Monday, January 11, 2016

Even I get it wrong on Syria sometimes (quite often)

There are 2 glaring mistakes in my previous post on the situation around Aleppo and to the North. But I have not really found anything that supports Juan Cole's assertion.  As Aron Lund says, it's actually a four-way fight, the fourth actor being the Syrian Democratic Forces, a mainly Kurdish alliance (it includes the YPG, for example), which is also supported by the US.
As you can see from the map, there are areas that are disputed between the government and ISIL. There has been one recent offensive by  government forces towards ISIL territory, about 30 km east of Aleppo (north towards Al-Bab). By contrast, there have been 3 recent offensives from government territory south of Aleppo, north-west, west and south-west, onto the area controlled by the "rebels" (FSA & others).

 From rebel-controlled East Aleppo, there is a narrow exit from near-encirclement by government forces and then a narrow corridor to the Turkish border. There have been 2 recent offensives on this corridor: westwards by ISIL; and eastwards by the SDF (this is presumably the capture of the village of Tanab,  advancing towards  A'zaz, that I mentioned previously). The FSA have attacked out of this corridor, eastwards into ISIL territory, just south of the Turkish border.

The YPG have said that their first priority is to link the Kurdish enclave of Afrin in the west with Kobane to the east, clearing the remaining 60 miles of the Syria–Turkey border  from ISIL control. To roll back ISIL is clearly understandable and unproblematic (except for Turkey). But to link up Afrin to Kobane, the SDF would need to cross or control the stretch of border currently controlled by the FSA (which is obviously their supply route to Turkey). This is not mentioned in the Wikipedia article, nor in Roy Gutman's report for McClatchy on which it is based  "U.S. begins airdrops of weapons to Kurdish forces in northern Syria", 12 October 2015).

Without wanting to make excuses, I think my errors are indicative of one thing: that the Syrian conflict is not always covered in sufficient depth by the "mainstream media".  I don't always have the time to dig out the truth from obscure Tweets.

Update: this is from Reuters' report, 1 Jan:
A U.S.-backed alliance of Syrian Kurdish and Arab fighters advanced against Islamist insurgents in the north of the country on Friday, capturing at least one village in Aleppo province  [..] Fighters from the Democratic Forces of Syria seized the village of Tanab near the town of Azaz after heavy clashes with the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front and the powerful Ahrar al Sham, spokesman Talal Selo told Reuters.  "We liberated Tanab," he said.[.. T]he Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the Democratic Forces of Syria had also captured the village of Tat Mrash. Selo said he could not yet confirm its capture. 
The alliance has separately [from its fight against ISIL] been fighting in recent weeks against Nusra Front, Ahrar al Sham and other insurgents in northern Aleppo province. .The Democratic Forces of Syria includes the Kurdish YPG militia, which has been the most effective partner on the ground for U.S.-led air strikes. 

More on Aleppo

Reporting by Rami Jarrah ‏ ( 2 Jan) :  according to one Aleppo citizen, ISIS (ISIL) is advancing against the FSA in the North because the Russian planes are helping them.  More on PBS Newshour:
JEFFREY BROWN: So, the Russians are saying that they are targeting ISIS and other — and strategic sites, but that’s not what you’re seeing.

RJ: No, Jeffrey, that’s definitely not what I’m seeing, and it’s definitely not what the civilians here in Aleppo are seeing.

I think this man in the video is a small example of what is actually happening. He is frantically trying to explain, it’s just civilians here. There’s no signs of ISIS here. Why are they attacking us? [..] This is what this man is saying. And it’s basically the language that you’re going to hear around Aleppo, because the people here are very much convinced that the Russian and Syrian airstrikes are meant and aimed to target civilians and to drive them either out of Aleppo or to kill them.

And this is something that they have come to believe because of the constant attacks. We’re witnessing between 10 to 15 airstrikes in central Aleppo alone on a daily basis. And these airstrikes, what we have been doing is trying to follow these airstrikes. I have gotten my hands on — access to information of when the strikes hit. So, I’m following the civil defense. I haven’t, until now, seen one attack that has landed on a military unit or a depot. And this is something that we’re trying to document and make clear. Now, the problem is that last year U.N. Security Council resolution actually allowed Russia to actually attack areas that have ISIS or al-Nusra in them.

But that’s on the basis that we’re taking Russia’s take on where those groups are located. But those groups are not located in these areas. And that’s the excuse that is being used to attack these areas. So, this is a major problem. It’s who decides where these groups are. We have been trying to prove that these groups are not located here. If they were, I wouldn’t be able to operate. I wouldn’t be able to do the reports I was doing.

JB: So, what are the biggest fears that you’re hearing from people now? Is it a government victory backed by Russia? Is it ISIS, especially, perhaps, as it’s driven more from Iraq, coming in even stronger in and around Aleppo? [..]

RJ:  The people here are not in any way worried that Assad or Assad’s army or Russia or Hezbollah forces are going to invade Aleppo. I haven’t heard this expressed once. The people here are worried that ISIS is going to, in fact, take over Aleppo, because of the fact that the — not only the Russian airstrikes, but in addition to the coalition airstrikes, they are actually forcing ISIS further away from Iraq and deeper into Syria. And what that means is past Raqqa, past Deir el-Zour, and into Aleppo. So there are no signs of ISIS in Aleppo. So, the fear here is that ISIS takes these areas and that there isn’t really much preventing that by Russia or the Syrian regime, who are actually more so accepting the idea of Aleppo being taken by ISIS, as a sort of an excuse that can be used at a later stage to allow the rest of the international community also to intervene against the opposition. [My emphasis]

Monday, January 04, 2016

Even Juan Cole gets it wrong on Syria sometimes (IMHO)

Yesterday (3 Jan 2016), I read this post from Juan Cole's blog.

This seems, on the whole, to be a sane and balanced piece. However, there is one point I disagree on (highlighted below):
In the past 18 months, Daesh [ISIL] has been contained and then rolled back. It was pushed back out of Samarra. It has lost Beiji and Tikrit. Falluja appears to be in play. It is losing Ramadi, which has been cut off from supply lines to Syria. Ramadi the most vulnerable of Sunni Arab cities in Iraq to attacks from the Shiite south and it was never likely Daesh could hold it in the long term.
On the Kurdish front, the Peshmerga have regrouped and gotten better training and arms. They pushed Daesh out of Kurdish areas in Diyala province. In Ninewah province, they took back Mt. Sinjar, hundreds of miles from Erbil, and then recently took back Sinjar city.
In Syria, Daesh was prevented from taking Kobane and has lost half of al-Raqqa Province, its base. It is being blocked by the Syrian Arab Army, Hizbullah and Russian fighter jets from moving into Aleppo (where even rebel-dominated east Aleppo rejects it).
The situation of Daesh in its capital, al-Raqqa, is so uncertain that there has been talk of them evacuating it toward Mosul. It is being bombed there now by the French and British, a new development this fall.
I don’t deny that the wheels have moved slowly. But you can’t say there has been no progress. There are a lot of problems with mainly enlisting Shiites and Kurds to crush Daesh. They can do it, and probably could do it on an accelerated schedule. But it is much better to have Sunni Arabs play a big role. Reports suggest that they are playing such a role in taking back Ramadi, the capital of al-Anbar province, and have finally been armed by the government of Haydar al-Abadi. Contrary to what Lindsey Graham thinks, US troops would not be more welcome as liberators in the Sunni Arab cities than would Shiite or Kurdish troops.
Comments are now closed on Professor Cole's post, but this is an extraordinary remark, and I must say something about it.

In reality, Russian airstrikes in their early days allowed ISIL to advance around Aleppo and I have not seen anything to suggest they have had a different effect since. Let's look at the situation in the North, from Aleppo to the Turkish border, as I understand it.

The regime is in the West, its territory stretching back through Homs to Latakia, Damascus and the border with Lebanon; ISIL is in the East, back to Raqqa (Deir Ezzor) and Iraq. The rebels (the non-ISIL opposition) are in the middle. In other words, they are between the regime's forces and ISIL's. It is possible, I suppose, that Russian airstrikes are targeting ISIL here (on their frontline with the rebels near Aleppo), but highly unlikely: Putin has said that Russian forces would be prepared to co-operate with the Free Syrian Army, but I have not seen any evidence that they are doing so (*).

For example, regime forces recently captured the village of Tanab from 'rebels + Nusra & IF' , advancing towards  A'zaz  (SDF = Syrian government forces and its allies).

I may have said this before, but I'll repeat it. ISIL fights against everyone, but mainly against the rebels and generally not against the regime. The rebels are in a 2-way fight, against ISIL on the one hand and the Assad regime, supported by Iran, Hezbollah  and, recently, Russian airstrikes, on the other. There are exceptions to this, of course (**).

* Russian air strikes in Syria cause 'civilian deaths', 7.10 "On Tuesday, Russian jets hit areas under the control of the [ISIL] group in Palmyra and the northern outskirts of Aleppo.The attacks destroyed 20 vehicles and three weapons depots in ISIL-held Palmyra, Syrian state television said, quoting a military source. In Aleppo, Russian strikes targeted the towns of al-Bab and Deir Hafer, about 20km east of a military airport currently besieged by ISIL fighters." Nothing like the air campaigns co-ordinated with regime ground forces seen elsewhere in Syria (against the non-ISIL rebels).
US to scrap Syria rebel training programme, 9.10 "The [Syrian] Observatory [for Human Rights] reported that ISIL fighters have advanced and captured several villages in Aleppo province following deadly clashes with other armed groups. This offensive is one of ISIL's strongest advances towards Aleppo in months and puts them closer to government-controlled areas, the observatory said. This comes as an Iranian Revolutionary Guards general was killed near Aleppo, where he was advising the Syrian army on their battle against the ISIL fighter." [my emphasis]

** In Deir Ezzor, ISIL has treated Jabhat al-Nusra (al Qaeda in Syria) with the same savagery it has shown to everyone else, but in the West and just over the border in Lebanon, in Arsal, it seems to have co-operated with Nusra. It has fought with the regime and captured territory from it around Palmyra.