Tag Archives: Ahrar a-sham

The Syrian Ceasefire Gives International Sanction to Russia’s War to Save Assad

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on February 25, 2016

Article published at Left Foot Forward

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At midnight on Friday a ceasefire began in Syria. It was billed as a prelude to negotiations that restart on 7 March, and which are supposed to lead to a political transition that will end Syria’s war. The chances of success on either front are slim.

This was the second February ceasefire attempt—the first, on 19 February, failed without even the pretence of starting. The pretence is still being maintained this time around, but the structural problems with the ceasefire’s design—namely that it allows the regime of Bashar al-Assad and his supporters to continue their war against the Syrian population, while restraining the opposition from defending itself—ensure that it will fail and the West’s purported allies within the opposition will be worse-off, both during the period of faux-ceasefire and afterwards.

The Geneva III peace process was a dangerously misconceived effort. After Russia’s intervention in Syria on 30 September the Assad regime was simply too strong. With no US willingness to change the balance of power inside Syria it meant that either the process was preserved and ‘peace’ was redefined as regime victory, or the process was surrendered and peace on some more humane terms was sought by empowering the rebellion to enforce such terms on the regime in future negotiations. The US chose the process.

The US’s emphasis on process over substance can be seen in all kinds of ways. Continue reading

The Sieges of Syria

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on March 2, 2016

Starving children in Madaya

A website, siegewatch.org, has been set up that tracks the areas under siege in Syria. Siege Watch is a joint project of PAX, an organization that works in conflict zones to foster peace, and The Syria Institute, a non-partisan research centre directed by Valerie Szybala.

At the present time, according to Siege Watch, there are forty-six sieges operating in Syria, forty-three of them (93.5%) imposed by the Assad regime, two (4.5%) imposed by Jaysh al-Fatah, an insurgent coalition that includes Jabhat an-Nusra (al-Qaeda in Syria), and one (2%) by the Islamic State (IS).

Siege Watch also documents the severity of the sieges in three categories. Category one (C1) is the most severe: very little gets in even by smuggling and international aid deliveries are rare if at all; the risk of malnutrition is high. Category two (C2) sieges are porous enough for the black market and/or locals might have some access to locally-grown produce, but prices for basics are extremely high and residents are at “some risk of malnutrition/dehydration”. Category three (C3) sieges require smuggling to get food, but there is a consistent supply, even if home-grown. While risk of malnutrition is low in C3 zones, medical emergencies are likely because of attacks by besieging forces.

All six C1 sieges are imposed by the regime. Thirty category C2 sieges are operating: twenty-nine by the regime and one by IS. The regime is also operating eight C3 sieges and Jaysh al-Fatah is operating two C3 sieges. Continue reading

America Picked the Wrong Allies Against the Islamic State

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on February 17, 2016

Article published at NOW Lebanon

PYD/PKK fighters after they took over the Mannagh airbase on February 10, 2016.

PYD/PKK fighters after they took over the Mannagh airbase on February 10, 2016.

Over the last six weeks the regime of Bashar al-Assad—which by this point means in most areas Iranian-run ground forces and Russian air power—have made territorial gains in northern Syria that threaten the existence of the armed opposition in the area. This threat has been compounded by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and allies, which have also drawn on Russian airstrikes to attack the rebellion in the same areas. The U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State (ISIS) has made the PYD its main proxy inside Syria—the only force that can call in coalition airstrikes. This policy was obviously flawed given the view of the PYD by necessary anti-ISIS allies like Turkey and the demographic realities of ISIS, which require Sunni Arabs to be able to police their area, and ensure that ISIS begins to look like a protector of Sunnis if Kurds occupy Arab areas; the PYD now attacking the crucial anti-ISIS demographic in alliance with the regime underlines that fact. Continue reading

Is Turkey Responsible for the Islamic State?

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on December 20, 2015

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Turkey concluded its biggest investigation to date into Islamic State (IS) operatives on its territory on Friday, and blacklisted sixty-seven people. This provides a good moment to review what Turkey’s role has been in the rise of IS, especially amid the escalating accusations from Russia that Turkey is significantly responsible for financing IS. The reality is that while Turkish policy has, by commission and omission, made IS stronger than it would otherwise have been, so has Russia’s policy—and Russia’s policy was far more cynical than Turkey’s, deliberately intended empower extremists to discredit the rebellion against Bashar al-Assad. Turkey’s focus on bringing down Assad and Ankara’s fear of Kurdish autonomy led it into these policies and now—having seemingly found the will to act to uproot IS’s infrastructure on Turkish territory—there is the problem of actually doing so, when IS can (and has) struck inside Turkey. The concerns about these external funding mechanisms for IS, while doubtless important, obscure the larger problem: IS’s revenue is overwhelmingly drawn from the areas it controls and only removing those areas of control can deny IS its funds. Continue reading

In View of Vienna

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on December 15, 2015

Published at NOW Lebanon.

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So the Syrian opposition can unite. Foreign powers have been the major cause of rebel discord. Previous rebel unity initiatives like the Joint Command were pulled apart by the competition between the insurgency’s sponsors—Saudi Arabia and Qatar primarily—and the last rebel umbrella group, the Supreme Military Council, which was identified with Western power, collapsed after President Barack Obama decided not to punish Bashar al-Assad for the massive chemical weapons attack on the population of Ghouta. But under Saudi auspices, an opposition “team” was announced on December 10 after a three-day conference in Riyadh, which includes the political and military opposition and groups with varying ideologies and patrons. This is an achievement. Unfortunately, this team’s task is an impossible one: intended to partake in the Vienna process begun in October, ostensibly to negotiate an end to the war, Syria is not, at present, in a condition where a political agreement can be made and implemented, not least because the Assad regime and its supporters in Iran and Russia have doubled down, and the opposition continues to receive insufficient support to pressure the regime enough to force an agreement. Continue reading

Syria’s Many Moderate Rebels

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on November 30, 2015

A version of this article was published at NOW Lebanon.

Rebels from the Southern Front in northwest Deraa, March 2015

Rebels from the Southern Front in northwest Deraa, March 2015

In early November, the Foreign Affairs Select Committee released a report challenging the British government’s proposal to extend airstrikes from Iraq into Syria against the Islamic State (IS). Among other things, the report asked for a proposed political path to ending the Syrian civil war, a necessary prerequisite to defeating IS. On Thursday, Prime Minister David Cameron released a response, part of which said:

Military action against ISIL will also relieve the pressure on the moderate opposition, whose survival is crucial for a successful transition to a more inclusive Syrian government. Syria has not been, and should not be, reduced to a choice between Assad or ISIL. Although the situation on the ground is complex, our assessment is that there are about 70,000 Syrian opposition fighters on the ground who do not belong to extremist groups.

This number has blown up into a major political row, with many Members of Parliament and pundits taking their personal unfamiliarity with Syria’s military landscape as evidence that it cannot be so. The Labour Opposition has made the number of non-extremist rebels a focal point of their challenge to the Prime Minister’s proposal for moving forward in Syria, and one of Cameron’s own Conservative MPs referred to the number as “magical”. The challenge to the number is part of a longer-term trend, where a narrative has become prevalent that there are no moderate opposition forces left in Syria. The corollary of this view is usually the argument that the West should side with the “secular” Assad regime as the “lesser evil” to put down a radical Islamist insurrection.

Sidestepping the ignorance that goes into believing a blatantly sectarian regime propped up by an international brigade of Shi’a jihadists is secular: What of this claim that there are no moderate rebels left? It isn’t true, as I recently made clear in a paper for The Henry Jackson Society. Continue reading

What Russia Wants in Syria

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on October 4, 2015

US President Barack Obama (R) listens to Russian President Vladimir Putin after their bilateral meeting in Los Cabos, Mexico on June 18, 2012 on the sidelines of the G20 summit. Obama and President Vladimir Putin met Monday, for the first time since the Russian leader's return to the presidency, for talks overshadowed by a row over Syria. The closely watched meeting opened half-an-hour late on the sidelines of the G20 summit of developed and developing nations, as the US leader sought to preserve his

In the last few days I’ve written about Russia’s initial military action in Syria, which is intended to prop up the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad, and explained (with my friend James Snell) how U.S. policy has enabled this, both by effectively outsourcing Middle East policy to Vladimir Putin over the chemical weapons “red line” debacle, and by the pro-Iran tilt that is implicit in President Obama’s nuclear deal-facilitated move toward détente with the Islamic Republic: Obama is effectively supporting Iran’s assets in Syria, and Putin is now using those same pieces to prosecute his own war in the Levant. With this in the background, this post will focus on what Putin wants in Syria.

Putin’s aims in Syria can be boiled down to two: (1) Ensure the Assad tyranny survives, which includes the building of a permanent military-colonial outpost on the Mediterranean coast and destroying all the moderate rebels so that Syria can be presented as a choice of Assad or the Islamic State (I.S.), legitimizing Russia’s support for Assad; and (2) humiliating the West on the way to constructing an alternate world order to American hegemony. Continue reading