[Midden-Oosten] Analysis and Perspectives as Aleppo comes under deadly siege
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Ma Feb 8 13:17:28 CET 2016
1) Syria: The Mother of all Battles for Aleppo is Joined
By Juan Cole
2) Peace or Pacification
By Robin Yassin-Kassab
1) Syria: The Mother of all Battles for Aleppo is Joined
By Juan Cole | Feb. 5, 2016
Aided by a massive Russian bombing campaign and Hizbullah and Iranian (or
likely actually Afghan) reinforcements, the Syrian Arab Army has broken out
of the siege imposed on West Aleppo by rebel forces toward the north, and
now seems positioned to besiege East Aleppo, which is under rebel control.
The Lebanese newspaper al-Nahar reports on the situation based on a range of
Arabic wire services.
In early October, the shoe had been on the other foot, and rebels had cut
the Damascus-Aleppo road to the south, depriving regime-held West Aleppo of
food and supplies, so that it could have fallen to the Free Syrian Army.
Russian aerial bombardment and government troops along with auxiliaries like
Hizbullah took back control of the road and allowed deliveries to West Aleppo.
But the western enclave was still besieged from the north, as were two
Shiite villages, Nubl and Zahra.
In the past couple of days, the army and its paramilitary allies, especially
Hizbullah, relieved Nubl and Zahra. They had been under siege by al-Qaeda
(the Nusra Front) since 2012 and only survived via airdrops of food. Had
they fallen, hyper-Sunni al-Qaeda would likely have committed bloodthirsty
reprisals against the Shiites there, who are said to have organized
pro-regime local militias.
Then on Thursday the Syrian Arab Army took Mayer and Kafr Naya, putting the
army and its allies in a position to cut off the roads north of Aleppo to
Turkey and so put east Aleppo under effective siege.
Al-Nahar alleges that US military supplies have flowed to the rebels
consistently during this fighting, but the small and medium weapons
(including T.O.W. anti-tank weaponry) were insufficient in the face of 200
Russia air raids in a matter of hours.
It also quotes a source alleging that the Jerusalem (Quds) Brigade of the
Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) was absolutely central to the new
government advance and that its leader, Qasem Soleimani, is on the
battlefield. Al-Nahar also reported that IRGC Brigadier General Mohsen
Qajarian was killed north of Aleppo during the fighting.
Steffan de Mistoura suspended the Geneva peace talks in the face of the
Russian bombing campaign and advances on the battlefield. It is alleged that
the latter were in part made possible because the Russians tricked the US
into pressuring Turkey and Saudi Arabia to halt temporarily resupply of the
Aleppo rebels while the talks were going on.
I talked a couple years ago to a journalist who had been in Aleppo, embedded
with the rebels, and he told me that the rebel forces ran low on supplies
every day, but that there appeared miraculously every morning shipments of
ammunition. The implication was that they were being resupplied from Turkey,
and very efficiently so. That resupply is now in danger.
Rebel forces in east Aleppo, mostly locals and mostly Free Syrian Army
rather than Saudi-backed Salafi Jihadis, are now in danger of falling to a
regime reconquest of Syria’s largest city. This could be horrible in its
reprisals and torture, and thousands of Syrians are already fleeing north to
Turkey, but the border there is closed and they are willy nilly camped in
At the same time, the Kurdish YPG militia has seen an opportunity to unite
its Kobane enclave with Afrin to the west, north of Aleppo, and it is also
moving into the area above the city, which will reinforce a blockade of
rebel-held east Aleppo.
The intrepid Liz Sly at WaPo, among our more experienced and insightful
Middle East war correspondents, thinks that the battle of Aleppo could, if
the regime wins it, be a turning point in the civil war. The regime could
win it all.
Syria’s population was only 22 million before the war, of whom a good 4
million are now outside the country, leaving 18 million. Greater Aleppo
before the war had 4 million people. It may still be about that, since
people have come in from the insecure countryside. That would be 22 percent
of the remaining in-country population. The regime probably has 5 million
under its control in Greater Damascus, another couple million in Homs and
Hama, and nearly 2 million in Latakia province (which it has completely
secured in the past month). That’s 13 of the 18 million, nearly three
quarters of the in-country population. It is hard to see how, thereafter,
Idlib (1.5 million) and Deraa (1 million) hold out (the regime has already
struck into central Deraa in the past couple weeks).
The US, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries appear now to have a
choice of acquiescing in a Russian fait accompli in restoring Syrian regime
control to much of the country, or of attempting to greatly increase rebel
capabilities. The latter want anti-aircraft manpads, which the US has so far
declined to supply. Liz Sly seems to think that in any case that the supply
routes are being cut, and the battle will be over before such materiel can
reach the FSA units, even if the US changes its mind about supplying it.
These dramatic events may have impelled the Saudis to talk about sending
troops to fight Daesh (ISIL, ISIS), which controls areas east and southeast
of Aleppo. The presence of Saudi troops on Syrians soil might at least give
Riyadh some say in the post-war settlement and prove an impediment to a mere
restoration of the status quo ante. This scenario strikes me as far-fetched
and desperate; the Saudi infantry is not known for boldness.
On the other hand, given the massacres committed by the regime and its mass
murder of POWs, and recent indiscriminate Russian air strikes on civilian
areas, I just find it difficult to believe that it can be restored to power
in any straightforward way. Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to have a
Chechnya strategy in mind, with Bashar al-Assad playing Ramzan Kadyrov, the
secular Chechen strong man ruling Chechnya as a comprador for Moscow after
Putin crushed the Muslim fundamentalist second Chechen uprising in the early
But Syria is bigger and more complex than Chechnya, and aside from al-Qaeda
and perhaps some Gulf donors, outsiders recognized it as Russian province.
The Resistance could go underground and go on fighting, using covert tactics
and terrorism, as happened in Sunni areas of Iraq during the prime
ministership of Nouri al-Maliki.
The Fat Lady hasn’t sung yet, by a long shot.
2) Peace or Pacification
by Robin Yassin-Kassab
This was published at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.
As I write, state representatives are attending the theatre in Geneva. (The
talks were stopped on February 3rd). In Syria, meanwhile, reality prevails:
in one day a tented camp of the displaced in the Lattakia hills is bombed,
barrel bombs rain on the south and the Damascus suburbs, Russia’s cluster
bombs crumple over the north, and up to a hundred people are asphyxiated by
chlorine gas in Moadamiyah. Let’s hope the seats in the theatre are nice and
Russia, the prime mover of the process, is inviting its own ‘opposition’
delegates. It complains (with Assad and Iran) that the actual opposition
delegation contains ‘terrorists’. The thousands of Iranian-backed
transnational Shia jihadists in Syria are not considered terrorists and
should not be discussed at this stage.
The United States accepts these terms, and instead of the ‘transitional
government’ agreed upon as the ultimate goal in previous Geneva talks, it
speaks now of a ‘national government’. In other words Assad – responsible
for the overwhelming number of civilian casualities and displacements – can
stay, so that all may confront the ‘greater evil’ of jihadism.
Yet 80% of Russian bombs are falling not on ISIS but on the opposition to
both ISIS and Assad, that is, on the communities which previously drove ISIS
from their areas. A quarter of a million more have been displaced as a
result of the Russian assault, which hits courthouses, schools, hospitals
and aid convoys.
The clear aim of this campaign is to annihilate the democratic-nationalist
opposition so that only Assad and the jihadists remain. Then, Putin assumes,
the world will have no choice but to assist him in winning the whole country
back for Assad. But demographic realities will ensure that a large chunk of
Syria remain forever out of Assad’s grasp. So long as the traumatisation of
this scorched territory continues, so too will radicalisation. Because it
declares an end-times war on everyone, ISIS will eventually be defeated. But
Jabhat al-Nusra (al-Qaida’s Syrian branch) or a successor organisation will
There is no real peace process. Geneva 3 is better named a pacification
process, or appeasement. We should at least speak honestly. Syria’s downward
spiral cannot be halted until the aerial bombardment of civilian areas is
stopped. This would involve robust (diplomatic, economic) argument with the
Russians, something Obama has avoided over Ukraine as well as Syria. It
would mean either establishing a No-Fly Zone, shooting down whatever planes
bomb civilians, or allowing the currently defenceless opposition access to
Once the bombing stops, and sieges are lifted, the displaced can return and
economic and social life can be revived. Space will grow for democratic
activism even as it shrinks for jihadism. And then a genuine settlement
process could begin. What might that look like?
The opposition’s High Negotiations Committee came out of a meeting in Saudi
Arabia which brought together the National Coordination Committee (a
Damascus-based body semi-tolerated by the regime), the Istanbul-based
Coalition, and the leaders of democratic-nationalist (Free Army) as well as
nationalist-Islamist militias. The latter included, at the more extreme end,
Jaysh al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham, Salafist Syrian pragmatists who must be
involved in a final settlement (as must regime-loyalist Alawi communties),
lest they act as spoilers.
Jaysh al-Islam, the dominant militia in the eastern Ghouta, is probably
responsible for the abduction of the revolutionary activists known as the
Douma Four, including Razan Zaitouneh, a human rights lawyer and founder of
the Local Coordination Committees. Our book ‘Burning Country: Syrians in
Revolution and War’ is dedicated to Razan, a woman of fearless principle
whose fate in some way is emblematic of Syria’s. Worse, Jaysh al-Islam’s
leaders have sometimes made sectarian threats which wound the revolution by
further alienating minority groups. Its position on democracy as a desired
end is ambiguous at best. For these reasons civil revolutionaries often find
themselves opposing Jaysh al-Islam’s authoritarianism while at the same time
insisting that it be recognised as part of the revolution and part of the
settlement. Despite its abuses, the militia is subject to popular pressure.
Its assaults on activists are exceptions, therefore, whereas in Assad or
ISIS areas they are the rule. Free elections have been held in Jaysh
al-Islam territory. And Jaysh al-Islam has been the most effective opponent
of ISIS in the Damascus region.
Ahrar al-Sham pulled out of the Saudi meeting complaining that the
conference didn’t recognise Syria’s “Muslim identity” and gave too much
representation to the National Coordination Committee, which is not really a
revolutionary body. Difficult though it is, it is important to try to bring
such groups into the political process and to distance them from Jabhat
al-Nusra, Syria’s al-Qaida, with whom they sometimes collaborate on the
battlefield. If Syria is to survive, the fighting men of the nationalist and
Islamist opposition must merge with whatever remains of the post-regime
Syrian army to take on ISIS, Nusra and other transnational jihadists
(including the Shia ones). But for this to happen, the immediate threat of
Assad’s scorched earth must be lifted.
Even as they execute their own opposition clerics and endlessly bomb Yemen,
the Sauds should be congratulated for bringing together a broad spectrum of
the Syrian Arab opposition. If current circumstances change so that a real
peace process becomes viable, the High Negotiations Committe could perhaps
form a credible negotiating team to sit down with the PYD (the dominant
party/militia in Syria’s Kurdish areas) and representatives of pro-regime
The Saudi recipe, however, misses a vital ingredient – the local councils,
sometimes called revolutionary councils, which have been established
throughout the country. These are practical, not ideological organisations.
Their members are civil activists, family and tribal leaders, and people
selected for technical or professional skills. They do their best in the
very worst conditions to provide humanitarian aid and fulfil basic needs
where the state has either collapsed or deliberately withheld them,
including water, electricity, waste disposal and healthcare.
The idea started with activist Omar Aziz, who wrote an influential paper on
self-organisation in the revolution’s eighth month. Aziz was an anarchist
who believed that protesting the regime by itself was useless if
revolutionaries did not build alternatives to repressive state structures.
He advocated forming councils as grassroots community forums, and helped set
up the councils in Barzeh and Zabadani before his arrest and then death in
prison in February 2013.
Council members are appointed by some form of democratic process, though the
form differs from place to place, and is most severely restricted in regime
or ISIS-controlled areas where the councils must operate in secret.
Aziz Asaad, one activist we interviewed for our book, described the challenges:
“It was difficult for us – particularly in the middle of a revolution
calling for pluralism and democracy – to select revolutionary
representatives by democratic process … It was made worse by the fact that
we were in a regime-controlled area and so constantly feared arrest. When we
formed the local council in Selemmiyeh we adopted what you could call ‘the
democracy of the revolutionary elite’. In secret we chose eleven people from
In the rebel-held ‘liberated’ areas, however, the councils are selected by
democratic ballot – the first free elections in Syria in over four decades.
In recent elections in the Ghouta, militia leaders were not allowed to
stand. Fighters were, but none were elected. In recent months provincial
elections have been held in the Deraa region too, where the Free Army’s
Southern Front holds sway.
It is a sad irony (and one reason why we wrote our book) that the previous
decade’s invasion of Iraq was supposedly done for the sake of democracy, yet
almost nobody in the West today is aware of the Syrian people’s
self-organised experiments in democracy. The Western public, failed by
journalism, are more likely to question Arabs’ capacity for democracy than
to marvel at the Syrian achievement under full-scale military assault.
The councils are not always perfect. Sometimes they are rendered
dysfunctional by factionalism or intimidated by warlords. But they are the
closest thing we have to true representatives of the Syrian people, and they
should therefore be strongly present at any meeting discussing Syria’s fate.
If world powers are genuinely interested in moving the region away from war
and jihadism towards peace and democracy they should support the councils
more powerfully than they are already doing. Financial support is not
enough; there’s no point gifting new rubbish-collection trucks if they will
be bombed in their first week.
At the same time, Syrian oppositional elites and militias should be
encouraged to recognise the central democratic achievement of the local
councils, and thereby to develop a decentralised vision of the future. The
myth that a strong central state ensures the strength and dignity of its
people runs deep in oppositional consciousness – nationalist, leftist and
Islamist – despite all the evidence to the contrary. But decentralisation is
the best way to deal with Syria’s currently explosive ethnic and sectarian
polarisations. It would mean a recognition of autonomy for the Kurds, who
have set up their own council system. It would also mean that different
areas could govern themselves according to their social and sectarian
composition. So alcohol, for instance, may be banned by one council but
permitted by another.
The alternative to decentralisation is partition, which in any case is the
end Putin’s planes are bombing towards. Partition means greater ethnic
cleansing than yet seen. It means the permanence of refugee camps. It means
an Assadist rump on the Mediterranean coast to be squabbled over by Iran and
Russia, and a vengeful, burnt Sunni territory cut off from the sea. A
disaster for the Syrian people, and for global security too.
Recent video with Robin Yassin-Kassab
Book launch at Amnesty International UK
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