Thursday, September 24, 2015

What Might Putin Do in Syria?

What will Russia do in Syria?  The question is impossible to answer even for Putin, because even he cannot reliably predict the future. Every move he makes, not only in Syria but everywhere, carries calculated risk. And the risk-reward calculus is an ever-changing target. Marvin Kalb offers this during last night's interview with Margaret Warner on PBS Newshour.
Vladimir Putin is a Russian czar. He’s kind of a mix of Peter the Great and Stalin. He’s got both in his veins. And he looks out first and foremost for the national security interests of Russia.
Listen closely to this interview and let the question of what might Putin do in Syria play in the background...

I was made aware of The Soufan Group by one of my Twitter contacts who monitors their analyses. The links below are all internal to that group's assessments, but all I have checked appear to be timely and accurate. And there is nothing secret here. This information is widely available from ordinary news sources.

This brief from The Soufan Group does not mention Putin (oddly since it is dated yesterday) but the analysis of Assad and Syria rings true. Reading between the lines, it is clear that Assad's moves are anything but random. Like Putin, he makes cold-blooded calculations about what best serves his interests. His risk-reward formula may look strange from outside, but his use of barrel bombs is targeted,not random. See the highlighted portion below.
For decades, the maintenance of autocratic regimes in the Middle East has been an exercise in popular bribery—and the Assad regime was no different. Before the start of the war, the Syrian economy was centered on a strong state, and designed in such a way so as to benefit those close to the government—primarily the Alawite elite—over all others. The remainder of the population was largely supported by government redistribution of resources in the form of subsidies, especially for fuel and food. The central government kept unemployment levels relatively low through its support for the agricultural sector, and through a bloated public sector. 
By the beginning of the protests in 2011, this artificial system had begun to crumble. Between 2006 and 2011, a severe drought crippled the agricultural sector, which accounted for 22.93 percent of Syrian GDP in 2009. In some regions of the country, as much as 60 percent of arable land and 85 percent of livestock were affected, and 800,000 agricultural workers lost their jobs. The subsequent rise in food prices removed a central cog of the popular complacency mechanisms that the Assad government had constructed, and the calculus for the general population changed. Without the support of subsidies, fear of the regime was no longer sufficient to prevent popular unrest. 
Now, after four years of war, both the government and the opposition forces find themselves facing a similar dilemma: how to maintain control of territory and resources while providing for the civilian populations under their control. The Syrian economy has been devastated by the war, and the current battleground is as much about economics as it is about politics. Oil resources—always important in conflict—are strategically vital to both the opposition and the regime. As the war drags on, control of agricultural resources has become increasingly important for the sustainability of each side. Control of border crossings is also critical, particularly for opposition forces along the northern border with Turkey
The Syrian government, for its part, has a distinct economic advantage over the opposition groups. The Assad regime remains in control of the central governance structure that ran the country before the war. Central banks are still functioning—albeit with dwindling reserves—and much of the bureaucratic structure is still operational, even in areas controlled by the rebels. The provision of services is significantly more consistent in regime-held areas than in rebel-held areas, helping to maintain popular loyalty in those territories. 
Before the war, Damascus and Aleppo were the economic powerhouses of Syria. Though Aleppo is now partially under rebel control, government air power has essentially destroyed any manufacturing capacity in rebel-held areas, preventing the opposition from generating revenue or providing for its own forces. The regime forces have done the same in rebel-held Idlib, which lies on key routes to Turkey and to the coast. The indiscriminate nature of Syrian government bombardment serves two central purposes: to drive out civilian populations, and to destroy any infrastructure that the opposition forces could use to support themselves. 
In addition, the highly publicized territorial losses of the regime have often been strategic, rather than acts of desperation. Though the regime only controls roughly 50 percent of the territory in Syria, the areas it does hold are vital to its sustainability. The Assad regime still controls much of the most productive agricultural land in the country, especially along the coast and the western border with Lebanon. Though it has lost the majority of the border with Turkey, the regime maintains one strategic beachhead at the border town of Qamishli, northeast of regime-held al-Hasakah. 
Of the rebel groups operating within Syria, the Islamic State has arguably the strongest economic base, drawn primarily from oil revenue generated from captured fields in both Syria and Iraq. In Syria, the Islamic State controls the majority of the oil producing regions, providing it with a key strategic resource and a ready supply of cash from black market oil and gas sales. The Islamic State also controls a key agricultural corridor along the Euphrates, from Raqqa all the way to the Iraqi border. While the loss of these oil producing regions have hurt the Assad regime, continued support from Iran—and to a lesser extent, Russia—has allowed the regime to cover the energy shortfall, albeit at a higher cost. 
Other rebel groups have developed their own strategies for acquiring key resources, to include: seizing cash reserves from state banks; looting captured government bases; selling industrial equipment; and kidnapping for ransom. However, the majority of economic support for rebel groups continues to come from foreign supporters, whether in the Gulf, Turkey, or the West. This reliance on foreign aid—and the necessity of maintaining control of border crossings in order to smuggle resources in—makes the economic base for the rebel groups significantly more tenuous. While the Assad regime has suffered severe setbacks since the start of the war, its economic base remains more stable. The Syrian government has, in many ways, adopted a siege mentality, and the Assad regime and its international allies are prepared for a long winter.
Two conclusions are clear. First, the Syrian diaspora is fueled deliberately, at least by Assad and possibly by Russia.  Those who are leaving may or may not have been loyal to Assad, but all happened to live in areas targeted for destruction by the conflict. Second, by reducing the number of bona fide loyalists, Assad is in effect rationing a shrinking source of resources, both financial and material, retaining only what he needs for survival.

How Putin puzzles into this quagmire has yet to be seen, but hopefully he will see the destruction of ISIS to be in his long-term best interests. Ultimately, of course, all parties will benefit from any cease-fire leading to peace, but that remains a fantasy at this point. Meantime, I found this at Soufan. 
The Islamic State cannot be bled to death but it can strangled; in part by denying the group fresh foreign fighters.

September 30, 2015

Events of the last twenty-four hours illustrate why I am opposed to military actions as a means of conflict resolution. The outcome may indicate which side or coalition are more powerful, but not which are right. One reality governs the outcome -- which side is victorious.
Russia has now joined the conflict involving Syria, ISIS, Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Kurdistan. That makes seven recognized entities, not counting the US and a dukes mixture of groups trying to replace Assad, despite whatever chaos that would add to an already multifaceted conflict.

ISIS is the fountain of a conflict involving the other players, all of which share the common goal of destroying ISIS. That aim, the destruction of ISIS, is the only unifying force.If ISIS magically vanished overnight, however, that unifying goal would quickly give way to squabbling among this "accidental army" with each seeking a status quo ante, with rewards added for good work.

For insane reasons the president is being criticized for extricating America from this mess. Not counting centuries of shifting empires and tribal fighting, the roots of this conflict go back as far as World War One and involve a multitude of languages, religions and cultural traditions. And it's not an exaggeration to suggest that Syria, though we think of it as a single country, is a microcosm of several of these linguistic, religious and cultural groups.

So today Russian air strikes are reported in Syria, but not at targets known to be ISIS. In other words, Russia is protecting Assad by taking out rebel groups opposing him. If Assad did the same thing (or worse, using barrel bombs) he would be condemned for "killing his own people." Never mind, of course, that "his own people" are trying to destroy him. And I have heard at least one news report calling them "our allies."

Let's get something straight. Russia cannot be expected to do what the US has failed to do -- juggling multiple conflicts at once, hoping somehow it all works out. From where I stand it appears Putin is systematically doing one task at a time. And if he succeeds in emasculating ISIS (which is a long shot) he will get credit for succeeding where the US failed. 

As for Assad "killing his own people" my guess is that targeted military strikes are preferable to barrel bombs. [Wrong. See my note below.]   Prior to the Russian arrival I had an irrational wish that barrel bombs might stop since every barrel bomb is a gift to ISIS, and a Russian presence might be reassuring to Assad.  Reality, however, is more savage. Putin is a tyrant, too. It takes one to know one. He and Assad are BFF.

Update, a day or two later...
I was wrong about my layman's guess about the difference between barrel bombs and sophisticated air strikes.  An NPR reporter says people in the dangerous areas have adapted to the approach and destructive results of Assad's planes. They can be heard coming and people have learned to take cover, sometimes in underground shelters dug for that purpose. When the bombs are finished they then come out to resume their activities ("buying tomatoes" or other activities, for example). But the Russian planes are so high they cannot often be heard, and the strikes are sudden, severe and unexpected. Sophisticated air strikes are apparently far more terrible than barrel bombs.

September 28, 2015

WASHINGTON: In keeping with its increasingly aggressive behavior over the past two years, Russia is deploying lethal and long-ranged anti-aircraft defenses to keep Western forces out of three key regions: the Baltics, the Black Sea, and, now, the Levant. From where NATO’s top commander Gen. Philip Breedlove sits, the Russian forces flowing into Syria don’t look like counter-terrorists out to stop the Islamic State, which Vladimir Putin has said is his highest priority. They look like the first pieces of a layered “anti-access/area denial” system that could complicate US and allied operations in Syria and well beyond.

“Anti-access/area denial, or A2/AD, is a growing problem,” Gen. Breedlove told the German Marshall Fund this afternoon, speaking just hours before Putin’s teeth-clenched meeting with President Obama on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.

The northernmost danger zone or “bubble” is the oldest, based out of the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad between Poland and Lithuania. “Kaliningrad is a large platform for A2/AD capability,” Breedlove said. His subordinates Gen. Frank Gorenc and Lt. Gen. Ben Hodgeshave warned taht Kaliningrad-based missiles reach well into Polish airspace and could shut down NATO reinforcements to the Baltics in a crisis.

To the south, by contrast, Russia lacked a suitable forward base — until last year. “[Since] their occupation of Crimea, Russia has developed a very strong A2/AD capability in the Black Sea,” Breedlove said. “Essentially, their [anti-ship] cruise missiles range the entire Black Sea, and their air defense missiles range about 40 to 50 percent of the Black Sea.”

Now, it seems, comes Syria. “As we see these very capable air defense [systems] beginning to show up in Syria, we’re a little worried about another A2/AD bubble being created in the Eastern Mediterranean,” Breedlove said. “We see some very sophisticated air defenses going into these airfields. We see some very sophisticated air-to-air [fighter] aircraft going into these airfields.”

The Islamic State has no air force that Russia might use such sophisticated anti-aircraft weapons to counter, Breedlove continued. “These very sophisticated air defense capabilities are not about ISIL,” he argued, despite Putin’s publicly stated priorities.

Based on the military forces Russia is actually putting in place, Breedlove said, he believes Putin’s top priority is to protect Russian access to airfields and warm water seaports in the Eastern Mediterranean. The second priority, in service to the first, is to prop up Russia’s host, the Assad regime. Then third, he said, “After all of that, I think that they will do some counter-ISIL work to legitimize their approach to Syria.”

So what can NATO do about these expanding bubbles of no-go zones? First of all, in the Baltic and the Black Seas today, the alliance’s force can just go there, Breedlove said “to contest that they are not forbidden spaces” but international airspace and waters. Second, in case the shooting starts, it needs to invest in forces that can break the bubble.

“As an alliance, we need to step back and take a look at our capability in a military sense to address an A2/AD challenge,” Breedlove said. “This is about investment. This is about training.”

That investment must be across the board, Breedlove emphasized. “We have made great progress since Wales [i.e. the alliance’s 2014 summit],” he said. “We have increased the readiness and responsiveness of our NRF [NATO Response Force] and certainly the VJTF [Very High Readiness Joint Task Force]. We have given the SACEUR back authorities to alert and stage forces, etcetera….. but it’s not enough.”

“What really deters, I think, that is we increase the readiness and responsiveness of the entireNATO force structure,” Breedlove said, not just elite quick-reaction units like the NRF and VJTF. “We have to get to these investments, exercises, and training scenarios that raise the responsiveness and readiness of the whole force.”

Barack Obama was elected and re-elected in large part because a critical mass of Americans were and are opposed to sending US troops into foreign conflicts. As in many other matters (firearms safety, abortion and women's rights, response to climate change, the role of religion in public life, federal vs state powers of government, educational metrics and expectations) the public has been deeply polarized by a toxic mixture of partisan politics, the ability of vast fortunes to shape reporting narratives and a communications-industrial complex with three or four near monopoly players laced together with trans-national corporate and banking enterprises. 

Added to this picture is a presidential/Congressional election putting incumbents on pins and needles and challenger candidates into attack mode. Policy and position statements are larded with escape clauses and layers of plausible deniability, and even then armies of spinmeisters shape virtually any casual remark into whatever damning or supportive contour fits their particular agenda. 

The president advocates regime change in Syria putting him at odds with Putin who recognizes Assad as the legitimate head of state and all who oppose him as terrorists. One man's rebel is another man's traitor and it's hard to discern the difference when all blood, bullets and artillery look the same on the battlefield. Dead children might be the victims of a savage monster or the unfortunate collateral damage of legitimate targeting, depending on who makes the judgement. But in either case they are equally dead. And in the bitterest irony of all, American-made instruments of war are serving all sides of this conflict, having been donated, traded, sold, resold or captured -- or whatever provenance each might have. 

Now comes China...
China’s military advisers ‘heading to Syria to help fight ISIS’ – report

Russian President Vladimir Putin was recently asked about Russia’s presence in Syria, to which he replied that Russia’s activities are limited to supplying weapons to the Syrian government, training personnel and providing humanitarian aid for the Syrian people.

“We act based on the United Nations Charter, i.e. the fundamental principles of modern international law, according to which this or that type of aid, including military assistance, can and must be provided exclusively to the legitimate government of one country or another, upon its consent or request, or upon the decision of the United Nations Security Council,” Putin told CBS’s ‘60 Minutes’ show.

Putin reiterated his support for Syria’s regular army – the army of President Bashar Assad. “He [Assad] is confronted with what some of our international partners interpret as an opposition. In reality, Assad’s army is fighting against terrorist organizations,” Putin said.

Russia’s president added that US attempts to train a Syrian opposition to take on Islamic State have failed. The US had aimed to prepare up to 12,000 fighters, but only 60 managed to complete the training and only four or five actually fought with the opposition, while others fled to IS with American weapons, Putin said, citing US Senate hearings.
“In my opinion, provision of military support to illegal structures runs counter to the principles of modern international law and the United Nations Charter,” he said.
Back in December, 2014, China offered to help Iraq in fighting Islamic State militants, volunteering to assist with airstrikes, but said it would not join the US-led coalition against ISIS.

In one of the latest atrocities committed by IS, the terror group used an online magazine to post pictures of two hostages, one Norwegian and one Chinese, putting the men up “for sale.”


[Web translation -- make of it what you will]

Sheikh al-Sham readers:  Jihad today to impose my eyes Baham Vlijahd each according to his ability, and I call upon Muslim scholars to declare jihad ...

Page Mujahid Sheikh Karim Rajeh
to Jihad !! ...
the name of God the Merciful
to Jihad ...
neighborhood on the Commission presented the heavens and the earth .. 

[O ye who believe! Fight those who Iloncm of the infidels and to find harshness in you]
[those who believe and migrated and struggled in the way of Allah with their wealth and themselves the greatest degree of God. And those are the winners] 

O Muslims everywhere, no longer a secret to a what Ebih unbelievers of cunning and deception and the power they prepared for us, and here they are Russians entering Syria Bakdahm and Qdeidahm and their flight kill and destroy, and cunning Americans and Western countries from behind .. and here they are they activate the Persians predecessors in entry Syria Ieithoa havoc, killing and sabotage, and here is Iraq destroyed before, and here they are treacherous rulers give them tincture of legitimacy - as they claim - in entering our country, though they called them to enter under the false cover of the legitimacy of their law. 

What I heard that the governor calling for the occupation of his country by the ruler of Syria .. Amazing to see and hear it !! And the whole world sees and hears, and we are in the era of human rights, and any such person and any rights to him !! And the rights of dogs in the world enemy that sabotages our homes greatest of human rights in the Arab countries, in Syria, in Iraq, in Palestine, in Yemen, in other of our countries. 

This in any case their business and their law as they claim, what is our business and our law are we?
We are the people speak and act according to our energy, and our rulers, we curse God and the angels and all the people understand .. traitors who have betrayed God and His Messenger, and the nation and peoples. And I say and issue fatwas including said scholars, and said scholars? 

They said: (If the infidels entered the town from a Muslim country - and here they are Russians entered Syria and before them the Persians enemies of Islam - and encamped close to her jihad to impose on them, they shall be the people of that country pay the infidels as they can, even if This obligatory includes boys and women, If he can not the people of that country get them moved obligatory to the nearest country of them, and so that the reign obligatory Muslims as a whole, they struggled Vmak, otherwise Baa angrily all of God, the enemy infidel and enabled from their necks and their country and their money and their women and their faith. 

I say: infidels; because it has become today a blatant, it is a war against Islam and Muslims and their country and their money not Shi only because they are Muslims, and Muslims only .. war carried out by the mixtures: Alawites, Shiites, Russians, Europeans, secular, Majnon .. and the Russians are doing a holy war, as you say their church .. If it is a war between infidelity and Islam, between polytheism and monotheism, between the devil and the Muslims .. Oaraftm you gawk of Arabs and non-Arabs who owed ​​the infidels allegiance ??. 

I therefore address the rulers honest people, and peoples vanquished, and the general Muslims that jihad has become an obligation in kind on Muslims . 

Jihad wider than the fighting, and fighting is part of jihad, it is as much as arms Vlijahd weapons, or pen Fbkulm, or tongue Fballsan, or money Fbalmal, or stone Fbahadjr, or nail Fbalozafar, or boycott of all kinds Fbalmqatah .. Vlijahd all what God gave him from scientific or material or physical ability or otherwise ... and we have to start with those rulers who Tgam devoid of honor and religion and patriotism. And here Jerusalem go and received the blessing of the Holy rulers who claim they are Arabs and that they belong to Islam. 

The Shiites Fmqatathm and jihad is the duty because they are sowing evil, and led the aggression and support.
I declared Jihad and Ojoppe at all levels and Juba in kind on every Muslim, and I hope that Lefty Muslim Scholars and their synagogues should be Jihad for the sake of God, and that the move in the countries of the entire world .. and he pointed out on the right dumb devil. 

Mohammad Karim Rajeh / Sheikh readers Sham

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