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?

Can the Rebels Hold On in Aleppo?

From my dispatch today for VOA:

“The huge Assad assault — regime reinforcements were sent to the city this weekend in what Damascus calls a ‘decisive final battle’ — is testing not only the endurance of an estimated quarter-of-a-million civilians trapped, bombed on and starving in the eastern pocket.

It is testing the rebel forces — to the breaking point, fear diplomats, analysts and some rebel leaders.

‘Can they hold out? No, sadly no, from a military point of view, of course, they can’t,’ says Gen. Salim Idris, a former commander-in-chief of the Free Syrian Army.”

You can read the full report here.

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.

Syrian Remembrance of Things Past

Form my dispatch today for VOA

“Her tears are shed for her now-abandoned house in Damascus, for the remembrances of things past, illustrated by the many photographs of family and friends, musical gatherings and dinners she swipes through on her cell phone. She talks of the dispersal of her family – a grandson and two daughters in Germany, another daughter in Switzerland, an economist husband in Doha…

And then, as she prepares a simple evening meal in her small, sparsely furnished apartment in the southern Turkish town of Gaziantep, Raja Banout sings, doing what she is teaching other Syrian refugee women to do; to overcome pain and disorientation with song, to strengthen the soul with music.”

You can read my story on the all-female Syrian refugee choir here at VOA.

War, Refugees And Munich

Gaziantep

The news gets bleaker: at Munich the West appears to have fallen into a Russian trap, it seems to me. And Syrians can see that the Russian/regime noose is not only being tightened on Aleppo but that the West is preparing another noose for them. Soon they won’t have any place to go outside Syria with Turkey still determined to keep its border closed to the bulk of new refugees. NATO warships are to deploy off Turkey to try to stop war refugees already in Turkey from heading to Europe; and signs are increasing that Schengen may be suspended for two years to stop those who make it to the EU from moving around. Presumably their future is to be thrown back to Turkey — with the EU paying the Turks ever bigger bribes to take them back.

We are in essence deciding to “quarantine” the “Syrian contagion” and in the process certainly breaking the 1951 international refugee convention in spirit — if not the letter of the agreement. What a sad commentary on what Euro politicians like to call “European Values.” I understand the challenges and dangers of admitting and settling so many refugees, but if you want to avoid having to do so, then do something about the war in Syria. Because if Assad remains, the problem will get worse added to which a rising number of increasingly enraged young moderate and nationalist fighters will heed the siren voice of the jihadists.

Those are my personal views. Below are extracts from VOA dispatch today from the Turkey-Syria border.

Syrian rebels warn their five-year-long struggle to oust President Bashar al-Assad will go underground, if they are deserted by Western backers or an attempt is made to foist an unacceptable political deal on them. They will wage a relentless guerrilla campaign against the Assad regime and “foreign invaders” from Iran and Russia, turning the war into a national liberation fight, rebel commanders and opposition politicians say….

With the partial cease-fire deal announced by the ISSG in Munich not including a clear commitment from the Kremlin to end blistering Russian airstrikes immediately — a key demand of the Syrian opposition — the rebels dismiss the idea that Munich represents a breakthrough in the search for a political solution to end the brutal five-year-long civil war that has left upwards of 250,000 dead.

They view it instead as another way-station on a road that will lead to an inevitable Western-backed negotiated political deal that they won’t be able to accept…

The biggest concern of rebel commanders in north Syria is that the Russian-backed regime will use the cessation of hostilities as a PR cover for a shift in battlefield focus, one Western powers will have inadvertently provided a stamp of approval for and won’t be able to object to later.

Read the full report 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.

 

Realism and Syria

An interesting New Yorker look at Obama thinking on Syria and the so-called “realist” school of foreign policy. And John Cassidy has some clear-eyed perceptions, including this:

“Safeguarding the stability of Europe is surely a vital U.S. interest. Indeed, there is strong realist case for regarding it as part of an extended clean-up operation made necessary when the Bush Administration decided to invade Iraq and overthrow Saddam Hussein.”

But as ever with commentators who are only US-based there is this stand-out on the Washington-backed international talks in Vienna:

“It is hard to hold out much hope that these talks will succeed unless the United States drops its demand for regime change.”

Actually, aside from the moral argument about why Assad and his inner circle should have to go, there is a practical one: Syrian rebels won’t settle for anything less. So it isn’t up to Washington or any outsider to drop this demand: rebel commanders and fighters are determined not to finish their fight until Assad is history and are even prepared, they tell me, to fight on, even if all their off-and-on-again foreign backers desert them.

Assad Offensives Seek to Stretch Rebels

Gaziantep, Turkey

My latest dispatch for VOA explores what is happening on the ground in Syria as Assad offensives unfold with Russian air support.

Militia commanders say they suspect the strategy of the government of President Bashar al-Assad is focused on stretching the rebels, seizing control of key highways and encircling larger insurgent-held towns in northern Syria….

A Turkey-based European diplomat agrees with the rebel assessment of the Assad regime strategy.

“I think the aim is to create a cordon sanitaire in parts of central and northern Syria stretching from Jisr al-Shughour in Idlib through to the Aleppo countryside involving the isolation of some insurgent-held towns and reasserting control of the M5 highway linking Damascus, Homs and Aleppo.  It is very tactical,” the diplomat told VOA.

Read the full report here