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Russia in Syria/Gambling on moderating Iran

Sep 17, 2015

Russia in Syria/Gambling on moderating Iran

Update from AIJAC

Sept. 17, 2015
Number 09/15 #03

This Update offers expert analysis of the increased military intervention of Russia in the Syrian civil war – both of the background to the Russian decision and the quandary it creates for Western policymakers.

We lead with top scholar of Syria and Iraq – and recent visitor to Australia – Dr. Jonathan Spyer. He says the Russian move to introduce its own forces is a quantitative rather than qualitative change in the conflict and is simply a new tactic made necessary by circumstances to achieve Russia’s ongoing goal in Syria – keep Syrian President Bashar Assad in power by all means necessary. He says the Russian move was necessitated by the reality that, while the manpower-short Assad regime had managed to hang on by strategic withdrawal and recruiting from every possible source, the regime’s Alawite heartland in Latakia province is now under major threat, and its loss would have led to the regime’s defeat. For Spyer’s complete analysis of how the situation on the ground in the civil war lead to the Russia intervention,  CLICK HERE.

Next up, veteran American diplomat and senior official Dennis Ross explores how the West might respond to the Russian intervention, which he presents as in part a Russian move to shore up its position for future negotiations. He calls for the US to attempt to play by the rules that the Russian and Iranian allies of Assad are setting in Syria – principally  by creating a safe haven inside Syria, free from both ISIS and the Assad regime, with the assistance of regional allies and Europe. He points out that this could both provide an alternative to streaming into Europe for refugees, and be the basis for fostering an opposition that could assume responsibilities in a post-Assad world. For all of Ross’ analysis and advice, CLICK HERE. More on Putin’s intention in Syria from Anna Borshchevskaya.

Finally, another long-standing American diplomat specialising in the Middle East, Aaron David Miller, makes clear a key point about the Iranian nuclear deal – despite denials by the US Administration, the success of the deal absolutely does depend on the Iranian regime moderating in future. He makes three key points which he says mean the deal could actually make Iran more dangerous: 1. Iran’s nuclear weapons aspirations are strongly tied up with the nature of the regime, and its regional ambitions; 2. The primary threat from Iran to the US and its allies at the moment are actions that are not at all covered by this deal, but will actually become more threatening because Iran will get additional resources, 3. Iran’s hardliners use their animosity to the US to mobilise supporters and maintain revolutionary legitimacy. Miller concludes that unless these elements change, Iran will both have the capability and desire to get a bomb when the deal ends, and may well provoke a crisis that will lead a future US government to abandon the deal before then. For his complete argument, CLICK HERE.

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The bear steps in

Jerusalem Post, 11/9

Moscow doubles down on support for Assad with military buildup in northwest Syria

The current increase of the Russian military presence in northwest Syria is a function of the declining military fortunes of the Assad regime. It represents a quantitative, rather than qualitative, change in the nature of the Russian engagement in Syria.

Moscow’s goal throughout the conflict has been to keep Syrian President Bashar Assad in power by all means necessary. The ends remain the same. But as the situation on the ground changes, so the Russian means employed to achieve this goal must change with it.

Since the outset of the Syrian civil war, the key problem for Assad has been manpower. Against a Sunni Arab rebellion with a vast pool of potential fighters from Syria’s 60 percent Sunni Arab majority and from among foreign volunteers, the regime has been forced to draw ever deeper from a far shallower base.

At the outset of the conflict, the Syrian Arab Army was on paper a huge force – of 220,000 regular soldiers plus an additional 280,000 reserves. But the vast majority of this army was unusable by the dictator. This is because it consisted overwhelmingly of Sunni conscripts, whose trustworthiness from the regime’s point of view was seriously in doubt. Since then, the army has shrunk in size from attrition, desertion and draft dodging.

The story of the last four years has been the attempt by Assad and his allies to offset the reality of insufficient manpower for the task at hand. This has been achieved by two means.

First, the regime has chosen to retreat from large swathes of the country, in order to be able to more effectively hold the essential areas it has to maintain with its limited numbers.

The abandonment of the country’s east and north led to the emergence of the areas of control held by Kurdish, Sunni Arab rebel, and later al-Qaida and Islamic State forces in these areas.

But of course retreating in order to consolidate is a strategy that can be pursued only so far. At a certain point, the area remaining becomes no longer viable for the purpose intended – namely, the preservation of the regime in a form that can guarantee the needs of its Russian and Iranian backers, and the relative security of the ruling elite itself and to a lesser extent of the population which relies on it and upon which it relies.

To offset the arrival at this point, Assad and his friends have striven in ever more creative ways to put sufficient men in the field, and to maintain the edge in military equipment which could hold back the masses of the lightly armed rebels.

There were the hastily assembled Alawi irregulars of the “shabiha.” Then an increasing commitment of Iranian regional assets – including the Lebanese Hezbollah and Iraqi Shi’ite militia forces. Then there was the Iranian-trained National Defense Forces. In recent months, northwest Syria has witnessed the arrival of “volunteers” from as far afield as the Hazara Shi’ite communities of Afghanistan (paid for by Tehran).

Despite all this effort, the rebels have, since the spring, been pushing westward toward Latakia province.

If the rebels reach Latakia, there is nowhere left to retreat to. The regime and its allies must hold the province or face defeat. The appearance of apparently Russian-crewed BTR-82A APCs on the Latakia battlefield appears to be testimony to Russia’s awareness of this – and its willingness to dig deeper for Assad – even if this means the direct deployment of Russian personnel on the battlefield in a limited way.

The apparent deployment of a growing force of the Russian army’s 810th Independent Marine Brigade at and around the naval depot of Tartus in Latakia province offers further evidence of this commitment, as well as a pointer to the interests in Syria that Moscow regards as vital.

The bolder claims of Russian Pchela 1T UAVs and even Sukhoi Su-27 fighter jets over the skies of the Idlib battlefield are not yet confirmed. But the respected Ruslanleviev Russian investigative website found the evidence regarding the APCs and the marines around Tartus to be persuasive.

There is a reason why the rebel march toward Latakia cannot simply be absorbed by the regime as a further tactical withdrawal, analogous to earlier retreats from Hasakah, Quneitra, most of Deraa, Aleppo, Idlib and so on.

Latakia province is the heartland of the Syrian Alawi community. It is a place where regime supporters have been able to convince themselves for most of the last four years that here, at least, they were safe.

If the rebels break through on the al-Ghab Plain, and the front line moves decisively into the populated areas of Latakia, this will be over.

The loss of Latakia province would render the hope of keeping a regime enclave intact no longer viable. It will raise the possibility of the regime losing its control of Syria’s coastline (vital for Assad’s Russian and Iranian backers).

This, in turn, could mean rebel capture of the Tartus naval depot. Hence the deployment of the marines, who, according to information available, have not yet been placed in forward positions facing the rebels. Rather, they are gathered around Tartus for its defense.

So the steady rebel advance in the direction of Latakia is producing a Russian response of a volume and nature not before witnessed on the Syrian battlefield.

Russian weaponry and Russian diplomatic support have been the vital lifelines for Assad throughout the last four years. Previous levels of support are no longer enough. So more is being provided.

Still, the current indications do not appear to suggest or presage a major conventional deployment of Russian forces. That would go against the known pattern favored by President Vladimir Putin.

Rather, Russian assistance, while on the increase, is likely to be limited to an active support role, perhaps extending to the use of some air power, along with behind-the-scenes advisory and training roles and the use of some specialized personnel in combat or combat support roles.

Meanwhile, as the Russians arrive in Latakia, the rebel mopping up of remaining regime enclaves in Idlib province adjoining Latakia is continuing. A force of the Jaysh al-Fatah (Army of Conquest) this week captured the last remaining regime air base in the province, at Abu Zuhour.

Jaysh al-Fatah is a union of the northwest’s most powerful rebel groups. Prominent among its components is Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian franchise of al-Qaida. This coalition, supported by Turkey and Qatar and armed with advanced weapons by Saudi Arabia, is altering the military landscape of northwest Syria.

In the weeks ahead, the fighting in northwest Hama and Latakia provinces looks set to intensify, with the Sunni rebels seeking to push further toward the coast.

Assad’s benighted regime, aided by its Russian and Iranian friends, will be throwing everything into the effort to stop them. It remains to be seen if the Russian bear’s increased pressure on the scales will prove again sufficient to maintain the balance.

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By Dennis Ross

U.S. News & World Report, September 11, 2015

Russia and Iran have changed the stakes in Syria, and the United States should act accordingly.

Refugees streaming into Europe, and the limp body of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi, have brought the horrific conflict in Syria into greater focus again. With over 250,000 dead and more than half of Syria’s population displaced, it should not be surprising that the conflict finally found a new way to force itself into the collective consciousness of the world.

The only surprising thing is that it took so long to create a crisis in Europe. To be sure, those countries were feeling the effects of the Syrian conflict before now, but not in terms of refugees from the war trying to make their way to the continent. No, the concern was about younger European Muslims being attracted to the call of the Islamic State group, primarily in Syria, getting trained in the art of terror and returning home to act on their deadly beliefs. Though it has been clear for some time that Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq could not absorb any more refugees, Europe, the United States and the rest of the international community have paid little heed.

The need for a safe haven in Syria, for all those displaced and caught between the hammer of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime and the anvil of the Islamic State group, should have been on the agenda — but it was not. The Obama administration feared that it was a device to force the U.S. to intervene more in the conflict, not just against the Islamic State group, but also against the Assad regime. And the administration has not been willing to do that, partly because it doesn’t know what comes after Assad and partly because it feared how Iran might react in Iraq to U.S.-backed attacks against the Syrian leader, who today is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Iranian regime. Others in Europe deferred to the U.S., believing only America could truly affect the conflict — or believing along with the United States that only a political process, not a safe haven, could ameliorate the struggle in Syria.

While it is true that only a political process can ultimately resolve the war in Syria, the problem is that everyone has to have a similar stake in settling the conflict. They also have to play by the same rules. And neither the U.S. nor the Europeans have been willing to play by the rules that are guiding the Iranians, the Russians and, to a lesser extent, the Saudis, Turks and Qataris.

In the case of the Iranians and the Russians, provision of weapons, advisers and even military forces are the coin of the realm. The Iranians have a proxy force in Hezbollah that has thousands of fighters on the ground in Syria and has often served as “shock forces” in trying to take or hold certain areas. Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps’ Quds Force is also represented primarily as trainers and advisers, but in sufficient numbers and close enough to the combat that they have lost a number of senior officers in the fighting.

Until recently, the Russians have provided weaponry. But now there are reports of Russian personnel arriving with more advanced weaponry, including aircraft and prefab housing; there is even the possibility that their pilots are flying missions in Syria. Why now? Is it because the Assad regime has lost more territory? Is it because Turkey and the U.S. are now trying to create a strip of territory free of the Islamic State group along the Turkish-Syria border? Or is it because the U.S. is showing new interest in trying to forge a political process in Syria — so much so that Secretary of State John Kerry organized a meeting several weeks ago with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir?

Perhaps all of these factors explain Russia’s recent moves. If there is going to be a political process, the Russians intend to shore up the Assad regime first and, at the same time, claim what they are doing is simply joining in the fight against the Islamic State group. Russian President Vladimir Putin is, after all, explaining Russia’s actions in Syria as part of the common struggle against terror, even as he says talk of Russians playing a combat role in Syria is premature.

But don’t believe it. This is the way Putin negotiates. Seeing our interest in a political process, he is building his leverage; even as the State Department expresses its concern, saying the Russians are escalating the conflict, Putin responds by upping the ante and calling for a snap five-day exercise to test the readiness of their troops. He believes in coercive diplomacy.

If we want to promote a political process in Syria, we need to play by the same rules. Our focus cannot be only on the Islamic State group. It is time to get serious about producing a safe haven — not simply an Islamic State group-free zone, but a haven for refugees, a haven where it is possible to train more than a handful of the Syrian opposition and a haven where it becomes possible for Syrian opposition elements to cohere more effectively on Syrian territory, becoming more legitimate and accountable if there is to be a political process.

Of course, none of this will happen quickly or easily. But Turkey, the Saudis, the Qataris and the United Arab Emirates have wanted us to produce a safe haven in Syria and play not just an anti-Islamic State group role, but also an anti-Assad role. We should go to them and explain that we are ready to do our part and prevent any air attacks on this area, provided the Turks police the haven on the ground and make sure there is no Islamic State group infiltration, and the Saudis, Qataris, Emiratis and Kuwaitis finance the refugee needs and agree all material assistance goes only to agreed opposition forces.

At the same time, we should go to the French and other Europeans and ask for their help with the training and assistance for refugees. Lastly, we should tell the Russians and Iranians that there will be a safe haven and they will not interfere with it. Its purpose is both humanitarian and a way to foster an opposition that can assume responsibilities in a post-Assad world.

Neither the Russians nor Iranians will like this, but they will recognize we are playing by their rules now. They will know that the costs of supporting Assad will necessarily go up — unless they want to look for a way out. Such a course is not cost-free. But at some point in Syria, we have to focus on the costs of inaction and not just the costs of action. Given the refugee crisis, the Europeans might just support us.

Dennis Ross is the counselor and William Davidson Distinguished Fellow at The Washington Institute.

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The Risks If Iran Doesn’t Become More Moderate With Nuclear Deal

By Aaron David Miller

Wall Street Journal “Washington Wire”,  Sept. 9, 2015

The Iran nuclear agreement looks all but certain to proceed through the U.S. Congress in the coming days. Whether you love the deal, hate it, or are still undecided, the inconvenient truth is that the durability of the agreement and its benefits for the U.S. depend almost entirely on the moderation of Iran’s regime and its behavior in the region.

In defending the accord, President Barack Obama has asserted that regardless of whether Iran becomes more moderate, Tehran without a nuke is better than a Tehran that has the bomb. It’s hard to argue with this.

But this reasoning fails to account for three factors that will continue to make Iran a formidable adversary. And in some ways, the agreement–regardless of restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program–could make the regime even more dangerous.

It is virtually impossible to separate Iran’s nuclear weapons aspirations from the nature of the regime, its ambitions in the region, or its view of the United States. Iran’s desire to become a nuclear weapons threshold state or maintain the option to weaponize at some point was driven by its desire to preserve its highly ideological and authoritarian character. Iranian leaders are looking to protect the 1979 revolution and create a hedge against regime change by hostile powers–principally the U.S. and key Sunni Arab states–that they believe are seeking to encircle or overthrow the government in Tehran. Iran is driven by a sense of insecurity and entitlement when it comes to regional standing. And Henry Kissinger was right years ago that as long as Iran remains a cause rather than a nation, it will not abandon its nuclear weapons pretensions.

Iran doesn’t (yet) have a nuke, and U.S. intelligence assessments are that Tehran has yet to make a decision about weaponizing. Right now, the threat to the U.S. and its allies isn’t what’s in the agreement but actions that fall outside it–namely, Iran’s ambitions in the region. Iran isn’t a superpower; its allies (embattled Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, Hezbollah, Houthi rebels in Yemen, Shiite militias in Iraq) are pretty weak tea and expensive to maintain. But compared with the weaker foes they face in Iraq and their influence among Shiite Muslims, these proxies can do major damage in terms of undermining political reconciliation and stability and ensuring that Iran remains the most important regional actor in Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria–the areas Tehran really cares about. Now, consider that in exchange for time-limited restrictions on a nuke the Iranian government doesn’t yet have, it will get billions in sanctions relief. The exact amount is less important than the capacity those funds give Tehran to bolster its surrogates.

Now, consider this irony: Iran’s primary partner in the nuclear deal is the U.S.–a country that Tehran has consistently used to mobilize hard-line elements within Iran and to maintain its revolutionary character. Since the terms of the deal were announced in July, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has made numerous statements criticizing Washington and President Obama. He continues to refer to the U.S. as the Great Satan. He said again Wednesday that there would be no negotiations with the U.S. outside the nuclear issue and opined that in 25 years the Zionist entity–Israel–would not exist. The regime that purged Iran of U.S. influence in 1979 has no intention of letting Washington back in. For the regime, the nuclear deal was a means of reinforcing the revolution by getting international sanctions on Iran’s economy lifted, attracting foreign investment, and satisfying popular desires for better quality of life. Next year Iran is scheduled to hold elections for parliament and the council responsible for choosing the next supreme leader. Let’s see how Iranian moderates and reformers fare.

The bottom line is that President Obama was wrong. Ultimately, success of the nuclear deal depends on significant changes in Iran’s regime at home and its policies abroad. Without such changes, Iran will not give up its option to weaponize. And this agreement will leave Tehran with the nuclear infrastructure to pursue that option should it so choose. Absent some moderation in these ambitions, the next U.S. president–Democrat or Republican–might decide that negative Iranian actions–whether within or outside the parameters of the accord–would be grounds to walk away from the deal’s provisions.

So the big questions are: Can Iran change? Will the nuclear agreement hasten that moderation at home or abroad? A large swath of Iran’s population is young, and many are pro-Western and eager for both better lives and more connections to the outside world. Will foreign investment and influence loosen things and satisfy the public’s thirst for greater freedom? Highly authoritarian and ideological states–China, the former Soviet Union, Vietnam–have proven adept at opening up while maintaining tight control. Right now, that outcome looks likely for Iran too.

Aaron David Miller is a vice president at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars and most recently the author of “The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President.” He is on Twitter: @AaronDMiller2.

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