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Syrian American Will Association (SAWA)
Syrian American Will Association (SAWA)

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‘Turkey’s lack of diplomatic clout in Syria is becoming more glaring as the crisis moves toward a new trajectory, which includes the highly unsavory prospect for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu of a role for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in efforts to settle the crisis. [ . . . ] Turkey can also do little now but look on as Washington grapples with the notion of including Assad in any Syrian settlement. . . . Assad — much to Ankara’s annoyance — is emerging as the lesser evil for the West, which is more concerned about the rise of the Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq.’
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 ‘Of course these weapons are ending up in the hands of jihadists. Jihadists and their allies make up the forces fighting against the Syrian regime, and any other anti-regime group is going to cooperate with them or be attacked and have their weapons plundered by them. That was always likely to be true from the start, and it has been obvious now for years. Whether U.S.-armed groups are defeated, co-opted, or absorbed by jihadists, the weapons that the U.S. provides to its would-be proxies reliably wind up in the hands of people that the U.S. rightly considers to be terrorists. Syria hawks have promoted the fantasy that there are “moderates” that can be turned into an effective U.S. proxy in order to get the U.S. sucked into a conflict in which it had and still has no stake and no allies worth having. By indulging that fantasy even a little, the administration’s policy in Syria has effectively provided material support to jihadists. Nothing could better demonstrate the utter folly of arming any part of the Syrian opposition, but it will probably just make Syria hawks that much more determined to keep trying.’
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‘More accurately the west has made a fool of itself and it’s up to Putin to try and save the day before a half-hearted US intervention against ISIS, combined with very real support for supposedly “moderate” jihadists results in the all out slaughter of Syria’s Christians, Alawites and others minorities and the fall of the last strong secular state in the Middle East.  At the outset of Syria’s brutal four-year civil war, I was an almost unique voice in the British media deploring the push to depose President Bashar al-Assad, especially in the absence of a genuinely popular uprising against him. . . The so-called secular rebels were in fact vicious Islamists in disguise. . . . No one listened, and I tired of trying to convince them of their folly.. . . . Vladimir Putin now pitches himself as Europe’s migrant-crisis saviour. Only by saving Assad, he argued, can we stem the flow. Bizarrely, he sounds as though he is making more sense than anyone else. Assad’s forces, long thought to be on the verge of collapse, meanwhile celebrated the bolstering of their military arsenal by bombing Islamic State targets in the north. Wave after wave of airstrikes hit their targets with previously unimaginable precision. Who could object to that? Senior Washington and London politicians, after years of repeating like a mantra that The Evil Dictator Assad Must Go Now, suddenly found themselves mumbling that, come to think of it, Assad does not need to go just yet after all. [ . . . ] Anyone in Damascus or on the coast who supported the Islamic State long since either joined it or blew themselves up among the infidels. The West, though, is more hated than ever. A recent poll found that 80 per cent of Syrians believe we created the Islamic State — a common belief, incidentally, throughout the Middle East (and not entirely inaccurate). So it took Washington and its reactionary Gulf allies four years and billions of dollars to end up eating humble pie. They have now effectively admitted that Moscow was right about Syria all along.’
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‘Secretary of State Kerry gets calls from his Russian counterpart and calls him back.  But what we hear is more of the same: the United States wants Assad out, the Russians support him.  Where is this going?  Is there a solution that can be found?  [ . . . ] There is common ground between Russia and the United States if, and only if, the United States is honest about its posture toward ISIS and other radical Muslims. But as I have already written, if the United States is secretly supporting ISIS by doing as little as possible to counter ISIS’s growing power, then there is no common theme and no way to move forward. ISIS, after all, along with their allies among radical Islamists, controls as many as 10 million people and a good part of Syrian and Iraqi territory.  The spread of ISIS has implications far beyond Syria and Iraq: it threatens pro-American conservative countries such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia, it could cause civil war in Lebanon, and it is likely to take over in Libya.  When that happens, Tunisia will be next. Israel, too, will be far worse off with an ISIS state on its border. Assad was, at least, reasonably reliable and predictable, [ . . . ] From any point of view it is far more important to liquidate ISIS than it is to push Assad out of power.  [ . . . ] For the United States our leaders must recognize that there are no effective “moderate” interlocutors that have any importance in the Syrian context.  The abysmal failure of the Army and CIA “training” of moderate elements has only succeeded in making ISIS more effective and there are now only four or five “fighters” still around, if at all.  It is not only the waste of money that is appalling: it is the universally bad judgment of the administration in thinking such a moderate alternative was available and realistic.  To the chagrin of the Congress who were led to support the misadventure, it is now clear that there is no such solution now or in the future. [ . . . ] The US should want to get rid of ISIS, the sooner the better.  The US should also want to find a modus vivendi with the Russians on counter-terrorism.’
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This edition of The Truth about Syria looks at continued fallout from Russia’s dramatic commitment to fighting the “Islamic State” (the IS, ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) in concert with the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad.  Putting it bluntly, the Russian move has exposed the futility of the “Assad must go!” ultimatum from U.S. policymakers and our allies in the region and in Europe.  Assad’s survival and Syria’s preservation as a united and secular state are now considered increasingly likely, even in quarters that would prefer otherwise.

After initial responses that the U.S. would ignore operations against the IS that were not part of the ineffective American-led “coalition” – a grouping that absurdly includes countries like Turkey and Saudi Arabia, which are IS supporters, not opponents – there was a sudden reversal of tone.  U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter spoke with his Russian counterpart Sergey Shoigu to work out “deconfliction,” an awkward word that amounts to cooperation, at least minimally.

Meanwhile Syrian Air Forces planes are hitting IS targets in Aleppo and Palmyra with deadly accuracy.  As described by noted Middle East expert John R. Bradley: “Assad’s forces, long thought to be on the verge of collapse, meanwhile celebrated the bolstering of their military arsenal by bombing Islamic State targets in the north. Wave after wave of airstrikes hit their targets with previously unimaginable precision. Who could object to that?”

Faced with a new lay of the land in the Syrian conflict, U.S. officials are even hedging their bets on President Assad’s role in a “transition” pursuant to a negotiated settlement.   As stated by Secretary of State John Kerry: “For the last year and a half we have said Assad has to go, but how long and what the modality is …that’s a decision that has to be made in the context of the Geneva process and negotiation. . . . It doesn’t have to be on day one or month one … ”  Or how about never, if the sovereign Syrian people want him to stay?  Or at the very least until his current term, to which he was reelected in 2014, expires in 2021.

In short, Washington seems to be coming around, however reluctantly, to accepting a result that has been staring us in the face for more than four years: that “regime change” in Damascus is not going to happen, and if it did it would only bring anti-U.S. terrorists to power; and that a negotiated political settlement among Syrians is in everyone’s best interests.

But we’re not out of the woods yet.  The viewpoint still exists by which Syria’s agony matters only in broader geopolitical terms.  The current shift is seen less as a chance to destroy the IS and the foreign terrorists operating in Syria via a common international effort than as an opportunity to get Russia “entangled in the Syrian quagmire – Ronald Reagan allowed the Soviet Union to do just that in Afghanistan” – even if it helps the jihadists and kills more innocent Syrians.   Given the weapons and money poured into Syria by the funders of the terrorist international based in Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the Gulf States, it would be naïve to think they will give up now rather than redouble their efforts.
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‘“In 2012, everyone was coming to Syria and we had too much work leading all kinds of people across the border,” he explained over lunch in Killis, a Turkish town just a few miles from the rebel-held Syrian city of Azzaz. “A lot were Muslims who had come to support the revolution against Bashar Assad from every country. So many from Europe, Russia, Germany, France. . . .” The 15 men had reached Abdullah through a network of contacts that were funneling new fighters to northern Syria, and Abdullah recalled they said they were going to Syria to assist in the fight against Assad. They were quiet, disciplined and for the most part spoke only a bit of crude formal Arabic. Only later did Abdullah realize that the network that funneled these men to him was the beginnings of the Islamic State, and that one of the 15 would turn out to be the most important non-Arab figure in the Islamic State hierarchy, a former American-trained noncommissioned officer in the special forces of the nation of Georgia . . . “We trained him well, and we had lots of help from America,” said a former Georgian defense official who asked to not be identified because of the sensitivity of Batirashvili’s role in the Islamic State. “In fact, the only reason he didn’t go to Iraq to fight alongside America was that we needed his skills here in Georgia.” . . . “He was a perfect soldier from his first days, and everyone knew he was a star,” said one former comrade, who asked not to be identified because he remains on active duty and has been ordered not to give media interviews about his former colleague. “We were well trained by American special forces units, and he was the star pupil.”
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‘Only about “four or five” U.S.-trained Syrian rebels remain on the battlefield to take on the Islamic State after the Defense Department spent over $41 million to train and equip a small group of about 60 earlier this year, a senior military official said Wednesday. After months of training by U.S. Special Forces at bases in Turkey, the so-called New Syrian Army fighters were sent back into Syria in July, said Gen. Lloyd Austin, head of the U.S. Central Command. Within days, they had been almost completely wiped out after being attacked by al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front forces, who captured, killed, or scattered most of the U.S.-backed forces. The $500 million train and equip program was sold to Congress in late 2014 and aimed to produce about 5,400 Syrian fighters by the end of this year. On Wednesday, Austin and Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Christine Wormuth both conceded those numbers will not be met.’
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‘Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is blaming Western nations for fueling the refugee crisis by supporting opposition groups in his country’s bloody civil war. “If you are worried about them, stop supporting terrorists,” he said in an interview with Russian news organizations. “That’s what we think regarding the crisis. This is the core of the whole issue of refugees.” . . . “Can you feel sad for a child’s death in the sea and not for thousands of children who have been killed by the terrorists in Syria?” al-Assad said, referring to images of a dead Syrian boy that shocked the world. “And also for men, women, and the elderly? These European double standards are no longer acceptable.” Despite his bitter accusations, al-Assad said he was willing to shake hands with any leader who would join the fight against ISIS and hoped to cooperate with the West and Saudi Arabia in building a “real antiterrorist coalition” . . .’
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This edition of The Truth about Syria looks at the quandary facing the Obama Administration: whether –

To keep pursuing a policy based on pushing for “regime change” in Damascus – an outcome that has proved elusive for more than four years and now seems farther away than ever; or
To instead reach out and accept offers of cooperation from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government against violent jihadists, particularly the self-designated “Islamic State” (the IS, or ISIS, ISIL, Daesh).
Despite continued bipartisan recitation of the mantra “Assad must go” (again heard last night at the “JV” GOP debate), it is clear that U.S. strategy has reached a humiliating dead end. In the struggle between the Syrian government and the IS (and kindred jihad groups like the al-Nusra Front, an arm of al-Qaeda), there is no viable third force. After spending tens of millions of dollars to arm and train “moderate” terrorists, supposedly to fight the IS, the result has been a pathetic “four or five fighters.” The Administration has resorted to fudging the intelligence to make their effort seem more robust than it is.

Even members of President Obama’s own party are not buying it any longer:

‘”I don’t know that it helps for us to keep banging the table about Assad,” panel member Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., told Al-Monitor. “I think it would be better for us to be as effective as possible in fighting [IS] and restoring some kind of security environment that shifts back the flow of refugees.”

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., shared similar misgivings.

“I think we’ve come to a point where we should be reassessing what our strategy [should be] with respect to Assad and Syria and the conflict there,” she said. “I don’t have the answer on me about what I think that should be, but I really think we’re at a point where we need to reassess, because what we’ve been doing is not working.”

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said he’s worried about the “void” left by Assad’s removal in the absence of any viable moderate opposition.

“Who are you going to replace him with? What are you going to do? Leave a void?” he told Al-Monitor. “That hasn’t worked with Saddam [Hussein] or with [Moammar] Gadhafi. It’s a royal, royal mess, and we’re just throwing more money at it and making it messier.”

And Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., cautioned against open calls for toppling Assad. [ . . . ]

“I don’t think regime change should be an official policy of the United States,” Kaine said. “Our batting record is very poor.”

The growing angst follows repeated assurances by the Barack Obama administration that Assad “must go” and that his days were “numbered.” Four years and more than 200,000 deaths later, the only groups making much progress on the ground appear to be IS and other extremist militant groups.’

[“Congress rethinks anti-Assad stance,” Al-Monitor, by Julian Pecquet, September 16, 2015]

In the face of failure, it’s time to take an alternative path. In a lengthy interview, President al-Assad described in detail how outside support for foreign terrorists (some U.S.-trained) flocking to Syria has inflicted untold suffering on his nation and contributed to the refugee flood into Europe. Nonetheless he expressed his willingness to shake hands with any leader who would join the fight against the IS, including cooperation with the West and states like Saudi Arabia that up to now have been supporting the jihadists, “provided that it is a real and not a fake coalition to fight terrorism”:

‘We have no veto on any country provided that it has the will to fight terrorism and not as they are doing in what is called “the international coalition” led by the United States. In fact, since this coalition started to operate, ISIS has been expanding. In other words, the coalition has failed and it has no real impact on the ground. At the same time, countries like Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Western countries which provide cover for terrorism like France, the United States, or others, cannot fight terrorism. You cannot be with and against terrorism at the same time. But if these countries decided to change their policies and realize that terrorism is like a scorpion, if you put it in your pocket, it will sting you. If that happens, we have no objection to cooperating with all these countries, provided that it is a real and not a fake coalition to fight terrorism. . . . Naturally, this alliance should consist of states which believe in fighting terrorism and believe that their natural position should be against terrorism. In the current state of affairs, the person supporting terrorism cannot be the same person fighting terrorism. This is what these states are doing now. Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Jordan, which pretend to be part of a coalition against terrorism in northern Syria actually support terrorism in the south, the north, and the northwest, virtually in the same regions in which they are supposed to be fighting terrorism. Once again I say that within the framework of public interest, if these states decided to go back to the right position, to go back to their sense and fight terrorism, naturally we will accept and cooperate with them and with others.’

A catalyst for considering President al-Assad’s offer is strong backing from Moscow, which is stepping up its support for Syria in its fight with the IS and al-Qaeda. At last report, a “flummoxed” Obama Administration – which still formally maintains that al-Assad can have no part in Syria’s future – was giving consideration to at least a minimal level of military-to-military cooperation with Russia to avoid unintended incidents. Give the Russians’ close relationship with Syria, that could de facto open the door, at least tacitly, to U.S.-Syria coordination. That would still be a long way from walking away from the unsuccessful policy that has brought us to this juncture, but given the unattractiveness of other options, perhaps it’s a start.

If policymakers in Washington are serious in not wanting to risk seeing the black flag of the IS or al-Qaeda over Damascus, they need to make a choice. As succinctly and accurately stated by Virginia Senator Tim Kaine, “I don’t think regime change should be an official policy of the United States . . . Our batting record is very poor.” Instead, it must be added, the U.S. should welcome a genuine broad-based international effort to defeat the IS and al-Qaeda in cooperation with Syria and other countries willing to oppose the terrorists.
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In this edition of The Truth about Syria we note that several weeks ago there appeared to be hopeful signs that a diplomatic solution to the Syrian crisis was beginning to take shape.   After more than four years of carnage tearing that country apart, two things were becoming almost universally evident, specifically that:

The Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad would not be overthrown by foreign jihad terrorists, because there were just too many Syrians whose lives depended on the government’s survival; and The jihadists – namely the al-Nusra Front (part of al-Qaeda) or the “Islamic State” (the IS, or ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh) – who would take power in Damascus if the government were to fall constituted a deadly threat to the entire region and the world.  This includes the United States, in light of failing efforts against the IS (which the Obama Administration reportedly is trying to downplay by cooking the intelligence).

In a rare consensus, last month the U.N. Security Council – with U.S. support – had approved a plan to move forward on a diplomatic solution for Syria, without any mention of “regime change” in Damascus.  Progress appeared to have been made on broadening the anti-IS coalition, with the Syrian Arab Army accepted as the essential “boots on the ground” fighting the IS.  President al-Assad restated his willingness to reach a political accord with legitimate Syrian political opponents while excluding foreign terrorists.

But within the last few days hopes for movement toward a peaceful settlement have been derailed.  Instead, a revived effort to rally “hard military force” (from as far away as Australia) against Syria has been hyped by two stories: reports of stepped-up Russian activity in support of Syria, and the migrant wave hitting Europe.

The Russian chimera is easily dealt with.  Despite dubious reports of Moscow’s direct combat involvement, the Russian government has never hidden its commitment to support the legitimate Syrian government through supply of military equipment and technical assistance.  In essence, Russian activities in support of Damascus are roughly parallel to U.S. support for the internationally recognized Iraqi government in Baghdad, which is also opposed to the IS.  (Among other interests, Moscow sees itself as protector of Syria’s Christians, in contrast to the Obama Administration, which is at best callously indifferent to the horrifying fate that would await Christians if the terrorists supported by America’s Saudi, Turkish, and Gulf “allies” were to be successful in their efforts to impose a sectarian state in place of the current secular government.)

The migrant/refugee crisis is more complex, both in the facts at issue and in its political impact.  Symbolized by the heart-wrenching photo of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, the three-year-old boy who tragically drowned with this older brother and mother as his family was being smuggled from the Turkish mainland to the Greek island of Kos, the human wave moving toward a Europe unable to cope with it has become a centerpiece of an effort to mobilize opinion to “do something” about ending the Syrian war by removing the “evil” Assad.  A few facts are worth noting:

It is unclear how many of the people flooding through the Balkans from Turkey to Europe are refugees (who have a defined status under international law) or migrants seeking economic improvement through work opportunities and Europe’s generous social benefits.
According to media, only a minority of those in the human wave are Syrians.  But because the plight of Syrian refugees (most of whom are displaced within Syria) dominates the headlines and draws the world’s sympathy, migrants to Europe from elsewhere (including Afghanistan, Iraq, Tunisia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Somalia and Eritrea) are identifying themselves as “Syrians”:
“‘A lot of people enter Turkey with fake Syrian papers, because they know that they’ll get asylum in the EU more easily.’ . . . In Germany, customs authorities have intercepted packages mailed to Germany containing Syrian passports, both genuine and counterfeit, the finance ministry said. . . .  ‘Everyone says they are Syrian, even those who are obviously not,’ . . .”

Even those who are leaving Syria fleeing the violence of the conflict are mainly escaping the IS, al-Qaeda, and other terrorists.  For example, according to media Aylan’s ethnic-Kurdish family had moved from Damascus, to Aleppo, to Kobani, a town near the Turkish border under contest between the IS and Kurdish forces (and where our Turkish “ally” is helpfully bombing Kurds fighting against the IS).
Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, among the countries that are most responsible for the Syrian war by their arming and funding terrorists, have agreed to take in exactly zero of the migrants. They are, however, more than happy to fund places to receive them in Europe, will they will “assimilate” not to the indigenous culture of the European host countries but to the very Wahhabist ideology driving the Syrian bloodshed.  Since, according to media, the migrants include a very high proportion of young men without families, claims by the IS that they are taking advantage of the refugee crisis to infiltrate terrorists into Europe are all too credible.

In short, the mainstream media machine is geared up to sidetrack a diplomatic solution on Syria and, instead, to spur redoubling of efforts to “achieve” what has caused all the suffering and chaos in the first place: insistence that the Syrian government must be overthrown.  This is despite the fact that the only proximate replacement for it would be some form of terrorist regime of the IS or al-Qaeda variety – hardly a desirable outcome to contemplate on this eve of the 14th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the United States.

If western governments were truly concerned about Syrians’ suffering, both those at home and those taking refuge abroad, they would stop forcing them out of their homes by their support for the IS and other terrorists, primarily foreigners flocking to Syria awash with money and weapons supplied by our Saudi, Turkish, and Gulf “allies.”  Even worse would be stepping up plans for using outside military force against Damascus, as called for by Prime Minister David Cameron.  This would only intensify the terrible human toll.

Instead, if the U.S. really wanted to show good will toward Syria (not to mention restoring a regional stability that would stem the refugee flow) we would go back to the plan that seemed to be taking shape in August for a negotiated peace.  Only a settlement among Syrians themselves, with outside powers playing the role of facilitators, not spoilers, can make a difference for the better.
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