Assad regime, Islamic State committing war crimes in Syria, U.N. says


A report presented by the United Nations today paints a pretty grim picture of Syria, NPR reports:

It tells the story of a country mired in a ruthless civil war in which all sides are indiscriminately killing and torturing civilians. It presents a laundry list of human rights violations and war crimes undertaken by both the forces of President Bashar Assad and non-state armed groups, such as the Islamic State, that are fighting to topple the regime.

The Guardian encapsulates the 45-page report like this:

“Syrian government forces have dropped barrel bombs on civilian areas, including some believed to contain the chemical agent chlorine in eight incidents in April, and have committed other war crimes that should be prosecuted, they said in a 45-page report issued in Geneva on Wednesday.

” ‘Violence has bled over the borders of the Syrian Arab republic, with extremism fuelling the conflict’s heightened brutality,’ said the report. …

” ‘Executions in public spaces have become a common spectacle on Fridays in [Isis power-base] Raqqa and in Isis-controlled areas of Aleppo governorate,’ said the commission, which includes former war crimes prosecutor Carla del Ponte. ‘Bodies of those killed are placed on display for several days, terrorising the local population.’

The BBC says that about 200,000 people have been killed since the conflict began in 2011

The airstrikes reportedly being considered by the Obama administration will not be enough to shift the balance of power on the ground, analysts suggest.

“In Iraq we seem to seem to have been able to find some very good targets. In Syria, the question is what exactly we are targeting,” Elliott Abrams, a Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council for Foreign Relations, told FRANCE 24.

Abrams [a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy] points out that successful strikes on the IS in Iraq take place when they are travelling, often in US-supplied armored vehicles stolen from Iraqi state forces.

In Syria, where the militants have been able to flourish without fear of sophisticated air power, larger operations, such as military bases, might also be open to attack.

“IS militants are different from traditional terror groups because they don’t hide out in the desert, they control and seek to govern territory,” explains John McLaughlin, former deputy director of the CIA and senior fellow at the Brookings Institute’s Center for Middle East Policy and US Foreign Policy program.

“By virtue of administering territory, they have to have somewhere to gather fuel; to repair equipment and to train. For now, they can do this in Syria which remains a safe haven. But once the US expands operations across the border, their structure could be their downfall.”

Robust and timely aid for Syrian nationalist rebels fighting both the regime and ISIS is a must, says Frederic C. Hof, a Resident Senior Fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. He worked on Syria-related issues in the State Department from 2009 through 2012.  

Relevant security assistance for a Syrian National Coalition trying to set up an alternate governing structure in non-Assad, non-ISIS Syria is mandatory, he writes for the New Republic.

“Building an all-Syrian national stabilization force in Turkey and Jordan for eventual anti-regime and anti-ISIS peace-enforcement is essential. American leadership in creating mechanisms that can one day bring Bashar Al Assad and his principal enforcers to trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity is vital,” says Hof, who worked on Syria-related issues in the State Department from 2009 through 2012.  

The notion of partnering with the Syrian government against the IS is just silly at every level, says Hussein Ibish, a columnist at NOW and The National (UAE), and a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine:

First, his forces show no interest or ability in actually or effectively fighting these lunatics. Indeed, they just lost control of the Tabqa airfield, 25 miles outside the IS’s stronghold and capital of Raqqa. This means that Raqqa Province is the first region of Syria to fall entirely out of the control of the regime, and it should surprise absolutely no one that it has fallen to the IS.

Second, for the Damascus dictatorship, the IS is the perfect enemy. It’s not as if there won’t still be an uprising afterwards, should the IS be defeated or badly degraded. On the contrary, it’s likely that opposition forces would be greatly strengthened and the arguments and appeal of the regime profoundly weakened….

Finally, the IS cannot be successfully countered by sectarian non-Sunni troops, either in Syria or Iraq. Anyone who imagines that an Alawite-dominated Syrian army or extremist Shiite militias in Iraq can be the solution to crushing or profoundly degrading the IS has failed to understand how and why the group has risen to prominence. It feeds off of the deepest Sunni Muslim rage, both locally and internationally.

The sordid history of Assad-AQI/ISIS collaboration was neatly encapsulated in a short but invaluable essay by Peter Neumann in the London Review of Books last April, Ibish notes:

As the uprising gained steam, the Syrian dictatorship released the most notorious Salafist-jihadists they were holding from prison. They concentrated their fire power on the Free Syrian Army and other nationalist groups that actually threatened to potentially overthrow the regime successfully, while ignoring the steady gains of ISIS. As Hassan Hassan has pointed out, “When [ISIS] Islamic radicals took over Raqqa, … the regime did not follow the same policy it had consistently employed elsewhere, which is to shower liberated territories with bombs, day and night.” Instead, it did nothing. Except purchase large quantities of oil from ISIS, fattening their coffers even further.

“Air strikes against Isis targets without any coherent plan to boost mainstream rebel forces means we’re, in effect, acting as Assad’s air force,” said Shadi Hamid, a fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

The battle for Aleppo is an “existential moment” for the rebels. “If they lose Aleppo, it is going to be one of the worst events in recent months,” he tells the Financial Times.

Syria – How Many More?

syria how many moreOn August 21, concerned citizens will gather to read the names of the 1429 Syrians who were killed on August 21, 2013 in the sarin gas attack in the Damascus suburbs of Ghouta. The chemical weapons attack was a gross violation of international law and President Obama’s “red line.” Over half of the victims of the Ghouta attack were women and children who died in their sleep. Since last year, the Syrian regime has launched other attacks on Syrian civilians using chemical weapons including chlorine bombs. 

The reading will take place in front of the White House in protest of the international community’s failure to protect Syrian civilians for over three years from the indiscriminate attacks of a ruthless regime. Readers will recite the names from lists compiled from the Violations Documentation Center (VDC) in Damascus and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) in London.


Assad’s devil’s gambit pays off? U.S. plans ‘small’ training program for Syrian moderates


syriacoalitionA Pentagon plan to aid Syrian rebels is emerging as far smaller than advocates hoped, ramping up slowly over an extended period while offering no quick support to moderate fighters, who are losing ground both to the Assad regime and to jihadists, the Wall Street Journal reports:

President Barack Obama promised in May to work with Congress to raise support for the moderates. But critics inside and outside the administration say the limited steps he is taking are too modest to make a difference on the battlefield, reflecting his own and the Pentagon’s reluctance to get entrenched in another Middle East conflict.

Opposition leaders have issued increasingly dire warning to the administration in recent weeks that moderate forces were under siege in key areas and could be routed in their Aleppo stronghold without more rapid support from the U.S. “We’re losing ground every day,” said Aiad Koudsi, deputy prime minister of the opposition Syrian interim-government……

At a congressional hearing on Wednesday, senior Pentagon officials offered few details about the proposed train-and-equip program, prompting a rebuke from Rep. Adam Smith, the top-ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee.

“If the White House is going to push a policy like this, they have got to…push the policy,” Mr. Smith said. “For the United States Congress to vote to authorize a train and equip mission for a rebel force is a big damn deal. I think it is something we ought to do but…sell it. If you don’t, there is no way we are going to pass it.”

“Syrian President Bashar al-Assad declared victory over those who had sought to overthrow him as he embarked Wednesday on a third term in office, buoyed by a growing extremist threat to the region that has helped cement his hold on power,” the Washington Post reports:

With jihadists rampaging across neighboring Iraq and the focus of Western powers shifting toward the containment of terrorism, a confident Assad made it clear that he no longer perceives a challenge to his 14-year-old presidency, now extended by seven more years after he won a tightly controlled election last month.

“Containing the spread of ISIS and other jihadists in the region is the priority for the White House now,” said Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Assad’s new regime is seen as a more distant problem,” he tells the Washington Post:

Assad also pledged to recapture the northern city of Aleppo, a strategic prize from which more-moderate rebels have been squeezed in recent months by a sustained government onslaught. Rebel control of pockets of territory elsewhere in the country poses no direct threat to his rule.

“There’s a sense of confidence that he is already past the worst and looking ahead to the future,” said Yezid Sayigh of the Beirut-based Carnegie Middle East Center. “The regime has had reason to be confident for quite a while. They’ve been making slow but steady gains on key fronts for a long while.”

Dictators can play the devil’s gambit: winning international sympathy by deliberately radicalizing regime opponents, argues Dominic Tierney an associate professor of political science at Swarthmore College. He is the author of How We Fight: Crusades, Quagmires, and the American Way of War:

How does the devil’s gambit work? The goal is to make the opposition appear even more threatening than the regime. If you’re a despot like Assad, this is no easy feat. For one thing, Damascus has an appalling human-rights record, and a list of allies that reads like the Axis of Evil, 2014 edition, including Iran and Hezbollah.

Even Assad’s enemies are rethinking their strategy, he writes for The Atlantic:

European countries worry about the thousands of Europeans who have traveled to Syria to fight Assad—and their potential return as violent militants. Meanwhile, the United States has dispatched hundreds of advisors to join the battle against ISIS in Iraq. Members of the Obama administration are backing away from the goal of toppling Assad. “Anyone calling for regime change in Syria,” said one official, “is frankly blind to the past decade; and the collapse of eastern Syria, and growth of Jihadistan, leading to 30 to 50 suicide attacks a month in Iraq.”

“The devil’s gambit is a chancy maneuver, since the resulting radicals could grow too powerful to control,” Tierney contends. “For a dictator, the sweet spot is an extremist force that’s strong enough to inspire fear abroad, but not capable enough to topple the regime—which is roughly where ISIS is right now. If the militants become too potent, Assad will probably turn on them with a vengeance.”


MidEast ‘sectarian entrepreneurs’ mask lust for power

The conflict convulsing Syria and Iraq, and bursting regional borders, is being likened to a religious war, similar to the Thirty Years War that devastated Europe in the first half of the 17th century. Yet this does not quite ring true, argues analyst David Gardner.

“The warriors of the new caliphate – the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant which, intoxicated with sudden success, has self-distilled into the Islamic State – are, in theological terms, painting by numbers,” he writes in the Financial Times:

Such legitimacy as they have in their jihadistan is ephemeral, leeched from collapsing unitary states with oppressive rulers who have driven the Sunni masses temporarily into their bloodstained arms. ….This is not so much a war of religion as a struggle for power bespattering the region, in which rival Islamic identities – Sunni and Shia – have replaced nationalism as the mobilising agent, and the states with most interest in the outcome, Saudi Arabia and Iran, have (to paraphrase Shakespeare) cried havoc and let slip the dogs of sectarianism.

Yezid Sayigh, a senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, argues that “there is actually no theological debate in this religious war.” “It’s fundamentally, as always, a fight for political power”.

The current conflicts have unleashed what Charles Tripp, the Iraq scholar, calls “sectarian entrepreneurs,” Gardner adds:

When governments and oppositions – and states such as Iran and Saudi Arabia that back them – play the sectarian card, this prevents popular grievances becoming a dispute between haves and have-nots, or about access to power and opportunity. Would-be citizens who might seek common institutions to arbitrate their interests are instead faced with the hard-wiring of sectarian affiliation and subconscious grammar of tribal loyalty, which spills across the Syrian and Iraqi borders into Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

Jihadi totalitarianism

Isis fastened on to the Sunni power networks of Saddam’s army and Ba’ath party, supposedly dismantled by the US-led occupation, and the tribes, hostile to jihadi totalitarianism but now more aggrieved by the Maliki government. While sectarianism is not religion, it does have the power to resurrect the zombie ideologies of Osama bin Laden and the Ba’ath – and even get them to work together.

“If this is a thirty years war, it resembles more the convulsion of Europe between 1914 and 1944: not competing nationalisms but still a clash of aggrieved – in this case, sectarian – identities, in a common space they cannot agree to share amid yearning after past glory: a reich then, a caliphate now,” Gardner suggests.

His argument is echoes by Daniel Benjamin, director of the John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth, who contends that the strife in Iraq today is “less the mystifying product of primordial grievances than the predictable result of modern power politics.”

“There is indeed plenty of bad blood between Sunnis and Shiites. But today’s sectarian rifts in Iraq and the wider region are the result of calculated efforts over many years by modern states—above all, Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia,” he writes for the Wall Street Journal:

So to find the spark that lighted the fires of 2014, don’t look back to the seventh century. Look to 1979, when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his followers toppled the shah and installed a theocratic government unprecedented in the history of Shiism. Iran sought to expand its influence by creating terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and stirring Shiite ambitions in Bahrain, Iraq and Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province.

The Saudi monarchy saw its religious leadership of the Muslim world challenged. The kingdom poured hundreds of millions of dollars into building mosques and schools, established huge organizations that propagated its puritanical brand of Sunni Islam and flooded the Muslim world with textbooks depicting Shiites as heretics and Christians and Jews as subhuman. The same poisonous springs that nourished the kingdom’s sectarian counterrevolution would later help bring forth al Qaeda and its offshoots.


Across the region, the resurgence of Sunni-Shiite sectarian hostilities has followed a pattern, David D. Kirkpatrick writes for the New York Times:

The weakening of the old states leads anxious citizens to fall back on sectarian identity, while insecure rulers surround themselves with loyalists from their clans and denominations, systematically alienating others, often on sectarian lines. In the case of U.S. allies like Bahrain and Iraq, analysts say, the United States and other Western powers turned a blind eye to the excesses and sectarianism of rulers they supported.

Hammering on those internal cracks, the region’s two geopolitical heavyweights, the Shiite theocracy in Iran and the Sunni monarchy in Saudi Arabia, have sought to protect their interests and influence by funneling support to clerics, satellite networks, political factions and armed groups squaring off along sectarian lines.

“Great powers gravitate to clients they can support,” said Vali Nasr, dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University and a scholar of the region.

Saudi Arabia and Iran, he said, each employ a sectarian foreign policy to pursue classically secular objectives. “They play the game of great power politics and the chess pieces they choose inflame the sectarianism,” he said….

Citing such conflicting entanglements, conspiracy theorists in the Arab media now often suggest that Washington may welcome the sectarian mayhem.

“It is becoming the dominant narrative,” said Lina Khatib, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.

Who is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi?

“He has emerged out of 10 years in occupation in Iraq. He is very intelligent and now represents a phenomenon where he merges all the tools of political Islam with all the tools of Al-Qaeda,” says Laith Kubba, the director for the Middle East and North Africa at the National Endowment of Democracy.

“Baghdadi is not just someone who is a basic politician or ideologue nor violent like a member of Al-Qaeda but a hybrid of both. And within a very short period of time, he has not only demonstrated leadership skills, but he has a vision and is acting on it,” he tells Al-Jazeera:

Baghdadi declared a caliphate, and anyone who knows theology and the background would realize that this declaration, according to traditional fiqh, puts an obligation of anyone who is religiously observant to declare allegiance. There hasn’t been a caliph for 100 years, the last one was during the Ottoman Empire. Even Saudi Arabia doesn’t declare themselves a caliph. No one does. 

Baghdadi has delivered, changing the name from the Islamic State in Syria and the Levant to the Islamic State. Declaring himself a caliph and asking people to pledge allegiance. We are not only looking at a person, which is very important, but more important, the message and what he delivers in a very short period of time is beginning to concern people.

“There will be thousands of people joining him as either fighters or sending him money,” says Kubba, who has had extensive involvement in Iraqi politics, including in 2005 being a senior adviser to Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari and a spokesman for the Iraqi government. From 1993 to 1998, he was the director of international relations at Al-Khoei Foundation in London.


ISIS released a 21-minute video of a Baghdadi sermon last Saturday, The New York Times reports.

Benjamin, a senior counterterrorism official in the State Department from 2009 to 2012, said that if the video was authentic, Mr. Baghdadi’s appearance would be a “remarkable event.”

“If Baghdadi has emerged from hiding, it suggests that he is adopting a posture as a different kind of leader from Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahri and the like, and by implication a greater one,” said Mr. Benjamin, now a scholar at Dartmouth College. “He is demonstrating that ISIS has what they didn’t: territory that is secure, and he is its ruler.”

“As a public demonstration of leadership, you’d have to go back to April 1996, when Mullah Omar appeared on top of a building in Kandahar in a cloak that was said to belong to the prophet and was declared commander of the faithful,” Mr. Benjamin added.

Peter Neumann, a professor of security studies at Kings College London, said the appearance was “a sign of confidence” and a “message to all these other jihadists, this is really happening, it’s not going to go away anytime soon.”


US risks losing Iraq and Syria to ISIS



Credit: Institute for Study of War

Credit: Institute for Study of War

The U.S. can still help save Syria—and Iraq, says Council on Foreign Relations analyst Elliott Abrams.

What has been missing in Syria since 2011 is Western, and especially American, leadership and determination, but it is not too late for a new policy, argues Abrams, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy.

“The early goal of a quick departure for Assad and transition to democracy in Syria is now impossible to attain,” he writes in the July/August issue of Standpoint:

More disorder and suffering are certain. But Syria need not be an endless source of refugees, a centre of inhuman suffering at the hands of a vicious minority regime, and a worldwide gathering place for jihadi extremists.  

Needed now are a serious and coordinated effort to assist the nationalist elements of the rebels, and organise assistance for them from others in the region—Jordan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE, and Qatar are the most critical—and American (and if possible British and French) willingness to use force directly to punish chemical warfare and erode Assad’s air power. Those remain essential steps of a new policy that can over time diminish the tragedy being suffered by the Syrian people and the threat Syria now poses to regional stability and European and American security interests.


Jihadists in Iraq and Syria, led by the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) are capturing cities, energy assets, and military hardware daily. They now control a territory the size of Jordan and are building a state from which they aspire and are increasingly able to attack US regional interests, allies, and the United States itself. In a new publication, “Losing Syria and Iraq to Jihadists,” Atlantic Council Fellow Faysal Itani contends that the United States has every interest in enabling a moderate Sunni-led victory over ISIS, one that can lay the groundwork for a fair and inclusive political order that can end ISIS once and for all.

Itani outlines the roots and nature of the threat ISIS poses to US interests and security. He refutes arguments that Bashar al-Assad and Nouri al-Maliki could be allies against jihadists; that extremist groups in Syria and Iraq should simply be left to fight one another; or that a narrow counterterrorism approach can eliminate the ISIS threat. Itani argues instead that the deepening sectarian extremism in Syria and Iraq is the product of fundamentally dysfunctional political orders and the weakness of ISIS’ opponents.

Only the Sunni Arab community that ISIS aims to control can defeat it and offer a healthy alternative to its sectarian bigotry. Fortunately, the United States is not short of allies against ISIS, but they include neither the Assad nor the Maliki regimes.

Click here to download the publication.