Archive for the ‘Assad’ category

Reported Israeli strikes in Syria coincide with US cogitation on Assad’s post-war future

January 9, 2018

Reported Israeli strikes in Syria coincide with US cogitation on Assad’s post-war future, DEBKAfile, January 9, 2018

A broad, purposeful assessment of policy on Syrian president Bashar Assad’s political future has been scheduled for the rest of the week in Washington, DEBKAfile reports. This event accounts for the timing of Israel’s purported air strikes from Lebanese air space, which Syrian state media claimed targeted the Al Qutaiba base east of Damascus before dawn on Tuesday, Jan. 9.

DEBKAfile’s Washington sources reveal that the deliberations in the White House are to be led by high officials of US government branches involved in Syrian policy. Invited too are senior European diplomats from Britain, Germany, France and Italy, and representatives from Asia, led by Japan and India. The conference has been called to hammer out a unified US-European-Asian policy for determining the shape of the regime in post-war Syria and Assad’s future role. The Trump administration intends to come out of these deliberations with a broadly-based US-led coalition policy for Syria that will challenge Vladimir Putin’s plans for leading Syria from war to peace in conjunction with Iran and Turkey.

The American scheme’s central theme is the preservation of Syria’s territorial integrity along with partial autonomy for its minorities, especially the Kurds. Assad will remain in office for an interim period, whose length will be up for negotiation between the US and Russia. It will end with elections to the presidency and parliament, after which Assad will step down. It is surmised in Washington that the main bone of contention will be Russia’s insistence on drawing Assad’s rule out for as long as possible, while the Americans will seek to cut it short. However, US administration circles are confident about the chances of bridging this gap.

Israel was not invited to take part in this round-table, but made its position clear to Washington in direct communications between US and Israeli government and security officials. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu laid out Israel’s stance in a phone call to Vladimir Putin on Jan. 1. They decided to meet soon.

Vice President Mike Pence’s forthcoming visit to Israel on Jan. 22 will also serve for the transmission of messages from Jerusalem to Washington on the Syrian question.

The reported Israeli air and ground strikes against Syria Monday night were meant as a reminder to both Washington and Moscow that Israel is closely following their moves on Syria and will make sure that its views and security needs are taken fully into account. They were also a warning to Tehran against trying to use the transition period for deepening its military presence in Syria.

US won’t strike ISIS resurgent in Assad-ruled areas, pushes Russia to curb pro-Iranian Hizballah push near Israel

December 28, 2017

US won’t strike ISIS resurgent in Assad-ruled areas, pushes Russia to curb pro-Iranian Hizballah push near Israel, DEBKAfile, December 28, 2017

Israel has quietly warned the Trump administration that if this combined hostile force moves any closer, the IDF will have no option but to step in to push it back. Clearly, the understandings reached between presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin were not holding up in this sector.

The next few days are therefore fraught with three critical uncertainties: (a) Will ISIS persevere in its westward movement, or be halted by military counteraction? (b)  Will the Syrian army, Hizballah and pro-Iranian forces push forward from Beit Jinn to Quneitra and Israel’s Golan border? Or will they be stopped? And (c) Will the Trump-Putin understandings hold water, or will they be scuttled by (a) and (b)?

*****************************

While openly blaming Syria (and Russia) for giving ISIS free rein, US quietly rebukes Moscow for not reining in the pro-Iranian push towards Israeli border.

“The Syrian regime has failed to prevent the resurgence of ISIS on their own soil,” said British Maj. Gen. Gedney, deputy commander of Strategy and Support for the US-backed coalition to defeat the Islamic State terror group.  And even in areas where Syrian forces have intensified their efforts against ISIS, progress has been, at best, fleeting, he said. “We’ve got no intention to operate in areas that are currently held by the [Assad] regime.”

DEBKAfile places the coalition general’s comments against the backdrop of the quiet deal struck earlier this month between Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. That conversation charted a division of labor in the Syrian arena to avoid clashes between their forces. It was understood that Russia would reciprocate for US consent to abstain from operating west of the Euphrates (in Assad-ruled domains) by curbing Turkish, Iranian and Hizballah operations, especially in border regions.

Gedney’s comments, while only directly referring to ISIS, also coincided Wednesday with the fall of the Beit Jinn enclave in one of those operations.<

He went on to say that a “limited numbers of ISIS militants… seem to be moving with impunity through regime-held territory,” and pointed to a new concentration outside the US al-Tanf post in the Syrian-Jordanian-Iraqi border triangle. “We’ve clearly seen a lot of operations by pro-regime forces, Russian-backed Syrian forces over to the east of the [Euphrates] river,” Gedney said. “We’ve questioned the effectiveness of some of those operations.” Syria and Russia must do more to wipe out ISIS in areas still controlled by the regime, US officials insist.

The US-led coalition is clearly pressing for a decision as to who will assume responsibility for dealing with this rising ISIS threat. DEBKAfile’s sources note that, alongside this question, is the one the US is implicitly addressing to the Russians regarding another terrorist threat: This one is posed by the fall of Beit Jinn opposite an IDF outpost in the foothills of Mount Hermon to a combined Syrian-Hizballah-militia force under the command of Iranian Revolutionary Guards officers. At the moment, this combined force stands 11km from the Israeli border and appears to be poised to continue its victorious momentum for an assault on the Quneitra pocket on the doorstep of Israeli Golan, unless it is stopped.

Israel has quietly warned the Trump administration that if this combined hostile force moves any closer, the IDF will have no option but to step in to push it back. Clearly, the understandings reached between presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin were not holding up in this sector.

The Trump-Putin understanding was first revealed on Dec. 22 in DEBKA Weekly 783 (for subscribers) and the DEBKA Files ILTV show on Dec. 25. According to our exclusive sources, that understanding was sealed in a long telephone conversation on the Syrian question between the two presidents on Dec. 14.

Until now, it was understood in Washington and Jerusalem that Russia would reciprocate for US consent to abstain from operating west of the Euphrates (in Assad-ruled domains) by curbing Turkish, Iranian and Hizballah operations. Their deal hinged on two major points:

  1.  The war on ISIS in eastern Syria. A joint war room run by Russian and US-backed Kurdish YPG militia officers was to be established to deploy troops for blocking the westward movement of ISIS forces. (Hence Gen. Gedney’s complaint about this continuing movement.)
  2. Russia and the US would team up to thwart military operations by Iran, Hizballah and Turkey in areas controlled by the Assad regime, especially in proximity to Syria’s borders with Turkey, Israel and Jordan. On this point, Washington undertook to warn the Turks off their plans to invade northwestern Syria and seize control of Idlib province, whereas Moscow was to have instructed Damascus, Tehran and Hizballah to desist from military activity on those borders. This point has likewise gone by the board.

According to DEBKAfile’s military sources, Moscow claims that Putin’s commitment to Trump was met by withholding Russian air support from the disputed Syrian-Hizballah operations. But, in actual fact, the Iranian-commanded force circumvented the Russians and their deal with the Americans by fighting for Beit Jinn without Russian air support and winning the day without its help. This was more than a tactical victory to throw in Israel’s face; it set up a new reality in Syria, whereby Iran and Hizballah can cock a snoot at Moscow, its air cover and its deals with the Americans and go forward to win battles regardless and without Russian help.

The next few days are therefore fraught with three critical uncertainties: (a) Will ISIS persevere in its westward movement, or be halted by military counteraction? (b)  Will the Syrian army, Hizballah and pro-Iranian forces push forward from Beit Jinn to Quneitra and Israel’s Golan border? Or will they be stopped? And (c) Will the Trump-Putin understandings hold water, or will they be scuttled by (a) and (b)?

Putin summons Assad to Sochi, takes charge of shaping post-war Syria

November 21, 2017

Putin summons Assad to Sochi, takes charge of shaping post-war Syria, DEBKAfile, November 21, 2017

President Vladimir Putin and Syria’s Bashar Assad agreed in Sochi on Monday, Nov. 20, to start addressing Syria’s political situation now that the “terrorists” are defeated and the war is drawing to a close.

Putin insisted that diplomacy for a Syrian post-war settlement should go forward under UN aegis. Assad replied that he hoped for “Russia’s help in ensuring that the Syrians themselves lead the process, with help from outside, but not ‘interference.’”

The Syrian ruler would accept an external UN frame, but is clearly opposed to any outside attempts by the UN or anyone else to interfere in the country’s internal political dialogue or try to impose solutions on the parties.

That much is evident from the official accounts of the Sochi meeting. Its real content may be quite different. It stands to reason that Putin leaned hard on his guest to make sure that Assad toed the Moscow line.

The Russian president then announced he would be spending the next day in telephone consultations on Syria’s future with US President Donald Trump and a number of Middle East leaders. Word on what transpired at the Sochi interview and in those phone calls will most likely emerge in reports from Moscow and Damascus in the coming days.

Meanwhile, DEBKAfile’s Middle East and Russian sources fill in some of the context:

  1. Putin and Assad may have shaken hands in token of the Syrian war’s end, but both are perfectly aware that it is not yet over. One main stage, the defeat of the Islamic State and liberation of the territory it occupied, is more or less in the bag. But although most Syrian rebel groups have been broken, the civil rebellion persists.
  2. There is no indication of a silent contest said to be afoot between Russia and Iran for the domination of post-war Syria. For now, they complement each other, which each assigned a slice of territorial influence. The Russian army controls parts of the Mediterranean coastland, while Iran is extending its control of the Damascus region and Syria’s two border regions with Lebanon and Iraq and their highway connections. Close teamwork is also apparent on the battlefield with Russia actively supporting Iran and Hizballah.
  3. The Sochi meeting was only the beginning of a long and difficult diplomatic process that could go on for many months, if not years, punctuated with ups and downs, pauses and outbreaks of hostilities.
  4. Bashar Assad survived more than seven years of a vicious and grueling war and emerged as the winner. He may well try to repeat this feat in the diplomatic contest over Syria’s political future.

On Wednesday, Nov. 22, the next steps in Syria will be discussed at a meeting of Russian, Turkish and Iranian leaders. (It is not yet clear if attendance will be at head-of-state or foreign ministerial level). Syria will not be present. Therefore, this trilateral forum will be in charge.

On the same day, Saudi Arabia has scheduled a meeting of Syrian opposition leaders in Riyadh.

A week hence, on Nov. 28, the UN-sponsored conference on the Syria crisis convenes in Geneva in which the US has a major stake..

To undercut Iran, Russians pressure Assad to cut Syria’s longtime ties to Hezbollah

July 18, 2017

To undercut Iran, Russians pressure Assad to cut Syria’s longtime ties to Hezbollah, Washington Times, Assad Hanna and Jacob Wirtschafter, July 17, 2017

Hezbollah supporters mourned their commander Mustafa Badreddine, who was killed in an explosion last year in Damascus.

ISTANBUL — The Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah and the Syrian government have enjoyed a close, fruitful relationship for nearly 40 years. But six years into the Syrian civil war, there are signs that battle fatigue and diverging strategic visions are fraying their alliance.

Syrian President Bashar Assad is coming under increasing pressure from pro-Russian factions in his ruling circle to dump pro-Iranian Hezbollah, as a U.S.-Russia accord to establish a de-escalation zone in southern Syria gets underway this week.

It’s a different kind of proxy war playing out in Syria: Instead of Sunni versus Shiite, or the U.S. versus Russia, it’s Russia versus Iran.

“There is a pro-Moscow faction that wants Syria to be secular and includes officers who trained in Russia,” said Ayman Abdel Nour, publisher of the largest anti-Assad Syrian news portal and leader of the country’s exiled Christian community based in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. “Those who support Iran are people bought by the Iranians or [who] reached their positions of power with Iranian help.”

Incidents of rivalry and strain between Hezbollah forces and Syrian government allies have been increasing since June 2016, when they openly clashed during what was supposed to be a joint operation in the Aleppo countryside.

Hezbollah has balked at implementing Russian-brokered cease-fire agreements, such as one in December in Aleppo, and occasional firefights have broken out between the two forces in the northwestern suburbs of Damascus on the road from the capital to Beirut.

Meanwhile, the Russian Defense Ministry has ordered aerial bombings of Shiite militia positions when Iran-backed forces interfered with plans to evacuate civilians to safe areas.

“The Hezbollah message has been: ‘Don’t think you can make a deal without us. We are on the ground, and we control what’s going on,’” said Ahmad Hardan, a 20-year-old ambulance driver from Aleppo detained by Lebanese Shiite fighters as he and his family fled their home.

“They took all the young men from the cars and drove us to the opposite side of the road. All those who tried to resist were killed,” Mr. Hardan said. “But suddenly there were Russian fighter jets in the sky, the Hezbollah troops started shooting in the air, and then they let the evacuation proceed.”

The situation is new for the two longtime Middle East allies. Hezbollah and the Assad regime have been close since the mid-1980s, when Mr. Assad’s father, Hafez, became a patron of the Lebanese Shiite faction. He allowed Syria to be the transit point for Iranian weapons as Hezbollah armed itself against Israel and its domestic rivals in Lebanon.

The power dynamic reversed as the Syrian civil war turned into a sectarian bloodbath, with many Russian-trained Sunni officers deserting to the rebel side. Mr. Assad turned to Hezbollah for ideologically motivated and battle-tested reinforcements.

‘An Iranian pawn’

But over the years, Hezbollah’s role has been shrinking in Syria’s war, which began in 2011.

Nawar Oliver, an analyst at the Istanbul-based Omran Center for Strategic Studies, said Hezbollah’s estimated 10,000-member force in Syria is just one component that includes a 70,000-strong contingent of local Shiite militias deployed with Iraqi, Afghan and Pakistani fighters.

“The number decreased from an apex of about 15,000 to 20,000 because Hezbollah started recruiting and funding local Shiite militias in order to pull back some of their troops from Syria,” said Mr. Oliver, pointing to more than 1,000 Lebanese battle casualties and a desire to prepare for a likely conflict on the Israel-Lebanon border.

Moscow wants Mr. Assad to change the arrangement with Hezbollah and other Iranian-funded Shiite militias that give Tehran nominal control of the country in exchange for little direct supervision by the regime’s officer corps.

“The Russians have been pressuring the Syrian regime to integrate the militias it created since the inception of the uprising into its armed forces,” said Hilal Khashan, a politics professor at the American University of Beirut.

Command and control functions over Hezbollah fighters are directed by an officer corps drawn from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Hezbollah operates in Syria simply as an Iranian pawn,” Mr. Khashan said. “It uses Hezbollah as part of its scheme to establish a ground corridor from Iran to Lebanon. This is not something that sits well with the Russians, who are keen on limiting Tehran’s preponderance. Russia will not allow Iranian influence in Syria to become similar to Iraq.”

A tentative U.S.-Russia consensus on Syria seems destined to further strain the Hezbollah-Iran-Assad alliance.

Last month, the Hezbollah TV station Al-Manar broadcast footage of what it said was an Iranian drone tailing an American drone over eastern Syria. The announcer’s voice-over included a warning that Hezbollah will strike at U.S. positions inside Syria if America crosses any “red lines.”

“Of course, there are no free lunches in this area,” said Mordechai Kedar, a former Syria desk officer for Israel’s military intelligence agency. “Hezbollah wants to take its share in what seems to be the division of Syria. Three things will be required to get them to leave: Assad’s army will have to regain its power and self-confidence, the Russians have to demand it and the Iranians have to consent.”

For the rebels and other anti-regime figures, it’s crucial that Hezbollah is forced out of Syria.

“Getting Hezbollah and the Iranians out is now our No. 1 priority,” said Mr. Abdul Nour, the anti-Assad news portal editor. “They want to convert all of Syria to Shiism, which is an ideology that [will lead to] them fighting with the majority of Sunnis in the country forever — and we don’t want that.”

Stephen Cohen on Tucker Carlson Praises Trump-Putin Meeting as Most Important Summit since World War II

July 8, 2017

Stephen Cohen on Tucker Carlson Praises Trump-Putin Meeting as Most Important Summit since World War II, American ThinkerPeter Barry Chowka, July 8, 2017

Tucker Carlson: Professor, the first thing you notice is just how much the press is rooting for this meeting between our president and the Russian president to fail. Why would they want it to fail?

Stephen Cohen: It’s a kind of pornography. Just as there is no love in pornography, there is no national interest in this bashing of Trump and Putin. As a historian, let me tell you the headline I would write instead, about what we witnessed today in Hamburg. “Potentially New Historic Detente Anti-Cold War Partnership Begun by Trump and Putin but Meanwhile Attempts to Sabotage It Escalate.”

I think what we saw today was potentially the most fateful meeting between an American and Russian president since the war time [WW II]. The reason is, is that the relationship with Russia is so dangerous and yet we have a president who might have been crippled or cowed by these Russiagate attacks on him, and yet he was not. He was, I think, politically courageous. It went well. They did important things. And this will be astonishing to be said, I know, but I think maybe today we witnessed President Trump emerging as an American statesman. I think it was a very good day for everybody.

***************************

A familiar feature of Tucker Carlson’s nightly prime time Fox News channel program is for Carlson to debate – and usually one-up – a representative of the political left. On occasion, he has welcomed a liberal who seems to agree with or at least to buttress his own conservative position.  One such guest, who has been on the program a number of times in recent months, is Stephen F. Cohen, Ph.D., an American scholar and professor emeritus of Russian studies at Princeton University and New York University. Cohen, 78, is an unabashed liberal. He is a contributing editor to The Nationaccording to Wikipedia “the most widely read weekly journal of liberal/progressive political and cultural news, opinion, and analysis.” Since 1988, Cohen has been married to Katrina vanden Heuvel, the longtime, reliably left-of-center editor of The Nation.

On the occasion of President Trump’s first one-on-one meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Hamburg on July 7, Carlson welcomed Cohen as the second guest on his program the same evening. Cohen is “an actual expert on the subject and a Russian speaker,” Carlson noted in his introduction. In the 4½ minute long segment, the experienced and independent-minded Cohen shredded many of the arguments put forward by the “resist” commentators and academics who were quick to dump on the Trump-Putin meeting as they have similarly jumped on the unproven Russia-Trump-collusion bandwagon since it took off last fall.

The video of the Carlson show segment with Cohen is highly recommended viewing.

 

Some excerpts:

Tucker Carlson: Professor, the first thing you notice is just how much the press is rooting for this meeting between our president and the Russian president to fail. Why would they want it to fail?

Stephen Cohen: It’s a kind of pornography. Just as there is no love in pornography, there is no national interest in this bashing of Trump and Putin. As a historian, let me tell you the headline I would write instead, about what we witnessed today in Hamburg. “Potentially New Historic Detente Anti-Cold War Partnership Begun by Trump and Putin but Meanwhile Attempts to Sabotage It Escalate.”

You said I was an expert. I actually do have one expertise. I’ve seen a lot of summits, as we call meetings between American and Russian presidents. I was present at some, and even participated in the first George Bush’s summit preparation. When he met with Gorbachev, he invited me to Camp David to debate before his team.

In that context, I think what we saw today was potentially the most fateful meeting between an American and Russian president since the war time [WW II]. The reason is, is that the relationship with Russia is so dangerous and yet we have a president who might have been crippled or cowed by these Russiagate attacks on him, and yet he was not. He was, I think, politically courageous. It went well. They did important things. And this will be astonishing to be said, I know, but I think maybe today we witnessed President Trump emerging as an American statesman. I think it was a very good day for everybody.

In reply to Carlson’s follow-up question, Cohen noted:

You’ve got three major actors being demonized in America: one is of course Putin, second is Trump, but then the leader of Syria, President Assad, is demonized here.

Cohen went on to cite the major achievement of the Trump-Putin summit:

They formed an alliance and that means that we will side for now with Russia with Assad. That will be assailed in Washington because he’s [Assad] loathed in Washington almost as much as Trump and Putin.

Why is Assad so loathed, Carlson asked.

Cohen: When the Syrian civil war began five or six years ago, there were a lot of dirty hands in that mix, including American ones. Everybody was arming somebody. So we have a monstrous war going on there with so many groups being armed by so many different states. The thing about Assad for me has always been – and maybe this is parochial – but he has been the protector of the Jews, of the Christians, and of the non-Jihadist Islamic population in Syria – at a time when the main threat there, the Islamic State, ISIS, chops off the heads of these people. It seems to me that we should stick with Assad until we defeat these people [ISIS].

Cohen wrapped up his interview with these comments:

Focus if you will [on] something that both Trump and Putin said today. They said we are meeting, we have agreed, and we promise positive things to come. In other words, they have formed a political partnership and now it goes forward. But it will be viciously attacked and already is if you look at the press today here.

When I set out to write this article, I didn’t intend to transcribe and quote so much of the Carlson-Cohen interaction. But once I got started, it was hard to know when to stop. Cohen, in my opinion, illustrates his impressive intellect and communications skills by filling the entire time given to him – only about 3½ minutes total when Carlson’s three questions are subtracted – with eminently quotable comments.

LISTEN: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson takes questions in off-camera news briefing

July 7, 2017

LISTEN: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson takes questions in off-camera news briefing, PBS via YouTube, July 7, 2017

According to the blurb beneath the video,

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson spoke and took questions at an off-camera news briefing on Friday after participating in talks with Russia at the G20. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin also spoke briefly before Tillerson.

Syria declares truce before Trump-Putin talks

July 3, 2017

Syria declares truce before Trump-Putin talks, DEBKAfile, July 3, 2017

The picture beginning to unfold is that Washington and Moscow are making an effort to put in place the outline of a plan for deconfliction zones, in time for the first Trump-Putin encounter that is scheduled for later this week on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Hamburg.

However, the two presidents may find pushing hard against them are Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, President Assad and Al Qods chief Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s Syrian and Iraqi fronts. This trio is in full momentum of an offensive to seize this prized, bitterly-contested border region of Syria, and convinced that the tide of this offensive is rolling in their favor.

**********************************

The Syrian army Monday July 3 suddenly declared a ceasefire in the fierce fighting with rebel forces in the southern districts on the Israeli and Jordanian borders.

This was just one of three unexpected events occurring in this embattled part of Syria in the last 24 hours:

1. The ceasefire Damascus said would be in force up until Wednesday, July 6 covers all the active battlefronts in the South: Daraa just 1 km from the Jordanian border: Quneitra – from which Syrian military mortars flew across into the Golan all last week; and Suwaydeh which lies east of Daraa.

Oddly enough, the ceasefire was not announced until Monday afternoon, although it went into effect Sunday midnight without notice.  According to our sources, the Russians most likely had to twist President Bashar Assad’s arm to overcome his refusal to order his army to stop fighting. And then too he would only accept a four-day pause before resuming combat.

2.  The announcement coincided with a meeting of Russian, Turkish and Iranian diplomats in the Kazakh capital of Astana to discuss the carving out of four de-escalation zones in Syria, one of which is southern Syria, where the ceasefire went into force.

3. DEBKAfile’s military and intelligence sources reveal that this step is the first visible sign of an initial understanding reached by American and Russian officers in secret talks Saturday, July 1, in Amman. They discussed the ceasefire in the South for paving the way for establishing a demilitarized zone in eastern Syria.

According to our sources, their understanding covered a 128km strip running from Tabqa in the north up to Karama in the Euphrates River valley. It is not yet clear whether the Syrian army and the pro-Iranian Iraqi and Hizballah forces fighting there will agree to halt their advance on the Syrian-Iraqi border, in compliance with the Russian-US understanding.

The picture beginning to unfold is that Washington and Moscow are making an effort to put in place the outline of a plan for deconfliction zones, in time for the first Trump-Putin encounter that is scheduled for later this week on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Hamburg.

However, the two presidents may find pushing hard against them are Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, President Assad and Al Qods chief Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s Syrian and Iraqi fronts. This trio is in full momentum of an offensive to seize this prized, bitterly-contested border region of Syria, and convinced that the tide of this offensive is rolling in their favor.