Thoughts on Trump and Putin

Hard to plot how Donald Trump will act on the World stage. His campaign trail pronouncements were often vague, frequently contradictory and lacked substance, leaving many in the U.S. and abroad left to speculate about what exactly his defense and foreign policies will look like. There are divisions within his own national security team.

When it comes to Syria, the Obama administration engaged largely in hand-wringing over how to help rebel militias oust Bashar al-Assad. A shift in priority to battling the Islamic State terror group resulted in the reduction of support for rebel groups that weren’t prepared to prioritize the fight against the jihadists over their aim to topple Assad first and then deal with Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi and his followers.

The Assad horse has now bolted, thanks to Russia’s decisive military intervention. With the retaking of eastern Aleppo, Assad’s survival is assured. The announcement today by Russian officials of the start of a military drawdown in Syria is a sign of Moscow’s confidence. Moscow has achieved its main goal — namely to save the Assad regime.

How the conflict will end finally is largely going to be decided by Russia, Turkey and Iran — something I have been arguing for months. Moscow and Ankara engineered the latest ceasefire, which despite violations by Assad forces in the Damascus suburbs and parts of Homs and Hama is largely holding. The rebels are now controlled by Turkey, which can strangle them by stopping arms supplies crossing the border. The U.S. has been sidelined and there are no signs that a President Trump will want to change that — he has been critical of the U.S. getting involved in regime change and for him too IS is the priority.

We could well see greater cooperation unfold quickly between the Trump administration and Moscow in the fight against the jihadists. Such cooperation would help further Trump’s stated aim of improving relations with Russia.

In terms of the battle against the Islamic State, the jihadists have mounted a creative and stubborn resistance. In Mosul Iraqi progress is very slow and the jihadists won’t be ejected likely for months from their last major urban stronghold in Iraq.

In Syria, an offensive is yet to be launched on Raqqa, although bombing runs by the U.S.-led coalition have increased greatly in the last week. On Thursday there were 23 coalition air strikes in Syria and just 6 in Iraq.

The question remains who will be the ground force used to retake Raqqa? Turkey is opposed to the Kurds being in the vanguard and the Arab militias that are part of the Syrian Democratic Forces are not up to the task.

Like Mosul, the offensive on Raqqa will prove long and arduous. With the defeat of IS being one of his few clearly stated policy aims, Trump is likely to grow frustrated with the slow progress in Mosul and Raqqa. To speed things up, I think it likely he will decide to deploy more U.S. military advisers and to increase the rate and intensity of airstrikes, probably with less concern about civilian casualties.

And no doubt Russia will offer help with joint airstrikes. (Recently the IS-held town of al-Bab saw Russian warplanes joining Turkish ones in bombing IS positions in the town.)

Syria-based cooperation between a Trump-era Washington and Moscow will likely start the reset in U.S.-Russia relations. But that reset could easily be derailed — and not just from the political fallout from the Russian election hacking.

With an Assad victory, Russia has reasserted itself in the Middle East. It will become more influential, more important across the Middle East as a whole. It seems unlikely that Trump will want to challenge Russia’s growing clout in the region. But for how long? U.S. and Russian interests in the region don’t mirror each other.

Putin will no doubt push quickly for a change in U.S. policy towards Ukraine. Trump may not be able to deliver on that — a push for an end to Ukraine-related sanctions will prompt a fierce push-back from influential GOP senators like John McCain and from some key NATO allies. That could lead to an unraveling of the Trump-Putin reset.

Another fly in the ointment comes with a resurgent Iran, currently a Russia ally. Assad’s survival strengthens Iran and its sidekick Hezbollah, alarming Gulf allies and Israel. Will Putin dump Tehran to maintain good relations with Trump?

Assad Says It Enough; Maybe The West Should Believe Him

Bashar al-Assad sent sent a telegram Thursday to Russia’s Vladimir Putin to thank Moscow for its military support and vowed to accept nothing less than outright victory. Assad said the army was set on “attaining final victory.”

He noted in his cable that Aleppo has become like Stalingrad, promising that “despite the brutality and cruelty of the enemy, and the great sacrifices and pains, our cities, towns, people and army will not be satisfied until they defeat the enemy and achieve victory.

Now Assad has said this before — namely, that he is aiming for complete victory. So why does the West still persist trying to negotiate a political transition?

Assad sent the telegram hours before government warplanes fired four missiles at a refugee camp 10km from the the border with Turkey, killing at least 30 and wounding dozens.

You can read my full news report on this at VOA here.

And So It Continues

Despite food and aid having been delivered earlier this month to Madaya, one of the many besieged communities in Syria, 16 people have died since. According to Doctors without Borders today there 320 cases of malnutrition, of which 33 are severe and will die unless they receive quick treatment.

“Following heavy shelling of the town last summer and a tightening of the siege on Madaya in the winter, massive restrictions placed on humanitarian assistance mean that essential medical supplies – including enough therapeutic food to treat the most severe cases of malnutrition – are not available for those living there,” the medical charity says in a statement.

The NGO’s medics are now reporting malnutrition in other towns in Syria, including in Moadamiyah, southwest of Damascus.

Looking into the Ghetto

Warsaw

I spent the morning at Warsaw’s Rising Museum, which was opened ten years ago in what was once the capital’s tram power plant to commemorate the tragic (and betrayed) 1944 uprising against the Nazis — the one the Soviets failed to support, halting their advance nearby while the Germans demolished the city, and the Western allies failed to assist.

As I have spent much of the past four years focusing on reporting on Syria, it his hard for me not to draw parallels with the awful plight of the anti-Assad rebels. The photographs of razed Warsaw remind me of the towns of northern Syria and a large portion of the historic city of Aleppo.

And in the museum you can read this editorial written by George Orwell complaining about the absence of support for the uprising offered by the Western allies. “The only thing they ask is, ‘Give us weapons,’ and when these weapons do not arrive, when their friends keep silent, they cannot understand. But there will come a time when they will, and we will pay the price for our deliberate, cold calculations.”

Orwell on the Warsaw Uprising

 

The price is already being paid when it comes to Syria: the refugee crisis impacting Europe is one price — and a costly one as it is ripping the European Union apart.

Another has been paid already: the prolonged conflict has become ever more sectarian, as was predicted by several reporters covering Syria, including myself, and it will have consequences not just for the immediate region but further afield.

Another cost has been to fuel recruitment among desperate Syrian fighters by hardline and al Qaeda-linked Islamist militias and, of course, the Islamic State terror army. Neglect allowed the rise of IS, as I and others predicted would happen, and the consequences of that are being seen on the streets of US and European cities.

In fits and starts, shaped by the day-to-day partisan battles back in Washington, commentators from the libertarian right and the non-interventionist left have argued there are no moderates among the Syrian revolutionaries. And this is untrue.

The claim is made by writers who have no authority, no first-hand knowledge, and who have not given the uprising against Bashar al-Assad the courtesy of ever bothering to find out on the ground what is going on. Syria is a dangerous place — as I know — but unless you mix with the fighters and their civilian supporters, how can you make the judgement call that they are all extremists?

Moderate is in the eye of the beholder, of course. Moderation is relative. But the rebel ranks are full of people I would describe as moderates. Yes, many, especially those who come from rural areas, are religious and cultural conservatives; their womenfolk may wear the hijab; their idea of democracy is sketchy at best. Their victory will not usher in a Western-style democracy. Aleppo won’t turn into Chevy Chase or Hampstead. But they are not jihadists and they have no truck with beheadings or bombing innocents in the West.

Their fight has been for human dignity — for the right to have some say about their governance. Their fight has been against the secret police and the pillage of the state by a ruling elite. Their fight has been for the right to be allowed to start down the path of change and reform and to develop. And our excuse has been to say it is too difficult.

 

Of Broken Promises and Barrel Bombs and Two Brave Syrian Boys

Kilis, Turkey

My afternoon was graced by 13-year-old Ahmed and ten-year-old Nizar, a pair of courageous Syrian boys, who were torn to pieces by barrel bombs dropped on Aleppo and Homs. Ahmed is now paralyzed from the chest down: he has only recently started to use his hands and arms, but the rest of his fractured body will be forever useless. When he arrived in Turkey he was angry and inconsolable but thanks to the compassion and expertise of Syrian refugee doctors, he is now engaging and plays games on a tablet. He flashed me a thumbs up. Nizar lost his right arm; his left is in poor shape with bright scarlet wounds and holes where you can see the tendons. He helps the adult patients in the field hospital where both boys are recuperating. He is bright and open and affectionate and does not complain, I was told. What is the future for these boys? I read today an article that mixes half-truths and nonsense by Robert Fisk, who distorts the war in Syria to bash America. He says there are no good guys in this conflict so best to leave alone and let Assad remain. I hear Donald Trump say send all Syrians back to Syria because they are jihadists. But Ahmed and Nizar are the good guys; the Syrian doctors trying to help them are the good guys, and the Syrians who four years ago protested repression and asked for a modicum of freedom are the good guys. What they have got in return for their request for dignity are barrel bombs and broken bodies, blasted fathers and mothers and daughters and sons, Daesh, Cruise missiles from Russia, and broken promises from the West.

No End In Sight for Syria

In the immediate wake of the Iran nuclear deal there was a flurry of diplomacy involving Washington, Moscow and Tehran with talk that the time might be right to hammer out an agreement to end Syria’s four-year-long civil war. But with renewed commitments from Iran and Russia to shore up President Bashar al-Assad there seems no end in sight for the ruinous war of attrition that has left an estimated 240,000 people dead.

No one is budging their hard-held positions inside or outside Syria, despite the recognition by most parties involved that defeating the extremists of the Islamic State should be among the highest priorities — and that is unlikely to happen while the civil war rages.

For the West the mounting refugee crisis roiling Europe has added urgency to the search for some kind of resolution to the barbaric conflict.

Read my full VOA dispatch here.

Enduring Assad’s Prisons

GAZIANTEP, Turkey — “She wrestles with demons. The memories of her nine-month imprisonment and the beatings and abuse she suffered at the hands of a Syrian interrogator still burn inside her. Now that she’s in southern Turkey. She works as a journalist under an assumed name. And she prefers living with other women who understand the humiliation she went through. Others, as she knows only too well, suffered worse than she did the harsh regime of Bashar al-Assad’s prisons and secret detention centers…

Rowaida Yousef, as she calls herself, used to be a math teacher and citizen journalist in Damascus…

In Adraa prison Yousef had the opportunity to hear the stories of more than a hundred women. “I heard many accounts of women being raped in Damascus by Shabiha after they had been picked up at checkpoints or at buildings they controlled, and before they were handed over to the security branches,” says Yousef. “But I didn’t hear accounts of rapes in the official security detention centers in Damascus.” The picture is different in Homs and Aleppo, she says.”

You can read my dispatch for the Daily Beast here.

Why The War in Syria Won’t End

Beirut, Lebanon

The U.S.-Russia brokered peace talks underway in Switzerland are already demonstrating through sharp clashes their slim chance of success but even before delegates arrived all the signs pointed to the conference being an epic failure. Read my piece on why here at the Daily Beast.

Syria: Compare And Contrast

If I had to teach a journalism class this week, I think I’d elect to discuss two very different perspectives on the chemical attack on Damascus suburbs on August 21 — one written by the London Independent’s Robert Fisk and the other for a rival paper, the Telegraph, by Richard Spencer. Links are here:

Missiles Were Not Sold to Syria — Independent

Assad Ordered Me To Gas People — Telegraph

Fisk does what Fisk too often does, alas: speculate an anti-Western line based on unnamed sources. He has unnamed UN sources and an unnamed Syrian solider. He cites Russian evidence – export papers — that Bashar al-Assad couldn’t have carried out the attack because the Russian missiles used to deliver the toxic agent, Sarin, had never been sold to Syria but to Libya, among others, according to the Russians, he says. No documentary evidence is supplied or any details.

And then to conclude – he quotes an unnamed Syrian journalist who speculates the West might been involved because they wanted an excuse to attack Assad. An excuse? Many people would say there have been excuses galore supplied  by Assad himself in the past two-and-half years – “excuses” that can’t be doubted.

One question Fisk never answers because he never poses the obvious question is: why if the Russian evidence is so conclusive has Moscow not made it public?

Then we have Richard Spencer’s article. It is based not on conjecture but on an on-the-record exclusive interview with Brigadier-General Zaher al-Sakat, a former chemical weapons chief in Assad’s own army. He was the chief scientific officer in the Syrian army’s fifth division and ran chemical weapons operations in the country’s southern Deraa province.

The general, who defected earlier this year, told Spencer “he was ordered (by his superiors) three times to use chemical weapons against his own people, but could not go through with it and replaced chemical canisters with ones containing harmless bleach.”

“Gen Sakat said the regime wanted to ‘annihilate’ the opposition using any means, and said he received his first orders to use chemical weapons in October last year. On three occasions, he said he was told to use a mixture of phosgene and two other chlorine-based agents against civilian targets in Sheikh Masqeen, Herak, and Busra, all rebel-held districts.”

He insists “all such orders had to come from the top – President Assad himself – despite insistent denials by the regime that it has never used chemical weapons.” Sakat believes chemical weapons have been used 34 times, rather than the 14 occasions cited by Western international intelligence agencies.

So, we have the UN inspectors’ report on the August 21 attack that most experts argue points the finger at Assad and we have a former Assad military officer saying he had been ordered last year to use chemical weapons. Who do you believe, and if you were teaching the journalism class, wouldn’t you hope the students noticed that one was based on verifiable facts and a named credible source saying toxic agents have been used in the past by Assad and the other on pure…?

 

 

 

Syria Pictures

Here are some photographs from my December trip into the rebel enclave of Aleppo province in northern Syria. The first picture is the room I slept in. The stove was being fed by crude oil and as a result stopped functioning: so we had some pretty cold nights.

The Stove Failed To Work

 

In the rebel-controlled town of Tal Rifat locals resorted to chopping up mature olive trees for firewood.

Chopping Up Mature Olive Trees For Firewood

No gas stations, of course. The only way to fill up was from dealers using small tanks. Fuel is rationed by FSA rebels.

No Gas Stations: This Is The Way To Fill Up

 

In December rebels — with Jihadists in the vanguard — managed after several days of fighting to capture a sprawling army base and infantry school just to the north of Aleppo city. The rebels wasted no time in defacing murals of the Assads, spraying new colors at the entrance and hauling away seized ammunition and weapons.

Rebel Celebrates The Capturing Of Army Weapons Near Aleppo

 

Rebel Spray Paints New Syrian Colors At Entrance Of Captured Army Base Near Aleppo

 

Rebel truck laden with ammunition seized from a captured Syrian army base near Aleppo

 

Defacing Assad

In Aleppo city and in rebel towns around medical facilities are in short supply. They are targeted by Assad’s warplanes. This building housed before it was destroyed by an air strike an emergency medical clinic.

Aleppo: An Emergency Clinic Had Been Housed Here