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98% of East Aleppo Reclaimed; 100,000 Civilians Evacuated; Massive ISIS Attack on Palmyra

The Syrian coalition has recaptured some 98% of East Aleppo and SOHR said the battle is over. 100,000 civilians have evacuated. More than 12,000 rebels surrendered. More than 2,000 went to government-controlled areas and were amnestied. Meanwhile, thousands of ISIS fighters recaptured Palmyra. US special operations forces are creating a permanent fusion center military base in the Middle East. And more in our global news roundup…

Syria: The Fall of East Aleppo; Rebel Surrender Deal?

_ On Monday morning, Dec. 12, the pro-rebel Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said the battle for East Aleppo is over. Al Masdar reported only 2 districts under opposition control and where some civilians still remain among jihadist rebels.  It’s not clear if any US-Russian deal played a part in the surrenders in the end. A Syrian general said the battle is in its “final stages” in the “ever-shrinking enclave” and their territory was halved again within a few hours. A former government employee in the “heart of the rebel enclave” said: “It’s doomsday in Aleppo, yes doomsday in Aleppo.” SOHR’s Rami Abdel Rahman said: “It is just a matter of a small period of time until it’s a total collapse.”

_ On Sunday, Reuters reported receiving a draft proposal of a deal allegedly put on the table for the surrender of rebel groups and al Nusra and their families in East Aleppo that would allow a “secure” and “honorable” armed withdrawal, overseen by the UN. The Syrian government would regain control over the whole pocket. They controlled 93*% as of Dec. 9. Reuters’ source on the story was several opposition officials who claim the deal came from both the US and Russia and that rebels have not yet agreed to it. *Update: On Monday morning, the percentage was updated to “more than 95%” and the Syrian military claimed 98%.

_ Russia denied that any deal had been reached and that reports of the proposal don’t “necessarily correspond with reality.” The Russian deputy foreign minister said Russia is working on creating corridors for civilian evacuation and deals for “militants” are a separate subject, still under negotiation “largely because the United States insists on unacceptable terms.”

_ The terms of the reported proposal allow both rebels and jihadi fighters from al Nusra to leave East Aleppo, with Nusra going to Idlib and other rebel groups going to different locations including areas near the Turkish border where the Free Syrian Army is fighting alongside Turkish forces in Operation Euphrates Shield. The NY Times reports that an al Qaeda-linked group wants to continue the fight and others, including US-backed groups, want to make a deal.

_ Russia has previously insisted that al Nusra-affiliated jihadi fighters would not be part of any deal because they are terrorists and fair targets.

_ Russian media reported large numbers of “militants” who surrendered to the Syrian army over the weekend, crossing into the government-held West Aleppo. One report from the Russian defense ministry said that “1,324* militants have laid down their weapons” and “1,270* were amnestied.” *Update: On Monday, the Russian Reconciliation Center reported that “more than 12,000 militants have laid down weapons,” 2,215 withdrew to to government-controlled areas, and 2,137 were amnestied.

_ New York Times Anne Barnard and Hwaida Saad are following the situation closely from Beirut, maintaining frequent contact with people in Aleppo who “revealed deepening rifts among rebel groups, and between fighters and civilians, over whether and how to surrender.” They were told that some rebels were preventing people from leaving and others were helping them “cross front lines.” Some men who did exit to government-held territory “whether dutifully or sincerely” chanted in favor of the Assad government and the army, and some were “were pulled aside and detained.” Barnard cited sources who said government soldier were looting.

_ Barnard tells the stories of numerous sources who left East Aleppo. One woman said they were able to take a taxi to the rebel-held Marea after going to a “reception center.” An aid worker told her that very few people stayed. An activist said people hate them now, the rebels didn’t deliver, and everything is lost. A doctor said her family and friends have left for West Aleppo because they are neutral and don’t care about religion or revolution.

_ Barnard describes the negotiations between the US and Russia as the US “reduced to wrangling with Russia.” Over the weekend, after a meeting with Syrian opposition representatives in Paris, Sec. State John Kerry told reporters: “Russia and Assad have a moment where they are in a dominant position to show a little grace.” French foreign minister Ayrault said: “we need to tie down the conditions for a genuine political transition, and negotiations must resume on a clear basis.” British foreign secretary Boris Johnson, apparently back on script, said: “there can be no military solution in Syria.”

Syria: Rebel Infighting in East Aleppo

_ Asad Abukhalil (aka The Angry Arab) cites an account of how East Aleppo fell (in Arabic) and says that western media never told the stories about the infighting between rebel groups, but it was a significant factor in their demise, along with a “significant intelligence breakthrough” for the Syrian coalition forces. “There were street battles among the various rebel groups in East Aleppo but none of the Western correspondents in Beirut bothered to cover.” It’s yet another sign, in our view, of the high level of filtering and control over Syrian war reporting, rife with propaganda.

_ War correspondent Elijah Magnier reinforced the emerging information about the Syrian opposition. The native Syrian rebels were not the metropolitan Aleppo Sunnis, who control the economy and rejected the uprising against the government. The native Syrians in the rebel rebellion were “rural inhabitants from the north, the same source that pushed Aleppo into confronting the Syrian government one year after the beginning of the so-called ‘revolution.'”

_ NYT’s Barnard also relayed reports from sources inside East Aleppo about severe infighting among rebel groups and attacks on supplies and headquarters and arguments over whether to persist or surrender.

Syria: Syrian Coalition Forces Pause; Civilians in East Aleppo

_ The Syrian coalition forces announced a pause in military operations in East Aleppo on Dec. 8  to allow large numbers of civilians to leave through “humanitarian corridors.” On Monday, Dec. 12, bombing and fighting was reported as the Syrian forces advanced and rebels “withdrew from all districts on the eastern side of the Aleppo river after losing Sheikh Saeed” district.

_ The number of civilians who have left East Aleppo since the Syrian coalition forces offensive to reclaim it from al Qaeda-led rebel forces has grown drastically to 78,000* as of Sunday, Dec. 11, according to the Russian Reconciliation Center, which is monitoring the evacuation. The operation to receive and accommodate the civilians was described as “colossal.” *Update: On Monday morning, the numbers were updated to 100,000 civilians.

_ NYT’s Barnard now acknowledges that the number of civilians who were in East Aleppo is questionable, saying that the Russian estimated “tens of thousands” while the UN estimated 250,000.

Syria: Turkey Storms al-Bab

_ On Friday Dec. 9, Turkish air force, commandos, and their Free Syrian Army rebel allies launched an offensive to capture al-Bab from ISIS, using intense airstrikes and shelling, as part of Operation Euphrates Shield.

_ Al Monitor reported that “Turkey sees control of al-Bab as a key for its ruling Justice and Development Party to have a say in the future of Syria” and that Russia gave them the “green light” to do it.

_ The Syrian army is 6 miles to the south of al-Bab. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), primarily Kurdish fighters with US special operations forces training, advising and assisting them, “are nearby to the east and west.” Al-Bab is close to Aleppo and Turkey has reportedly transferring Turkish-backed rebels from Aleppo to al-Bab.

_ Analysis from war correspondent Elijah Magnier indicates that this happened after “a long debate between Damascus and its allies (Russia and Iran).” Why was Turkey allowed to advance on al-Bab after having been stopped just weeks before? Russia and Syrian president Assad wanted to prevent Assad’s “most hated opponent,” Erdogan, from taking al-Bab, and wanted to continue to take nearby territory and then advance to Raqqa. Iran wanted to focus on Idlib, liberating the besieged “cities of Fua and Kfariya” and  Jisr el-Shughur along the way instead of advancing toward the areas in the east which are controlled by the US and Syrian Kurds, where they have established bases. Defeating al Qaeda in western Syria was more important than ISIS in the east, given that the former has international support and the latter purportedly does not, and others are working to eradicate it, so it is “doomed.”

Magnier: “The Syrian map has begun to reveal itself: east of the Euphrates becomes the so-called American stadium while west of the Euphrates is the Russian – Syrian dominated area.”

_ Magnier confirms that Turkey pulled 2,500 Turkish-backed rebels out of East Aleppo a few months ago and Russia agreed to facilitate non-aggression between Syrian and Turkish-backed forces, which Assad will deny while maintaining that Turkey cannot violate Syria’s sovereignty and won’t forget that Turkey accommodated jihadi rebel fighters and ISIS. Magnier qualifies his analysis by saying that the situation and deals in Syria are not set in stone, and “open battle between Russia and the United States in the Levant remains full of surprises and bodes much bloodshed.” None of the parties involved “has said the last word.”

_ Military analyst, Moon of Alabama (MoA), summarizes the deal between Syria, Russia and Turkey as such:

MoA: “Accordingly a tacit deal was found with Turkey. It would be allowed to take al-Bab, east of Aleppo and to march on towards Raqqa from there. In exchange it would refrain from supporting al-Qaeda and aligned forces in and around Idleb in the west.”

_ Professor Filip Kovacevic, in his analysis of Russian news stories, cites a story from what he describes as a moderate Russian news organization. The story said (using his translation):”The Russian-Syrian coalition could soon be augmented with soldiers from Serbia, China, Egypt, and several former Soviet states.” (Video ~14:30) The article predicted that a stabilization of Syria may be near and Russia might recommend a peacekeeping mission executed by trusted allies.

_ Kovacevic went on to explain more about the article which said that the Egyptian air force and army are present in Syria, and that there are exercises in progress in China with the above mentioned countries training for a peacekeeping mission that would not be administered by the UN.

Syria: Palmyra Recaptured by ISIS

_ ISIS recaptured Palmyra after a 4-day offensive. Syrian coalition forces are “regrouping at the city’s outskirts.”

_ Some reports said the Syrians did not put up much of a fight. Others said that ISIS was initially repelled but even with Russian air support they were overpowered, in part because of “fundamental mistakes” with fortification and intelligence, and they strategically retreated.

_ The ISIS surge reportedly employed some fighters from Iraq who are said to be numbered in the thousands. VBIEDs were used to break down Syrian army defenses. ISIS surrounded the city and attacked from the hills on its perimeter.

Later reports from al Masdar claim that the ISIS fighters came mainly from the ISIS-surrounded Deir Ezzour, many miles to the east on the Euphrates river, in a “massive relocation.” The Syrian military has sent reinforcements and the Russian and Syrian air forces are scaling up airstrikes. But ISIS continues to advance, and is heading toward the Syrian T-4 airbase.

_ The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) noted that the loss of Palmyra “could strain already overstretched government forces, as the Syrian military redirects troops from other front lines where they were notching important gains” and might also “make it harder to resupply troops” that are in northern (e.g. Idlib, Aleppo, al-Bab) and eastern (e.g. Deir Ezzour) Syria. WSJ believes it also “raises questions about how President Bashar al-Assad’s government will be able to stitch the divided country together and administer it after nearly six years of conflict.”

_ They also note that the loss of Palmyra is “particularly glaring for Russia” who initially believed they had repelled the attack. It’s also embarrassing for the Russians because they celebrated, with an orchestra concert, the retaking of Palmyra as its first “major victory” after their 2015 intervention. The Russian air force is now conducting airstrikes in Palmyra

_ A video released by ISIS media group shows that they captured heavy equipment from the Syrian army, including tanks and Grad rocket launchers.

_ War correspondent Elijah Magnier believes this is not much of a strategic gain for ISIS and the only logical gain is political, to spoil Russia’s victory in Aleppo. Ehsani, who has good sources in Syria, said that the attack on Palmyra was done to force Syrian president Assad to the negotiating table.  According to his sources ISIS attacked Palmyra with “unprecedented numbers and organization.”

_ Moon of Alabama asks some key questions about how ISIS amasses and assembled the fighters and heavy equipment for the Palmyra battle, advanced across the desert, with constant US surveillance of this territory and control of this airspace, especially if the ISIS fighters came from Deir Ezzour, as the latest reports indicate.

_ A former Russian military chief, Yuri Baluyevsky, criticized Russian and Syrian military commands for being too soft with their “humanitarian ceasefires” to accommodate civilians. He said the loss of Palmyra was the result of mistakes by local commanders and Russian advisers and was costly for their prestige.

Baluyevsky: “I understand it is necessary to ensure the safety of the population… But when these pauses last three weeks, and these militants – who are up to their elbows in blood – can restore their strength and are allowed to keep their personal weapons – well, that I don’t understand.”

Syria: Propaganda Operations

_ Rania Khalek reports that a British government-funded outlet offered a journalist $17,000 per month to produce propaganda in favor of Syrian rebels. The emails she reveals show that this UK-based propaganda organization is a “popular source for mainstream Western media.”

_ Eva Bartlett, an independent Canadian journalist, visited Syria many times, and makes a strong statement about her experiences there and about what has really happened in Syria, at a UN press conference on Dec. 9, about the situation there, which contradicts the mainly propaganda narrative in most western mainstream media. The press conference was held by the Permanent Mission of the Syrian Arab Republic to the United Nations and was titled: “Syria: Sovereignty and Peace.” Well worth listening. Her speech and later Q & A begins at 13:58:

Syria: More Special Operations Forces Deploying

_ Sec. Defense Carter said 200 additional US special operations forces (SoF) will be deployed , bringing the disclosed total to 500 in Syria. There are also special operations forces from other countries (e.g. France) in Syria. An anonymous defense official told the Washington Post that there are more local Syrians signing up with the Syrian Democratic Forces to participate in the battle for Raqqa, which is why the additional SoF are being sent.

_ Some of the SoF in Syria are from the Army Fifth Special Forces Group, and are Green Berets who specialize in “training and advising local forces” and in the case of Syria, also “assisting.” Some of the Green Berets in Syria recently complained to the Washington Times about being micromanaged by their “top-heavy headquarters in Iraq and the United States.” Drones and surveillance aircraft provide live feeds of their actions and criticizing their actions, especially if they take risks.  One source said there are just as many watchers as soldiers on the ground. They also feel that they don’t have enough authority to make decisions on the ground. They complained about too much “careerism” in the officer corps.

Special Forces source:  “It’s literally that they are watching you and watching you, and they’ll call you, and if you don’t answer — it’s kind of like having parents. As an organization, we have become incredibly risk-averse. […] For every guy you’ve got on the ground there, there’s some staff guy that hasn’t ever deployed. Or some colonel who wants to be involved, and he’s the assist to the assistant to the assistant.”

Special Forces Permanent Base in Middle East

_ US “special operations forces chiefs” are reportedly “launching a new counterterrorist nerve center at an undisclosed location in the Middle East to fight the so-called Islamic State, al Qaeda, and any other terrorist actor.” They are expanding their current base to make room for “CIA, NSA, and FBI to foreign partners like Britain, France, Iraq and Jordan.” The base is said to resemble “intelligence fusion centers” set up by Gen. McChrystal to fight al Qaeda in Iraq.

_ The Daily Beast refers to it as a “center for perpetual War on Terror” that will be used for a “a multi-generational, international fight against terrorists” and notes that JSOC, the Joint Special Operations Command, “the U.S. military’s premier counterterrorist strike force,” is expanding its existing “targeting nerve center in the region” to bring in other countries and US agencies.

Turkey

_ Al Monitor reports that Turkish Pres. Erdogan’s Syrian policies have hit a “dead end” in Aleppo and Turkey is urgently seeking a reset with Russia after the unexpected election of Donald Trump and worries over the formation of a Kurdish “statelet” along its border. Turkey helped negotiate the evacuation of rebels from Aleppo.

_ Erdogan is in trouble because al Qaeda and other Syrian opposition fighters he allied with flee Syria will head for territory near the Turkish border and because he is at odds with the Kurds, and to some extent the Russians and the Americans. The Syrian government is apparently helping to transport them there as they make withdrawal agreements. If the Syrian coalition focuses next on Idlib, that flow will increase. The collapse of his Syria policy and the presence of returning terrorists may sink Erdogan politically.

Mosul

_ Sec. Defense Carter arrived in Iraq on Sunday to assess the situation in Mosul.

_ US Lt. Gen. Townsend, a commander in Iraq said about 2,000 ISIS fighters have been killed or badly wounded in Mosul since October and an estimated 5,000 remain. 2,000 Iraqi forces were killed in November.

_ Patrick Cockburn describes the fight in Mosul: “Isis is deploying mobile squads of experienced fighters hidden in a vast network of tunnels backed up by hundreds of suicide bombers, snipers and mortar teams.”

_ A journalist in Iraq bragged and posted a picture on Twitter about shooting at ISIS with a sniper rifle while reporting on the Mosul battle. The news organization he works for also bragged at first but later ordered him to come back to the United States and suspended him from “further research assignments.” A fellow former marine and fellow journalist criticized him for the possible repercussions to other journalists in war zones.

MANPADS to “Vetted” Syrian Rebels

_ The NDAA defense budget bill passed the Senate. It authorizes the supply of MANPADS to so called Syrian rebels. This is a win for the most zealous war hawks like “Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz.”

“Buried in the bill, in Section 1224, was the provision to allow Man-Portable Air Defense Systems (MANPADS) to Syrian rebels appropriately vetted by US intelligence. The law requires the Pentagon and the State Department to file extensive documentation with Congress […]”

_ MANPADS are unlikely to change the situation in Aleppo, according to Russian foreign minister Lavrov.

_ Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, a Democrat from Hawaii, voted against the NDAA, which had originally contained an amendment to ban the MANPADS and issued a letter explaining why.

“This bill contains the same deeply concerning and dangerous Syria train and equip measures that I’ve fought against since the program’s inception […] creates the potential for dangerous ground-to-air missiles getting in the hands of ISIS, al-Qaeda, and other terrorist groups. […] In the wrong hands, these dangerous weapons are capable of shooting American planes out of the sky. […]  the Syria train and equip program […] I strongly opposed it due to a weak vetting process, and counterproductive objectives  […] program turned out to be a failure […] wasting hundreds of millions of dollars […] poorly vetted groups […] ended up joining these terrorist groups in their battle to overthrow the Syrian government.”

_ In response, Tulsi Gabbard introduced a bill to stop arming terrorists.

Libya

_ ISIS was defeated in Sirte by the Misrata militias, backed by the US military, but remains a threat.

_ The battle for control over Libya’s oil has not been resolved and Khalifa Haftar is at the center of it. His Libyan National Army recently repelled attacks from “a loose coalition of armed groups based in western Libya.” Haftar has the support of Egyptian president Sisi and the United Arab Emirates, and has recently traveled to Moscow. He is rumored to believe that the election of Donald Trump is a positive development. Haftar is on the rise and the Tripoli government is weakening. Haftar is not popular in all of Libya but might be installed as a military dictator.

 Yemen

_ A suicide bomber killed 35-45 Yemeni soldiers and injured 50 at a military camp near Aden. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack. Aden is the “second city” in Yemen and the headquarters of the recognized by largely exiled president Hadi, who is supported by Saudi Arabia.

_ The “scale of the humanitarian crisis” in Yemen is “enormous” with 3 million displaced, and more than half the country is food insecure and many are starving. The UN estimates that 7,270 people, mostly civilians, have been killed in the war.

Egypt

_ Catherine Shakdam describes the falling out between Egypt and Saudi Arabia over the past few months and an “axis of resistance” that is developing “in reaction to both imperialism and Wahhabism.”

_ There have been 2 recent bombing attacks in Cairo during the past week. On Dec. 9, the “militant Islamic Hasm group” bombed a checkpoint on the road to the Pyramids and killed 6 officers. On Sunday, Dec. 11, a bombing attack on a Christian Coptic church attached to the main cathedral during church services killed 25 and injured 49. No one has claimed responsibility for the attack yet.

_ On Nov. 22, Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi announced Egypt’s support for the Syrian military and a few days later Lebanese media, according to Al Monitor, reported “18 helicopter pilots and four major generals” from Egypt had been in Damascus for some months and that Russian-Egyptian military exercises could be for operations in Syria. Egypt’s military chief said parliamentary approval would be required for deployment and a parliamentary committee chairman said Egyptian troops would only be sent to Syria “under the auspices of the United Nations.” He also “hinted” that Egyptian intelligence was working with Syrian intelligence because of a growing number of Egyptians joining the Syrian opposition fighters. A Syrian military spokesman said the Syrian and Egyptian armies had a strong relationship in fighting terrorism and talks of an Egyptian military presence in Syria were “at an advanced stage.”

Cybersecurity: US and Russia

_ Pres. Obama “ordered intelligence agencies to review cyber attacks and foreign intervention into the 2016 election and deliver a report before he leaves office on Jan. 20.” Obama’s national security adviser, Lisa Monaco, said the report would be shared with Congress and a “range of stakeholders.” It’s not clear if Obama considers American voters to be “stakeholders” in American elections.

_ In 2009, Russia and some other states “began work on a proposal for a broad international treaty on information security […] Many in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere flatly rejected the proposition on the grounds that international laws existing offline should and do constrain online behavior.” The Russian coalition went forward with the cybersecurity treaty project and introduced a proposal to the UN in 2011:   “International Code of Conduct for Information Security.”

_ From Jane’s: “Russian president Vladimir Putin enacted a new doctrine on information security into effect on 5 December that covers technical intelligence, the defence industry, ‘information-psychological influence’ and political destabilisation.”

_ Russia’s telecom operator said it blocked cyberattacks on the country’s main banks on Friday, after Russian intelligence discovered plans “by foreign intelligence services to carry out massive cyber attacks targeting the country’s financial system from December 5.” The DDOS on banking sites originated from servers at a Ukranian hosting service located in the Netherlands. The US has accused (with no substantial evidence, as yet) Russia of hacking that influenced elections and Joe Biden announced that the US would respond with a cyberattack “at the time of our choosing, and under the circumstances that have the greatest impact.”

_ In November, Kaspersky, a Russian security company, said there had been massive DDOS attacks on Russian banks from “24,000 hijacked devices located in 30 countries” including the United States, India, Taiwan, and Israel. The attacks didn’t just come from computers, they involved “botnets made up of the ‘Internet of things’ — electronic devices such as CCTV cameras or digital video recorders plugged in to offices and homes worldwide.”

Analysis and Opinion

_ Pentagon reporter, Mark Perry, in Politico magazine: “James Mattis’ 33-Year Grudge Against Iran.” “Many in the Pentagon worry that Trump’s pick for defense secretary is looking for a fight in the Middle East.” Perry writes, based on his senior military sources, that Mattis and the Marines have a “longstanding grievance against Iran” and has “anti-Iran animus is so intense that it led President Barack Obama to replace him as Centcom commander.” The grudge against Iran is about the suicide bomber in Beirut who killed 220 Marines and Shia militias in Iraq who killed Marines who served under some current generals. The grudge hasn’t faded. At all. In a recent speech, Mattis even tied ISIS to Iran. Perry lays out numerous reasons why that makes no sense and discusses the issue of putting military officers in the Sec. of Defense office, which is an administrative job.

_ Former US Ambassador to Croatia, Peter Galbraith, wrote in a NY Times op-ed, that the civil war in Syria is over. The Syrian coalition is on the verge of retaking Aleppo and “will then move to eliminate the remaining pockets of resistance, notably around the northern city of Idlib” as they “finish its reconquest of the country’s populous west.” Galbraith advises negotiating a deal with Russia for amnesty for rebels, return of refugees, safeguarding Kurds, changes to the government, and “equal access to reconstruction assistance.” Galbraith also recommends returning Raqqa to the Syrian government, but creating a Kurdish “safe area” in northeastern Syria.

_ Some Western allies are objecting to Trump’s plan to shift away from regime change in Syria and to focus only on anti-ISIS operations in cooperation with Russia. The Saudis and Gulf states still intend to arm al Qaeda and Syrian rebels who will likely be only in rural areas soon.

_ Patrick Cockburn: “Theresa May is Wading Into a Dangerous Sectarian Conflict.” Cockburn said that May is feeding an anti-Iran paranoia in the Gulf states and her rebuttal of Boris Johnson’s statements about Saudi proxy wars was “mendacious.” While looking for post-Brexit allies, Britain is “joining the losing side” just as in Iraq and Afghanistan.

_ Gilbert Doctorow: “A New Cold War or a New Detente.”

Image adapted from "Shadows" by kdigga on Flickr
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Joanne Leon

Joanne Leon

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