In a recent report top Middle East journalist and expert Jonathan Speyer take a closer look on Turkey’s use of Syrian militias in its war with the Kurds and the combination of political and military muscle as the key to succeed in today’s fragmented Middle East.
In the article, Speyer argues that in order to wield influence and gain advantages in today’s Middle East, it’s paramount to combine those military and political forces in the field. “Political soldiering” is most vividly displayed by the Iranian IRGC, which is not loyal to the Iranian state as much as to the present regime and its overall strategic goals (watch the ongoing conflict between President Rouhani and the IRGC/Khamenei leadership).
The IRGC is important in this new way of conducting foreign policy, and its model is being used by other actors, such as Turkey. The big advantage of the IRGC-structure is that it can be used by Teheran in everything from assassinating Kurds in Europe, to conduct terror-attacks on Jewish targets across the globe (like in Buenos Aires and Burgos) and to create proxy-forces loyal to it to project power in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. This political party-like militia has the advantage of informality and deniability compared to conventional forces and gives Teheran the chance of still being invited into the diplomatic salons.
The Turkish iteration into this way of doing business is called the SADAT Defence Consultancy and is headed by a former Brigadier General, Adnan Tanriverdi. He was expelled from the army in 1997 because of his Islamist leanings and his ties to Erdogan go back a long time. In 2016 he was appointed Chief Military Advisor to the President.
Other countries are using this model too: Russia used irregular “volunteers” to foment disturbances in Lugansk and Donetsk provinces in eastern Ukraine and military contractors connected to Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner Company, has played a key-role in Russian interference in Syria.
The SADAT consultancy’s own website is clear about the Islamist goals and the Company’s mission is explained as: “establish a Defensive Collaboration and Defensive Industrial Cooperation among Islamic Countries to help Islamic World take the place where it merits among Super Powers by providing Consultancy and Training Services.” And just to make things even clearer it goes on to call Western states “crusader” and “imperialist” countries.
After the failed coup-attempt in July 2016, Erdogan’s Islamist project took on a new and more aggressive stance with re-instating hundreds of officers dismissed or expelled for Islamist leanings. And SADAT was set up in order to facilitate training and equipping forces outside of the regular Turkish army to help expand Turkish aims in Syria. It’s noteworthy that those aims very often put Turkey on a collision-course with its NATO-allies.
In Syria, Turkey’s main creation is the so called Free Syrian Army, whose Sunni recruits have been trained and equipped by SADAT. And even though it’s the Syrian Kurds that has been the focus of FSA, allegations that SADAT is training militias to use on Turkish political opposition have surfaced from time to time.
Erdogan’s long-term project to destroy the secular republic of Kemal Ataturk and create an Islamic republic instead, is greatly helped by institutions such as SADAT, combining external power-projection with providing muscles to help Erdogan’s repressive politics at home.
In another sign that the regime is concerned over the use of ‘foreign’ social media outlets, the office of President Rouhani announced a few days ago that it will close the President’s official Telegram-account.
This came on the heels of a similar announcement from Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei that his office “would no longer use Telegram to “safeguard” Iran’s national security and “remove the monopoly of Telegram messenger”. He also urged his followers to use domestic apps instead of foreign ones.
Consequently, several official agencies and politicians said they would do the same.
What’s noteworthy in all this is the fact that Telegram is the most popular messenger app in Iran and used by half the population of 80 million.
This is, however, more than just another attempt by the regime to control social media. President Rouhani – who is under increasing pressure from the hardliners in the IRGC as well as the Supreme Leader – was against blocking Telegram, but had to concede when Khamenei stepped in and announced the ban. So this latest flare-up between Rouhani and the IRGC and the Supreme Leader, clearly shows that it’s the hard-liners that have the upper hand in the domestic power struggle and that Khamenei has sided with Rouhani’s political enemies.
Furthermore, the Iranian move came after Russia announced a ban of Telegram because the company refused to share its data with the Russian government. The same conditions were laid down by Teheran; all foreign messenger apps must have their servers inside Iran, or they would lose the right to operate in the country, a demand obviously unacceptable for the companies.
All this is of course another step in trying to strangle the opposition inside Iran. The events especially around New Year – with a multitude of protests around the country – haven’t completely died down and the regime does feel the pressure. Filtering and monitoring foreign messenger apps, if not outright controlling them, is part of this ongoing process of beating back any opposition to the regime.
In a soon to be released analysis from the Washington Institute, interesting trends on Arab Moslem attitudes concerning extremism are revealed. This enforces results from earlier surveys done and in the new research-reports, based on polling in several Moslem-majority countries, it’s clear that a majority of Moslems are not putting religious ideology on top of their priority-list.
On the contrary, mundane, every-day issues such as jobs, education and income, far surpasses ideology as seen as important. This is important because it shows that whatever support given to Daesh or other extreme and violent groups/movements, there is a larger majority of Moslems who push back against that.
The report is based on surveys done in 2014-15 (the first two years in the rise of Daesh) and then similar surveys done in the last two years.
Looking at political priorities, domestic issues clearly trump foreign ones and among foreign issues, nearby ones outranked those further afield. It’s noteworthy that among the eight countries surveyed in the 2017 poll (Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE, Qatar, and Bahrain) “countering Daesh and similar terrorist groups”, was one of two foreign policy priorities in all countries.
One can also detect increased support for tough counter-measures against Jihadist ideologies. This is of special interest because shortly after 9/11, polling in these countries showed a large support for AQ (in some cases 40%). But when bombs started to go off in various Arab and Moslem countries, this support evaporated.
This is clearly borne out by the 2014-15 survey and Daesh never got the (brief) support AQ had at the beginning shortly after 9/11.
However, despite these figures, support for other, non-militant Islamists such as the MB, is still rather high. Of the four countries polled in the latest survey (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Kuwait) MB received favorable ratings from between one-quarter and one-third of the population, even in countries where MB is outlawed. And when asked if it would be "a good idea to interpret Islam in a more moderate, tolerant, or modern way," only one-fifth of the respondents said “yes”. This shows that fundamentalist Islamist organizations are not rejected, but that Daesh and AQ are too extreme even for the majority conservative populations.
The trends are such that Daesh receives only a tiny bit of support with overwhelming figures showing outright rejection. At the same time, support for more non-militant Islamists such as MB lies steady around 25-35%. Looking at the past two years, support for Daesh has plummeted even more.
Obviously – and this has been shown across the MENA-region and Europe for example – even small groups of dedicated activists can wreak havoc. And since many of these activists flocking to Daesh and AQ have in many cases come from non-militant Islamist groups and organizations, support for MB can still be a potential problem. It’s noteworthy that – as pointed out above – support for MB even in the UAE, KSA and Egypt where it is outlawed as a terrorist-organization, support remains rather high.
Overall though, the latest survey does show an increase in support for a more moderate and modern interpretation of Islam. Lebanon sticks out here where actual majorities among the three main-groups – Sunni, Shia and Christians – say they support such an interpretation.
One final result of interest from these surveys is that Arab animosity towards Iran and its regional proxies (such as Hizb’allah, the Houthis and the Assad regime) is now very nearly universal, not only among the elites, but also among the population as a whole. Also in general, this picture is less pronounced among Shia-populations such as in Lebanon.
In conclusion the good news is that support for extreme groups like Daesh and AQ (and the likes) are very low. The bad, or at least less good news, is that a majority still reject moderating and/or modernizing Islam, even if more people think so now than in 2014-15.
On May 6, Lebanon is holding parliamentary elections, postponed because the Lebanese Parliament was unable to elect a new President in time (which was to happen before Parliamentary elections). There were 14 attempts and finally Parliament extended its mandate, with the elections now scheduled for May 6.
This will be the first election under under the new system with 15 districts proportionally electing MP’s to the 128-seat Parliament.
There are several lists, but two main blocks; the March 8 coalescing around Hizb’allah and the March 14 block around Saad Hariri (The so-called “Future Movement”).
The war in Syria – with Hizb’allah supporting President Assad and the current Premier Hariri supporting the opposition – has severely affected the situation in Lebanon as well. The polarization is obvious and the many difficulties in putting together ruling coalitions and choosing a President is signs of this.
Hizb’allah is without any doubt the strongest force in Lebanon today, politically and militarily. The new system is more complicated and even though analysts in Lebanon agree that the outcome will probably upset current power-structures, they differ as to whether it will affect Hizb’allah negatively or not.
Potentially however, and most intriguing in the longer run looking at the overall political situation in Lebanon and its relations to traditional allies in the Gulf, the new system does give an opening to contest Hizb’allah in the traditionally strong Shiite South. There Hizb’allah is challenged not so much by the Future Movement as by newcomers and independents tapping into the increasing resistance to the war Hizb’allah is deeply involved in in Syria. And a sign of how serious Hizb’allah is taking this potential threat is the fact that on April 22, early in the morning, thugs loyal to Hizb’allah beat up Ali Al Amin in his hometown of Chakra. Al Amin is the head of the only truly independent list challenging Hizb’allah in the South.
The swift transfer of Libyan strong-man Khalifa Haftar to Paris for emergency medical treatment, and the immediate ‘back-and-forth’ between the UN (in the form of UN representative Ghassan Salame) and Haftar’s people, showed that one of the key-individuals of Libya might be out of the picture.
Regardless of whether Haftar does return to Libya or not, his reputation has suffered and his chances of having a key-role in a future Libya, maybe even being elected President, has diminished.
This is not only due to his medical problems and his present absence from Libya. Haftar’s fortunes have been on the down-turn for some time.
Haftar took initially no part in the 2011 revolution, having been living in exile in the U.S. for two decades before that. But in 2014, he stepped into the fray and chaos in Libya and announced “operation Dignity”, a military offensive intended to rid Libya of militant Islamists. This led to several Islamist groups – who had been doing most of the fighting against Qhadafi-loyalists – to form their own militia, “Libya Dawn”. The ensuing civil war led to thousands of dead and gave a space for the Libyan branch of the Islamic State to establish itself in the country.
In 2015 the UN-brokered Libya Political Agreement (LPA) put an end to the fighting and the forming of the Government of National Accord (GNA). Haftar, however, rejected both agreements and thus put obstacles in the way of a long-term political solution.
During this time, Haftar was supported by outside actors, such as Egypt, UAE, Russia and even France, who saw in him a bulwark against Islamists.
But during the last year, his allies have soured on him due to his inabilities to deliver any feasible and long-term gains. And his rejection of the UN-sponsored peace-accords has also contributed to his fall from grace
Nevertheless, when the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) presented its plan for Libya in September last year (with ambitious plans for a National Dialogue, a referendum, legislative and Presidential elections and a constitution, all in 2018), Haftar tried to position himself as a key-contender to the Presidency, aiming for a long-term role.
The big challenge for the UN action plan to succeed is to convince the various militias to lay down their weapons, de-mobilizing, and create enough calm to proceed with the plan.
In all this Haftar’s demise as a key-individual has added another challenge with his former allies inside Libya leaving him, but not having decided which way to turn and whether to support the LPA and GNA and the UN action plan or not.
Salame and the UN have presented the plan as being possible to implement, but not without full support from the various Parties. Salame has also worked to rally support from key-Arab countries such as KSA, Egypt and UAE.
Haftar’s absence has created a military and political vacuum in Libya that is potentially dangerous and which can be filled by enemies to the present UN-sponsored process. To prevent that, it’s paramount that the UN can get needed support from regional countries with a stake in the future of Libya.
The joint missile-attack targeting Syrian Chemical-weapons facilities by the U.S., Britain and France, was – in its limited scope – very successful. Combining Electronic warfare suppression, a decoy battle group in eastern Mediterranean and stealth missiles (Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Attack Munitions or “JASSAM”), the missiles hit their targets before Syrian anti-missile batteries even fired. Russian and Syrian claims of shooting down most of the missiles (without presenting any proof) were summarily refuted by Pentagon spokesperson Lt.Gen. Kenneth McKenzie who, while showing satellite-images of the targets “before and after”, said that “no Syrian weapon had any effect on anything we did” adding that the strike was “precise, overwhelming and effective”.
McKenzie also added as a matter of fact, that most Syrian counter-measures were fired after the allied missiles had already hit their targets.
There are no reasons to doubt the described scenario, and verbal posturing is part and parcel of any such event. But perhaps the real story is not so much the efficiency of the allied attacks themselves. As has been pointed out already (including by the allies) the intention of the attacks was not to aid in toppling Assad or hitting the Russians (without whose help Assad would probably have been gone already). The sole and limited aim of the attacks was to send a message to Assad that using chemical weapons would carry a price. Whether that message will be heeded this time remains to be seen of course. But by clearly putting down some markers this time, at least the western allies have shown some seriousness in dealing with the Assad regime going too far.
But what the allied attack did show beyond any doubt is that Russia, despite having assets on the ground in Syria, was unable to counter the attacks. Appearance count for a lot in the Middle East and the fact that Russia, despite some harsh rhetoric before the attacks (even going so far as to deny the attacks took place at all or was a British “ploy”) when push came to show, Russia couldn’t aid Assad. This is not lost on anyone.
The Russian force in Syria includes dozens of bombers and attack helicopters. This is enough to clobber and pulverize civilians and lightly armed rebels, but it lack experience and sufficient equipment to take on an adversary with cutting-edge capabilities. Putin’s big advantage so far has been that Russia (and Iran) is the only country prepared to deploy a significant enough force in Syria to make a difference. And as long as no-one seriously challenged that, the image held.
The writing’s been on the wall however; In February around 200 Russian “mercenaries” were killed in U.S. airstrikes when attacking U.S.-backed SDF-forces. And last year a limited U.S. missile attack went without any serious Russian interference.
The Israelis has allegedly been conducting air-strikes against Hizb’allah and lately Iranian assets in Syria for several years, but Israel doesn’t advertise those and still has a functioning line of communication with Russia. But even small Israel can probably outmaneuver Russian assets in Syria if forced to. And the combination of U.S., French and British forces (possibly with Israel and Turkey) are too much for Russia to deal with.
So the question remains; what options do Putin have to regain some deterrence in Syria? As shown, there are no real military options, other than a massive increase in Russian military in Syria, which is not in the cards.
Putin could also increase cyber-attacks (Pentagon reported that within 24hrs of the Douma attack there was a 2000% increase in Russian trolls), but that does have a limited effect and wouldn’t necessarily stop new allied attacks in Syria.
At the end of the day, the Russian image of hegemony in Syria has been shattered and the kind of leverage he was hoping for in Syria when intervening in late 2015, has not materialized. Whether this situation will remain is really up to other actors than Russia, a lesson certainly not lost on Moscow, or his Syrian protégé in Damascus.
In what surely must be one of the most tasteless and ill-advised moves – even for the UN – the world-body declared on April 9 that Syria, from next month, will chair the UN disarmament forum, the body that produced the treaty banning chemical weapons. This comes on the heels of the alleged chemical weapons-attack against Douma, close to Damascus on April 7. Clear evidence of an attack has surfaced and the only possible perpetrator is, once again, the Syrian regime.
The 65-nation body, based in Geneva, also negotiated the NPT-treaty, considered a corner-stone of the non-proliferation and disarmament work.
The Assad-regime has used chemical weapons on several earlier occasions before, and last year, triggered the U.S. to fire a batch of cruise-missiles against the site from where those attacks originated.
This time, Assad’s ally Russia once again stepped into the fray and first declared that there was no attack at all, such a brazen lie that it inadvertently sounded like a new incarnation of ‘Baghdad-Bob’. Secondly and more serious, Russia also declared that any missiles fired against Syria would be shot down.
If the UN goes ahead with letting Syria chairing the forum, it will do irreparable damage to the world-body. It’s bad enough that Syria is even being considered (the UN is blaming the normal rooster for the blunder) at the same time that the regime in Damascus time and time again has used banned chemical weapons against his own people. What is equally bad is the fact that these serial crimes has met next to no pushback from the international community.
That Russia willingly is playing the role of the villain here and protecting its protégé Assad is perhaps not so strange. After all, Russian President is no stranger to the old adage; the ends justify the means.
But that a major UN-body so thoroughly seems to have lost its moral bearing is embarrassing, to put it mildly.
The chairman of the memorial Yad Vashem in Jerusalem neatly summed up the present state of affairs in a statement when he pointed out that “The terrible scenes we are witnessing, right across our border, are a result of the world's indifference, which enables them to keep occurring,". He also said that “The recent chemical attack in Syria shows that the safeguards established after the Holocaust to prevent crimes against humanity are failing”. One can only hope that some common sense is still an available commodity at the UN HQ in Geneva or New York and that the decision to have Syria chairing the forum is reversed.
In a feature-article about the Islamic State, NYT top-correspondent Rukmini Callimachi explain how Daesh managed to keep a state based in Syria and Iraq going for three years and expand into several other countries. This is thorough investigation into what made the Daesh tick and is focusing on Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq and the most important for Daesh.
In explaining that a key-factor in its sustainability was keeping normal functions working using the same staff as before the take-over, the article shows the thoroughness of Daesh thinking about state-building, from printing money to making sure the sewers were maintained. It also shows that IS ruled by bureaucracy as much as by the sword, even though the violence was what the outside world most came to know.
The trove of documents left behind when the Caliphate crumbled has been examined before by researchers, but this report is one of the first that present – to a larger audience – this picture of the Islamic State as a something much more than only a violent terrorist group. Of particular interest, especially for the Iraqi government now in charge, is perhaps the fact that the material also shows that at times IS offered better service and proved more capable than the government it replaced, but also building their state on the back of the one before. This is backed up by documents and interviews with people living under the rule of Daesh.
The feature-article also shows the extent and scope of the revenue stream Daesh controlled, making it self-financed and not dependent on external donors, also showing that contrary to what many believed, revenues from oil (often through smuggling) was far less than taxes on every-day transactions, the ratio being 6:1.
It highlights the detailed measures, planned in advance, that confiscated homes and lands belonging to non-Sunnis (Shia, Christians and Yazidis for example) to rent them out (or sell) to Sunnis. Every non-Sunni former employee lost his or her job (and females of all sects where sacked).
This timely piece is a reminder that the Islamic State really did create a state and that the intention from the start was to do just that. The fact that it managed to exist for so long also point to the fact that the ideology and ideas behind the Caliphate are still around.
In yet another blow to possible reconciliation in Syria – already a very distant option – the oppositional web-site Al-Hal reported (as did the SyrianObserver) in early April that President Assad has decreed that property belonging to Absentees will be confiscated by the government.
Since most of those absentees are gone because the Assad-regime itself forced them away, it’s a particular nefarious move. What this also leads to is of course a wide-open door to forced demographic changes and legitimizing confiscation of properties for millions of displaced and expelled individuals.
That is a move that will make it possible for Assad to preventing people from returning home if ever there is real peace. The reason for this is quite clear; since most of the absentees are a consequence of policies of Assad himself, it’s natural that he sees these people as potential liabilities in securing his new reign.
But it will also be a way for Assad’s enablers in Iran to more closely control areas in a future Syria where the regime in Tehran will try to keep the influence it already has.
For President Assad this decree a way to better control the Syrian population and hinder many from returning, or if they do, make sure they will be in no position to be a threat, instead being completely dependent on the regime.
The Assad regime has a good chance of getting away with this blatant property-theft, since he is backed not only by Iran but also Russia. Assad’s two authoritarian brothers will probably not care about the means he deploys as long as his power is secure and Russian and Iranian interests are met.
A year ago, on April 7 2017, the U.S. fired 59 cruise-missiles against a Syrian air-force base, from where the Assad regime had launched a chemical-weapons attack on civilians in Ghouta, just outside Damascus. The idea was to, as President Trump said at the time, prevent and deter further Syrian use of chemical weapons. This very clearly failed. Instead Syrian President Assad called Trumps bluff and continued using chemical weapons. That this was done with Russian collusion hasn’t escaped anyone. Russia has consistently protected the Assad regime by vetoing any UNSCR put forth to investigate Syrian use of chemical weapons, and will do so again this time. Russia even went so far as to deny the obvious and said there was no attack at all.
So a year later, Assad-forces launched what is at least the eight such attack this year (this time on Douma), and again President Trump threatened retaliation. And perhaps he will send a new batch of missiles, or not. The statements coming out of Washington (and other western capitals such as Paris) could also be read as rather non-committal.
Back in 2013, after the first larger attacks with chemical weapons against rebels, and the civilians just happening to live in the targeted neighborhoods, a deal (with Russia acting the middle-Man) was struck whereby Assad promised to rid himself of all chemical weapons. Most of it did go out of the country, but not all of it.
This is no surprise to anyone. The Syrian chemical-weapons program has been known to the outside world for many years, including information on where it’s being produced and stocked. Before the present war, the U.S., Israel and Russia (and before that the Soviet Union who helped Syria launch the chemical-weapons program) knew and already at the beginning of the war, in 2012, the Obama-administration warned Assad that using chemical weapons was a ‘red line’. But when Assad did use it on Ghouta in 2013, Obama dithered and the deal mentioned above took place, making it possible for Assad to keep enough to clobber civilians or rebels wielding Kalashnikovs.
So it’s not like we didn’t know, or didn’t had the means to search and destroy whatever remained. Grounding Syrian air-force (including choppers) would have been a limited and easy-to-enforce policy that would have saved thousands of people in Syria. Assad ally Russia doesn’t have the means to seriously go up against that if pushed. And besides, with stand-alone ammunition, Syrian needn’t even be entered to accurately hit targets inside the country.
So this latest war-crime was entirely preventable and it was known long ago that by not enforcing the red lines back in 2013, Assad was shown that doing what he felt he had to do to survive on his throne – including killing his own citizens with chemical weapons – came with next to no price to pay.
President Trump’s latest tweets – a preferred mean to convey policy statements – do not amount to a foreign policy, and neither will launching cruise-missiles. With Trump’s recent statements on U.S. withdrawals from Syria, it’s no wonder that Assad feels he can dismiss any rhetoric from Washington (or anywhere else in the West). A few cruise-missiles didn’t change his policy a year ago and that was already clear back when the Obama-administration failed to act.
At any point during the last seven years, the U.S., the UK, France, Turkey or even Israel could have carried out air-strikes targeting weapon-depots, airfields or artillery used to launch the attacks. Or a no-flight- zone could have been established (like the allies did in Iraq protecting the KRG from Saddam Hussein back in 1990’s). But they didn’t. And since missile-strikes are not the same as a coherent policy, and since Russia, Turkey and Iran - each headed by individuals just as authoritarian as Assad – are heavily invested in keeping the Syrian regime in its palace, there are no signs right now that anyone is going to step up to the table and try to seriously hold Assad back. Not because there aren’t any means available, but because there isn’t any will to do it.