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.

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

Analysis: The West should weigh carefully its response to the Paris carnage

Paris FranceParis is still reeling from Friday’s unprecedented carnage, which left at least 130 people dead and over 350 wounded. The six separate incidents included the first known suicide bombings in the country’s history and marked the deadliest coordinated attacks on French soil since World War II. The magnitude of the attacks prompted the French government to close the country’s borders and declare a nationwide state of emergency —the first since 1961. The shock from the mass killings is today reverberating throughout Europe, a continent that had not seen such a deadly incident since the Madrid train bombings of 2004, when a group of al-Qaeda-inspired militants killed 191 people in the Spanish capital. A response from France and its Western allies is to be expected. However, the West should pause and think very carefully before deepening its engagement in a chaotic and unpredictable war that is like nothing it has ever experienced. Specifically, Western leaders should consider the following:

I. The adversaries know and understand the West, its culture and way of life, far better than the West understands them. Ever since 9/11 and the London bombings of 2005, a number of Western observers have cautioned against the so-called “Islamization of Europe”. Nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, the events of 9/11 caused a widening gulf between an increasingly Islamophobic West and Muslims; the latter are viewed by European critics of Islam as foreign bodies. What is far more prevalent and important is the Europeanization of Islam, which means that adherents of radical Islam are studying and interacting with European culture, norms and values, more intensely than ever before. Consequently, armed attacks carried out by Islamist militants against Western targets reflect a deep understanding of Western culture that far exceeds the West’s understanding of them. The November 13 attacks in Paris typify this: they were not “indiscriminate”, as some have suggested. They were carefully selected to achieve core political objectives, while at the same time sending a symbolic message against the Western way of recreation, which Islamists view as decadent. That was highlighted in a statement about the Paris attacks issued by the Islamic State, in which the group singled out the Bataclan Theater as Q Quotea venue where “a party of perversity” was taking place. Europe’s response to this phenomenon is dismissal and indifference. Most Westerners are still at a loss trying to understand the basic differences between Sunni and Shia Islam, let alone the ideological and spiritual underpinnings of groups like the Islamic State, Jabhat al-Nusra, and others. The idea that radical Islam can be defeated before it is understood is naïve and dangerous.

II. The West does not have the intelligence and security infrastructure that is necessary to take on the Islamic State. It should not be forgotten that last Friday’s attacks took place despite the state of heightened alert that France has been under after the Charlie Hebdo shootings of January 2015. Since that time, French authorities have reportedly managed to stop at least six advanced plots against civilian targets, while alert passengers were able to prevent a mass shooting aboard a French train in August of this year. However, if France deepens its involvement in the Syrian Civil War, these attacks will continue with a scale and complexity that is bound to stretch —and possibly overwhelm— the country’s security infrastructure. Nine months after the Charlie Hebdo shootings, the presence of thousands of police officers and even troops in the streets of Paris has become common. But that did nothing to stop Friday’s attacks in a city of 2.2 million people, which features 35,000 cafés, 13,000 restaurants and over 2,000 hotels. The sheer number of these “soft targets” makes Paris a city that is virtually impossible to defend against determined suicide assailants. The French are also used to traveling with ease within their country and across Europe, as the borders between France and its neighbors, such as Belgium, Germany and Switzerland, have become practically meaningless. Moreover, French authorities estimate that at least 13,000 radicalized Muslims live in France —a fraction of the country’s nearly 6 million Muslim citizens, but large enough to overwhelm the French security services. Read more of this post

Analysis: New Dutch spy bill proposes changes in approval, oversight

AIVD HollandOn July 2, 2015, the Dutch government released for public consultation a long-awaited bill that overhauls the Dutch Intelligence and Security Act of 2002. Known also as Wiv2002, the Act is the legal framework for the operations of the General Intelligence and Security Service (AIVD) and the Military Intelligence and Security Service (MIVD). The bill is a complete rewrite of the present law, and includes expansions of power, as well as changes to the approval regime and oversight. The below provides a brief overview focused on the interception and hacking powers.

The services’ special powers, such as interception and hacking, can only be used for a subset of their legal tasks. That subset includes national security,
foreign intelligence and military intelligence. The government annually determines the intelligence needs of itself and other intelligence consumers; the outcome is used to focus and prioritize strategic and operational plans and activities.

The services have and hold a specific interception power, i.e., interception of communication of a specified person, organization and/or technical characteristic (e.g. IMEI, phone number, IP address, email address). This requires approval from the minister in charge. The services also have and hold a non-specific interception power —i.e., ‘bulk’ interception— but the bill expands that power from ether-only to “any form of telecommunications or data transfer”, thus including cable networks. Furthermore, the bill no longer limits the non-specific power to communication that has a foreign source and/or foreign destination, meaning that domestic communication is in scope. Like the specific power, the non-specific power requires approval from the minister in charge. The services can retain raw bulk intercepts not just for one year, as is presently the case, but for three years. Encrypted raw intercepts can be stored indefinitely, as is presently the case; the three year retention period is triggered when bulk-intercepted encrypted data is decrypted.

Certain categories of “providers of communication services” will be required, in consultation with the services, to provide access to their networks, if so requested by the services on the basis of approval from the minister. Those categories will be determined by governmental decree. The term “provider of a communication service” is derived from the term “service provider” in the Budapest Convention on Cybercrime of 2001, and is defined so as to include public telecommunication networks, non-public telecommunications networks, hosting providers and website operators. The services have and hold the right to, under certain conditions and after approval from the Minister, compel “anyone” to decrypt data or hand over keys. The approval request for that must include an indication of the conversations, telecommunications or data transfers that are targeted.

Read more of this post

Ex-NATO supreme commander warns of ‘Grexit security nightmare’

James StavridisAn American former supreme allied commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has warned that a possible Greek exit from the Eurozone “could become a geopolitical nightmare” for the European Union and NATO. James Stavridis, a retired four-start US Navy admiral, who served as NATO’s 16th Supreme Allied Commander Europe from 2009 to 2013, said solving the Greek crisis should not be left to the central bankers. In an article published Wednesday in Foreign Policy, Stavridis said the financial administrators that are handling the Greek crisis were not sufficiently cognizant of the massive geostrategic implications of a possible “Grexit”.

The retired admiral said that if the Greek economy continues its downward spiral, the country may not be able to fulfil its defense obligations to NATO, in which Greece has held full membership since 1952. As a result, the country may leave not only the EU, but also NATO. Neither organization has ever lost a member-state, said Stavridis, adding that such a development would constitute terra incognita and would “shake both organizations in fundamental ways” by weakening their broader ideological cohesion.

However, said Stavridis, chances are that Greece will remain a member of EU and NATO despite possibly exiting the Eurozone. But it would be “an angry disaffected and battered nation”, he said, and could thus wreak havoc in both organizations. The latter are consensus-driven, meaning that their actions depend on the unanimous agreement of all member-states. If Greece adopted an “uncooperative” attitude, it would easily bring both organizations to a halt when it comes to pressing issues, such the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean, sanctions against Russia over the war in Ukraine, the Iranian nuclear program, or even negotiations about transatlantic trade. Currently, Greece’s important geographic position means that its naval bases constitute the maritime flank of NATO during a critical time of tension in the eastern Mediterranean, said Stavridis.

And what if Greece, shunned by the West, started to look elsewhere for support? Russia, which shares strong historical and religious links with Greece, could be a “prospective partner” for Athens, argued Stavridis. If Moscow offered even marginal economic assistance to Athens, Greece could be tempted to further distance itself from its Western partners, both diplomatically and militarily.

Admiral Stavridis’ warning came a day after NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Greece had played “an important role in southern Europe as a NATO member” and urged Athens not to make cuts in its defense spending due to the ongoing economic crisis.

Analysis: French are upset, but not surprised, by news of US spying

Before Edward Snowden, the revelation that the United States National Security Agency spied on three successive French presidents would have shocked many. But in the post-Snowden era, the news came and went without much tumult. The French President, Francois Hollande, called two emergency meetings of senior government officials at the Élysée Palace; the American ambassador to France was summoned for an official protest; but nothing more came of it. It was reported that US President Barack Obama spoke directly with his French counterpart on Wednesday, and assured him in no uncertain terms “that the US is no longer spying on France”.

The French leader, who is one of three French presidents mentioned in the WikiLeaks documents as a target of the NSA, is genuinely upset. And there will be some in his government who will push for a harder response than simply summoning the American envoy in Paris to file an official protest. But nobody in Paris or Washington thinks that Mr. Hollande, or indeed any other senior French official, was shocked or even surprised by the revelations of American espionage against France. Nor will the revelation cause any drastic disruption in the intelligence cooperation between France and the US. The two countries depend on each other to address a number of international issues that affect both, such the worrying situatioQ Quoten in Syria and Iraq, the continuing crises in Ukraine and in Libya, as well as the financial meltdown in Greece. So there is a recognition that their intelligence agencies must continue to work together on several pressing issues.

However, the French response may become a lot more direct if WikiLeaks publish further revelations about US espionage against French officials. The whistleblower website noted on Tuesday that “French readers can expect more timely and important revelations in the near future”. Unlike Edward Snowden, who is known to release progressively more damning documents in stages, WikiLeaks does not have a history of aiming for a crescendo through progressive releases of classified information. But there is speculation that Edward Snowden may in fact be the source of this latest WikiLeaks disclosure. If that is the case, we should not exclude further releases of relevant documents, and thus a more robust French response.

And what about America’s retort? Washington has suffered considerable diplomatic blowback from revelations in 2013 and 2014 that it spied on the leaders of Germany, Brazil and Argentina. Is the NSA still spying on America’s allied leaders? I am of the opinion that the NSA is not currently targeting the personal communications of allied government leaders as a matter of Q Quoteroutine practice. However, I do believe that this regimen can easily be changed to address particular needs, through what is called a “presidential finding”, basically a direct order issued by the president of the United States to target an individual foreign leader.

In the past two years, we have witnessed the diplomatic fallout that can result from publicly revealing these practices. However, for an intelligence agency like the NSA, having access to the personal communications of a foreign head of state is a temptation that is simply too difficult to resist. Moreover, it should not be assumed that political leaders are always completely in the know about the practices of their country’s intelligence agencies. American intelligence history amply demonstrates this truism. Finally, I would point to the well known maxim that intelligence agencies do not typically distinguish between adversaries and allies. All targets are considered fair game. This will admittedly do little to appease the French, but it will at least give them an accurate impression of what to expect in the brave new world of wholesale communications interception.

* This editorial is based on an interview given by the author to the Spanish newspaper La Razón.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 25 June 2015 | Permalink:

Analysis: Having taken Ramadi and Palmyra, ISIS is now unstoppable

ISIS forces in RamadiThe capture by Islamic State forces of the Iraqi city of Ramadi, on May 17, has given the organization a fortified urban base less than an hour’s drive from Baghdad. Its near-simultaneous takeover of the central Syrian city of Palmyra, points to the organization’s permanence and demonstrates its widening operational span, which now ranges from Western Libya to the Iranian border. Without an all-out war effort by outside forces, such as Iran, or the United States, it is difficult to see how the Islamic State could be stopped from permanently establishing itself as a major actor in the region, especially since no outside force appears willing to confront it directly.

On Tuesday, Iraqi government forces launched a major offensive to recapture Ramadi from the Islamic State —which is widely referred to in the West as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. Such an effort, however, will be extremely difficult and costly, both in terms of lives and material requirements. Ramadi is a sizable city of over 900,000 people —although several thousand civilians have left— and presents an attacker with an urban-warfare setting that can be extremely arduous to operate in. Moreover, Ramadi is a solidly Sunni city, with strong ties to the pre-2003 Iraqi military establishment that date back to the early days of Saddam Hussein’s rule. Even if they do not necessarily see eye-to-eye with ISIS, Ramadi’s Sunni inhabitants are bound to fight doggedly against the Iraqi army, which is currently dominated by Shiites. Thus, if ISIS decides to hold on to Ramadi for reasons of strategy, or to defend its prestige, it will be very surprising if the Iraqi army manages to recapture it. Even if ISIS is driven out of the city, most likely with significant Iranian and American assistance, there is no guarantee that the local population will be Q Quotepacified. Iraqi government forces will almost certainly face a protracted armed campaign by a mixture of heavily armed groups in the city. Some of these groups are led by ISIS, some are inspired by al-Qaeda, while others are motivated by a broader anti-Shiite sentiment, which is currently the predominant political ideology in Anbar Province.

On May 20, ISIS forces also captured the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra. The choice of target was neither spontaneous nor unexpected. Located right in the center of Syria, Palmyra forms one of two major land routes used by the government of Iran to transport military materiel to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Hezbollah, which, like Iran, supports the Syrian government in Damascus, also acquires Iranian weapons through that route. The second main route, which passes through Deir el-Zor, and Raqqah, is already controlled by ISIS. Therefore, the Syrian regime, which depends largely on Iranian support for its survival, simply has to retake Palmyra if it wants to win its war against ISIS. The Islamists know this, however, and they will persistently resist any attempt by the Syrian troops to regain control of the city. As is typical in these situations, time will be crucial here. The more time ISIS has on its hands, the better it will be able to fortify and defend Palmyra. The Syrian military will most likely resort to bombing the city from the air, but this is not as easy as it used to be, because ISIS now has formidable antiaircraft capabilities. Moreover, at some point land forces will have to be used, and that is precisely where ISIS has the upper hand in Syria.

On Sunday, United States Secretary of Defense Ash Carter told CNN that, in his view, Ramadi fell to ISIS because “the Iraqi forces just showed no will to fight”. Carter was right, except when he used the term “Iraqi forces”, he really meant Iraqi Shiites. There are currently almost no Sunnis left in the Iraqi Armed Forces. Most are unwilling to offer allegiance to a state that is dominated by Iran, which they see as not representing them, or indeed threatening their very existence. For that same reason, many Sunnis are now actively fighting in support of ISIS, or for Sunni tribes that Q Quoteare aligned to it. Iraqi Sunnis believe that if they lose the fight against the Iraqi military they will be extinct as a people, which explains why they are fighting with more zeal and determination than their Shiite compatriots.

Meanwhile the international anti-ISIS alliance is plagued by too many disagreements and political bad blood to be effective. The United States wants ISIS to lose, but no American president would consider sending large numbers of US troops back in the Middle East, after the fiasco in Iraq. Additionally, Washington does not want to be seen to cooperate with what is perhaps ISIS’ most formidable adversary, namely Iran. Saudi Arabia is nominally against ISIS, but it also knows that if ISIS loses in their war against the Iranians, the latter will simply dominate the region, and nobody in Riyadh wants this. Like Saudi Arabia, Turkey is ostensibly against ISIS, but it is also against the Kurds, who are currently being assisted by Iran to fight ISIS. It is therefore not assisting the war effort as much as it could.

This fragmentation within the anti-ISIS front will continue. It seems that everyone in the region is waiting for a new administration to emerge in Washington after the 2016 national elections, in the hope that the US will engage more directly in the war effort. However, unless ISIS directly attacks the US in a 9/11-type attack, it is difficult to see Washington taking a more active stance in this chaotic and unpredictable war. It is difficult to see this amidst the bloody suffering of the local people, but this war is in essence a multifaceted chess game, in which there are no genuine alliances. Every actor involved appears to be trying to promote their own narrowly defined national interests.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 26 May 2015 | Permalink:


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