Next Cold War Roundup 2/3/16
Geneva 3 peace talks are faltering. Both parties admit they never fully began. The Syrian army and coalition advance in northwest Syria intensifies. The map above shows the encircling of the critical city of Aleppo. Two Shiite enclaves besieged for 3+ years by the opposition were freed which reportedly cut off opposition Turkish border supply lines to Aleppo. Opposition leaders canceled meetings and issued demands. Syrian opposition lobbyist published a New York Times op-ed calling for more support and the ousting of Assad. The SOHR reported more than 320 Russian air strikes since Monday.
Siege Lifted on Zahraa and Nubbul
_ The Zahraa and Nubbul Shiite towns in the northern Aleppo countryside were under siege by the opposition “hardline Sunni Islamist and jihadist rebels” for more than three years. Pro-government forces were trapped there. The siege is now broken and under control of government forces.
Geneva 3 Peace Talks Never Fully Began
_ Syrian peace talks “falter” and it is now known that they never really began with opposition participation. UN envoy Staffan de Mistura announced the formal start of the talks on Monday but now “both opposition and government representatives have since said the talks had not in fact begun.” De Mistura said if these talks fail, “there will be no more hope.” The Geneva 3 talks were set to begin on Monday, already delayed by a week.
Encircling of Aleppo
_ The Syrian army and coalition continue to surround Aleppo and “threatened to cut critical rebel supply lines into the northern city of Aleppo” in an assault that the opposition claims is the “most intense yet.” South Front SITREP video is available here. [Update: multiple reports say these supply lines have been severed. Telegraph says this could be the “pivotal moment in the long civil war.“]
Opposition Supply Lines to Aleppo Severed
_ There are reports that Syrian army and allied troops have connected with “Hizbollah and other Iranian-sponsored Shia militias” completing and important dissection that cuts off the main artery of supply lines to the opposition in Aleppo.
Peace Talks Sabotaged by Military Operations?
_ The operation could not have been specifically timed to coincide with the peace talks (to sabotage the talks) as it required months of incremental gains on the battlefield and was a long term objective recognized and largely predicted by some war gaming military experts months ago. But the gains by the pro-government forces put a strain on the talks and might cause them to collapse.
_ Russian foreign minister Lavrov says that “ending smuggling across the Turkish-Syrian border is a key condition to make the ceasefire work in the Syrian conflict, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has said, stressing that he sees no reason to stop the Russian counter-terrorist operation in Syria.”
Lavrov: “The key component for the ceasefire to be operational is the burning issue of arms smuggling across the Turkish-Syrian border, supplying the militants [in Syria]”
_ Joshua Landis said on RT that the “peace process is working on two different levels”… on a “Syrian-to-Syrian level” and on an “international level”.
Opposition Wants More Weapons and Support from Saudis
_ Syrian expert Joshua Landis says the Syrian army “is on the march” and “has taken important towns both in the north and the south and are fighting ISIS on three fronts”. He also believes that rebels are looking to the Saudis to give them the more advanced weapons, especially anti-air missiles to shoot down Russian and Syrian aircraft and overall, more advanced weapons they believe they would need to avoid defeat and change the momentum. Landis said Saudis have turned off the tap to some extent to get the opposition to go to Geneva. “Will they turn up the tap? Will Obama try to turn up the heat?” (expecting that the Russians will end up in quagmire and come back a year from now on bended knee) “or will they let Russia win?” The opposition wants anti-aircraft weapons they are not likely to get from the Saudis. (Joshua Landis on Crosstalk RT today)
_ While the talks have stalled, it is undeniable that “real negotiations are on the battlefield and there the Syrian government and its supporters continue to improve their already superior position.”
_ After months of western claims that the Russian intervention was not effective, it’s becoming more common to see this kind of admission in western media:
They’re overloaded by bombings and attacks on so many fronts at once,” said Aron Lund, a researcher who has published extensively on the Syrian opposition. “Russian intervention has had a major effect on the rebels and the international community.”
Turkey and Russia Clashing in Northwest Syria
_ Elijah Magnier of Al Rai Media reports that the Russian and Syrian air force (SU-24s and newly modified and refurbished Syrian MiG29s) are operating very close to the Turkish border and there are claims they’ve breached Turkish airspace. Turkish artillery is shelling inside Syria, “bombarding” Jabal Atira in Latakia. There are very big operations north of Aleppo with hundreds of airstrikes.
_ _ Patrick Cockburn: “Syrian civil war: Could Turkey be gambling on an invasion?” Cockburn urges to beware, Erdogan is unpredictable and the “Syrian war is at a crucial stage” with Kurds having taken more than half of the territory along the Turkish border with the help of both the US and Russia.
Gerard Chaliand, the French expert on irregular warfare and the politics of the Middle East, speaking in Erbil last week, said that “without Erdogan as leader, I would say the Turks would not intervene militarily [in northern Syria], but, since he is, I think they will do so”.
Syrian Opposition Demands (Geneva Talks)
_ The Saudi-backed HNC Syrian opposition umbrella group canceled a meeting with UN envoy de Mistura on Tuesday and issued this statement. The opposition claim that “indiscriminate aerial bombardment of civilian areas in northern Syria, particularly on rural Aleppo” are the main reason for their boycott.
— Charles Lister (@Charles_Lister) February 2, 2016
_ BBC reports “Basma Kodmani, a member of the umbrella group representing opposition factions, the High Negotiations Committee, said the government’s encirclement of Aleppo was a ‘horrible development’ that sent the message that ‘there is nothing to negotiate. Just go home.‘”
Syrian American Council Urges Obama to Offer More Money to to Potential Syrian Army Defectors and to Oust Assad
_ New York Times ran a long op-ed by Mohammed Alaa Ghanem, a Syrian American lobbyist, a former professor at the University of Damascus, and the director of government relations for the Syrian American Council, a civil society lobby group. He urges the US to pay more money to defectors from the Syrian army and assures that there are Alawites who want to defect but who won’t because they end up in refugee camps. This op-ed might be timed to coincide with a donor’s conference being held in London today. The center of Mr. Ghanem’s strategy is for the US to remove Assad from power. It’s not clear how the defector Alawites would cooperate with the armed Salafist opposition who are calling for the ethnic cleansing of Syrian minorities, especially Alawites. The chief negotiator for the HNC Syrian opposition, Alloush, is a leader of a group, Jaysh al Islam, who put Alawite Syrians in cages and used them as human shields. It seems like that might be a disincentive for Alawites or any Syrian minorities to defect to the Syrian opposition Mr Ghanem advocates for.
“As part of any negotiation, Obama administration officials should say, with clarity and consistency, that Mr. Assad cannot stay in power. Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent conference with opposition leaders in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, left them wondering if the United States even wants Mr. Assad to leave. Alawites were similarly confused last spring after the C.I.A. director, John O. Brennan, said no one “wants to see a collapse of the government.” Such confusion has real consequences in Syria.
“Moreover, America’s current timeline, which gives Mr. Assad at least 13 months until his departure, wrongly signals to potential defectors that there is no hurry. But there should be a rush. If Washington persuades more officers and officials to switch sides, it could help precipitate the beginning of the end of the war.”
Ukraine’s Minister of Economy and Trade Resigns — Corruption Too Difficult to Overcome
_ Western ambassadors are “deeply disappointed” that economic minister of Ukraine, Aivaras Abromavicius, resigned. Abromavicius, a “Lithuania-born former investment banker blamed President Petro Poroshenko’s business partner and lawmaker Ihor Kononenko for prompting the resignation” and claimed that decisions were made behind his back while he was at Davos. Abromavicius was responsible for implemented harsh IMF reforms in Ukraine, suffering from economic difficulties and low confidence in government. The man he accused, Kononenko claims that his accuser is having an “emotional reaction” to “statements about dissatisfaction with his work.” Abromavicius became a Ukrainian citizen when he was appointed economic minister. He “is a proponent of austerity, advocating ‘radical spending cuts’ as well as deregulation and privatisation.”
_ Ukraine’s current government is “splintering”. Ukrainian media reported that Poroshenko wants to replace Abromavicius with a Vitaliy Kovalchuk, currently on his staff. US ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt favored Abromavicius as “one of the Ukrainian government’s great champions of reform.” Prime Minister Yatsenyuk (1% approval rating) will report to the Rada (parliament) on Feb. 15 “on his cabinet’s performance”. Abromavicius’ resignation was one of several in recent weeks.
“This is a point of no return for perceptions of Ukraine as a country implementing reforms,” Sergey Fursa, a bond trader at investment bank Dragon Capital in Kiev, said by phone. “Abromavicius’s resignation will lead to a decline in Western partners’ confidence that will cause trouble for the country’s access to international financing.”
John Kerry: ISIS Could Seize Libya’s Oil Wealth
_ “An international coalition is pushing back Islamic State militants in their Syrian and Iraqi strongholds, but the group is threatening Libya and could seize the nation’s oil wealth, U.S Secretary of State John Kerry said on Tuesday.”
Jordan Struggling to Handle Flood of Refugees, Wants More Aid
_ King Abdullah of Jordan is warning that they are at a “boiling point” with refugees and without significant additional aid, those refugees will likely head for Europe. Lawrence Wilkerson, some months ago, told a story about a member of the Jordanian royal family warning him that every home in Jordan was hosting refugees from Syria and Iraq and that it was not sustainable.
Budgets and German Media Reports About Kurdish Peshmerga Desertions
_ German media, DW, reports in a lengthy, colorful propaganda-like article, that “Unpaid wages and a flagging economy have zapped the morale of the Kurdish fighters manning the front line against the “Islamic State” in Iraq.” German troops are in northern Iraq training the peshmerga so they are in a position to know. Presumably these reports are intended to influence military budgets being prepared in the US at the moment and aid decisions also in progress in Europe. This article was carefully done and is meant to persuade someone.
_ Yesterday there were reports of the Pentagon “quadrupling its budget for European defence” using the threat Russian aggression as justification. “The Pentagon’s proposed 2017 defence budget will include $3.4bn for its European Reassurance Initiative – up from $789m for the current budget year.” Pentagon also proposes a 50% increase in the anti-ISIS budget because they are “starting to run low” on laser-guided missiles and “smart bombs”.
Number of Troops and Contractors in Iraq and Syria
_ DailyBeast reports that the number of troops in Iraq and Syria are consistently understated, and this doesn’t even count the number of special forces and intelligence which are never disclosed. There are 6,000 troops, 7,000 contractors and an unknown number of special operations forces and intelligence and paramilitary personnel. The government officially claims 3,650.
Israel’s Satellite Photos of Russian Airbase in Syria
_ Israel published annotated satellite photos of Russian aircraft at their airbase in Latakia, showing an increase in aircraft and a large maintenance operation on the jets that have been heavily used in the airstrike and air support operations
New Russian Military Arms
_ New S-500 anti-air defense system to be tested this year
_ Photos of the new Russian SU-35 fighter jet at their Syrian airbase are showing up on social media.
— Aldin Abazović (@Ald_Aba) February 1, 2016