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 the two-member Russian crew of the plane, and opened fire on a Russian rescue team that tried to save them, 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

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

UK, US see bomb behind downing of Russian airliner in Egypt

KogalymaviaInformation gathered by British and American intelligence agencies raises the possibility that a bomb may have brought down the Russian civilian airliner that crashed in Egypt last week. The Metrojet Airbus 321 left the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh on Saturday, heading for St. Petersburg, Russia. But it crashed in the Sinai Peninsula less than 30 minutes after it took off, killing all 224 passengers and crew onboard, the vast majority of whom were Russian citizens.

Earlier this week, Russian airline Kogalymavia, which operated the flight, said its investigation indicated that an “external influence” was responsible for the airplane’s downing. On Wednesday, the British government appeared to confirm the company’s suspicions. Britain’s Secretary of Foreign Affairs, Philip Hammond, told a press conference in London that the British government’s Crisis Response Committee had concluded that there was “a significant possibility that the crash was caused by an explosive device on board the aircraft”. He added that Whitehall was suspending effective immediately all flights operated by British carriers to and from Sharm el-Sheikh.

Soon after Hammond’s comments, the Associated Press quoted an unnamed American government official saying that the US had reached the “tentative conclusion” that Islamist militants in Sinai were responsible for planting the bomb on the Kogalymavia airplane. The Americans seem to have reached this conclusion based on intercepted communications messages from the Sinai region.

Egyptian officials have rejected claims that Islamist militants were behind the plane crash, and have criticized London’s decision to suspend all flights to and from Sharm el-Sheikh as unnecessary and premature. Experts in Russia have also said it is too early to draw formal conclusions about the crash. Meanwhile, the airplane’s flight data recorder has been recovered and will be analyzed by investigators in the coming days.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 05 November 2015 | Permalink

Russian subs looking for undersea Internet cables, say US officials

Undersea cableAn increased presence of Russian submarines near American territorial waters appears to correspond to the location of undersea Internet cables used for commercial and military communications, according to officials. Citing “more than half a dozen” American and European officials, including naval commanders and intelligence professionals, The New York Times said on Sunday that the United States Department of Defense was paying close attention to what it described as “significantly increased Russian activity” along known routes of the cables. The paper was referring to Russian underwater vessels, which Washington believes are equipped with technology designed to tap into the cables, or even to sabotage them, by severing them.

According to The Times, officials at the Pentagon believe that Moscow is less interested in tapping into the cables and more interested in mapping their location so that it can attack them during a hypothetical clash with the US. Superficially, the paper said that, according to US officials, the Russian Navy appeared to be seeking to locate the precise coordinates of the fiber-optic cables. The ultimate goal was to sever them “at some of their hardest-to-access locations” if Russia ever needed to disrupt the flow of communication to and from the US. The Russian submarines seem to be seeking some of the deeper locations of the undersea cable networks, which would make it harder for repair crews to locate and repair severed fiber-optic cables.

The New York Times said that, alongside commercial Internet cable networks, Russian submarines were looking for military networks, whose location is usually classified. The paper quoted a European diplomat, who said anonymously that Russian submarine patrols in American territorial waters had increased by nearly 50% since 2014. The level of activity of Russian submarines was now “comparable to what we saw in the Cold War”, said the diplomat.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 26 October 2015 | Permalink

EU parliament member loses immunity over claims he spied for Russia

European ParliamentIn a historic first, the parliament of the European Union (EU) has waived the immunity of one of its elected members over “reasonable suspicions” that he may have spied for Russia. The member of the European Parliament (MEP) is Béla Kovács, 55, who belongs to the far-right Movement for a Better Hungary. Founded in 2003, the party, known as Jobbik (movement, in Hungarian), has called for Hungary to leave the EU and instead join the Eurasian Union, an economic and political alliance led by Russia. In the 2014 parliamentary elections, Jobbik won just over 20% of the popular vote, placing third nationwide. The result was a marked difference from its performance in 2006, when it had barely received 2.2% of the vote share.

The party’s ideological proximity to Moscow, as well as its radical views on minorities and Jews, have added to its notoriety, causing many to denounce it as the EU’s most far-right political grouping. The party’s troubles grew further in September 2014, when the Hungarian public prosecutor officially requested form the European Parliament that it suspends Kovács’ immunity so that the Budapest-born politician, whose father is Russian, could be investigated for alleged ties to Russian intelligence. The EU parliament said it would consider the matter.

Meanwhile, Hungarian media published several allegations about Kovács’ alleged ties to Moscow, which, some reports suggested, date to the late 1970s. Other reports stated that Kovács’ Russian spouse, Svetlana Izstosina had been an agent of the KGB during the Cold War and that she operated as a courier for Moscow. In another bizarre twist, one report suggested that Izstosina was legally married to two other men, one of whom was a nuclear physicist working at the Lomonosov Moscow State University. Some Hungarian newspapers alleged that the government in Budapest was in possession of secret recordings of conversations between Kovács and Russian diplomats, which allegedly took place in the past six years.

An EU Parliament spokesperson told Bloomberg last week that the waiver of Kovács’ immunity did “not entail […] a judgment as to [the Hungarian MEP’s] guilt or innocence”. She added that she knew of no other cases where an MEP had been stripped of his immunity over allegations of espionage. If found guilty of spying for Moscow, Kovács could face up to eight years behind bars.

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


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