Monthly archives for December, 2015

Kabalan, Bonsey and Lister on the Impact of Outside Actors on the War in Syria

As efforts to negotiate a political settlement to the war in Syria under the auspices of the U.N.  are set to commence in Vienna,  Marwan Kabalan, Noah Bonsey and Charles Lister discuss the regional and international dimensions to the conflict.


News, Notes & Links | 21.12.15


The U.N. Security Council agrees on first resolution to resolve conflict in Syria.

Libya’s rival factions agrees to U.N.-brokered peace deal.

Hezbollah threatens Israel with retaliation after military leader Samir Kuntar was asassinated in Syria.

ISIS lost 14 percent of its territory in 2015, report from IHS Jane’s says.

115 Kurdish rebels have been killed in Turkish military operations since December 15th, state-run news agency reports.

Recommended Reads:

What’s the one thing that Arabs, Turks and Iranians can all agree on? | By Barbara Slavin, Al-Monitor

A new survey of eight Middle East countries finds consensus on two issues — that the group that calls itself the Islamic State (IS) is a major threat and that the United States’ role in countering extremist violence in the region is “extremely negative.”

Conducted in September before recent terrorist attacks in France and the United States, the face-to-face surveys with 7,400 adults in six Arab states plus Turkey and Iran also found wide support among Arabs for the creation of a joint Arab force to try to resolve conflicts in Syria, Iraq and potentially to serve as peacekeepers in a Palestinian state.

The survey, by Zogby Research Services, also found considerable agreement about the causes for Islamic extremism, with majorities blaming “corrupt, repressive and unrepresentative governments” and “religious figures and groups promoting extremist ideas and/or incorrect religious interpretations.”

Russia and the U.S. in Syria: Waiting for the Other Side to Lose | By Joseph Bahout, Syria in Crisis

For Syria, the last six months have been a period of rapid and convulsive changes for soldiers, diplomats, and politicians alike. And while the Russian intervention on September 30 may alter the trajectory of the conflict it may merely contribute to the slow and painful death of Syria.

Nevertheless, Putin’s intervention has already altered the power dynamics and battlefield realities of Syria’s unending ordeal.

Any attempt to gauge the possible directions that the Syrian crisis could follow in the wake of the Russian intervention must take into account the situation on the ground, the regional and international context, and the interlinkage between these two levels. What are Russia’s goals, what are the likely reactions of its opponents, and where will these strategies take Syria?

Optimism on Syria is misplaced. Here’s why | By Hassan Hassan, The National

One of the common sentences repeatedly said by Syrians from the two main warring sides is that the solution to the conflict is attainable when the “big guys” decide to end it. Those big guys – at the UN Security Council – passed a unanimous decision on Friday calling for peace negotiations and a ceasefire to steer the country towards a political settlement.

“This council is sending a clear message to all concerned that the time is now to stop the killing in Syria and lay the groundwork for a government that the long-suffering people of that battered land can support,” the US secretary of state, John Kerry, proclaimed after the successful vote.

Both inside and outside Syria, the resolution has raised hopes that this may indeed mark the start of a serious process to find a solution. And much can be achieved, at least in preventing the conflict from spiralling further out of control.

But the optimism seems to be misplaced, mostly because it is not based on any progress or attainable objectives in the foreseeable future. Instead of the usual focus on the difficulty of rallying the opposition around one vision to end the conflict, one aspect related to the regime can help illuminate the intractability of the process: the fate of Bashar Al Assad.

Human Rights Watch: If the Dead Could Speak

Devastating Human Rights Watch report on widespread starvation, torture and murder in military detention facilities in Syria. The report is based on pictures taken by a defected forensic photographer of the Syrian security forces operating under the codename Caesar – read his story here. According to the report, the Caeser photographs “represent a unique source of evidence pointing towards crimes against humanity.”

Since the beginning of Syria’s uprising in 2011, many have died in detention facilities run by the Syrian government’s notorious mukhabarat (security agencies). In 2012, Human Rights Watch identified and mapped 27 of these detention centers around the country, many in the capital, Damascus. While accounts by released detainees and defectors consistently indicated that incommunicado detention and torture were rampant and detainees were dying in large numbers in Syria, the scale of abuse and deaths in detention remained unknown.

Then in January 2014, news emerged that a defector had left Syria with tens of thousands of images, many showing the bodies of detainees who died in Syria’s detention centers. A team of international lawyers, as well as Syrian activists, interviewed the defector, codenamed “Caesar,” who stated that, as an official forensic photographer for the Military Police, he had personally photographed bodies of dead detainees and helped to archive thousands more similar photographs.


ICG: Iran After the Nuclear Deal

New report from the International Crisis Group on the internal implications of the nuclear deal in Iran and why external attempts to play in Iranian domestic politics is likely to backfire. From the conclusion:

Reversing the legacy of more than three decades of hostility between Tehran and the West will be neither simple nor quick. The next step should be concrete measures to address the dual negative narratives that continue to poison mutual perceptions, the JCPOA notwithstanding. The West remains suspicious of an ambitious regional power that it perceives as both arsonist and fire brigade in the region. Iranians see the West, loathe to live with an independent, prosperous Islamic Republic, as seeking to undermine it. Proper fulfilment of both sides’ commitments under the nuclear accord, especially those related to nuclear restrictions, transparency measures and sanctions, would go a long way to negate this narrative and build trust114 – though this could prove difficult given efforts to sabotage the agreement in the U.S. Congress and the hard-to-dispel chilling effect of the sanctions regime. Similarly, proper fulfilment by Tehran of its commitments is crucial to begin reversing the perception among many in the West that Iran will carry out its obligations only until it finds an opportunity to cheat. (…)

Iran’s political system favours continuity over change. The nuclear agreement showed that the state’s policies change only when there is pressure from below and consensus at the top. Outside actors cannot hasten the process by investing in one part of the political spectrum – particularly in pragmatic republicans. No policy shift is possible without the backing of the supreme leader and the pragmatic theocrats more generally. An attempt do so, especially at such a sensitive time in Iran’s electoral cycle, would produce the opposite of the intended result.

Palestinian Public Opinion Poll

Palestianian Center for Policy and Survey Research has released the latest edition of its Palestinian Public Opinion Poll. Its main findings are not particularly encouraging:

Findings of the last quarter of 2015 indicate a continuation of three recent developments documented in our last poll in September: two thirds continue to demand the resignation of president Abbas; a growing majority supports return to an armed intifada; and a growing majority continues to reject the two-state solution. Moreover, while a majority supports ending PA commitment to the Oslo agreement, a similar majority doubts Abbas’ seriousness about abandoning that agreement. As we found in our last poll in September, the “Oslo generation” of youth between the ages of 18 and 22 are the most supportive of an armed intifada and stabbings and the least supportive of the two-state solution.

If presidential elections are held today, Hamas candidate would win a clear victory against Abbas. If parliamentary elections are held today, Hamas and Fatah would receive two-thirds of the popular vote, one third each. But Marwan Barghouti remains Fatah’s only hope of defeating Hamas.

In the context of the current escalation in Palestinian-Israeli confrontations, two thirds support stabbing attacks against Israelis even though an almost three quarters express opposition to the involvement of young school girls in such stabbings.  Half of the public believes that the current confrontations will escalate into an armed intifada. If so, two thirds believe that the armed intifada will serve Palestinian national interests in ways that negotiations could not.

Findings also indicate a growing rejection of the two-state solution. Similarly, two thirds believe that the two-state solution is no longer viable due to settlement expansion, and three quarters believe that the chances for the establishment of a Palestinian state next to the state of Israel in the next five years are slim or none existing.

Responding to the declaration by the Palestinian president that the PA will not continue to honor its Oslo commitments if Israel continues to ignore its own Oslo obligations, two thirds say they support abandoning the Oslo agreement. A similar majority however does not believe that Abbas is serious about his declared intention to abandon the Oslo Accords. Regardless of the price that Palestinians might have to pay, the public is particularly in favor of ending security coordination even though a smaller majority supports also the suspension of Palestinian-Israeli civil coordination.

PBS Frontline: Inside Assad’s Syria

Fascinating documentary on the life inside regime-controlled territories in Syria by PBS Frontline correspondent Martin Smith:

Khedery: Iraq in Pieces

Excellent analysis by Ali Khedery in Foreign Affairs on conflicting ethno-sectarian agendas and Iraq’s descend into chaos since 2003:

“Shortly after the invasion, Machiavellian politicians pressed U.S. officials to disband the Iraqi army as they hijacked the U.S.-instituted De-Baathification Commission and used it to extort or purge their secular political opponents, Sunni and Shiite alike. Hundreds of thousands were left permanently unemployed, embittered, and primed to seek violent retribution against the new order.

In the mountainous north, Kurdish leaders sought to consolidate the considerable gains they had achieved through self-governance following the introduction of a no-fly zone in 1991. After a vicious civil war in the mid-1990s, they established the semiautonomous Kurdistan Region, securing peace and attracting foreign investment. Once Saddam was gone, they maintained control of key positions in Baghdad under a new ethno-sectarian quota system as a hedge against further repression.

In the south, the Shiite Islamist parties that had battled Saddam’s secular Baath Party for decades, often with Iran’s covert support, emerged victorious and sought to compensate for past repression. They asserted their will as the majority by defying the Baath’s taboos and establishing numerous official religious holidays, cementing their brand of religious values in the national school curriculum, and placing members of the armed wings of their religious political parties on government payrolls. In the halls of power in Baghdad, the word of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the highest authority in Shiite Islam, reigned supreme.

Iraq’s minority Sunnis, the nation’s ruling elite for centuries, found themselves in disarray. To correct perceived injustices, they eventually settled on a strategy of boycotting democracy in favor of insurgency and terrorism. Hopelessly divided and lacking leadership and vision, Sunni Arabs often fell into the trap of battling the U.S. military occupation and the surging influence of their historical arch-nemesis, Shiite Persian Iran, by striking a deal with the devil: al Qaeda.

So began an endless cycle of killing among militant radicals of all stripes, from remnants of the Baath Party to al Qaeda in Iraq to the Iranian-backed Shiite militias. With each religiously charged atrocity, the Iraqi national identity grew weaker, and the millennia-old senses of self—tribal, ethnic, and religious—grew stronger.”

ICG: Fighting for Libya’s Energy Wealth

Senior Libya Analyst with the International Crisis Group, Claudia Gazzini, introduces “The Prize: Fighting for Libya’s Energy Wealth”, a new ICG report on the struggle for control with Libya’s energy ressources in the post-Gaddafi era:

“Libya is a petro-state. The management and control of hydrocarbon resources, the infrastructure to exploit them and the revenues derived from their sale are a central driver of the conflict that has divided it since July 2014. Muammar Qadhafi held power for 42 years in good part because he redistributed petrodollars to buttress his regime. Today, even as many state attributes – most importantly, a monopoly on use of force – have eroded, the institutions that manage production, export and sale of oil and gas and the wealth they generate are at serious risk but remain the bedrock of what is left of the state and a key to its control. Understanding and resolving the divide between two rival governments and parliaments and their associated armed groups requires understanding that the conflict is in part one over hydrocarbon revenue.”

News, Notes & Links | 01.12.15


The United Arab Emirates has deployed 450 Colombian mercenaries to fight in Yemen.

Are there 70.000 moderate opposition fighters in Syria?

More than 21 million in Yemen need basic humanitarian aid, U.N. says.

The Pentagon is expanding its special operations forces in Iraq to combat ISIS, U.S. Defense Secretary says.

“Any such American force will become a primary target for our group”, Shia militia in Iraq says.


Recommended Reads:

Along the Divide | By Nathan Thrall, London Review of Books

Israel is now confronted by the greatest unrest it has faced since the second intifada ended more than ten years ago. Palestinian protests and clashes with Israeli forces have spread from East Jerusalem to the rest of the West Bank, as well as to Gaza and Palestinian towns inside Israel. In the first three weeks of October, ten Israelis were killed and more than a hundred injured in stabbings and shootings, and by drivers ramming cars into pedestrians. Over the same period, Israeli forces killed 53 Palestinians and injured around two thousand. Compared to the second intifada, the protests this month have been smaller, the influence of Palestinian political factions weaker, and the attacks far less lethal. But they have been coming more frequently, with several of them, unco-ordinated, on most days.

The Rubble-Strewn Road to Damascus | By Robin Wright, The New Yorker

A Biblical land and its people are being wiped out by weapons of the twenty-first century. Syria, after almost five years of war, is strewn with the rubble of a shattered state, a fractured society, and a demolished landscape. To the north, the grand city of Aleppo—the formerly bustling heart of commerce, often likened to New York but dating back at least five millennia—is now compared to Stalingrad, because of its devastation. To the east, the Roman ruins in Palmyra, including the majestic Temple of Bel, from the first century, and the towering Arch of Triumph, from the second, have been pulverized.

ISIS Grip on Libyan Coastal City Gives It a Fallback Option | By David D. Kirkpatrick, Ben Hubbard & Eric Schmitt, The New York Times

Iraqi commanders have been arriving from Syria, and the first public beheadings have started. The local radio stations no longer play music but instead extol the greatness of the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

When the Libyan arm of the Islamic State first raised the group’s black flag over the coastal city of Surt almost one year ago, it was just a bunch of local militants trying to look tough.

Today Surt is an actively managed colony of the central Islamic State, crowded with foreign fighters from around the region, according to residents, local militia leaders and hostages recently released from the city’s main prison.