Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

The imminent fall of Aleppo and the Trump Administration

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Update from AIJAC

Dec. 5, 2016

Update 12/16 #01

With the Assad regime, and its Russian, Iranian and Hezbollah allies, making major in-roads into the rebel-head eastern district of Aleppo, it now looks like only a matter of time until the city falls to the regime. With US President-elect Trump having pledged to ignore the Syrian conflict and to seek a partnership with Russia, but also having pledged to fight back against the Iranian drive to dominate the region, and with the fall of Aleppo likely to provide a major boost to the Iranian axis - the events in Syria look likely to place the Trump Administration in a dilemma over Syria when they take over. This Update features analysis of that dilemma.

First up is Zvi Bar'el, Middle Eastern affairs analyst for Haaretz Newspaper, who reviews the situation in Aleppo, including the tragic plight of civilians, the strange role of Kurdish forces in aiding the regime, and the options of the rebels. He also notes that the weakness of the rebels is a direct result of a decision by the Obama Administration to abandon the field in Syria, and allow Russia to dominate the arena. He says the Russian plan is to make sure Aleppo falls before the Trump Administration takes over, and thus place Assad in a commanding position to demand to be a part of the solution in any diplomatic arrangement to try to end the Syrian civil war. For all the vital details of this insightful piece, CLICK HERE

Next up is American pundit Jonathan Toben who tackles the Trump dilemma in Syria more directly. He notes that not only will Trump's stated policy of indifference in Syria hand Iran and Russia a win, it will also contradict another of his stated policies - the promise to defeat ISIS. Toben argues that the ascendancy of Iran will see ISIS retaining "the support of Sunni Muslims in Syria who see the terrorist group as their only defense against the depredations of Assad’s Alawite minority as well as Iranian-backed Shia forces." For Toben's suggestion about what a Trump Administration can do to attempt to escape this dilemma, CLICK HERE

Finally, another American foreign policy pundit, Tzvi Kahn of the Foreign Policy Initiative, focuses more specifically on how the Russia-Iran alliance will be a key challenge to US interests over coming years. He notes that since the Iran nuclear deal last year, this alliance has intensified, to the point where  Moscow and Teheran are now the region's dominant actors. Kahn notes that not only is this alliance dedicated to challenging American and Western influence in the region, it is also clearly helping the Iranians advance their nuclear program - the postponement of which was the key thing the Obama Administration thought in had achieved through the nuclear deal. For Kahn's full argument as to why Trump's stated approach to Russia, based on the idea it can be a strategic partner against ISIS, will be a disaster for both the region and US interests there, CLICK HERE

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Article 1

Syrian Rebels Can Blame America for Loss of Aleppo


The Russians and Syrian Kurds tipped the odds in the regime’s favor; the next battle will likely be in the diplomatic arena.

 
Zvi Bar'el
 
Haaretz, Nov 29, 2016


Syrian pro-government forces stand on top of a building overlooking Aleppo on November 28, 2016, during their assault to retake the entire northern city from rebel fighters. George Ourfalian / AFP
 
The battle for Aleppo hasn’t ended, but the gains made by the Assad regime and its affiliates in the eastern part of the city point to an imminent victory.

On Sunday and Monday, the forces of President Bashar Assad – backed by Russian aerial support – succeeded in capturing two important neighborhoods in the city’s northeast. This time, paradoxically, they are also being helped by the Syrian-Kurdish forces that have for some time controlled one of the neighborhoods in the north of the city.

According to opposition estimates, rebel forces have lost about half of the areas that were previously under their control in the eastern part of the city (the western part fell to the Syrian regime a while ago).

Reports on the ground indicate that several thousand civilians who were under siege managed to flee to the west and to the neighborhood controlled by the Kurds. Over the next few days, the rate of abandonment by civilians will probably increase, meaning that, after more than six months, they will be able to receive humanitarian assistance and medical care. However, more than 200,000 civilians are still trapped inside the battle zone between the rebel forces and the regime.

The regime’s control of Aleppo is likely to be a strategic turning point in the campaign across all of Syria. Aleppo is important not only because of its size and geographical location: it is on a crucial crossroads between Syria and Turkey in the north, and between Aleppo and the city of Raqqa – the de facto capital of the Islamic State group – to the east. Aleppo is a symbol of resistance to the Assad regime, and a supreme test of the ongoing ability of the rebels to dictate the course of the campaign.

Aleppo is also the crossroads of the battle between Russia and the United States, and a regime victory in the city will also signal America’s failure in conducting military campaigns and supporting the rebels.

Russia aims to achieve a final result in Aleppo before the new Trump administration begins its term on January 20, in order to determine facts on the ground ahead of the diplomatic negotiations whose renewal Russia has opposed until now – and to provide Assad with a significant achievement against the rebels.

With Aleppo in his grip, Assad will be able to report to the international convention – whose date is yet to be determined – from a position of strength, one from which he will be able to dictate his terms.


Syrian regime forces standing in the ruins of Aleppo's Bustan al-Basha neighborhood on November 28, 2016, during their assault to retake the entire city from rebel fighters.George Ourfalian/AFP

There are several reasons for the weakness of the rebels in Aleppo, the most important being the absence of the United States from the military arena and total Russian domination of how the battles are being waged.

Under outgoing President Barack Obama, the U.S. administration “abandoned” the arena – and the support it had promised the rebels – when it decided that the war against ISIS was its ultimate objective. This decision forced the “moderate” rebel organizations, and especially the Free Syrian Army, to refrain from the fight against Assad and make do instead with defending the borders between Syria and Jordan and Turkey.

The Free Syrian Army, whose funding came mainly from Saudi Arabia and the United States, was forced to obey the U.S. dictate all the time while the aid it received from the administration was steadily declining. As a result, it relied on its partnership with Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly the Nusra Front), which is affiliated to Al-Qaida – a partnership that gave Russia an excuse to attack the Free Syrian Army with the claim that it cooperates with the Islamist group.

The efforts of the U.S. administration to convince the Free Syrian Army to sever its ties with Jabhat Fateh al-Sham were unsuccessful until recently. But in light of the regime’s successes in Aleppo, the Free Syrian Army is likely to withdraw from parts of eastern Aleppo. By so doing, it will pave the way for the continued occupation of the city by Assad’s forces.

The military weakness of the Free Syrian Army was the reason why other militias decided to join Assad’s forces, thereby significantly undermining the strength of the rebels.

Another significant turning point is the addition of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which captured one of the neighborhoods alongside Assad’s army. The irony is that these forces are defined by Turkey as terrorist organizations that must be destroyed, as Turkey did on its border with Syria, along with the Free Syrian Army. But Russia and the Syrian regime are treating them as allies, despite Turkey’s opposition.

It’s possible that the Syrian Kurds’ cooperation with Assad is based on the assessment and hope that the Assad regime will allow them to establish an independent region along the border with Turkey when the war ends. It’s doubtful whether this aspiration will be realized, but meanwhile the Kurds are likely to rely on Russian assistance in the war being waged in the Syrian-Kurdish region.

The fact that the Syrian Kurds are fighting alongside Assad is dividing the rebel forces even further. Moreover, there is a real war between the Kurds and the Free Syrian Army due to the latter’s assistance to Turkey in the border war between the two countries. This means that the capture of Aleppo is liable to increase Turkey’s military intervention in Syria, in order to prevent the possibility that Syrian-Kurdish cooperation will provide the Kurds with support in their efforts to establish an autonomous region on the border.

For the hundreds of thousands of civilians in Aleppo, the city’s occupation by Assad is likely to offer hope for the start of a long and expensive rehabilitation process. The international consensus increasingly recognizes the fact that Assad is likely to be a part of the solution, especially in light of the rebels’ impotence. The expectation, therefore, is that Aleppo will fall quickly, thus making it possible to move onto the diplomatic stage.

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Article 2

Trump’s Post-Aleppo Reality


Jonathan S. Tobin

Commentary "Contentions", Dec. 1, 2016


A Syrian boy sittiing next to bodies after artillery fire struck Aleppo on Wednesday. (Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets via AP)

What may turn out to be the last days of the siege of Aleppo have illustrated the brutal nature of the Assad regime’s successful effort to hold on to power. Having demanded that the people of the rebel-controlled city leave, Assad joined with his Hezbollah, Iranian, and Russian allies to seek its capture. Syrian government artillery then fired upon a group of refugee families attempting to flee–killing at least 45.

Even though the bloodshed in that tortured city is far greater than in Gaza in 2014, there will be no mass protests about Aleppo in Europe, as there were when Israel sought to end Hamas’s missile launches. The world is largely unconcerned with the slaughter in Syria, which has already taken hundreds of thousands of lives. Public opinion both internationally and in the United States now appears to be coming to terms with the likelihood that Assad is about to win the civil war.

The imminent fall of Aleppo won’t end all fighting in Syria. Rebels will carry on their struggle outside of the cities they’ve lost. The half-hearted campaign against the ISIS caliphate in the eastern part of the country will also continue. But it’s clear that President Obama’s forlorn hope that the civil war would end with a political settlement that leads to Assad’s ouster was a pipe dream. Assad’s hold on power in Damascus and control of much of Syria, if not all of it, is a given. The future of the country will be determined by his Russian and Iranian patrons. The only question now is what will be the attitude of the United States toward a Middle East in which the Iranian quest for regional hegemony, co-sponsored by Russia, continues to prosper?

If you take seriously what Donald Trump said during the presidential campaign, the answer is indifference. Trump repeatedly said that he saw no reason for conflict with Russia regarding Syria and actually hoped to cooperate with both countries in the fight against ISIS. There are a number of problems with this idea. Russia’s priority is to secure control over its Mediterranean bases in Syria, not fighting the Islamic state. Moreover, the notion of a common goal in Syria runs up against the fact that, along with Assad (who gets to survive) and Vladimir Putin (who gets a leg up toward his long-term goal of reassembling the old Soviet empire), the main beneficiary of the new reality in Syria is Iran. If Trump is serious about beating ISIS, preventing Tehran from exploiting a weak nuclear deal with the West, and preventing it from continuing to make mischief in the region, he won’t do it by getting into bed with Iran’s Russian partners.

Indeed, the survival of Assad and the ascendance of Iranian influence more or less guarantees that ISIS will retain the support of Sunni Muslims in Syria who see the terrorist group as their only defense against the depredations of Assad’s Alawite minority as well as Iranian-backed Shia forces. Far from solving the problems of the region, the growing strength of the Iranian axis of terror, which now stretches from Iraq to Syria and into Lebanon, ensures that the Islamist threat will not be stamped out by great power cooperation. Rather, it will metastasize.

Acquiescence to this state of affairs is in tune with the war-weariness of the American people, who weren’t appalled by Trump’s neo-isolationist stance. It is, however, a guarantee that American influence will shrink in a Middle East dominated by Russia and Iran, while Israel and moderate Arab states look in vain to Washington for leadership. It is also likely to lead to more terrorist hot spots. Trump’s rhetoric about “kicking ISIS’s ass” won’t resolve any of this.

That’s why it’s encouraging that, with the possible exception of Senator Bob Corker, all of the serious candidates for secretary of state are men who understand that President Obama’s willingness to punt control of Syria to Russia was a mistake and who believe in a strong internationalist foreign policy. Trump’s belief that he can do a deal with Putin that won’t damage U.S. interests is a fantasy since another goal of Russian foreign policy is to diminish U.S. influence and that of its allies.

After the failures of the last two administrations, finding a new path in the Middle East won’t be easy. If Trump doesn’t wish to avoid further disasters, he should listen to some of the people he is considering for the State Department and begin plotting a Middle East policy that is not predicated on appeasing either Putin or Iran.

What may turn out to be the last days of the siege of Aleppo have illustrated the brutal nature of the Assad regime’s successful effort to hold on to power. Having demanded that the people of the rebel-controlled city leave, Assad joined with his Hezbollah, Iranian, and Russian allies to seek its capture. Syrian government artillery then fired upon a group of refugee families attempting to flee–killing at least 45.

Even though the bloodshed in that tortured city is far greater than in Gaza in 2014, there will be no mass protests about Aleppo in Europe, as there were when Israel sought to end Hamas’s missile launches. The world is largely unconcerned with the slaughter in Syria, which has already taken hundreds of thousands of lives. Public opinion both internationally and in the United States now appears to be coming to terms with the likelihood that Assad is about to win the civil war.

The imminent fall of Aleppo won’t end all fighting in Syria. Rebels will carry on their struggle outside of the cities they’ve lost. The half-hearted campaign against the ISIS caliphate in the eastern part of the country will also continue. But it’s clear that President Obama’s forlorn hope that the civil war would end with a political settlement that leads to Assad’s ouster was a pipe dream. Assad’s hold on power in Damascus and control of much of Syria, if not all of it, is a given. The future of the country will be determined by his Russian and Iranian patrons. The only question now is what will be the attitude of the United States toward a Middle East in which the Iranian quest for regional hegemony, co-sponsored by Russia, continues to prosper?

If you take seriously what Donald Trump said during the presidential campaign, the answer is indifference. Trump repeatedly said that he saw no reason for conflict with Russia regarding Syria and actually hoped to cooperate with both countries in the fight against ISIS. There are a number of problems with this idea. Russia’s priority is to secure control over its Mediterranean bases in Syria, not fighting the Islamic state. Moreover, the notion of a common goal in Syria runs up against the fact that, along with Assad (who gets to survive) and Vladimir Putin (who gets a leg up toward his long-term goal of reassembling the old Soviet empire), the main beneficiary of the new reality in Syria is Iran. If Trump is serious about beating ISIS, preventing Tehran from exploiting a weak nuclear deal with the West, and preventing it from continuing to make mischief in the region, he won’t do it by getting into bed with Iran’s Russian partners.

Indeed, the survival of Assad and the ascendance of Iranian influence more or less guarantees that ISIS will retain the support of Sunni Muslims in Syria who see the terrorist group as their only defense against the depredations of Assad’s Alawite minority as well as Iranian-backed Shia forces. Far from solving the problems of the region, the growing strength of the Iranian axis of terror, which now stretches from Iraq to Syria and into Lebanon, ensures that the Islamist threat will not be stamped out by great power cooperation. Rather, it will metastasize.

Acquiescence to this state of affairs is in tune with the war-weariness of the American people, who weren’t appalled by Trump’s neo-isolationist stance. It is, however, a guarantee that American influence will shrink in a Middle East dominated by Russia and Iran, while Israel and moderate Arab states look in vain to Washington for leadership. It is also likely to lead to more terrorist hot spots. Trump’s rhetoric about “kicking ISIS’s ass” won’t resolve any of this.

That’s why it’s encouraging that, with the possible exception of Senator Bob Corker, all of the serious candidates for secretary of state are men who understand that President Obama’s willingness to punt control of Syria to Russia was a mistake and who believe in a strong internationalist foreign policy. Trump’s belief that he can do a deal with Putin that won’t damage U.S. interests is a fantasy since another goal of Russian foreign policy is to diminish U.S. influence and that of its allies.

After the failures of the last two administrations, finding a new path in the Middle East won’t be easy. If Trump doesn’t wish to avoid further disasters, he should listen to some of the people he is considering for the State Department and begin plotting a Middle East policy that is not predicated on appeasing either Putin or Iran.

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Article 3

FPI Bulletin: The Russian Mirage in the Middle East


By Tzvi Kahn

Foreign Policy Initiative, November 28, 2016


Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iran's President Hassan Rouhani during a meeting in Russia last year - the Russia-Iran alliance has made the two countries the most important players in today's Middle East.
 
President-elect Trump has articulated two primary goals in the Middle East: the defeat of radical Islamist terrorism and the abrogation or renegotiation of the Iran nuclear deal. At the same time, however, he also seeks to strengthen America’s relationship with Russia, which he has portrayed as a strategic partner that shares U.S. objectives in the region. These views are incompatible. Through its support of the Syrian and Iranian regimes, the Kremlin has fueled the rise of the Islamic State (IS) and facilitated Tehran’s nuclear and hegemonic ambitions. If the president-elect intends to advance U.S. interests in the Middle East, he must adopt a strategy aimed at combating Moscow’s influence.

The Russian-Iranian Alliance Since the Nuclear Deal
Russian policy in the Middle East is rooted in its desire to project power, reduce Western influence, and undermine American global leadership. Tehran and Moscow seek to combat IS only to the degree that its decline would enable the Assad regime to remain in power, thereby facilitating Tehran’s drive for regional hegemony and the Kremlin’s role as a regional power broker. Russian support for Iran’s military and nuclear infrastructure aims to bolster the Islamist regime’s regional position at the expense of Sunni Arab allies of the United States.

Shared animosity toward America constitutes the glue that binds Moscow and Tehran together, enabling them to transcend religious and ideological differences that would otherwise render them unlikely partners. “America’s long-term plot for the region is to the disadvantage of all nations and countries — particularly Iran and Russia — and therefore, this plot should be foiled in an intelligent way and with closer interactions,” said Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, during a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Tehran in November 2015. The Russian leader, in turn, called Iran “a trustworthy and reliable ally in the region and in the world.”

The Russian-Iranian alliance has dramatically intensified in the wake of last year’s nuclear accord. Today, the two countries constitute the Middle East’s most dominant actors.

Military Cooperation
On July 24, 2015, just over a week after the JCPOA’s finalization, Qassem Suleimani, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force, visited Moscow — in violation of a U.N. travel ban — for talks concerning Russian intervention in Syria. Two months later, Russian airstrikes in Syria began, inaugurating a bloody new phase in the conflict that Moscow and Tehran disingenuously described as a joint effort to defeat IS. In reality, the intervention has sought to help the Assad regime preserve its grip on power by targeting moderate rebels and providing cover for Iranian troops. In the past year, Tehran even allowed Moscow to use an Iranian airbase to bomb targets in Syria. In April 2016, Suleimani traveled to Russia again for further talks.

In March 2016, Tehran announced that it plans to purchase Sukhoi-30 (Su-30) fighter jets from Russia. Iran’s acquisition of the Su-30, an analogue to the latest versions of the F-15 and F-18, would dramatically strengthen its antiquated air force, which currently lacks the capability to prevail in virtually any conventional conflict. In late 2015, Tehran also expressed interest in buying advanced T-90 tanks from Moscow.

Earlier this month, Moscow stated that it had begun talks with Iran over a $10 billion arms deal that may include the Su-30, the T-90, and other military hardware. If completed, the transactions would directly violate the five-year arms embargo mandated in U.N. Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 2231, which enshrined the nuclear accord as international law. Strikingly, however, Moscow has openly disputed the plain meaning of the resolution’s text, falsely claiming, in April 2016, that it actually permits the sale of the Su-30. This posture suggests that Russia intends to continue its efforts to acquire illicit weaponry unless Washington takes action to stop it.

Iran’s Nuclear Program
Although Moscow formally opposes Tehran’s acquisition of a bomb, the Kremlin has enabled the advancement and security of the Islamist regime’s nuclear infrastructure. In April 2015, shortly after Tehran and world powers reached a framework agreement that led to the July 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Moscow announced that it would conclude the sale of S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to Tehran, thereby enabling the Islamist regime to protect its nuclear facilities from aerial attack. Russia completed the delivery of the system to Iran last month.

In September 2016, Moscow and Tehran began construction on two nuclear power plants in the southern Iranian city of Bushehr pursuant to a contract first signed in 2014. In August 2016, Putin pledged that his nation would continue to aid Iran’s nuclear program even beyond the Bushehr project. “We are going to help our Iranian partners further in carrying out their nuclear program action plan, which will include working with enriched uranium and producing stable isotopes,” he said. The two nations have said they seek to build six more power plants in the coming years.

Moscow has supported Iran’s right to produce ballistic missiles, the key delivery vehicle for a nuclear weapon. When Tehran tested ballistic missiles in late 2015 and early 2016 in defiance of UNSCR 2231, the Kremlin defended its Iranian ally, noting that the U.N. prohibition is non-binding. In November 2015, Russia and Iran reached an agreement on expanding research on dual-use space technology that Tehran could use to develop ballistic missiles.

Russia has opposed U.S. efforts to strengthen the enforcement provisions and transparency of the JCPOA. In February 2016, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released a report on Tehran’s compliance with the accord that Washington criticized for its omission of key details regarding the regime’s nuclear activities. Moscow disagreed, however, describing it as “an absolutely balanced document.” Subsequent reports in May 2016, September 2016, and November 2016 have omitted the same data.

Similarly, an April 2016 report by the Institute for Science and International Security noted that Russia has weakened, in multiple ways, the Procurement Working Group (PWG) established by the JCPOA to review proposals by individual states to transfer dual-use technologies to Iran that could facilitate its nuclear program. For example, in response to a request from Moscow and Beijing, the PWG exempted items transferred to the Fordow enrichment plant and the Arak heavy water reactor from its purview. Fordow and Arak lie at the heart of the regime’s efforts to develop a uranium bomb and a plutonium bomb, respectively.

Conclusion
Over the past year, the Obama administration has largely ignored the burgeoning relationship between Moscow and Tehran, apparently fearful that any meaningful opposition would undermine the viability of the JCPOA. In this respect, President-elect Trump’s stated approach to Russia not only would continue the failed efforts of his predecessor, but would double down on a policy that will further embolden both Russian and Iranian aggression. If the president-elect wishes to reverse the nuclear agreement he rightly lambasted during the campaign, he must prove willing to challenge the key actors who have enabled its worst consequences.

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