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Aleppo under siege: USA lets Russia claim diplomatic advantage

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[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] C [/yt_dropcap] onflicts in Middle East resembling a new World War launched by Bush administration to ensure energy security, are now focused on Syria where many foreign powers, led by USA one the one hand and Russia on the other, are targeting Muslims in Sunni nation ruled by a Shiite Assad who apparently wants to rule the nation of Syrians forever.

Syria has been under siege for years since the onset of Arab Spring and both the government and the Opposition forces keep claiming victories off and on but the war continues, killing and mutilating Syrians.

Bush Junior has made the US government a war machine fully engaged invasions, destabilization, destructions. US generals have demonstrated an impressive aptitude for moving pieces around on a dauntingly complex military chessboard in Islamic world. Brigades, battle groups, and squadrons shuttle in and out of various war zones, responding to the needs of the moment. The lesser theaters of conflict, largely overlooked by the American public, that in recent years have engaged the attention of US forces, a list that would include conflicts in Libya, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen. This engagement in wars have made Islamic world insecure. Saudi Arabia and Iran have been spared so far essentially for strategic reasons. The two principal conflicts of the post-9/11 era: the Afghanistan War, now in its 16th year, and the Iraq War, launched in 2003 and (after a brief hiatus) once more grinding on. Wars have helped USA control entire world.

Syria seems to have slipped out of US control and fallen into Russian orbit. Five years since the conflict began, more than 250,000 Syrians have been killed in the fighting, and almost 11 million Syrians – half the country’s prewar population – have been displaced from their homes. In 2011, what became known as the “Arab Spring” revolts toppled Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. That March, peaceful protests erupted in Syria as well, after 15 boys were detained and tortured for having written graffiti in support of the Arab Spring.

The Syrian government, led by President Bashar al-Assad, determined to stay in power at any cost, responded to the protests by killing hundreds of demonstrators and imprisoning many more. In July 2011, defectors from the military announced the formation of the Free Syrian Army, a rebel group aiming to overthrow the government, and Syria began to slide into civil war. Initially, lack of freedoms and economic woes fuelled resentment of the Syrian government, and public anger was inflamed by the harsh crackdown on protesters. Successful uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt energized and gave hope to Syrian pro-democracy activists. Many Islamist movements were also strongly opposed to the Assad’s’ rule.

Assad control of Aleppo city parts

Reports suggest that Syrian government forces have captured a key part of eastern Aleppo, splitting rebel-held territory. Both state TV and the monitoring group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said that the district of Sakhour had fallen to the Syrian army.

The Syrian army and their allies launched a major offensive to retake control of Aleppo in September. Thousands of civilians have fled rebel-held eastern Aleppo districts after a weekend of heavy fighting. Hundreds of families have also been displaced within the besieged area. Russia says its air force is active in other parts of the country, but not operating over Aleppo. While it is very difficult to find out exactly what is happening in besieged eastern Aleppo, several key districts appear to have fallen to the government, leaving very little, if any, of the northern part of the rebel-held enclave still under the rebels’ control.

There were 250,000 people in need of assistance in eastern Aleppo, 100,000 of them children. The situation on the ground in eastern Aleppo is almost beyond the imagination of those of us who are not there. State TV quoted a Syrian military source as saying that government forces “are continuing their advance in eastern neighborhoods of Aleppo”. The US led opposition had lost more than third of the area it controlled in Aleppo city during the recent advance. The east of Aleppo has been held by rebel factions opposed to President Bashar al-Assad for the past four years. In the past year, Syrian troops have broken the deadlock with the help of Iranian-backed militias and Russian air strikes. Things have turned out very differently.

Meanwhile, Russia has rejected US calls to halt bombing eastern Aleppo. Western observers have been generally impressed by Russia’s deployment in Syria, mainly reflecting a sense of disbelief that they proved to be capable of planning, executing and sustaining such a complex operation and dealing with the logistical issues involved in supplying forces at great distance from Russia.

As reports coming in, the Assad government currently controls the capital, Damascus, parts of southern Syria, portions of Aleppo and Deir Az Zor, much of the area near the Syrian-Lebanese border, and the northwestern coastal region. Rebel groups, ISIL, and Kurdish forces control the rest of the country.

Rebel groups continue to jockey against one another for power, and frequently fight each other. The Free Syrian Army has weakened as the war has progressed, while explicitly Islamist groups, such as the al-Nusra Front, which has pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda, and the Saudi-backed Islamic Front have gained in strength.

Syria under threat

In March 1971, Hafez al-Assad, an Alawite, declared himself President, a position that he held until his death in 2000. Since 1970, the secular Syrian Regional Branch has remained the dominant political authority in what had been a one-party state until the first multi-party election to the People’s Council of Syria was held in 2012.

On 31 January 1973, Assad implemented the new Constitution which led to a national crisis. Unlike previous constitutions, this one did not require that the President of Syria must be a Muslim, leading to fierce demonstrations in Hama, Homs and Aleppo organized by the Muslim Brotherhood and the ulema. They labeled Assad as the “enemy of Allah” and called for a jihad against his rule Robert D. Kaplan has compared Assad’s coming to power to “an untouchable becoming maharajah in India or a Jew becoming tsar in Russia—an unprecedented development, shocking the Sunni majority population which had monopolized power for so many centuries.” The regime survived a series of armed revolts by Sunni Islamists, mainly members of the Muslim Brotherhood, from 1976 until 1982.

In 2000, Bashar al-Assad took over as President of Syria upon Hafez al-Assad’s death. He initially inspired hopes for democratic reforms. A Damascus Spring of social and political debate took place between July 2000 and August 2001The Damascus Spring largely ended in August 2001 with the arrest and imprisonment of ten leading activists who had called for democratic elections and a campaign of civil disobedience In the opinion of his critics, Bashar Assad had failed to deliver on promised reforms.

The Assad government opposed the US invasion and occupation of Iraq. The Bush administration then began to destabilize the regime by increasing sectarian tensions, showcasing and publicizing Syrian repression of Kurdish and Sunni groups, and financing political dissidents. Assad also opposed the Qatar-Turkey pipeline in 2009. A classified 2013 report by a joint U.S. army and intelligence group concluded that the overthrow of Assad would have drastic consequences, as the opposition supported by the Obama regime was dominated by jihadist elements.

Syria is now a major war theater where foreign forces are busy killing Muslims and destroying the nation. .

In the history of Syria – a Sunni nation- many events contributed to its gradual weakening. In the recent past, a severe drought plagued Syria from 2007-10, spurring as many as 1.5 million people to migrate from the countryside into cities, which exacerbated poverty and social unrest. Although the initial protests were mostly non-sectarian, armed conflict led to the emergence of starker sectarian divisions.

In 1982, Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez, a Shiite, ordered a military crackdown on the Sunni led Muslim Brotherhood in Hama, which killed between 10,000-40,000 people and flattened much of the city.

Recently, even global warming has been claimed to have played a role in sparking the 2011 uprising.

Although most Syrians are Sunni Muslims, Syria’s security establishment has long been dominated by members of the Alawite sect, of which Assad is a member.

Having left with no alternatives, no polls Sunnis and minority religious groups tend to support the Assad government, while the overwhelming majority of opposition fighters are Sunni Muslims.

The sectarian split is reflected among regional actors’ stances as well. The governments of majority-Shia Iran and Iraq support Assad, as does Lebanon-based Hezbollah; while Sunni-majority states including Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and others staunchly support the rebels.

Foreign backing and open intervention have played a large role in Syria’s civil war. An international coalition led by the USA has bombed targets of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as IS and ISIS and there could be more to be invented by CIA and Pentagon) group since 2014.

In 2013, ISIL emerged in northern and eastern Syria after overrunning large portions of Iraq. Meanwhile, Kurdish groups in northern Syria are seeking self-rule in areas under their control. This has alarmed Turkey’s government, which fears its large native Kurdish population may grow more restive and demand greater autonomy as a result. In response to attacks within Turkey, the Turkish government has bombed Kurdish targets in Syria. Kurdish groups have also clashed with al-Nusra Front and ISIL.

It appears USA and Russia had informally decided to take opposite sides in Syrian War Theater. In September 2015, Russia launched a bombing campaign against what it referred to as “terrorist groups” in Syria, which included ISIL as well as rebel groups backed by Western states. In October 2015, the USA scrapped its controversial program to train Syrian rebels, after it was revealed that it had spent $500m but only trained 60 fighters.

Russia has also deployed military advisers to shore up Assad’s defences. Several Arab states, along with Turkey, have provided weapons and materiel to rebel groups in Syria. Many of those fighting come from outside of Syria. Lebanese members of Hezbollah are fighting on the side of Assad, as are Iranian and Afghan fighter.

Although the USA has stated its opposition to the Assad government, it has hesitated to involve itself deeply in the conflict, even after the Assad government allegedly used chemical weapons in 2013, which US President Barack Obama had previously referred to as a “red line” that would prompt intervention.

Fluid situation and enter Russia

Syrian war is a multi-sided armed conflict in Syria in which international interventions have taken place. The war grew out of the unrest of the 2011 Arab Spring and escalated to armed conflict after President Bashar al-Assad’s government violently repressed protests calling for his removal. The war is being fought by several factions: the Syrian Government and its various supporters, a loose alliance of Sunni Arab rebel groups (including the Free Syrian Army), the Syrian Democratic Forces, Salafi jihadist groups (including al-Nusra Front) who often co-operate with the Sunni rebels, and the ISIL. The factions receive substantial support from foreign actors, leading many to label the conflict a proxy war waged by both regional and global powers.

As Assad government was facing rout at the crushing attacks of US led Opposition forces, Russia came to the rescue of Assad and his rule. Russian forces, enjoying a free hand in Syria, have been operating in support of the government of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria for a year. Their impact has been significant. When they arrived, there were fears that government forces were close to collapse. This position has largely been reversed. It is the Syrian government – while still fragile – that is now on the offensive with a brutal bid to recapture the whole of the city of Aleppo. Initially seen by US analysts through the prism of recent Western military involvements in the region, many pundits were quick to dismiss the Russian effort as likely to fail. The Russian military, it was said, was not up to expeditionary warfare. Russia would quickly find itself bogged down in a Syrian quagmire.

Russia carries out its first air strikes on 30 September 2015 and Syria says it requested intervention to help in “the fight against terrorism”. On 10 November 2015 the Syrian army, aided by Russian strikes, lifts two-year-long siege by IS on the key Kuwairis airbase in eastern Aleppo province, marking its first victory against IS since the Russian intervention.

Obviously, on instruction from Washington, Turkey shot down on 24 November a Russian Su-24 fighter jet near the Turkish-Syrian border; Benefiting from Russian support, the Syrian army makes territorial gains in various parts of Syria December 2015 – January 2016 and declares Latakia province rebel-free. Syrian army 24 March 2016 backed by Russian strikes inflicts a major symbolic and strategic defeat on IS, recapturing the historic city of Palmyra. In September 2016, Russia acknowledges providing air cover to the Syrian troops in their bid to seize control of Aleppo city.

Russian goal

Russia, of course, has had a strategic relationship with Syria going back to Soviet days. It has long maintained a small naval base on the Syrian coast and has close ties with the Syrian military, being its principal arms supplier. Syria had become Moscow’s last toe-hold of influence in the region. It was the fear of this relationship unraveling that prompted President Vladimir Putin to act.

While it is Russian air power that has been the main focus of news reporting on the Russian intervention, it is as much the intensified training and re-equipping of the Syrian army that has also been a crucial factor in helping to turn around President Assad’s fortunes.

Russian and Syrian military goals are not identical. While the Syrian government insists it still wants to recapture all the territory it has lost, Moscow’s approach is very different. Unlike Syria and Iran, Russia has no interest in fighting for territory. In defending Assad, Moscow had sought to steadily destroy the moderate Syrian opposition on the battlefield, leaving only jihadist forces in play, and lock the USA into a political framework of negotiations that would serve beyond its current Democratic shelf-life. In both respects, Russia has been successful. Ultimately, the Russian goal is to lock in gains for Syria via ceasefires, while slow-rolling the negotiations to the point that true opposition to the Syrian regime expires on the battlefield, leaving no viable alternatives for the West in this conflict by 2017. Russia’s intervention, however, does not seek to minimize losses.

The Russian air force has deployed some of its most modern aircraft to Syria, though the same cannot be said for the munitions they employ. The Russian air campaign overall has relied upon the use of “dumb bombs” of various types, a major distinction with modern Western air campaigns, where almost all of the munitions used are precision-guided. Russian Special Forces and artillery have been engaged on the ground. Long-range missile strikes have been conducted from Russian warships and submarines. Even Russia’s only aircraft carrier is now on its way to the region.

The Syria operation has also provided an invaluable opportunity for Russian generals to try out their forces in operational conditions, as well as offering something of a “shop-window” for some of Russia’s latest military technology. Russian military sees this as an opportunity to test new or modern systems; experiment with network-centric warfare capability; and to present evidence of the success of military modernisation.” This helps Moscow to showcase its new combat systems for West Asia and elsewhere. .

Syria has become a kind of sampler of Russian military capabilities. Israel could be disappointed.

Russia’s air campaign: Key moments

30 September 2015 – Russia carries out its first air strikes. Syria says it requested intervention to help in “the fight against terrorism”. 10 November 2015 – The Syrian army, aided by Russian strikes, lifts two-year-long siege by IS on the key Kuwairis airbase in eastern Aleppo province, marking its first victory against IS since the Russian intervention.

24 November – Turkey shoots down a Russian Su-24 fighter jet near the Turkish-Syrian border

December 2015 – January 2016 – Benefiting from Russian support, the Syrian army makes territorial gains in various parts of Syria and declares Latakia province rebel-free

24 March 2016 – Syrian army backed by Russian strikes inflicts a major symbolic and strategic defeat on IS, recapturing the historic city of Palmyra

September 2016 – Russia acknowledges providing air cover to the Syrian troops in their bid to seize control of Aleppo city.

Diplomatic advantage

The diplomatic consequences of the Russian intervention have also been a plus for Moscow. Its active military role in the WA region has reshaped its relationships with Israel, Iran and Turkey. Indeed, Israel and Russia have developed a significant level of “understanding”. Israeli air operations against the Lebanese Shia militant group Hezbollah, for example, have not been hindered by Russian control of significant parts of Syrian air space.

Attacks on Arab Muslims by any nation are good enough for Tel Aviv seeking to weaken entire Arab world. Russian attacks in Syria are welcome in Israel

Relations between Moscow and Tehran (Syria’s only other significant ally) have developed, and even the enmity between Moscow and Ankara has been diminished, with both countries realising they have to accommodate – at least to an extent – the other’s regional aims. Arabs are slowly shedding the Americophobia.

It is US-Russia relations that have been most profoundly influenced by Moscow’s intervention in Syria. At one level, Syria can be added to Ukraine as a dossier where the USA and Russia are failing to find common ground. But Russia’s military role ensured that the Assad leadership was not going to be removed from the chessboard. This made Washington revise its own approach and pursue what has largely proved an illusory effort, to develop some kind of partnership with Russia.

The indiscriminate nature of the Russian and Syrian air campaigns – exemplified by the current struggle over Aleppo – has certainly not won Russia many friends in the West, however. Russia has been accused by several governments of barbarity and potentially committing war crimes. According to the UK-based monitoring group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, over 4,000 civilians have been killed in one year of Russian strikes. Russian casualties in Syria are difficult to estimate. Helicopters have certainly been shot down, and several members of Russia’s Special Forces are known to have been killed in combat.

Western public opinion seems largely unmoved by the struggle; perhaps to an extent a reflection of war weariness in the wake of the campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. And there has been a good level of confusion. Many in the West, sceptical about their own governments’ records, seem unwilling to get excited about what Russia is up to.

The importance of information operations was most clearly illustrated by the extraordinary concert mounted in the ruins of Palmyra after its recapture from so-called Islamic State (IS) by Syrian forces.

The Kremlin has skillfully managed how the Russian public sees this intervention. Given the woeful state of the economy, Russian leaders have always been concerned that Syria would come to be viewed as an undue burden, though victory in Syria would make Russians happy. Specialists interpret the Kremlin’s decision in March to announce a significant reduction of its air power in Syria as an attempt “to cash-out the political gains at home and recast the war in the public’s mind”.

Western expectations of political peril for President Putin have, so far, simply not been realized. Rather than a prolonged campaign, Russia’s combat operations have become the new normal. Those expecting Russian support behind Vladimir Putin to collapse, either over Ukraine, or Syria, or the economy, have thus far been proven wrong. The Kremlin is demonstrably more adept at securing public approval, or apathy, than commonly acknowledged in the West.

But the overall level of casualties appears to have been limited, and news of combat deaths (like those among Russian forces in eastern Ukraine) is restricted – another reason why there has been no domestic backlash against the Syrian adventure.

By its own standards, Russia’s intervention in Syria has been a success on several levels. The real question is whether this situation can last. Put it another way, is there any clear exit strategy for Russia that might enable it to bank its gains and end its losses?

Russia’s strategic goals are vague. The exit strategy, if there is one appears rooted in strengthening the fighting power of the Syrian army and securing some long-term political settlement that demonstrates Russia has returned as a great power. The “strategic impact” of Russia’s intervention still remains in doubt. “Such gains are readily lost and can prove illusory,” an expert says. The Syrian army remains a shambles, Iran is attached to Assad, while Russia is more interested in the grander game with the USA. And without a political settlement to secure them, these accomplishments can vaporize, as Russian patience and resources become exhausted. Russian leadership knows that this could take years and would rather cut a deal while possessing the military advantage with USA. .

Aleppo was once a place of culture and commerce, with a jewel of an old city that was on Enesco’s list of world heritage sites. Now, the five-year civil war that rages in Syria has left much of it destroyed and divided roughly in two, with President Bashar al-Assad’s forces controlling the west and the rebels the east. A month ago, government forces re-imposed a siege on the east, and launched an all-out assault to take full control of the city, accompanied by an intense and sustained aerial bombardment.

Activists say the offensive has left hundreds of civilians dead, but the government and its ally Russia have denied targeting them and blamed rebel fighters for operating in residential areas. But what about the 275,000 people who are trapped there? Where are they getting their food from? Do they have enough water and medicine?

In August, the UN Children’s Fund (Unicef) estimated that 35,000 people were internally displaced inside eastern Aleppo, some of whom were in official shelters run in abandoned buildings, others staying with family or friends, and still others sleeping outdoors in parks and streets. Not many will have been able to leave since then – and it is likely that the number of people not sleeping in their own homes has gone up. And even those who are still at home know they are not safe. People are saying there is no safe place to go. There may be many who are staying in places that they don’t consider being adequate but they’re staying anyway.

Nearly half the people who live in besieged Aleppo are under the age of 18. Many of their schools have closed or moved. Some of the buildings have been bombed, while others are being used as shelters for displaced people, or fighters in the conflict are using them for military purposes. It might be difficult to imagine any child going back to school when bombs are falling.

People are buying water from wells and privately-owned water tankers, and carrying it home in buckets. Many have reported that it tastes bad, and there is no guarantee that it is free of disease. It is hard to say whether anyone has died of hunger in the siege because with aid agencies unable to get inside, they cannot accurately diagnose the level of malnutrition.

Many doctors have fled the city as refugees or been killed in the fighting, and there are just 30 doctors remaining in eastern Aleppo. Using the UN’s estimate for the number of people trapped there – 275,000 – that means there is roughly one doctor for every 9,100 people. This in a place that is being bombed every day – at least 376 people were killed and 1,266 wounded in the first two weeks of the latest government’s assault, according to the UN.

The places where doctors work have been repeatedly targeted by government and Russian air strikes, activists and charities say. The UN says six hospitals are still operating, although they are only partially functional. Two hospitals have been almost totally destroyed in the past two weeks, and three doctors and two nurses killed. The few remaining hospitals are collapsing under a flow of hundreds of wounded lying in agony on the floors of wards and corridors.

It has long maintained a small naval base on the Syrian coast and has close ties with the Syrian military, being its principal arms supplier. Syria had become Moscow’s last toe-hold of influence in the region. It was the fear of this relationship unraveling that prompted President Vladimir Putin to act.

While it is Russian air power that has been the main focus of news reporting on the Russian intervention, it is as much the intensified training and re-equipping of the Syrian army that has also been a crucial factor in helping to turn around President Assad’s fortunes.

Russian forces have been operating in support of the government of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria for a year. Their impact has been significant. When they arrived, there were fears that government forces were close to collapse. This position has largely been reversed. It is the Syrian government – while still fragile – that is now on the offensive with a brutal bid to recapture the whole of the city of Aleppo.

Initially seen by US analysts through the prism of recent Western military involvements in the region, many pundits were quick to dismiss the Russian effort as likely to fail. The Russian military, it was said, was not up to expeditionary warfare. Russia would quickly find itself bogged down in a Syrian quagmire.

Things have turned out very differently.

Roger McDermott, senior fellow in Eurasian studies at the Jamestown Foundation – and a long-time watcher of the Russian military – says: Western observers have been generally impressed by Russia’s deployment in Syria, mainly reflecting a sense of disbelief that they proved to be capable of planning, executing and sustaining such a complex operation and dealing with the logistical issues involved in supplying forces at great distance from Russia.

But what exactly were Russia’s goals in intervening in the first place? Russia, of course, has had a strategic relationship with Syria going back to Soviet days.

Observation

USA created all problems in Syria but now Russia has all diplomatic advantages to win a powerful point over its nuclear rival America. The siege is pushing people towards starvation and serfdom.

The Syrian war is creating profound effects far beyond the country’s borders. Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan are hosting large and growing numbers of Syrian refugees, many of whom have attempted to journey onwards to Europe in search of better conditions.

Several rounds of peace talks have failed to stop the fighting. Although a ceasefire announced in February 2016 has limited fighting in some parts of Syria, recent government air strikes in Aleppo have prompted uncertainty about the ceasefire’s future. But with much of the country in ruins , millions of Syrians having fled abroad, and a population deeply traumatized by war, one thing is certain: Rebuilding Syria after the war ends will be a lengthy, extremely difficult process.

Syrian war has killed thousands, produced innumerable refugees. As Syria’s war reaches another grim milestone, refugees fleeing the 5-year conflict face greater hurdles to finding safety while international solidarity with its victims is failing to match and reflect the scale and seriousness of the humanitarian tragedy.

UNHCR provides basic and necessary humanitarian aid for Syrian refugees and helps the most vulnerable refugees with urgently needed relief – including water, food, medicine, blankets and warm clothes, household items, diapers and hygiene supplies, and jerry cans.

By its own standards, Russia’s intervention in Syria has been a success on several levels. The real question is whether this situation can last. Put it another way, is there any clear exit strategy for Russia that might enable it to bank its gains and end its losses?

Russia’s strategic goals are vague. The exit strategy, if there is one appears rooted in strengthening the fighting power of the Syrian army and securing some long-term political settlement that demonstrates Russia has returned as a great power. The strategic impact of Russia’s intervention still remains in doubt. Such gains are readily lost and can prove illusory. The Syrian army remains a shambles; Iran is attached to Assad, while Russia is more interested in the grander game with the USA. And without a political settlement to secure them, these accomplishments can vaporize, as Russian patience and resources become exhausted. Russian leadership knows that this could take years and would rather cut a deal while possessing the military advantage.

The USA was compelled not just to deal with Russia as a diplomatic equal but also to shift its own stance towards the Assad government to one – that for all the obfuscation – falls well short of its long-time insistence that President Assad had to go, as the essential pre-condition for any negotiated settlement.

Not many powers like Israel are happy that the USA has not invaded Iran to equalize its destruction efforts in Iraq- both Shiite dominated Muslim nations in West Asia.

Neither the end of war in Syria nor peace in West Asia is the major concern of USA or Russia, or UNSC.

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Lessons Learned: US Seek to Salvage their Relations with the Syrian Kurds

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The hasty retreat of the US troops from Afghanistan has left a sizeable dent in the reputation of the White House among the American public, in the Middle East and the world in general. Washington was criticised heavily for the betrayal of the Afghan government, which paved the way for Taliban to storm to power.

It’s only natural that such events created a breeding ground for uncertainty among US allies in the region. Some of them started to reevaluate their relationship with the White House after the Afghan fiasco; others were having doubts about the US’ commitment beforehand. Current situation forces Washington to take firm actions to validate their status as a powerhouse in the region. There are indicators that US leadership has found a way to regain trust from its allies starting with Kurdish armed units in Syria.

The Kurds became a key ally to the US in their quest to defeat ISIS in Syria. Washington helped to create the predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), who consequently established control over oil-rich regions in the north-eastern Syria. However the rapid rise of Kurdish influence triggered discontent from other parties of the Syrian conflict: the Assad government and Turkey, who considers SDF an offshoot of the PKK, designated as a terror group by the Turkish authorities. Under this pretext Ankara conducted three full-scale military operations against the Kurds in spite of its membership in the US led coalition.

Turkey remains a major headache for the US in northern Syria as it obstructs the development of a Kurdish autonomy. US failure to act during the Turkish offensive on Al-Bab and then Afrin is still considered one of the most agonizing experiences in the recent history of American-Kurdish partnership. On the flip side, this relationship had its bright moments. US forces were persistent in their cooperation with the Kurds despite Donald Trump’s efforts to withdraw US military presence from Syria. Furthermore, former Pentagon’s chief James Mattis increased funding of SDF in 2019 to a record high of $300 million.

Although the US cut back its support for the Kurds after proclaiming victory over ISIS, it’s still sufficient for SDF to stay among the most combat-capable forces in Syria. US provide machinery, equipment and ammunition, but most importantly teach the Kurds the skills to profit from their resources. Besides training SDF rank soldiers, the American troops prepare their special forces HAT (Hêzên Antî Teror, Anti-Terror Forces) primarily tasked with establishing security on oil facilities as well as detection and elimination of terrorists. In terms of their equipment they practically hold their own even against US troops. During their operations HAT fighters use standardized weaponry, night goggles and other modern resources.

Regardless of all the US aid military capabilities of SDF have one critical vulnerability, namely the lack of air defense. This weakness is successfully exploited by Turkey who uses their drones to bomb Kurdish positions. For the last couple of months the number of air strikes has significantly increased, which brought SDF to find new methods of deflecting air attacks.

There are good grounds to believe that Washington accommodated their partner’s troubles. Thus a source from an US air-base in Middle-East who asked to keep his name and position anonymous told us that on the 18th of September three combat-capable trainer aircraft T-6 Texan have been deployed to Tell Beydar air-base in Hasakah province, Syria. According to the source American instructors have begun a crash course in air pilotage with the candidates picked form the SDF ranks long before the airplanes arrived to their destination. This is implicitly confirmed by the large shipment of US weaponry, machinery and ammunition to Tell Beydar delivered on the 17th of September that included missiles compatible with Texan aircraft.

The sole presence of airplanes, even trainer aircraft, prompts a change in the already existing power balance. T-6 Texan can be used not only for air cover but also as a counter tool to Turkish “Bayraktar” UAVs especially if US grant Kurds access to intel from the radars situated on US air bases. Ultimately, from Turkey’s standpoint it must look like an attempt from the US military to create PKK’s own air force.

This being said the US are better off using political means rather than military if the goal is to handicap Turkish interests in Syria. The groundwork for this has been laid thanks to a reshuffle in the White House under Biden administration. First came the resignation of former US Special Representative for Syria Engagement James F. Jeffrey infamous for his soft spot for Turkey, who has been openly promoting pro-Turkish views in the White House during his tenure. In addition to the loss of their man in Washington, Turkey has gained a powerful adversary represented by the new National Security Council coordinator for the Middle-East and North Africa Brett McGurk. McGurk is a polar opposite to Jeffrey and has sided with the Kurds on numerous occasions. He is well respected among the leaders of SDF because of his work as Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to counter ISIS.

The only yet the most important question that is yet to be answered is the position of US president Joe Biden. So far Biden’s administration has been avoiding radical shifts regarding its Syria policy. Development of cooperation with the Kurds considering they have proven their reliability might come as a logical solution that will also allow the White House to show their teeth. Washington cannot endure another Afghanistan-like fiasco that will destroy their reputation figuratively and their allies literally. Even with all possible negative outcomes taken into account the enhancement of cooperation with the Kurds outweighs the drawbacks and remains the optimal route for the US.

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Turkish Geopolitics and the Kabul Airport Saga

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Image credit: Hurriyet daily news

The Taliban’s ultimate agreement to a prominent Turkish security presence at Afghanistan’s only airport completes an important power-play for the latter. Ankara wishes to establish itself as a dominant player in the post-U.S. withdrawal Afghan affairs, ensuring that the U.S. looks to it as an ideal partner for its future policies in Afghanistan. It is in this context that Turkey having overcome the formerly heated rejections by the Taliban of its proposed role at the airport is highly significant as it portends the closer integration of Afghanistan into familiar Turkish geopolitical agendas.

Turkey’s Afghan power-play and the U.S.

Turkey’s announcement in June of plans to militarily manage the security at Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport with U.S. financial support incensed the Taliban.

By not consulting or informing the powerful Islamist group on such a major issue in a post-withdrawal Afghanistan, Turkey signaled its view of the Taliban as inimical non-state actors lacking the stature to act upon the pretext of Afghan sovereignty. Indeed, President Tayyip Erdogan accused the Taliban of the ‘occupation’ of the Afghan territory in response to their warnings that Turkey’s airport plan violated the Doha Accords in terms of the exit of all foreign forces from Afghanistan and that they would harshly react to it.

The Taliban’s near-effortless takeover of Kabul in mid-August seemed to close the chapter on the airport saga, but deadly ISIS bombings near the airport two weeks later forced the new regime to consider external help in filling the Afghan security vacuum.

Consequently, Turkey gained not only an acquiescence from Afghanistan’s strongest faction to its desired role at the airport but also an affirmation of its capacity to face down and override local actors as a foreign power seeking to guide its Afghan initiatives to fruition.

This may appeal strongly to the U.S., which has increased its geoeconomic interests in Afghanistan in parallel with the process of its military disengagement from the country. These interests take the form of large infrastructure trade projects of a regional scale and would benefit if shielded from the whims of domestic Afghan factions that tend to cripple governance and policy implementation. Ankara’s assertive posture during the airport tussle with the Taliban helps it pitch itself to Washington as capable of doing precisely this.

The Central Asia factor

These trade infrastructure projects in Afghanistan aim to develop it as a transit hub for Central Asian trade to extra-regional markets as outlined in the U.S. ‘Strategy for Central Asia 2019-25’. The U.S. affords considerable importance to this strategy both as a means of rebuilding Afghanistan and providing the Central Asian states with new trade routes that do not need to transit the territory of Russia, their former Soviet patron and America’s great-power rival.

Turkey shares the goal of increasing Central Asia’s global connectivity, whilst envisioning itself the natural leader and conduit for the Turkic Central Asian states’ growing socio-economic bonds with the outside world. By acting as a lead-from-the-front partner for the U.S. in the post-withdrawal Afghanistan, Turkey can persuade the U.S. to entrust it with the Afghan leg of the Strategy for Central Asia.

Turkey could then inculcate the progress of its own connectivity projects for Central Asia into the U.S. priorities as a premium of sorts for its services tackling Afghanistan-based risks and hazards to the U.S. Strategy for Central Asia. These Turkish-led projects include the East West Trans-Caspian Middle Corridor (connecting Turkmenistan-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan to Europe via the Caspian Sea-South Caucasus-Turkey route) and its Eastern spur for Afghanistan, the Lapis Lazuli Corridor (connecting northwest Afghanistan via Turkmenistan to the same Caspian Sea-South Caucasus-Turkey route to Europe).

The text of the US Strategy for Central Asia does mention and pledge favourable visa and customs policies for the Lapis Lazuli Corridor, but does not mention the Middle Corridor or Turkey at all. The absence of the latter two key names indicates that U.S. backing for the Lapis Lazuli Corridor likely owed to the simple fact that it directly includes Afghanistan and has already been functional since December 2018. Thus, the U.S. does not formally endorse the East-West connectivity for Central Asia—which Turkey specializes at—under the rubric of its Strategy for Central Asia.

“Senior [Trump] administration officials have expressed support for specific infrastructure projects—such as, notably, Georgia’s deep-water port project in Anaklia—but without having cast them as part of a broader regional agenda,” commented Middle East Institute scholar Dr John Calabrese on the erstwhile Donald Trump administration’s position on the Middle Corridor months before the Strategy on Central Asia’s release.

All this greatly limits the pool of U.S. financial and political support that Turkey could tap into for developing and expanding the Middle Corridor, which is the lynchpin for its push for pan-Turkic leadership. Ankara’s remedy for this problem, however, may lie in gaining the mentioned lead-from-the-front ally status vis-a-vis the U.S. in Afghanistan.

As observed by the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute’s Chairman and Director Frederick Starr and Svante Cornell, the present U.S. approach represents important shifts in the American conceptualization of Afghanistan and Central Asia relative to each other. These are a departure from the long-standing tendency to ‘view Central Asia as an appendix to Afghanistan policy’ and an embrace of Central Asia as a bloc. Both these shifts laid the basis for the U.S. Afghan policy to take its cue from Central Asia’s development. Officially mandating the development of an East-West transport corridor from Central Asia to Europe—in short, Turkey’s Middle Corridor—is the next logical step in this paradigm.

Starr and Cornell, leading proponents in the U.S. policy advocacy community for treating Afghanistan as part of Central Asia, identify the East-West transport corridor as crucial to the Strategy for Central Asia and criticize the document for not mentioning it.

Thus, from its position in Afghanistan, Turkey can orient the inputs it feeds back to its diplomatic and military partners in Washington around the case for the merger of the U.S. Afghanistan and Central Asia policies that Starr and Cornel advocate. The U.S. will expect actionable suggestions from its top consultative partner for Afghanistan to actualize this merger, paving the way for Turkey to impactfully pitch the Middle Corridor as the solution.

This could well become an elusive opening that Turkey has long needed to bridge the chasm between the Middle Corridor’s innate appeal to the U.S. great-power sensitivities underpinning its Central Asia posture and the U.S. seeming disinterest in the corridor. After all, the Middle Corridor bypasses Russia, challenging its monopoly over Central Asia’s trade routes. It also acts as what Starr describes as a ‘Land Suez’ for China to connect to Europe—reducing China’s reliance on transiting Russia for this purpose and offsetting, from Washington’s perspective, the prospect of its two great-power rivals’ geoeconomic priorities aligning too closely.

Subsequent U.S. endorsement of the Middle Corridor would stimulate greater U.S. investment in the mega-project, hitherto limited by the Strategy for Central Asia’s non-mention of East-West connectivity as explored prior.

In addition to this, the Middle Corridor could become an agenda item in multilateral platforms for Central Asia, such as the C5+1, set up by the U.S. with a focus on the Afghan-Central Asian connectivity. This would prop up advocates in Turkic Central Asia for a formal embrace of an Ankara-led Turkic bloc by enabling them to present this as part of the institutionalization of Central Asian affairs as opposed to a pro-Turkish tilt which might alarm Russia, who has a past record of reacting forcefully to external powers engaging in bloc-building in its former Soviet backyard in Eurasia. This will greatly benefit Turkey.

Restoring balance with the West

Afghanistan can arguably bring Turkey’s ideologically-driven desire to carve a Turkic bloc from Central Asia and its more general desire to mitigate the strains in bilateral ties with the U.S. closer together than any other foreign policy file in Ankara.

Linked to Central Asia or not, Afghanistan stands out as a vacuum left by American strategic miscalculations at the regional doorstep of several U.S. rivals. Turkish initiatives, such as the Kabul airport project, clearly designed to preserve U.S. stakes in Afghanistan—at a time when Russia, Iran and China appear poised to capitalize on the U.S. shrinking presence there—can inject fresh credibility into Turkey’s historical image as the West’s Eurasian vanguard.

This will help President Erdogan as he tries to stabilize relations with the U.S. against their list of disputes, from Turkey’s purchase of Russian air defense systems to the U.S. support for Kurdish groups near the Turkish-Syrian border and beyond. Additionally, President Joe Biden faces mounting public and political pressure at home over the rapid collapse of the former U.S.-backed Kabul government in the Taliban’s wake; in this context, Turkey volunteering itself as a new and coherent vehicle for U.S. interests in Afghanistan may prove the very ice-breaker Erdogan needs for his notably bleak relationship with Biden.

However much progress Ankara makes in these endeavours, its headstrong approach and eventual success in securing a role at Kabul’s airport points to strategic clarity and an expectation of Afghanistan’s seamless integration into Turkish geopolitics.

From our partner RIAC

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Middle East

The Battle for the Soul of Islam: Will the real reformer of the faith stand up?

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Saudi and Emirati efforts to define ‘moderate’ Islam as socially more liberal while being subservient to an autocratic ruler is as much an endeavour to ensure regime survival and bolster aspirations to lead the Muslim world as it is an attempt to fend off challenges rooted in diverse strands of religious ultra-conservatism.

The Saudi and Emirati efforts to garner religious soft power have much in common even though the kingdom and the United Arab Emirates build their respective campaigns on historically different forms of Islam. The two Gulf states are, moreover, rivals in the battle for the soul of Islam, a struggle to define what strand or strands will dominate the faith in the 21st century.

The battle takes on added significance at a time that Middle Eastern rivals are attempting to dial down regional tensions by managing their disputes and conflicts rather than resolving them. The efforts put a greater emphasis on soft power rivalry rather than hard power confrontation often involving proxies.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE propagate a ‘moderate’ Islam on the back of significant social reforms in recent years that preaches absolute obedience to the ruler and relegates the clergy to the status of the ruler’s clerics.

The reforms include Saudi Arabia’s lifting of a ban on women’s driving, enhancing of women’s professional and personal opportunities, curbing the powers of the religious police and introducing Western-style entertainment.

The UAE last November allowed unmarried couples to cohabitate, loosened alcohol restrictions and criminalised “honour killings,” a widely criticised religiously packaged tribal custom that allows a male relative to kill a woman accused of dishonouring her family.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE compete in the Muslim world with Turkish and Iranian Islamist strands of the faith that are laced with nationalism.

The Gulf states’ state-led moderation of religious practices rather than of theology and Muslim jurisprudence is also challenged by some strands of Wahhabism, the ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam on the basis of which Saudi Arabia was founded.

“Wahhabism has refracted into three broad groups since the early 1990s: a left that has developed a discourse of civic rights, a centre occupying official posts of state (dubbed ‘ulama al-sultan’ or the ruler’s clerics) that has put up some resistance to the loosening of their powers in the social, juridical and media spheres, and a Wahhabi right sympathetic to the jihadist discourse of al-Qaeda and its focus on questions of foreign policy,” said scholar Andrew Hammond.

While Turkey and Iran pose a geopolitical danger, autocratic monarchical rule is more fundamentally threatened by the religious challenge posed by what Mr. Hammond dubs the Wahhabi left and the Wahhabi right as well as Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama, the only non-state player in the battle for the soul of Islam, that advocates and practices reform of Islamic jurisprudence and unconditionally endorses the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The arrests in recent years of Saudi scholars and preachers such as Safar al-HawaliSalman al-Awda, Sulayman al-Duwaish, Ibrahim al-Sakran, and Hasan al-Maliki suggests as much.

Implicitly drawing a distinction with Nahdlatul Ulama, Mr. Hammond argues that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s reforms amount to “defanging Wahhabism not dethroning it.”

The crown prince, since coming to office, has radically cut back on the investment of tens of billions of dollars in the propagation of religious ultra-conservatism across the globe, most effectively in Pakistan and Afghanistan. He has also sought to balance Wahhabism with Saudi ultra-nationalism and shave off the rough social edges of the kingdom’s austere interpretation of the faith. His subjugation of the clergy, and incarceration of adherents of the Wahhabi left and far-right, put an end to a 73-year long power-sharing agreement between the ruling Al-Saud family and the clergy.

The left has entertained concepts of a constitutional rather than an absolute monarchy, called for political liberalisation and civil rights and in some cases endorsed the 2011 popular Arab revolts that toppled four Arab autocrats.

The Wahhabi left could be joined in challenging the conservative Gulf monarchies and, simultaneously, be challenged by Nahdlatul Ulama once the group expands its activities to target the Muslim world’s grassroots beyond Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country as well as its foremost democracy. In its first outreach to grassroots elsewhere, Nahdlatul Ulama is expected to launch an Arabic-language website before the end of the year that would target the Arab world.

Nahdlatul Ulama’s concept of a humanitarian Islam that embraces principles of tolerance, pluralism, gender equality, secularism and human rights as defined in the Universal Declaration goes considerably further than proposals put forward by Mr. Hammond’s Wahhabi left, perhaps better described as more liberal rather than an ideological left-wing of a fundamentally ultra-conservative movement.

The Indonesian group’s concept of Islam also contrasts starkly with the Saudi and Emirati notion of autocratic religious moderation that involves no theological or jurisprudential reform but uses ‘the ruler’s clergy’ to religiously legitimise repressive rule under which protests, political parties and petitioning of the government are banned and thought is policed.

“The state has strengthened the Wahhabi centre through neutralising the Wahhabi left and right, which have each represented a threat to state authority and legitimacy … As for the civic rights innovations of the Wahhabi left exemplified by al-Awda, it is precisely this discourse that the state wants to shut down,” Mr. Hammond said, referring to the imprisoned cleric.

The track record of proponents of autocratic religious moderation is checkered at best. While the UAE has created a society that is by and large religiously tolerant, neither Saudi Arabia nor Egypt, which doesn’t have the wherewithal to fight a soft power battle in the Muslim world but seeks to project itself as a champion of religious tolerance, can make a similar claim.

Prince Mohammed has met Jewish and Evangelical leaders. Mohammed al-Issa, the head of the Muslim World League, long a major vehicle to promote Saudi religious ultra-conservatism, doesn’t miss an opportunity these days to express his solidarity with other faith groups. Yet, non-Muslims remain barred in the kingdom from worshipping publicly or building their own houses of worship.

In Egypt, Patrick George Zaki, a 27-year-old student, lingers in prison since February 2020 on charges of spreading false news and rumours for publishing an article documenting incidents of discrimination against Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority.

Mr. Zaki was arrested a year after Ahmed el-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al Azhar, Egypt’s citadel of Islamic learning, signed a Declaration of Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together with Pope Francis during the two men’s visit to the UAE. The declaration advocates religious freedom and pluralism.

By contrast, Nahdlatul Ulama secretary general Yahya Staquf recently told the story of Riyanto in a September 11 speech at Regent University, a bulwark of American Evangelical anti-Muslim sentiment founded by televangelist Pat Robertson. A member of Nahdlatul Ulama’s militia, Riyanto died guarding a church in Java on Christmas Eve when a bomb exploded in his arms as he removed it from a pew.

“To us in Nahdlatul Ulama, Riyanto is a martyr, and we honour his memory every Christmas Eve alongside millions of our Indonesian Christian brothers and sisters,” Mr. Staquf said.

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