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.


The al-Waar Truce

On the Ground: the al-Waar Truce

Two weeks ago, on 1 December, a “truce” was agreed between the Syrian regime and the people of al-Waar (a large suburban district on the edge of Homs city). The last centre held by opposition forces in the Homs area, al-Waar once had a population of 300, 000 but today only about 75 000 remain. Many of al-Waar’s residents are evacuees from Homs Old Town who were allowed to leave that district under a previous agreement in May 2014. For the past 19 months the district has been under siege and bombardment by the Syrian regime, with the entry of both food and medical supplies severely curtailed.

The truce agreement is due to be implemented in three stages, the first of which began on 9 December. It seems that that its main provisions are:

1.A ceasefire (which presumably means that regime forces will cease their bombing, shelling and sniping at targets in the district; while opposition fighters will stop offensive operations against the Syrian army);

  1. Opening of the main checkpoint leading into the town and admission of essential humanitarian aid ‑ food and medical supplies.
  2. The release of prisoners and detainees held by both sides.
  3. The evacuation of vulnerable people – children, the elderly and those in need of urgent medical treatment.

In order to facilitate the truce it was agreed that those fighters unwilling to accept its terms would be allowed to leave the city securely with their light (and some medium )weapons and travel  to opposition controlled areas in Idlib and Hama.  Fighters who are prepared to observe the truce can remain (at least for the time being) with their weapons.

It’s clear that the UN was heavily involved in mediating and implementing this agreement. It was overseen by the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Syria, Yacoub El-Hillo, and  a senior aide of UN Special envoy on Syria Stefan de Mistura (de Mistura himself appears to have been in the city a few days previously) and videos show dozens of white UN vehicles escorting Red Crescent lorries bringing humanitarian aid in and buses taking vulnerable civilians and some fighters out of the city.

The first step in the truce was taken on 6 December when a large aid convoy was allowed to enter the city as a “confidence building” measure). This was followed three days later by the formal commencement of the truce and departure of approximately 1000 people – 300 fighters , 400 family members, and a further 300 vulnerable evacuees.

“Al-Waar will retain its revolutionary character”

However the bulk of the district’s current population of 75 000 are remaining including some 3 – 5000 fighters, who retain their weapons. Local inhabitants are adamant that the fighters must stay in order to guarantee the security of this oppositional community. As one fighter told Syria Direct

We won’t leave and abandon our families to become a target for the shabiha’s hatred … the truce we recognize is one that allows rebels to stay in the neighbourhood to protect civilians. In that case, we’ll abide by all conditions including a ceasefire.

According to Syria Direct the text of the agreement provides for two further stages, each 25 days apart. In these two stages opposition fighters will surrender their heavy weapons, and part of their medium ones, in exchange for the release of 5000 detainees.

This understanding of the agreement was underlined in a series of reports and interviews posted on You Tube by the Homs Media Centre:

The agreement is a ceasefire, not mass immigration. Population and fighters for the most part have chosen to stay. Bombing will stop, military engagements will stop, but fighters will stay.

The Ceasefire is purely humanitarian but won’t have political effect. All revolutionary brigades remain and the area is not going to be under the control of the regime as it is alleging. We just had to make some concessions to get vital humanitarian support.

(Acknowledgement: My thanks to Yasmine Nahlawi of Rethink Rebuild Society for translating the videos)

This view  also appears to be endorsed by the United Nations: UN Humanitarian Coordinator El-Hillo confirmed in a statement to Reuters, “All the options are there. For fighters wishing to continue being opponents but without allowing for this to take the neighbourhood back to where it came from, that (option) is there,”

The Syrian regime, however, seems to be singing from a rather different hymn-sheet.

The State news agency SANA, reported Homs Governor Talal al- Barazi, who negotiated the agreement from the regime side, as follows:

During the second stage, al-Barazi said, the gunmen willing to go back to their normal lives will have their legal status settled, noting that all state institutions will go back to work in the neighbourhood in the course of the second and third stages.

By the end of the third stage, al-Waar neighbourhood will be clear of weapons and gunmen and under the full control of the state, according to the Governor. (my emphasis)This phrase of Barazi’s has become the formula that pro-regime sources routinely employ to describe the truce.

The confusion is compounded by a report from BBC journalist Lise Doucet who was in al-Waar for the start of the truce. Writing in The Observer of 13 December she states, “the ceasefire’s detailed document makes it clear that security will now be in the hands of the Homs General Intelligence Branch and the civil police. The return of the Syrian security service to al –Waar is certainly not in keeping with the spirit of the agreement (and one is left wondering if there may not be two different texts of the agreement in existence).

In a press release issued on 11 December the UN made it clear that it regards the al-Waar truce as the first fruit of the Vienna process, quoting de Mistura: “initiatives like this one bring relief to besieged or isolated communities and have great value … They help the perception that a nationwide ceasefire brokered by the members of the ISSG is doable and that the UN can and will do its part.”

However the role of the UN in this event has been dubious at best. The first thing that must be said is that it is quite shameful that the UN should have been party to a process that made the receipt of humanitarian aid by an acutely deprived community conditional. Not only is the receipt of such aid a basic human right but the Vienna declaration explicitly states  “pursuant to clause 5 of the Vienna Communique, the ISSG discussed the need to take steps to ensure expeditious humanitarian access throughout the territory of Syria pursuant to UNSCR 2165 and called for the granting of the UN’s pending requests for humanitarian deliveries.”

Having been blockaded for some 4 months, there must surely have been a humanitarian delivery “pending” for al-Waar – why then did its residents of have to submit to further delays and to make a series of concessions to the regime before relief was provided?

It seems that the UN in this instance was motivated by an overriding  desire to chalk up a “victory” for Stefan de Mistura’s long standing plan of securing local cease fires, even if it meant downplaying the rights of 75 000 people. (It must however be granted that the UN took its responsibilities in the implementation of the accord seriously, providing a security escort for the convoy of evacuees moving from the city to other areas).

The second observation is that the UN has presided over the drafting of a very ambiguous agreement without publishing either the text or a substantive summary of it provisions. This opens the way for the regime to abuse the process and push the more far-reaching conditions that it is has openly announced. Far from being a model for securing  a nationwide ceasefire, al-Waar has all the potential to become a classic example of how NOT to mediate in a deep conflict situation. Only time will tell.

But it won’t take much time. The second  phase of the Al-Waar truce is due to begin in the first week of January. That will coincide approximately with the exhaustion of the supplies delivered at the start of the siege, so we will have a clear test at that point of the intentions of the regime and the capacity  of the United Nations to meet its obligations to the people of al-Waar, and of Syria.

12 December 2015: Al Waar residents remind a visiting high level UN delegation of Security Council Resolutions 2139 and 2165 (prohibiting attacks on civilian populations and calling for the free flow of humanitarian aid)

The YPG in Tal Abyad : Do the “ethnic cleansing” charges hold water?

The recent striking victories of the Kurdish YPG and its allies against ISIS in Tal Abyad has been overshadowed by accusations that the Kurdish forces have been carrying out “ethnic cleansing” against the Arab population of the area. These accusations were first levelled by Turkish President Erdogan on 11 June, still smarting at his electoral defeat –  ­“The West, which is hitting Arabs and Turkmens of Tell Abyad from the air, is sadly settling the PYD and terror organizations in their places.” ­- and subsequently taken up by Etilaf (the Syrian National Coalition) and the “Jaish al-Fatah” alliance of Islamist armed groups.

The YPG has vehemently denied these allegations, and has been supported by the FSA units who are allied with it, and a prominent Syrian oppositionist. Nevertheless the accusations persist. In what may have been a bit of a climb down, Etilaf proposed to send a fact-finding team to Tal Abyad to inquire into the situation.

In order to evaluate these charges it will be helpful to put the current situation into context

The local context
What is now the Syrian-Turkish border region was historically inhabited by a series of nomadic pastoralist groups with diverse ethnic characteristics – Kurdish, Arab, and Christian. The repressive policies of Kemalist turkey caused large numbers of Kurds to move across the border into Syria in two waves – one in the 1920s and the other around 1945. With the agricultural development of the region under the French mandate these migrants became settled peasant farmers and part of a multi-ethnic society in which political alliances were formed across ethnic lines and often manipulated by French colonial officials. (During the 1930s there was a Kurdish-Christian alliance in favour of regional autonomy)

Independent Syria was dominated by political forces which embraced an “Arabist” ideology which proclaimed a common Arab identity for the country. However this “Arabism” was highly intolerant of minorities which could not be assimilated into this framework. In 1962 the pre-Baath nationalist government adopted a new constitution which proclaimed Syria to be an “Arab Republic” (an issue which continues to dog Syrian Kurdish-opposition relations) and the administration of Hasakah governorate (which includes Jazirah) formulated a plan for the creation of an “Arab belt” along the border that would have involved the expulsion of a large proportion of the Kurdish population

In the event the government did not implement this grandiose plan but adopted a different strategy to deal with the Kurdish question. In October 1962 they carried out a hasty “exceptional census” of Hassakah in which all Kurds who could not provide documentary evidence that they had been settled in the area prior to 1945 were deemed to be “foreigners”. This affected 120 000 Kurds(20% of Syria’s Kurdish population) and created one of the most discriminatory regimes in recent history:  issued with distinctive identity cards “foreign” Kurds were unable to vote, own land or housing, obtain public or professional jobs, access public health care, marry Syrian citizens, obtain passports, or register their children’s births. By 2011 this group had swelled to more than 300 000.

Both the pre-Assad Baath regime which came  to power in 1963 and the subsequent  regime of Hafiz Asad (1971) continued to marginalise the Kurdish population and to pursue a version of the “Arab belt”. Across the country Kurds were denied all cultural rights (including the use of the Kurdish language and Kurdish names for children.)

The Jazira region in the northeast (corresponding to the PYD’s Rojava Canton of Cizire) with a large Kurdish population was already a key agricultural area based on cereal and cotton cultivation. From 1968 to 1973 the Syrian government undertook a major programme of hydraulic engineering works to provide both irrigation for new state farms and hydroelectric power: the Tabqa dam and the huge, modestly named, “Lake Assad” reservoir .This necessitated the relocation of a large number of Arab inhabitants whose land was flooded,. This was carried out in a way which revived the “Arab belt” project, with some 25 000 Arab peasants relocated into Kurdish areas. It’s not clear how much Kurdish dislocation ensued – the Kurds resisted demands that they leave their homes and the government did not resort to forcible removals, although there may have been expropriation of land for the benefit of the incomers.This was followed by a campaign to replace the Kurdish names of some 300 locations with Arab names, an actions which has left a bitter symbolic residue that still creates tensions in the area and beyond. (There may also be  be an exaggerated mythology around these events,eliding the ethnic dislocations with the Baath’s land reform programme – in the article linked to above a descendant of a Kurdish landowner complains that a holding of 8000 hectares hectares was subject to expropriation: a figure that is  pure fantasy).

The effect of all this has been to make the northeast in general, and Jazira / Cizire in particular, an area with a high potential for ethnic conflict, riddled by competing claims and historical grievances.

The anti-ISIS strategy of the YPG
In its fight against ISIS the YPG has been very skilful in developing a set of multi-ethnic alliances (something that their “secular” outlook facilitates) – including elements aligned with the FSA from Raqqa and Aleppo (the Burkan al-Furat), an Arab tribal force (the Sanadid army) and militia drawn from the Assyrian community (the Khabbour militia).

But building alliances like this has enmeshed them in the factional divisions of other ethnic communities: thus their Arab allies are drawn from one tribal confederation – the Shammar . The other side of the coin is that other tribal groups have been cultivated by ISIS, who bring experience from Iraq of fishing in turbulent waters like this. What this means is that the lines of divide in the northeastern combat zones are not drawn on ethnic lines – Kurds vs Arabs – but in a more complex factional configuration that cuts across ethnic identities.

Factional conflict or Ethnic cleansing?

So what are the implications of all this for the accusations against the YPG forces in Tal Abyad and elsewhere.

First and foremost it means that the “ethnic cleansing” reading of events is highly improbable – it has been dismissed by all the non-Kurdish groups fighting alongside the YPG, and would be inconsistent with the YPG’s strategy of multi-ethnic alliances. The stated policy of the YPG of encouraging families who have left Tal Abyad to return, and the fact that a significant number are doing so, reinforces this assessment.

Accusations that Turkmen in the Tal Abyad area have been expelled from their villages by the PYD, have been denied by the Syrian Turkmen Assembly:

The president of the Syrian Turkmen Assembly, Abdurrahman Mustafa, told Al-Monitor there were no Kurds in Hammam Turkmen, where Turkmens of Tell Abyad lived and a limited number of Turkmen refugees had come to the border to escape IS threats, air raids and clashes. Turkmens who took refuge in Kilis were escaping from the clashes between IS and the Islamic Front. Source

Etilaf has just issued a press release complaining that their fact-finding mission has been barred entry to Tal Abyad by the PYD (a missed opportunity by the PYD to allow a transparent resolution of the problem) but perhaps more importantly it notes the fact that their team witnessed some 2000 people crossing back into Tel Abyad.

My own view is that the “ethnic cleansing narrative was largely formulated by Turkey, and  propagated through forces who had their own anti-Kurdish axes to grind (and/or benefit from Turkish patronage).

Ethnic Cleansing or Collective Punishment?

But if the ethnic cleansing claim does not hold water, that does not let the YPG of the hook. The YPG regularly responds to criticism of their actions by saying that they arise from military actions against ISIS (the reason they gave when their intelligence apparently led to the US bombing of Bir Mahalli village.) What is very likely going on here is that the YPG is dealing with its opponents in a brutal fashion – perhaps even carrying out the collective punishment of communities in which elements have aligned themselves with ISIS.
The Italian anthropologist Alberto Savioli, who has worked in this region for many years, has provided photographic evidence of the destruction of the village of Shuyukh Fawqani, located in the Euphrates valley south of Kobane, by YPG forces. But in discussions with him he confirms that the local population was divided (in part on tribal lines) between YPG and ISIS supporters. It is also clear that the destruction occurred in the context of a military operation.

Shuyukh Fawqani: destroyed in YPG Operation. Photo courtesy of Alberto Savioli

Whatever the merits of the YPG/PYD (and there may be many) we should not forget that they come from a very violent political culture – they were formed in a national liberation struggle in Turkey against brutal semi-feudal social forces and an equally brutal army (300, 000 Kurds driven from their homes). They had to deal with the paramilitary ”village guards” – the equivalent of the Syrian “” – and they were not beyond executing entire families in the process.

In many ways – ideologically and generationally – the PKK/YPG has moved on, but it is not out of the question that some of these old habits survive (there is evidence that former Turkish PKK officers play an important role in the YPG). Certainly, the YPG has shown itself to be quite ruthless in its treatment of political opponents – as in it brutal actions in the Amuda killings of June 2013 (an event which the YPG has acknowledged and semi-apologised for in its communications with Human Rights Watch.)

If you look at the recent, concrete accusations levelled against the YPG most relate to a combat context (although the victims may be civilians).  In  a recent revealing statement Salih Muslim of the PYD has more or less admitted that the YPG has carried out retaliatory operations

Muslim suggested that any instances of the burning of Arabs’ homes in the area were actually retribution against Islamic State supporters. “Maybe some individuals and families who were killing the people, and fighting alongside Daesh, maybe they are afraid of judgment … “Of course, all the people — not just the Kurds — wouldn’t allow such criminals to go without any punishment.” Source

The road ahead

The capture of Tal Abyad has two important strategic consequences: on the one hand it has cut the ISIS supply lines to its primary base in Iraq; on the other it has allowed the PYD to gains control of territory that links its Cizire and Kobane cantons.

The same duality exists with regard to the future moves of  the YPG and its allies. They are positioned some 50km from Raqqa, and the US would clearly like them to move on to oust ISIS from this strategic base. However the YPG’s interests would seem to direct it westwards across the Euphrates into the territory that constitutes the final link in the Rojava chain – the districts of Jarablus and A’zaz. These two districts lying between Kobane and the solidly Kurdish Afrin canton, have largely Arab populations (80-90%). The YPG seems to be proceeding cautiously here and has proposed that the FSA units of Burkan al Furat should lead the operations in these areas with the YPG (at least nominally) in support.

There are conflicting reports as to the form of governance the YPG intends to establish in Tal Abyad – ranging from a multi-ethnic civil authority through to assimilation into Kobane Canton (this is feasible as Kurds make up some 30% of the population of Tal Abyad district and over 50% of the town).

The cantonal structure that the YPG has created in Cizire claims to provide a viable political framework for a multi-ethnic community. While it could possibly be extended to Tal Abyad, it would be far more difficult to apply it to the territories further west without the active assent of the Arab inhabitants.We will have to see how all this plays out.

To explore these issues further we need to look more closely at the nature of the PYD’s Rojava project: something that I plan to do in a subsequent blog.

REFERENCES  Rather than link to lengthy texts from the body of the blog I am providing some additional references here:.

As I’ve been preparing this post Patrick Cockburn has published an article in the London Review of Books that appears to endorse the”ethnic cleansing” view. Like most Cockburn articles it is often ambiguously worded (what on earth does it mean to say that the YPG is carrying out ethnic cleansing “despite their best intentions”?), has much that is inaccurate, and even more that is personal bias; but it also has some factual, on the ground reporting that is worthy of consideration. You can find it here.

Who are the real Godfathers of ISIS?

A feeding frenzy has broken out among conspiracy theorists and pro-Assad circles in the wake of the release of a document from the US Defense Intelligence Agency dated August 2012. This was obtained by conservative lobby group, Judicial Watch, seeking ammunition for their campaign against Hilary Clinton in connection with the attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi. They have made little use of it but others have pounced on it with great enthusiasm.
The Washington Blog ran with the headline “Newly-Declassified U.S. Government Documents: The West Supported the Creation of ISIS” while regular Stop the War (UK) contributor Matt Carr flourished the banner “How the US-helped ISIS Carve its caliphate in Blood across Iraq and Syria” and Guardian journalist Seumas Milne joined in with “Now the Truth emerges: how the US fuelled the rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq,” Most recently the normally level-headed US left journal Jacobin has picked up on the theme.
Before looking at what this text actually says it is worth noting some of its features: it is an “Information Report” with a circulation list of some 17 other agencies, including various military departments, the State Department, the FBI, and Homeland Security; corresponding to this wide circulation it has only a mid-grade “Secret” security classification. (This probably explains why large parts of it read like something from Iraq for Dummies.) So it’s unlikely to be a document which contains any major policy secrets.

Its principal concern is with the security of Iraq, but it deals with Syria in the context of the interconnection of the two. It is written in a rather staccato style and contains grammatical and other errors that suggest it was hastily put together. It has also been extensively redacted leaving a rather fragmented text. As such it needs a considerable amount of interpretation ­ and is open to a considerable amount of hyperbole.

The conspiracy construction of the text

The conspiracy reading of the document rests on an alleged “smoking gun” assembled from two paragraphs:

7B … On the other hand opposition forces are trying to control the eastern areas (Hasaka and Der Zor) adjacent to the western Iraqi provinces in addition to neighboring Turkish borders. Western countries, the Gulf states and Turkey are supporting these efforts. (my emphasis)

8C. If the situation unravels, there is the possibility of establishing a declared or undeclared Salafist principality in Eastern Syria (Hasaka and Der Zor) and this is exactly what the supporting powers to the opposition want, in order to isolate the Syrian regime, which is considered the strategic depth of Shia expansion (Iraq and Iran.) (my emphasis)

By linking the “Western countries, the Gulf States and Turkey” of the first paragraph to the “supporting powers to the opposition” of the second, The Washington Blog feels able to conclude that the declassified DIA documents show that the U.S. and the West supported ISIS at its inception … as a way to isolate the Syrian government”. Milne asserts that it “uncannily predicts – and effectively welcomes – the prospect of a ‘Salafist principality’ in Eastern Syria and an al-Qaida controlled Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.”

There are three obvious problems with this reading. First, the United States is not mentioned in these passages – and as Juan Cole has pointed out, a document written by one US agency for the benefit of other agencies is hardly likely to lump the US government into a catch-all category like “western powers”. Second, Section 8, of which the second paragraph is a part, is a list of warnings about threats to Iraqi security. It isn’t advocating the creation of a “Salafist principality” (whatever that might be) but warning of it as a potential factor in the “deterioration of the situation” with “dire consequences on the Iraq situation.” Given that the document’s principal concern is Iraqi security it could not logically be endorsing anything cast in such terms.

What it does seems to be doing is suggesting that other actors ­ including some unnamed “western powers” might sponsor this “Salafist principality” for the reasons suggested.

The third problem with the Conspiratorial reading is that it assumes that this “Salafist principality” is to be identified with ISIS. But one of the few virtues of this document is that it differentiates between different currents in the Syrian opposition – The Syrian Free Army (sic), the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafists, and Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). So this warning relates to a Salafist not an al-Qaeda project (al Qaeda’s possible strategies are dealt with separately in the subsequent paragraph: “ISI could also declare an Islamic state through its union with other terrorist organisations in Iraq and Syria”) And of course no such “Salafist principality” ever came to pass.

So what are we left with? A document that warns about some of the dangers that it foresees for Iraqi security resulting from the policies of Turkey, the Gulf states and unnamed western powers. To clarify what is going on here we need to do a little more reading –both of the document and about the context in which it was written.

After its warning of the threat of a “Salafist principality” the document continues:

This hypothesis is most likely in accordance with the data from recent events, which will help prepare safe havens under international sheltering, similar to what transpired in Libya when Benghazi was chosen as the command centre of the temporary government.

When this was being written in 2012 there was a vigorous debate going on among international supporters of the Syrian opposition over what action they should take to contain the Syrian regime’s attacks on civilian populations. Turkey championed the idea of a No Fly or Safe Zone, France and Britain indicated they might support such a proposal (probably as a threat to pressure Asad), the US State Department was equivocating, and the US military was opposed. The main proposal under discussion was a limited protected zone adjacent to the Turkish border

There you have your alliance of “western powers” (France and Britain) with Turkey and the Gulf states. And there you have the connection to Northeast Syria –  a protected zone very similar to the area that Turkey continues to propose.

Why such a development should be described in the strange language of “a Salafist principality” I don’t know for sure.  Probably it reflected the unease among the US military (remember this is written by a Defence Department agency) about the implications of such an opposition controlled area for the security of Iraq, which in 2012 was in an acute crisis in the wake of the US troop withdrawal, with the Maliki government threatened by internal discord and a resurgent Islamic State in Iraq (making utterly absurd the notion that the US would  be supporting ISIS-to-be in this period.)

This is the only consistent reading of the DIA report, explaining its preoccupation with the Syrian-Iraq border (even the simple capture of a border post by the FSA is described as “a serious and dangerous threat”, given that view, the prospect of a “Salafist principality” must have been seen as the dawn of the apocalypse.)

Looking at  the Assessment the right way up

Our Conspiratorial readers haven’t finished with the DIA document yet however. Abandoning their usual scepticism about the pronouncements of US intelligence agencies, they now treat the DIA as a fount of wisdom. Pouncing on para 3B – “The salafist (sic), the Muslim Brotherhood and AQI are the major forces driving the insurgency in Syria”­ – they pass over its differentiation of opposition currents, roll them into one “extremist” mass, and whoop “there aren’t any moderate rebels in Syria”.

The problem here is that this part of the Report is nonsense. The Muslim Brotherhood had no presence in the armed opposition in 2012 – indeed it was late in joining the 2011 protests because it was in negotations with the Syrian government when they broke out. By 2012 it had acquired a role in the political opposition (a handful of members on the Syrian National Council); and it was involved in financing and smuggling arms supplies for the FSA and providing humanitarian aid –  but a ”driving force” they have never been. When it comes to AQI the document provides its own refutation: it says “AQI conducted a number of operations in several Syrian cities under the name of Jaish al Nusra (sic) (Victorious army) one of its affiliates”. What one makes of an “intelligence” report that gets the name of Jabhat al-Nusra wrong, I don’t know, but its facts are right – AQI operated in Syria through Jabhat al Nusra, and as of August 2012 their activities consisted of a dozen bombs planted in Syrian cities. While Nusra began to appear as a component of the armed opposition later in the year, it was a long way from being a “driving force”. As for the “Salafists”, the document is at least getting warm here: Islamist and Salafist groups were began to emerge among the armed opposition in connection with the battle for Aleppo, although a clear Islamist pole did not appear in Aleppo until November, and this was neither entirely Salafist nor a majority among the armed opposition nor firmly committed to one political perspective.

Symptomatic Errors ?

What is interesting here is not so much the errors in the Report’s Syria intelligence (there are many more which I will discuss in a later post) but what they might signify. Presumably the authors of this report drew on the current intelligence evaluations available to them. If this is the sort of picture the US intelligence establishment had of Syria –­ that the armed opposition was dominated by a nexus of Salafists, Muslim brothers, and al-Qaeda – then it does much to explain US policy in this period, particularly its insistence on tightly monitoring arms flows, effectively starving the FSA moderates, and thereby turning its intelligence failure into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The real Godfathers of ISIS

Significantly, the Conspirators show no interest in certain parts of the document – the contents of paras 3A and 6C: “AQI trained in Syria and then infiltrated into Iraq …in Previous years a majority of AQI fighters entered Iraq primarily via the Syrian border.”

Now here we have a real smoking gun – acknowledgement that the formative years of ISIS were spent in regime-controlled Syria and that their subsequent florescence was overseen by Syrian intelligence. If we want to find find ISIS’s real Godfathers that is where we should be looking.

Asad’s Election Fever

The Syrian Government News Agency SANA has a nice line in occasional mistranslations. Last month it published a story which stated that the Syrian government had resolved “to stamp out tourism”. The rather apposite nature of this slip raises the question of whether it was accidental of the work of a saboteur with a cunning sense of humour.

The other day he or she seemed to be at it again: prominently on display in SANA’s scrolling headlines was one announcingCabinet approves establishment of ‘Syrian Space Agency’ but on inspection the story reported the creation of a “Syrian News Agency” (although that seemed odd since they obviously already have one of those). But it turns out that the error was in the story not the headline – the Syrian government really has decreed the creation of a Space Agency (perhaps a harbinger of Asad’s plans to escape the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court?)
However other news from Syria suggests that this is far from the most eccentric project that the regime has embarked on. The prize for that must go to its decision to hold elections this summer.

Yes, you heard right – having failed to convince anyone at Geneva II that the real problem facing Syria is universal “terrorism”, rather than Asad’s depredations on the Syrian people, the regime has started to cue up its plan B – a Presidential election to take place in the summer, with guess who as the front-running candidate.
This will be the first Presidential elections held under the constitutional amendments that Assad introduced in February 2012, in the days when he was thinking about  defusing the developing mass protests rather than drowning them in blood – so it is a new experience for all concerned. (Parliamentary elections took place under these arrangements in 2012.)

The Syrian regime frequently appears to have a tenuous grip on reality and just as often seems not to have read the texts it is supposed to be following. Thus, it turned up at Geneva II without apparently having read Geneva I, and were surprised to find out that they were expected to be negotiating the creation of a transitional government.

In this case one wonders if they have really read and digested their shiny, new Constitution – thus far untested as far as the Presidency is concerned. The 2012 amendments were drafted with some prescience, so they incorporate quite strict conditions for Presidential candidates:
A candidate must first be nominated by 35 members of the Assembly and meet a series of eligibility criteria. He (the possibility of a female candidate seems not to have been entertained) must be a Muslim, born in Syria, with both parents Syrian by birth, have been resident in the country for 10 consecutive years, not be married to a non-Syrian wife, and not have been convicted of a serious crime.: Clearly no one who has ever deigned to say boo to Asad and the Baath could have both remained in the country and out of prison for 10 years, so that rather conveniently renders the entire opposition ineligible.

However it does throw up a residual problem – how to find a suitable second candidate, as the Constitution, somewhat less presciently, insists that there must be more than one. Now there is no doubt about who the first will be, but how to find number two? Obviously it can’t be someone from the Baath party, which will be seeking to make this an orgy of national unity around the person of Asad; the real opposition is excluded; so that only leaves the regime’s “licensed opposition” (to use the term coined by SANA). But how can a loyal opposition figure stand against Asad and at the same time demonstrate their obligatory allegiance to the Great Leader? But someone is going to have to embark on this humiliating and potentially dangerous task: humiliating because they are going to have to spend most of the campaign urging voters to vote for their opponent; dangerous because any suggestion that they might constitute an alternative to Asad would spell at the very least the end of their careers, as Qadri Jamil, the most likely choice for this role, has already discovered. Perhaps the solution will be to get several “licensed” oppositionists to stand and thus parcel out the burden and risks; but that could be tricky, because the victorious candidate must receive over 50% of the vote, otherwise they have to do it all over again in a second round, and multiple candidates could lead to a fragmentation of the vote.

The Government’s plan is to hold these elections across the whole country, except for the Raqqa governorate (currently under ISIS control – so perhaps from the regime’s perspective already in reliable hands).

The biggest problem, of course, is that no one seems to have shown Asad a map of who controls Syria, which looks something like this:

Syria control 2Hint: only the red bits are under regime control.

As the map shows it is not only in Raqqa where the regime has lost control. If they are going to conduct polling in other areas they are going to need officials prepared to supervise voting under bombardment and to fast for several days in towns under siege. And will Airforce security and their brother agencies be able to guarantee the turnout and right result in the way they did in 2012?
There are some other potentially problematic areas for the regime in this process.

1. Is Asad actually going to campaign in the elections? This would be very unfamiliar territory. More likely he will just run on his glorious record of saving the country from terrorism – after all, without him large parts of the country would be destroyed, tens of thousands of innocent civilians killed, and millions driven from their homes. Oh – that is what happened with him: maybe time for an image makeover.

2. Refugees. According to one informed source on Twitter. “Asked an Assad ally about this a few weeks ago. He said even refugees could vote if Syrian government given oversight.” Now how will that work? Can Asad really count on the goodwill of people he has bombed out of their homes like this family –

Or will he have to visit the refugee camps to canvas for votes? Will he be able to persuade the Turkish government to allow his brother Maher and the 4th division to cross the border with him to ensure personal security?

3. The northeast. The regime has an accommodation with the Kurdish PYD (Democratic Union Party) in much of this area which has allowed the Kurds to establish virtual autonomy. The Kurds are already very involved in elections, but for their own local and regional government bodies. It seems likely that they will be far too busy building their own institutions to bother with anything coming from Damascus. So Asad can’t count on much from this quarter – based as much on indifference as hostility.

4. The final big challenge for the regime will be deciding on a number: just how much of the “democratic” vote is Asad going to allocate himself. Anything less than the 98% he got last time will look like a loss of popularity; but more than the 54% the Baath achieved in the 2012 parliamentary elections might look a bit greedy. Perhaps split the difference? Asad can probably live with just 78% of the vote – but I really pity the poor sod who gets the other 22%!

No – I really don’t think they have thought this one through.