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.

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

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

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

US defense contractors allegedly hired Russian computer programmers

PentagonTwo American firms contracted by the Department of Defense have settled a lawsuit accusing them of having hired Russian programmers based in Moscow to write computer code for classified systems. The hires allegedly occurred as part of a $613 million contract, which was awarded by the US Pentagon to Massachusetts-based Netcracker Technology Corporation and Virginia-based Computer Systems Corporation (CSC). The two companies were hired to write software for the US Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA), a Pentagon outfit that provides the US armed forces with secure real-time combat communications. But in 2011, contractor John C. Kingsley, who had a supervisory role in the project, notified the US government that the two companies had farmed out part of the contract’s coding duties to programmers in Moscow and other Russian cities.

If true, Kingsley’s allegations would mean that Netcracker and CSC were in violation of federal regulations, which specify that only American citizens with the appropriate security clearances should be employed to work on classified communications systems. A subsequent government investigation, which lasted four years, gave rise to a lawsuit against the two companies. The court was told that the code written by the Russian programmers had allowed the installation of “numerous viruses” on the communications systems of the Pentagon “on at least one occasion”. Witnesses also accused Netcracker and CSC of being guided mainly by greed, since it was able to save over 60% of wage costs by employing the Russian programmers.

Last week, the two companies chose to settle the case, by paying the government a combined fee of nearly $13 million in civil penalties. It is important to note, however, that they both deny the government’s accusations that they violated the terms of their federal contract. In statement issued last week, the companies stated that their decision reflected their belief that it was “in the best interest of all stakeholders to settle the matter”. A spokeswoman for the DISA told The Daily Beast that she could not comment on the case, because doing so would “compromise the Agency’s national security posture”. According to The Daily Beast, last week’s settlement does not prevent the Department of Justice from filing criminal charges against Netcracker and CSC.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 12 November 2015 | Permalink | News tip: C.H.

Security firm says it shut down extensive Iranian cyber spy program

IRGC IranA security firm with headquarters in Israel and the United States says it detected and neutralized an extensive cyber espionage program with direct ties to the government of Iran. The firm, called Check Point Software, which has offices in Tel Aviv and California, says it dubbed the cyber espionage program ROCKET KITTEN. In a media statement published on its website on Monday, Check Point claims that the hacker group maintained a high-profile target list of 1,600 individuals. The list reportedly includes members of the Saudi royal family and government, American and European officials, North Atlantic Treaty Organization officers and nuclear scientists working for the government of Israel. The list is said to include even the names of spouses of senior military officials from numerous nations.

News agency Reuters quoted Check Point Software’s research group manager Shahar Tal, who said that his team was able to compromise the ROCKET KITTEN databases and acquire the list of espionage targets maintained by the group. Most targets were from Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the United States, he said, although countries like Turkey and Venezuela were also on the list. Tal told Reuters that the hackers had compromised servers in the United Kingdom, Germany and the Netherlands, and that they were using these and other facilities in Europe to launch attacks on their unsuspecting targets. According to Check Point, the hacker group was under the command of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps, a branch of the Iranian military that is ideologically committed to the defense of the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Reuters said it contacted the US Federal Bureau of Investigation and Europol, but that both agencies refused comment, as did the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. However, an unnamed official representing the Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic security agency, said that ROCKET KITTEN “is familiar to us and is being attended to”. The official declined to provide further details. Meanwhile, Check Point said it would issue a detailed report on the subject late on Monday.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 10 November 2015 | Permalink

Chile government report says poet Neruda may have been poisoned

Pablo NerudaA report prepared by the Chilean government considers it “highly likely” that Chile’s Nobel laureate poet, Pablo Neruda, died as a result of deliberate poisoning. The literary icon, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1971, died on September 23, 1973. His death occurred less than two weeks after a coup d’état, led by General Augusto Pinochet, toppled the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende, a Marxist who was a close friend of Neruda.

The death of the internationally acclaimed poet, who was 69 at the time, was officially attributed to prostate cancer and the effects of acute mental stress caused by the military coup. In 2013, however, an official investigation was launched into Neruda’s death following allegations that he had been murdered. The investigation was sparked by comments made by Neruda’s personal driver, Manuel Araya, who said that the poet had been deliberately injected with poison while receiving treatment for cancer at the Clinica Santa Maria in Chilean capital Santiago. According to Araya, General Pinochet ordered Neruda’s assassination after he was told that the poet was preparing to seek political asylum in Mexico. The Chilean dictatorship allegedly feared that the Nobel laureate poet would seek to form a government-in-exile and oppose the regime of General Pinochet.

In April of that year, a complex autopsy was performed on Neruda’s exhumed remains, but was inconclusive. On November 6, however, Spanish newspaper El País said it had been given access to a report prepared by Chile’s Ministry of the Interior. The report allegedly argues that it was unlikely that Neruda’s death was the “consequence of his prostate cancer”. According to El País, the document states that it was “manifestly possible and highly probable” that the poet’s death was the outcome of “direct intervention by third parties”. The report also explains that Neruda’s alleged murder resulted from a fast-acting substance that was injected into his body or entered it orally.

The report obtained by El País was produced for an ongoing legal probe into Neruda’s death, which is being supervised by Mario Carroza Espinosa, one of Chile’s most high-profile judges.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 09 October 2015 | Permalink | News tip: R.W.


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