Worry of the Week – 4 October 2015: Syria

syria-political-mapIn reality, Syria has been a worry for years. Bashar al-Assad took over the presidency, the role of commander-in-chief of the Syrian armed forces, and the leadership of the ruling Ba’ath party on his father’s death in 2000. For several reasons, including his British education and wife, there was hope he would be a reformer. He himself indicated he would make changes. In reality, things have become progressively worse.

Four years ago Assad’s people had had enough and Syria’s version of the Arab Spring occurred. Assad responded by attacking his people, and the Syrian Civil War broke out. Since then more than 250,000 people have been killed, most of them by Assad. Even worse, not only has Assad used conventional weapons against his own people, he has used chemical weapons and barrel bombs.

Syria refugee at 29 Aug 2015 www.npr.orgThe official figures from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) are that three million people have fled Syria and another 6.5 million are internally displaced, though unofficial but reliable estimates (see map, left) put the figures much higher.

Initially, most of the refugees who fled Syria went to Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq. Some were fleeing across the Mediterranean to Europe, but most of those doing that were, until recently, escaping the turmoil in Libya, not Syrians. Now, increasing numbers of Syrians are trying to escape to Europe too. We’ve heard multiple horror stories about the suffering of those who have given their life savings to unscrupulous people smugglers resulting in such tragedies as seventy people suffocating to death in the back of a truck and left on the side of a road.

Kurdi, Aylan

This picture of Aylan Kurdi will become one of the images of our time, like the naked girl running down the road in Vietnam. There’s one big difference – she lived to tell her story.

For the few who hadn’t already been moved by the plight of Syrian civilians, that changed when they saw the body of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach. His mother Rihan and five-year-old brother Galip were found further up the same beach. Their husband and father took them back to Syria for burial, any dreams of making a future for his family utterly destroyed.

Thousands of miles away in New Zealand, there’s little we can do, and it’s frustrating to feel so helpless in the face of such suffering. Small numbers have been so moved by Assad’s attacks they’ve joined the fight against him. Hundreds of thousands have donated to charities supporting the refugees, and there has been overwhelming support for us to increase the number of refugees we accept, which the government has finally listened to after initially rejecting the idea. Our military is also assisting with the training of the moderate opposition, but so far that appears to have been largely unsuccessful. The best the US military who are leading that operation are able to say is that they’ve learned what not to do.

As a very small country we only have minimal diplomatic influence too, although it’s slightly raised at the moment as we’re a member of the United Nations Security Council. We do have a reputation at the UN of being a country that’s fair, lacking in corruption, and independent though, which helps. In his speech to the United Nations General Assembly on Friday, prime minister John Key took the opportunity to continue New Zealand’s call for the P5 (USA, Russia, China, Great Britain, and France) to give up their UN Security Council veto power. New Zealand has taken this stance for many years, and they have a lot of support.

The P5 countries naturally don’t want to give up their power, but the moral pressure against them is growing. It looks possible that in the future they may give it up in situations where there are mass casualties such as the one in Syria. France has said they’re ready to discuss terms, and Great Britain has said they’ll look at it. I think the USA would be prepared to look at it too except they usually use their veto power when Israel is unfairly targeted. So I suspect we’ll have to wait until the Israel/Palestine situation is sorted before they’ll move on the issue. We can only hope, and it won’t help the current situation in Syria. However, the fact that Key was given a speaking spot when very few would have been listening is probably indicative of how much likelihood there currently is of changing anything.

Syria Air Strikes to 30 Sep 2015With all this happening, it was impossible to imagine the situation getting any worse in Syria. Assad was getting weaker, and only managing to hold on thanks to weapons from Russia and soldiers from Iran. DAESH, although still having successes, was having increasing setbacks too, and the al-Qaeda factions in the area were weakening. The Free Syrian Army and their allies (the “rebels” on the map) were finally gaining traction. It was looking possible that Assad could be forced to make a settlement.

Thanks to Vainglorious Vlad, that’s over. Two weeks ago, I started my Worry of the Week with the words, “Just when you thought things couldn’t possibly get any worse in Syria, they have.” I wrote about the evidence that there was a massive Russian military build-up in Syria. It appears that the build-up was even bigger than anyone realized. Dozens of Russian fighter jets appeared in Syria without anyone knowing they’d flown there – they had used the old tactic of flying underneath cargo planes to hide from radar.

Republicans are mocking Obama’s statement that Putin going into Syria is a sign of weakness, but he’s right. Putin has two clients in the Middle East – Iran and Syria. Iran is now not as isolated because of the Iran deal, and so they don’t need Russia as much. If Assad is forced out of power, as was looking likely, Putin would lose control there too. Putin needs to keep Assad in charge of Syria, because he wants to keep being a player in the region.

I suggested too that under the guise of fighting DAESH, Putin would attack the rebels, and it appears that’s exactly what he’s done. According to the Independent:

Russian Military in SyriaThe initial waves of Russian air strikes were aimed at the rebel groups that pose the greatest immediate threat to the regime. The main targets have been Jaysh al-Fateh, or the Army of Conquest, a coalition of Islamist groups ranging in extremism from al-Nusra to Ahrar al-Sham, which is backed by Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

The Russians insist that they have only targeted terrorists. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the military arm of the western-backed Syrian opposition, were not considered by Russia to be terrorists and “should be part of the political process”.

However, a FSA communications centre in Aleppo was destroyed late on 1 October [see BBC video below] and when Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, was asked about the FSA, he responded: “Does it exist? Haven’t most of them switched to Isis? It existed, but whether it does now nobody knows for sure.”

According to the US, all the Russian bombing raids so far have been against rebel positions – none have been against DAESH. Putin himself says all their bombing raids have been against DAESH and that all reports of civilian casualties as a result of the raids are false – that the photos of civilians casualties were sent out before the Russian bombers even took off. He insists that only precision strikes were made so as to minimize civilian casualties. The Independent says that footage shows that targets were frequently missed.

The BBC also has footage from the Free Syrian Army controlled area that appears to show that Russia are attacking anyone that Assad considers an opponent, not just DAESH as they purport:

According to the Syrian military, Russia carried out eighteen air strikes in the first three days, including attacks against targets in Aleppo, Hama and Idlib. The BBC says there is little DAESH activity in these areas. Some members of the Russian military are telling other stories of what has been happening in Syria. The BBC reports that Alexei Puskov, the head of the foreign affairs committee in Russia’s parliament, has said the US have only been pretending to bomb DAESH, and Russia will do a much better job against them.

“The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said a training camp and a camouflaged command post near Raqaa were hit, and 12 IS [DAESH] fighters were killed.” (BBC) Raqaa, of course, is the capital of DAESH’s self-described caliphate and their stronghold.

According to Douglas Barrie, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the Russians do not have the equipment to make the precision strikes they are claiming. He says the same thing happened in the Georgian War in 2008, and the problem is that not enough has been spent on the development of advanced weapons systems since the Soviet era. Since then they have apparently obtained laser and electronically-guided missile systems, but do not use targeting pods so they are not as efficient as they could be.

So it seems that it is likely everyone is being economical with the truth. I think the most likely scenario is that Russia has hit both Free Syrian Army targets, other groups opposing Assad, and DAESH targets, and there have been civilian casualties.

The Independent‘s report concludes with this chilling paragraph:

Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent military analyst in Moscow, said: “Right now they are just softening up the opposition. Then will come the ground offensive. It will be us in the air and Syria, Iran and Hezbollah on the ground. It’s going to be a terrible blood bath. Tens of thousands will be killed and the consequences for Europe will be even more refugees.”

So I won’t say that things couldn’t get any worse again, because they probably will.

And to all those Republicans who are saying that Obama should DEMAND the Russians stop attacking, how on earth do you expect him to enforce that? What the f**k should he do when they keep bombing anyway? Shoot them down? World War III here we come, and this time everyone has nukes. Stop being so f**king stupid!

28 Responses to “Worry of the Week – 4 October 2015: Syria”

  1. Diane G. says:

    I’ve been trying to follow news of the Russian invasion, but thanks for laying it out so clearly, Heather. I find the situation quite frightening.

    • Thanks Diane. I find it scary too. It has the potential to spiral out of control. I don’t think it will with Obama in the White House, but there’s no knowing what will happen if the Republicans take charge.

  2. paxton marshall says:

    Nicely done, Heather. The maps are useful in understanding what a mess the situation is. Obama has made some mistakes in Syria. He should never have called for Assad’s ouster. When will we learn that if we oust one tyrant, we’re likely to end up with another one as bad or worse. That’s the way the “arab spring” has gone in Egypt. Russian involvement is indeed a worry, but at least it gives the US someone to negotiate with. I expect Assad will stay in power since there is no credible alternative.

    The US military has little basis to criticize Russia for the civilian casualties, especially after the we bombed the Doctors without Borders facility in Afghanistan (I’m sure you saw Jerry Coyne’s excellent post on that situation yesterday, saying we have caused enough damage and “President Obama to stop bombing Afghanistan, get our troops out of the Middle East, and render whatever humanitarian aid we are capable of giving.” But it’s beyond bizarre that anyone would say of the Russians: “the problem is that not enough has been spent on the development of advanced weapons systems since the Soviet era.” What kind of sick world does he live in?

    What is left out of your analysis, and that of most of the US press, is that the Syria struggle is part of a wider Sunni-Shia civil war in the region. This seems curious given your emphasis on Islam and Islamists as a root cause of Muslim violence. As I’ve said before, I think religious reasons for Muslim attacks on the west are much exaggerated. But in the case of the war in Syria, and in Yemen, and in smaller conflicts elsewhere, Sunni vs Shia religious rivalry is indeed a fundamental cause of the conflict. The US and Israel have chosen to align with the majority Sunnis, who have long oppressed Shia in most of the middle eastern countries, in spite of the fact that the 9/11 terrorists, and most of the other terror attacks against the west came from Sunnis, and DAESH is Sunni. This aligns us with such bad actors as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Egypt. It also makes the invasion of Iraq even more mysterious, as we did a great favor to Shia Iran by taking out Saddam Hussein and turning Iraq over to a Shia government that has naturally taken revenge on Sunnis who had brutalized them.

    Here in the US, we hear very little about the Sunni-Shia aspect of the middle eastern conflict. We, or our government and media, seem to want to give the impression that Muslims are Muslims and none of them are to be trusted. This perhaps is the only way we can justify our meddling and terroristic attacks on them? Perhaps you and other commenters can help me understand why religion is invoked as the cause for attacks against us that are clearly retaliation for things we have done to them, but religion is ignored as the underlying cause of the fighting in the middle east. Or am I ignorant of extensive new atheist discussions of the destabilizing role of sunni vs shia religion as a motivation for terrorists?

    • Yes, I read Jerry’s post and commented:

      This is disgusting. When you are in control of something that can kill people, or are in a position to order killing, you simply have to be more responsible. There is no excuse for this. I hope, but doubt, that those who clearly didn’t do their jobs properly will be court-martialed for this.

      I don’t even see how “collateral damage” can be an excuse in this case.

      Yes the world is sick, but at least better guidance systems means martial targets are more likely to be the victims than civilians.

      The religious aspect is important in Syria, but I wanted to stick to the political one for this story. Both the so-called “good” and “bad” opposition are mainly Sunni – some secular, some religious. Assad has the support of Hezbollah (Party of Allah) which is Shi’a and Iran, which is mostly Shi’a. Russia says the reason they support Assad is that he’s secular (which is true). Assad is an Alawite, which is branch of Shi’a and very controversial within Islam. US supports the secular Sunnis because “democracy”. The Christians in Syria support Assad because they are worried what will happen to them if any of the Al-Qaeda (Sunni) or DAESH (Sunni) elements get into power. Better the devil you know for them. LBGT people are having an extremely tough time in Syria (and Jordan) (surprise, surprise) and are several groups are running campaigns to rescue them. (Go here if you want to help.) Religion is part of it, and is also what is used to motivate people to join the fight.I can do without the snark about “extensive new atheist discussions etc.” 🙂

  3. paxton marshall says:

    Heather, I agree with PM Key, that the P5 should give up their veto powers. And I just can’t let pass your statement that “I think the USA would be prepared to look at it too except they usually use their veto power when Israel is unfairly targeted.”

    In fact the US usually uses its veto power when Israel is fairly targeted. An example is our veto of the 2011 resolution “that all Israeli settlements established in the occupied Palestinian territories after 1967 be condemned, and urged that Israel and Palestine comply with their obligations under the Road Map plan in order to establish a two-State solution.” [Wikipedia]

    Here is a list of the many UN resolutions concerning Israel that the US has vetoed since 1972. Almost all against the overwhelming majority of the Security Council (or why would a veto be required). And these are not just the P5, but the numerous countries who occupy temporary positions on the council, as NZ does now. Please explain why the whole world, except the US and Israel, condemn Israel’s continued occupation and treatment of the Palestinians. When the whole world says one is wrong isn’t it time to consider that maybe one is, and it’s not “unfair targeting”?

    • I knew when I wrote that that you (and others) would come back at me for it, and you’re right. Israel hasn’t been unfairly targeted on all the occasions on which the US used their veto power in favour of Israel. I shouldn’t have said that. Some are fair, some aren’t, some are tit for tat, some are because countries are too cowardly to attack the US directly so they do it via Israel, so attack Israel for doing things they’re doing themselves. I stand corrected.

  4. Mark R. says:

    Yep, this is a considerable worry. Sometimes humor helps…here’s a tw**t from Bill Maher. (tw**t…my WEIT habits leak over.)

    What happens if we bomb Syria and Russia bombs Syria at same time? Is it like a 2 guy 3way where the guys’ dicks touch by accident?

    But seriously, if Putin wants to take over the mess that is Syria, should the US be adamantly against it? Nothing the US has done in recent decades has ameliorated any of the conflicts in the Middle East. Though I don’t trust Putin’s motives, if they indeed help to fight DAESH, then I guess there’s a silver lining. As you said, it’s more clear that Putin is fighting all of Assad’s opponents; some of these attacks will overlap interests in the US, others won’t. It hurts my head. One thing is sure, from what comes out of the Republican Presidential hopefuls mouths, a Republican President in 2016 is a worry of the year.

    Either way, thanks for this clear analysis of the many problems facing Syria. As was written above, the maps help elucidate this chaos.

    • You’re allowed to say tweet here Mark. 🙂 You can say dog too, and even call this a blog if you so desire! Basically, as long as you keep the disagreements academic and not personal and stick to the topic, you’ll be fine!

      I said in my last post about Syria that I could live with it to if Russia stuck to attacking DAESH. The trouble is, he hasn’t. Long-term, the Free Syrian Army are a bigger threat to Assad, so Russia will do their best to remove them too. Then when the dust settles, the world will have to accept Assad because he’ll be the only viable candidate left. Assad will be in charge and there’ll be no-one left to oppose him.

      But yes, the worry of the year is a Republican president, especially because of what it will mean in relation to SCOTUS. Just imagine another Republican appointment there – talk about horror stories.

  5. Night-Gaunt49 says:

    In Saudi Arabia the Spring never sprung. In Egypt we found out the real power was always the military, not just their dictatorial face.

    Strange how Syria was there for when former president GWB wanted black sites to torture, Syria was open to help him. Then the US stabs him in the back when rebellion happens. To put it another way any president in the US if confronted by this same thing would use its military might to quell it.

    The US always talks about “democracy” but it is just a code word for any govt under the US’s thumb.

    • Yes, the US always says they are supporting democracy as an excuse for entering a country. I personally ignore that. The US does exactly what every country does and acts in the way they think supports their own best interests and speaks about it in the way they think shows them in the best light. The only difference with the US is that they have the power to do a lot more than anyone else.

      Last time NZ was on the UN Security Council we spoke up about Rwanda. We couldn’t do anything much ourselves, and no-one cares if we don’t like what they say. When it was all over, all we could do was say “I told you so.” When the US talks, right or wrong, everyone listens.

  6. AU says:

    1) How do you know most of the killing has been done by Assad? You do realise, don’t you, that in that figure of 250,000, about 100,000 are regime forces, don’t you?
    I detest Assad, but I still don’t think we should throw around claims he has killed the majority of people when the casualty figures have such huge variations.

    2) I don’t think Qatar, Turkey and the Saudis will sit back and let Russia influence the war in favour of Assad. If there is a ground offensive backed up by Russian airpower, I am pretty sure you will see a more direct involvement from the countries mentioned to hit Assad’s troops.

    My personal opinion is that Russia just wants to do enough to stop Assad from falling, but has no interest in helping Assad achieve an outright victory.

    • The reason I said most was being done by Assad was because of a graph I saw on CNN’s Amanpour the day before I wrote the post, and what was said on that show. I consider her a reliable source. I was going to include it, but there was no room. To be fair, the graph on her show only showed actual figures for the first six months of this year, and they only commented on previous killings – they didn’t actually show the figures to support their statement about them.

  7. paxton marshall says:

    Who is martinfuller?

  8. Yakaru says:

    Can’t vouch for the general reliability or politics of this source, but as it was just recommended on twitter by Anne Applebaum (historian of Russia & E- Europe), I assume it’s a credible article on Putin’s plans in Syria–

    “The feeling is rapidly spreading among the Western-backed armed opposition that they have been betrayed by their supporters: to them, it looks like the West has secretly made the deal with Russia and washed its hands, letting Russian and Syrian forces methodically destroy them. This means a general weakening of the Western credibility and soft-power influence, both in Syria and elsewhere – outcomes very much welcomed by the Kremlin too.”

    • I agree with this analysis completely. The West has been out-manoeuvered by Putin and are talking in a way that sounds like they have made a deal in order to save what little face they can. They must have seen it coming, but I really don’t know what they could’ve done without taking military action against either Putin or Assad. The opposition to Assad, who were probably encouraged they had the 62-member, US-led coalition on their side will be feeling very betrayed. They will lose and in the process, many will die.

      The Russia/Iran/Syria Axis will remain, which will give Shi’a Islam a boost and make al-Qaeda double-down on their efforts to destroy Shi’a. That means there’s no hope of peace in Iraq either because the Shi’a dominated government will see less reason to reach out to the Sunnis, which has to happen if that country can be saved.

      • paxton marshall says:

        Consulting Heather’s Russian attack maps. it appears that most within regime controlled territory, though on the edges, so probably targeting insurgencies from ISIL and the rebels. Applebaum’s article suggests that Assad and Russia will be satisfied with securing western Syria and leaving the desert east to the desert Sunnis, ie ISIL or DAESH. Iraq’s government also might be persuaded to cede most of Anbar to a new state in that region, since it can’t control it anyway. Maybe call it the caliphate of the desert. In the same deal a Kurdistan might be carved out of Iraq and Syrian territory. I doubt that either Turkey or Iran would be willing to give up territory to a Kurdish state. It appears, that as in Egypt, the pro-western rebels don’t have the power to stand up to either the military (Assad) or the Islamists.

        • The attacks are where rebels are encroaching on regime territory – basically the spots that are where the biggest threat to the regime is, plus a couple of bombings within DAESH territory in order to enable the propaganda that they’re only attacking DAESH.

  9. Ken says:

    Does the Free Syrian Army even exist? Seems another problem in this whole mess is that we can have little confidence that we have any clue what is happening on the ground.

    • paxton marshall says:

      Good article Ken. As the authors conclude “If political leaders, media reporters and think-tank specialists share a vision of Syria that is partisan, propagandist and over-simple, there is no chance of a solution to the great Syrian tragedy.” Our knee-jerk reaction, Iran is bad, Russia is bad, lead us to ally ourselves with states like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, which are just as bad.

      Here’s a NYTimes article which updates Heather’s post and has some excellent maps. It’s hard to see how Syria can survive as a country. Most of the non-ISIL rebel groups are still Islamist. Sunni Islamist, like most of the jihadis. The country is majority Sunni, and if a democratic election could be held, Sunnis would come to power. But there is no viable Sunni group other than ISIL that could establish a government. I think we’ll have to accept a compromise that keeps Assad in power, over the western part of the country anyway.

    • It exists, but is not as big or strong as US propaganda has led us to believe. I was certainly sucked in for a while. There have always been around thirty opposition groups, but never more than a third were moderate. Also, DAESH simply pays its soldiers a lot more, and many left the FSA and joined DAESH just to survive. The moderate groups have been successful in their areas, and they have political leaders outside the country, but I can see them being bombed out of existence by Putin.

      It then becomes a Sunni/Shi’a battle in Syria that will be presented to the outside world as a secular/extremist battle. Then the Western allies will have no choice but to align with Russia to defeat the DAESH and the Al Qaeda affiliates. So within the Arab world Shi’a wins, and the West is on the side of Shi’a, creating difficulties in relationships with all the Arab/Sunni nations.

      As usual religion is making a bad situation worse.

  10. This is a good article about some of the complexities of the different rebel groups in Syria:

    This article is clearer than the one above, and has a couple of really good maps of the situation, which I think always help:

    • There is a lot of what he said that was dishonest or mischaracterization or criticizing Obama for doing exactly the same as he is. If I had the time and a transcript, I’d take it apart piece by piece. It was a great propaganda speech. I’m sure his people thought it was a wonderful answer, and that’s what matters to him, so he got it right from that pov.

  11. Ken says:

    Interesting take on Russia’s possible strategy and whether they’re targeting Daesh and al Qaeda:

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