Mass Graves Found in Aleppo; Mosul Pause; Retaliation for Alleged Russian Hacks
Next Cold War Roundup 12/28/16:
Evacuation of rebels from East Aleppo is complete. Syrian coalition forces found evidence of mass executions and torture and stockpiles of weapons and supplies. The Obama administration signed the “Global Magnitsky” and will publicly announce actions to “punish the Russians” for alleged election hacks. Public evidence is still shaky. A Mosul operations pause was publicly acknowledged by a US commander who also made a surprising statement on Iraqi PMU militias. And more in our war news roundup…
Syria: East Aleppo
_ Before leaving East Aleppo, jihadist rebels rebels reportedly executed 100 Syrian army soldiers who who had been captured and held hostage over the past 4 years. “They were unable to smuggle their hostages from the Sukkari School, so they chose to execute them instead,” a Syrian army officer told Al Masdar News. Photos of the bodies and a video indicate Ahrar al-Sham and al Zenki groups had been holding them prisoner. Journalist Rania Khalek said the massacre was reportedly carried out by Ahrar al-Sham, a jihadi rebel group and recalls that an Ahrar political leader visited Washington in December, 2015. In July, the Washington Post published an op-ed by the same man, Labib al Nahhas: “The deadly consequences of mislabeling Syria’s revolutionaries,” complaining that they were unfairly labeled as extremist and connected to al Qaeda.
_ On Monday, the Russian defense ministry reported that mass graves were found in East Aleppo where the civilians who were killed showed signs of torture and many seem to have been executed as al Qaeda affiliated rebels were evacuating.
_ In an interview with a UK priest who was in East and West Aleppo and spoke to people who fled, as they arrived at reception stations, he wondered why major media outlets were not interviewing them and were using rebels and pro-rebel activists as their only sources. He said almost all evacuees had stories about horrific treatment of civilians by the rebels who held the territory for these last years.
_ In an interview with the former UK ambassador to Syria, Peter Ford, on how UK leaders statements and policy on regime change in Syria and reporting of atrocities is disconnected from reality. Ford accuses the foreign ministry of lying about the situation in Syria, and accuses the UK of making things worse for the civilians they claim to want to protect.
_ Syrian army coalition forces moved into neighborhoods in southwest Aleppo held by the Jaysh Al-Fateh rebel group, who refused a surrender deal. The Syrian forces are moving toward the “key town of Saraqiba,” near the border with the Idlib governate.
_ M. Green passes on a Christmas message via social media from young Syrians, Christian and Muslim, at a church, St. Elias Maronite Cathedral, in Aleppo. The majority of Muslims in Aleppo are Sunni Muslim. Videos of the first lighting of a Christmas tree in Aleppo since the war began, and celebrations of what most Syrians in the region view as a liberation and hope for peace, were circulated in regional news media, Russian media, and on social media and in some western media outlets.
Syria: Peace Talks With Russia, Iran, Turkey, and Without the US
_ Russia, Iran, and Turkey met in Tehran on Tues. Dec. 20, the day after the murder of a Russian ambassador in Ankara, to begin their peace talks on Syria. They excluded the United States, the United Nations and other parties who participated in the Geneva talks. They signed the “Moscow Declaration,” a framework for the new negotiations to end the Syrian war.
_ The New York Times (NYT) toned down its rhetoric significantly when referring to the Syrian government and its military coalition in an article about the meeting. They referred to Assad using the formal stylebook, and to the Syrian army + Iranian forces + Hezbollah coalition as the “pro-government forces” and “Syrian forces and their allies.” The NYT explained Turkey’s change as such: “Turkey’s fight against Kurdish militants took precedence over its desire to see Mr. Assad replaced.”
_ The NYT quoted two War Party proponents of US military intervention in Syria, a neoconservative think tank and the Atlantic Council, who spoke bitterly about how the US is “retreating” and how Trump would “scale back support for the opposition.”
_ CIA director John Brennan spoke to NPR and said the fall of Aleppo doesn’t mean the opposition will stop fighting. He said that he wished they could have made more of a difference. He refused to “address what CIA may or may not be doing” but went on to talk quite a bit about it. Brennan said the US is powerful but in some areas has a “limited ability to influence the course of events.”
_ Iran’s defense minister said that Saudi Arabia should not be allowed to participate in the peace process because they still insist that Assad must go.
Syria: Al Bab
_ 16 Turkish soldiers were killed at al Bab on Dec. 21, according to Turkish media, along with 5 FSA fighters killed and 38 wounded. Other reports said 50 Turkish soldiers and FSA killed. Turkish president Erdogan reported 200 ISIS fighters killed. Turkish officials said it was a key day in the Operation Euphrates Shield battle to encircle and take al Bab from ISIS in what Turkey calls an existential fight against terrorism.
_ ISIS captured Turkish military equipment at al Bab and are reportedly moving a large convoys of troops and equipment to Deir Ezzour, where an offensive against the encircled Syrian army there is expected.
_ Over the past week, Turkish forces and their rebel allies have had a difficult time at al Bab and civilian casualties have been high. More Turkish commandos were deployed and some 1,400 rebels who evacuated Aleppo went to al Bab to join the other Turkish-allied rebels, bringing their number to 2,000, according to the (very pro-Erdogan) Yeni Şafak.
_ Turkey is urging the US to back the al Bab operation and criticizing the international coalition for not providing help with air support against ISIS. Hurriyet says there have been reports in the media that 700 ISIS suicide bombers have moved from Raqqa to al Bab. Col. Dorrian, a spokesman for the anti-ISIS coalition, said Turkey launched the al Bab operation independently.
Syria: Operation Raqqa
_ Anonymous British military sources told the Telegraph that the “RAF is preparing to mount a major offensive in Syria next year” in Raqqa as they “pivot” their focus from Iraq to Syria, hoping to finish in Mosul by Spring. They plan to “step up” their training of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF, mainly Kurdish forces) currently working to encircle Raqqa and increase air support for them. They expect that they “will have to talk to the Russians” and one source talked about ISIS as a “common enemy” that “is of much greater threat to us all.” In 2013 the UK parliament voted against a regime change operation in Syria but in 2015 approved participation in the anti-ISIS coalition. Since then, the RAF has been “operating at its most intense for 25 years.”
_ The SDF recently launched the second phase of their operation to take Raqqa and have made rapid progress targeting ISIS-held territory west of the city, including their current advance on the strategic Taqba dam on the Euphrates, where the “Daesh (Islamic State) defences disintegrated,” according to an SDF spokesman.
Syria: Water Crisis in Damascus
Syria and Iraq: Anti-ISIS Commander Says 2 Years to Defeat ISIS, Praised Iraqi PMU Militias
_ Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend told the Daily Beast, in a rather remarkable Christmas interview from the Green Zone in Baghdad, that the fight against ISIS is going slowly but as well as can be expected.
_ Daily Beast estimated the number of US troops at “somewhere south of 10,000 when troops on short term duty are added to the count.” US troops are in an advise/assist role in Iraq but this article reveals that “U.S. troops are also allowed to do unilateral raids with Iraqi permission.” They also put the word “trainers” in quotes when referring to special ops forces who “join their Iraqi advisees on missions.”
_ Anti-ISIS commander Lt. Gen. Townsend reported that the Iraqi army has paused their Mosul operation, even though their generals are not publicly admitting this. They have taken high casualties in a difficult urban battle and need to rest, reinforce, resupply, reassess. Lt. Col. Stuart James told Reuters on Sunday that a new offensive would begin within several days.
_ Townsend said they weren’t really trained for this urban battle and now “Iraqi ground forces are learning to clear houses alongside tank units, with the tank units protecting their progress from armored car bombs, or blasting holes in the side of houses so ground forces can pour in to clear them without going through booby trapped doors.”
_ Many were surprised by Townsend’s positive comments about the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF or PMU, formerly known broadly as Shia militias.) They are now government forces and the militias aren’t only Shiite Muslims but instead are of “every religious and political stripe in Iraq.” Townsend said they advanced more rapidly than expected and did a good job in their mission to protect the areas west of Mosul and prevent ISIS moving into Syria. He said they’ve seen no bad conduct, they pose no threat to US forces and they might be a stabilizing national guard going forward as long as they don’t operate as a puppet of Iran, and the US is trying to “shape it” so things don’t go down that path.
_ US sent obsolete drones as aid to the Ukrainian military, which are ineffective on the front lines of the battle in East Ukraine because they can be hacked and jammed by Russian technology used by the Donetsk and Lugansk rebels.
_ The Ukrainian military has lost 50% of their weapons and over 80% of their D-30 howitzers during the past 2 years. US intelligence and cybersecurity firm CyberStrike alleges that this is due to an Android app, developed by a Ukrainian officer, Yaroslav Sherstyuk. The app was used by soldiers to improve targeting. Crowdstrike, a cybersecurity firm, claims that it also unwittingly helped the Russian-backed separatists locate and destroy artillery pieces because the malware in it gave away their location. A version of the app posted on a military forum was infected with Fancy Bear malware and this led Crowdstrike to conclude that the Fancy Bear hacking group is connected with Russian military intelligence. The problem is that the malware version of the app didn’t come from the developer’s site, a trusted source where most of his fellow soldiers would have downloaded software used on the battlefield. The malware version of the app on the military forum was a limited distribution. Russian language version. The developer said he never put his app on the military forum site and he told Bloomberg View’s Leonid Bershidsky that he thought the whole thing was a hoax. CyberStrike didn’t bother contacting the developer. So the evidence that has been revealed so far, establishing the critical link between Fancy Bear and Russian military intelligence, is very weak.
_ “Ukrainian Farmers, Poised for Growth, Stumble After E.U. Deal.” Low quotas on Ukrainian exports are killing their exports. The EU trade agreement was such a bad deal for Ukraine, even the New York Times, a great cheerleader for the Euromaidan coup, has to admit it.
Russia: Retaliation for Alleged Hacks, the “Global Magnitsky”
_ On Dec. 28, ABC News announced: “JUST IN: Obama administration expected to announce steps it is taking against Russia over suspected Russian interference in US election.”
_ On the previous day, Ellen Nakashima at the Washington Post (WaPo) published an article about the measures that would be taken for the (still unproven to the public) Russian hacks on the US presidential election. The Obama administration will make a public announcement about the actions which will include “economic sanctions and diplomatic censure” and are “expected” to include “covert action that will probably involve cyber-operations.”
_ Nakashima’s sources are, yet again, anonymous officials. She refers to the situation as the “clock ticking” for this White House to “punish the Russians.” She suggests that elections might be declared part of “critical infrastructure” of the United States. Previous orders issued by Obama weren’t crafted to target hackers who steal emails, as the Russian government is accused of doing, with shaky evidence, and with their denial. Another shaky allegation is that Russia “penetrated at least one state voter-registration database” but “did not tamper with the data.” The FBI “has so far not gathered enough evidence” to bring a criminal case for the alleged hacks.
_ The so called “Global Magnitsky” sanctions act, which was added to the defense authorization bill, and crafted as a human rights abuse action, was passed by Congress in early December. The Russian foreign ministry issued a list of objections to the bill after Pres. Obama signed it on Friday. Hedge fund founder Bill Browder celebrated the passing of the Global Magnitsky and was celebrated for pressuring for its passage.
_ What caused the Tu-154 crash? No distress signal was sent as the plane fell from the sky over the Black Sea, close to the coast, just 7 minutes (Update: disappeared from radar 2 minutes) after takeoff of the flight headed for Syria. This indicates there was a sudden failure, an inability to gain altitude due to bad fuel or technical problems, a pilot error, or an explosion. Technical problems usually allow for a pilot to send a signal and return to an airfield or another place where the pilot can glide to a landing. The track record of Tu-154 planes is not good, with 39 fatal crashes since 1968 (48 years) but “few were due to technical problems.” The crew was highly experienced, the weather was “favorable,” and this plane reportedly had no maintenance issues.
_ A man “near the coast” was injured by falling debris, which “indicates that fragments of the aircraft were scattered as they were coming down, suggesting that the aircraft exploded in the air,” according to an expert pilot. The recent Russian civilian Airbus plane crash in 2015 in the Sinai peninsula happened 20 minutes after takeoff, when a bomb in the tail of the plane was detonated. Terrorism hasn’t been ruled out as a cause, but the Sochi refueling stop was a last minute change, and security checks were done in Moscow, so terrorism isn’t the top suspected cause at the moment.
_ Some of the people lost in the crash were particularly beloved by the Russian people. 60+ members of the Alexandrov Ensemble (“Red Army choir”) were onboard with conductor/composer Gen. Valery Khalikov. “Dr. Liza.” a pediatrician who did extensive humanitarian work was on the plane. Also on board were 9 journalists, other military personnel and 8 crew. Support from the Russian public for the Russian intervention in Syria may be affected by the plane crash and ambassador murder during the past week.
_ CIA director John Brennan told NPR regarding the Russian hacking: “I certainly believe that, that there is a strong consensus.” He also admitted there were “differences of view” between CIA and FBI. Brennan said that to his knowledge, the US had not tried to interfere in any election in the 21st century.
AFRICOM, SOCOM, SOCAFRICA
_ Africa: “Commandos Without Borders: America’s Elite Troops Partner with African Forces But Pursue U.S. Aims,” by Nick Turse at TomDispatch.com, writes about SOCOM and the 70,000 strong army of special operations forces and special forces that President Obama has built up, and how they are essentially the president’s private army. This army is newly empowered to operate “outside conventional conflict zones” and via “a new multiagency intelligence and action force.” President-elect Trump will inherit them. Trump’s national security adviser, Gen. Michael Flynn, was the intelligence director for JSOC, the Joint Special Operations Command, the most secretive part of the special operations command. TomDispatch has a SOCAFRICA planning document that details more than a dozen programs and activities across the African continent — ” training exercises to security cooperation engagements” — which are “low profile operations” and “quasi-wars” fought across borders and for the interest of the United States.
_ Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reports that China’s cyber strategy emphasizes “securing infrastructure.” A better idea than constant focus on offensives, in our opinion. The new Chinese framework declares “internet sovereignty” which allows China to police the internet in their own territory. WSJ notes that China is likely to favor local suppliers because equipment manufacturers will be subject to security reviews.
Analysis & Opinion
_ A jolly holiday piece at Counterpunch: “An al Qaeda Christmas: the Touching Tale of How Hate Figures Became American Heroes.”
_ Kelley Vlahos talks to Iraq and Afghanistan veterans about President-Elect Trump surrounding himself with generals: “Is Civilian Control of the Military in Jeopardy?“