Analysis: The real danger in Syria is not ISIS, but a war between major powers

Vladimir PutinThere are many unpredictable aspects of the Syrian conflict, but the downing of the Russian bomber by Turkish jets on Tuesday was not one of them. Indeed, given the simultaneous military campaigns taking place in a relatively small swath of territory by Russian, American, French, Syrian, Iranian, and other forces, it is surprising that such an incident did not happen earlier. Nevertheless, the downing of a Russian Sukhoi Su-24 by Turkish jets marked the first attack on a Russian fighter aircraft by a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member state since 1953. Although this incident is not by itself sufficient to provoke an armed conflict between Turkey and Russia, it illustrates the main danger confronting the world in Syria: namely a conflagration between regional powers, many of which are armed with nuclear weapons.

In response to earlier incidents, Turkey had warned the Russian Air Force that it would not tolerate further violations of its air space by Russian jets conducting an air campaign in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The message delivered to the Russian ambassador in Ankara was that Turkish pilots would be ordered to open fire next time. That was precisely what happened on Tuesday, when a Turkish F-16 jet brought down a Russian bomber aircraft with a single missile strike. By most accounts, the Russian airplane was barely two miles inside Turkish airspace, presented no immediate threat to Turkey’s national security, and would probably have returned to Syrian airspace within seconds. But that did not stop the Turkish F-16 from shooting down the Russian plane. Adding injury to insult, Turkish-backed rebels on the Syrian side of the border shot dead one of the plane’s two Russian pilots and opened fire on a Russian rescue team that tried to save the crew, killing at least one marine.

Rather expectedly, a visibly furious Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is not used to being challenged militarily, described the incident as “a stab in the back” by “accomplices to terrorists”, and warned Ankara of “serious consequences”. But why would Turkey provoke Russia in such a direct way? Like every other country involved directly or indirectly in the Syrian Civil War, Turkey and Russia wish to see the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) Q Quotedestroyed. But they differ drastically on what should follow. The Kremlin is adamant that President al-Assad, whom it considers its strongest ally in the Middle East, should remain in power. The Turks, on the other hand, view the Syrian president as an existential threat, due to his support for Kurdish militancy throughout the region.

The roots of the animosity between the Turkish state and the al-Assad regime go back to 1978, when the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) was established in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley, which was at the time occupied by Syria. The PKK is a Marxist militant organization that seeks to establish a Kurdish homeland in eastern Turkey and northern Iraq. The group was actively trained, funded, armed and protected by Syria and the Soviet Union. The latter was actively interested in destabilizing Turkey, a NATO member, while Syria used the PKK to exercise pressure on its northern neighbor, with whom it was embroiled in a series of complex land- and water-rights disputes. In 1998, the al-Assad regime was forced to expel PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, who was living in Damascus under Syrian protection, after Turkey threatened an all-out war if the Syrian intelligence services continued to shelter the PKK leadership.

Ankara saw the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War in 2011 as an opportunity to get rid of the al-Assad regime, which it sees as a primary threat to regional stability. Along with the United States, Turkey has been funding, arming and training a host of Syrian rebel groups, while at the same time hosting over 2 million refugees from Syria. The subsequent rise of ISIS alarmed America and its Western allies; but in the eyes of Ankara, ISIS pales into insignificance in comparison to the resurgence of Kurdish nationalism, which has been fueled by the demise of Ba’ath in Iraq and the fragmentation of Syria. For Turkey, Kurdish separatism poses an existential threat to the survival of the Turkish Republic, and is the primary reason for its involvement in the Syrian conflict.

It follows that Russia’s entry in the Syrian Civil War strengthens President al-Assad and the PKK, and is thus regarded by Turkey as a direct threat to its national security. Ankara is also concerned about France’s efforts to build a broad anti-ISIS alliance that includes Russia, and fears that the West is now openly flirting with the possibility of allowing al-Assad to stay in power in Damascus. The deliberate downing of the Russian airplane, which was undoubtedly authorized by the most senior levels of government in Ankara, was aimed at disrupting France’s efforts to build an anti-ISIS coalition, while at the same time pushing back against Russia’s regional ambitions.

What will happen next? Theoretically, Turkey could invoke Article 5 of the NATO charter, which would compel member-states to rush to its assistance. In reality, however, such an eventuality is remote, especially given the expressed willingness of Western leaders to help deescalate the Turkish-Russian row. Following their closed-door meeting on Tuesday, French President FrancoisQ Quote Hollande and his American counterpart Barack Obama went out of their way to avoid mentioning the Russian plane incident, and briefly commented on it only after they were asked to do so by reporters. This does not mean that Russia will not respond; but it will most likely do so behind the scenes, probably by increasing its support for the PKK and other Kurdish separatist groups.

The downing of the Russian bomber highlights the immense contradictions and complica- tions that plague the anti-ISIS forces involved in the Syrian Civil War. It is clear that ISIS is now in a position to attack targets that are located far from its territory in Syria and Iraq, or in its wilayah (provinces) in Libya, Somalia, and elsewhere. However, the threat that ISIS currently poses to international peace and stability is at most marginal and symbolic. Of far more importance to the security of the world is the possibility of an armed conflagration between regional powers, which are being drawn into Syria by the vacuum created by the civil war. All of these regional powers, including Turkey, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Israel, and the US, are heavily armed, many with nuclear weapons. Moreover, they radically disagree on what a post-ISIS Middle East should look like.

The possibility of a serious conflagration between heavily armed regional actors will be removed only if and when the Syrian Civil War ends, even if that results in the loss of land to the so-called Islamic State. That must be the immediate goal of the Combined Joint Task Force and every other regional actor that wishes to see the end of ISIS. It is only after peace has been achieved in Syria that ISIS can be dealt with effectively.

South Korean lawmakers accuse North of helping Islamic State

Syria North KoreaA powerful South Korean parliamentary committee has accused the North Korean government of ties to the Islamic State, an allegation that is vehemently denied by Pyongyang. On November 18, members of the Intelligence Committee of the National Assembly of Korea stated in a press conference that they believed North Korea had “possible ties to ISIS”. They were referring to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which calls itself Islamic State. On Monday, North Korea’s state-run media blasted the South Korean allegations as “slander and fabrications”, and said they threatened to derail collaboration efforts between Seoul and Pyongyang.

The North Korean website Uriminzokkiri, which provides content from the Korean Central News Agency, accused Seoul of “carelessly tossing around claims of connections to terrorist groups”, in order to bring the two neighboring countries “closer to war”. Tensions remain high in the Korean Peninsula, despite an agreement that was struck in August between the two sides. In the preceding months, Pyongyang had threatened to carry out all-out invasion of South Korea, accusing Seoul of harboring aggressive intentions against it. A report in Uriminzokkiri warned that the August agreement “would be undone” if the South persisted in alleging that North Korea provided assistance to ISIS.

It should be noted that the Intelligence Committee of South Korea’s National Assembly has not given evidence of its claims that Pyongyang is supporting ISIS. Additionally, the North Korean regime is believed to be a strong international ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is a primary adversary of ISIS. The two countries have longstanding military and commercial ties. It is believed that North Korean technicians aided in the construction of Syria’s al-Kibar nuclear facility, which was bombed by Israeli jets in Operation ORCHARD in 2007. Today, North Korea is among a small number of countries that maintain fully staffed embassies in Syrian capital Damascus. In September of this year, the government of Syria dedicated a park in the capital to Kim Il Sung, North Korea’s late leader.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 10 November 2015 | Permalink

How are Ukrainian weapons ending up in the hands of ISIS?

Antiaircraft missileSignificant amounts of Ukrainian-manufactured weapons are ending up in the hands of the Islamic State, prompting accusations that Kiev may be arming the militant group in an effort to impair its regional foe Russia. Persisting rumors that Ukraine may be secretly arming the Islamic State —also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS— resurfaced last week, when authorities in Kuwait arrested six men suspected of working for the militant group. Among them was Osama Mohammed Saeed Khaiyat, a Syrian citizen of Lebanese background, who is believed to have traveled to Europe and the Middle East in search of weapons to be purchased by the Islamic State. Khaiyat, 45, allegedly told his captors that he has made several trips to Ukraine in the past, where he has purchased weapons and ammunition on behalf of the group. The weapons are purchased with cash, said Khaiyat, and are then delivered to Islamic State fighters in Syria through smuggling routes in the Black Sea and in Turkey.

As can be expected, Khaiyat’s revelations rekindled rumors that the government of Ukraine may be secretly funding the Islamic State, or may be turning a blind eye to secret dealings between weapons merchants and Islamic State arms procurers. The theory goes that Kiev is hoping that a well-armed Islamic State may be able to bog down Russian armed forces in Syria and thus distract Moscow from its military operations in eastern Ukraine. However, there is no proof that Ukraine’s state-owned Ukroboronprom weapons conglomerate, which oversees the country’s military–industrial complex, is the source of the weapons. It is worth noting that millions of weapons have been stolen from Ukrainian government depots since the start of the war in Donbass, and that weapons-smuggling has increased dramatically as a result. Moreover, Khaiyat told his Kuwaiti captors that FN-6 portable antiaircraft surface-to-air missiles were among the weapons he bought in Ukraine. The FN-6 is a Chinese-manufactured weapon, which has never been sold to the Ukrainian military. On the other hand, the Ukrainians could have purchased that weapon from the Chinese through a front-company, before supplying it to the black market.

Speaking to Russian news agency TASS, a spokesman for the Ukrainian military said on Friday that authorities in the former Soviet republic had no idea how the weapons were reaching the Islamic State. Vladislav Seleznyov, who speaks on behalf of the Ukrainian Armed Forces’ General Staff, told TASS that Kiev had “not produced or purchased Chinese-designed antiaircraft missile systems”, nor had it “provided transit for their transportation” to Syria. He added that reporters “should turn to law enforcement agencies on this issue”, as the Ukrainian military had “nothing to report on this topic”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 23 November 2015 | Permalink

US to release Israeli spy after 30 years in prison

Jonathan PollardA United States Navy intelligence analyst, who has served 30 years of a life sentence for spying on America for Israel, is set to be freed on Friday. Many in US counterintelligence consider Pollard, who acquired Israeli citizenship in 1995, as one of the most damaging double spies in American history. But he is widely viewed as a hero in Israel, and many Israelis, as well as pro-Israel Americans, have pressured the US administration of President Barack Obama to release him. There is intense speculation in Washington that Pollard is being released in order to quieten Israeli criticism of a recently struck international agreement on Iran’s nuclear program.

The Wall Street Journal published an article in July of this year, suggesting that the Obama administration was “preparing to release” Pollard. Citing unnamed US officials, the paper claimed Washington hoped that the move would “smooth [America’s] relations with Israel in the wake of the Iran nuclear deal”. The latter was signed last summer between Tehran and the so-called P5+1 nations, namely the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany. The New York Times added to the speculation soon afterwards with a detailed front-page article, which confirmed that “some in Washington appeared to be highlighting” Pollard’s upcoming 30-year parole hearing in November. It added that the White House had been contemplating using Pollard’s release to appease, not only Tel Aviv, but also pro-Israel supporters in Congress, many of whom have campaigned for years in favor of Pollard’s release.

As intelNews reported back in July, Newsweek’s veteran intelligence correspondent Jeff Stein responded to the news of Pollard’s release by posing an interesting question: when Pollard is released, will he have access to close to $1 million in spy wages that his Israeli handlers are reputed to have deposited for him in a Swiss bank account? In his article, Stein wondered whether Israel had continued to deposit $30,000 a year in Pollard’s reputed Swiss bank account, which is a standard practice for intelligence agencies. If the answer is yes, then the amount available today would be in the neighborhood of $1 million. If Pollard moves to Israel following his release on Friday, as many believe he will, will he then have access to the money he earned by spying on the US government as an unregistered agent of a foreign power? And if so, how should this be expected to affect the already rocky relations between Washington and Tel Aviv?

Stein quoted Pollard’s New York lawyer, Eliot Lauer, who called the rumors of a secret Swiss bank account “poppycock” and added that Pollard had “secured employment and housing […] in the New York area”. Additionally, there are some who speculate that Pollard may not be allowed to leave the US as part of the conditions of his parole. At this stage, however, nobody knows for sure.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 20 November 2015 | Permalink

In change of policy, Russia and US begin sharing intelligence with France

Hollande and PutinThe United States and Russia, which have traditionally been cautious about sharing Middle East-related intelligence with France, have both announced that they will begin giving classified information to Paris. On Wednesday, France’s Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said at a press conference that intelligence shared by the US had been instrumental in enabling the French Air Force to intensify its air campaign against the Islamic State. Asked to respond to Drian’s comments, US Department of Defense spokesman Peter Cook said that the US Armed Forces had indeed “increased intelligence-sharing with France”.

French officials described that development as a “change in the US position”. IntelNews readers will recall that the United States and France limited their intelligence cooperation last summer, after it emerged that the US had spied on the communications of three French presidents, from 1995 to 2012. Paris scaled back drastically its intelligence cooperation with Washington following subsequent revelations that the National Security Agency had targeted the personal cell phone of Francois Hollande, France’s current head of state.

Also on Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin instructed the Russian Armed Forces stationed in Syria to treat their French counterparts “as allies”. Putin reportedly told the leadership of the Russian military in Syria that they “must establish direct contact with the French and work with them as with allies”. This is a significant development, given that Russia is one of the few countries that continues to maintain an active intelligence-collection program on the ground in Syria. Unlike the US, France, and most other Western states, Russia has not closed its embassy in Damascus and is thus able to run networks of human sources throughout the country. The news of increased Russian intelligence-sharing with France came as Moscow announced//announced// on Wednesday that it was stepping up intelligence-gathering throughout the Middle East, according to Andrei Kartapolov, a senior official in the Russian Army’s General Staff.

Meanwhile, an unnamed Moroccan security official told Reuters on Wednesday that intelligence shared by the Moroccan intelligence services with their French counterparts led to a raid in an apartment in Paris in connection with the November 13 attacks there. Two people were shot dead or committed suicide and seven others were arrested during Wednesday’s dramatic raid in the Paris suburb of St. Denis.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 19 November 2015 | Permalink

Russian-Iranian alliance over Syria is not as strong as some believe

Rouhani PutinThe governments of Russia and the Islamic Republic of Iran are arguably the two most important allies of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But the Russian-Iranian alliance over Syria is not as solid —and may not be as durable— as some believe. On Monday, Iranian news agency ISNA reported that Iran’s minister for intelligence condemned Russia’s increased military involvement in Syria and said it would weaken Iran’s security. The minister, Mahmoud Alavi, opined at a press conference in Tehran that the intensification of Russia’s military operations in Syria would backfire against Iran, because it would prompt the Islamic State to “redouble its efforts to destabilize Iran’s security”.

Alavi’s comments came two weeks after Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps said that Iran cared about the stability of al-Assad’s regime in Syria more than Russia did. Jafari was responding to earlier comments made by Maria Zakharova, spokeswoman for the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who said that Moscow would not insist in keeping al-Assad in power in Damascus as a matter of principle. When asked to comment on Zakharova’s comments, Jafari said Iran had to accept that Russia “may not care if al-Assad stays in power as we do”. The difference between Tehran and Moscow, said Jafari, was that “we don’t know any better person to replace him”.

So does that spell changes in the dynamics of the Russian-Iranian alliance over Syria? Such an eventuality should not be discounted, says Sergey Aleksashenko, nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He explains that, although both the Russians and the Iranians have aided al-Assad, their reasons for doing so are very different. Russia’s interests in Syria center on maintaining access to its naval base in Tartus, and on retaining a geopolitical presence in the Middle East. Iran’s support for Assad aims to prevent Tehran’s traditional foes, namely Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, from turning Syria into their protectorate. Additionally, says Aleksashenko, Iran appears much more willing to deploy ground troops in the fight against ISIS than Russia. The Islamic Republic is also much more willing to go against the wishes of other regional powers, like Saudi Arabia and Turkey, which Moscow tends to court.

Ultimately, says Aleksashenko, “although Russia has strategic interests in Syria, it has no intention to keep a military presence in the Middle East forever”. The Iranians, however, have no choice but to dwell in one of the world’s most unstable regions. Al-Assad’s removal would add significantly to that instability, and that is not something that Tehran is willing to permit.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 18 November 2015 | Permalink

ISIS bombing of Beirut is more important than Paris attacks

Bourj al-Barajneh The recent attacks by Islamic State militants in Paris continue to dominate the world’s headlines. But the double suicide blasts that struck Beirut three days earlier are far more significant for the future of the Syrian Civil War. The outpouring of grief that followed the attacks of November 15 in the French capital prompted charges of discrimination against the world’s media. The latter practically ignored the bombing of Lebanese capital Beirut on November 12, which killed 43 and injured over 200 people. The Islamic State, known also as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), claimed responsibility for the deadly blasts, which marked the bloodiest attack in the Lebanese capital since the end of the country’s civil war in 1990.

The contrast between the media’s treatment of the attacks in Paris and Beirut could not have been starker. The news of the double suicide blasts in Beirut hardly penetrated global headlines, with the exception of outlets like Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya. Even the BBC, which typically pays more attention to non-Western news, relegated the incident to third place, behind a story about corruption in the international football association and the news of the killing of “Jihadi John”. There was no “safety check” app on Facebook, and no Lebanese flags were superimposed on users’ profile photos. Yet the blasts in Beirut are more significant than the attacks in Paris, for two reasons.

First, because attacking “soft targets” in Paris is far easier than attacking Beirut. Paris is a city of 2.2 million people, who are used to a life of relative security and hardly pay attention to their surroundings. The “city of light” features a café in nearly every corner, 13,000 restaurants and over 2,000 hotels; it is easy to enter and exit, and is hardly policed, even by Western standards. Beirut, on the other hand, is a tense Middle Eastern city with heavy police and military presence. The southern Beirut neighborhood of Bourj al-Barajneh, which was targeted by ISIS on November 12, is a Hezbollah stronghold, and probably one of the most tightly policed urban areas in the Eastern Mediterranean. There is little government presence there; but this does not mean that there is no security. On the contrary, Hezbollah militias and volunteers provide protection and conduct careful monitoring of nearly every street. Like its neighboring Dahieh, Bourj al-Barajneh is a world far removed from the fashionable streets of downtown Beirut, where Starbucks cafés and McDonald’s restaurants are frequented by fashionable Lebanese Christians and Western diplomats. Western intelligence has almost no presence Q Quotethere, and even the Mossad, Israel’s feared spy service, rarely ventures in the Hezbollah-controlled neighborhoods.

The fact that ISIS was able to penetrate and bomb Bourj al-Barajneh is a monumental development in the ever-widening Syrian Civil War. It demonstrates the advanced planning and operational sophistication of ISIS and places the ball squarely in Hezbollah’s court. What is more, it was the second time in less than two years that ISIS bombed southern Beirut. The Shiite group has been humiliated, having been shown to lack the resources to protect its heartland from Sunni attacks. Moreover, the Lebanese group, which is almost exclusively funded by Iran, will have to respond to that provocation. For several months, the Middle East has been buzzing with rumors that Iran and Hezbollah are preparing a two-front, large-scale ground assault against ISIS forces. Do last week’s twin suicide attacks bring that possibility closer? The answer to that question may change the entire course of the Syrian Civil War. Read more of this post


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