Tag Archives: syria

Patrick Cockburn looks at the new, strange developments in the Syrian war

Summary:  At first just another civil war in a small State, the Syrian civil war increasingly becomes a fulcrum on which rotates the regional powers of the Middle East and several of the world’s great powers. Each phase of the expanding war has defied the confident predictions of experts. Here journalist Patrick Cockburn describes the state of the war. As for the future, anything can happen.

Syria flag

“Too Weak, Too Strong: the state of the Syrian war”

By Patrick Cockburn
London Review of Books, 5 November 2015 issue
Posted with the permission of the author and the LRB.

The military balance of power in Syria and Iraq is changing. The Russian air strikes that have been taking place since the end of September are strengthening and raising the morale of the Syrian army, which earlier in the year looked fought out and was on the retreat. With the support of Russian airpower, the army is now on the offensive in and around Aleppo, Syria’s second largest city, and is seeking to regain lost territory in Idlib province. Syrian commanders on the ground are reportedly relaying the co-ordinates of between 400 and 800 targets to the Russian air force every day, though only a small proportion of them come under immediate attack. The chances of Bashar al-Assad’s government falling – though always more remote than many suggested – are disappearing. Not that this means he is going to win.

(1)  Failure of the US air war

The drama of Russian military action, while provoking a wave of Cold War rhetoric from Western leaders and the media, has taken attention away from an equally significant development in the war in Syria and Iraq. This has been the failure over the last year of the US air campaign – which began in Iraq in August 2014 before being extended to Syria – to weaken Islamic State and other al-Qaida-type groups. By October the US-led coalition had carried out 7323 air strikes, the great majority of them by the US air force, which made 3231 strikes in Iraq and 2487 in Syria.

But the campaign has demonstrably failed to contain IS, which in May captured Ramadi in Iraq and Palmyra in Syria. There have been far fewer attacks against the Syrian branch of al-Qaida, Jabhat al-Nusra, and the extreme Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham, which between them dominate the insurgency in northern Syria. The US failure is political as much as military: it needs partners on the ground who are fighting IS, but its choice is limited because those actually engaged in combat with the Sunni jihadis are largely Shia – Iran itself, the Syrian army, Hizbullah, the Shia militias in Iraq – and the US can’t offer them full military co-operation because that would alienate the Sunni states, the bedrock of America’s power in the region. As a result the US can only use its air force in support of the Kurds.

The US faces the same dilemma in Iraq and Syria today as it did after 9/11 when George Bush declared the war on terror. It was known then that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis, Osama bin Laden was a Saudi and the money for the operation came from Saudi donors. But the US didn’t want to pursue al-Qaida at the expense of its relations with the Sunni states, so it muted criticism of Saudi Arabia and invaded Iraq; similarly, it never confronted Pakistan over its support for the Taliban, ensuring that the movement was able to regroup after losing power in 2001.

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Peter van Buren asks what the Middle East would look like if we hadn’t helped

Summary: Today Peter van Buren examines the madness that is the core of America’s foreign policy — our relationship to the Middle East. We have set the region afire, with consequences unknowable. Until we learn from our mistakes, we’ll continue to make them. Second of 2 posts today.

Destabilizing the Middle East

What If They Gave a War and Everyone Came?
What Could Possibly Go Wrong? (October 2015 Edition)

By Peter Van Buren
From TomDispatch, 22 October 2015
Reposted with their gracious permission

What if the U.S. had not invaded Iraq in 2003? How would things be different in the Middle East today? Was Iraq, in the words of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, the “worst foreign policy blunder” in American history? Let’s take a big-picture tour of the Middle East and try to answer those questions. But first, a request: after each paragraph that follows, could you make sure to add the question “What could possibly go wrong?”

Let the History Begin

In March 2003, when the Bush administration launched its invasion of Iraq, the region, though simmering as ever, looked like this: Libya was stable, ruled by the same strongman for 42 years; in Egypt, Hosni Mubarak had been in power since 1983; Syria had been run by the Assad family since 1971; Saddam Hussein had essentially been in charge of Iraq since 1969, formally becoming president in 1979; the Turks and Kurds had an uneasy but functional ceasefire; and Yemen was quiet enough, other than the terror attack on the USS Cole in 2000. Relations between the U.S. and most of these nations were so warm that Washington was routinely rendering “terrorists” to their dungeons for some outsourced torture.

Soon after March 2003, when U.S. troops invaded Iraq, neighboring Iran faced two American armies at the peak of their strength. To the east, the U.S. military had effectively destroyed the Taliban and significantly weakened al-Qaeda, both enemies of Iran, but had replaced them as an occupying force. To the west, Iran’s decades-old enemy, Saddam, was gone, but similarly replaced by another massive occupying force. From this position of weakness, Iran’s leaders, no doubt terrified that the Americans would pour across its borders, sought real diplomatic rapprochement with Washington for the first time since 1979. The Iranian efforts were rebuffed by the Bush administration.

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Stratfor: The Loyalist Offensive Begins in Syria, with Russia’s help

Summary: As regional and global powers search for a solution to the Syrian civil war, fighting on the ground appears to be on the verge of worsening. Both loyalist and rebel forces are preparing for two new offensives within the coming months that will greatly influence the trajectory of the conflict ahead. This report by Strafor looks at the combined Russia – Syrian government offensive.

Russia’s military deployment to Syria was carried out with the permission of Damascus, and is “completely legal and legitimate under international law.” “The difference with Russian presence and presence of all these special forces that are now operating in Syria is that the US was not asked by the legitimate Syrian government to interfere and they were in breach of Syrian sovereignty.”

— Dirk Adriaensens (actiist, bio here).


In Syria, the Loyalist Offensive Begin

Stratfor, 8 October 2015

The Syrian government’s long-expected offensive against the country’s rebel forces has begun. On Oct. 7, loyalist troops advanced against rebel-held positions in northern Hama with the support of numerous Russian airstrikes as well as both rocket and tube artillery fire. Initial reports from the battlefield suggest that the rebels, primarily the Free Syrian Army, are putting up an effective defense in spite of heavy shelling. The rebels’ liberal use of improvised explosive devices and anti-tank guided missiles has taken a heavy toll on loyalist armor; several reports say rebels destroyed 17 armored fighting vehicles on the first day of the fight, and combat footage has confirmed the destruction of at least nine vehicles.

Despite the initial setback, the loyalists’ Russian-backed offensive has only just begun. Already there have been heavy airstrikes in the Al-Ghab plain, signaling the spread of the offensive to other areas of Hama. Loyalists are also preparing to assault the northern Homs pocket and to push toward the Kweiris air base, where several allied groups are still engaged in fighting with Islamic State forces.

Russian airstrikes in Syria

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Stratfor shows that the Russians Are Coming – to Syria

Summary: The United States has almost 800 bases in 70 nations around the world, so it’s natural that Russia building a base in Syria would spark hysteria among Americans. So rather than pay attention to our special operations units, active in 135 nations this past year, let’s focus on the Russians in Syria. Stratfor provides the satellite photos and analysis that tell you what you need to know. Use the knowledge wisely.


Explaining Russia’s True Presence in Syria

Stratfor, 25 September 2015

Stratfor has been closely tracking the Russian buildup of military power at Bassel al Assad air base in Syria, charting the uptick of forces throughout September. Aside from the air assets and defensive ground capacity identified at the air base, reports indicate potential Russian activity at several other locations across the Syrian coastal region.

Widely circulated satellite photography dated Sept. 13 revealed construction at the Istamo weapons storage facility and the appearance of tents at the al-Sanobar military facility south of Latakia. Though this led to conclusions of a possible Russian military presence at those facilities, more recent and detailed imagery provided by our partners at AllSource Analysis seems to contradict this assertion.

Satellite imagery of the al-Sanobar military complex from Sept. 23 does not show any sign of a notable Russian military presence. The tent camp that was present in the Sept. 13 imagery is nowhere to be seen. Also, no particular Russian military equipment or vehicles can be identified.

Russian forces likely move through the area frequently because of their continued activity at the port of Latakia, the activity at the nearby Bassel al Assad air base, and the transit of Russia advisers and trainers to the Syrian front lines, where they are embedded with military units. Because of this, it is possible that the Sept. 13 imagery caught a temporary encampment of Russian forces operating in the Syrian coastal area, as opposed to a more sustained deployment of combat forces to the al-Sanobar complex.

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Stratfor Confirms Russia’s Expanded Presence in Syria

Summary: The rumors have proven correct. Russia is building a base in Syria. Fourteen years of aggressive US moves in the Middle East and Eastern Europe have left the former in flames and the latter unstable. Now comes the inevitable next step, as a great power rival escalates by positioning itself to respond strongly. I doubt we’ll enjoy what comes next. We can hardly complain when others follow our example.

Stratfor on Syria

Confirming Russia’s Expanded Presence in Syria
Stratfor, 10 September 2015


The projection of Russian forces into Syria could be an attempt to bolster the government of President Bashar al Assad or a means to exert pressure during a time of sensitive negotiations. Either way, it will be increasingly difficult for the Russians to avoid mission creep as they magnify support for their favored faction in the Syrian conflict.


Satellite imagery of the Bassel al Assad International Airport in Latakia, Syria, confirms reports of sustained Russian military transport flights to the Syrian airfield, where the Russians appear to be establishing a base of operations. The satellite imagery, captured Sept. 4, shows a recently constructed air traffic control station in the vicinity of newly laid asphalt surfaces, alongside shipping container-sized structures believed to be mobile housing units. Construction is underway throughout the airport; surfaces are being leveled and new structures are being erected. Earthworks are visible along the entire length of the easternmost runway, likely part of improvements to the airfield to allow the ingress of heavier transport aircraft.

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Stratfor sees good news in Syria: a possible win for Russia’s diplomats

Summary: This analysis by Stratfor shows the complexity of the situation in Syria. While we seek to influence events with bombs and proxy armies (two of America’s trinity of COIN), Russia uses diplomacy. So far our efforts have failed. There are signs Russia’s diplomats might be succeeding.  {1st of 2 posts today.}


Opportunities for Change in Syria

Stratfor, 19 August 2015

Stratfor receives insight from many sources around the world, along with reports not available for public consumption. It is important to caveat that many reports are unconfirmed or speculative in nature, though they provide valuable context. Interpreting information and compiling multiple data points to build a picture is part of intelligence analysis. Any and all reporting is carefully filtered before being disseminated by Stratfor, yet some insight is worth sharing on its own merits, such as this account from Syria, below.

Russia is heavily invested in the Syrian conflict and has a significant stake in shaping any enduring peace. Stratfor sources indicate that Moscow may have finally been able to get Damascus and the mainstream rebel opposition to broadly agree on elements of a political transition of power in Syria. Russia has long insisted that present Syrian President Bashar al Assad must remain in power during any transition. This is a sticking point for many of the rebel groups, but Moscow appears to have been able to negotiate a middle ground. As Stratfor previously noted Aug. 7…

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Martin van Creveld explains why our actions in the Syrian civil war will fail

Summary:  Today Martin van Creveld, one of our generation’s most acute geopolitical analysts, gives a brilliant brief on the Syrian civil war, putting it in the larger context of America’s mad Middle Eastern policy. I recommend reading, especially his conclusions.   (2nd of 2 posts today.}

“Any wise enemy is better than an ignorant friend.”
— Arab proverb.

Bashar al Assad. Photo by Reuters.

Bashar al Assad. Photo by Reuters.

For Whom the Bells Toll

By Martin van Creveld
From his website, 11 June 2015

For Bashir Assad, the bells have been tolling. If one believes the media, he and the regime he represents are on their last legs. Whether or not that is true is not at issue here — similar predictions have been heard ever since civil war broke out in Syria four years ago. What I do want to do is take a look at the origins of the war, the way it has been going, and what the future may look like in case the predictions come true.

The decisive fact about the Assad — meaning, in Arabic, “Lion” — family is that they are Alawites. The Alawites are a section within the Sunni Shia tradition. They do not, however, form part of the mainstream. Some Islamic scholars do not even regard them as Muslims; claiming that they are basically pagans who worship the moon and the stars. The community is scattered among Syria, Turkey and Lebanon. It is, however, only in Syria that they form a significant minority, counting perhaps one seventh of the population. That explains why Bashir’s paternal grandfather, Ali Suleiman al Assad (1875-1963), supported French colonial rule. He and his fellow Alawites knew well enough how majority Muslims deal with minority ones.

Suleiman’s son Hafez made his career as an air force officer. In 1963 he took part in a coup that brought the Ba’ath, a party that professed a curious mixture of secularism, nationalism, and socialism, to power. In 1966 he co-authored another coup, this time one that took place inside the Ba’ath leadership; in 1970, following a third coup, he assumed power as a military dictator. He did not, however, do much to change the nature of the regime. The latter remained what it had been. An amalgam of secularism, nationalism, “Arab” socialism; and of course the kind of brutal police state which seems to be more or less the only kind most Arabs understand and can live under.

{Read the rest at Martin van Creveld’s website}