French spy agencies conclude Assad government was behind Syria gas attack

Khan SheikhunA comprehensive report released yesterday by the French Intelligence Community concludes with certainty that the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was behind the April 4 sarin gas attack in northwestern Syria. The report, a “national evaluation” based on France’s own intelligence sources and scientific analysis of samples collected from the site of the attack, indicates that the poison gas used in the attack came from stockpiles that belong to the Syrian government.

The sarin gas attack targeted Khan Sheikhun, a town of approximately 50,000 people in the southern region of Syria’s Idlib Governorate. The city is located on the main highway that connects the Syrian capital Damascus with the city of Aleppo in the north of the country. The surprise attack killed nearly 100 people and drew near-universal condemnation from the international community. It also sparked a military attack by the United States, which launched a missile attack at a Syrian military base from where the sarin gas attack allegedly originated.

On Wednesday, France’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Jean-Marc Ayrault, announced the publication of a report, which, he said, proves conclusively that the Syrian government perpetrated the attack. The six-page declassified version of the report concludes that “the Syrian armed forces and security services perpetrated a chemical attack using sarin against civilians”. It alleges that the conclusion rests on “intelligence collected by our services”, which includes “samples from the scene of the attack”. The latter are reportedly identical with samples collected from sites of previous chemical attacks perpetrated by the Syrian government. Additionally, the French report concludes that the attack was conducted with the use of airplanes, which the Syrian rebel forces do not have.

The French intelligence report comes after a similar report from the United States concluded that Assad’s government was behind the attack on Khan Sheikhun. A few days after the attack, medical tests conducted on victims of the attack by Turkish experts showed that sarin gas had been used, but did not implicate a specific culprit. The Syrian and Russian governments deny all involvement in the attack and claim that it was carried out by al-Qaeda-linked rebels.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 27 April 2017 | Permalink

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Analysis: US launches strikes against Syrian regime in major policy shift

Shayrat SyriaThe nearly 60 Tomahawk missiles that the United States fired at Syria in the early hours of Friday local time were not the first. Nor were they the first that struck a Syrian government installation. In September of 2016, for example, a United States airstrike hit a military base in the eastern Syrian city of Deir el-Zour, killing 62 and wounding over 100 government soldiers. However, the Pentagon claimed that the strike was in error and had been intended to hit Islamic State militants. In fact, the entirety of America’s previous military strikes on Syrian soil has been aimed at the Islamic State. The missiles that last night on the Syrian military airbase of Shayrat marked Washington’s first intentional attack on the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Consequently, the US is now an official belligerent in one of our time’s most complex and intractable armed conflicts.

Since the missile attacks were confirmed, all eyes have concentrated on Russia, President Al-Assad’s primary supporter, without whom Damascus would now probably be run by a consortium of Sunni militias. There is no question that Shayrat hosts a significant contingent of Russian military personnel and large quantities of Russian-supplied military equipment, ranging from airplanes to radar facilities. Moscow’s response to the American attack will largely depend on whether any of its personnel are among the casualties in Shayrat. There is also concern about China’s response, given that Washington’s attack took place during the official visit to the United States by Xi Jinping, premier of China, another strong Syrian ally. Finally, it is worth considering possible Iranian responses to the US attack, especially if Iranian citizens end up on the casualty list.

The attention paid by observers to Russia, China and Iran is understandable given the clout of these countries on the world stage. But the most important response may come from Syria itself. According to the US Pentagon, the strike on the Shayrat airbase was intended “to deter the [Syrian] regime from using chemical weapons again”. But what if it does not? Last time Washington responded to rumors of a chemical attack in Syria, President Obama warned his counterpart in Damascus not to cross the red line of chemical warfare. Which, of course, was precisely what Mr. Assad did, successfully calling Washington’s bluff. He may do so again. Last night’s American attack may therefore result in an intensification of chemical warfare by the Syrian regime. At that point, US President Donald Trump will have no choice but to deepen America’s involvement in an increasingly chaotic and unpredictable war, where he will find Russia on the opposite side.

Few supporters of President Trump, who campaigned promising to disengage America from foreign wars and focus on domestic concerns, could have imagined even a month ago that the White House would be entering the Syrian Civil War. And yet this is precisely what is happening. The US now has over 500 troops stationed on Syrian soil, and has just attacked the country’s government with dozens of missiles. The reaction to that attack by the government in Damascus may draw Washington even deeper into the Syrian war. Many observers in America have suggested that the only way to truly evaluate the Trump administration will be by observing its performance during a major international crisis. It appears that they may soon get their wish.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 07 March 2017 | Permalink

Israel’s chief of staff says Hezbollah killed its own commander in Syria

Mustafa Amine BadreddineAn Israeli military official has repeated claims in the Arab media that the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah killed its own military commander in Syria, following a dispute with Iran. Mustafa Amine Badreddine, 55, an expert in explosives and former bomb-maker, was a senior military commander in the military wing of Hezbollah. He rose through the ranks of the organization to become a trusted adviser to Hezbollah’s Secretary General, Hassan Nasrallah. In 2011, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, set up by the United Nations, charged Badreddine with organizing the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Hariri was killed with over 20 other people in a massive bomb blast in Beirut, in February of 2005.

Soon after the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War, the leadership of Hezbollah dispatched Badreddine to the Syrian capital Damascus. His stated mission was to command thousands of Hezbollah troops, who fought under Iranian guidance in support of the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But on May 13, 2016, Badreddine was reportedly killed in Damascus, causing observers to describe his death as the biggest setback for the Shiite militant group since the 2008 assassination of its leading commander, Imad Mughniyeh. Initial reports in Hezbollah-controlled Lebanese media suggested that Badreddine might have been killed in an Israeli air attack. But a press statement issued later by Hezbollah said the commander had been killed as a result of an armed attack by Sunni rebels. However, on March 8 of this year, the Saudi-owned pan-Arab television network al-Arabiya said it had conducted its own investigation into Badreddine’s death, and had concluded that he was killed by Hezbollah itself. The network claimed that Hezbollah’s Secretary General Nasrallah had ordered Badreddine’s killing, after the Iranians demanded it. Apparently the Iranians wanted him killed because he disputed the authority of Major General Qasem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, who is often credited with having saved the Syrian government from demise during the Civil War.

The claim that Badreddine was killed by Hezbollah was echoed on Tuesday by Lieutenant General Gadi Eisenkot, Chief of the General Staff of the Israel Defense Forces. Speaking to the Associated Press, Lt Gen Eisenkot said that reports from Arab media that Badreddine was killed by his own forces agreed “with intelligence we have”, referring to the Israeli military. It is worth noting that Israeli officials rarely comment on intelligence operations, including assassination operations, choosing instead to adhere to a “refuse to confirm or deny” policy.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 22 March 2017 | Permalink

Trump administration instructs CIA to halt support for anti-Assad rebels in Syria

Free Syrian ArmyThe White House has instructed the Central Intelligence Agency to halt military support to armed groups that are associated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a group opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Some believe that the move indicates a change in American policy under United States President Donald Trump. But Syrian rebel commanders say they believe the move is temporary, and that military aid will be restored. For several years, the CIA has provided training and other forms of assistance to rebel groups in Syria, such as the New Syrian Force, which operate under the umbrella of the FSA. Aside from training, the assistance has included light and heavy ammunition, including antitank missiles, mines and grenades.

However, it appears that the CIA was instructed nearly a month ago by the White House to freeze all assistance to these rebel groups. Correspondents from the Reuters news agency said they confirmed the change in policy by speaking to senior rebel commanders from five armed groups operating under the FSA. These commanders told Reuters that they had not been given any official reason for the sudden termination of all CIA assistance. The change coincided with the change of guard at the White House, from Barack Obama to Donald Trump. Some in Washington, as well as some members of rebel factions in Syria, are concerned that the change in the CIA’s stance might denote a broader policy shift in the White House. During his election campaign, Mr. Trump said repeatedly that he would end America’s overt and covert support for the FSA and would focus instead on defeating the Islamic State.

But the rebel commanders themselves told Reuters that the freeze in CIA support was due to a wave of renewed attacks against them by Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, a Sunni militant group that was previously affiliated with al-Qaeda. The rebels said that the CIA was concerned that weaponry provided to the FSA would end up in the hands of jihadist militants, so it temporarily halted its support until Jabhat Fateh al-Sham could be pushed back by FSA forces. Reuters published comments by two anonymous officials who were familiar with the CIA’s operations in Syria. They told the newspaper that the freeze of the CIA’s program had “nothing to do with US President Donald Trump replacing Barack Obama in January”. Additionally, said Reuters, Mr. Trump’s policy in Syria remains unknown. Several newspapers and news agencies contacted the CIA asking for comments, but the agency declined all requests on Wednesday.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 23 February 2017 | Permalink

Analysis: Turkey’s entry in Syrian war further-complicates a chaotic conflict

Syrian troopsEver since 2011, when the Syrian Civil War erupted, Turkey has refrained from directly intervening in the conflict, other than to provide material support to opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The hope in Ankara was that Islamist and pro-Assad forces would exhaust each other. There is no evidence that Turkey was at any point seriously alarmed about the rise of Sunni militancy in Syria. Instead, the Turkish government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made no secret of its primary concern, which was the rise of Kurdish nationalism in northern Syria.

However, a possible demise of the Islamic State may strengthen Kurdish forces in Syria and Iraq and could leave the al-Assad regime in place in Damascus. That would be the worst possible outcome for Turkey, which has always viewed the Syrian president a direct threat to its national security, surpassed only by Kurdish separatism. In a desperate effort to avoid such an outcome, Turkey is now increasingly intervening in the war. Its current goal is to have a strong say in how the region will look like once the Islamic State has been defeated.

With the exception of some pro-Turkish rebels, such as the Syrian Turkmen Brigades, who openly welcome Ankara’s intervention, no rebel factions in Syria are especially elated by Turkey’s entry in the war. Most recognize that the sole reason for Turkey’s intervention is the protection of its own national interest, which centers on preventing a rise of an independent Kurdish state —either official or de facto— in northern Syria.

Turkey’s involvement in the Syrian war will further complicate the conflict and is likely to prolong it. The more international actors are involved in the war, the more convoluted it gets and the longer it will take for it to end. Currently we have the Syrian government, various Sunni rebel forces, the Islamic State, Russia, the United States, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the Kurds, and several European powers involved in the war. The last thing this conflict needs is yet another foreign intervention, no matter where it comes from.

Moreover, Ankara’s overall role in the Syrian conflict has been inconsistent, as the country has at times sharply distanced itself from both Russian-led and American-led efforts in the region. President Erdogan’s policy on Syria —as on most other matters— has been spasmodic and haphazard, and has been primarily shaped by domestic concerns, as Turkey’s political strongman tries to solidify its rule inside the country. Consequently neither Moscow nor Washington have much faith in the reliance of the Turkish military contribution to the conflict.

The election of Donald Trump in the United States could further-complicate the regional balance of power in the Middle East and Turkey’s role in it. If a rapid rapprochement takes place between Washington and Moscow in 2017, Turkey will feel increasingly uneasy about its regional role. The Kurds, who have been working closely with Russia in Syria and with America in Iraq, will expect to be rewarded and compensated once the dust settles in the region. There have been voices in Moscow and Washington calling for the establishment of a de facto independent Kurdish state in northern Syria. If that happens, it will signal a massive setback for Turkey’s foreign policy and negatively affect its relations with Russia and possibly the United States.

Over a million people have now died in the Syrian civil war. Millions more have been displaced internally and abroad. Things could get immeasurably worse if Russian-led and American-led forces launch all-out attacks in Aleppo and Mosul respectively. There is no reason to believe at this point that the Islamic State and other rebel groups will abandon these cities, where over a million people remain trapped between the warring sides. We could be seeing the largest slaughter of civilians since World War II. At that point, there will be little that Ankara or anyone else can do to restore stability in that desperately troubled region.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 30 November 2016 | Permalink

FBI seeking former Syrian intelligence officer reportedly hiding in Florida

Moustafa Abed AyoubA Syrian former intelligence officer, who was given American citizenship several years ago, is being sought by authorities in the United States. The man was named by the Federal Bureau of Investigation last week as Moustafa Abed Ayoub, a 75-year-old resident of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. A statement by the FBI said the wanted man is believed to be hiding in southern Florida, possibly in the Miami area. A reward is now offered for information leading directly to Ayoub, according to the FBI press release. The release did not specify whether the former intelligence officer is wanted in connection with the ongoing civil war in Syria.

The FBI press release described Ayoub as a former brigadier general in Syria’s powerful Mukhabarat, the Military Intelligence Directorate, which operates under the auspices of the country’s Ministry of Defense. He is reported to have served in the Mukhabarat for nearly 20 years, from the early 1980s to the late 1990s. According to the FBI release, Ayoub served initially in Hama and Homs before he was transferred to Damascus. It appears that Ayoub is accused by the FBI of procuring American citizenship unlawfully, after giving deliberately false testimony during his naturalization proceedings. To be eligible for American citizenship, an applicant must have lived in the US for at least 30 months during the period leading to his or her naturalization application. Ayoub is accused of not telling immigration authorities that he had spent over 1,000 days outside the US in the months leading to his application for citizenship.

The FBI said it issued a warrant for Ayoub’s arrest in Florida, where he is believed to be hiding. However, the FBI release noted that Ayoub may have returned to Syria, or may be currently residing in the Lebanese capital Beirut.

Author: Ian Allen| Date: 30 September 2016 | Permalink

Cease-fire near collapse after US airstrike kills 62 and injures 100 Syrian troops

Deir al-Zour SyriaA cease-fire that was launched with much fanfare by the United States and Russia last week appeared in tatters on Sunday night, after Washington acknowledged it mistakenly killed over 60 Syrian troops on Saturday. American officials expressed regret for the alleged error, but Syrian and Russian officials accused Washington of deliberately sabotaging the cease-fire agreement. Russian sources said the US air strike killed 62 and injured over 100 Syrian government troops who were engaged in a battle against Islamic State forces in Syria’s eastern province of Deir al-Zour. American military officials insisted that the pilots, who flew into Syria from bases in Iraq, believed they were targeting Islamic State forces. The operation was allegedly aborted as soon as US forces were notified by the Russian military that Syrian government troops were being targeted.

According to media reports, the US government has apologized to Damascus though Russian intermediaries for the “unintentional loss of life of Syrian forces”. But the incident has incensed Moscow, as it marks the first known engagement between US and Syrian forces since American military forces began fighting the Islamic State in 2014. The incident was described by The Washington Post late on Saturday as having sparked “one of the most hostile diplomatic exchanges between Washington and Moscow in recent years”. Soon after the US airstrike, Russia called an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council, during which the Russian delegation accused the United States of deliberately trying to derail the cease-fire. According to reports, the American delegation stormed out of the closed-door meeting and denounced it as a “stunt” after the Russians openly accused Washington of aiding the Islamic State and al-Qaeda in Syria.

American officials have launched an investigation into Saturday’s incident and are so far refusing to speculate whether it was caused by human error or an intelligence failure. In Washington, a State Department spokesman insisted that “coalition forces would not intentionally strike a known a Syrian military unit”. But in a statement issued on Saturday, Russian Major General Igor Konashenkov said that, if the US air strike was in error, it was a “direct outcome of the US side’s stubborn unwillingness to coordinate its activities  in Syria with Russia”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 19 September 2016 | Permalink