Saturday, May 24, 2014

Assad Is Odious - But the West Still Talks To Him Behind the Scenes

Two years ago, many were predicting the imminent fall of the Assad regime. As an increasing amount of Syrian territory slipped out of the regime’s control, it seemed like only a matter of time until rebel forces would be in central Damascus. Now, however, the narrative regarding Assad’s survivability has changed dramatically.
If there was any doubt about Assad’s staying power, news out of Damascus should put paid to that notion quickly enough. According to a BBC article, Western intelligence agencies have been visiting Damascus for talks with the Syrians on how to mutually combat the radical Islamist groups fighting the Assad regime. As readers familiar with the events in Syria are no doubt aware, the opposition to Assad has been increasingly co-opted by radical Jihadist al-Qaeda-affiliated groups such as al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), resulting in continued strong support for Assad amongst Syria’s non-Sunni minorities, especially the Alawites who form the backbone of the Assad regime.
Why, however, would western intelligence agencies be interested in talking with the Assad regime? The answer is that large numbers of European Muslims have gone to Syria to fight with the opposition, most of whom have ended up joining al-Nusra or ISIS. I have seen estimates of the number of Europeans fighting in Syria as anywhere between 1,500 – 3,000, including 700 from France alone.
From the perspective of western intelligence agencies, Europeans who travel to Syria to fight Assad could easily end up becoming radicalized there, especially if they have joined the two al-Qaeda groups within the opposition. Naturally, European governments worry about the threat of thousands of their radicalized citizens returning to the Europe and turning the skills they have gained in Syria against their own countries. While European intelligence agencies can track a few tens of returning radicals, once you get into the range of thousands the threat matrix increases exponentially.
Clearly, one excellent source of information about European Muslims fighting with the opposition in Syria would be the Assad regime itself. Brutal but effective, Assad’s security agencies — the dreaded Mukhabarat and the Military Intelligence Directorate — are a prime source of information for information of interest to European intelligence agencies concerned with protecting their own homelands against a possible new nexus of terror. Of course, there is no official confirmation from European intelligence agencies of there coordination with the Assad regime, there is strong evidence that this is gpoing on behind the scenes.
Does this mean that the West is now tilting to Assad? Not so far, and indeed, the western line continues to be that “Assad must go.” However, the very fact that leading western intelligence agencies are now even talking to the Assad regime — much less cooperating with it — shows how messy and confusing the Syrian civil war has become. At the end of the day, however, countries tend to focus on their own national interests — first and foremost of which is protecting their own homelands — and from that perspective it is not altogether surprising that western spies are buddying up with the Assad regime — however odious we may find Assad to be.


Friday, September 6, 2013

Sunnis, Shiites, Alawites and Christians - What are the Demographics of Syria?

As I've discussed previously in my post entitled Syria: Sunnis Versus Alawites, the situation in Syria can increasingly be seen through the lens of a sectarian conflict between the minority Alawites - who are considered an offshoot of the Shiite branch of Islam - who control the Assad regime, and the majority Sunni population that spearheads the revolt. Of course, that it is a bit simplified, but the general framework is correct.

I recently came across a map of Syria that wonderfully demonstrates the true demographic complexity of that country. If you look at the map, you can see that Syria has 17 different ethnic and religious groups, ranging from Sunnis, Alawites and Christians, to tiny minorities of Armenians, Aramaeans and others (and in an interesting surprise, the country evidently includes some Jews who live near the town of Palmyra). Another point worth highlighting in this picture is that you can see the Alawite population concentrated in a grey green cluster on the Mediterranean coast near the ports of Lakatia and Tartus, which as discussed in an earlier post, is where Assad might as a fallback option look to establish an Alawite mini-state apart from Syria.

Another interesting point to consider is that this shows how the maps of new countries in the Middle East - which were drawn primarily be the colonial powers Britain and France in the first half of the 20th century - had artificial borders which created an almost built in recipe for conflict. As the Sunnis Arabs are clearly the largest demographic group in Syria by far, it was probably not realistic that a small minority Alawite population of only 12% could be expected to rule (by authoritarian means) the country indefinitely without raising the ire of the Sunnis. In that sense, what could be argued here is that Syria is essentially re-balancing among more natural ethnic and religious lines. While some countries have managed to achieve this rebalancing peacefully - think the break-up of Czechoslovakia into the two countries of Slovakia and the Czech Republic - in Syria this rebalancing has tragically turned into a brutal killing field of inter-ethic and religious conflict.

Ronn Torossian on Algemeiner

Saturday, August 31, 2013

US Military Forces Around Syria and What They Might Attack

US Military Forces Near Syria
For the last several days, the news has been filled with updates on if or when American military forces will strike Syria in response to the Assad regime's alleged use of poison gas in an opposition held area near Damascus called Ghouta. While a few days ago it looked like an attack on Syria was imminent, as of Saturday, August 31st, President Obama has decided to hold off on striking Syria until he gets authorization from the US Congress to do so.

I personally think that the US is - again - rushing into a potential conflict in the Middle East without having thought through all of the potential repercussions of doing so. With that said, however, the amount of power the US could use against the Syrian regime if it chooses to do so is massive. On top, we can see the disposition of forces in the region. Note that the US has five cruise missile carrying destroyers in the Mediterranean Sea near Syria, and it is those cruise missiles which would be the primary means of striking the Assad regime's military forces.

The next question is, what exactly would the US and it's allies be trying to attack in Syria? The map below is an excellent overview of the major airbases, military bases, and Army units of Assad's regime, all of which could be targeted.
Syrian military assets the US might attack

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Sunni-Shiite Conflict Explodes in Lebanon

Demographic Map of Lebanon
I have long argued that much of the strife in the Middle East can be seen through the lenses of the longtime Sunni-Shiite split in the region. At this point, I think it's very clear that what are seeing in Syria is a battle between Sunni rebels (unfortunately increasingly dominated by hardline Jihadists) and the Alawite/Shia regime - see background here.

Now, it appears that Lebanon is on the brink of a Sunni-Shiite civil war itself. Tensions between Sunnis and Shiites in Lebanon have been on the rise since Hassan Nasrallah decided to go all in on support for the Assad regime and sent thousands of his fighters to Syria to support Assad. In the last couple of weeks, unfortunately, tensions between the two sects in Lebanon have exploded.

It started with a car bomb back in July exploding in in the Shiite South Beirut suburbs dominated by Hezbollah which injured 53 people. Things got much worse on August 16 when another car bomb exploded in Hezbollah-dominated territory, this time killing 22 Shiites and injuring hundreds. Responsibility for the blast was claimed in a You Tube video by a Sunni Jihadist group calling itself the Brigade of Aisha.

Not surprisingly, a few days later two bomb blasts ripped through Sunni areas of the city of Tripoli in northern Lebanon, including one at the Taqwa Mosque, many of whose members are hardline Sunnis. Although Hezbollah did not explicitly claim responsibility for the blasts, a branch of Al-Qaida quickly announced that it blamed Hezbollah and vowed vengeance.

As people familiar with Lebanon know, the country endured a horrible civil war between 1975 - 1990, in which over 100,000 people died, a huge number for a country of only four million people. As the map above shows, the country is a complex stew of various ethnic groups, and it has always been balanced on a knife's edge and frequently been the playground of larger conflicts playing out in the Middle East. Lebanon is a beautiful country, but I fear that it is on the edge of being dragged into the nightmare playing out in Syria.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Israel Strikes Syria - Aims to Prevent Transfer pf Game-Changing Missiles to Hezbollah

Israeli warplanes struck Syria over the weekend near Jamraya
As I discussed in a number of previous blog posts - for example here - I have long seen the situation in Syria as a sectarian civil war between the majority Sunni population and the Alawite minority that forms the backbone of the Assad regime. Israel - wisely enough - has remained aloof from the Syrian civil war.

However, Israel has always made clear that it's one "red line" in the conflict was that it would not tolerate the transfer from Assad to Hezbollah of game changing weapons such as advanced anti-aircraft missiles or longer range ground-to-ground missiles. Next to Iran, Israel sees Hezbollah as it's mortal enemy and fears the Lebanese Shiite organization far more then the Assad regime. Israel already struck Syria once previously, attacking a convoy to Lebanon carrying SS-17 missiles which were likely destined for Hezbollah.

Over the weekend, Israel struck Syria twice in two days, again to prevent the transfer of advanced weaponry to Hezbollah. In the most recent cases, it appears the target of Saturday and Sunday's attack were a shipment of Iranian made Fatah-110 missiles being delivered to Hezbollah through Syria. Analysts say the Fateh-110 could put the Tel Aviv metropolis in range of Hezbollah gunners, 100 km (60 miles) to the north, which would bolster the arsenal of a group that fired some 4,000 shorter-range rockets into Israel during a month-long war in 2006. The second bombing, this past Sunday May 5th, was particularly intense. It appears Israel struck a weapons research facility and warehouse in the Syrian town of Jamraya.

In an article on the NBC news website, diplomatic correspondent Martin Fletcher outlined the four types of weapons systems Israel would not tolerate being transferred to Hezbollah:
Analysts here say there are four weapons systems on Israel’s blacklist, whose transfer through Syria would trigger air attacks: guided ground to ground rockets like the Iranian Fateh 110’s reportedly destroyed in this weekend’s attack; chemical weapons; land to sea missiles like Russian Yakhont missiles that can hit a ship 200 miles at sea at speeds of up to Mach 2; and anti-aircraft rockets like the SAM 17s that would endanger Israel’s control of the skies.
My opinion is that Israel has reached the point where it is no longer to willingly accept the transfer of weaponry from Iran or Syria to Hezbollah; if that is indeed the case, we can expect more Israeli strikes within Syria going forward.

If you want to read the NBC article by Martin Fletcher, here it is. If you are interested to understand more about the interplay between Israel, Iran and Hezbollah, I also would recommend reading a previous series of posts I did on the subject:

Part 1: If Israel Bombs Iran, Will Hezbollah Attack Israel?

Part 2: Possible Israeli responses if it is attacked by Hezbollah

Part 3: An overview of Hezbollah's arsenal of missiles (with several infographics)

Part 4: The Israeli Military Plans to Destroy Hezbollah in the Next War

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Israel Planning a 10 Mile Buffer Zone in Syria as the Assad Regime Crumbles

Israel once had a buffer zone in southern Lebanon as well
As a follow-up from my just published post on the Israeli air strikes in Syria, I just came across a news report - which evidently originated in the UK's Sunday Times - that Israel is planning a buffer zone" of 10 miles in northern Syria if or when the Assad regime finally crumbles. Israel of course has a long northern border with Syria, and the Israelis fear that in the chaos that would surely follow a collapse of the Assad regime they (the Israelis) would be faced with jihadist forces on their northern border.

Israel and Syria have fought three major wars against each other - 1948, 1967 and 1973 - and both Hafez al-Assad and his son Bashar have demonstrated implacable hostility towards the Israelis. Nevertheless, from Israel's perspective, the Assad's have kept Israel's northern front quiet for 40 years, and Israel has generally taken the attitude of "the devil you know is better then the devil you don't" in its' attitude towards the Assad regime. However, while there is no doubt that Israel would obtain some benefits from the fall of the Assad regime - the regime is after all a close ally of both Hezbollah and Israel's mortal enemy Iran - the Israelis' fear of what exactly might be on their northern border after Assad falls is also legitimate fear in my opinion.

If you look at what has happened recently in the Middle East recently after authoritarian regimes have fallen, the picture is not exactly comforting. In Iraq, chaos and civil war erupted after Saddam Hussein fell; in Libya, after Ghaddafi was killed, we have seen a great deal of chaos in the country, including of course the jihadist
attack on the US consulate in Benghazi which killed four Americans, including the US Ambassador. And now, in Egypt, well let's just say the situation is not exactly trending towards stability.

Turning again to the possibility of Israel establishing a buffer zone on on the territory of one of its' neighbors is not unprecedented. As the map above demonstrates, Israel kept a buffer zone in southern Lebanon for over 15 years to keep Hezbollah away from its northern border. However, maintaining this buffer zone was a constant struggle for the Israelis against determined Hezbollah guerrillas  which some commentators even described as being a "mini Vietnam" for the Israeli Defense Forces. While we are currently just seeing speculation, it does seem quite credible that Israel would now be planning for security contingencies in a post-Assad world.

Israel Strikes Targets in Syria - Why, What and Where Did the Attacks Take Place?

Fighting intensifies in Damascus
Israel has acted on its threats to ensure that no advanced weapons are
transferred from the Assad regime to Hezbollah
Last Tuesday, January 29th, Israeli war planes struck a convoy of SS-17 missiles heading towards the Lebanese border. The Israelis had made clear that one of their "red lines" in the Syrian conflict was that it was unacceptable to them for the Assad regime to transfer advanced weaponry and/or chemical weapons to Israel's arch-enemies Hezbollah in Lebanon. Israel and Hezbollah fought a bitterly contested, 34 day war in 2006, and both sides have since been preparing for what they both see as the inevitable next conflict. Awhile back, I wrote a five part series of posts looking at the military balance between Israel and Hezbollah, and how conflict between them might be played out.  Here is Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4 and Part 5 of the Israel Hezbollah series (Note: all posts are fairly sure with a concentration on maps and graphics).

There have been a number of reports in the media of what and where Israel attacked in Syria, such as:

  • Israel attacked a convoy carrying SS-17 missiles to Lebanon;
  • Israel attached the SS-17 convoy, and a Syrian military base in the town of Jamraya that was a research center for chemical and biological weapons;
  • The SS-17 missiles were still at Jamraya, and Israel destroyed both the military base and the weapons in one fell swoop, rather then waiting until the missiles were on the road (here is a good article from Mcclatchy news service on this theory).
  • Finally, there have even been recent reports that Israel also struck other targets in addition to the Jamraya military base and the SS-17 missiles, including an Iranian run intel post in southern Syria targeted at Israel.
While it is difficult to say exactly what happened - the Israelis are being quite coy about things - it is undoubtedly true that both Israel and the US are deathly afraid that as the Assad regime crumbles, some of its chemical or biological weapons or other advanced weaponry could fall into the hands of either Hezbollah in Lebanon, or potentially even worse, Sunni jihadist rebels in Syria from the al-Nusra front who are aligned with al-Qaeda. In fact, the US  itself appears to be so worried that it has given the Israelis the green light for the IDF to strike further targets in Syria if necessary, while the US has also made clear that it is prepared to use maximum force - including special operations troops - to secure any chemical or biological weapons as the chaos in Syria continues.

As always in the Middle East, it is hard to say exactly what happened and what are the motives of the main players, but of one thing I am almost certain - we have not seen the last of Israeli strikes in Syria to prevent the leakage of any advanced weaponry to its enemies.