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.


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