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.

War, Refugees And Munich


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

An Improbable Week

As the cliche has it — truth is the first casualty of war.

And this week officials in Moscow, Ankara and Washington DC appeared determined to prove the saying true.

A Russian Defense Ministry spokesman claimed Tuesday a remarkable victory over Islamic State militants — despite the fact that 90 percent of Russia’s airstrikes have been targeting anti-Assad rebels of the Free Syrian Army or the Islamist Army of Conquest. IS had lost “most” of its ammunition, heavy vehicles and equipment in Russian airstrikes, the Defense Ministry baldly bragged Tuesday. So 86 claimed Russian airstrikes on IS the previous 48 hours — plus a few the previous two weeks — managed to achieve what 7000 US-led coalition airstrikes had failed to do!

Just putting aside how improbable that sounds, it doesn’t square with field actions of ISIS to the north-east of Aleppo, where Russian airstrikes have assisted the terror group to capture from Syrian rebels a chunk of important real estate. Nor does it square with what anti-IS activists inside Raqqa and Deir Ez-Zor tell me. Yes, damage is being done to ISIS by coalition and Russia airstrikes but the group is hardly on the ropes yet and won’t be until they are challenged on the ground by a serious force.

And that leads into the second great improbable of the week — this time coming from Washington. Namely that a US air-drop this week of 45 tonnes of ammunition in northern Syria did not go to the Kurds’ YPG forces. A Pentagon spokesman insisted Thursday that the US military was confident the supplies got to the so-called Syrian Arab Coalition. Earlier, another Pentagon official, Peter Cook, had admitted to reporters that some of the ammunition might have ended up with other groups, including the Kurds.

The Pentagon’s “correction” neither squares what the YPG/PYD is saying — including their leader Salih Muslim — nor does it make any sense, if, as US officials have said, they are pushing the YPG and Syrian Arab Coalition to march towards Raqqa, ISIS’s de facto capital, encircle and isolate it. The YPG is the dominant force in that grouping, able to field 25,000 or so fighters. The Syrian Arab Coalition can field according to Washington 5000 fighters and is basically a YPG catspaw.

And if you want to know what a dubious group the Syrian Arab Coalition is, read my report here.

The last great improbable of the week came from Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, who offered one of the most unlikely pairings ever when he suggested on Thursday that ISIS and the PKK, Turkey’s outlawed Kurdish separatists, may have both had a hand in last weekend’s suicide bombing in Ankara, the deadliest terror attack in modern Turkish history.

Among those detained, he said on TRT television, are “people linked to the PKK and linked to ISIS,” he said.

And Aleppo?

From my Daily Beast dispatch this weekend:

“A battle is taking shape that could decide the fate of the Obama administration’s strategy for defeating ISIS, and it’s not around the Kurdish town of Kobani. It’s for the future of the second biggest city in Syria, ancient Aleppo, besieged on three sides by the forces of the tyrant Bashar Assad and the murderous zealots of the so-called Islamic State holding part of the other side.

For the relatively moderate Syrian militias to whom the Obama administration already is funneling arms, the neighborhoods of Aleppo where they still hold ground are a last redoubt inside the country. And in the next few hours or days their last supply line to the outside very likely will be cut.”

You can read the full report here.

Syria: Online Videos Just Get Worse

These past few weeks have been grim not only in terms of the carnage in Syria but the brazen bragging and video recordings of atrocities by those carrying them out. Combatants on both sides of the horrific two-year-long civil war have acted with bestial cruelty.

Government bombing and strafing of civilians and of targets that had no obvious military value has been recording by human rights workers and numerous journalists, including myself. Back in December as I crossed the border into Syria from Turkey a refugee camp was strafed by a Syrian air force warplane: the cannon shot ripped 50 meters from me and my translator and then went right through refugee tents. It was sheer chance that no one was killed that day.

Rape as a weapon of terror has also been used by government forces: how systematic remains to be seen. I interviewed a woman back in August who witnessed the aftermath of a gang rape of a neighbor in Homs. In March, bodies of men shot apparently by gunmen loyal to President Bashar al-Assad were floating down a river in Aleppo.

Government forces are no doubt responsible for more deaths than the rebels with many of those casualties killed in indiscriminate air strikes and artillery barrages. But rebel brigades, jihadist and otherwise, have engaged in atrocious acts as well — and they are not hiding them.

This week a particularly chilling Internet clip surfaced of the filming of a rebel brigade commander ripping open the torso of a dead pro-government fighter and removing from the corpse the man’s heart. It appears it may have been more lung than heart but that is neither here nor there. He then proceeded to chew on it.

A link to the clip is here for those who have strong stomachs. I strongly advise any kids reading this post not to watch.

The gratuitous act is not only disturbing in itself. The man you see doing this unashamedly is Abu Sakkar, commander of the independent Omar al-Farouq Brigade, an offshoot of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) Al-Farouq Brigades. He’s a significant commander and last month was pictured on videos firing rockets at Shia villages in Lebanon. “I swear to God we will eat your hearts and your livers, you soldiers of Bashar the dog,” he says after mutilating the body. He issues also blood-curdling threats against Alawites, the minority Muslim sect that forms the backbone of the Assad regime.

The act – a war crime – will add to sectarian hatred. You can see the cycle in an interview Abu Sakkar gave Time magazine this week.

His real name is Khalid al Hamad and in the interview he justifies his actions by arguing that he found evidence on the man’s cell phone of rape. “We opened his cell phone and I found a clip of a woman and her two daughters fully naked and he was humiliating them, and sticking a stick here and there.”

Then today Internet clips posted by jihadists surfaced showing the summary execution in the city of Raqqa of three captured pro-government fighters – they are described as “Assad officers.” Summary executions are technically also war crimes. The justification given for the executions is retaliation for massacres carried out by government forces. Here is a link to the clip. Again children are advised strongly not to watch.

The executions were carried out in the name of the Islamic State of Iraq – in other words Al Qaeda in Iraq. Last month, the jihadist group Jabhat al-Nusra formally merged with the Islamic State of Iraq, and this is one of the first instances that al-Nusra has used its new merged name of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham. Some background on this merger can be found here in a Daily Beast article I wrote examining the merger and its implications.

All of this bodes badly for the future course of the fighting and for eventually what will happen in Syria when and if the Assad regime falls. Such barbarity on the rebel side will not help Western policymakers as they try to work out what they should be doing. How can they make the case to their publics that the West has to get more involved when the side they will be boosting are exulting about the atrocities they commit?

Syrian Rebels Trying To Buy Black Market Missiles


“Syrian rebels are redoubling their efforts to acquire portable anti-aircraft missiles following government airstrikes on cities and towns in the north of the country.

In the latest such strike, a Syrian Air Force jet bombed the rebel-held town of Azaz near the Turkish border, killing at least 50 people and wounding more than 100.

Rebel commanders and activists say their buyers are now scouring the arms black markets in the region to get the shoulder-fired missiles that can counter the government airstrikes.”

Read more from my recent VOA dispatch here.

Why Rebels Are Finding It Hard To Hang On To Aleppo


Running low on ammunition and faced by a fierce onslaught from President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, rebels from the Free Syrian Army are finding it tough going in Aleppo. I reported on this last week for the Daily Beast. Yesterday, FSA commanders met in Turkey to discuss what to do about the ammunitions crisis but could come up with no immediate solution. They are encouraging brigades with a surplus to share with those running low, hardly a sustainable policy.