5 Questions for “Professors Against White Helmets”

For the last year the Civil defence organisation that provides search and rescue help to Syrian opposition communities under attack from the Syrian regime and its allies – known as the White Helmets – has come under an unprecedented wave of attack by regime supporters. For the most part these attacks have been confined to the wilder shores of the internet, but recently they have been taken up by a small group of British academics, headed by Prof Tim Hayward of Edinburgh University and Prof Piers Robinson of Sheffield University, who have posted a response  to a recent article in the Guardian by Olivia Solon outlining the links between the organisations circulating these accusations and the Russian state.

Hayward and Robinson appear to be outraged by the fact that the Guardian did not bow down before their Professorial titles and fast-track their views into print. They also complain that they “have been subjected to intemperate attacks from mainstream media columnists such as George Monbiot through social media”. The severest comment I can find from Monbiot on them is “I believe that Tim Hayward, Piers Robinson, et al have disgraced themselves over Syria” If they regard that as an “intemperate attack” then I can only conclude that they have led very sheltered lives.

Curiously, Hayward and Robinson, despite the fact that the latter is a specialist in media studies, raise no objections to the substantive findings of Solon’s article (so perhaps we can take that as an indication that she is on solid ground).  Instead they focus their attention on the White Helmets.

Funding of the White Helmets

They start by telling us  that the White Helmets  are “supported by US and UK funding.” Well, not quite: as the White Helmet’s web site points out they have support from seven different governments. Some of this is episodic and in-kind, and the US and Britain are the largest donors; but the Helmets also receive regular financial support from the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany, which together provide over 40% of its funding.

And how large is this funding? The figures on this are often unclear, but my calculations are that they amount to about £24.6 million annually. Of course, abstract figures have very little meaning – the Helmets have some 3000 members spread across 110-120 centres, and aim to provide assistance to over 4 million inhabitants of areas under attack from the Syrian regime, so the money has to go a long way. To get a more meaningful picture let’s compare it with an analogous organisation closer to home. Take for example the Cheshire Fire Service, which is about a quarter the size of the White Helmets, measured in terms of both personnel and catchment area. Its annual budget is over £41 million (and is regarded as dangerously underfunded by locals). And, of course, there is no comparison between the situations Cheshire firefighters face and those the Helmets have to deal with. (The last time a bomb fell on Cheshire was in 1941.) So the Helmets have to carry out their gargantuan task with just a little over half the funds of a quiet English county.

Syria damage 1

Who do you call ? The Tartous Fire Brigade?

The next point that Robinson and Hayward make is one which speaks volumes about the calibre of their “scholarship” and its provenance: “Here it is important to note that the real Syria Civil Defence already exists and is the only such agency recognised by the International Civil Defence Organisation (ICDO).”

As those who have followed the campaign of denigration against the White Helmets know, this is directly lifted from Syrian regime supporter Vanessa Beeley. It is embarrassing to see two academics reprising this argument, which is more worthy of a playground spat than a serious discussion A quick trip to Wikipedia, or a two-minute visit to the ICDO website would tell you the obvious: the ICDO is an intergovernmental body – its members are by definition states and it doesn’t “recognise” anyone; as its constitution states, “The ICDO federates the national structures established by States… with the aim of favouring cooperation and mutual solidarity between them.”  Complaining that the White Helmets are not members of the ICDO makes as much sense as complaining that they are not members of the World Trade Organisation. And what sort of bizarre ontology leads to the conclusion that the White Helmets are “not “real”?

Frankly I think this line of argument is pretty  silly, but since we’ve been advised by Hayward and Robinson that its “very important” let’s follow them down the road The ICDO website provides links to each of its members; if you click on most of them you will be taken to the website of their dedicated Civil Defence service; but if you click on Syria you get taken to the website of the Ministry of the Interior, which has a lot of discussion of “internal security”, of traffic management, and even of the seizure of rotten chicken in Damascus, but nary a mention of any Civil Defence.

When Vanessa Beeley wants to promote what she and our professors call the Real Civil Defence all they can come up with is the Tartous Fire Brigade. So what they seem to be suggesting is that when a town like, say, Atareb has its marketplace bombed and 50 people are trapped under the rubble what they should do is dial 133 (the number for fire emergencies) and wait for the Tartous Fire Brigade to turn up!

I do wonder just how far our Professors are prepared to follow their muse in this escalating silliness;  but let’s not belabour the point – we have some serious issues to deal with.

People like Hayward & Co tend to produce what I think of as “interrupted discourse”  – that is, arguments which make forceful objections to a state of affairs but stop short of the climactic moment where they tell us what outcomes  they are actually advocating. For example, they object to the fact that the White Helmets are funded by western governments – so what do they advocate – Less funding? No funding? Funding by someone else? They don’t tell us. Ditto for their objection to the fact that the Helmets are trained by western contractors. Are they saying that they would prefer the Helmets to be untrained? Again – no comment.

Five Questions

These sorts of interrupted discourses are logically and ethically unsatisfactory – so let’s see if we can make honest men of our Professors by asking them  a set of questions:

  1. Are communities in opposition areas of Syria being bombed regularly with a significant loss of life and destruction of infrastructure?
  2. Are the people who live in these communities likely to just sit back and leave the dead and injured where they fall or will they try and do the best they can to rescue the injured and retrieve the dead?
  3. Is this work done by the White Helmets or by someone else? If someone else who? (Hopefully we can eliminate the Tartous Fire Brigade answer.)
  4. Do the victims in a Civil conflict have the right – legally and morally -­ to conduct such search and rescue operations?
  5. If they do, and it is the White Helmets who are the vehicle for carrying this out work, is it better that they are funded and trained or that they have to do it without training and using garden tools for the purpose?

The answers I would give to these questions would lead me to conclude  – So what is the beef with the White Helmets?

Our professors, of course,  may have different answers. Once we see what these are we can begin to get some sense of what factual claims,  and what process of reasoning, their objections to the White Helmets are based on.

But if they are unwilling to to spell these things out, then they are just hiding in the shadows of a distorted discourse, with their claim to be seeking “informed public debate” ringing hollow.

This blog is open to the Professors if they would like to reply here. Or they can answer in their own spaces. Wherever it is delivered, I ­ -– and, I suspect, many others – look forward eagerly to their replies.

Continue reading “5 Questions for “Professors Against White Helmets””


Labour’s Syria Policy: Now you see it, now you don’t

The policy of Labour’s front bench with regard to the conflict and humanitarian crisis in Syria is a strange thing – most of the time it’s an echoing silence but occasionally it’s punctured by strange statements that those of us who follow the Syrian situation closely, and solidarise with the victims of the Assad dictatorship, struggle to make sense of.

We found ourselves in the latter situation once again last Monday (11 December) when Labour’s shadow foreign secretary, Emily Thornberry, shocked Syria-watchers when she concluded a wide-ranging Parliamentary question to the Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, with the following query:

Is Iran ready to accept, as an outcome of the Astana process, that it will withdraw its forces from Syria, and will Hezbollah and the Shi’a militias do likewise, provided that President Assad is left in place, that all coalition forces are withdrawn, and that Syria is given international assistance with its reconstruction? If that is the case, will the UK Government accept that deal, despite the Foreign Secretary’s repeated assertion that President Assad has no place in the future government of Syria? If they will not accept that deal, will the Foreign Secretary tell us when it comes to the future of Syria, as on everything else that we have discussed today, what is his plan now?

Following Parliamentary convention, this is framed as a question rather than a statement, but an examination of the rest of Thornberry’s intervention shows that all her “questions” were vehicles for advancing positive policy proposals and implicitly criticising the Foreign Secretary. For example,

Turning to Yemen … While we welcome the talks, we are bound yet again to ask the question: what is the plan now? What is the plan to get the blockades fully lifted and enable full access for humanitarian relief? What is the plan to secure a ceasefire agreement and make progress towards long-term political solutions? And where is the plan for a new United Nations Security Council resolution, 14 months since the UK first circulated its draft?

Comparing  the structure of this passage and Thornberry’s Syria “question”, it is hardly surprising that most readers of the Syria statement would interpret it as advocacy of the “deal” she described; just as they would read the Yemen “question” as advocating a lifting of the blockade, and the other measures she referenced in that passage. (Thornberry herself assimilates her Syria question to the Yemen one when she says “as on everything else”).

However when she was challenged about her views in a letter sent to her jointly by Syria Solidarity UK and the Labour Campaign for International  Development she issued an aggressive denial insisting that she was only asking a question about Iranian intentions, and attacking one of the organisations (and why that one, we might ask), accusing them  of “wilful misrepresentation of the Parliamentary record”.

Well obviously the person best placed to know Thornberry’s intentions is Thornberry herself, and it’s good to have clarification that she does not endorse the policy she took the trouble to outline in the House of Commons. But some nagging questions remain.

First Syria UK and LCID were not the first people to “misrepresent” Thornberry’s question as advocacy. Moments after she posed the question Boris Johnson responded to it, interpreting it in exactly the same way:

… the right hon. Lady asked about the Astana process and whether it would be acceptable. Our view is that if there is to be a lasting peace in Syria that commands the support of all the people of that country, it is vital that we get the talks back to Geneva. I believe that that is the Labour party’s position. Indeed, I believe it was also the Labour party’s position that there could be no long-term future for Syria with President Assad. If that position has changed, I would be interested to hear about that.

Now I can see why Johnson might have been motivated to “wilfully misrepresent” Thornberry’s views (the motivation of SyriaUK and LCID are far less evident). But what I have difficulty understanding is why Thornberry allowed this “misrepresentation” to stand on the Parliamentary record not only at the time but for the subsequent four days without making any attempt to correct it.

For me, however, all this is a secondary problem. What I am puzzled by is where Thornberry’s unique knowledge of the Astana process has come from. She suggests that it has produced a formula for the withdrawal of Iran and Hezbollah from Syria – but no one else seems to have heard of this. I have scoured the published record of the Astana proceedings, and consulted academic specialists on Syria, but nowhere can I find any sign of this “deal”.

Astana – the Facts
The Astana process has involved eight different meetings, all them concerned with the details of crafting ceasefires and “de-confliction zones” (mostly observed in the breach). None of them has been overtly concerned with negotiating a political solution to the Syrian conflict.  And from the first to the last the Astana “guarantors” (Russia, Iran, Turkey) have always insisted thatthe Syrian conflict … can only be solved through a political process based on the implementation of the UN Security Council resolution 2254 in its entirety.”. The statement of the Astana partners, made three weeks ago after a joint meeting in Sochi, confirmed this commitment to UNSC 2254 and:

underscored the need for rapid, safe and unhindered humanitarian access and emphasized the need for the Syrian parties to take confidence-building measures, including the release of detainees/abductees … to create better condition for political process and lasting ceasefire.

If we turn to UNSC 2254 we can see the process that it envisages as the road to a Syrian settlement:

… a Syrian-led political process that is facilitated by the United Nations and … establishes credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance and sets a schedule and process for drafting a new constitution, and further expresses its support for free and fair elections, pursuant to the new constitution, to be held within 18 months and administered under supervision of the United Nations, to the satisfaction of the governance and to the highest international standards of transparency and accountability, with all Syrians, including members of the diaspora, eligible to participate (UNSC 2254, para 4)

Perhaps Emily Thornberry’s advocacy skills would be better employed supporting this approach to the resolution of the Syrian conflict (after all, supporting UN Security Council resolutions should be in the DNA of a left-led Labour Party).

Second time around
But let me note that we have been here before with Emily Thornberry. In October 2016, during the emergency House of Commons debate on the situation in Aleppo, Thornberry started out well with a robust denunciation of “the grotesque war crimes being committed by Russia and the Assad regime.” But she then moved on to advocate a plan to provide safe conduct out of the city for the alleged 900 Jabhat Fateh ash-Sham fighters, in order to “remove from the Russians and the Syrian forces their current pretext for the bombardment of east Aleppo”. Thornberry added “There is a precedent for such a step in the way the Jabhat fighters were escorted out of Homs and other towns in Syria”. In a Briefing document for the Parliamentary Labour Party, Thornberry clarified “There are precedents for this plan: Jabhat forces were escorted out of Old Homs city in May 2014, and from Homs city in May 2015.”
However this account was completely erroneous. Neither of the two evacuations from Homs that Thornberry referred to involved Jabhat al Nusra, and the first (May 2014) did not involve combatants at all – it was an evacuation purely of civilians (who had been deprived of food and medicine for almost a year and were on the verge of starvation).It was in fact the first of a series of politico-ethnic cleansings that have been carried out by the Syrian regime, involving the forcible displacement of populations, illegal under international law, and in this context almost certainly a “Crime against Humanity”.

…And a third
To these two incidents I can add a third, personal, one. In October this year, after attending a meeting hosted by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Syria in the House of Commons, I bumped in to Thornberry and had a brief conversation about Syria. She mentioned the importance of providing reconstruction aid once a political settlement was secured; I responded by suggesting that aid for reconstruction needed to be linked to demands that the Asad regime observe human rights norms, in particular the release of the large number of political detainees. Thornberry dissented strongly from this suggestion stating, as I recall, that it would be difficult to do and that “a few political prisoners” were not more important than “starving Syrian children.”.
I have no doubt that Thornberry is a compassionate person, so this remark can only have been born from a lack of knowledge and understanding: ignorance of the fact that political detainees in Syria number in the tens of thousands, perhaps a hundred thousand or more, imprisoned in terrible conditions and subject to torture and arbitrary executions; and ignorance of the fact that the “starving children” in the country are those forced to live under mediaeval sieges imposed by the regime.

Setting Labour Straight on Syria
These episodes indicate that the Labour front bench not only has a poor grasp of what is taking place in Syria, but that it appears to be dependent on very unreliable sources. They will continue to make these sorts of gaffes if they do not consult more widely on Syria. Again, this is not difficult to do: we have a wealth of expert knowledge on Syria in our Universities; we have active solidarity organisations of the sort who are listened to by Labour when they are linked to causes like Palestine; and we have a network of organisations based in the Syrian community involved in advocacy and humanitarian relief work which gives them a rich insight into the situation on the ground in Syria. To my knowledge the Labour front bench has never spoken to any of these organisations. Why?

Sources like this would be able to point out to Emily Thornberry that aid provided to Assad is far more likely to end up in the hands of his kleptocratic familial clique than benefitting “starving children” and be harnessed to their project of shoring up the regime through further ethno-political cleansing.

They would also be able to point out to her that while she was dictating the letter castigating her critics, while Jeremy Corbyn was voicing indignation about a miniscule leakage of aid funds to reactionary groups in Syria, 400,000 people in East Ghouta were facing starvation and systematic bombardment, and, according to the UN’s Jan Egeland, “495 people were on the priority lists for medical evacuations. That number is going down. Not because we are evacuating people, but because they are dying.”

All of this in defiance of Astana, Geneva and the UN Security Council.

The Astana Conference – a step on the road to peace or another turn of the carousel?

In my last post I suggested that Russia was almost certainly looking for an exit strategy from the Syrian conflict, and that we might see moves in that direction once the situation in Aleppo had been resolved. This has been an element in Russia’s thinking for some time, but two recent events will have reinforced their sense of urgency in this respect.

Chaos in East Aleppo

The first was the embarrassing shambles that overtook Russia’s efforts to project a statesman-like management of the final surrender of East Aleppo. Russia took charge of this process through its Ministry of Defence’s Centre for Reconciliation and reached an agreement with the remaining armed opposition groups in East Aleppo that should have allowed an evacuation of both civilians and fighters to start on 14 December. However that agreement was disrupted when forces associated the Iranians suddenly imposed new conditions before they would allow the evacuation to begin. That resulted in Russia’s orderly conclusion becoming a chaotic and agonising waiting game, with sick and injured East Aleppo residents who had packed their belongings and left their homes, forced to sleep in the streets for days while this dispute being resolved.

Collapse in Palmyra

Concurrently with this embarrassing event came an even more traumatic one. While Russia and the regime’s attention was focused on Aleppo, ISIS mounted a major assault on the city of Palmyra, which Russia had liberated from ISIS control to great fanfare the previous year, and succeeded in capturing both the city and the adjoining airport in just 3 days.

Regime publicists tried to put a brave face on this defeat by claiming that the city had only a modest garrison of 1000 Syrian soldiers to defend it, and heavily outnumbered they had been forced to make tactical withdrawal. However it seems that the real story of Palmyra is rather different.

A Syrian army soldier serving with the Tiger Forces in Palmyra has provided a lengthy account of the battle, which in turn was picked up by French journalist, Stéphane Mantoux. According to this account the Syrian regime actually had a force of over 3000 stationed at Palmyra, which, Mantoux concludes, means that the defenders almost certainly outnumbered the attacking force.

The weakness of the regime garrison lay not in its numbers but in its fragmentation and low morale. It was composed of two regular army units (including one from the elite 11th Division), five separate militia groups (two attached to different regime intelligence services, including the famed “Tiger force” linked to Airforce Security), a contingent of Afghan Shia militia, and a substantial Russian ground force. At crucial points in the battle this unstable combination seems to have come apart: After ISIS exploded a large vehicle bomb the Afghans fled in disarray; then half the main Tiger Force group abandoned their position, complaining that they had not been paid for the five weeks.; and then the Russians decided to withdraw, blowing up the main ammunition dump before they left.

This messy debacle provided Russia with a clear object lesson in the vulnerability of the Syrian military, compounded by the involvement of their own troops.

c2qyrjtxcaabj8c-jpg-largeAn insiders view of the Palmyra debacle on Twitter

The Astana initiative

On 16 December Russia launched a new initiative in partnership with Turkey, which involved a ceasefire to begin on 30 December and a call to the Syrian regime and armed opposition groups to participate in a conference in the Kazakh capital, Astana. This initiative was communicated to the United Nations and endorsed in Security Council resolution 2336 on 31 December, and seven “moderate opposition” groups (the term used by the Russian Ministry of Defence) signed up to the ceasefire, which laid down the following obligations for both sides:

To cease attacks with any weapons, including rockets, mortars and anti-tank guided missiles, and to cease using combat air forces;

To refrain from seizing or seeking to seize territory occupied by other parties to the ceasefire; To use proportionate retaliatory force (only to the extent necessary for protection against an immediate threat) for self-defence purposes

Excluded from the ceasefire are ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra (now Jabhat Fatah al-Sham) – the latter providing a loophole which the regime would exploit to circumvent the agreement.

Significantly, for the first time in any Russian move relating to Syria, the ceasefire regime actually contained an enforcement mechanism: Russia and Turkey were to act as “joint guarantors” of the ceasefire and a Commission established to oversee its implementation, including on the ground monitoring with “sanctions” in the event of violations.

On this basis, the Assad regime and 13 armed groups agreed to attend the Astana Conference, which took place on 23-24 January. (Ahrar al-Sham, the largest of the armed opposition groups, declined to participate, but indicated that it would consider anything agreed at Astana.).

fsa-at-astanaArmed opposition groups participating in the Astana Conference

Astana’s results

Despite inflated claims from Russia, it was never likely that anything of significance could be achieved over two days. Indeed, as Astana unfolded, its scope seemed to shrink: in the initial statements the conference was described as “negotiations on a political settlement, aimed at a comprehensive resolution of the Syrian crisis by peaceful means”; but by the time the meeting took place on 23 January everyone was insisting that it had the more limited objective of “consolidating the ceasefire, a formula that was mutually convenient for both the regime and the opposition – for the regime because it has no interest in finding a “political solution”; for the opposition because, as a delegation of armed groups, they insisted that wider political matters were the concern of the High Negotiations committee established for the Geneva process. (Blocking the rather transparent Russian attempt to drive a wedge between the military and political wings of the Syrian opposition.)

As the talks began, it was announced that Iran would also take part in the policing of the ceasefire as part of a “trilateral mechanism”, although the document submitted to the UN which provided the basis the Conference had listed only Russia and Turkey in this role. The opposition delegation objected to this on the grounds that Iran was one of the principle combatants, but to no effect.

So what did Astana actually accomplish? The sponsors hailed it as a great success, with the UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura also enthusiastic at the outcome. But its only tangible product was a declaration issued by the three sponsors which reconfirmed what had already been agreed at the start, but with the addition of Iran to create a “tripartite” enforcement mechanism. There was nothing agreed to by either of the Syrian parties.

Astana in practice – breaches in Wadi Barada

The Astana ceasefire was actually being breached while it was  it was being declared. The regime had launched an offensive against the villages of the Wadi Barrada, which included the Ain al-Fijah spring that supplies water to several nearby towns and to Damascus city. Bashar al-Jaafari was questioned about this at his press conference in Astana and he made it clear that the regime had no intention of respecting the ceasefire in this area, justifying it in terms of the strategic importance of the spring and the false allegation that Jabhat al-Nusra was present in the area. In the event the regime completed its military operation in Wadi Barada, capturing Ain al-Fijah and displacing 2000 local residents, all in clear violation of the conditions of the ceasefire. (Russia appears to have tried to mediate in this situation, but to no avail.)

However, the ceasefire seems to have been better observed elsewhere in the country. According to the Violations Documentation Center, in the five weeks since the commencement of the ceasefire 501 civilians were killed across Syria. by regime forces. That figure shows that the ceasefire was being seriously violated – but it is less than half the number of deaths in the equivalent period last year. Much of this was due to the fact that Russian bombing seems to have ceased over most of the county.

The Road ahead: The Ceasefire

So where does the ceasefire go from here? The monitoring regime has thus far been handled by Russia and Turkey, with Turkey reporting dozens of ceasefire violations, but no sign that anything has been done to redress them. The three sponsors of the ceasefire met again in Astana on 6 February to set up more formal mechanisms for its enforcement, but while de Mistura was invited to provide “advice” based on UN experience, they showed no sign of being prepared to accept UN monitoring.

The Road ahead: Political talks

The Syrian negotiations ball now moves back into the Geneva court. Talks were due to resume there on 8 February, but have been postponed until the 20th. Strangely the postponement was first announced by Russia’s foreign minister Lavrov and only later confirmed by de Mistura.

Russia has long sought to divide the Syrian political opposition and create an “opposition” that would follow its lead. As a result it now finds itself in a tangled situation in which it faces no fewer than six different “opposition” groupings  vying for a place at the Geneva table: three of these are its own creations ­ the “Astana opposition” (linked to Donald Trump’s son), the “Moscow opposition”, and the “Hmeimin opposition” (formed at a Russian airbase); two are groups it has flirted with at one time or another – the Cairo opposition and the Kurdish PYD; and, finally, there is the  High Negotiations Committee which Russia still wants  to undermine but which provided the key advisors to the armed opposition’s delegation at Astana.

Unable to sort all this out, the Russians have kicked it over to de Mistura, who in turn has passed it to the Syrians, with the threat that he will choose the opposition delegation for Geneva himself if they don’t sort it out by 8 February.

This does not bode well for Geneva III. But far more serious is the fact that there has been absolutely no movement towards the implementation of the UN Security Council resolutions on allowing humanitarian aid to enter Syria freely nor on the issue of the release of the tens of thousands of detainees held in Assad’s prisons

The Syrian opposition raised these issues at the Geneva II conference in 2014 and met a stone wall. It raised them again at Astana – providing a list of 30, 000 women and children held in regime prisons, with no result (although humanitarian aid is reported to be on the agenda of Astana II this week).These are the most elementary of “confidence building measures” without which no serious negotiations on peace in Syria can begin (they were  actually incorporated into UN Security Council Resolution 2254 over a year ago) ; yet no one – not the UN and de Mistura; not John Kerry back in the day; and not Russia now has been prepared to press the regime to move on these issues.

Russia’s plan for Syria

Russia’s core political strategy for Syria has been clear for some time – it wants to engineer a “national unity” government in which the opposition (or at least some opposition) will join the current government with Assad as President. For a long time it has sought to do this by using the stick of a military onslaught on opposition areas; it is now moving to dangle a carrot in front of the opposition. At Astana it unveiled a long-rumoured project- a Constitution that it has drafted as the basis for a settlement in Syria. The full text of this has not been published (and civil opposition groups have rightly rejected the idea of a Constitution orchestrated by an external power) but there have been some leaks of its content. What Russia seems to be proposing is a one-term limit for the President (which would allow Assad to remain in office until at least 2021), scaling down of some Presidential powers in favour of a new, bi-cameral legislature, some degree of decentralisation, and recognition of the cultural rights of the Kurds (but falling well short of the federalism sought by the PYD.)

These reforms seem little more than cosmetic. In Syria power isn’t rooted in institutional forms and doesn’t flow through constitutional channels, it is based on clan, clique and patronage networks built around the person of a President with dynastic legitimacy. Tinkering with constitutional forms does not change the structure of power in a “Mukhabarat state“in which the dominant political apparatus is the all-pervasive security services, unconstrained by democratic political structures or the “rule of law”.

But the immediate acid test here is the twin questions of ending the sieges and freeing the detainees. If Russia’s “tripartite” alliance (quadripartite if you include the UN) can’t deliver on those issues then it can’t deliver anything, and the whole Astana-Geneva process will turn out to be yet another turn of the carousel that has been spinning for the last five years at the expense of the people of Syria.

The Fall of East Aleppo: Strategic Gain or Pyrrhic Victory for Assad?

Over recent weeks we have seen a major advance by the forces of the Syrian regime and its allies into opposition East Aleppo, in the wake of a protracted and devastating bombardment of the city. The situation that has resulted from these moves and their longer-term implications remain unclear – partly because of the inevitable “fog war” but also because of the deluge of disinformation being disseminated by the Russian military and regime supporters, both East and West. Let’s start with the question of numbers.

How many people are there in East Aleppo?

Official figures provided both by the United Nations and the East Aleppo authorities (Civil Defence and Aleppo Council) placed the population of East Aleppo at 250 -275,000 . The UN persisted with this figure until recently, but is now suggesting that there are “up to 100,000” civilians remaining in opposition areas of the old city and just over 30,000 who have left. The leader of the opposition council in Aleppo, Brita Hagi Hasan, in a recent interview with a French newspaper, gave a figure of 150,000. The discrepancy between these current figures and the previous ones can probably be explained by the large flight of people from the bombing of the city earlier this year, which the UN  may have seriously underestimated.

How many people are leaving East Aleppo and where are they going?

Again, there are a lot of figures flying around – the highest one being 50,000, which seems to have originated with the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and was picked up by many media sources. But the SOHR has put out conflicting numbers at various points in time. A more reliable statistic comes from the UN agencies, who agreed on a figure of 31, 500 a week ago. Of these 18, 000 had gone to regime controlled West Aleppo, 8500 to the YPG controlled area of Sheikh Maqsoud, and 5000 had moved to other areas within East Aleppo. The Russians are claiming that a further 50,000 have fled in the past week; there is certainly some further movement of people, but the reports on the ground do not suggest anything like this number – they show various groups of at most a few hundred people on the move – indeed, this is exactly what Russian monitoring cameras have captured.

What influences people’s decision on whether and where to go?

Again, a difficult question. For most it will be a matter of pragmatism: where are the nearest safe (or safer) areas? where do they have family connections?. The significant movement into the YPG’s Sheikh Maqsoud district seems to have been from adjacent areas, and most of these people have now returned to their homes as these areas have come under YPG control. For some it may be political – interviews have shown that there are pro-regime families who found themselves stranded in opposition areas and are happy to move into regime-controlled territory (these are the cases highlighted by the regime media); and probably most of those who have chosen to move into other opposition areas, have done so for political reasons. Those living in areas captured militarily by the regime have had no choice – they have been transported to regime holding areas, where men of military age have been detained for interrogation.

The UN Human Rights Council has reported that in some areas armed groups have killed people who have protested against their continuing presence, naming two groups guilty of this – Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly al-Nusra) and the Abu Amara battalion (associated with Ahrar al-Sham). Aleppo council leader Brita Hagi Hasan, in an interview with a French newspaper rather side-stepped a question about this, saying only that “we have no problem with the Free Syrian Army”.

The regime’s gains

There is no doubt that the regime and its allies have gained the upper hand in military terms. Several commentators early on in the offensive talked about it “splitting” the opposition held districts of the city – but if you look at the maps of the conflict it looks to be more of a progressive peeling away of opposition held territory like an onion, starting at the outer layer and working inwards.

This is one of the reasons that the initial advance of regime forces was so rapid – they began at the outer edge of rebel territory – which were areas like Hanano that had suffered the most destruction from bombing, were most depopulated, and therefore provided relatively open terrain for the deployment of the better equipped, Iranian-led forces.

The problem with this “onion” is that the going gets tougher for the attackers as they move further towards the centre, where defending forces are more concentrated and better prepared. While there are a lot of sweeping claims being made by Russia and the regime, the fact is that the regime ground offensive has come to a halt with opposition forces still hanging on in a compact area in the south of the city – and there may be as many as 100,000 civilians with them. Reports coming out from these districts indicate that they are under continual, intense bombardment, and recently have been subjected to attacks with chlorine gas and phosphorous.

The position of the remaining armed groups, however, is untenable as they are surrounded and their supply routes cut off. Their only hope is that they will be able to trade the regime’s desire for a quick, symbolic victory against the rebel’s capacity for messy resistance on their home ground. The Russians are likely to recognise this and we may well see some sort of evacuation deal being struck quite soon (there is a report of such a deal being negotiated just coming in).

The outcome of such a settlement will be that the focus of the Syrian conflict is likely to shift to Idlib and parts of North Aleppo, where there are large opposition communities   already under heavy bombardment by the Russians and the regime.

Shrinking opposition territory in East Aleppo 1-8 December

A Pyrrhic Victory?

From the point of view of the Assad regime this may well prove to be a rather hollow “victory”. They will emerge from it with an enhanced security position and a stronger claim to be in command of the whole country than they have had for several years, but these gains have been bought at the cost of becoming an increasingly marginal player in determining the future of Syria.

On the military front the Aleppo operation has been led by Iranian-commanded foreign militia. On the political front Russia seems to have taken over the management of the conflict and its social effects  – it is the Russian Ministry of Defence’s “Centre for the Reconciliation of Opposing Sides in the Syrian Arab Republic” that oversees local surrenders and evacuations; it is Russia which carries out de-mining of occupied areas; and it is Russia that is very demonstrably providing food and medical aid to the internally displaced (Russia seem to be playing a double game here, attacking the UN and western governments for failing to provide aid while blocking the admission of much aid so that it can conduct its own “hearts and minds” programme ­ – but also accepting UN assistance when it suits them: for example, the city’s water pumping station has only been able to resume operations with fuel provided by UNICEF.)

While the regime may take control of former opposition districts, the YPG has taken the opportunity to extend their control from Sheikh Maqsoud to more than three other districts, complicating the ability of the regime to impose its full control over the city.

To top it off, there is a severe social crisis brewing in Aleppo. The Syrian regime has inherited a city half of which has been absolutely shattered; they have over 30,000 dispossessed people to support, most of whom have been moved to two derelict industrial sites in Jibreen on the outskirts of the city. These centres are completely overloaded, and conditions are so bad there that some families have been moved to Hanano , despite the widespread destruction of that area. The regime has described this as “returning the people of Hanano to their homes” but according to the UN:

people currently sheltering in Hanano cannot collectively be counted as returnees as … only 20 per cent of them are originally from the area, while 80 per cent are currently squatting in abandoned houses. Despite the recent influx, Hanano is not deemed a safe area for shelter due to unexploded remnants of war in the area, and many buildings being at risk of collapse due to infrastructural damage.

All of this is in addition to a large population of displaced persons already present in West Aleppo, which the UN suggests may number as many as 400, 000, 77,000 of whom are living in “unfinished buildings or collective shelters.”

If we add to this the fact that a study of Aleppo in 2013/14 found a significant level of hostility to the regime in West Aleppo (in many districts 20 to 40% of the residents believed that “the Assad regime is the greatest threat to Syria ”) then it seems likely that the “order” imposed on Aleppo will be a highly repressive one in both parts of the city (five restless Western districts have been under the direct governance of the notorious Air Force Security since 2012.)

One of the centres for displaced people in Aleppo

Russia’s strategy and future prospects

I have argued in the past that Russia had little real leverage over the Assad regime (they could not afford to abandon Assad even if he refused to go along with their plans). But Aleppo may have altered that significantly: the regime is now dependent on Russia to a greater degree and in more ways than ever before. Russia will not want to get bogged down in a conflict for which there is no apparent end point, and may now start to craft its own exit strategy and press the regime to fall in line. Scott Lucas of EAWorldView has suggested that the Russians may try to impose  a de facto partition of Syria that would leave the opposition in control of Idlib and Assad in power in the rest of the country (and Russia’s naval and airforce bases intact). There is, however, an alternative possibility, hinted at by the pro-Russian site South Front: Russia could use Idlib as a bargaining counter with both the regime and the opposition in order to produce its preferred solution to the conflict – a “national unity” government presided over by Assad but with some form of opposition participation. In this scenario the Syrian opposition would be told that unless it agrees, the military onslaught on Idlib will be stepped up; and the regime will be told that if it doesn’t acquiesce Russia will pull back and leave it to deal with a huge reconstruction bill and a rebellious province on its own.

I don’t claim any official standing for South Front, which is a blatant propaganda operation, but it does have clear Russian patronage and may have some connections to Russian policy networks. Whatever the case, such a strategy makes sense from the Russian point of view and would seem to be the only way they can move towards an outcome that would meet their longstanding objective.

Max Blumenthal and the Rhizomes

In the course of the last two weeks, since the end of the so called “cessation of hostilities” in Syria, over 250,000 people living in East Aleppo have been subjected to an unprecedented barrage of bombing, targeting hospitals, schools, and even the underground shelters they have built to protect themselves from previous assaults.

These events have received widespread attention from the world’s media, which heretofore had been obsessed mostly with ISIS, and one factor contributing to that has been the attention attracted by the civil defence force that operates within opposition areas, known as the “White Helmets. These heroic individuals were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and were the subject of a powerful documentary broadcast to wide acclaim on Netflix.

This has generated fury in the pro-Assad camp because the focus on the White Helmets also means a focus on the desperate situation of the inhabitants of opposition communities in Syria and the criminal efforts of the regime and its allies to crush their spirit. For the past 18 months the pro-regime camp has sought to denigrate the White helmets and anyone who tries to promote public awareness of what is happening Syria.

Recently, they have been joined by someone called Max Blumenthal. I have never heard of Blumenthal but I understand that he is regarded as someone of significance in the US left, and since he has a lot to say about the movement that I am involved in, I feel the need to respond to what he has had to say.

The first thing to note about Blumenthal is his pervasive paternalism. His paternalism towards Syrians has been dealt with very effectively by Marcel Shehwaro of Kesh Malek, who is well placed to express the views of both the victims of the Syrian regime’s oppression and the popular, democratic resistance to it.

Blumenthal extends his paternalism to the international movement of solidarity with Assad’s victims – and that means he is treading on my toes, so I feel entitled to voice a protest which I believe would be shared by the many thousands who have taken to the streets around the world to support Aleppo and the other centres of resistance to Assad and his allies.

Blumenthal says the following about the demonstrations that took place in September-October of this year to protest against the onslaught on Aleppo.

On September 30, demonstrators gathered in city squares across the West for a “weekend of action” to “stop the bombs” raining down from Syrian government and Russian warplanes on rebel-held eastern Aleppo. Thousands joined the protest … Few participants likely knew that the actions were organized under the auspices of an opposition-funded public relations company called the Syria Campaign …  The group is able to operate within the halls of power in Washington and has the power to mobilise thousands of demonstrators into the streets. (my emphasis)

This seems to imply that we were all naïve dupes being led by the nose by some “shadowy” force – I haven’t heard charges like that since the days of the anti-Vietnam war movement, when right wing commentators portrayed us as all as tools of a “shadowy” Communist Party. And they are as nonsensical now as they were then.

Blumenthal professes a fondness for facts, so let me provide a little factual  history .The international Syria solidarity movement emerged initially in  a series of spontaneous actions (mostly flash mobs) that took place  across the world in town centres, high schools and universities in the course of 2011-12. You Tube has a good record of these (its counter says 100, 000 but the real number is probably fewer than that) Most- but not all – were organised by young members of the Syrian diaspora. I think the kudos for being the first organised solidarity group goes to the Toronto-based Like for Syria which was established in January 2011, and has done amazing awareness raising work in the streets of Toronto. This was followed closely by Leeds Friends of Syria, established in the UK later that year.

As the situation in Syria unfolded, it had an impact in the international left and solidarity mileux which began to differentiate between those for whom “anti-imperialism” was a mechanical mantra that would lead them to embrace brutal dictatorships on geopolitical grounds (much like western “realist” policy makers), and those whose anti-imperialism rested on a bedrock of internationalism and support for the oppressed and their struggles.

Argentina : "We support those in struggle across the world" the anti-imperiaism of internationalists The anti-imperialism of internationalists (Argentina)
“We  support those who are in struggle across the world”


The first round of global demonstrations for Syria took place in June 2011 and March 2012 (this seemed to worry  the Syrian regime so much that they sponsored  their own “Global March for Syria in 2012) and regular international solidarity events followed. The movement was greatly strengthened by the Declaration of Solidarity issued by the World Social Forum in 2013.That May groups like the Brazilian metalworkers union came on board, and by May 2014, solidarity demonstrations were taking place in 28 cities worldwide, including 3 in Palestine, several across Latin America, in Bucharest, and in Mauritius.

Palestinian Demonstrators at Damascus Gate in Jerusalem 2013Palestinian demonstrators at the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem.  May 2014


In my own home ground, Britain, members of the Syrian community took part in the first Global campaign in 2012. A broader coalescing of activists emerged in late 2013 in response to a decision by an alleged anti-war movement to host a notorious regime apologist. At the same time numerous individuals were using their moral compasses to chart clear positions of support for the Syrian struggle. Personal contacts developed into Facebook networking, which led to a conference in early 2014 (inspired by a similar conference in in the US) by which point we were ready to “send our love to Syria”.

As our movement consolidated itself we extended our contacts with groups and individuals in Europe and North America and encouraged the formation of similar networks. When the Syria Campaign emerged in the summer of 2014 we were very pleased to see them: they brought to the work on which we were already embarked additional resources and useful media skills (Although we had some significant achievements of our own in that respect). We have worked very positively with the Syria campaign for the past two years in our common cause of enhancing public awareness and promoting support for the besieged people of Syria. We value their contribution immensely – but the grass roots work of building an international network for Syrian solidarity is first and foremost our achievement- and Blumenthal’s attempt to take that away from us in order to construct his petty, distorted narrative is offensive.

The 2016 demonstrations that Blumenthal cites were the latest in this long series of solidarity initiatives. You can track their rich diversity in 41 cities across the world  through this page Once more the work of the Syria Campaign, was helpful, but I doubt that their writ carried much weight in Reykjavik, or with Valencian anarchists.

Max Blumenthal’s problem is that he is stuck in the sand of the last century – in the 21st century social movements do not develop  hierarchically under tree-like “auspices” (despite Blumenthal’s co-thinkers in pro regime circles, who regard George Soros as the Elder behind them all including Occupy Wall Street.). They flourish as largely flat networks – more expressively they are rhizomatic (this reference to the rhizome will be understood by social theorists and gardeners alike, but for those who are neither, a rhizome has been described as “a continuously growing horizontal underground stem which puts out lateral shoots and adventitious roots at intervals.” Yes – that’s just the right metaphor to capture our essential properties (indeed, the Jasmine flower – the symbol of Syria’s Dignity Revolution – is the outgrowth of a rhizome).

dignity-symbolOur first rhizome: the Dignity Revolution


Let me offer just one small example of rhizomatic flourishing. Blumenthal, in his tirade against the Syria campaign, links to a Facebook page for a demonstration in Amsterdam, which is being called under the handle #AleppoHolocaust. The earliest manifestation of this handle and its associated logo seems to be a twitter campaign conducted on 30 September. The work of a “shadowy” Syria Campaign? Nope: just another rhizome bursting into the light – a group of Iranians – Iran Arab Spring – opposed to Iran’s intervention in Syria (They also carry posts in Catalan.)

Max Blumenthal presents himself as an intrepid investigative reporter bringing dark deeds to light. Yet he has totally missed the real lifeworld of global Syrian solidarity: just compare his arid, conspiratorial account of our movement with the vibrant reality I have portrayed above.

The reason is not hard to find ­­- Blumenthal is hunting for us in trees, while we are busy cultivating rhizomes.

Syria: From bombardment to ceasefire and back

Personal circumstances have kept me away from this blog for almost two months and a lot has gone on while I’ve been away.

First, we saw a dramatic acceleration of Russian military activity in Syria, followed by a significant deceleration as a “cessation of hostilities” was proclaimed, starting on 27 February. To top it off we saw Putin announce the (partial) withdrawal of Russian forces from Syria on 14 March.

Let’s examine each of these event in turn.

Russian intervention

The month between my previous post on 25 January and the “cessation of hostilities” saw almost 1000 civilian deaths (all figures here taken from the Violations Documentation Centre database). If we look at the Russian intervention overall (30 September 2015 to the start of the ceasefire) then what we see is a period of intense bombardment of civilian population centres (well documented in reports of attacks on hospitals and schools) accompanied by more effective targeting of opposition military forces. So the rate of killing of civilians edged up only slightly in the period, but the killing of armed opponents of the regime almost doubled. The role of air power in attacking civilian communities also grew sharply:(in the period prior to Russian intervention bombs accounted for 48% of civilian deaths, once the Russians arrived the figure rose to 65%; with Russian operations accounting for 60% of all bombing.)

The Ceasefire

Most commentaries on the ceasefire from the United Nations, western governments, and the western media, have hailed it as a major success. While it has resulted in a major reduction in the number of civilian casualties, and allowed civil groups in a whole series of towns and villages to return to the streets to call for the downfall of the regime, an inspection of the statistics tell a less uniformly optimistic picture. While civilian deaths have fallen by 60% since the ceasefire began (and deaths as a result of bombing have declined even more sharply) there are still are still running at almost 100 civilian deaths each week. Details of continuing regime attacks can be found here.

Russian Withdrawal

The announcement by Putin on 14 March that Russia was to begin a major withdrawal of its forces took the rest of the world by surprise.

While Putin accompanied the announcement with “mission accomplished” fanfare, few independent commentators took this seriously. As was widely pointed out, the Russians had managed to shore up Asad for the immediate future and strengthen his hand for the Geneva negotiations, but Russia’s prime objective for its intervention – the elimination of ISIS ­was still far from complete. Of course, in typical Putin fashion, after the announcement had been allowed to resound, the qualifications began – Russia was maintaining its airbase and core personnel in Latakia, and could resume operations on short notice; the Russian air defence system would remain in place; and Russian air support for Syrian operations against ISIS would-continue.

The question remains – why did Russia pull out so demonstratively? Was it some sort of a warning shot to the regime that if they did not fall in line with Russia’s diplomatic line, Russia could be less supportive? Perhaps, but if so it was a hollow gesture – Assad knows perfectly well that his allies cannot afford to have the regime fall militarily to anyone. Indeed, recent news has suggested that Russia may be increasing its flow of material support to the regime.

Russia’s Diplomacy

Something that has not been widely noted by Syria-watchers is the fact that Russia has been badly wrong-footed on the diplomatic front at almost every turn. As I’ve suggested previously, what Russia would like to see is a resolution (or at least winding down) of the Syrian conflict with the minimum of political change at the centre. Their strategic objective is the creation of a power-sharing government that would continue to be headed by Asad, but which would include some opposition representatives. This would have to receive some concessions to make it credible, but it would leave the basic structure of power intact. The current ceasefire is a “demonstration project” for this plan – designed to show opposition communities what life could be like if they dropped demands for Asad’s departure and went along with this sort of compromise. It seems that John Kerry, despite occasional bursts of anti-Asad rhetoric, has signed up to this approach as well.

But to implement this scheme Russia needs two things – an opposition that would be prepared to respond to these limited incentives, and a regime that would prepared to make some cosmetic (and perhaps a bit more than cosmetic) changes. Russia has failed to achieve either.

On the opposition issue, Russia had hoped to split the anti-Asad political opposition and assemble a pliable, credible opposition current that would sign up to their package. In fact, their manoeuvres had the opposite effect producing an unprecedented unification of the Syrian opposition – with the High Negotiating Committee including both the Syrian National Coalition and the bulk of the National Coordinating Committee (plus, for the first time, sections of the armed opposition). Russia has had to make do with a rump of fringe opposition groups headed by their glove puppet Qadri Jamil.

Similarly, their attempt to widen the list of “terrorist” organisations beyond ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra has drawn a blank (although that hasn’t prevented the regime form making up its own list.)

As far as the regime is concerned, they have refused to play ball, maintaining an intransigent position that is beginning to frustrate even Stefan de Mistura. In effect what we are seeing is a replay of the Geneva II negotiations – exactly what Russia and the US wanted to avoid.

The Negotiations thus far

These have been pretty much Geneva II déjà vu – the opposition puts forward wide- ranging and detailed plans; the regime simply offers a statement of abstract principles and ignores the opposition’s proposals. In an attempt to move beyond this deadlock de Mistura has published a list of what he diplomatically describes as “commonalities” – but beyond a couple of abstract points – they are nothing of the sort: they are basically opposition positions that he hopes he can get the regime to at least respond to. But I really can’t see the regime buying into this, for example:

  1. Syrians are committed to rebuilding a strong and unified national army, also through the disarmament and integration of members of armed groups supporting the transition and the new constitution. That professional army shall protect the borders and population of the State from external threats in accordance with the principle of the rule of law. The state and its reformed institutions will exercise the exclusive right of controlling weapons of war. There shall be no intervention by foreign fighters on Syrian soil.

Meanwhile the regime continues to drag its feet over the “confidence building” measures that are meant to accompany the ceasefire. It has allowed limited relief supplies into many of the besieged areas (although it continues to refuse surgical materials to enter) – but denies the UN access to Douma and Darayya –two towns in the strongly oppositional belt close to Damascus that it is intent on crushing, ceasefire or no. And repeated demands for release of detainees – which the opposition has backed up by providing detailed lists, and which de Mistura has endorsed – have been met with a stony silence.

Russia’s consolation prize

Russia has however come away from the political and diplomatic process with one consolation prize – the PYD/YPG who exercise effective control over the Kurdish regions of northern Syria. The PYD/YPG has shifted its de facto alliance from the United States to Russia, coordinating its operations with the Russian air force to seize territory, in some cases from FSA forces. (For a good account of this see Michael Karadjis’s blog post– which I agree with in the essentials (but see my comment on the post at his site). The PYD has now established a Moscow office.

As a quid pro quo for this Russia made a few positive noises using the Syrian “F” word – Federalism, although these were promptly withdrawn once the PYD started to act on these assurances. I’m inclined to speculate that Russia is here using the PYD as a stick to wave at a recalcitrant Asad – while it can’t seriously threaten to withdraw support from the regime, it can suggest that if Asad is not more cooperative, Russia would consider backing a PYD-linked “federalism” for the north of the country. However, for the time being Russia’s Syrian protégés have adopted a position indistinguishable from that of the Syrian opposition.

The Geneva process is due to resume on 11 April – but the hopes for it are no brighter than when it opened. The best that we can expect is that the ceasefire can be spun out for as long as possible to give the Syrian people some respite from the terror that they have been subjected to by the regime and that when the inevitable breakdown occurs, the Russians may not be quite as enthusiastic in their military operations as previously.

Russia’s Double Game in Syria

Vienna Watch logo

At the Conference Table: Russia’s Double Game

During the last two months we have witnessed two apparently contradictory sets of events – on the one hand the conclusion of the preparatory rounds of the Vienna peace process with the adoption of Security Council Resolution 2254 on 18 December, incorporating what had been agreed in Vienna, and subsequent moves by the UN to implement it. On the other hand we have seen an accelerating series of Russian airstrikes against civilian populations in opposition controlled areas: in the period since the adoption of the UN resolution Russian bombs have killed over 500 civilians, 100 of them children (VDC database). That’s a larger number than those killed by Assad’s airforce in that period.

However if we look at these events in the lightof  Russia’s objectives and strategy in Syria they can be seen not as contradictory but as complementary.

In a previous post I outlined Russia’s strategy for the Vienna process, which I described as seeking “a deal …that will allow Asad to remain in place at least until the projected 2018 elections, at which point they hope that he will be able to exploit the fragmentation of the opposition to win a presidential contest.”

Events since then have clarified how Russia hopes to bring this about. First they managed to secure the assent of the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, to the initial steps in this process: at a joint press conference held by Kerry and Lavrov on 15 December Kerry responded with an extraordinary outburst when he was asked “ can you just respond to the decision by the opposition last week that he [Assad] should go right at the start of a political transition process?”

Kerry replied,

With respect to the announcement or proclamations of the people who came together in Riyadh, that is not the position of the International Syria Support Group. It is not the basis of the Geneva communique [sic]; it is not the basis of the UN resolution.…that is not, in fact, the starting position, because it’s a non-starting position, obviously. So for those people who are going to participate, they understand we are participating under the Geneva communique.

So we now have Russo-American agreement that the regime under Assad is not only a legitimate interlocutor for the first round of negotiations (accepted by the opposition) but also a potential participant in the “governance” that will follow – in other words this would be a “power sharing” arrangement between regime and opposition. The US may have not (yet) bought into the rest of the Russian scenario which goes as follows: the power sharing administration takes the form of a Government operating under Assad’s presidency; this administration agrees a new Constitution which retains the Presidential system; Assad stands in the 2018 Presidential election, and given the continuing influence of regime patronage, the lack of a high-visibility opposition candidate, and the continuing oversight of the Syrian security services, manages to engineer a victory. It may be difficult to pass the test of UN “supervision” of these elections, but the question then becomes (to paraphrase Mussolini’s famous comment about the Pope) “how many divisions has Staffan de Mistura got”

The attraction of this scenario seems to have caused a shift in the position of the Syrian regime, which started out by rejecting the idea that there could be any agreement with “terrorists”. They now, however, seem to have discovered the potential in the Russian version of this process, which they see leading to the formation of a “national unity government”, without a whiff of “transition” around.

There are however certain essential preconditions which must be met if this plan is to be realised. The first is that the Syrian regime must be able to appear to have some power worth sharing (a far from self-evident proposition giving their military dependence on a rag-tag of foreign and domestic militias; and their economic dependence on Iranian financial support and UN aid programmes.)

A closely related second objective is that it must re-establish its authority over the main population centres in order to be confident of engineering a credible victory in a future election. (Two recent opinion polls in Syria suggests this is going to be very much an uphill struggle)

In practical terms, this means eliminating any challenge to the regime’s control over the Alawite heartland of Latakia and Tartous; eradicating or marginalising the irritating presence of opposition forces in the Rif Damasq that surrounds the capital; completing the establishment of regime authority over the city and district of Homs; and securing the arterial transport links between the Capital, and the cities of Homs and Hama.

It would have been nice from this perspective to reassert regime control over all of Aleppo, but that is something that can probably wait.

It is also important to prevent any form of credible alternative governance emerging in opposition areas that might suggest Assad is not the only game in town.

We can see how these objectives have been reflected in current strategy of Russia and the regime.  Several analysts have suggested that Syria is being prepared for partition by moves like the proposed population exchange between Zabadani and Fua and Kefraya. But in my view that is a misreading: there is no possibility that Assad will preside over the overt break-up of the “Syrian Arab Republic” with which his dynastic legitimacy is so intrinsically bound up (nor would Iran find much virtue in the costly dependency of a rump state.)

No – what is going on here is an exercise, not in Partition but in Consolidation and Containment.

The biggest fly in the ointment from this perspective is Idlib, where opposition forces have control of the provincial capital, almost all the province, and several important centres in adjoining south Aleppo, like Maarat al-Numan. It is no coincidence that the Russian bombing offensive has been heavily focused on this area, with more than half the death toll due to Russian bombing operations located here.

Elsewhere the strategy takes different forms: in Zabadani, Madaya, and several towns of the Damascus countryside it is pursued though ruthless sieges that aim to bring opposition communities to their knees. In al-Waer – the main obstacle to regime Consolidation in Homs – it assumes a softly-softly approach in which concessions are granted in exchange for an incremental extension of regime authority.

Despite all this, there remain several problem areas for Russia and the regime. The first as I noted in my previous post is Russia’s inability to round up a credible alternative opposition that would sing from their hymn sheet. This shortcoming was underlined in when the two main wings of the Syrian opposition – the Syrian National Coalition and the National Coordinating Body came together for the first time since 2011 in Riyadh and agreed to the formation of a united delegation for peace negotiations with a common programme. The presence of several major armed groups– the first time the armed opposition has been committed to a negotiation process – further underlined the credibility of the Riyadh meeting.

Russia has responded with a petulant rejection of the “Riyadh opposition”. But unable to compose a viable alternative they have simply put forward a list of 15 names who they demand are included in the opposition side of the talks. The “Moscow”15 includes only one serious political force –  the Kurdish PYD, taking advantage of an opposition “own goal” in which  they refused to include the PYD in the Riyadh Conference. The remaining names are of people linked to small opposition groups with no significant following, and Russia’s perennial protégé Qadri Jamil, whose “opposition” credentials are tarnished by his having served as a Deputy Prime Minister under Assad. This is nothing more than a spoiling operation by Russia, which put the Vienna process into slow motion for several days.

Of course this is merely a side show to the real burning issue –  how can a serious peace process develop when the regime and its allies continue with their campaign of mass homicide and starvation? The opposition grouping that emerged from Riyadh has quite rightfully highlighted this but have received no support from either Kerry nor de Mistura, both of whom continue to insist that the talks must begin “without preconditions”.

Nevertheless, de Mistura, did, for the first time, display a certain amount of mettle at his most recent (25 January) Press Conference. He reminded the press corps (and through them the Russians) that the Security Council had given him sole authority to determine the list of opposition invitees and announced that he would be sending out invitations “tomorrow”, for a round of meetings  that would begin on 29 January. He batted away a question about the lack of an expanded list of “terrorist” organisations to be excluded from the peace process saying that he was working on the basis of the Security Council decision which had scheduled only ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, thereby rebuffing Russia’s other big spoiling manoeuvre. He also stated that in determining who to invite he was adopting the criteria of “inclusiveness and substantial weight” If he does draw on the latter consideration that will eliminate a very large part of the “Moscow” opposition.

We will see when de Mistura’s list is revealed just how much independence he is really asserting. The first test will be whether Jaish al-Islam is included: they are part of the Riyadh opposition and an important component of the armed opposition but a force that Russia has been determined to add to the terrorist list (an effort they backed up by assassinating the Jaish al-Islam leader Zahran Alloush.) The second test will be how many of the Moscow list are included: Saleh Muslim of the PYD seems a virtual certainty; British-Syrian academic Rim Turkmani could be included (if she is willing) to strengthen the representation of women; but the inclusion of Qadri Jamil would reflect a failure of nerve by Da Mistura.

De Mistura indicated that the next round of the Vienna process will be “proximity talks” i.e. the participants will gather in separate spaces and De Mistura and his aides will shuttle between them trying to establish areas of agreement. This would make it possible for him to manage a dialogue with several participants – the Syrian regime and Riyadh opposition, and others.

But if de Mistura does not deliver what the Russians want they undoubtedly have a Plan B, based on the behaviour of the Syrian government during the 2013 Geneva conference – step up the killing in Syria to try and force the legitimate opposition into pulling out.

In any event, the counter enumerating the Syrian deaths sustained in order to keep Assad and his clique in power is likely to continue ticking up in the coming weeks and months.