Tag Archives: Syrian Civil War

Syrian Ceasefire Dissolved

Syrian man holding child in Aleppo

Syrian man holding child in Aleppo

The national ceasefire brokered between the US and Russia aiming to pause hostilities between major players in Syria lasted only seven days before falling apart. The Syrian Armed Forces General Command formally declared that “the US-Russian ceasefire deal started sin
ce September 12th is over” on September 19th which was followed by government jets bombing targets in and around Aleppo. Fraught with hesitation and both sides throwing blame from the start, the ceasefire crumbling apart throws any possible diplomatic solution into greater obscurity. Most importantly, the relationship between the US and Russia has taken a serious step backwards as both scramble to reassess and posture in the aftermath of the symbolically significant failure.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Barack Obama

Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Barack Obama

Unfortunately small scale violations that may have been manageable were overshadowed by two major incidents, first the accidental US bombing of Syrian government forces on September 17th in Deir-el-Zour, and the September 19th strike on a UN aid convoy that killed the director of the Syrian Red Crescent. The convoy that was hit was on the very same path that the ceasefire was trying to protect in order to provide much needed assistance to civilians under siege in hard to reach areas in Aleppo province. Russia and Syria denied participating in the strike, though Russia simultaneously claimed that the convoy was “escorted by terrorists.”  Russia’s definition of terrorist groups was a significant concern that remained unchallenged upon the signing of the deal.

If the ceasefire had been successful, the Americans and Russians  had plans to coordinate on a Joint Implementation Center (JIC) to counter extremist groups which would have heralded a great step in resolving the crisis via the two major powers working together against a common foe. Russia’s targeting of what the US designates as ‘moderate rebel groups’ is likely to resume which will further drive a wedge between the two nations. The ceasefire had excluded attacks on ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, which has recently rebranded itself as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham following its formal split with Al-Qaeda, which means these jihadi groups will gain the most in the fallout of the agreement.

Rebel fighter with a Bashar Al-Assad mask amidst rubble

Rebel fighter with a Bashar Al-Assad mask amidst rubble

Following the breakdown of the ceasefire attacks from Russia and the Syrian government escalated, causing a US intelligence official to remark the bombing campaign was one of the deadliest since the inception of the Syrian Civil War more than five years ago. State Department Spokesperson John Kirby announced that the US is “suspending its participation in bilateral channels with Russia that were established to sustain the cessation of hostilities” while also reiterating blame for the September 19th strike on Russia and the Syrian regime. Earlier that day, President Vladimir Putin stated the US was creating “a threat to strategic stability” in Syria and ended cooperation on a deal with the US on the disposal of weapons-grade plutonium.

Approximately 430,000 people have lost their lives in the Syrian Civil War as of mid-September, according to the watchdog group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The worsening of relations and evaporation of talks between the US and Russia in September stands to be one of the greatest setbacks in the war in 2016. It may be some time until US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Ministry Sergey Lavrov, or their successors, can formally broker another deal with any tangible impact on the situation on the ground. In the meantime, the US and Russia will act independently with at times overlapping and at times conflicting agendas.

At the very least, the US and Russia should aspire to coordinate attacks against their shared enemies in ISIS and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham while working towards alternatives in terms of other rebel groups.  ISIS is losing its war in Iraq to the point that the possibility of retaking Mosul, their capital in Iraq, is now more feasible than ever. If the focus on ISIS is decreased within Syria, that will undoubtedly complicate the offensive in northeastern Iraq and push back the day when over a million people may be freed from the oppressive grip of ISIS in Mosul. For both the sake of Iraq and Syria, American-Russian cooperation is pivotal, if not absolutely necessary.

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Putin’s Foray into Syria

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syrian President Bashar Al Assad

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syrian President Bashar Al Assad

Russia’s first airstrikes in Syria on September 30th signalled arguably one of the most significant change of events in the Syrian Civil War since its inception. Russian President Vladimir Putin says he is answering the necessary charge in order to act “preventatively, to fight and destroy militants and terrorists on the territories that they already occupied, not wait for them to come to our house.” While Putin more recently reaffirmed that Russia has no intention of deploying ground forces in Syria, the air campaign by conservative estimates is expected to last a minimum of one year. Above all, the aggressive move has firmly embedded Russia’s commitment to Assad’s Syria and opened the door for further Russian diplomatic leverage in the conflict and wider region.

Russian SU-25 ground attack aircraft

Russian SU-25 ground attack aircraft

Syrian President Bashar Al Assad’s control over the country has been reduced to only 20-30% of the country’s area, accounting for around 60% of the population. At least 220,000 have been killed in the conflict since 2011, though the most active watchdog group, The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), has put the figure at between 250,000 and 340,000 as of October 15th. Assad has welcomed the Russians with open arms, and made his first visit outside the country since the war began to coordinate the effort with Putin in Moscow. Iran’s invitation to the negotiating table over Syria has also strengthened Assad’s bid to stay in power while also strengthening Russia’s role.

The lion’s share of the Russian air raids have been focused in the northwest of Syria, rather than the northeast where ISIS strongholds are concentrated. SOHR said Russian airstrikes have killed 370 individuals: 52 from ISIS, 191 rebel fighters from other groups, and 127 civilians. There has been significant controversy over Russia’s thus-far preference in targeting opposition rebels groups closer to the West rather than extremist groups like ISIS. The US has both warned and criticized Russia’s actions in Syria, but has relatively done little that would sway Putin from changing course.

In addition, Iran is now sending thousands of troops to Syria to bolster the new regime offensive, dropping pretenses for a more overt participation. Backed by the Russian air raids, Syrian government units, Lebanese Hezbollah armed fighters and Iranian forces targeted rebel positions around Aleppo and Homs. Iran has also been active in fighting alongside Iraqi army forces and irregular Shiite militias in Syria’s neighbor to the east. Reports indicate recent key gains have been made in Iraq, as ISIS may soon be fully ousted from the north-central city of Baiji, site of the country’s largest oil refinery. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi has welcomed Russia in the fight against ISIS, and several strikes have already struck inside Iraqi territory.

Map of Syrian control prior to Russian air strikes

Map of Syrian control prior to Russian air strikes

Coordination between Russia and the US in the Syrian airspace remains tense especially as any incident would further escalate the situation to neither’s benefit. Obama and the US’ credibility has taken a hit while hesitating over how to more fully respond to the dramatic geopolitical shift. Russian statesman Iliyas Umakhanov remarked, “[The US] is going to have to recognize that Islamic State is the real threat that has been countered only by the Syrian regular army commanded by President Bashar al-Assad.” Secretary of State Kerry expressed concern that the Russian involvement will only further the regional crisis, and US officials on several occasions have requested restraint from Russia to no avail.

Whatever the military outcome will be, the increased Russian involvement has added a huge obstacle to any effort at a political Syria without Assad. Western countries that previously claimed “Assad must go,” including the US, will find this position less and less feasible over time as the alternatives flounder. Over the last four years the effort to find, support, or build a moderate opposition have fallen far short, and these new changes will only make those options tougher to pursue.

Furthermore, Russia is flexing it’s muscle in Syria not just for Assad or the country itself, but to also project influence and power in a tumultuous time. Rather than pulling back from chaos or biding time, Russia is trying to paint itself as a savior by entering into a new conflict. While the US and West have rightfully questioned Putin’s true goals in the Middle East, their commitment and grasp on the region are also coming under greater scrutiny. Russia will be fighting in Syria for the foreseeable future and has launched a strong bid to be the primary shot caller in the crisis. Further hesitation from the West in responding will solidify that bid, for better or for worse.

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Updates from Iraq and Syria: Turkey Stepping Up Involvement Abroad

Woman mourning at the mass funeral of bombing victims in Suruc, Turkey

Woman mourning at the mass funeral of bombing victims in Suruc, Turkey

After the May ISIS siege on Ramadi that captured the regional capital of Iraq’s largest province,  US defense secretary Ash Carter blamed a “lack of will” within the Iraqi military for the significant loss. Among the soldiers who retreated from Ramadi, there was significant frustration and disillusionment with the Iraqi military leadership which prompted questions of whether the city was sold out to ISIS. Since the fall of Ramadi, more local Sunni fighters and Shia militias have joined the fight, the latter in dramatically increased numbers.

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Map of Kurdish YPG and ISIS controlled territory

More than 55,000 left Ramadi upon the ISIS takeover according to the UN Population Fund, the majority of which came to Baghdad, 75 miles to the east of the Anbar capital. In response to the loss, Iranian Quds Force leader Major General Qassem Soleimani stated, “Today, in the fight against this dangerous phenomenon, nobody is present except Iran.” Soleimani went on to criticize the US as well as the governments of Iraq and Syria for the recent gains by ISIS.

Analysts of the conflicts have noted recent developments have significantly changed the long term options for both Iraq and Syria. Thomas Ricks of Foreign Policy reiterated that the Obama administration’s goal to eradicate ISIS is unachievable because, “you cannot destroy a movement.” Ricks went on to point out the logistical and military drawbacks that have plagued the military response to ISIS and proclaimed, “If our strategy is containment, we should admit it; and the president must be prepared to explain to the American people the risks involved.” While Ricks argues containment would foster a sanctuary comparable to Bin Laden’s Afghanistan prior to 9/11, his colleague Stephen M. Walt defends containment as the best possible option when coupled with working with regional actors like Saudi, Jordan, Turkey, and Iran. Anthony Cordesman of CSIS expands on the latter, noting “Just as it is impossible to have an Iraq strategy without a Syria strategy, it is impossible to have an Iraq strategy without an Iran strategy.”

The largest recent development in the fight against ISIS involves the increasing role of Turkey in combating the radical jihadist group along its border. An agreement between the US in Turkey has spurred perhaps the greatest increase in Turkish involvement since the inception of the conflict. The goal of the new coordination is to create a “ISIS-free zone” within Syria on the Turkish border from which more moderate groups may operate and refugee Syrians may find safety. Turkey’s increased vigilance against ISIS comes after 32 were killed in a suicide bombing attack in the Turkish border town of Suruc. Turkey has additionally allowed US aircraft to utilize Turkish air force bases to stage strikes for the first time. Additional details are being worked out between the Turks and Americans in an ongoing strategic dialogue.

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Turkish airbases near borders of Syria and Iraq

The dark side of the increased Turkish military activity is that it has reignited their conflict with the Kurds, as a two year cease-fire agreement is already deteriorating between the Turkish government and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), Many have questioned Turkey’s newfound motivation to combating ISIS as a cover for renewing their offensive against Kurdish militant groups. Turkey has long been accused of not taking on the ISIS threat as directly as it should, but its evolving position will show in due course the regional power’s objectives. Kurdish-led fighting units known as the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria have made stunning gains against ISIS near their headquarters in Raqqa, recapturing the critical Liwa 93 base and more recently together with Syrian government units they overtook significant areas in and around the city of Hassakeh. There are significant differences between the PKK and YPG, though it is clear more Turkish involvement will make Kurds across both countries a little uneasy.

Thus, the balancing act the US has been playing between the Turks and Kurds in the fight against ISIS is going to become ever more complicated. US and its NATO allies, including Turkey, need to prioritize the campaign against ISIS over the Turkish feud with Kurdish militant groups. Many Kurdish units have achieved great successes against ISIS, and if Turkey is to focus too much on escalating the tensions with them then the only beneficiary would be ISIS and other extremist groups. Now more than ever, the involvement of neighboring regional actors will play a larger role in the fate of Iraq and Syria.

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Mission Creeping and the Ideological Battle against ISIS

ISIS, also called Daesh, militants in Iraq

ISIS, also called Daesh, militants in Iraq propaganda video

After President Obama nearly doubled the number of military advisors to Iraq (from 1,600 to 3,100) in early November, White House official Denis McDonough asserted that the move does not amount to “mission creep.” However, this action epitomizes mission creep and has set the standard for further US involvement. Furthermore, it seems the stage has been set for everything short of direct military engagement. The new US forces entering Iraq will be operating beyond the established bases in Baghdad and Erbil to train nine Iraqi brigades and three Peshmerga (Kurdish) brigades. The Government of Iraq and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) have requested the additional assistance which will supplemental coalition airstrikes against ISIS. Participating countries in the airstrikes and military training has expanded to include the US, UK, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark the Netherlands and France via air intervention, while Germany, Italy, Norway Spain, and Turkey have committed trainers. Gulf nations intervening only in Syria include Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE.

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While previously it has been restated time and time again that there will be no boots on the ground, the definition of what constitutes boots on the ground has shifted over time. Furthermore top military commander General Martin Dempsey commented that he would “certainly consider” sending  a modest number of US combat troops for operations such as the retaking of Mosul. It is important to note a series of recent minor victories against ISIS such as the attacks west of Ramadi carried out by Iraqi forces and strikes earlier in the month that injured ISIS leader al Baghdadi. However, justifying ramping up military involvement beyond the scope of assistance would only further exacerbate the long term conflict as the war against ISIS in Iraq cannot be won from the outside.

A consequence of the perpetual direct military commitment in the region is that it will continue to provide fodder for anti-Western rhetoric. This is a prerequisite trade-off of intervention that has garnered little attention, yet it is crucial in influencing the thoughts and attitudes of many sympathetic to ISIS or caught between competing interests. Alarmingly, ISIS is indoctrinating children to glorify terrorism and resent the outside world, which will seed future hatred and perpetuate extremism based on misrepresented principles. Much of the attraction to ISIS comes from impoverished and marginalized young adults abroad, and constructive alternatives have failed to stem the flow of adherents. Both inside and outside the Muslim world, there must be further action taken on an ideological level to counter the ISIS narrative. Accurate information on ISIS,their atrocities, and their effects must be promoted in lieu of ignorance or apathy.

ISIS recruits allegedly as young as 10 in Syria

ISIS recruits allegedly as young as 10 in Syria

On the other hand, the imposition of ISIS-interpreted Sharia has not come without its own problems, as seen by internal rifts within the quasi-state. The ever changing and hypocritical regulations within ISIS on their perverted interpretations of Islam are frequently at odds within their leadership. ISIS has recently decided to relax its policies towards incoming foreign fighters, hoping to continue attracting high numbers of militants despite controversy within the organization on who should and shouldn’t be allowed in. Medical care in ISIS administered areas has brought about numerous conflicts undermining the ability of doctors under their control.These all point to the group’s need to constantly adapt to their shifting circumstances. If these confusions can be exploited, it would do all the more to undermine the radical message of the extremists.

The need to constantly counter ISIS on all levels, through highlighting their religious illegitimacy, to their unequal and arbitrary mistreatment of civilians, to their ideological extremes, will be ever present for the foreseeable future. Mission creeping will deepen the conflict without a surefire endgame, while fighting the ISIS ideology can invoke systematic opposition.

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Civilians Key for Fight Against Islamic State

Yazidi Woman and Child resting after fleeing from IS

Yazidi Woman and Children resting after fleeing from IS

Over the course of the last several months, the group formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (or alternatively as ISIS) has rebranded themselves as the Islamic State (IS) and established an informal caliphate across large swaths of eastern Syria and western Iraq. The Islamic State has swiftly asserted control over the residents of the cities it has captured, driving out hundreds of thousands of refugees in the process. IS has specifically targeted non-Arab and non-Sunni Muslim minority groups including Yazidi, Christian, Shabak, and Turkomen peoples in what Amnesty international has described as ethnic cleansing. Militants from IS have staged mass executions, coerced conversions to Islam under the penalty of death, and have forced women and young girls into sexual slavery. These deplorable acts persist unabated in areas under IS control as the extremist jihadists continue to seize territory and threaten to further destabilize the region.

Man about to be executed by Islamic State militant

Man about to be executed by Islamic State militant

The Islamic State is embroiled in direct fighting with Syrian government forces, anti-Assad rebel groups, the Kurdish Peshmerga, Shiite militias, and Iraqi government forces. Kurdish and Iraqi forces, in tandem with US airstrikes, achieved a key strategic victory when the Mosul Dam was retaken on August 17th. The US has carried out over 150 airstrikes since the initial attacks in early August, and President Obama has noted that it will likely be an extended campaign as part of the offensive to degrade and destroy IS. As a result of US involvement, a representative of the Islamic State executed American journalists James Foley in a highly publicized event. Steven Sotloff, an American-Israeli journalist, was beheaded days later. Anti-American and anti-Western rhetoric has been a staple of the Islamic State, hoping to incite additional extremists to join their cause. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has warned that the jihadist group could reach Europe in a month if left unchecked in the Middle East, and the number of foreign fighters joining the IS ranks is staggering.

The severity of the threat the Islamic State poses is only now being recognized. What has not been appropriately addressed in the discourse is the appalling and inhumane treatment of minority groups and women under the banner of the Islamic State. The UN on September 1st approved an investigation into human rights abuses by the Islamic State on an ‘unimaginable scale’ but it is likely to reveal what is already being heard from individual accounts, but largely ignored.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Leader of the Islamic State

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Leader of the Islamic State

The Yazidis are a mostly Kurdish ethno-religious minority who follow elements of Zoroastrianism, Christianity, and Islam, and have lived in northern Iraq for centuries. The Shabak people are a separate ethnoreligious group who have a distinct language, culture, and religion. Along with Iraqi Christians, Turkomen, and smaller minority groups, they have been persecuted relentlessly by Islamic State militants. In some cases they are offered the choice of paying a monthly ‘jizya’ tax or the option to flee, but in many other cases these people are killed en masse. Women and girls captured through jihad have been sold as sex slaves and repeatedly raped, justified under a perverted interpretation of Islam. The barbarity has been widely documented from refugee reports, but has received little attention as it is impossible to ascertain the extent of the crimes. These minorities and civilians are critical to the future of the region, as they will ultimately determine who to support, complicity or explicitly, through the long road ahead. IS would not be as powerful as they are today if not for the exploitation of the grievances of marginalized Sunnis and other groups, and it will not be easy to win them back.

In President Obama’s speech on September 10th, he repeated the goal of degrading and destroying the Islamic State. France has recently announced its intention to join in striking IS targets. The focus on eliminating the jihadist group ignores a common mistake that has plagued Western involvement abroad for far too long. The airstrikes that helped free some 20,000 Yazidis from Mount Sinjar saved countless lives, and such actions on humanitarian grounds must continue to protect civilians. Working with regional and international partners is a necessity, but any boots on the ground risk worsening grievances. The idea that foreign powers can ‘systematically’ eliminate IS is shortsighted. The goal should not be to defeat an abstract enemy that will always exist in some form, but rather to enable the locals to reject the extremists that continue to thrive on discontent and conflict. The US and other powers must think forward to what will happen as soon as the air campaigns cease and what will emerge afterwards. It is necessary to retake what IS has captured, but it is impossible to do so without creating new enemies in the process. The US should not stand idly by, but it should reevaluate what it realistically hopes to achieve. Taking back cities without a plan on how they will be administered in the wake of IS demise only serves to create another vacuum of power. Thus all the parties involved in fighting the Islamic State need to win back the trust of the citizenry that has been left in this devastating situation. Providing stability, security, and a real alternative to the Islamic State–for minority groups, marginalized Sunnis, and all other civilians– should be paramount over any long term military objectives.

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The New War in Iraq has Begun

ISIS militants marching in seized city of Mosul

ISIS militants marching in captured city of Mosul

The Iraqi government, the United States, and the international community must recognize the situation on the ground in Iraq and label it appropriately for what has become: a new civil war. The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (synonymous with ISIS) now control cities and significant territory within the country, has further deepened the fracture between Sunnis and Shias, and it has created a vacuum that the Kurdish Regional Government has capitalized upon.

ISIS captured the second largest city in Iraq, Mosul, on June 10th. While the scale of the attack and the success they achieved was unprecedented, their rapid growth and brutality is nothing new. The Sunni Islamic terror group’s first major attack freed hundreds of militants from the Abu Ghraib and Taji prisons occurred in July 2013, nearly a year ago. Since then they have continued to gain sympathizers, fighters, and land, and they now are fighting towards Baghdad while threatening what little stability is left in the country. In February, ISIS was disavowed from its affiliate status with al-Qaeda, and the radical group has continued to prove its effectiveness on its own in pursuit of creating a new Islamic caliphate under strict Sharia law.

Extent of ISIS influence and control

Extent of ISIS influence and control

In the attack on Mosul, the Iraqi army deserted en masse, leaving behind weapons, military equipment, and even uniforms. ISIS has even added former Saddam loyalists to their cause, stirring old animosities against the current Shia government. Thus far, the Iraqi government has proven to be wholly incapable of mounting a counter campaign to reverse the progress gained by the extremist group. At present, ISIS informally administers a volatile region spanning from eastern Syria to western Iraq. ISIS has enough resources and firepower to attack conventional security forces head on though they additionally utilize suicide bombers with devastating results.

The alliances that have been sought with tribal militias and locals to fight ISIS have fallen far short in creating a united opposition to the intruding extremist group. As a result, the US has signalled that it wishes for a new Iraqi government to be formed without the current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, accusing him of failing to curb the festering sectarian divisions plaguing the country. Maliki has had significant troubles appealing to the Sunni community and has marginalized many Sunni leaders in how he has approached the crisis in the western Anbar region. It is clear that without international support the Iraqi government, with or without Maliki, cannot hope to administer their own country.

Iran’s stake in Maliki and a stable neighbor in Iraq, the only other large Shia majority country, has also been brought to the forefront. Iran is already deeply involved in Syria and propping up the regime of Bashar al-Assad, but ISIS is a common enemy for both Iran and the United States. Furthermore, the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) has jumped in and taken control of Kirkuk and other smaller towns previously contested between the KRG and Iraqi government. The Kurdish Peshmerga security forces have not directly fought with ISIS on a comparable scale to the Iraqi army, but they are a critical element to be reckoned with in terms of both the future of the Iraqi state and ISIS controlled territory on their border.

PM Maliki requested a state of emergency after the capture of Mosul

PM Maliki requested a state of emergency after the capture of Mosul

The nascent war currently raging in Iraq between Islamic extremists and the Iraqi government is not the responsibility of the United States. If an American says, “this is not our fight” then they are correct, the current crisis is not a fight of the United States. However, this war has developed under the current Iraqi government that recent events have suggested may be impossible to truly win. The Iraqi government needs to make further concessions to moderate Sunnis willing to stand up against the terrors of ISIS. The Kurdish factor also cannot be ignored, and as they have their own highly trained security forces (the peshmerga), parlaying with the KRG against ISIS should be an obvious option to pursue.

The wider involvement regarding the US, Iran, and beyond needs to be weighed with the larger security threat as a whole. If ISIS is able to build an autonomous, unrecognized state within the borders of Syria and Iraq that can export terrorism to neighboring countries then the priority should be to disable that threat as quickly as possible. The safety and security of innocent Iraqis, whether they be Shia, Sunni, or one of the myriad of smaller minorities, needs to be addressed as well. The US cannot and will not send a conventional military force back to Iraq in the near future. However, utilizing the resources and relationships in the region to stem the success of ISIS for the benefit of all must be pursued.

Iraq cannot continued to be ignored, and the problems it faces will continue to worsen until there is significant change in how the people of Iraq are empowered to stand up and oppose ISIS.

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The Syrian Civil War is Far From Over

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For more background information on the Syrian Civil War check out this post or read my preceding update on Syria.

At least 150,000 people have been killed as the Syrian Civil War enters its fourth year of fighting. The bloodshed has become so devastating and the fighting so entrenched that the United Nations has ceased formally counting the casualties because of a lack of verifiable information. Since the shock from learning of atrocities has subsided and without a major breakthrough by either side, coverage and interest in the conflict has waned. The unfortunate fact of the matter is that the longer the civil war continues, the more the security of the whole region will be threatened, and the tougher it will be for millions of civilians to return to normalcy.

The total number of Syrians who have fled the country is now around three million according to UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres as 2.6 million have officially registered as a refugee in a foreign country. For comparison, if the same percentage of people were to flee the United States that would amount to nearly 42 million refugees, more than the entire population of California. Even if the civil war were to suddenly cease tomorrow, the effects will be felt for years to come for Syrians in the country and those who have resettled regionally and internationally.

The first and second rounds of the Geneva II Conference concluded quietly in February and failed to accomplish anything meaningful. A third round is potentially in the works but there is heavy pessimism on all sides because little has changed and it seems nobody is willing to truly reconcile on key issues. In terms of chemical weapons, it is still possible for the OPCW (the Nobel Peace Prize winning organization tasked with removing the weapons) to complete their mission before the proposed deadline of mid-2014. While taking chemical weapons out of the equation is a great accomplishment and should be praised, unfortunately this is only a minor element of the war at large and will not by itself have a ripple effect in lowering violence.

Spillover from the conflict is apparent through violent attacks in Iraq and Lebanon, and is causing a constant worry for Syria’s other neighbors of Jordan and Turkey. Whether it be violence directly occurring within Lebanon, or the collapse of local markets in southern Turkey, sprawling animosities and the refugee crisis are impacting the region as a whole. International and regional aid has been fluctuating depending on the circumstances, but obviously the longer the conflict goes on the costlier it will be and the more difficult it will be to properly gain the resources necessary to rebuild.

Fighting and shelling may have subsided in some areas, but it is clear that the underlying tensions are just as pressing as ever. Without any political reconciliation or any kind of formal cease-fire, any drop in direct combat between government forces and the opposition could very well translate to an increase in irregular and indirect fighting. Unfortunately too many Syrians and international fighters on both sides are still making the choice to enter the battlefield and risk their lives instead of suing for peace or seeking alternative solutions. A cessation to the bloodshed cannot be instituted successfully without the acquiescence of fighters on the ground, and the process cannot move as quickly in the right direction without international resources and assistance.

What can be done is to not ignore or brush aside the problems of Syria as ‘business as usual.’ These are real people who may be a half a world away but deserve the world’s attention because the atrocities and the devastation have continued and will continue. A renewed effort at seeking political reconciliation and an emphasis on how little violence has accomplished thus far should be a priority. There are next to no opportunities present for either side to seriously consider putting down their weapons because the incentives to disarm have been too few, and too many grievances have not addressed. Even small, concerted efforts towards a cease-fire could have beneficial impacts in the long term. Syria will not conclude its civil war until the Assad issue has been resolved, and the opposition has presented a real alternative.

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Syria at an Impasse

Syria3For more background information on the Syrian Civil War check out this post, or read my latest piece on Syria

The Syrian Civil War is approaching its 33rd month, over 126,000 have now been killed in the conflict thus far, and neither side is gaining significant ground. Experts predicting the imminent collapse of the Assad regime or a routing of the opposition are few and far between as it appears increasingly unlikely that either side will be able to secure outright victory through military means alone in the foreseeable future. 

The two key dates on the horizon are January 22nd, 2014, the proposed date for the Geneva II peace talks, and mid-2014, the expected date of destruction for all Syrian chemical weapons. The expectations attached to both suggest that the status quo of continual fighting is unfortunately not likely to change.

The Geneva II talks hopes to bring together the opposition and regime with American and Russian diplomats to initiate discussion with the primary goal of ending the violence and setting the groundwork for a transitional Syria.

The negotiations at Geneva are the best chance for a breakthrough in the conflict since little is changing on the battlefield. However, there have already been significant issues that make the Geneva prospects look less than promising. The talks have been pushed back multiple times, and while the regime says Assad stepping down is out of the question, the opposition has reiterated time and time again a Syria without Assad is their top demand moving forward.

While both Assad and the Syrian National Coalition have skeptically agreed to attend the Geneva II talks, unless they can set aside the leadership issue it is tough to imagine anything productive may be accomplished at all. Small steps towards reducing violence, such as the safe passage of refugees and the protection of civilians should take precedence over future political settlements in the negotiations.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) mission to remove all chemical weapons from Syria is on track thus far, having destroyed all the means of production. However they have set a goal of mid-2014 to eliminate all weapons which implies that even the international powers who signed on to their mission don’t expect the conflict to end for at least another half a year.

While strategic towns and supply lines continue to exchange hands back and forth between the regime and the opposition, neither side is making serious progress against the other. Instead the war is spilling over further into Lebanon and the death toll continues to rise. Recently, the lack of medical care has become so disastrous cases of polio have reemerged after the disease was eradicated from Syria more than ten years prior.

All this proves that the political settlement should take a backseat to basic humanitarian concerns. At this point, even if Assad were to suddenly disappear from the scene and the regime were to immediately collapse, the result would be further jockeying for power among the opposition groups. On one hand, Assad should recognize that he will never preside over a stable Syria again and change his tactics accordingly to consider a future without him at the top. On the other, the opposition should realize that their efforts thus far at trying to defeat Assad outright have fallen short. If they cannot present themselves as a legitimate opposition and minimize the extremist factions also countering the regime, their alternative Syria isn’t assuredly better than one with Assad.

The US, Russia, and Syrian actors involved should focus Geneva II on the critical needs of civilians first. Reducing the fighting is paramount, and advantageous to the rebels especially. A basic framework, excluding contentious issues like Assad’s role, should be sought, because focusing too much on the deeper political future of Syria could derail the discussion completely. If the opposition really is serious about a Syria without Assad, they should begin preparing for it constructively outside of the battlefield.

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Turkey’s Difficult Balancing Act

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Within the modern Middle East, there are two non-Arab regional leaders. Iran continues to play a major role in the Syrian Civil War, has a population of roughly 75 million, and is 99% Muslim. Turkey also plays a major role in the Syrian Civil War, has a population of roughly 75 million and is 99% Muslim. Unfortunately, the more you read about the Middle East, the more you learn that such generalized simplifications can be just as misleading as they are meant to be informative; Turkey and Iran couldn’t be further from the same.

Iran has garnered significant attention over its nuclear controversy and the succession of President Ahmadinejad with Hassan Rouhani. Turkey, on the other hand, has largely been on the backburner of mainstream media coverage in comparison. At present Turkey is finding itself stuck in the middle of many issues, globally, regionally and domestically. An insight into these issues will give a better understanding of where Turkey stands and the complexities they will face as the situations develop.

Turkey’s decision to opt for a $3.4 billion missile defense system from a Chinese weapons firm over American and European alternatives alarmed the US and the rest of NATO (Turkey has been a member of NATO for over 60 years). The deal has not been signed yet and Turkey insists it is not a political move, but it’s hard to ignore the crossroads Turkey has placed itself  squarely in between its traditional Western allies and a rising power in the east. The possible deal itself isn’t as significant as the symbolic and independent move to act outside of NATO’s interests.

On the Iranian nuclear issue, Turkey adamantly opposes an Iran with nuclear weapons, but it doesn’t want to contradict itself and limit future options in building its own nuclear power infrastructure by condemning all Iranian nuclear pursuits. Turkey wants to be able to work with Russia, Iran and China while simultaneously maintaining its strong relationships with the US and NATO.

Regionally, specifically regarding the Syrian issue, Turkey has tried to walk a tightrope between aiding the opposition and avoiding becoming directly involved in the fighting. Turkish citizens have been killed by border skirmishes, and Turkey has shot down a Syrian helicopter that strayed too far into into Turkish territory. Recently, Turkey extended a motion allowing it to send troops to Syria if needed, although this caused significant controversy between the ruling and opposition political parties in Ankara. Turkey has been crucial in humanitarian initiatives but has faced difficulties in controlling the border. Turkey has the right to defend its borders, but it doesn’t want to incite further violence by lending too much support to the opposition or becoming directly involved. All in all, there’s no easy route for Turkey to take in the Syrian conflict, and thus it should keep its options open while addressing the humanitarian crisis as much as possible.

Internally, protests have persisted since the Gezi Park demonstrations in  late May over discontent with the ruling Justice and Development (AKP) government led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan who has been in power since 2003. Turkey is officially secular and has no state religion, and Erdogan has found himself in the precarious position of trying to initiate reforms that have fallen far short of expectations. Erdogan and the AKP have been rightfully criticized for their repression of the freedom of assembly and controlling the media, and the concessions they have given in response have been minimal.  Protests have continued and are likely to continue so long as police repression persists. Erdogan may not be immune to negotiations, but the accusations of growing authoritarianism are hard to ignore.

The results of the Balyoz “Sledgehammer” and Ergenekon coup trials, in which top ranking military leaders were convicted of plotting to overthrow the government further highlights the internal conflict within Turkey. Modern Turkish history is rife with military coups, and the recent trials, as controversial as they have been, serves to show that such an era may be over. If Erdogan and the AKP wish to remain as the legitimate leaders of Turkey, they need to find the balance between prosecuting those who threaten to undermine the state and attacking perceived political opponents.That balance is incredibly difficult, but listening to the masses and conceding faults would be a solid starting point.

Turkey independently has own prerogatives and its own problems. The rest of the world also needs to find a balance when dealing with Turkey. A middle ground should be pursued to constructively criticize Turkey for its shortcomings and offering to work with them against regional threats. If this can be successfully achieved, Turkey may be influenced to move towards more democratic reforms and be a powerful partner in resolving conflict in the region.

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Why You Should Care About the Kurds (Part II of II)

Kurdish Militia Members in Syria

Kurdish Militia Members in Syria

(Part I on the background of the Kurds can be found here)

Why should anyone care about the Kurds? The Kurdish role in the Middle East could drastically change the outcome of the Syrian Civil War, Turkey’s bid to the European Union and the future stability of Iraq. Most importantly for Americans, the Kurds could be a significant force in the long term war against al-Qaeda.

In Turkey, the recent reforms initiated by the government to solidify the peace with the Kurds and address their grievances fell short. Despite all the other obstacles and realities in play concerning Turkey’s accession to the European Union, a revived Kurdish insurgency would spell disaster for Turkey’s PR image. For both the Kurds and Turkey, leaving the negotiating table for the battlefield is a no-win situation.

Just across the border in Syria, Kurds are not getting the attention or credit they deserve for fighting al-Qaeda’s affiliates. The Kurds are not as concerned with who’s in charge of the Syrian government as the Free Syrian Army, so they have less of an incentive to partner with Islamic extremist groups when the going gets tough. Regardless of the outcome of the Syrian Civil War, the Kurds will be in a much more consolidated position to gain significant regional autonomy or seek full independence. With more independent authority, the Kurds would have more of an incentive to drive away violent extremism from the region altogether.

The relationship between the government in Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has continually been tenuous especially concerning oil revenues. Nonetheless, Iraq deteriorating into another sectarian civil war is a scenario that neither wishes to face, and the two may be forced to collaborate against Islamic extremists for the sake of stability.

The Kurds are the only major group in the region that both fought against Saddam Hussein in 2003 and  al-Qaeda in the Syrian Civil War . Although at the surface they seem like the perfect US ally in the region, it’s a very complicated relationship due to American ties with the Baghdad and Ankara. However, the United States may find more incentives in working more closely with the Kurds as Kurdish relations with their host neighbors change.

The Kurds of today are making modest political gains in Turkey, consolidating territory in northern Syria, and making bold moves towards oil autonomy in Iraq. The Kurds of tomorrow could force Turkey to concede further recognition, establish legitimate autonomy or control in parts of Syria and hold more sway in the oil and political affairs of Iraq. US policymakers should seriously consider closer ties with the Kurds while constructively working with both Baghdad and Ankara. The Kurds could definitely use an ally in the US, and the US has a chance to make a new friend in an emerging Kurdistan.

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