It is looking like the supposed diplomatic breakthrough on Syria could actually end up only escalating the war. US Secretary of State John Kerry met Russia's President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin last week to hash out a common position. (AFP, Dec. 15) This came just days after Kerry explicitly disavowed that the US is seeking "regime change" in Syria—making the US tilt to Assad clearer than ever, and vindicating Putin in his move to start bombing Syira. On Dec. 18, the UN Security Council adopted a resolution establishing a six-month time-table for "credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance" in Syria. "Free and fair" elections are to be held within 18 months under UN supervision with all Syrians, including members of the diaspora, eligible to vote. However, the official press release on the resolution made no mention of dictator Bashar Assad—and the notion that he will preside over such a transition defies five years of horrific reality.
Russian overtures to the Kurds continued in the build-up to the deal. When rebel factions were hosted by Suadi Arabia for talks on their own position vis-a-vis the UN agreement, the Kurds were excluded. This was vocally protested by Moscow. Russian deputy foreign minister Alexei Meshkov said: "We support the participation of a wide circle of opposition forces, which represent the Syrian people, in the Syrian negotiating process. The Kurds, certainly, must not be excluded from this process." (Rudaw, Dec. 16)
The icing of the Kurds and their allied Syrian Democratic Force (SDF) is certainly shameful. But accepting Russian advocacy is problematic for the Kurds as Moscow continues its aerial bombardment of other Syrian rebel forces—and civilians in their territories. Presumed Russian ari-strikes killed scores of people in the center of the rebel-held city of Idlib Dec. 20, with a busy market place and residential areas targeted. Rescue workers said they had confirmed at least 43 dead. (Reuters, Dec. 20)
This compounds similar bombardment of rebel-held areas by Assad's air force. Regime air-strikes on the center of al-Bab town in Aleppo governorate also claimed several civilian lives last week. (El-Dorar Al-Shima, Dec. 17)
Great Power meddling coincides with further polarization of ethnic groups on the ground into rival camps. A group of Arab tribes in Raqqa province issued a statement warning the People's Protection Units (YPG) against entering areas it controls. The YPG is the Kurdish militia that is the leading force in the SDF. "No one from the YPG may enter the Arab areas where are our fighters are present," the Collective of Raqqa Tribes said in the statement issued Dec. 15. The Collective further called on the YPG to "hand over" Tal Abyad, a Raqqa border town (mostly populated by ethnic Arabs and Turkmen) that the YPG liberated from ISIS. (NOW, Lebanon, Dec. 16) The YPG were also accused of erecting roadblocks to prevent displaced Arabs from return to their villages in the area, from which they'd beeb displaced during the Kurdish offensive against ISIS. (El-Dorar Al-Shima, Dec. 15)
There were also reports of the YPG attacking the Kurdish village of Suwaidiya, near Derke town, which is loyal to a dissident faction, the Kurdistan Democratic Party-Syria (KDPS). Local KDPS leaders accused the YPG of occupying the village and arresting a number of youths—who were apparently freed after residents protested. (These claims were reported by BasNews, Dec. 15—a source sympathetic to Iraqi Kurdish strongman Massoud Barzani, who has also cultivated the KDPS as a satellite organization.)
The US presence is also apparently growing in this region. The Pentagon is now said to be preparing an airbase within Syria to supply the SDF. Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar reported Dec. 12 that the base is to be in YPG-controlled territory in Hasakeh governorate. "American technicians have worked for more than one and a half months to expand and prepare the airport with a runway specialized for warplanes," the report claimed. (NOW, Dec. 12)
Turkish military forces are meanwhile stepping up their counterinsurgency campaign against Kurdish forces allied with the YPG with Turkey. Hundreds of Turkish army troops stormed the southeastern Kurdish-populated town of Cizre in Şırnak province under the cover of pursuing guerillas of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) last week. "The army entered Cizre accompanied with dozens of tanks and armored vehicles,” a local activist told Kurdish news service ARA News Dec. 18. "A 24-hour curfew is now imposed on civilians in the town, as clashes broke out between a number of PKK rebels and the Turkish troops."
Presumed PKK rebels attacked a police station in Amed (Diyarbakir) with explosives Dec. 15. While the attack apparently caused no casualties, substantial damage to the police station was reported, with one wall was completely demolished by the blast. (Insurrection News, Dec. 17)
Amid this growing violence, Turkey's Kurdish-led leftist Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP)—which has heretofore been appealing to the government and PKK alike for peace—issued a statement in support of the Kurdish youth defying the curfews and clashing with police in Diyarbakir. HDP co-leader Selahattin Demirtas said: "We call on our people to expand the struggle and to embrace this honorable resistance… If they think they can make us take a step back by showing a tank gun, they are wrong. We fear nobody but God. We call on all civil society groups to embrace resistance in the lands of Kurdistan." (Reuters, Dec. 18)
Three HDP legislative deputies are among thousands of Kurds and their supporters who this week launched a cross-country march on Cizre in an attempt to break the army siege there. Turkish police have repeatedly used tear-gas in an effort to break the march, only for it to regroup and continue its progress. Its slogans include "PKK is the people, and the people are here" and "Long Live Kurdistan Resistance." (KurdishInfo, Dec. 21)
The good news amid all this is that ISIS has lost around 14% of its territory in 2015, while the Syrian Kurds almost tripled the land they control, according to military affairs think-tank IHS Jane's. Noted ISIS loses included Tal Abyad, the Iraqi city of Tikrit, and Iraq's Baiji refinery. (AFP, Dec. 22)
But maintaining this progress in 2016 could be a challenge if a divide-and-rule card to shatter the Arab-Kurdish alliance against ISIS succeeds. This sinister strategy is ironically shared by both the great regional rivals, Russia and Turkey. Where are the principled voices that will protest the state terror now being carried out by Russia and Turkey alike? Certainly, the US position is abetting both: maintaining the old alliance with Turkey while wooing Putin as a new ally, and still supporting both the YPG and Arab-led Free Syrian Army. This is a completely untenable position, and something has got to give. We may be certain of that.
Amnesty accuses Russia of war crimes in Syria
The Washington Post runs a very refreshing editorial Dec. 21 noting that deadly Russian air-strikes on Idlib came less than 48 hours after the Security Council's Resolution 2254 was passed, demanding that "all parties immediately cease any attacks against civilians and civilian objects" as well as "any indiscriminate use of weapons, including through shelling and aerial bombardment."
The next day, Amnesty International issued a report finding: "Russian air strikes in Syria have killed hundreds of civilians and caused massive destruction in residential areas, striking homes, a mosque and a busy market, as well as medical facilities, in…attacks that show evidence of violations of international humanitarian law." (Reuters)
We aren't sure whether to believe it, but the day after that, Orient News reports that five Syrian civilians were killed by "serine" (presumably sarin) gas used in barrel bombs dropped by regime helicopters on Almuadamieh, outside Damascus.
Regime helicopters also dropped several barrel bombs on a Kurdish neighborhood in Aleppo city, claiming more civilian casualties. (ARA News, Dec. 23)
Syrian rebel leader slain in Russian air-strike
Zahran Alloush, the powerful commander of Jaysh al-Islam, is reported to have been killed in a Russian air-strike outside Damascus. Jaysh al-Islam was one of the most significant factions at the recent Syrian rebel summit in Suadi Arabia. (NYT, The Guardian)
Seymour Hersh’s latest Syria conspiracy theory
Seymour Hersh, serial apologist for the genocidal Assad regime, runs another lurid and anonymously-sourced piece in the London Review of Books, this time alleging that the Pentagon has been going behind Obama's back to share intelligence with Bashar Assad. It cites what is probably the same DIA report oft-trumpeted by conspiranoids, warning of a jihadist take-over in Syria if Assad is destabilized. Of course this squares poorly with the notion of a "regime change" offensive in Syria. Certainly, the Pentagon is working at cross-purposes to it, by Hersh's lights. Hersh's obvious delight in this supposed betrayal of the executive reveals again the alliance between elements of the "left" (sic) and the paleocons who prefer dictators as guarantors of stability.
Blogger Free Charles Davis isn't convinced, and offers this astute comment:
Instant Shawarma for Seymour Hersh
Well, this is rich. Louis Proyect of the Unrepentant Marxist blog notes that RT (of course) runs a soft and gushy interview with Seymour Hersh—in which he refers darkly to American support for "moderate" rebel groups aligned with the dreaded "Sharm al-Sharma." Writes Proyect: "As it happens, there is no such group and the closest anything comes to this garbled formulation is something called shawarma, a kind of shish kebab popular in the Middle East." Hersh was presumably refering to Ahrar al-Sham, which translates as "Free Meen of Syria."
Pompous ass busted as totally out of his depth.
How would you like your crow prepared, Patrick Cockburn?
Note that Patrick Cockburn, "media missionary" for the Assad dictatorship, back on Oct. 3 issued a gushy gob of Putin-puffery unsubtly entitled: "Syria crisis: Let's welcome Russia's entry into this war," full of lines like: "The intervention of Russia could be positive in de-escalating the war in Syria and Iraq." And: "Russia and America need to be more fully engaged in Syria because, if they are not, the vacuum they leave will be filled by these regional powers with their sectarian and ethnic agendas."
OK, now that Russia is accused of war crimes by Amnesty International, and is enflaming "ethnic agendas" by bombing the Turkmen while wooing the Kurds… Well, bon apetit.
UN ‘peace deal’ betrays Assad-ISIS collaboration
The UN "peace deal" that connives with continued Assad rule in Damascus actually includes provisions for ISIS. These concern the ISIS presence in the Palestinian district of Yarmouk in the south of Damascus. As part of the deal, ISIS forces will be given safe passage, if they agrees to halt the siege and withdraw to Raqqa. At the moment the deal is "on hold," apparently due to the air-strike that killed the leader of the Jaish al-Islam group, Zahran Alloush. (Rudaw, Dec. 26)
Assad-ISIS collaboration at Yarmouk
In an interview, DC-based activist Nidal Bitari, a Palestinian who was born in Yarmouk camp, asserts that Assad and ISIS and working together to fight the Nusra Front for control of the ruins of Yarmouk—with some 2,000 Palestinian civilians caught in the middle. (TSVN, April 11)