Wednesday, October 21, 2015

U.S.-Backed Jihadists Losing Aleppo: "The Game is Over"

On his first foreign junket since the Arab Spring, Bashar al-Assad has traveled to Moscow to meet with Putin and company. (Neil MacFarquhar, "Assad Makes Unannounced Trip to Moscow to Discuss Syria With Putin"). The Syrian Arab Army,  in concert with Russian and Iranian allies, not to mention Hezbollah fighters and Iraqi Shiite militias, is pressing an offensive to retake Aleppo. Aleppo is the jihadist "jewel in the crown" because it is the key location in the supply route from Turkey. Assad's presence in Moscow is a victory lap of sorts.

MacFarquhar in his report makes a startling admission and omission. The admission is that U.S. intransigence over its insistence that "Assad must go" is the reason that the war continues:
Just a day earlier, Turkey, one of Mr. Assad’s most implacable critics, said it would accept the Syrian leader’s staying in office for the first six months of a political transition, although its prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, told reporters on Wednesday that Turkey’s insistence that Mr. Assad must go had not changed.
The United States and its regional allies, as well as central factions of the opposition in exile, reject the idea of a significant role for Mr. Assad in any transition. Those differences have stymied international efforts to negotiate a political settlement.
What goes unsaid is that the refugee crisis engulfing Europe is of United States' making.

The omission is that Islamist foreign mercenaries backed by the U.S. and the corrupt oligarchies of the Gulf have been airbrushed clean of any jihadist taint. MacFarquhar refers to these U.S.-favored jihadists as "rebels" or antiseptically as "opposition units," as he does below:
Although the [Russian] air campaign has been publicly portrayed as an effort to turn back Islamic State militants, the main targets thus far have been the opposition units that most directly threaten Mr. Assad. 
Under the cover provided by about 50 Russian military aircraft, the Syrian armed forces, along with fighters from Iran and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, have been pressing a ground offensive in and around important central cities, including Aleppo.
But the story to read, the one that plumbs the depths of fear and loathing in Langley that Putin has indeed turned the tide in Syria, is "Russia Makes an Impact in Syrian Battle for Control of Aleppo," by Kareem Fahim (always excellent) and Anne Barnard (a faithful slave of the USG but one who will bite the master's hand when the master's lies are too difficult to stomach).

The thing that pops out to the reader is the photo that adorns the story. The caption reads "A Syrian opposition fighter near Aleppo last weekend during clashes with forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad." The photo was taken by Thaer Mohammed working for Agence France-Presse — Getty Images:

The guy is obviously a jihadi. To label him an opposition fighter seems disingenuous to me. Why not name his fighting unit affiliation? Certainly this is something the photographer could have done, and probably did do but it was combed out by an editor. The reason I imagine is due to the fact that the opposition fighter belongs to Al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra.

The Fahim-Barnard article is an amazing one. I will quote it at length because it clarifies 1) that the main impediment to Syrian Arab Army offensive is U.S-supplied anti-tank weapons, 2) reiterating MacFarquhar, the chief opponent to peace are the foreign backers of the foreign mercenary jihadist army, and 3) that a voluble anonymous Western diplomat thinks that this Syrian version of "Charlie Wilson's War" is finished, but this time Russia will be victorious:
The progress of the [Russian-backed] offensive has been halting, however, slowed in part by American-made antitank weapons supplied to insurgents by Saudi Arabia.
Even so, weeks of military activity by the government and the latest moves near Aleppo illustrated the “dramatic impact” of the Russian intervention so far, said Yezid Sayigh, an expert on Arab armies at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.
With relatively minimal effort, the Russians had managed to “boost regime and army morale,” and send a message to countries allied with the rebels, like the United States, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, that they will not be able to intervene militarily in the conflict, as the Turks had hinted they might earlier this summer.
“Putin doesn’t need to do more,” Mr. Sayigh said.
The government forces have scored some minor victories, reportedly capturing a few villages in the south. But it was still too early to tell whether the advance toward Aleppo was part of a broader attempt to encircle the city and dislodge the rebels or a more limited offensive to ensure the safety of its supply lines.
Faraj Shahid, a Turkey-based rebel activist who is from the countryside south of Aleppo, said the area was the site of frequent attacks by insurgents on the government’s critical supply line from Hama in central Syria. Over the last four days, he said, government forces had taken control of at least three villages in the vicinity.
Zakaria Malahifji, a leader of a Western-backed rebel coalition, said that the government “chose this front because of its strategic location on the supply route, and its easy geography.” He added, “Airstrikes can be effective because of the flat battlefield, and attack helicopters are present all the time.”
Over the last few days, he said, “losses are heavy on both sides and the regime’s advance is very slow,” while tens of thousands of people are reported to have fled the area.
In response to the onslaught, rebel commanders have sent out panicked calls to fighters to end their divisions in the face of the latest threat. A rebel operations room in Aleppo issued a statement over the weekend calling on the rebels to put their “differences aside and turn the table on your enemy.” 
It was not clear whether the exhortations had any effect. Some analysts have suggested that the Russian intervention might have exactly this unifying effect in the divided rebel ranks, welding together groups with competing backers and ideological agendas under the banner of fighting Mr. Assad.
The battle in Aleppo may also help delineate the division of labor among members of the pro-government alliance, according to Mr. Sayigh, who said that the Russians, pursuing a limited role, were working principally with Syrian Army units at the level of battalion or brigade.
There was a “high level of coordination” between the two, with the Russians providing close air support, attacking targets in front of army units with fixed-wing aircraft or helicopters.
The fight in Aleppo, by contrast, appeared to be coordinated by Iranian officers, working with paramilitary groups like Hezbollah and members of Iraqi Shiite militias operating in Syria. Despite persistent rumors that a large contingent of Iranian troops was fighting in Aleppo, Mr. Sayigh said he had seen no sign of them, either there or anywhere else in Syria.
Hashim al-Mousawi, a spokesman for the Harakat Hizbollah al-Nujaba, an Iraqi Shiite militia, said that roughly 1,500 men from the militia were fighting in Syria, including alongside the Syrian Army in Aleppo. He said control of the city was “very important for us,” and would allow the pro-government forces to cut off reinforcements to the Islamic State from Turkey.
A radio station in Iraq affiliated with the militia broadcast a message on Tuesday evening encouraging more volunteers to join and fight in Syria.
Hasan Abdul Hadi, a spokesman for another Iraqi militia, Kitaeb Sayyid al-Shuhada, said that 300 to 500 of its fighters were split between battlefields in Aleppo and southern Syria. Iran was supporting his group and other militias with weapons and other supplies, he said.
The latest fighting near Aleppo highlighted the failures of various diplomatic efforts to end the war in Syria, which has killed more than 250,000 people.
A proposal to freeze the fighting in Aleppo last year, led by the United Nations special envoy, Staffan de Mistura, also faltered: United Nations interlocutors went to the city and found that any initial support for the freeze among rebel groups there was vetoed by the rebels’ foreign donors, according to several diplomats in the region.
As one Western diplomat put it, the rebels were “not calling the shots.”
The Russian decision to help Mr. Assad consolidate his control in pro-government areas had become the “driving force” for any future political solution, said the Western diplomat, who requested anonymity in line with normal protocols.
Before the Russian intervention, the government was increasingly confined to a shrinking, defensible portion of the country. “Now, it will not shrink anymore,” the diplomat added. “The game is over.”
We can only hope.

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