Russia, U.S. Reach Agreement as Syrian Forces Falter

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Syrian Marines (Photo from Abkhazian Network News Agency)

Secretary of State John Kerry announced a deal with Russia on Friday to “reduce violence, ease suffering and resume movement toward a negotiated peace and a political transition in Syria.” The agreement includes a cessation of hostilities starting September 12th, the end of Russia targeting non-Nusra (Jabhat al-Nusra, recently rebranded as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, the al-Qaida offshoot in Syria) opposition forces, restrictions on the Syrian Air Force, unimpeded humanitarian access and a demilitarized zone in Aleppo.

In exchange for this, the United States will work jointly with Russia to target Nusra together. Whether this is a good deal or not is yet to be seen. Secretary Kerry says the deal “has the ability to be a turning point—a moment of change.” There have been different reactions on Twitter:

But why have the Russians agreed to a deal with the US now? Perhaps a clue lies in the fact that the tone has begun to change online about Russia’s intervention in Syria, where just months ago it was considered a victory by many.

In a piece written for Gazeta.ru, an online publication whose editor was replaced by a pro-government appointee during Putin’s media crackdown in 2013 and 2014, a retired Russian officer argues that “it is impossible to win the war with such an ally as Assad’s army.”

He describes a Syrian Arab Army that is too small, undisciplined, unmotivated, and corrupt to defeat the “illegal armed groups” (such as the Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army and the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces) it is fighting. While Assad’s army mans checkpoints and extorts the local population, “the actual fighting against opposition groups is mostly done by Syrian militias, the Lebanese Hezbollah Shia units, Iranian and Iraqi volunteers and Private Military Companies.”

The Russian officer goes as far as to suggest the only hope for Russia is to disband Assad’s army and reform a new one from scratch—though he admits the political will to finance such an endeavor is absent.

Similarly, The Atlantic Council’s Faysal Itani published a piece today backtracking on his prediction that the Syrian insurgency would soon be impotent. After some impressive successes post-Russian air campaign, Syrian forces now appear unable to hold their newly occupied territory.

If Russia has decided that it cannot depend on local forces to maintain the territory that it has won for them and it does not wish to commit its own ground forces, then a deal with the US is prudent.

 

Itani observes that the biggest problem Assad faces is manpower. The Aleppo siege was broken by a relatively small force of an estimated 4,000 rebels and the recent successes by opposition forces in Hama province may involve as little as 2,500 rebels, yet Assad’s forces have been unfit to counter. It appears that Assad is unable to hold two fronts simultaneously.

If Russia has decided that it cannot depend on local forces to maintain the territory that it has won for them and it does not wish to commit its own ground forces, then a deal with the US is prudent.

While touted as a success by the State Department, Russia likely sees this deal as a win for them: they get help from the United States Air Force while their client, the Syrian Arab Air Force, gets a break. The Gazeta piece claims that the Syrian Arab Air Force is rundown, lacking sufficient manpower, aircraft, and ordinance.

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Destruction in Azaz, near Aleppo (Wikimedia Commons photo)

The much published “barrel bombs” are a result of a scarcity of real bombs and both pilot training and aircraft maintenance has effectively ceased due to war restrictions.

Any deal to reduce suffering in Syria—even temporarily—is a good one. Humanitarian access to the destroyed city of Aleppo is desperately needed. But joint Russian/US strikes on Nusra, while in the US’s interest, also serve to help Assad. As is now unfortunately common in the Syrian conflict, efforts to end the war by pressuring one actor only seem to help prolong it by unintentionally benefiting two or more other actors who may or may not be aligned.

Such has been the fate of Syria for the last five and a half years. Decisive victory, for any side, still remains a distant goal.

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Foreverwar Roundup 8/3/16

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Once a Qaddafi stronghold, Sirte, Libya is now an IS stronghold and a target in a new U.S. air war (Christian Jacob Hansen/Danish Demining Group photo)

With the U.S. presidential election in less than 100 days, it is easy for news about the escalating war against al-Qaida, Islamic State (IS, also known as ISIS or ISIL), and other bad guys to get buried under headlines about what supposedly shocking thing Trump said about Muslims, babies, or Purple Heart medals. In case you missed it:

Non-special operations troops outside the wire in Iraq

In Iraq, non-special operations troops, i.e. what might be considered legitimate “boots on the ground”are conducting operations outside the confines of their bases in preparation  for the invasion of Mosul. (“The boots on the ground have to be Iraqi” said President Obama once in 2014.) U.S. Army Combat Engineers are assisting an Iraqi engineer battalion build a pontoon bridge over the Tigris River.

American forces were completely withdrawn from Iraq in December, 2011, but today there are over 3,600 in country.

Jabhat al-Nusra rebrands

Jabhat al-Nusra (also know known as Nusra Front), al-Qaida’s branch in Syria, announced that it was changing its name to Jabhat Fath al-Sham (Front for the Conquest of the Levant). The name change in itself is interesting because Jabhat al-Nusra’s full name was Jabhat al-Nusra li-Ahli al-Sham or “the front of support for the people of the Levant”—a decidedly soft and cuddly name for what was effectively al-Qaida in Syria.

The new name has more direct ambitions: the conquest of Sham. Sham is often translated as the Western concept of the Levant or a “greater Syria”. Already in actual conflict with IS, this now puts their name in conflict with IS too. IS was once the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham. The once-Nusra now wants to conquer that territory claimed by IS.

What interested most in the Western media about this rebranding, though, was the announcement that Jabhat Fath al-Sham would have “no affiliation to any external entity” which was interpreted as an official separation from al-Qaida proper. Many experts have argued that this is not the case, but the benefits of not being affiliated with al-Qaida are many—mostly foreign aid.

War against IS kicks off in earnest in Libya

Two days ago, a U.S. air campaign in support of the U.N.-backed government in Libya began against IS. I wrote about the first airstrike against IS in Libya a few months ago, but this most recent strike signifies a prolonged campaign specifically in support of the Government National Accord, one of three government-like entities currently operating in Libya.

This new campaign against IS is authorized under the 2001 AUMF. Yes, a war in Libya is legal under a law passed to fight al-Qaida in Afghanistan a decade and a half ago. A new, revised authorization from Congress to fight what is effectively a new war is not likely.

Afghan forces use child soldiers but the US is okay with that

This one is not exactly news, but Foreign Policy published a piece today about the Afghan National Police’s use of what are effectively child soldiers. This makes for cute propaganda pieces about 10 year old “heroes” fighting the Taliban, but it is also in violation of the spirit of a law preventing the U.S. from arming or assisting countries that use child soldiers.

The Obama Administration argues that a child police officer is not a child soldier, but in Afghanistan the National Police do not do traditional police work like investigating crimes, they fight the Taliban. But using technicalities to not enforce laws protecting children is not new for the U.S. After all, the U.S. is one of only three countries (joining Somalia and South Sudan) that will not ratify the U.N. child rights treaty.