. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis

Stranded refugees and migrants, most of them Afghans, are seen on Victoria Square in Athens, Greece, March 3, 2016. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis

CRISIS HOVERS OVER BREXIT

In mid-February, Greece briefly threatened not to sign off on final agreements at an EU summit on amending Britain’s membership terms unless Athens won assurances that EU states would not shut their borders. They did so anyway.

Now Tsipras has hinted at using the veto threat again to ensure his country does not become a holding pen for migrants.

“What I am seeking is the best possible outcome for Greece. Even if it means, to achieve that, using all tools provided for under (EU) conventions,” the leftist prime minister said in a television interview this week when asked if he could veto a deal between the EU and Turkey at a summit next week.

How Greece and the migrant crisis are handled may resonate at the other end of the continent in Britain, where voters will decide in a June 23 referendum whether to stay in the bloc.

James Ker-Lindsay, a Balkans expert at the London School of Economics, said leftist academics in Britain – a small but influential group typically supportive of the EU – were so dismayed by Brussels’ treatment of Greece in 2015 that it would not take much to alienate them completely.

“If it looks like a double dose harsh treatment, the euroscepticism which is coming in very strong from right-wing parties across the EU could start being repeated on the left, but for a very different reason,” Ker-Lindsay said.

Copyright Reuters 2016

(Writing by Michele Kambas; Editing by Paul Taylor and Mark John)

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Insight: The road to Aleppo – how the West misread Putin

 

By Tom Perry, Laila Bassam, Jonathan Landay and Maria Tsvetkova
February, 2016

BEIRUT/WASHINGTON/MOSCOW (Reuters) – Last July, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad seemed to be losing his battle against rebel forces. Speaking to supporters in Damascus, he acknowledged his army’s heavy losses.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, in this October 20, 2015 file photo. REUTERS/Alexei Druzhinin/RIA Novosti/Kremlin/ Files

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, in this October 20, 2015 file photo. REUTERS/Alexei Druzhinin/RIA Novosti/Kremlin/ Files

Western officials said the Syrian leader’s days were numbered and predicted he would soon be forced to the negotiating table.

It did not turn out that way. Secret preparations were already underway for a major deployment of Russian and Iranian forces in support of Assad.

The military intervention, taking many in the West by surprise, would roll back rebel gains. It would also accelerate two shifts in U.S. diplomacy: Washington would welcome Iran to the negotiating table over Syria, and it would no longer insist that Assad step down immediately.

“That involved swallowing some pride, to be honest, in acknowledging that this process would go nowhere unless you got Russia and Iran at the table,” a U.S. official said.

At the heart of the diplomacy shift – which essentially brought Washington closer to Moscow’s position – was a slow-footed realization of the Russian military build-up in Syria and, ultimately, a refusal to intervene militarily.

Russia, Iran and Syria struck their agreement to deploy military forces in June, several weeks before Assad’s July 26 speech, according to a senior official in the Middle East who was familiar with the details.

And Russian sources say large amounts of equipment, and hundreds of troops, were being dispatched over a series of weeks, making it hard to hide the pending operation.

Yet a senior U.S. administration official said it took until mid-September for Western powers to fully recognise Russia’s intentions. One of the final pieces of the puzzle was when Moscow deployed aircraft flown only by the Russian military, eliminating the possibility they were intended for Assad, the official said.

An earlier understanding of Russia’s military plans is unlikely to have changed U.S. military policy. President Barack Obama had made clear early on that he did not want Washington embroiled in a proxy war with Russia. And when the West did wake up to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intentions, it was short of ideas about how to respond.

As in Ukraine in 2014, the West seemed helpless.

French President Francois Hollande summed up the mood among America’s European allies: “I would prefer the United States to be more active. But since the United States has stepped back, who should take over, who should act?”

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Russian warplanes fly in the sky over the Mediterranean coastal city of Latakia, Syria, in this January 28, 2016 file photo. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki /Files

Russian warplanes fly in the sky over the Mediterranean coastal city of Latakia, Syria, in this January 28, 2016 file photo. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki /Files

SIGNPOSTS

In July last year, one of Iran’s top generals, Qassem Soleimani, went to Moscow on a visit that was widely reported. The senior Middle Eastern official told Reuters that Soleimani had also met Putin twice several weeks before that.

“They defined zero hour for the Russian planes and equipment, and the Russian and Iranian crews,” he said.

Russia began sending supply ships through the Bosphorus in August, Reuters reported at the time. There was no attempt to hide the voyages and on Sept. 9 Reuters reported that Moscow had begun participating in military operations in Syria.

A Russian Air Force colonel, who took part in preparations and provided fresh details of the build-up, said hundreds of Russian pilots and ground staff were selected for the Syria mission in mid-August.

Warplanes sent to Syria included the Sukhoi-25 and Sukhoi-24 offensive aircraft, U.S. officials said. In all, according to U.S. officials, Russia by Sept. 21 had 28 fixed-wing aircraft, 16 helicopters, advanced T-90 tanks and other armoured vehicles, artillery, anti-aircraft batteries and hundreds of marines at its base near Latakia.

Despite this public build-up, the West either played down the risks or failed to recognise them.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Sept. 22 that Russian aircraft were in Syria to defend the Russians’ base – “force protection” in the view of U.S. military experts.

At the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 28, the French announced their own first air strikes in Syria.

“The international community is hitting Daesh (Islamic State). France is hitting Daesh. The Russians, for now, are not doing anything,” Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius Fabius said at the time.

The next day Russia announced its strikes in Syria.

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Souvenir plates depicting Syria's President Bashar al-Assad and Russia's President Vladimir Putin are seen among other items for sale in old Damascus, Syria, February 8, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

Souvenir plates depicting Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin are seen among other items for sale in old Damascus, Syria, February 8, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

WARNINGS

One former U.S. official, who was in government at the time, told Reuters that some U.S. officials had begun voicing concern that Russia would intervene militarily in Syria two weeks before the bombing began.

Their concerns, however, were disregarded by officials in the White House and those dealing with the Middle East because of a lack of hard intelligence, the former U.S. official said.

“There was this tendency to say, ‘We don’t know. Let’s see,'” recounted the former U.S. official.

Yet between October and December, American perceptions shifted, as reported by Reuters at the time.

By December, U.S. officials had concluded that Russia had achieved its main goal of stabilizing Assad’s government and could maintain its operations in Syria for years.

“I think it’s indisputable that the Assad regime, with Russian military support, is probably in a safer position than it was,” a senior administration official said.

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Souvenir plates depicting Syria's President Bashar al-Assad and Russia's President Vladimir Putin are seen among other items for sale in old Damascus, Syria, February 8, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

Souvenir plates depicting Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin are seen among other items for sale in old Damascus, Syria, February 8, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

DIPLOMATIC U-TURN

At that point, the U.S. pivoted to the negotiating table with Russia and Iran. Officials say they had few other options with Obama unwilling to commit American ground troops to Syria, aside from small deployments of Special Operations forces, or provide U.S.-backed opposition fighters with anti-aircraft missiles.

In Munich on Feb 12, Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced an agreement for humanitarian access and a “cessation of hostilities” in Syria, far short of a ceasefire.

“Putin has taken the measure of the West… He has basically concluded, I can push and push and push and push and I am never going to hit steel anywhere,” said Fred Hof, a former State Department and Pentagon Syria expert now at the Atlantic Council think tank.

Today, U.S. officials sound a far different note than in the early days of the uprising against Assad when they said his exit must be immediate. Now, with the war entering its sixth year, they say they must push the diplomatic possibilities as far as possible and insist Kerry is fully aware of what Russia is doing to change facts on the ground.

In congressional testimony on Wednesday, Kerry acknowledged there was no guarantee the “cessation of hostilities” would work, adding: “But I know this: If it doesn’t work, the potential is there that Syria will be utterly destroyed. The fact is that we need to make certain that we are exploring and exhausting every option of diplomatic resolution.”

For the rebels, the reality is bleak.

Government forces have closed in on the city of Aleppo, a major symbol of the uprising. Their supply routes from Turkey cut, rebels in the Aleppo area now say it may only be a matter of time before they are crushed altogether.

“We are heading towards being liquidated I think,” said a former official in a rebel group from the city.

Other fighters remain determinedly upbeat, saying Assad is only gaining ground because of Russian air power and he will not be able to sustain the advances.

For Syrians living under government rule in Damascus, Moscow’s intervention has inspired a degree of confidence. They credit one of the calmest periods since the start of the war to the death of rebel leader Zahran Alloush, killed in a Russian air strike on Christmas Day.

There are few foreign visitors these days. Bashar al-Seyala, who owns a souvenir shop in the Old City, said most of his foreign customers are Russians. His shop had just sold out of mugs printed with Putin’s face.

Copyright Reuters 2016

(Additional reporting by John Irish, Arshad Mohammed, Lesley Wroughton, Warren Strobel, Lou Charbonneau and Mark Hosenball; Writing by Giles Elgood; editing by Janet McBride)

 ~~~

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Nothing is simple about Canada’s support for Kurdish fighters

Kurdish PKK fighters Photo: Kurdishstruggle/Flickr/Creative Commons

Kurdish PKK fighters Photo: Kurdishstruggle/Flickr/Creative Commons

JONATHAN MANTHORPE: International Affairs
February 18, 2016

There is a generation of British soldiers, civil servants and planters, now mostly dead, who swear bloodcurdling oaths at the mention of the name of Canada.

They were posted to the then-British colony of Malaya after the Second World War, and they blame Canada for training and arming the ethnic Chinese communists who waged guerrilla war against the colonial power from 1948 until 1960. About 12,000 people were killed, including nearly 3,000 civilians.

There is some justice in the British accusation against Canada, though not much. Canada’s purpose in Malaya in the 1940s was to arm and train the communist guerrillas to fight the occupying Japanese. Many of those involved were Chinese Canadians, who volunteered to fight in the expectation Ottawa would no longer be able to deny them full citizenship after the war. Chinese Canadians were given the vote in 1947.

Once parachuted into occupied Malaya and Burma, the Canadian commandos linked up with local fellow ethnic Chinese, who they trained in sabotage, ambushes, and all the dark arts of guerrilla warfare, and then led in attacks on the Japanese. When the Canadians left, the Chinese Malays remembered the lessons, hid their weapons and bided their time.

Today the Malay Emergency – the British had far too much experience of these things to be so foolish as to declare a “war on terrorism” – is remembered as one of the few textbook examples of how to defeat a guerrilla insurgency. And in what is now Malaysia, there is a pact that allows the minority ethnic Chinese to make money so long as they don’t challenge the majority Malays for political power.

Now Canada is doing something similar with the Kurds in Iraq as it did with the Chinese Malays in the 1940s. The government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has announced the end of Canada’s deployment of CF-18 fighter-bomber aircraft, which with other coalition airforces have been bombing territory occupied by the Islamic State terror group. Instead, Canada will triple, to about 150, the number of special forces soldiers it will send to train and advise Kurdish fighters in northern Iraq, known as Peshmerga. Ottawa will also be supplying the Peshmerga with small arms.

The reason for backing the Peshmerga is that they are killing more Islamic State fighters and reclaiming more territory than any other soldiers in the region. The Iraqi army is a disgrace, despite years of training by the United States. In Syria, Islamic State holds large swathes of territory and has its capital, Raqqa. The army of President Bashar al Assad, and the militaries of his allies Russia and Iran, are intent on trying to destroy the so-called moderate rebels, and are leaving IS largely untouched.

There are good tactical reasons to back the Kurdish Peshmerga. But, unlike in Malaya in the 1940s, the probable consequences of supporting the Kurds are clear. The Kurds hope to emerge from the current upheaval and civil war with an independent state of Kurdistan covering their traditional homelands in northern Iraq and Syria, which they already largely control. That, they hope, will be a stepping stone toward adding their homelands in eastern Turkey and north-western Iran.

There are about 32 million Kurds, the world’s largest distinct ethnic group without their own nation state. There are good arguments to be made that they deserve their own country. However, Canada’s NATO ally Turkey, home to about 15 million Kurds and about 18 per cent of Turkey’s total population, has been violently opposed to Kurdish independence, since the Kurds started a separatist movement in 1984.

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Kurdish occupied lands. Wikipedia/Creative Commons

Kurdish occupied lands. Wikipedia/Creative Commons

Many Canadians may support aiding the Kurds in creating Kurdistan. But Canada should be clear that that is the probable end result of Canada’s military policy in the war against Islamic State. Canada should have no illusions it will be a clean, cut-and-dried affair. We are, after all, trying in Iraq and Syria — to which one could add Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and Palestine — to clean up mistakes made a century ago at the end of the First World War. Then the collapsed Ottoman Empire was shared out as spheres of influence among European powers, principally Britain and France. From that emerged the modern states of Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria, with the Kurds living in the mountains where the four boundaries meet. The Kurds have pursued the quest for Kurdistan with persistence and determination in the century since the end of the First World War. They even managed to briefly establish independent governments in their homelands in Turkey, Iran and Iraq. But these nascent Kurdistans were swiftly destroyed by the central governments.

It was the Americans who set the Kurds on their modern course to create an independent state. After the First Gulf War in 1991 United States forces withdrew without deposing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. But Washington realised it had left Iraqis, and especially Kurds in the north, vulnerable to revenge attacks by Saddam’s forces. The U.S. and its allies therefore established a no-fly zone over the Kurdish areas of northern Iraq. This created a de facto independent Kurdish state, which continues to exist as a self-governing region in post-Saddam Iraq. In November, Iraqi Kurdish President Masoud Barzani called for a referendum to measure support for de jure independence from Baghdad. He has said outright in the last few weeks he considers the Anglo-French Sykes-Pigott agreement, which carved up the Middle East 100 years ago, to be a dead document. The map of the region needs to be redrawn in line with ethnic, political and religious realities, he has said, and the creation of Kurdistan should be part of the new dispensation.

But after a century of separation into four different countries, the Kurds are no longer a homogenous group, if they ever were. Barzani himself is a good example of the complexities that will cloud the creation of a broad Kurdistan.

Barzani is a vehement Kurdish nationalist, but he is also very close to the Turkish government of President Recep Erdogan, who is in the midst of a renewed military campaign against the Turkish Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) after the breakdown of a cease-fire last year.

The relationship between Barzani and Erdogan is crudely practical. The Iraqi Kurds seized control of the major oil fields around Kirkuk in July 2014. This has given Barzani’s Kurdistan Regional Government control of about 40 per cent of Iraq’s oil reserves, which it is exporting at a rate of up to 600,000 barrels a day through a new pipeline to Turkey and earning an average of $US600 million a month.

In return for being able to use Turkey for oil exports, Barzani raises little outrage when Erdogan’s forces attack Turkish PKK camps in northern Iraq.

Barzani has been a fixture as the president of the Iraqi Kurds for more than a decade. His last elected term ended in 2013, and he now refuses to step down. This has spawned a significant opposition movement. In October last year, supporters of the main opposition party in the Kurdistan parliament, Gorran, attacked offices of Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party and five people were killed. In retaliation, Barzani expelled four Gorran ministers from the Kurdistan government.

Turkey is watching the political infighting in Irai Kurdistan with some anxiety. If Gorran or some other opposition party were to come to power, it would likely be far more sympathetic to the Turkish Kurds PKK and far less willing to allow Turkish forces to attack PKK bases in Iraq.

The political context of emergent Kurdish independence in Syria is just as fraught. There are about 1.5 million Kurds living in Syria, mostly along the country’s northern border with Turkey. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his regime never regarded the Kurds as a natural enemy or threat the way he regards the Sunni Muslim Arabs. As the Sunni insurgency mounted in 2011 and 2012, Assad withdrew his forces from the Kurdish areas, leaving the Syrian Kurdish group, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) free to operate self-government in three prefectures: Efrin close to the Mediterranean coast, Kobani on the central border region with Turkey, and Jazirah in the northeast. Over the course of the five-year civil war, the Syrian Kurds and their militia, the People’s Defence Units (YPG) have extended their territory so that they now control over half the nearly 900-kilometre-long border with Turkey. The main gap is a stretch between Azaz and Jarabulus, which is a battle ground between moderate Syrian rebels and hardline jihadists of the Islamic State and the al-Qaida-linked Jabhat al-Nusra. It is through this corridor that supplies from Turkey have been reaching Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, which is held by moderate Syrian rebels. But on February 3 Assad’s forces, supported by Russia’s air force, veteran Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon, and under the direction of officers of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, captured the territory north of Aleppo and cut the city off from its life-line to Turkey.

This may well give the Kurdish YPG forces an opportunity to take the land between Efrin and Kobani, and complete their aim of a contiguous Kurdish free state along the Turkish border.

This campaign would require air support from the U.S. and allies, especially the capture of the city of Jarabulus, and it is by no means certain the YPG will get it. Erdogan and the Turkish government are deeply suspicious of the YPG and the Syrian Kurds’ political wing, the PYD. Ankara sees the PYD as heavily influenced by Abdullah Ocalan, the founder of the Turkish Kurds’ PKK, who is now in prison serving a life sentence after being abducted from Kenya by the Turkish National Intelligence Agency in 1999. Thus if the Syrian Kurds are able to keep an independent state based on Ocalan’s political philosophy, Ankara fears this will become a long-term encouragement to Turkish Kurds and the PKK to ramp up their campaign for independence.

Ankara has already made it clear it would regard the capture of Jarabulus by the YPG as a red line requiring stern military action. It is to try to forestall this eventuality that the Erdogan government keeps calling on NATO and other allies opposed to the Assad regime to enforce creation of a safe zone for Syrian refugees in the border region between Jarabulus and Azaz. For Ankara, the zone would be to foil the Syrian Kurds as much as to save the refugees.

Because Turkey is a member of NATO, the extent to which other NATO members, such as Canada and the U.S., should encourage the creation of a wider Kurdistan is a significant question. In a world of harsh pragmatic politics, is the creation of Kurdistan, however much it is justified, worth the potential fracturing of NATO? That question has special potency when Turkey has the second largest NATO military after the U.S., and is a major element in containing Vladimir Putin’s rampant Russia.

On the other hand, Turkey’s Erdogan seems far more interested in making his country a power broker in the Middle East rather than looking west and, for example, pressing to join the Europen Union. Erdogan is also boosting Islamism in Turkey and seriously undermining democracy. He is trying to diminish the role of parliament and create an executive presidency with himself at the helm.

As I said at the beginning, the major reason for Canada and other allies to support and arm the Peshmerga Iraqi Kurdish fighters is that they are the best foot soldiers available and are killing more Islamic State fanatics than anyone else. But the fall out from such a decision can last a long time and have untold implications.

In 1943 the British were sending arms to royalist partisans fighting German occupying forces in Yugoslavia. But Prime Minister Winston Churchill was not persuaded the royalists had their hearts in the fight. Churchill called in a young veteran of the Long Range Desert Patrols, forerunner of the Special Air Service, in North Africa. Fitzroy Maclean later wrote that his mission was “simply to find out who was killing the most Germans and suggest means by which we could help them to kill more.”

Maclean got into Yugoslavia and made his way to the headquarters of the communist partisans led by Josip Broz Tito. Maclean had no illusions about with whom he was dealing. Before the war he had been a British diplomat in Moscow and knew all about Stalinism. His accounts of Joseph Stalin’s purges and show trials are riveting. But Maclean came to the conclusion the royalist Chetniks were at best half-hearted and at worst collaborating with the German occupying forces. Only Tito and the communist partisans were an effective force, Maclean told Churchill. They were killing Germans and should be supported.

And so it happened, with the inevitable result that both Maclean and Churchill had foreseen. Tito took power in Yugoslavia after the war, and held it until his death in 1980.

Tito’s regime was not as repressive as the Soviet Union satellite states in Eastern Europe, but it was no holiday camp either. After Tito’s death the unresolved ethnic and political complexities of Yugoslavia began to unravel into conflict. By the mid-1990s what had been Tito’s Yugoslavia had shattered into fighting between Serbs, Bosnians, Croats, Montenegrans, Kosovans and Albanians.

The United Nations dived in to separate the combatants, the Canadians, ever willing to don blue helmets with them. And then in May 1995 came a moment that should have been the end of innocence for Canada.

Canadian Capt. Patrick Rechner, an unarmed UN military observer, was captured by Bosnian Serb soldiers at Pale and chained to a lightning rod outside a warehouse holding mortar bombs. The aim of the Serb fighters was to stop NATO aircraft bombing their positions, and distressing pictures of Capt. Rechner were broadcast world wide. Capt. Rechner was held for 24 days, and the pictures became a clear statement that the age of classic UN peacekeeping was over.

Anyone overcome by nostalgia, who hopes that the rededication of the new government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to the UN will mean Canada again being able to wrap itself in the cosy blanket of classic peacekeeping, is dreaming in Technicolor.

And the greatest irony is that the Bosian Serb fighters who captured and held Capt. Rechner were commanded by Nicholas Ribic, a Canadian who travelled to Serbia in 1992 because he “wanted to fight Muslims.”

In years to come there will undoubtedly come a time when people will ask how wise it was to train and arm the Kurds simply because they were killing more Islamic Group fighters than anyone else.

Copyright Jonathan Manthorpe 2016

Facts and Opinions is employee-owned and relies on the honour system: enjoy one free story. If you value independent, no-spam, no-ads,expert journalism, support us with a minimum of .27 per story, a $1 day site pass, or $20 per year. Donate below. Please respect our copyright. Details here.

Jonathan Manthorpe is the author of “Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan.”

Contact: jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com. Please address queries about syndication/republishing this column to jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com

Related:

War on Islamic State caliphate boosts the birth of Kurdistan. Jonathan Manthorpe, October, 2014

Before going to war it is always a good idea to have a clear purpose and outcome in mind.  Yet six Royal Canadian Airforce CF-18s are set for bombing missions in the Middle East without any clear vision of what victory will look like. The whole thing is depressingly reminiscent of the Libyan campaign in 2011 when allied warplanes enabled rebels to oust and kill dictator Moammar Gaddhafi. But then they all declared “mission accomplished,” packed up their kit and headed home. Meanwhile Libya has turned into bloody chaos and a killing ground for rival Islamic factions, tribal fighters and would-be new dictators. There are many days when Gaddhafi, for all his evil, looks a lot better than what Libyans have got now. … read more 
Related: Nation of Kurdistan springs from Arab chaos. Jonathan Manthorpe July 4, 2014

REUTERS/Umit Bektas/Files

REUTERS/Umit Bektas

Ethnic groups flee as Syrian Kurds advance against Islamic State. By Humeyra Pamuk

 Cemal Dede fled his home in a remote Turkmen village in Syria after warplanes from the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State bombed the house next door. He had no idea he wouldn’t be coming back. Dede says the Kurdish YPG militia did not let his family of seven return to Dedeler near the Turkish border, telling him it was now Kurdish territory and Turkmens like him had no place there.

Who are the Yazidis? By Christine Allison

In 1918, the Yazidis of Sinjar mountain received an ultimatum from Ottoman forces – to hand over their weaponry and the Christian refugees they were sheltering, or face the consequences. They tore it up and sent the messengers back naked. The Sinjaris are the “Highlanders” of the Iraqi Yazidis – tough and proud. After suffering terrible casualties and appealing to the allied forces for help they were able to survive the subsequent attack and live out the war in their mountain homeland.

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Manthorpe B&WJonathan Manthorpe is a founding columnist with Facts and Opinions and is the author of the journal’s International Affairs column. Manthorpe has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. Manthorpe’s  nomadic career began in the late 1970s as European Bureau Chief for The Toronto Star, the job that took Ernest Hemingway to Europe in the 1920s. In the mid-1980s Manthorpe became European Correspondent for Southam News. In the following years Manthorpe was sent by Southam News, the internal news agency for Canada’s largest group of metropolitan daily newspapers, to be the correspondent in Africa and then Asia. Between postings Manthorpe spent a few years based in Ottawa focusing on intelligence and military affairs, and the United Nations. Since 1998 Manthorpe has been based in Vancouver, but has travelled frequently on assignment to Asia, Europe and Latin America.

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Heartbreak in starving Syrian town

Residents, who say they have received permission from the Syrian government to leave the besieged town, walk past Syrian Army soldiers as they depart after an aid convoy entered Madaya, Syria, January 11, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

Residents, who say they have received permission from the Syrian government to leave the besieged town, walk past Syrian Army soldiers as they depart after an aid convoy entered Madaya, Syria, January 11, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

By Lisa Barrington and Stephanie Nebehay
January 12, 2015

A toddler is held up to the camera in this still image taken from video said to be shot in Madaya on January 5, 2016. Handout via Social Media Website

A toddler is held up to the camera in this still image taken from video said to be shot in Madaya on January 5, 2016. Handout via Social Media Website

BEIRUT/GENEVA (Reuters) – Aid workers who reached a besieged Syrian town spoke of “heartbreaking” conditions being endured by emaciated and starving residents, with hundreds in need of specialised medical help.

An aid convoy on Monday brought the first food and medical relief for months to the western town of Madaya, where 40,000 people are trapped by encircling government forces and local doctors say some residents have starved to death.

“It’s really heartbreaking to see the situation of the people,” said Pawel Krzysiek of the International Committee of the Red Cross. “A while ago I was just approached by a little girl and her first question was did you bring food … we are really hungry.”

The World Health Organization said it had asked the Syrian government to allow it to send mobile clinics and medical teams to Madaya to assess the extent of malnutrition and evacuate the worst cases.

A local doctor said 300 to 400 people needed special medical care, according to Elizabeth Hoff, the WHO representative in Damascus who went into Madaya with the convoy.

“I am really alarmed,” Hoff told Reuters by telephone from Damascus, where she is based. [ID:nL8N14W1NZ]

“People gathered in the market place. You could see many were malnourished, starving. They were skinny, tired, severely distressed. There was no smile on anybody’s face. It is not what you see when you arrive with a convoy. The children I talked to said they had no strength to play.”

Aid convoys also delivered supplies to Foua and Kafraya, two villages in Idlib province encircled by rebels fighting the Syrian government.

FOOD WEAPON CONDEMNED

Western diplomats have condemned the use of food as a weapon of war, with the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, accusing the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad of “grotesque starve-or-surrender tactics”.

Britain’s U.N. ambassador, Matthew Rycroft, said “wilfully impeding relief supply and access can constitute a violation of international humanitarian law”.

Legal experts said that could be construed as either a war crime or a crime against humanity, or both.

An independent U.N. commission of inquiry on Syria has long denounced use of starvation by both sides as a weapon of war, and has a list of suspected war criminals and units from all sides which is kept in a U.N. safe in Geneva.

However, there appears little immediate prospect of such a case being brought before the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague, since Syria is not a member and any referral to the court by the U.N. Security Council would have to overcome Russian reluctance.

The difficulties in getting aid into Madaya and other besieged places could also set back efforts to hold new peace talks on the five-year-old war in Syria, scheduled to take place under U.N. auspices in Geneva on Jan. 25.

A U.N. road map for the talks calls on the parties to allow aid agencies unhindered access throughout Syria, particularly in besieged and hard-to-reach areas.

An opposition grouping has told the United Nations that this must happen before the talks can begin, lending weight to suggestions that the humanitarian situation could make Jan. 25 a hard target to hit.

Negotiations to get into Madaya and the other two villages were lengthy and difficult. There are presently about 15 siege locations in Syria, where 450,000 people are trapped, the United Nations says.

The main opposition coordinator, Riad Hijab, said the United States had backtracked over the departure of President Bashar al-Assad as part of any settlement and this meant the opposition would face hard choices on whether to attend the talks.

MORE AID DUE THURSDAY

The WHO intends to return to Madaya on Thursday as part of a U.N. convoy with more medical and food supplies, Hoff said.

ICRC spokeswoman Dibeh Fakhr also said its next distribution is planned for Thursday. The aid consists of blankets and medicine as well as food.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a group that monitors the war, said the people of Madaya had dismissed the head of the town’s military council because he tried to put the newly delivered aid in warehouses.

“The people refused to let it be put in warehouses and asked that it be distributed directly,” the Observatory said.

The U.N. refugee agency said local people in Madaya were involved unloading and distributing the food they received.

Asked if the United Nations was confident that the food wasn’t simply being intercepted and confiscated by fighters, UNHCR representative in Syria Sajjid Malik said: “The way it was handled we could see that it was a very broad community engagement … they assured us it was going to be distributed to the population.”

WHO’s Hoff said there had been no sign of fighters in Madaya except at checkpoints.

The Observatory said at least 300 people left the town and were taken by government forces to the Damascus region. The U.N. said its vehicles were not used to take anyone out of Madaya.

Hoff said medical staff had told her that mothers had no milk for breast-feeding and many malnourished people were too weak to leave their homes.

“I sent an immediate request to authorities for more supplies to be brought in. We are asking for mobile clinics and medical teams to be dispatched,” she said.

Doctors said patients preferred to spend what little money they had on food and not health care, Hoff said. Rice was on sale, but at $200 or $300 a kilo.

At a field hospital, Hoff said, doctors “had to give a drip to a patient outdoors because there was no room in the clinic”.

“An elderly lady had not eaten for 20 days, she was picked up unconscious on the street and brought in.”

Hoff said she had spoken with a severely malnourished man who could hardly talk, was totally dehydrated and had turned yellow in colour.

Copyright Reuters 2015

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Additional reporting by Tom Miles, Lisa Barrington, Kinda Makieh and Lou Charbonneau; Writing by Giles Elgood, editing by Peter Millership)

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