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‘Report card’ on Syria, Iraq and the Islamic State

Rescue of victim of Assad regime bombing, Aleppo, Syria, April 11, 2016

Rescue of victim of Assad regime bombing, Aleppo, Syria, April 11, 2016. Source: yahoo.com.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Syria spoke at the Pensacola Tiger Bay Club Friday, April 15, 2016. The author and Florida State Rep. Mike Hill, a good friend of Israel, were among the attentive audience while he gave his ‘report card’ on the sectarian impasse in the civil war in Syria with an estimated 300,000 deaths and the failed reconciliation in Iraq among majority Shia, minority Sunni and Kurds. A Pensacola News Journal report of his Syria-Iraq ‘report card’ covered the major points of his presentation, “9 Things to know about Syria and Iraq.”

Not included in this PNJ report were his responses to questions that we posed on whether he supported the alleged covert CIA plan to overthrow Assad in 2012 as depicted in the new book, Left Boom by ex CIA operative Doug Laux. See our Iconoclast April 5, 2016 post on this issue. The other question from an audience member was directed at whether the Obama failure to implement the 2012 red line over alleged chemical weapons release that killed hundreds in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta was a lost opportunity.

As regards the question about the covert plan to overthrow Assad, Ford demurred answering that directly. However, it was evident in his response that the US had lost credibility by not undertaking pinpoint operations as push back against the Assad regime. A regime who he suggested helped to foster the rise of the Islamic State by attacks on major Sunni centers in Syria and release of fundamentalists. He did allow that the al Maliki regime torpedoed the Sunni Awakening, at the core of the Surge Plan by not continuing payments to Sunni workers and targeting leaders of the Sunni Awakening with reprisals. That he suggested drove them into the ranks of the Islamic State. Meanwhile Shia Militias fomented sectarian razzias against Sunni centers under current Iraqi PM Haidar al- Abadi. The sectarian impasse was graphically portrayed in pictures this week of fights inside the Baghdad parliament among the Shia, Kurdish and Sunni members. The drop in world oil prices hasn’t helped the situation.

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Liveleak.com screen grab of Kurdish PYD-YPG victim of Jaysh al-Islam chemical attack on April 7, 2016 in Sheikh Maqsud district of Aleppo, Syria.

On the matter of Obama’s failure to follow through with his 2012 red line threat against Assad he noted that Obama was not concerned about the complete removal of prohibited chemical weapons indicating less concern about chlorine and more about Sarin gas. The irony of the President’s response is reflected in confirmation from multiple sources of the use of Chlorine gas mortars by the Jaysh al-Islam militia in the April 7, 2016 attacks against Kurdish PYD-YPG forces in the Kurdish enclave of Sheik Maqsud district of Aleppo province. Ambassador Ford tends to rely on reports from both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch attesting to Kurdish led Syrian Democratic Forces pushing tens of thousands of Sunnis fleeing not to the North but South into the Islamic State.

Watch this LiveLeak report on the Jaysh al-Islam chemical mortar attack on the Kurdish enclave of Sheikh Maqsud district in Aleppo Province.

A Syrian Observatory for Human Rights report indicated that Jaysh al-Islam has claimed responsibility for the use of alleged Chlorine gas and investigating the field commander’s use of “unauthorized weapons.” We note that Jaysh, a Salafist rebel force backed by Turkey and Saudi Arabia, is a terrorist organization designated by Russia, Iran and Egypt had a representative at Friday’s Syrian peace talks, while the PYD-YPG was barred from attending.

His former Iraqi period colleague, Bret McGurk, Obama’s special envoy on the war against ISIS would probably disagree as he has made common cause with the PYD-YPG as the only effective boots on the ground in Syria fighting the Islamic State.

He also expressed the view that Israel’s government is speaking increasingly of the necessity of removing Assad via some political deal.

With fighting raging in Syria’s north between rebel forces, the regime, and ISIS forces, Syrian refugees caught on the frontier with Turkey are being prevented from sanctuary there.

On the matter of Syrian refugees, Ambassador Ford was not able to respond to that publicly, although we understand that he views US admissions of Syrian Refugees as a humanitarian gesture with those brought in, largely women and children.

Here were the key points in Ambassador Ford’s Syria-Iraq report card:”And it has a way of looking at things which is very frightening,” he said.

  1. ISIS started as al-Qaida in Iraq. Eventually, its leader cut off ties to the main al-Qaida organization and declared a caliphate in spring 2014.
  2. ISIS has a literalist interpretation of early Islamic jurisprudence dating back to the 7th Century, along with a large bureaucracy. Ford showed photos of tax receipts, as Christians must pay a tax if they choose to continue to follow Christianity.
  3. ISIS controls oil wells that fund its activities. Before some were recaptured, the group was estimated to earn up to $70 million per month on the black market. The loss of those assets has caused it to cut in half the salary it pays its soldiers.
  4. The Kurdish Democratic Union Party, or PYD, is a group of Syrian Kurds the U.S. has supported to fight ISIS. The PYD, however, is allied with Turkish Kurds who commit acts of terrorism in Turkey. “The Turks are saying, ‘Why are you helping one group of terrorists against another group of terrorists?'” Ford said.
  5. When the Kurds have taken back land from ISIS, Ford said, they have committed war crimes against Syrian Arabs in the area. ISIS is then able to recruit displaced people who flee.
  6. There is a vacuum left after the conquest of an ISIS-controlled area and there has not been a good nonmilitary follow-up. “If we don’t have people to take this over and make sure the electricity is running, get the hospitals going and make sure the schools are running,” Ford said. “If there is a vacuum, you know the extremists will fill it.”
  7. The Syrian military will lay siege to cities to starve out the population, cut off water, electricity and medical supplies and personnel. As a result of one such siege, a famous Syrian goalie joined ISIS. Ford said this would be the equivalent of a major league baseball star joining a terrorist organization. “What I want you to understand is, the Syrian Civil War is driving people, even prominent people, into the Islamic State,” he said.
  8. Shia militias in Iraq who fight ISIS will go door-to-door, pull people out of their homes and shoot them. In the city of Diyala, ISIS detonated three car bombs in January. Militias responded by killing between 50 and 100 people and bombing seven Sunni mosques.
    Syria’s Bashar al-Assad regime would facilitate the flow of jihadists across Syria to attack U.S. troops fighting al-Qaida in Iraq. “The people who want us to support Assad don’t understand what kind of a snake he is,” Ford said.
  9. Syria’s Bashar al-Assad regime would facilitate the flow of jihadists across Syria to attack U.S. troops fighting al-Qaida in Iraq. “The people who want us to support Assad don’t understand what kind of a snake he is,” Ford said.

EDITORS NOTE: This column originally appeared in the New English Review.

Kurds with Russian Support Cross Turkey’s “red lines” in Syria

The Munich Communique reached by 20 countries last week imposed a cessation of hostilities by the opposing forces in the Syrian civil war with its mounting death toll. It has been breached by Erdogan, Russian backed Assad regime forces and their allies, Iran and proxy Hezbollah. The latter have successfully blocked Syrian opposition forces in both Latakia and Aleppo provinces. There are enough holes in the Agreement to permit freedom of action by Russia, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia.

This weekend   brought news concerning Turkey’s cross border shelling of Syrian Kurdish YPG/PYD forces with Russian air support violating Erdogan’s “red line” crossing the Euphrates and seizing another strategic  air field.  This occurred despite Obama’s Special Middle East envoy in the war against the Islamic State (IS),  Brett Mc Gurk, meeting with Syrian Kurdish YPG/PYD forces in Syria and Vice President Biden’s meeting with Erdogan and Premier Davutoglu in Ankara last week.  Erdogan considers the YPG/PYD forces as an extension of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) that Turkey, the EU and US consider as a ‘terrorist group”. This despite his breaking a cease fire agreement with PKK head Abdullah Ocalan under house arrest.  Erdogan’s security forces have a real battle on their hands in predominately Kurdish Southeastern Turkey trying to subdue stubborn urban resistance, a change from the 30 year war with Turkey’s Kurds. The advent of a Kurdish party, the Peoples’ Democratic Party, the HDP, in the Ankara parliament, that Erdogan has endeavored to isolate but failed to vanquish. is a reflection of the growing Kurdish minority flexing its political strength.

These developments in both Syria and Turkey underline the Administration’s virtual abdication of the countervailing power vacuum in the Middle East that Putin has seized possibly bolstering the regional Kurdish aspirations for a long sought independent resource rich state.  This might be viewed as further pushback against the Islamist AKP regime of Turkey’s Erdogan.  All of these developments arose following Turkey’s shoot down of a Russian SU -24 bomber in October 2015 and dramatic break off in relations and joint economic projects between Russia and Turkey. Now, there are rumblings from Russian Prime Minister Medvedev in an interview indicated that the rising conflict with Turkey might possibly lead to “new Cold War era.”  Frederica Mogherini, EU Foreign Relations Commissioner downplayed that saying she had seen any evidence of that  in the last few days. Meanwhile both Poland and the Baltic States aren’t so sanguine. Turkey is a NATO member which can invoke an Article in the Charter of the mutual defense group requiring all members to come to its aid should there be an alleged attack by Russia.

Note this background  in a EUobserver report, “Turkey clashes with allies over attack on Syria Kurds:”

France and the US have urged NATO ally Turkey to stop firing on Kurdish groups in Syria, putting at risk a new “cessation of hostilities” accord.

The French foreign ministry appealed on Sunday (14 February) for an “immediate halt to bombardments, by the [Syrian] regime and its allies in the whole country, and by Turkey in Kurdish zones”.

It added that the “absolute priority is the implementation of the Munich communique” – a deal to pause fighting agreed by almost 20 states at a security congress in Munich last week.

The White House said US vice president Joe Biden had made a similar appeal to Turkish PM Ahmet Davutoglu by phone on Saturday.

“The vice president noted US efforts to discourage Syrian Kurdish forces from exploiting current circumstances to seize additional territory near the Turkish border, and urged Turkey to show reciprocal restraint by ceasing artillery strikes in the area,” it said.

Brett McGurk, a US special envoy on the fight against Islamic State (IS), said on Twitter: “We have … seen reports of artillery fire from the Turkish side of the border and we have urged Turkey to cease such fires.”

Turkey warns Kurds have crossed its red lines in Syria:

The appeals came after Turkish howitzers shelled Kurdish PYD and YPG groups in northern Syria, killing dozens of people, after Kurdish fighters, helped by Russian air strikes, seized territory including the Menagh air base near the Turkish border.

The US and EU powers see the Kurdish militias as allies in the fight against IS. But Turkey says they are a branch of the PKK, a Kurdish group designated by the US and EU as a terrorist entity, which has been fighting a 30-year insurgency against Turkish authorities.

The Turkish leadership has refused to back down.

Davutoglu told German chancellor Angela Merkel over the phone on Sunday that his forces “gave the necessary response and will continue to do so”, according to his office.

He added that the PYD-YPG offensive was aimed “not just at Turkey but also the European Union” and that it would prompt a “new wave of hundreds of thousands of refugees” from Syria.

Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, speaking in Munich to the Sueddeutsche Zeitung daily, urged the US and EU to back safe zones for refugees inside Syria if they wanted to stem the flow of people.

Turkey’s deputy PM, Yalcin Akdogan, told the Kanal 7 TV broadcaster:.

“The YPG crossing west of the Euphrates is Turkey’s red line.”

The comments follow strident words by Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan last week, who told the US: “Are you together with us, or are you with the PYD and YPG terror groups?

The February NER featured a discussion with Dan Diker and Shoshana Bryen  about what motivated Putin’s entry into Syria,Russian Intervention in Middle East Conflicts .” One is the ability to attack radical Sunni Islamists; the other is achievement of  Russian national  security and economic interests. Further,  as pointed  out the alliance with Iran and proxy Hezbollah is tentative at best.

Obama in his final year in office has abdicated the traditional Sunni alliances creating a power vacuum via the rapprochement with Islamist Iran to achieve a fragile equilibrium in the Middle east.   Putin allegedly has no intentions of threatening Israeli national security on its northern frontier or engaging in support of Palestinian aspirations.

The Russian  aerial assault on Turkmen and rebel Sunni forces supported by Turkey and  Saudi Arabia in Syria’s north sealing off  Sunni rebel opposition groups and supporting  Syrian Kurds is also part of Russian strategic moves in the region.   It threatens Erdogan’s and US aspirations of creating a no fly zone to stem the tide of further Sunni Muslim refugee  flight to Turkey and hence to Europe. It may also enable the closure of the remaining gap in the northern frontier of Syria between the autonomous Kurdish enclaves of Rojava and Afrin. This would cut off the open border through which foreign Sunni jihadis and smuggled oil and other trade with Turkey from ISIS has poured. Erdogan is also under enormous economic pressure given Russian economic sanctions and the suspension of the gas pipeline deal struck in 2014.

Erdogan has euchred baksheesh in billions of Euros from the EU to stop Muslim migration to no avail. Erdogan blusters about invading Syria to block irredentist Kurdish aspirations in Syria while conducting an inflammatory counterterrorism campaign against stubborn Kurdish resistance in the urban centers of the country’s Kurdish dominant Southeast. Putin is poised to support Kurdish autonomy aspirations on both sides of the Syrian/Turkish border as leverage against Erdogan.

That would enable the Syrian Kurdish forces to vanquish Sunni rebel and ISIS forces in Syria’s north blocking the Islamic state. This offensive operation might set the stage for a massive Russian aerial campaign against the Caliphate. That is something the US led coalition has failed to achieve because of the Administration’s rules of engagement and failure to supply both Iraqi Peshmerga and Syrian Kurdish forces with heavy arms. Thus, Putin is using his playbook from the seizure of Crimea and Eastern Ukraine in the Middle East. Russia is fast becoming the strong horse that Israel, the Gulf Sunni States and the Saudis must come to some form of accommodation.  Netanyahu’s trip to Moscow in September 2015 enabled the Jewish nation to exercise its sovereign national security interests attacking Iranian supply of strategic arms to proxy Hezbollah. Netanyahu’s security concerns on his northern frontiers are complicated with Russian support of Assad operations aimed at retaking Daraa in the country’s south not far from the Golan frontier with Israel.  That might raise the possibility of Iranian Basij paramilitaries and Quds Force based along the Syrian side of the Golan threatening cross border terrorist actions. That would add to the mix of threats there including al Nusra and ISIS units.

This is the 21st Century version of the classic great game that Czarist Russia played in the 19th Century against imperial Britain in Russia’s march to the Far east and Pacific that failed to achieve warm water ports in the Mediterranean and South Asia.  See:  Peter Hopkirk’s, The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia.

The difference in the 21st Century is that Putin has his warm water bastions in the naval and air bases he has built on the Mediterranean coast of the Alawite Latakia province in Syria.

As to the blustering statements made by Republican Presidential hopeful Donald Trump during primary debates suggesting a strategic alliance between Russia and the US in the Middle East, that awaits the outcomes of the fractious nomination process for both the Republican and Democratic parties in the run up to the 2016 elections in the US. Suffice to say 2016 exemplifies the ancient Chinese curse. May you live in interesting times.

EDITORS NOTE: This column originally appeared in the New English Review. The featured image is of Kurdish YPG fighters: Seen as allies by the US and EU, but as PKK-linked terrorists by Turkey. Photo: Kurdishstruggle.