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INDOMITABLE: The Faces of Kobani

Photo by Aviram Valdman, The Tower Magazine
 

All photos by Aviram Valdman
Originally published in The Tower Magazine, November 2014

 

FOR WEEKS, the eyes of the world have turned to the small Syrian border town of Kobani, where Kurdish fighters are making a desperate stand against the barbaric terrorist army of the Islamic State, known to the world as ISIS. Despite the well-known savagery of ISIS, its repeated attempts at breaking through the town’s defenses, and limited aid from Western powers, Kobani has not fallen. Fearing mass slaughter if they are defeated, Kurdish forces have kept up a relentless defense, and just last week Kurdish reinforcements were finally allowed across the nearby Turkish border to join the battle. Many believe that the tide is turning, and ISIS is slowly being pushed back from the beleaguered town.

But this has come at a terrible price. Casualties have been enormous, with Kurdish fighters and civilians killed in battle, slaughtered en masse by their murderous enemy, beheaded by barbaric captors, or forced into exile in order to escape the fighting.

Photographer Aviram Valdman recently saw the horror of the situation firsthand. Refused entrance into Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq, he found himself in the Turkish town of Suruç. Barely 200 meters from the Syrian border and besieged Kobani, Suruç is now inundated with refugees—somewhere between 150-250,000 men, women, and children who have left everything behind, including loved ones both living and dead.

In Suruç, Valdman witnessed a scene of desperation. The streets are awash with people, living and sleeping wherever they can. Many of them stand on the border, nearly hysterical as they watch and listen to the ongoing battle for their town, wondering if those they left behind will survive.

And the city is in the grip of near-inconceivable fear. Many refugees refused Valdman’s requests for photographs, afraid that, if they are published, they or their loved ones will be murdered by ISIS in retaliation. Many of them have good reason to be afraid, with friends and relatives who have been captured, tortured, or killed by the Islamist terror group.

On the border, Valdman also caught a glimpse of the battle itself. Only a short distance away, bombs explode, gunfire erupts, and clouds of smoke spiral into the not-so distant sky. The meaning of such images is clear: This is not the movies. This is not television. This war is real. ISIS is slaughtering, the Kurds are fighting, refugees are fleeing, and the world is watching.

 
For higher resolution viewing, click individual images. To view the complete set of images, see link to original source materials at bottom of page.
Photo: Kobani - Aviram Valdman

Photo: Kobani – Aviram Valdman

 

Photo: Kobani - Aviram Valdman

Photo: Kobani – Aviram Valdman

 

Photo: Kobani - Aviram Valdman

Photo: Kobani – Aviram Valdman

 

Photo: Kobani - Aviram Valdman

Photo: Kobani – Aviram Valdman

 

Photo: Kobani - Aviram Valdman

Photo: Kobani – Aviram Valdman

 

Photo: Kobani - Aviram Valdman

Photo: Kobani – Aviram Valdman

 

Photo: Kobani - Aviram Valdman

Photo: Kobani – Aviram Valdman

 

Photo: Kobani - Aviram Valdman

Photo: Kobani – Aviram Valdman

 

Photo: Kobani - Aviram Valdman

Photo: Kobani – Aviram Valdman

 

Photo: Kobani - Aviram Valdman

Photo: Kobani – Aviram Valdman

 

Banner Photo: Aviram Valdman / The Tower
Source: http://www.thetower.org/article/photos-faces-of-kobanis-horror-stricken-refugees/

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Stratfor: Turkey, the Kurds and Iraq: The Prize and Peril of Kirkuk

Originally published: TUESDAY, OCTOBER 7, 2014 – 03:00

By Reva Bhalla
Stratfor Global Intelligence

In June 1919, aboard an Allied warship en route to Paris, sat Damat Ferid Pasha, the Grand Vizier of a crumbling Ottoman Empire. The elderly statesman, donning an iconic red fez and boasting an impeccably groomed mustache, held in his hands a memorandum that he was to present to the Allied powers at the Quai d’Orsay. The negotiations on postwar reparations started five months earlier, but the Ottoman delegation was prepared to make the most of its tardy invitation to the talks. As he journeyed across the Mediterranean that summer toward the French shore, Damat Ferid mentally rehearsed the list of demands he would make to the Allied powers during his last-ditch effort to hold the empire together.

He began with a message, not of reproach, but of inculpability: “Gentlemen, I should not be bold enough to come before this High Assembly if I thought that the Ottoman people had incurred any responsibility in the war that has ravaged Europe and Asia with fire and sword.” His speech was followed by an even more defiant memorandum, denouncing any attempt to redistribute Ottoman land to the Kurds, Greeks and Armenians, asserting: “In Asia, the Turkish lands are bounded on the south by the provinces of Mosul and Diyarbakir, as well as a part of Aleppo as far as the Mediterranean.” When Damat Ferid’s demands were presented in Paris, the Allies were in awe of the gall displayed by the Ottoman delegation. British Prime Minister David Lloyd George regarded the presentation as a “good joke,” while U.S. President Woodrow Wilson said he had never seen anything more “stupid.” They flatly rejected Damat Ferid’s apparently misguided appeal — declaring that the Turks were unfit to rule over other races, regardless of their common Muslim identity — and told him and his delegation to leave. The Western powers then proceeded, through their own bickering, to divide the post-Ottoman spoils.

Under far different circumstances today, Ankara is again boldly appealing to the West to follow its lead in shaping policy in Turkey’s volatile Muslim backyard. And again, Western powers are looking at Turkey with incredulity, waiting for Ankara to assume responsibility for the region by tackling the immediate threat of the Islamic State with whatever resources necessary, rather than pursuing a seemingly reckless strategy of toppling the Syrian government. Turkey’s behavior can be perplexing and frustrating to Western leaders, but the country’s combination of reticence in action and audacity in rhetoric can be traced back to many of the same issues that confronted Istanbul in 1919, beginning with the struggle over the territory of Mosul.

The Turkish Fight for Mosul

Under the Ottoman Empire, the Mosul vilayet stretched from Zakho in southeastern Anatolia down along the Tigris River through Dohuk, Arbil, Alqosh, Kirkuk, Tuz Khormato and Sulaimaniyah before butting up against the western slopes of the Zagros Mountains, which shape the border with Iran. This stretch of land, bridging the dry Arab steppes and the fertile mountain valleys in Iraqi Kurdistan, has been a locus of violence long before the Islamic State arrived. The area has been home to an evolving mix of Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen, Yazidis, Assyro-Chaldeans and Jews, while Turkish and Persian factions and the occasional Western power, whether operating under a flag or a corporate logo, continue to work in vain to eke out a demographic makeup that suits their interests.
At the time of the British negotiation with the Ottomans over the fate of the Mosul region, British officers touring the area wrote extensively about the ubiquity of the Turkish language, noting that “Turkish is spoken all along the high road in all localities of any importance.” This fact formed part of Turkey’s argument that the land should remain under Turkish sovereignty. Even after the 1923 signing of the Treaty of Lausanne, in which Turkey renounced its rights to Ottoman lands, the Turkish government still held out a claim to the Mosul region, fearful that the Brits would use Kurdish separatism to further weaken the Turkish state. Invoking the popular Wilsonian principle of self-determination, the Turkish government asserted to the League of Nations that most of the Kurds and Arabs inhabiting the area preferred to be part of Turkey anyway. The British countered by asserting that their interviews with locals revealed a prevailing preference to become part of the new British-ruled Kingdom of Iraq.

The Turks, in no shape to bargain with London and mired in a deep internal debate over whether Turkey should forego these lands and focus instead on the benefits of a downsized republic, lost the argument and were forced to renounce their claims to the Mosul territory in 1925. As far as the Brits and the French were concerned, the largely Kurdish territory would serve as a vital buffer space to prevent the Turks from eventually extending their reach from Asia Minor to territories in Mesopotamia, Syria and Armenia. But the fear of Turkish expansion was not the only factor informing the European strategy to keep northern Iraq out of Turkish hands.

The Oil Factor

Since the days of Herodotus and Nebuchadnezzar, there have been stories of eternal flames arising from the earth of Baba Gurgur near the town of Kirkuk. German explorer and cartographer Carsten Niebuhr wrote in the 18th century: “A place called Baba Gurgur is above all remarkable because the earth is so hot that eggs and meat can be boiled here.” The flames were in fact produced by the natural gas and naphtha seeping through cracks in the rocks, betraying the vast quantities of crude oil lying beneath the surface. London wasted little time in calling on geologists from Venezuela, Mexico, Romania and Indochina to study the land and recommend sites for drilling. On Oct. 14, 1927, the fate of Kirkuk was sealed: A gusher rising 43 meters (around 140 feet) erupted from the earth, dousing the surrounding land with some 95,000 barrels of crude oil for 10 days before the well could be capped. With oil now part of the equation, the political situation in Kirkuk became all the more flammable.

The British mostly imported Sunni Arab tribesmen to work the oil fields, gradually reducing the Kurdish majority and weakening the influence of the Turkmen minority in the area. The Arabization project was given new energy when the Arab Baath Socialist Party came to power through a military coup in 1968. Arabic names were given to businesses, neighborhoods, schools and streets, while laws were adjusted to pressure Kurds to leave Kirkuk and transfer ownership of their homes and lands to Arabs. Eviction tactics turned ghastly in 1988 under Saddam Hussein’s Anfal campaign, during which chemical weapons were employed against the Kurdish population. The Iraqi government continued with heavy-handed tactics to Arabize the territory until the collapse of the Baathist regime in 2003. Naturally, revenge was a primary goal as Kurdish factions worked quickly to repopulate the region with Kurds and drive the Arabs out.

Even as Kirkuk, its oil-rich fields and a belt of disputed territories stretching between Diyala and Nineveh provinces have remained officially under the jurisdiction of the Iraqi central government in Baghdad, the Kurdish leadership has sought to redraw the boundaries of Iraqi Kurdistan. After the Iraqi Kurdish region gained de facto autonomy with the creation of a no-fly zone in 1991 and then formally coalesced into the Kurdistan Regional Government after the fall of Saddam Hussein, Kurdish influence gradually expanded in the disputed areas. Kurdish representation increased through multi-ethnic political councils, facilitated by the security protection these communities received from the Kurdish peshmerga and by the promise of energy revenues, while Baghdad remained mired in its own problems. Formally annexing Kirkuk and parts of Nineveh and Diyala, part of the larger Kurdish strategy, would come in due time. Indeed, the expectation that legalities of the annexation process would soon be completed convinced a handful of foreign energy firms to sign contracts with the Kurdish authorities — as opposed to Baghdad — enabling the disputed territories to finally begin realizing the region’s energy potential.

Then the unexpected happened: In June, the collapse of the Iraqi army in the north under the duress of the Islamic State left the Kirkuk fields wide open, allowing the Kurdish peshmerga to finally and fully occupy them. Though the Kurds now sit nervously on the prize, Baghdad, Iran, local Arabs and Turkmen and the Islamic State are eyeing these fields with a predatory gaze. At the same time, a motley force of Iran-backed Shiite militias, Kurdish militants and Sunni tribesmen are trying to flush the Islamic State out of the region in order to return to settling the question of where to draw the line on Kurdish autonomy. The Sunnis will undoubtedly demand a stake in the oil fields that the Kurds now control as repayment for turning on the Islamic State, guaranteeing a Kurdish-Sunni confrontation that Baghdad will surely exploit.

The Turkish Dilemma

The modern Turkish government is looking at Iraq and Syria in a way similar to how Damat Ferid did almost a century ago when he sought in Paris to maintain Turkish sovereignty over the region. From Ankara’s point of view, the extension of a Turkish sphere of influence into neighboring Muslim lands is the antidote to weakening Iraqi and Syrian states. Even if Turkey no longer has direct control over these lands, it hopes to at least indirectly re-establish its will through select partners, whether a group of moderate Islamist forces in Syria or, in northern Iraq, a combination of Turkmen and Sunni factions, along with a Kurdish faction such as Kurdistan Regional Government President Massoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party. The United States may currently be focused on the Islamic State, but Turkey is looking years ahead at the mess that will likely remain. This is why Turkey is placing conditions on its involvement in the battle against the Islamic State: It is trying to convince the United States and its Sunni Arab coalition partners that it will inevitably be the power administering this region. Therefore, according to Ankara, all players must conform to its priorities, beginning with replacing Syria’s Iran-backed Alawite government with a Sunni administration that will look first to Ankara for guidance.

However, the Turkish vision of the region simply does not fit the current reality and is earning Ankara more rebuke than respect from its neighbors and the West. The Kurds, in particular, will continue to form the Achilles’ heel of Turkish policymaking.

In Syria, where the Islamic State is closing in on the city of Kobani on Turkey’s border, Ankara is faced with the unsavory possibility that it will be drawn into a ground fight with a well-equipped insurgent force. Moreover, Turkey would be fighting on the same side as a variety of Kurdish separatists, including members of Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which Ankara has every interest in neutralizing.

Turkey faces the same dilemma in Iraq, where it may unwittingly back Kurdish separatists in its fight against the Islamic State. Just as critical, Turkey cannot be comfortable with the idea that Kirkuk is in the hands of the Iraqi Kurds unless Ankara is assured exclusive rights over that energy and the ability to extinguish any oil-fueled ambitions of Kurdish independence. But Turkey has competition. Iraqi President Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan is not willing to make itself beholden to Turkey, as did Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party, while financial pressures continue to climb. Instead, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan is staying close to Iran and showing a preference to work with Baghdad. Meanwhile, local Arab and Turkmen resistance to Kurdish rule is rising, a factor that Baghdad and Iran will surely exploit as they work to dilute Kurdish authority by courting local officials in Kirkuk and Nineveh with promises of energy rights and autonomy.

This is the crowded battleground that Turkey knows well. A long and elaborate game of “keep away” will be played to prevent the Kurds from consolidating control over oil-rich territory in the Kurdish-Arab borderland, while the competition between Turkey and Iran will emerge into full view. For Turkey to compete effectively in this space, it will need to come to terms with the reality that Ankara will not defy its history by resolving the Kurdish conundrum, nor will it be able to hide within its borders and avoid foreign entanglements.

 
 
Turkey, the Kurds and Iraq: The Prize and Peril of Kirkuk is republished with permission of Stratfor.
 
 

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Stratfor: Terrorism as Theater

Originally published: WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 27, 2014 – 03:55

By Robert D. Kaplan

The beheading of American journalist James Foley by the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq was much more than an altogether gruesome and tragic affair: rather, it was a very sophisticated and professional film production deliberately punctuated with powerful symbols. Foley was dressed in an orange jumpsuit reminiscent of the Muslim prisoners held by the United States at Guantanamo Bay. He made his confession forcefully, as if well rehearsed. His executioner, masked and clad in black, made an equally long statement in a calm, British accent, again, as if rehearsed. It was as if the killing was secondary to the message being sent.

The killing, in other words, became merely the requirement to send the message. As experts have told me, there are more painful ways to dispatch someone if you really hate the victim and want him to suffer. You can burn him alive. You can torture him. But beheading, on the other hand, causes the victim to lose consciousness within seconds once a major artery is cut in the neck, experts say. Beheading, though, is the best method for the sake of a visually dramatic video, because you can show the severed head atop the chest at the conclusion. Using a short knife, as in this case, rather than a sword, also makes the event both more chilling and intimate. Truly, I do not mean to be cruel, indifferent, or vulgar. I am only saying that without the possibility of videotaping the event, there would be no motive in the first place to execute someone in such a manner.

In producing a docu-drama in its own twisted way, the Islamic State was sending the following messages:

  • We don’t play by your rules. There are no limits to what we are willing to do.
  • America’s mistreatment of Muslim prisoners at Guantanamo Bay comes with a “price tag,” to quote a recently adopted phrase for retribution killings. After all, we are a state. We have our own enemy combatants as you can see from the video, and our own way of dealing with them.
  • Just because we observe no limits does not mean we lack sophistication. We can be just as sophisticated as you in the West. Just listen to the British accent of our executioner. And we can produce a very short film up to Hollywood standards.
  • We’re not like the drug lords in Mexico who regularly behead people and subsequently post the videos on the Internet. The drug lords deliver only a communal message, designed to intimidate only those people within their area of control. That is why the world at large pays little attention to them; in fact, the world is barely aware of them. By contrast, we of the Islamic State are delivering a global, meta-message. And the message is this: We want to destroy all of you in America, all of you in the West, and everyone in the Muslim world who does not accept our version of Islam.
  • We will triumph because we observe absolutely no constraints. It is because only we have access to the truth that anything we do is sanctified by God.

Welcome to the mass media age. You thought mass media was just insipid network anchormen and rude prime-time hosts interrupting talking heads on cable. It is that, of course. But just as World War I was different from the Franco-Prussian War, because in between came the culmination of the Industrial Age and thus the possibility of killing on an industrial scale, the wars of the 21st century will be different from those of the 20th because of the culmination of the first stage of the Information Age, with all of its visual ramifications.

Passion, deep belief, political protests and so forth have little meaning nowadays if they cannot be broadcast. Likewise, torture and gruesome death must be communicated to large numbers of people if they are to be effective. Technology, which the geeky billionaires of Silicon Valley and the Pacific Northwest claim has liberated us with new forms of self-expression, has also brought us back to the worst sorts of barbarism. Communications technology is value neutral, it has no intrinsic moral worth, even as it can at times encourage the most hideous forms of exhibitionism: to wit, the Foley execution.

We are back to a medieval world of theater, in which the audience is global. Theater, when the actors are well-trained, can be among the most powerful and revelatory art forms. And nothing works in theater as much as symbols which the playwright manipulates. A short knife, a Guantanamo jumpsuit, a black-clad executioner with a British accent in the heart of the Middle East, are, taken together, symbols of power, sophistication, and retribution. We mean business. Are you in America capable of taking us on?

It has been said that the murder of Czar Nicholas II and his family in 1918 in Ekaterinburg by Lenin’s new government was a seminal crime: because if the Bolsheviks were willing to execute not only the Czar but his wife and children, too, they were also capable of murdering en masse. Indeed, that crime presaged the horrors to come of Bolshevik rule. The same might be said of the 1958 murder of Iraqi King Faisal II and his family and servants by military coup plotters, and the subsequent mutilation of the body of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Said by a Baghdad mob — events that presaged decades of increasingly totalitarian rule, culminating in Saddam Hussein. The theatrical murder of James Foley may appear as singular to some; more likely, it presages something truly terrible unfolding in the postmodern Middle East.

To be sure, the worse the chaos, the more extreme the ideology that emerges from it. Something has already emerged from the chaos of Syria and Iraq, even as Libya and Yemen — also in chaos — may be awaiting their own versions of the Islamic State. And remember, above all, what the video communicated was the fact that these people are literally capable of anything.

Terrorism as Theater is republished with permission of Stratfor.”

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Stratfor: Worsening Violence in Iraq Threatens Regional Security

JUNE 11, 2014 | 1615

Courtesy, Stratfor Global Intelligence

Summary

Battles continue to rage across northern Iraq, pitting jihadist group the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant against Iraqi security forces and their allies. The growing reach of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant has escalated an already brutal campaign in Iraq. Alarmingly quick advances by the militants across an important region of the Middle East could draw in regional powers as well as the United States.

Analysis

Using hit-and-run tactics, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, also known as ISIL, has sought to keep Iraqi security forces dispersed and under pressure. ISIL has achieved this by striking at areas where security forces are weak and withdrawing from areas where Baghdad has concentrated its combat power. The jihadists have been working hard to improve their tradecraft by developing skill sets ranging from staging complex ambushes to using Iraqi army equipment effectively in surprise raids. ISIL has also sought to better develop its ties with local Sunni communities.

As far back as the days of al Qaeda in Iraq and its predecessor, Jamaat al-Tawhid and Jihad, founded by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, militancy has had a presence in Anbar province — and indeed in Mosul. During the Iraq War, the U.S. military considered Mosul one of the key gateways for foreign al Qaeda in Iraq fighters to enter the country. ISIL operations in Mosul and the wider Nineveh province are unsurprising. What is surprising is the degree of success that ISIL has managed to achieve in its latest offensive in the region.

ISIL Activity

Click to Enlarge

This success undoubtedly has much to do with local forces and tribes who have either facilitated ISIL or elected not to fight the group’s incursion into Mosul. In a city of almost 2 million, had ISIL received no local sympathy, it would have been unable to rout the Iraqi forces in the area with only 1,000 to 2,000 fighters. Social media contains several reports of local Sunnis welcoming ISIL forces, and even of local fighters supporting ISIL in attacks against government positions.

Furthermore, Iraqi security forces reportedly had around 10,000 personnel in and around Mosul. Despite the ferociousness of the ISIL attack, the fact that a significant portion of these forces fled — abandoning their uniforms, equipment and vehicles — indicates serious structural and morale issues within the force, which could be attributed in part to a high number of Sunni soldiers in the ranks who are unwilling to stand up to ISIL for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Having succeeded in its Mosul operations, ISIL will continue to take advantage of its momentum and push its gains at a time when the Iraqi government is scrambling to recover from significant losses. As well as taking large portions of the city, ISIL militants seized many weapons and military vehicles as well as the contents of Mosul’s central bank. They also freed several thousand prisoners from a local prison, potentially adding more fighters to their cause.

Stretching from the north of Mosul through Tikrit to the south and toward Baghdad along the Tigris River Valley, ISIL is striving to maintain a continuous line of pressure running through what is practically the northern spine of populated Iraq. The Tigris River Valley contains a number of key strategic energy areas, including the oil refinery near Baiji. Although the refinery is still under state control at this time, the areas where ISIL is operating largely match areas where al Qaeda in Iraq was active during the height of the Sunni insurrection in Iraq from 2004-2006. As opposed to a first-time assault or new offensive, ISIL’s actions speak more of a resurgence into historical areas of operations.

As well as continuing to push forward, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant will largely seek to avoid stand-up fights against well-equipped and determined Iraqi army units, though they have held their ground against such forces in Al Fallujah and Ar Ramadi. The wide-ranging, mobile and rapidly dispersed ISIL forces have a key advantage when it comes to maneuvering in battle over the slower, mechanized units of the Iraqi army. While ISIL maximizes its impact against a disorganized Baghdad, the jihadist group seeks to consolidate its control over territory in heavily Sunni areas, where it has already made significant inroads with the local population. Ambitiously, these areas of control could include large portions of the north as well as Anbar Province. More realistically, it would mean greater ISIL presence in the longer term and, in some cases, direct control in Anbar and possibly other provinces such as Nineveh and Salah ad Din. Working toward this goal, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant will continue to focus on its revitalized effort to dismantle the Awakening movement, a coalition of tribal elements that was instrumental in pushing al Qaeda in Iraq out of Anbar the first time, drawing Sunni tribes back into its fold in the process.

The Iraqi army is attempting to contain the ISIL threat that is rapidly spreading into Salah ad Din and Kirkuk provinces. Iraqi forces, supported by allied tribal elements, have reportedly struck back against ISIL outside As Samarra and in Tikrit. A number of Iraqi army units are also supposedly withdrawing from Anbar province, which will further reduce pressure on ISIL-held cities there. These forces are reportedly focusing on the northern approaches to Baghdad, while the Iraqi government is attempting to pull together all reserve units capable of quickly moving to the fight. For all intents and purposes the Iraqi army is overstretched, the geographic dispersion of threats outmatching its resources. This means that Baghdad must prioritize its goals in the fight against ISIL.

Protect the Core

The most important priority for Baghdad right now is to secure its capital and oil infrastructure and begin pushing north to meet ISIL units approaching from Mosul down the Tigris River Valley. This does not mean that the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant can be eradicated from these areas: Small ISIL cells will continue to operate across the region, and indeed in Baghdad itself. It does mean, however, that the Iraqi army will try to disrupt large mobile ISIL columns seeking to raid and to establish control over towns and cities. By concentrating its forces, the Iraqi army campaign in Anbar, especially around Ar Ramadi and Al Fallujah, will inevitably be at a disadvantage as it falls to a level of secondary importance. The campaign to rid Iraq of ISIL, which was never realistic so long as the jihadists held a virtual sanctuary in eastern Syria, becomes even more tenuous over the long term.

Members of the Kurdish Peshmerga force secure an area west of the northern city of Kirkuk, on June 11.

Click to Enlarge

In the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, Baghdad holds a potential advantage, but one which the al-Maliki government has been loath to use so far. This advantage is a greater reliance and cooperation with the Peshmerga (Kurdish security forces) in a combined fight against the jihadists. For political reasons ranging from disputes over territory to energy resources distribution, the central government in Baghdad had sought to maximize its direct control over the north, while minimizing the Kurdish security presence beyond Kurdistan Regional Government-administered areas. With ISIL making alarming gains in the north, it is now far more possible that the central government in Iraq would seek to cooperate with the Peshmerga in a combined push on ISIL in Kirkuk and Mosul. To that end, the Iraqi parliamentary speaker reportedly mentioned the possibility of coordinating with Kurdistan Regional Government President Massoud Barzani. Kurdish Peshmerga forces are reportedly mobilizing in preparation for defensive as well as offensive operations against ISIL.
 

The Bigger Picture

Beyond Iraq, a number of countries are immediately affected by ISIL. The Syrian battle space bleeds heavily into Iraq due to a porous border, accelerated by the almost total collapse of Syrian army border crossing posts. Since January, ISIL has been heavily involved in fighting with more moderate Syrian rebel factions, as well as with Jabhat al Nusra, the official al Qaeda franchise in Syria. As the fighting has worn on, ISIL has gradually released its hold in western Syria and turned its attention to the Raqqah and Deir el-Zour governorates. Deir el-Zour was particularly important for ISIL as it allowed it to maintain a direct supply link with its established presence in western and northern Iraq, especially in Anbar province. Through this supply link, ISIL has been able to transfer experienced foreign fighters and captured Syrian army equipment to Iraq, including vehicles and anti-tank guided munitions. It has also replenished its stock of ammunition and explosives, greatly aiding operations in Iraq.

The Syrian conflict is affected by the ISIL push in Iraq in two ways. The first is that the jihadists may divert large numbers of fighters from Syria to its Iraq push, which would open ISIL to more pressure in Syria. The second impact is the withdrawal of large numbers of Iraqi Shiite militants — men that have been fighting alongside the Syrian army — leaving to concentrate their efforts back home against ISIL. Such a withdrawal would be unpopular in the Syrian regime because it would take away an important source of manpower.

Regional Interest

Ankara is also watching the events in Iraq with considerable attention. Not only are Turkish citizens directly implicated in the conflict, with a number of Turks reportedly seized by ISIL militants, but the Turkish government also maintains an important stake in energy development in northern Iraq. Ankara has long been involved in politics between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government on issues surrounding the delivery of energy. Turkey is also increasingly concerned about the growing reach of ISIL and has already clashed with militants on its border with Syria. Turkey is especially wary of the potential for attacks by ISIL — attacks that would exploit the long border that runs from the Mediterranean to Iran. While Turkey has been hesitant to directly send forces against ISIL in Syria, the fact that the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant has seized large numbers of Turks — including the consulate staff from Mosul — may push Ankara to become more directly involved in the crisis.

Iran has long sustained the regime in Syria, as well as indirectly supporting al-Maliki’s government in its fight against Sunni jihadists in Syria and Iraq. The growing reach of ISIL, and its ever-closer presence to Iran, is sure to raise considerable anxiety in Tehran. Iran can therefore be expected to further bolster its support for al-Maliki as well as for Shiite proxies across Iraq. In supporting al Maliki’s fight, Tehran finds itself very much aligned with Washington.

The United States will avoid sending significant forces back into Iraq, but Washington will ramp up its efforts to contain the ISIL threat by delivering vital equipment such as helicopter gunships, Hellfire missiles, communications equipment, large volumes of small arms and ammunition. This assistance, coupled with a common regional interest to contain the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, will likely contain the threat to northern and western Iraq. Though Iraq’s southern energy corridor will probably be spared, the Sunni belt in central Iraq and the territories disputed between the central government and the Kurdistan Regional Government will face rising sectarian stress, in line with ISIL’s designs for the region.

 

Worsening Violence in Iraq Threatens Regional Security is republished with permission of Stratfor.

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Stratfor: The Geopolitics of the Syrian Civil War

By Reva Bhalla
Stratfor Global Intelligence

International diplomats will gather Jan. 22 in the Swiss town of Montreux to hammer out a settlement designed to end Syria’s three-year civil war. The conference, however, will be far removed from the reality on the Syrian battleground. Only days before the conference was scheduled to begin, a controversy threatened to engulf the proceedings after the United Nations invited Iran to participate, and Syrian rebel representatives successfully pushed for the offer to be rescinded. The inability to agree upon even who would be attending the negotiations is an inauspicious sign for a diplomatic effort that was never likely to prove very fruitful.

There are good reasons for deep skepticism. As Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s forces continue their fight to recover ground against the increasingly fratricidal rebel forces, there is little incentive for the regime, heavily backed by Iran and Russia, to concede power to its sectarian rivals at the behest of Washington, especially when the United States is already negotiating with Iran. Ali Haidar, an old classmate of al Assad’s from ophthalmology school and a long-standing member of Syria’s loyal opposition, now serving somewhat fittingly as Syria’s National Reconciliation Minister, captured the mood of the days leading up to the conference in saying “Don’t expect anything from Geneva II. Neither Geneva II, not Geneva III nor Geneva X will solve the Syrian crisis. The solution has begun and will continue through the military triumph of the state.”

Widespread pessimism over a functional power-sharing agreement to end the fighting has led to dramatic speculation that Syria is doomed either to break into sectarian statelets or, as Haidar articulated, revert to the status quo, with the Alawites regaining full control and the Sunnis forced back into submission. Both scenarios are flawed. Just as international mediators will fail to produce a power-sharing agreement at this stage of the crisis, and just as Syria’s ruling Alawite minority will face extraordinary difficulty in gluing the state back together, there is also no easy way to carve up Syria along sectarian lines. A closer inspection of the land reveals why.

The Geopolitics of Syria

Before the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement traced out an awkward assortment of nation-states in the Middle East, the name Syria was used by merchants, politicians and warriors alike to describe a stretch of land enclosed by the Taurus Mountains to the north, the Mediterranean to the west, the Sinai Peninsula to the south and the desert to the east. If you were sitting in 18th-century Paris contemplating the abundance of cotton and spices on the other side of the Mediterranean, you would know this region as the Levant — its Latin root “levare” meaning “to raise,” from where the sun would rise in the east. If you were an Arab merchant traveling the ancient caravan routes northward from the Hejaz, or modern-day Saudi Arabia, you would have referred to this territory in Arabic as Bilad al-Sham, or the “land to the left” of Islam’s holy sites on the Arabian Peninsula.

Whether viewed from the east or the west, the north or the south, Syria will always find itself in an unfortunate position surrounded by much stronger powers. The rich, fertile lands straddling Asia Minor and Europe around the Sea of Marmara to the north, the Nile River Valley to the south and the land nestled between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers to the east give rise to larger and more cohesive populations. When a power in control of these lands went roaming for riches farther afield, they inevitably came through Syria, where blood was spilled, races were intermixed, religions were negotiated and goods were traded at a frenzied and violent pace.

Consequently, only twice in Syria’s pre-modern history could this region claim to be a sovereign and independent state: during the Hellenistic Seleucid dynasty, based out of Antioch (the city of Antakya in modern-day Turkey) from 301 to 141 B.C., and during the Umayyad Caliphate, based out of Damascus, from A.D. 661 to 749. Syria was often divided or subsumed by its neighbors, too weak, internally fragmented and geographically vulnerable to stand its own ground. Such is the fate of a borderland.

Unlike the Nile Valley, Syria’s geography lacks a strong, natural binding element to overcome its internal fissures. An aspiring Syrian state not only needs a coastline to participate in sea trade and guard against sea powers, but also a cohesive hinterland to provide food and security. Syria’s rugged geography and patchwork of minority sects have generally been a major hindrance to this imperative.

Syria’s long and extremely narrow coastline abruptly transforms into a chain of mountains and plateaus. Throughout this western belt, pockets of minorities, including Alawites, Christians and Druze, have sequestered themselves, equally distrustful of outsiders from the west as they are of local rulers to the east, but ready to collaborate with whomever is most likely to guarantee their survival. The long mountain barrier then descends into broad plains along the Orontes River Valley and the Bekaa Valley before rising sharply once again along the Anti-Lebanon range, the Hawran plateau and the Jabal al-Druze mountains, providing more rugged terrain for persecuted sects to hunker down and arm themselves.

Just west of the Anti-Lebanon mountains, the Barada river flows eastward, giving rise to a desert oasis also known as Damascus. Protected from the coast by two mountain chains and long stretches of desert to the east, Damascus is essentially a fortress city and a logical place to make the capital. But for this fortress to be a capital worthy of regional respect, it needs a corridor running westward across the mountains to Mediterranean ports along the ancient Phoenician (or modern-day Lebanese) coast, as well as a northward route across the semi-arid steppes, through Homs, Hama and Idlib, to Aleppo.

The saddle of land from Damascus to the north is relatively fluid territory, making it an easier place for a homogenous population to coalesce than the rugged and often recalcitrant coastline. Aleppo sits alongside the mouth of the Fertile Crescent, a natural trade corridor between Anatolia to the north, the Mediterranean (via the Homs Gap) to the west and Damascus to the south. While Aleppo has historically been vulnerable to dominant Anatolian powers and can use its relative distance to rebel against Damascus from time to time, it remains a vital economic hub for any Damascene power.

Finally, jutting east from the Damascus core lie vast stretches of desert, forming a wasteland between Syria and Mesopotamia. This sparsely populated route has long been traveled by small, nomadic bands of men — from caravan traders to Bedouin tribesmen to contemporary jihadists — with few attachments and big ambitions.

Demography by Design

The demographics of this land have fluctuated greatly, depending on the prevailing power of the time. Christians, mostly Eastern Orthodox, formed the majority in Byzantine Syria. The Muslim conquests that followed led to a more diverse blend of religious sects, including a substantial Shiite population. Over time, a series of Sunni dynasties emanating from Mesopotamia, the Nile Valley and Asia Minor made Syria the Sunni-majority region that it is today. While Sunnis came to heavily populate the Arabian Desert and the saddle of land stretching from Damascus to Aleppo, the more protective coastal mountains were meanwhile peppered with a mosaic of minorities. The typically cult-like minorities forged fickle alliances and were always on the lookout for a more distant sea power they could align with to balance against the dominant Sunni forces of the hinterland.

The French, who had the strongest colonial links to the Levant, were masters of the minority manipulation strategy, but that approach also came with severe consequences that endure to this day. In Lebanon, the French favored Maronite Christians, who came to dominate Mediterranean sea trade out of bustling port cities such as Beirut at the expense of poorer Sunni Damascene merchants. France also plucked out a group known as the Nusayris living along the rugged Syrian coast, rebranded them as Alawites to give them religious credibility and stacked them in the Syrian military during the French mandate.

When the French mandate ended in 1943, the ingredients were already in place for major demographic and sectarian upheaval, culminating in the bloodless coup by Hafiz al Assad in 1970 that began the highly irregular Alawite reign over Syria. With the sectarian balance now tilting toward Iran and its sectarian allies, France’s current policy of supporting the Sunnis alongside Saudi Arabia against the mostly Alawite regime that the French helped create has a tinge of irony to it, but it fits within a classic balance-of-power mentality toward the region.

Setting Realistic Expectations

The delegates discussing Syria this week in Switzerland face a series of irreconcilable truths that stem from the geopolitics that have governed this land since antiquity.

The anomaly of a powerful Alawite minority ruling Syria is unlikely to be reversed anytime soon. Alawite forces are holding their ground in Damascus and steadily regaining territory in the suburbs. Lebanese militant group Hezbollah is meanwhile following its sectarian imperative to ensure the Alawites hold onto power by defending the traditional route from Damascus through the Bekaa Valley to the Lebanese coast, as well as the route through the Orontes River Valley to the Alawite Syrian coast. So long as the Alawites can hold Damascus, there is no chance of them sacrificing the economic heartland.

It is thus little wonder that Syrian forces loyal to al Assad have been on a northward offensive to retake control of Aleppo. Realizing the limits to their own military offensive, the regime will manipulate Western appeals for localized cease-fires, using a respite in the fighting to conserve its resources and make the delivery of food supplies to Aleppo contingent on rebel cooperation with the regime. In the far north and east, Kurdish forces are meanwhile busy trying to carve out their own autonomous zone against mounting constraints, but the Alawite regime is quite comfortable knowing that Kurdish separatism is more of a threat to Turkey than it is to Damascus at this point.

The fate of Lebanon and Syria remain deeply intertwined. In the mid-19th century, a bloody civil war between Druze and Maronites in the densely populated coastal mountains rapidly spread from Mount Lebanon to Damascus. This time around, the current is flowing in reverse, with the civil war in Syria now flooding Lebanon. As the Alawites continue to gain ground in Syria with aid from Iran and Hezbollah, a shadowy amalgam of Sunni jihadists backed by Saudi Arabia will become more active in Lebanon, leading to a steady stream of Sunni-Shiite attacks that will keep Mount Lebanon on edge.

The United States may be leading the ill-fated peace conference to reconstruct Syria, but it doesn’t really have any strong interests there. The depravity of the civil war itself compels the United States to show that it is doing something constructive, but Washington’s core interest for the region at the moment is to preserve and advance a negotiation with Iran. This goal sits at odds with a publicly stated U.S. goal to ensure al Assad is not part of a Syrian transition, and this point may well be one of many pieces in the developing bargain between Washington and Tehran. However, al Assad holds greater leverage so long as his main patron is in talks with the United States, the only sea power currently capable of projecting significant force in the eastern Mediterranean.

Egypt, the Nile Valley power to the south, is wholly ensnared in its own internal problems. So is Turkey, the main power to the north, which is now gripped in a public and vicious power struggle that leaves little room for Turkish adventurism in the Arab world. That leaves Saudi Arabia and Iran as the main regional powers able to directly manipulate the Syrian sectarian battleground. Iran, along with Russia, which shares an interest in preserving relations with the Alawites and thus its access to the Mediterranean, will hold the upper hand in this conflict, but the desert wasteland linking Syria to Mesopotamia is filled with bands of Sunni militants eager for Saudi backing to tie down their sectarian rivals.

And so the fighting will go on. Neither side of the sectarian divide is capable of overwhelming the other on the battlefield and both have regional backers that will fuel the fight. Iran will try to use its relative advantage to draw the Saudi royals into a negotiation, but a deeply unnerved Saudi Arabia will continue to resist as long as Sunni rebels still have enough fight in them to keep going. Fighters on the ground will regularly manipulate appeals for cease-fires spearheaded by largely disinterested outsiders, all while the war spreads deeper into Lebanon. The Syrian state will neither fragment and formalize into sectarian statelets nor reunify into a single nation under a political settlement imposed by a conference in Geneva. A mosaic of clan loyalties and the imperative to keep Damascus linked to its coastline and economic heartland — no matter what type of regime is in power in Syria — will hold this seething borderland together, however tenuously.
 
 
The Geopolitics of the Syrian Civil War is republished with permission of Stratfor.”
 
 

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Stratfor: The Israeli Periphery

By Reva Bhalla
Vice President of Global Affairs
Stratfor Global Intelligence

The state of Israel has a basic, inescapable geopolitical dilemma: Its national security requirements outstrip its military capabilities, making it dependent on an outside power. Not only must that power have significant military capabilities but it also must have enough common ground with Israel to align its foreign policy toward the Arab world with that of Israel’s. These are rather heavy requirements for such a small nation.

Security, in the Israeli sense, is thus often characterized in terms of survival. And for Israel to survive, it needs just the right blend of geopolitical circumstance, complex diplomatic arrangements and military preparedness to respond to potential threats nearby. Over the past 33 years, a sense of complacency settled over Israel and gave rise to various theories that it could finally overcome its dependency on outside powers. But a familiar sense of unease crept back into the Israeli psyche before any of those arguments could take root. A survey of the Israeli periphery in Egypt, Syria and Jordan explains why.

Maintaining the Sinai Buffer

To Israel’s southwest lies the Sinai Desert. This land is economically useless; only hardened Bedouins who sparsely populate the desert expanse consider the terrain suitable for living. This makes the Sinai an ideal buffer. Its economic lifelessness gives it extraordinary strategic importance in keeping the largest Arab army — Egypt’s — at a safe distance from Israeli population centers. It is the maintenance of this buffer that forms the foundation of the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel.

The question percolating in Israeli policy circles is whether an Islamist Egypt will give the same level of importance to this strategic buffer. The answer to that question rests with the military, an institution that has formed the backbone of the Egyptian state since the rise of Gamel Abdul Nasser in 1952.

Achieving National Security in the Periphery

Over the past month, the military’s role in this new Muslim Brotherhood-run Egypt quietly revealed itself. The first test came in the form of the Gaza crisis, when the military quietly negotiated security guarantees with Israel while the Muslim Brotherhood basked in the diplomatic spotlight. The second test came when Egypt’s Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi, attempted a unilateral push on a constitutional draft to institutionalize the Muslim Brotherhood’s hold on power.

The military bided its time, waiting for the protests to escalate to the point that rioters began targeting the presidential palace. By then, it was apparent that the police were not to be fully relied on to secure the streets. Morsi had no choice but to turn to the military for help, and that request revealed how indispensable the military is for Egyptian stability.

There will be plenty of noise and confusion in the lead-up to the Dec. 15 referendum as the secular, anti-Muslim Brotherhood civilian opposition continues its protests against Morsi. But filter through that noise, and one can see that the military and the Muslim Brotherhood appear to be adjusting slowly to a new order of Nasserite-Islamist rule. Unlike the 1979 peace treaty, this working arrangement between the military and the Islamists is alive and temperamental. Israel can find some comfort in seeing that the military remains central to the stability of the Egyptian state and will thus likely play a major role in protecting the Sinai buffer. However, merely observing this dance between the military and the Islamists from across the desert is enough to unnerve Israel and justify a more pre-emptive military posture on the border.

Defending Galilee

Israel lacks a good buffer to its north. The most natural, albeit imperfect, line of defense is the Litani River in modern-day Lebanon, with a second line of defense between Mount Hermon and the Sea of Galilee. Modern-day Israel encompasses this second barrier, a hilly area that has been the target of sporadic mortar shelling from Syrian government forces in pursuit of Sunni rebels.

Israel does not face a conventional military threat to its north, nor will it for some time. But the descent of the northern Levant into sectarian-driven, clan-based warfare presents a different kind of threat on Israel’s northern frontier.

It is only a matter of time before Alawite forces will have to retreat from Damascus and defend themselves against a Sunni majority from their coastal enclave. The conflict will necessarily subsume Lebanon, and the framework that Israel has relied on for decades to manage more sizable, unconventional threats like Hezbollah will come undone.

Somewhere along the way, there will be an internationally endorsed attempt to prop up a provisional government and maintain as much of the state machinery as possible to avoid the scenario of a post-U.S. invasion Iraq. But when decades-old, sectarian-driven vendettas are concerned, there is cause for pessimism in judging the viability of those plans. Israel cannot avoid thinking in terms of worst-case scenarios, so it will continue to reinforce its northern defenses ahead of more instability.

Neutralizing the Jordan River Valley

The status of the Jordan River Valley is essential to Israel’s sense of security to the east. So long as Israel can dominate the west bank of the river (the biblical area of Judea and Samaria, or the modern-day West Bank) then it can overwhelm indigenous forces from the desert farther east. To keep this arrangement intact, Israel will somehow attempt to politically neutralize whichever power controls the east bank of the Jordan River. In the post-Ottoman Middle East, this power takes the form of the Hashemite monarchs, who were transplanted from Arabia by the British.

The vulnerability that the Hashemites felt as a foreign entity in charge of economically lackluster terrain created ideal conditions for Israel to protect its eastern approach. The Hashemites had to devise complex political arrangements at home to sustain the monarchy in the face of left-wing Nasserist, Palestinian separatist and Islamist militant threats. The key to Hashemite survival was in aligning with the rural East Bank tribes, co-opting the Palestinians and cooperating with Israel in security issues to keep its western frontier calm. In short, the Hashemites were vulnerable enough for Israel to be considered a useful security partner but not so vulnerable that Israel couldn’t rely on the regime to protect its eastern approach. There was a level of tension that was necessary to maintain the strategic partnership, but that level of tension had to remain within a certain band.

That arrangement is now under considerable stress. The Hashemites are facing outright calls for deposition from the same tribal East Bankers, Palestinians and Islamists that for decades formed the foundation of the state. That is because the state itself is weakening under the pressure of high oil prices, now sapping at the subsidies that have been relied on to tame the population.

One could assume that Jordan’s oil-rich Gulf Arab neighbors would step in to defend one of the region’s remaining monarchies of the post-Ottoman order against a rising tide of Muslim Brotherhood-led Islamism with heavily subsidized energy sales. However, a still-bitter, age-old geopolitical rivalry between the Hejaz-hailing Hashemite dynasty and the Nejd-hailing Saudi dynasty over supremacy in Arabia is getting in the way. From across the Gulf, an emboldened Iran is already trying to exploit this Arab tension by cozying up to the Hashemites with subsidized energy sales to extend Tehran’s reach into the West Bank and eventually threaten Israel. Jordan has publicly warded off Iran’s offer, and significant logistical challenges may inhibit such cooperation. But ongoing negotiations between Iran’s allies in Baghdad and the Jordanian regime bear close watching as Jordan’s vulnerabilities continue to rise at home.

Powerful Partners Abroad

In this fluctuating strategic environment, Israel cannot afford to be isolated politically. Its need for a power patron will grow alongside its insecurities in its periphery. Israel’s current patron, the United States, is also grappling with the emerging Islamist order in the region. But in this new regional dynamic, the United States will eventually look past ideology in search of partners to help manage the region. As U.S.-Turkish relations in recent years and the United States’ recent interactions with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood reveal, it will be an awkward and bumpy experience while Washington tries to figure out who holds the reins of power and which brand of Islamists it can negotiate with amid messy power transitions. This is much harder for Israel to do independently by virtue of ideology, size and location.

Israel’s range of maneuver in foreign policy will narrow considerably as it becomes more dependent on external powers and as its interests clash with those of its patrons. Israel is in store for more discomfort in its decision-making and more creativity in its diplomacy. The irony is that while Israel is a western-style democracy, it was most secure in an age of Arab dictatorships. As those dictatorships give way to weak and in some cases crumbling states, Israeli survival instincts will again be put to the test.
 
The Israeli Periphery is republished with permission of Stratfor.”

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Stratfor: Al Assad’s Last Stand

By Omar Lamrani

The battle for Damascus is raging with increasing intensity while rebels continue to make substantial advances in Syria’s north and east. Every new air base, city or town that falls to the rebels further underlines that Bashar al Assad’s writ over the country is shrinking. It is no longer possible to accurately depict al Assad as the ruler of Syria. At this point, he is merely the head of a large and powerful armed force, albeit one that still controls a significant portion of the country.

The nature of the conflict has changed significantly since it began nearly two years ago. The rebels initially operated with meager resources and equipment, but bolstered by defections, some outside support and their demographic advantage, they have managed to gain ground on what was previously a far superior enemy. Even the regime’s qualitative superiority in equipment is fast eroding as the rebels start to frequently utilize main battle tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, rocket and tube artillery and even man-portable air-defense systems captured from the regime’s stockpiles.

Weary and stumbling, the regime is attempting to push back rebel forces in and near Damascus and to maintain a corridor to the Alawite coast while delaying rebel advances in the rest of the country. Al Assad and his allies will fight for every inch, fully aware that their power depends on the ability of the regime forces to hold ground.

The Battle for Damascus

It is important to remember that, despite considerable setbacks, al Assad’s forces still control a sizable portion of Syria and its population centers. After failing to take Damascus in Operation Damascus Volcano in July, the rebels are again stepping up their efforts and operations in the Damascus area. However, unlike in their previous failed operation, this time the rebels are relying on an intensive guerrilla campaign to exhaust and degrade al Assad’s substantial forces in Damascus and its countryside.

After the last surge in fighting around Damascus in July and August, the regime kept large numbers of troops in the area. These forces continued search and destroy operations near the capital despite the considerable pressure facing its forces in the rest of the country, including in Aleppo. Once the rebels began to make gains in the north and east, the regime was forced to dispatch some of its forces around Damascus to reinforce other fronts. Unfortunately for the regime, its operations in the capital area had not significantly degraded local rebel forces. Rebels in the area began intensifying their operations once more, forcing the regime to recall many of its units to Damascus.

Aware of the magnitude of the threat, the regime has reportedly shifted its strategy in the battle for Damascus to isolating the city proper from the numerous suburbs. The rebels have made considerable headway in the Damascus suburbs. For example, on Nov. 25 rebels overran the Marj al-Sultan military air base in eastern Ghouta, east of the capital. Rebel operations in the outskirts of Damascus have also interrupted the flow of goods to and from the city, causing the prices of basic staples such as bread to skyrocket.

Rebel Gains in the East and North

Damascus is not the only area where the regime is finding itself under considerable pressure. The rebels have made some major advances in the last month in the energy-rich Deir el-Zour governorate to the east. Having seized a number of towns, airfields and military bases, the rebels have also taken the majority of the oil fields in the governorate. They captured the Al-Ward oil field Nov. 4, the Conoco natural gas reserve Nov. 27 and, after al Assad’s forces withdrew from it on Nov. 29, the Omar oil field north of the town of Mayadeen. Al Assad’s forces now control only five oil fields, all located west of the city of Deir el-Zour. With the battle for the city and its associated airfield intensifying, even those remaining fields are at risk of falling into rebel hands.

The rebel successes in Deir el-Zour have effectively cut the regime’s ground lines of communication and supply to Iraq. They have also starved the regime of the vast majority of its oil revenue and affected its ability to fuel its war machine. At the same time, the rebels are reportedly already seeking to capitalize on their seizure of the eastern oil fields. According to reports, the rebels are smuggling oil to Turkey and Iraq and using the revenue to purchase arms. They are also reportedly using the oil and natural gas locally for power generators and fuel.

While all of eastern Syria may soon fall into rebel hands, rebels in the north have continued to isolate al Assad forces in Idlib and Aleppo governorates, particularly in the capital cities of those two provinces. After overrunning the 46th regiment near Atarib on Nov. 19 following a two-month siege, the rebels are now looking to further squeeze remaining regime forces in Aleppo by taking the Sheikh Suleiman base north of the 46th regiment’s former base.

The Rebels’ Improved Air Defense Capability

Isolated and surrounded, regime forces in the north are increasingly relying on air support for both defense and supply. However, this advantage is deteriorating every day and is increasingly threatened by the rebels’ improved air defense arsenal and tactics.

The rebels first attempted to acquire air defense weaponry by seizing heavy machine guns and anti-aircraft artillery. They captured a number of air defense bases, taking 12.7 mm DShK heavy machine guns, 14.5 mm KPV heavy machine guns and even 23 mm ZU-23-2 autocannons. Over time, the rebels became more proficient with these weapons, and an increasing number of Syrian air force fixed-wing and rotary aircraft were shot down. The rebels also formed hunter-killer groups with air defense equipment mounted on flatbed trucks that provided them mobile platforms for targeting regime air and infantry units.

As more and more regime bases were taken, the rebels were able to bolster their air defense equipment through the capture of a number of man-portable air-defense systems. At the outset of the conflict, the Syrian military maintained a large inventory of shoulder-fired air-defense missiles, likely thousands of missiles ranging from early generation SA-7s to very advanced SA-24s. These missiles were stored in army bases across the country. There are also unconfirmed reports that Qatar and Saudi Arabia may have transferred some man-portable air-defense systems to the rebels through Turkey.

The rebels tallied their first confirmed kill with shoulder-fired air-defense missiles Nov. 27, when they shot down a Syrian Arab Air Force Mi-8/17 helicopter near Aleppo city. The weapon system used in the attack was likely an SA-7, SA-16 or SA-24 captured from the 46th regiment. The surface-to-air missiles are a serious upgrade in the rebels’ air defense capability.

The Fight Continues

Having isolated al Assad’s forces in the north and made substantial advances in the east, the rebels are poised to push farther into the Orontes River Valley to relieve the beleaguered rebel units in the Rastan, Homs and al-Qusayr areas of Homs governorate. For months, regime forces have sought to overwhelm the remaining rebel forces in Homs city, but the rebels have managed to hold out. The rebels are also set to begin pushing south along the main M5 thoroughfare to Khan Sheikhoun and the approaches to Hama. However, first they need to overwhelm the remaining regime forces in Wadi al-Dhaif near Maarrat al-Numan.

Alternatively, the regime is fighting hard to maintain its control over the Orontes River Valley around Homs in order to keep an open corridor linking Damascus to the mostly Alawite coast. Not only is this corridor at risk of eventually being cut off, but the regime is also facing a substantial push by rebel forces into northeastern Latakia governorate from Idlib. Rebels have advanced in the vicinity of the Turkman Mountain, have taken control of Bdama and are now fighting their way down in the direction of Latakia city.

While events in Damascus and Rif Damascus are increasingly worrisome for the regime, al Assad’s forces in the rest of Syria are also under considerable pressure from rebel advances. It is by no means certain that al Assad’s forces are under imminent threat of collapse because they still hold a great deal of territory and no major city has yet been completely taken by the rebels. The retreat and consolidation of al Assad’s forces also allows them to maintain shorter and less vulnerable lines of supply. However, it is clear that the regime is very much on the defensive and has been forced to gradually contract its lines toward a core that now encompasses Damascus, the Orontes River Valley and the mostly Alawite coast. With the regime’s situation rapidly deteriorating, even the attempt to stage a gradual withdrawal to the core is risky.
 
Al Assad’s Last Stand is republished with permission of Stratfor.”

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