Monday, 23 October 2017

Did the West 'give up' on the Syrian rebels?

Michael Neumann:

 'In “How Assad’s Enemies Gave Up on the Syrian Opposition”, Aron Lund follows many other analysts in his account of how the West 'gave up' on Syria’s rebels.  The implication is that the West tried to back them against Assad, but at long last found this well-meaning effort both futile and ill-advised. The project produced a big mess!

 That's at least highly misleading.  The following argues that West never seriously supported the rebels, so it can hardly be said that support should never have been extended in the first place.

 1.  Lund has a New York Times report stating that there were "flights shipping military equipment to Syria".  Here he misspoke:  without any sinister intent, he asserted what he knows is false.  Not one single flight went to Syria.  All flights went, as the article states, to Turkey or Jordan.

 2.  This is of the highest significance, because it means that only a still-unknown proportion of the 3500 tons shipped actually ended up in rebel hands. 

 3.  What we do know is that there were many complaints that only a trickle of those arms made it across the border: the deliveries were constantly and severely restricted to bend rebel groups to the wishes of Turkey, and - especially - Jordan and the US.  For example:  “We need between 500-600 tons of ammunition a week. We get between 30-40 tons. So you do the calculations.”

 4.  The overwhelming majority of the arms used are of Soviet design.  Even ammunition tracked to outside sources is not linked to identifiable US-backed shipments.  Some of this material certainly did come from the CIA operation, but there are no videos nor any first-hand testimony of large deliveries crossing the Syrian border.  In short there is no evidence that, contrary to repeated rebel claims, they received large amounts of CIA-supplied weaponry, as opposed to black-market purchases from numerous sources.

 5.  There is also no evidence, indeed no claim, that CIA training made a substantial difference.  The later Pentagon train-and-equip program leaked small quantities of arms; the trained units were consistently steered away from fighting Assad.

 6.   Even if large shipments actually ended up in rebel hands, these shipments did not afford the rebels air cover: there were no useful MANPADS or other anti-aircraft weapons.  And of course in contrast to the Western-backed Kurdish forces, no one gave the rebels air cover or close air support.  This, predictably, proved decisive.

 7.  Without such support, the claim that Western supplies ever played a pivotal role in the course of the war is implausible.  The rebels, in better days, obtained massive quantities of arms from the black market and captured régime depots.  These seem quite sufficient to account for the rebels' periods of success.

 8.   In short the whole idea that the US and the West made any serious effort to overthrow Assad is a non-starter.  Western backers may indeed have planned to overthrow him.  But between the plans and the implementation lay an almost impenetrable barrier of reluctance to support the rebels who might have brought him down.  This barrier proved much more consequential than the plans or even the arms delivery flights that supposedly exacerbated the conflict.

 9.  Where did this reluctance come from?  Lund rightly says:  "Though the Syrian president was now widely reviled as a war criminal and held responsible for tens of thousands of civilian deaths, the likely alternatives seemed to be either stateless, jihadi-infested chaos or some sort of Talibanesque theocracy. International enthusiasm for the opposition plummeted."

 Lund might have pointed out that, on all evidence, "the likely alternatives" would have been far better than Assad, particularly since the West had more than enough capacity to restrain any post-Assad 'chaos'. But this is the failure of every respectable, sober, well-informed Syria analyst. Should it have had any significant effect on Western policy, it is a lot to answer for.'

Sunday, 22 October 2017

The Russians are chaining Syria and drowning it in debt


 'Russia has drawn up a map of military bases in Syria that is re-establishing its presence as a central force in the Middle East. However, there is an economic agenda that Moscow is hiding behind its military and political presence, the most important of which is obtaining long-term economic advantages through signing agreements with the Syrian regime, as a way to return its favour in contributing to keeping the Syrian regime and its president, Bashar al-Assad.

 The economic relations between Damascus and Moscow are not the result of military intervention, but they date back to the Soviet Union and the rule of former President Hafez al-Assad in the 1990s. In addition, the son Bashar al-Assad has worked on strengthening more trade and economic relations between the two countries. In 2005, he signed about 43 agreements, in the fields of industry, trade, defence, healthcare, energy, and irrigation.
According to analysts, the regime’s concessions and signing agreements with Moscow is not new. Russia has cancelled 73% of its debts from Syria ($ 9.8 billion of the total debt of $ 13.4 billion), during Assad’s visit to Moscow in 2005, in exchange for turning the Tartus Port into a permanent military base for Russian ships.

 However, the concessions have increased after the outbreak of the revolution, after Assad resorted to Putin to maintain his regime. By that time, Russia has started taking advantage of its position by signing the 2013 “Amrit contract which is an unprecedented huge agreement with a Russian company, for oil and gas exploration in the Syrian territorial waters.

 It is a 25-year contract which includes the exploration of 2190 square kilometres at a cost of $ 100 million, funded by Russia. If oil or gas is discovered in commercial quantities, Moscow will recover the costs from the production revenues, according to what the Director-General of the General Petroleum Corporation of the regime’s government, Ali Abbas, claimed to AFP.

 After the Russian military intervention, the two sides have signed agreements in various fields, including two agreements worth 600 and 250 million Euros, in 2016, in order to repair the infrastructure that has been destroyed by the “battle”, as well as the construction of power stations and grain silos. Thus “the Syrian market has become open to Russian companies which can be present, join, and play an important role in the reconstruction and investment in Syria,” according to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, in an interview with Sputnik Russian news agency in April.

 On June 29, the Russian Fontanka Electronic Network published a memorandum of cooperation which Europolis Russian Company signed with the Syrian Ministry of Oil and Mineral Recourses earlier this year. The memorandum states that the company is committed to “liberate and protect areas that contain oil wells and facilities,” in return of getting one quarter of oil production.

 Since early June, a Russian company, owned by billionaire Gennady Timchenko, has been carrying out maintenance work for the largest phosphate mines in Syria, located in Khunayfis region near the city of Palmyra, according to a report published by Russia Today website on June 27.

 Russia Today article confirmed that al-Assad signed the agreement on April 23. The agreement was between the General Organization for Geology and Mineral Resources of Syria and STNG Logestic, a subsidiary of Story Trans Gas, which owns 31% of the company. This agreement was aimed at implementing the maintenance needed and providing protection, production, and transport services to Selaata port in Lebanon.
Moreover, Russia intervened in the field of Syrian food and became the country with the most exports of wheat, which is considered as a strategic product. Internal Trade and Consumer Protection Minister, Abdullah al-Gharbi, announced an agreement to buy three million tons of wheat from Russia in September.

 Moreover, Russian company, SovEcon, will build four grain mills in Homs at a cost of 70 million Euros. The Syrian government will be the one covering the construction costs, according to what Ziad Balla, Director General of General Mills Company, said in April 2016. Ziad also talked about a cooperative work with the Iranian side is done in order to build and prepare five mills in many provinces.

 Economist Munaff Kuman asserted that the contracts and agreements between Russia and Syria will have devastating effects on the Syrian economy on the long run, as it will tie up the economy and the future Syrian government and will prevent it from taking any developmental steps that may lead to the autonomy of national decision and the ability to invest Syria’s natural resources.

 Kuman also asserted that “any development process will collide with Russia and Iran, which will prevent the whole process”. (Tehran also signed several agreements with the regime)

 The researcher stressed the seriousness of contracts relating to the exploitation of oil ports and the right to prospect for oil and gas and phosphate and extract it, because it will be stolen for the benefit of Russia and Iran. The two countries will work on “sucking the wealth” without taking into account any national interests of the Syrians. Russian companies may also sell oil, gas, and phosphate extracted from Syrian territory at high prices, and this will have negative effects on the government and the citizen in terms of costs and prices in the local market.'

The change in the field control map in Syria between 2016 and 2017 (Enab Baladi)

The Tragic Legacy of Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently

 'Nearly two years ago, I met a group of young Syrian journalists at a dive bar around Times Square. We spoke for hours, and their stories of human cruelty were detailed and beyond appalling. These were all refugees from the city of Raqqa and, in concert with other young men and women who were still living in Syria, they formed the core of Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, a kind of underground reporting squadron, citizen journalists who, at tremendous risk to their lives, used every possible tool to smuggle out to the world words and images describing life under Isis rule. Foreign journalists found that their reports were as reliable as they were sickening. On their Web site, the R.B.S.S. journalists posted reports of mass shootings, crucifixions, beheadings, sexual abuse, and other crimes. These brave reporters, who have been honored by the Committee to Protect Journalists and portrayed in Matthew Heineman’s excellent documentary, “City of Ghosts,” worked under constant threat of death; ten of their colleagues, friends and family members, both inside Raqqa and in Turkey, were hunted down by Isis forces and executed for the crime of committing journalism.

 When news came this week that Isis had been flushed out of Raqqa by coalition air strikes, I called Abdalaziz Alhamza, perhaps the most eloquent of the young men and women I met that night in Times Square. He and I came to know each other at other events, and it was immediately clear to me that he was feeling no sense of relief, gratitude, or liberation.

 “How are you?”

 “Pretty terrible,” he said. “This is a liberation in the media. Not in Raqqa.” Alhamza felt no immediate sense of relief or happiness. His city was in ruins. He and everyone he knew had lost friends and family. After speaking on the phone, we decided to have a conversation by e-mail and what follows are his responses to my questions, edited for clarity and space, about his life and about Raqqa, its tragedy, and its future.

 Life in Raqqa before the war was as normal as any city in the world. We had schools, universities, parks, bars, and cafés, though, of course, Raqqa was not a big city like Aleppo or Damascus. Raqqa was a somewhat forgotten city even though it has oil and gas and an agricultural base. The Euphrates and the dams there provide the country with much of its electricity.

 “I was born in Raqqa and I came from a middle-class family. I didn’t really want for anything in my life at all. As a child and as a teen-ager, I had a good life. Before the revolution started, in 2011, I was a college student. I hung out with my friends, stole a little money from my dad. Basically, I wasn’t doing anything all that useful. But when the revolution began, my friends started telling me about politics in Syria, about the first demonstrations in the country. They talked about how the government denied us freedom of expression and civil rights, about how people who spoke out were killed or ‘disappeared.’ The Assad family had already been in power for more than forty years. They said we could be a great country, but we aren’t.

 “And so I joined early the many Syrians who began asking for basic freedoms. But the regime reacted to the demonstrations by killing civilians. We saw that the regime had to end. The international community reacted to all of this with little more than speeches. The Assad regime prevented most of media organizations from entering Syria and covering what was going on. Local television just showed banal programs, like documentaries about animals and things like that.

 “So I decided to go to the next demonstration and take video footage and upload it all on social media. That film was picked up by various media organizations. That’s really how I turned into an activist and a citizen journalist. My friends and I decided to get together and establish a Facebook page to report the news and provide what we call ‘local co-ordination.’ We organized and called on people to come to demonstrations, day after day.

 “Because of these activities, I was arrested three times and tortured. The methods of torture that I went through, and so many others went through, included electric shock; whippings; solitary confinement for five, six days at a time in a tiny, windowless toilet stall.

 “In March, 2013, troops from al-Nusra [an Al Qaeda-allied jihadist group] and the Free Syrian Army pushed out the Syrian-government loyalists. For the next half year or more, we enjoyed a period when we could work freely and walk in the streets carrying revolutionary flags. Raqqa had more than forty civil-society organizations. I was helping to run an organization that was involved in education, and, along with my friends and comrades, we were able to re-open universities and the schools.

 “Isis began to take control of the city in January, 2014. They closed Christian churches and Shia mosques. They committed countless human-rights violations, the first being a public execution that I witnessed with many others. The reaction of people in Raqqa at first was to demonstrate against Isis. Because I took part in that, I came under investigation. I was interrogated by Isis five times.

 “When Isis took over complete control of the city, in mid-January, 2014, they came to my house to arrest me because I was covering the clashes between them and the rebels. I was just incredibly lucky that I wasn’t home when they came. I realized that I could no longer stay in Raqqa. At first, I thought I could stay in the city and live underground, but I was facing the threat of execution and I fled across the border to Turkey.

“When I arrived in Turkey, I kept hearing how Isis’s human-rights violations were increasing by the day. And so, in April, 2014, my colleagues, inside of Raqqa and outside, decided to start R.B.S.S. in order to report on the realities of what was going on. We also supported awareness campaigns in the most dangerous Isis strongholds: we used graffiti campaigns, we distributed posters. Eventually, we turned out to be the main source of news that was coming from Isis-controlled areas.

“We lost our first colleague in Raqqa because we were communicating through Facebook. We decided to be far more careful and got training on the use of encryption methods. Nevertheless, we lost still more friends, colleagues, and family members. They were arrested, tortured, executed, sometimes beheaded, both in Syria and Turkey. Still, our only weapon to fight Isis was through information and the Internet.

“In July, 2014, I left for Germany. Turkey no longer felt safe. But life in Europe is not so easy, either, not when there are neo-Nazis accusing me and other Syrian refugees of being terrorists!

“We had all hoped to defeat Assad by now and have a free, democratic, and unified Syria. Now I only dream about returning home and rebuilding the country. This generation of Syrians has lost everything. We can only put our hopes in the next generation. We have the resources to be a great country, but it will take a long time.

“In the meantime, R.B.S.S. will keep working, reporting the news, organizing awareness campaigns and workshops, and trying to help rebuild Raqqa. So many children were killed in the fighting. One of the things that Isis did was to target them. They opened tents for children and gave them games and dollars and candy and phones––things that their parents could no longer provide. This is how they recruited children. Even now we have to be aware that Isis will remain a timebomb. They were able to spread their ideology to so many young people in Syria, the region, and throughout the world. It’s so important to fight against this ideology and prevent the new generation being radicalized. R.B.S.S. is out of money and if you go to our Web site and donate something, you will be helping.

“You have to realize this: I am not happy. How could I be? It is true that Isis is defeated now in Raqqa. But ninety per cent of the city is destroyed, there is rubble everywhere. Thousands have been killed. Hundreds of thousands are living in miserable conditions. People are sleeping outdoors in the desert heat. They are lucky if they have a tent.

“When I tell people that the media are celebrating the ‘liberation of Raqqa,’ they are upset. Some of them say, ‘Fuck the media. Fuck isis. And fuck everyone else.’ You have to understand, there is no one from Raqqa who didn’t lose a family member, a friend, a neighbor, a beloved person. I lost my uncle. Everywhere I’ve ever lived there is gone.

“Understand: my people have been living under the worst conditions in the world and under the most brutal group, Isis. We faced constant human-rights violations for years. We faced air strikes, shelling. Human beings deserve a better life.

“According to my sources in Raqqa, most Isis fighters left the city before the final battle started. Isis used civilians as human shields. People reported that as they were fleeing the city during the air strikes, they could hear children, women, and men shouting from under the rubble, but they couldn’t do anything to help them. People cannot quite believe that they are alive. And those that did get out left behind family members, friends, who were killed.

“People told me that when the international coalition started bombing Raqqa, in 2015, the air strikes were targeted at Isis fighters, at their headquarters and their vehicles. They knew that being home was not a problem, they would be safe. They did fear Russian air strikes and Assad’s forces. But then the strategy of the coalition seemed to change; the strikes seemed more random, less accurate. They felt that the main goal was only to get rid of Isis without caring enough about thousands of civilians who are living there.

“It’s been three and a half years since I have been back home. I hope I have a future in Syria. But the city is now facing new problems, more human-rights violations. And R.B.S.S. has to go on exposing these violations and help prevent the explosion of an ideological timebomb. We don’t know who will control the city in the end. Raqqa will be liberated only when its people will be able to go back to their houses and live their lives as free men and free women.” '

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