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Shifting Alliances And More Fronts Mean Higher Risk, Complexity In Syrian War

Next Cold War Roundup 8/23/16

The war in Syria has heated up on several fronts. The battle for Aleppo continues and the Syrian coalition is massing a bigger force. Fighting in northeastern Hasakah province threatens to escalate the war and the risk of conflict between Syria, Russia, Turkey and the US. The Kurds are amassing more enemies. Turkey sent Syrian rebels on an anti-Kurd mission to prevent completion of Kurdish territory along the Turkish-Syrian border.

An alliance between Syria, Turkey, Russia, Iran and China emerges and may have a major impact on the outcome in Syria (and make a very complex war even more complicated).

Saudi Arabia resumed bombing in Yemen and the US began to back away from that conflict. The NATO weapons industry finds the “Russian threat” to be good for business.

Crisis in Eastern Syria and a Major Shift for the Kurds

_ Before the latest (major) fighting broke out in Hasakah, part of the city of was controlled by Kurds and part controlled by the Syrian government. Syrian forces protect the Arab population and Kurdish security forces the Kurdish population. There were some clashes but they mainly shared the region peacefully.

Moon of Alabama describes the two sides as such: “Syrian auxiliary National Defense Forces from local Arab (Christian) minorities and some gangs who form a Kurdish internal security force under the label Asayish.”

_ On Aug. 18 a crisis began when serious fighting between Syrian government forces and US-backed Kurdish forces broke out and the Kurds decided that they want all Syrian forces expelled from Hasakah. The Kurds “have the upper hand and are superior in number.”

_ The Syrian army issued a statement on Aug. 19 accusing the Kurds of “acts of provocation,” and theft of cotton and oil. They also “accused the Kurdish militia of being a wing of the PKK, something al-Assad‘s government normally avoids.”

_ The cause of the major flare up is still unclear. A Moon of Alabama analysis, asserts that US special forces who “advise and assist” Kurdish forces as part of the anti-ISIS coalition may have advised them to take Hasakah as part of plan to create a Kurdish state, and also to create chaos and another war front. Fighting on multiple fronts is the Achilles heel of the Syrian coalition. It will also stir up major problems with Turkey.

_ As of March, 2016, the US had built/renovated two air bases in northern Syria. One in Rmeilan, Hasakah, and one near Kobani, Aleppo. In January, the Russian air force was said to be renovating an air base in Qamishli, Hasakah.

_ War correspondent Elijah Magnier reported on Aug. 20 noted that in the western part of Syria the Syrian Kurds (YPG) and the Syrian army and national defense forces (NDF) are allied and “fight side by side” just as they did “in many fronts in Afrin, Syria.”

_ Syria and Russia supplied the Syrian Kurds (YPG) early on in the conflict “to defend themselves against the Islamic State” when ISIS was a great threat to the Kurds, while “the U.S. supported ‘moderate rebels.'” Later on, the U.S. allied with the YPG and formed the Syrian Democratic Forces.  As Moon of Alabama explains this threat to kill the Syrian forces if they don’t leave Hasakah and “to now turn against these benefactors is treason.”

_ Efforts to organize a truce are underway with Russia and Iran mediating. If the fighting in Hasakah escalates into “full blown war between Kurds and the regime” it would “open yet another new front in already fiendishly complex war.”

_ On Aug. 23 a ceasefire went into effect in Hasakah province. Syrian army and NDF will withdraw from Hasakah (where they were surrounded by Kurdish forces. Syrian police will guard government buildings and control the center of Hasakah city. Syrian military forces will stay on a base outside the city. There will be further talks and the situation is still unclear and the fighting continues.

US and Syrian Fighter Jets Over Syria

_ Syria warplanes were over Hasakah (Hassekeh) and conducting airstrikes again on Aug. 20, according to the Telegraph, one day after Syrian airstrikes on Kurdish Ayaysh security forces with US special operations forces nearby, and after the US military issued warnings.

_ A Marine spokesman warned that “the Syrian regime would be well-advised not to do things that place them (coalition forces) at risk.”

Navy Capt. Jeff Davis said the strikes were “close enough that it gives us great pause” and warned that the US will protect coalition forces: “The Syrian regime would be well advised not to do things that would place them at risk.” Davis said US “combat air patrols” will monitor and protect coalition forces but are “not enforcing any kind of no-fly zone.” [Emphasis added]

Turkey Shelling Northern Syria; Terror Attacks

_ The Turkish military began shelling Daesh targets near Jarablus and the Kurdish YPG north of Manbij. The shelling seems to be in response to a terrorist attack on a wedding in Gaziantep over the weekend and from the Kurdish gains in northern Syria.

_ A Kurdish YPG commander, El-Cadiri, was allegedly assassinated “by Turkish Intel agency MIT, just hours after announcement of the Jarablus Military Council (YPG).”

_ More than 50 people were killed and 69 injured at a wedding bombing in Gaziantep, near the Syrian border in Turkey, where 22 of the 54 dead were children under age 14. The suicide bomber was allegedly a young ISIS teenager, though the age is now in question.

_ Last week there were a series of bombing attacks “blamed on the PKK [Kurdish militants] that targeted police and soldiers killed at least a dozen people.”

Syrian Rebels Backed by Turkey, Preparing to Attack Jarablus

_ From an Aug. 23 BBC World Service Global News podcast interview with Enis Senerdem, from BBC Turkish: “Turkish military strikes Kurdish and I-S targets in Syria“:

Senerdem: “Jarablus is the only border town in Syria left in ISIS hands […] the only pocket that is not under YPG Kurdish militia hands […] We are seeing rebels groups supported by Turkey crossing into Turkey from Syria with the the Turkish army escorting them and heading toward Jarablus trying to maybe open new front at the northern site, to capture the town from the Islamic State militants. Instead of the Kurds, Turkey, it seems, wants the other rebel groups to capture it.”

_ So Turkey has turned some of the Syrian “rebels” it has supported against Assad into anti-Kurd and anti-ISIS rebels, for the moment, in an effort to prevent the Kurds from connecting their eastern cantons and western cantons to create their independent state of Rojava, which adds even more complexity to the situation. As Elijah Magnier says:

“the oddity of this war in Syria is that it turns allies into enemies and enemies into allies on certain issues (and not on others), keeping alliance at a strategic level even as their proxies fight to death on the ground.”

Turkey: Assad Can Stay (For Now); Syria Cannot Be Divided.

_ On Aug. 20, Turkish prime minister, Binali Yildirim, said that Syrian president Assad can stay in power during a political negotiations and a transition period but there can be no lasting peace in Syria if he remains in power for the long term:

Yildirim (Andalou translation): “Our thoughts: neither the PKK, nor Daesh nor Assad should be in Syria’s future, to ensure a lasting peace. However, whether we want him or not, Assad is one of the actors.”

_ This is a major change from Turkey’s former position in support for overthrowing Assad. Turkey play a key role accommodating opposition forces.  Yildirim also said PKK cannot be in Syria’s future. Turkey equates the Syrian YPG with the PKK.

Yildirim (AP translation): “There may be talks (with Assad) for the transition. A transition may be facilitated. But we believe that there should be no (Kurdish rebels), Daesh or Assad in Syria’s future.”

_ Turkey will be more active in the region in the next six months “to prevent more danger in the region and establish a lasting peace. “Turkey will not let Syria be divided along ethnic and sectarian lines.”

_ Yildirim said the Russia did not request the use of Incirlik air base and probably won’t need it, but “if necessary the Incirlik base could be used“.

_ On Aug. 21, at a memorial service for those who died during the coup attempt, Turkish foreign minister Cavusoglu ranted:

“Traitors should know this: FETO, PKK, PYD, YPG, Daesh [also known as ISID in Turkish], we will cleanse them all from our country and wipe out all of them. […] Members of FETO had tanks and helicopters on the night of the coup attempt. They were bombing and shooting at our people with sharpshooters from the high hills.” [FETO = members of the Fethullah Gulen network.]

_ Cavusolgu addressed the PKK as a “twin brother” to FETO who works together with them, along with YPG, PYD and Daesh, and tells them:

“You may have subcontracted to some people. Your masters wanted to occupy this country, these territories but they could not [be successful]. Now they use you as a tool and subcontractor. We will wipe out you too.”

US Military in Syria

_ The US military has been operating in Syria since 2014 without permission and against the wishes of the Syrian government and without any authorization from the United Nations or the US Congress, other than the AUMF passed in 2001 related to the 9/11 attack.

_ The US publicly acknowledges that 300 special operations forces are operating inside Syria in a training, advisory and support role with the Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish rebel group (YPG). Alongside the YPG are some local Arab fighters, Syrian Arab Coalition (SAC), established in October, 2015, to put an Arab face on a largely Kurdish force when they fight in Arab areas of Syria.

_ On Aug. 16,  Operation Inherent Resolve spokesman Col. Garver said there are less than 300 troops on an “advise and assist” mission, some of whom operate in a support role, and the number hasn’t changed since Pres. Obama increased it to 300.

Battle of Aleppo

_ The Syrian coalition “established fire control over militants’ main supply route” on Aug. 20.

_ In addition to scaling up airstrikes on Aleppo from their base in Syria and a stopover base in Iran,  Russian defense ministry reports that their missile ships Zeliony Dol and Serpukhov, currently in the eastern Mediterranean, launched Kalibr cruise missiles “against facilities of the Jabhat al-Nusra terrorist grouping in Syria.”

_ According to Syrian coalition commanders on the ground in Aleppo, via Elijah Magnier, they have been “assembling new forces for more than two weeks, waiting for the final general assault on different fronts around Aleppo.”

_ Reports from inside both sides of Aleppo:

  • Reports from opposition-controlled east Aleppo: calls are hard to get because cell phone network is down. People go to the edge of western Aleppo to make calls. Supplies are available. Civilians are prevented from leaving by al Nusra, and anyone under 40 is expected to fight along with Jaish al Fatah.
  • Reports from government-controlled west Aleppo: Food and supplies are available. One Sunni contact, loyal to Assad govt., lost 3 of his 4 sons who were in the Syrian army.  Other family members are anti-state and allied with the opposition and ISIS. They stress that the war is complex and not along sectarian divides.

_ The man (Mahmoud Raslan) who took the viral photo of Omran, the injured toddler in Aleppo, also took a selfie with the Zinki jihadists who beheaded a young Palestinian boy, according to an open source investigation via social media posts.

Chinese Intervention in Syria

_ War correspondent Elijah Magnier explained that what triggered the collaboration between Beijing and Damascus was the Uighur and Turkestan militants in ISIS and al Qaeda, who they view as a threat to the Xinjiang region in China. Just to complicate matters even more, Turkey has been facilitating the Uighur militants passage to the Middle East.

_ As we reported in the last roundup, a Chinese admiral went to Damascus and met with the Syrian defense minister, and with a Russian general, about increasing their support for the Syrian military and humanitarian aid. Another detail is that “Chinese military advisers are on the ground in Syria helping train soldiers in the use of weapons purchased from China.”

Different US Military Groups Operating in Syria

_ When asked whether the US anti-ISIS coalition, Operation Inherent Resolve and the Combined Joint Task Force (CJTF-OIR) have targeted al Nusra (aka al Qaeda, aka Fatah al-Sham), Col. Garver said CJTF has never targeted them or their leader group, the Khorasan group. US Central Command (CENTCOM) targeted the Khorasan group.

Garver: “No, that’s not true.  The coalition has not done that.  When you say CJTF, we have not done that. And the targeting of Khorasan Group, Nusra, that’s handled at CENTCOM and higher.  It is not us that does that.  We are focused on Daesh. If you go back and look at the press releases that CENTCOM puts out, they’re focused on the other operations ongoing in Syria.  So that’s not a coalition operation.”

Al Qaeda Official and Syrian Rebel Organizer is a Saudi Cleric

_ Pro-Al Qaeda Saudi cleric Sheikh Muhaysini “is ready to announce all factions must unite.” According to Thomas Jocelyn, “he claims to be ‘independent’ but his dossier is entirely consistent with a senior AQ sharia official.” More from Jocelyn: ” Al Qaeda’s strategy in Syria since the beginning has been to: a) Hide organizational ties and b) Unify the ranks against Assad.” The rebranding of al Nusra to Fatah al-Sham makes the timing right for Muhaysini to push for unity among all rebel groups in a way that is supposed to look organic, but is really coordinated and manipulated by external, regional powers. Jocelyn cites Abu Firas al Suri, who has said that this “popular front” strategy took lessons from Communist revolutionaries.

Theories on the Turkish Coup Attempt

_ Gary Brecher and Mark Ames, in Radio War Nerd Episode #46 (full podcast, free preview), speculate that a faction of the Turkish officer corps, “strongly attached to the US/NATO alliance,” did not like Erdogan’s turn toward Russia and Erdogan’s apology was “a slap in the face” to these officers, who believed they were so beloved that they’d be supported in a coup by the people of Turkey, and perhaps convinced their American liaisons of the same. Brecher and Ames also believe that there are so many advantages for Russia in a Russian-Turkish alliance (e.g. problems in the Caucuses region alleviated by “a good, positive accomodation with Turkey”) that they “might not mind some of their clients being displaced” and that this feels like the beginning of the next episode of the Kurdish nightmare.

Dept. of Defense Budget and “The Grand Plug”

_ “US Army fudged its accounts by trillions of dollars, auditor finds.” When the numbers don’t match they fudge it with “the grand plug” accounting entries to fix up the ledger. The plugs add up to trillions but they net out to $62.4 billion, the spokesman said, and “downplayed the significance of the changes.”

NATO Weapons Industry Ramps Up Russian Threat

_ “U.S. Defense Contractors Tell Investors Russian Threat is Great for Business.”

Saudis Bomb the Protests Against Them in Yemen

_ Journalist Iona Craig and analyst Hisham Al-Omeisy (in Yemen) interview on BBC World Service about the situation in Yemen, failed peace talks, and and recent protests against Saudi airstrikes that were bombed by Saudi airstrikes. Demonstrators were marching against the Saudis and in support of the “high political council” or the new government of Yemen.  During the protests, Saudi fighter jets came through and dropped bombs close by to scare the crowd of more than 100,000 people. Al-Omeisy said that the crowd was a diverse group of people from different political parties, protesting against the Saudis. Iona Craig said that the country is divided, and people in southern Yemen support the Saudis.

_ When asked about Omran, the toddler in rebel-held Aleppo in Syria and how his photo has gone viral and is on the front of newspapers and news shows all over the world, Al-Omeisy talked about how the media ignores the children of Yemen. “Unless a Yemeni kid washes up on the shores of Europe, nobody is going to pay attention to the Yemeni suffering.” Omeisy also said that last week the Saudis bombed a school, killing 10 and injuring 28 kids. “Those kids were 6 to 8 year olds. Their pictures were in the Yemeni social media. Unfortunately it wasn’t picked up by the international media. Nobody paid attention to the Yemeni kids.”

_ Amazing. They are chanting “we won’t bow down” as the very jets they are protesting circle above, and dropped bombs near them.

_ Reuters reports that Ali Abdullah Saleh as part of a “newly-formed governing council” in Yemen, said: “In the fight against terrorism we reach out and offer all facilities. Our airports, our ports… We are ready to provide this to the Russian Federation.” Before the breakup of the USSR, “thousands of Soviet military advisers and trainers worked in the formerly-independent south” of Yemen.

War and Elections

_ Ted Galen Carpenter of Cato Institute: “Hillary Clinton Could Easily Push America into Open Conflict with Russia.

_ Manafort’s man on the inside: Konstantin Kilimnik.

Analysis and Opinion

_ “Washington’s Sunni Myth and the Middle East Undone” (2-part series: Part 1, Part 2)

_ Elijah Magnier on the latest pivot by the Syrian Kurds: “Aleppo prepares for a major battle and the Kurds in Syria are attracting everybody’s animosity.”

_ Two journalists did a 3-part series on the origins of ISIS, after interviewing an “ISIS insider” for more than 100 hours.

_ In 1987, “the beginning of a shift from the twilight calm of the Cold War to a hotter, all-encompassing federal fixation on terrorism,” the Reagan administration had a 40-page memo outlining a contingency plan, titled “Alien Terrorists and Undesirables: A Contingency Plan,” for the internment and mass deportation of “Middle Eastern aliens, lawful U.S. residents without the protection of green cards” from “Libya, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Tunisia, Algeria, Jordan and Morocco.”

_ Michael Brenner at Consortium News: “Washington Hawks Prey on Syrian Killing Fields“.  “Official Washington loves to show heartbreaking images of wounded Syrian children with the implicit message that it’s time to invade Syria and impose “regime change” (rather than commit to peace talks).”

_ Todd Pierce, retired Army major and JAG: “How ‘Think Tanks’ Generate Endless War.” Pierce describes how think tanks, funded by the US Military Industrial Complex, have turned “against its own people, the American public, by waging perpetual information war against this domestic target just to enrich their investors.” He calls out the RAND Corporation, American Enterprise Institute, and “the smaller war instigators found wherever a Kagan family member lurks.”

Joanne Leon

Joanne Leon

Joanne is a blogger with focus on issues of war and peace, a mom, engineer, software developer and amateur photographer.