Washington wins diplomatic support for campaign in Iraq; Syria trickier

Paris, September 15, 2014 by John Irish and Jason Szep

World powers backed military measures on Monday to help defeat Islamic State fighters in Iraq, boosting Washington’s efforts to set up a coalition, but made no mention of the tougher diplomatic challenge next door in Syria.

France sent fighter jets on a reconnaissance mission over Iraq, a step closer to becoming the first ally to join the United States in new bombing there since President Barack Obama declared his plans to establish a broad coalition last week.

Paris also hosted an international conference, attended by the five U.N. Security Council permanent members, European and Arab states, and representatives of the EU, Arab League and United Nations. All pledged to help the government in Baghdad fight against Islamic State militants.

But a statement after Monday’s conference made no mention at all of Syria - the other country where Islamic State fighters hold a wide swathe of territory. Iraq attended Monday’s meeting but Syria did not, nor did its main regional ally, Iran.

Obama pledged last week to establish a coalition to defeat Islamic State fighters in both Iraq and Syria, plunging the United States into two separate civil wars in which nearly every country in the Middle East has a stake.

"All participants underscored the urgent need to remove Daesh from the regions in which it has established itself in Iraq," said a statement after Monday’s talks, using an Arabic acronym for the group which now calls itself Islamic State.

"To that end, they committed to supporting the new Iraqi Government in its fight against Daesh, by any means necessary, including appropriate military assistance…." it said.

Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said French aircraft would begin reconnaissance flights over Iraq. A French official said two Rafale fighter jets and a refueling aircraft had taken off on Monday for Iraq.

"The throat-slitters of Daesh - that’s what I’m calling them - tell the whole world ‘Either you’re with us or we kill you’. And when one is faced with such a group there is no other attitude than to defend yourself," Fabius told a news conference at the end of the talks.

Iraqi President Fouad Massoum told Monday’s conference he hoped the Paris meeting would bring a “quick response”.

"Islamic State’s doctrine is either you support us or kill us‎. It has committed massacres and genocidal crimes and ethnic purification," he told delegates.


Monday’s conference was an important vote of confidence for the new Iraqi government, formed last week, led by a member of Iraq’s Shi’ite majority, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, and also including minority Sunnis and Kurds in important jobs.

Iraq’s allies hope that Abadi will prove a more consensual leader than his predecessor Nuri al-Maliki, a Shi’ite whose policies alienated many Sunnis. They hope that the new Iraqi government will win back support from Sunnis who had backed the Islamic State’s revolt.

Monday’s conference shows that Abadi enjoys broad international good will, which means Washington will probably face little diplomatic pushback over plans to use air strikes against Islamic State fighters on that side of the frontier.

Syria, however, is a much trickier case. In a three year civil war, Islamic State has emerged as one of the most powerful Sunni groups battling against the government of President Bashar al-Assad, a member of a Shi’ite-derived sect.

Washington remains hostile to Assad, which means any bombing is likely to take place without permission of the government in Damascus. Russia, which has a veto at the U.N. Security Council and supports Assad, says bombing would be illegal without a Security Council resolution. Turkey and other countries are wary of measures against Islamic State that might help Assad.

Islamic State fighters set off alarms across the Middle East since June when they swept across northern Iraq, seizing cities, slaughtering prisoners, proclaiming a caliphate to rule over all Muslims and ordering non-Sunnis to convert or die.

The United States resumed air strikes in Iraq in August for the first time since the 2011 withdrawal of the last U.S. troops, fearful the militants would break the country up and use it as a base for attacks on the West.

Obama’s plans, announced last week, would involve stronger military action in Iraq and extend the campaign across the frontier to Syria. Secretary of State John Kerry has said he believes he can forge a solid alliance despite hesitancy among some partners and questions over the legality of action.

U.S. officials said several Arab countries have offered to join the United States in air strikes against Islamic State targets, but declined to say which countries made the offers. Ten Arab states committed last week to joining a military coalition, without specifying what action they would take.

Britain, Washington’s main ally when it invaded Iraq in 2003, has yet to confirm it will take part in air strikes, despite the killing of British aid worker David Haines by Islamic State fighters this past week.

France has said it is ready to take part in bombing missions in Iraq but is so far wary of action in Syria. French officials say the coalition plan must go beyond military and humanitarian action, arguing there must also be a political plan for once Islamic State has been weakened in Iraq.

The absence from Monday’s conference of Iran, Assad’s main ally and by far the most influential neighbor among Iraq’s Shi’ite majority, shows how difficult joint action can be in the Middle East. French officials said Arab countries had blocked Tehran’s presence.

"We wanted a consensus among countries over Iran’s attendance, but in the end it was more important to have certain Arab states than Iran," a French diplomat said.

Norwegian daily VG quoted Foreign Minister Boerge Brende as saying Oslo, which is at the Paris conference, was considering a military presence in Iraq.

"First and foremost we have said that there would an additional contribution to humanitarian work. But we are also considering whether we will, separately to the humanitarian help, also contribute with military capacity building," he said.

"This could be training of personnel, but it will depend on the demand we get," he added.

Key bridge destroyed in IS-held eastern Syria

Beirut, September 15, 2014 by AFP

Islamic State militants lost a vital supply route in eastern Syria on Monday with the destruction of the last bridge in the city of Deir Ezzor, a monitoring group said.

The regime of President Bashar al-Assad is believed to have caused the explosion which hit the Siyassiyeh crossing over the Euphrates river, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Half of Deir Ezzor city is under IS control, while the other half is in the hands of forces loyal to Assad.

"All the signs seem to indicate that the [Assad] regime was responsible for the explosion," said Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman.

The blast left IS-held parts of Deir Ezzor “completely under siege,” said Abdel Rahman, who warned that tens of thousands of civilians had become trapped in IS-controlled neighborhoods.

The other three bridges in the city had already been blown up, by the regime and by rebels, at various stages of the three-year Syrian conflict.

An activist from Deir Ezzor, Mohammad al-Khleif, said that it had become “extremely hard” to move around the city.

"Fighters and civilians alike will now have to use small boats to get across the Euphrates," he told AFP via the Internet.

Khleif said two other bridges had been blown up by regime troops trying to cut off rebel supply lines - prior to the emergence of the IS - while one had been destroyed by rebels seeking Assad’s ouster.

Assad’s regime has in recent weeks stepped up its fight against the IS, although a US-led coalition says it will not coordinate with Damascus in its own anti-jihadist campaign.

Syria’s conflict began as a popular revolt demanding Assad’s ouster, but morphed into a brutal civil war after the regime unleashed a massive crackdown against dissent.

Months into the fighting, jihadists began streaming into Syria, and the IS now controls about a quarter of the country’s territory.

Tehran mocks anti-jihadist front without Damascus

Tehran, September 15, 2014 by AFP

Tehran ridiculed an international conference on the jihadist threat that opened in Paris on Monday, insisting the Islamic State cannot be defeated without the support of its ally Damascus.

Neither Iran nor Syria were invited to the meeting in the French capital, despite the Damascus government’s involvement in almost daily military action against IS.

"The best way of fighting IS and terrorism in the region is to help and strengthen the Iraqi and Syrian governments, which have been engaged in a serious struggle against terrorism," Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian told a visiting French lawmaker.

"The Islamic Republic of Iran has not been waiting for the formation of an international coalition—it has been carrying out its obligations," he told foreign affairs committee chairperson Patricia Adam, the ISNA news agency reported.

Washington has been strongly opposed to Shiite Iran’s involvement in the coalition it has been building to fight the jihadists in Iraq and neighboring Syria for fear of alienating Sunni governments, particularly regional heavyweights Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

US Secretary of State John Kerry said on Friday that Washington opposed Tehran’s participation because of its “engagement in Syria and elsewhere.”

The deputy foreign minister is the latest in a string of Iranian officials to criticize US efforts to wage war against the jihadists, who have seized a big chunk of eastern Syria and northern and north-central Iraq.

Iranian officials charge that it was Gulf Arab and US support for the rebels fighting to overthrow the Syrian regime since 2011 that paved the way for the rise of IS.

They say that only a change of policy toward the Damascus regime by Washington and its Gulf Arab allies can turn the tables.

US President Barack Obama announced last Wednesday that he had authorized the expansion to Syria of the US air campaign against IS he launched in early August.

There have been no US strikes so far but Obama’s announcement, which was made in defiance of the Syrian government, drew protests from Damascus and its Iranian and Russian allies.

Washington has long backed the rebels fighting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad.

September 12, 2014 – Turkey tightens border control to prevent…

September 12, 2014 - Turkey tightens border control to prevent Syria conflict spillover

Syria weighs risks and opportunities in Isil fight

Beirut, September 15, 2014 by Anne Barnard

The fortunes of President Bashar Al Assad have suffered over the past two months, with battlefield setbacks and new signs of doubt emerging within his political base, as the civil war in Syria drags on with no end in sight.

Now, though, he and his inner circle believe they have been granted a reprieve — at least politically — by President Barack Obama’s declaration that he may strike in Syria against the extremist group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil), according to analysts and allies of the Syrian government who say they are in contact with officials in Damascus.

To Al Assad and his closest advisers, these people say, the American decision represents a victory for his long-standing strategy: obliterating any moderate opposition to his rule and persuading the world it faces a stark choice between him and Islamist militants who threaten the West.

But there are also worries in Damascus that the potential US strikes in Syria, part of a ramped-up campaign against Isil, carry new risks. Pro-government analysts say that Syrian officials are unsure who would benefit militarily — government forces, or Syrian insurgents and separatist Kurds, who have also clashed with the foreign-led Isil militants.

Neither the Syrian army nor the Western-supported groups among the Syrian insurgents appear capable of taking immediate advantage of any weakening of Isil in the eastern provinces bordering Iraq where it is strongest, Raqqa and Deir Al Zor.

The Syrian army has little chance of retaking recently lost territory there, and appears to have virtually written off the east, said Amine Hoteit, a retired Lebanese general who is close to Syrian officials, some of whom he met with in Damascus last month.

Obama says new aid to Syrian insurgents that his administration has deemed relatively moderate will allow them to act as a ground force against Isil; he has ruled out sending US troops. But efforts to arm and train them will take time, and it is unclear whether they will be more successful than past efforts that have failed to produce an effective and unified force.

Yezid Sayegh, a military analyst at the Carnegie Middle East Centre in Beirut, said that made it unlikely that the United States would soon launch more than limited and carefully selected strikes against Isil, such as against desert convoys. The group’s fighters in Raqqa have lately melted away into the population, increasing the risk that strikes there would kill civilians, perhaps rallying support to Isil.

Syrian insurgents are stronger near Isil positions further west in Aleppo province. But so is the Syrian army, so hitting Isil there could also benefit Al Assad, which Obama is loath to do.

“So unless the US successfully kills key Isil commanders in Syria,” Sayegh said, “its military impact will be limited there in the short and possibly medium term.”

Another view, a Damascus journalist with a pro-government media outlet said in a phone interview, is that the US campaign will have little impact on the ground. Many in the government believe the campaign was designed for political reasons to show that the United States is acting against Isil and that the first step in any serious effort would be forcing Turkey, an American ally and Nato member, to stop the flow of Isil fighters across its borders.

Military impact aside, each side hopes to gain politically. The prospect of US strikes comes just as Al Assad’s government has been facing unprecedented public criticism from supporters, who have complained on social media and in interviews that it allowed the extremists to run rampant, and recently staged a rare demonstration in Damascus demanding stronger action to release hostages held by extremists.

Obama’s decision has reinvigorated core members of Al Assad’s inner circle who believe that he faces less and less pressure to compromise, and that the West will eventually ally with him against Isil, Syrian journalists and analysts say.

For fear of retribution, all the Syrians interviewed requested anonymity.

Yet Al Assad presides over a country that is physically divided and psychologically depleted. Two months ago, he was riding higher than at any time since early 2012, having consolidated control of the country’s strategic spine, which runs from Damascus to the coast. But those gains, and the morale they built, now appear less solid.

Lightning advances by Isil routed soldiers from three bases in Raqqa over the summer, sending them fleeing into the desert and leaving many government supporters incensed that the army did not send more reinforcements.

Video of an attack on the Tabaqa airbase shows soldiers fleeing, apparently unarmed, into the desert, and being gunned down by Isil fighters.

The images have been widely shared in Syria, shocking government supporters who are used to seeing the army portrayed in a heroic light; montages on state television regularly show troops marching in disciplined rows and abseiling down walls to a triumphal soundtrack.

“If we lose more areas, we will be doomed,” a 31-year-old professional, long a strong government supporter, said in a phone interview from the coastal city of Tartous. “After three years the army is tired and depleted.”

“We are playing on the edge and sitting on a volcano,” she said, asking that her name be withheld to avoid retribution from either side. “Many people who love and respect Al Assad are mad at him now. Their patience has come to the end.”

She said that her cousin, a soldier, had been jailed for three weeks after he talked on base about recent defeats. Five pro-government activists were detained recently after launching a social media campaign about missing soldiers called “Where Are They.” Others boldly defended them online as “patriotic.”

Still, the Tartous woman and many other government supporters say they see no alternative to Al Assad to protect them from Isil.

Yet US officials and some allied Western diplomats say they hope that US strikes on Isil, along with new aid to non-Isil insurgents who would be pressured to adopt a moderate agenda, could ease fears among government supporters, especially in the minority Alawite sect that forms Al Assad’s base. They hope that, in turn, could reassure influential Alawites enough to inspire them, or Al Assad’s main allies, Iran and Russia, to pressure him to step aside or share power.

But among other Western diplomats, including many long relocated to Beirut from Damascus, there is a sense of dejection and a belief that the new focus on Isil has derailed what was left of Western political will to oust Al Assad or foster a political compromise any time soon. Asked if Western governments would now expend much energy on those projects, one replied, “Absolutely not. It’s over, I’m sorry to say.”

Some Syrian officials hold a less sanguine view than Al Assad and his inner circle do of his political and military strength, a well-connected pro-government political analyst said recently. He said they believe negotiations with relatively moderate Syrian insurgents are unavoidable and that some chafe at the growing influence in Syria of Iran and Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite group which is fighting alongside Al Assad’s troops in Syria.

But he said they have little influence with real decision-makers, increasingly limited to Al Assad’s family members, who include powerful security officials and businessmen, and continue to reject any compromise that could loosen their hold on power.

“Will they reach the point where they say this is the best deal they can make and it’s time?” he said. “They are very stubborn. I am not optimistic.”

Some allies of Al Assad remain convinced that, as Syrian officials have long predicted, the international community will eventually quietly seek his government’s intelligence cooperation against Isil.

“If you don’t,” a member of Hezbollah familiar with his group’s thinking said, addressing the United States, “it raises a question of whether you really want to hit it.”

But, he added, “Even if you don’t coordinate,” any strikes against Isil would “help the regime.”

The Syrian government has volunteered to participate in the anti-Isil coalition as long as it works with Al Assad. But Obama has ruled out such cooperation. The Syrian government says US air strikes in Syria without its consent would violate its sovereignty.

Syrian officials are confident in their control of the part of the country most important to them, the corridor from Damascus north to the coastal cities, Hoteit said. Currently home to between seven million and ten million people, he said, that territory would allow the state to function indefinitely.

But key swaths of the country remain contested, including the northern city of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, divided between the government and non-Isil insurgents, and Damascus suburbs like Douma, where video on Sunday showed children wounded in heavy government air strikes.

As for the east, Hoteit said, “The regime doesn’t care much about Raqqa.”

To Stop ISIS in Syria, Support Aleppo

September 14, 2014 by Jean-Marie Guéhenno and Noah Bonsey

President Obama’s speech last week signaled a likely expansion into Syria of American airstrikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, yet offered little indication of an immediate strategy to halt ISIS’ gains there. The administration’s first focus thus remains on Iraq, while familiar pledges to work with regional allies and increase support to moderate rebels in Syria — if Congress approves sufficient funding — appear divorced from the urgency of the situation on the ground.

Though Western attention is drawn to Iraq, it is Syria that has witnessed the most significant ISIS gains since June. It is Aleppo, Syria’s largest metropolitan area, that presents ISIS’ best opportunity for expanding its claimed caliphate. An effective strategy for halting, and eventually reversing, ISIS’ expansion should begin there, and soon.

Stopping ISIS requires addressing the problems that enabled its rise. Among other factors, like lax Turkish border controls, ISIS has profited from the sectarian politics and indiscriminate military tactics of autocrats in Baghdad and Damascus. With Iranian support, these leaders have worked systematically to prevent the emergence of credible, moderate Sunni alternatives.

The Syrian opposition’s Western and regional allies have inadvertently aided that effort, as their blend of tough talk and weak, poorly coordinated support has undermined the Syrian rebels whom, ostensibly, they back. ISIS has exploited the resulting vulnerabilities among its Sunni competitors by combining the allure of empowerment to those who join with the threat of brutal punishment to any who resist.

These dynamics are on display in Aleppo. Even as ISIS forces in eastern Syria fight to evict the regime from its remaining outposts there, the government of PresidentBashar al-Assad in Damascus has concentrated on defeating the mainstream, non-jihadist opposition. Regime forces, backed by indiscriminate aerial bombardment, continue to encircle the rebels who control the eastern half of the city.

Meanwhile, just 15 miles to the north, ISIS is fighting the same poorly organized and underequipped rebel factions. ISIS’ strategic objective is to capture valuable ground that can serve as a gateway to the heart of rebel-held territory in the country’s northwest. The killing last week of several senior leaders in the rebel organization Ahrar al-Sham, a key adversary of ISIS, may ease its path.

Given Aleppo’s strategic and symbolic importance as a rebel stronghold, the very viability of mainstream anti-Assad forces in northern Syria is at stake in this battle on two fronts. The vital significance of this is that it is they who must take the lead on the ground in rolling back ISIS gains in Syria.

Among all who have fought ISIS since it emerged in 2003 (as Al Qaeda in Iraq), local Sunni insurgents have the most promising record. It was Sunni fighters who routed the organization in Iraq during 2007 and 2008, and in northwestern Syria early this year. Other forces on hand — what remains of the Syrian and Iraqi Armies, and the pro-Assad, Shiite and Kurdish militias — lack the necessary credibility with local populations to take and hold ground within ISIS’ main areas of control.

Continue reading the main story

Without effective support, the opposition in Aleppo faces defeat. There are two ways of preventing that.

The first would be through a local cease-fire between regime and rebel forces in Aleppo. Regime forces would have to agree to withdraw from recently captured areas where they pose an immediate threat to the rebels’ one remaining supply line into the city. A deal like this would enable the rebels to shift resources to the fight against ISIS.

A local cease-fire would require a fundamental shift in the Assad regime’s strategy: Instead of prioritizing the defeat of the mainstream opposition, it would have to train its fire exclusively on ISIS. That is highly unlikely. The best hope for such dramatic change can come only through pressure from Iran and Russia, if they wish their Syrian ally to be part of the solution to the ISIS problem rather than one of its causes.

Failing that, the only alternative is for the mainstream opposition’s backers (including, but not limited to, the United States) to rapidly increase and improve their support to the rebels in greater Aleppo. That would entail funding, ammunition and anti-tank weapons, as well as improvements in cooperation among the backers themselves. Besides greater American investment in the process, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey must make coordination a higher priority than their respective relations with rebel groups.

The international partners must also work together to create incentives for pragmatic behavior and political engagement among rebel factions, while punishing indiscriminate tactics, sectarian rhetoric and criminal actions. One useful effect could be to strengthen the position of nonideological groups within the rebel balance of power.

The risks of boosting support to rebels are well known. Arms supplies might leak to Al Nusra Front, a jihadist group that has proved important to mainstream rebels as a tactical ally against the Assad regime and ISIS forces. Worse, matériel might even end up in ISIS’ hands, should its gains continue. Barring a significant de-escalation in the regime’s war against anti-ISIS rebels, however, there is no palatable alternative — airstrikes alone will not stop ISIS in Syria.

If mainstream opposition is defeated in Aleppo, ISIS will expand westward. And by appearing to be the sole Sunni force capable of sustaining war against the regime, ISIS will win still more recruits. There may be no second chances: As America is finding in Iraq, credible Sunni partners in the fight against the jihadis, once lost, are not easily replaced.

Golan Heights: New flashpoint in Syria war?

UN soldiers were recently captured by Syrian rebel groups at the Quneitra crossing in the Golan [Getty Images]

Quneitra crossing, occupied Golan Heights,September 14, 2014 by Patrick Strickland

In this area of Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, Salman Fakheraldeen stood atop an empty military bunker and watched from afar as a battle raged between Syrian government military forces and anti-regime rebel fighters on the other side of a demarcation barrier.

"We have been hearing the bombing and the fighting for the last three years," said Fakheraldeen, a researcher at local human rights group, al-Marsad, on September 6. "But the last three weeks have been surreal. It has been constant. The fighting has never been this close [to the Golan Heights]."

A largely unarmed uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government broke out in March 2011, yet it wasn’t long before the conflict spiralled into sectarian violence. The United Nations’ latest estimates place the death toll atmore than 191,000 people.

Born and raised in the nearby village of Majdal Shams, Fakheraldeen is one of the estimated 20,000 Syrians living in the 70 percent of the Golan Heights occupied by Israel during the 1967 war. Israel announced its annexation of the territory in 1981, but the international community and local Syrian residents reject this claim. The vast majority of Syrians in the Golan also turned down offers of Israeli citizenship, and instead, hold Israeli-issued travel documents.

The last three weeks have been surreal. It has been constant. The fighting has never been this close [to the Golan Heights].

- Salman Fakheraldeen, al-Marshad human rights group

Today, about 21,000 Israelis also live in dozens of state-subsidised settlements dotted throughout the mountainous terrain, located in the southwestern part of Syria.

"That hill over there and the far village are the last parts still under the [Syrian] regime’s control,” Fakheraldeen told Al Jazeera, gesturing into the distance as the sound of shelling rang out. Peering through binoculars, he was unfazed by the bright flashes, distant smoke pillars, and steady thudding of bombs.

Rebel forces, including fighters from the al-Qaeda affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, exhausted the Syrian military in much of the 30 percent of the Golan Heights that remains under Syrian control last week. The opposition fighters took charge of the Quneitra crossing between the zones under Israeli and Syrian control. 

At least 44 United Nations peacekeeping soldiers were taken captive by Jabhat al-Nusra, and several dozen more were forced to flee their posts on August 29. More than 70 Filipino UN soldiers were later surrounded by Syrian rebels, but were able to flee to safety after a seven-hour gun battle.

The Philippines has decided to end its peacekeeping mission in the area. Irish soldiers narrowly escaped capture, according to Irish media reports, and Ireland is said to be re-evaluating its involvement in the UN peacekeeping forces in the Golan, which have manned the area since 1974. “We don’t want to see Irish troops or the UN contingent being drawn into a Syrian civil war,” Irish Foreign Minister Charlie Flanagan said.

While under the rule of President Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father and predecessor, Syria faced off in two wars against Israel, in 1967 and 1973. Negotiations between the two countries over control of the Golan Heights failed in January 2000 and have not been revived.

Sakher al-Makadhi, a British-Arab journalist and Syria analyst, explained that much of the regime’s legitimacy depends on its grasp on the part of the Golan Heights still under Syrian control. Taking the area back from Israel as a result of US-brokered negotiations in 1974 “was a huge victory for Hafez al-Assad”, al-Makadhi told Al Jazeera.

"Likewise, Syria’s identity as a resistance state comes from the continued Israeli occupation of the rest of the Golan," he added. "For Jabhat al-Nusra to take the sliver of land that Assad won back undermines the very core of the regime."

Both the Israeli prime minister’s office and the military spokesperson declined Al Jazeera’s requests for comment. On September 1, however, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a US congressional delegation in Israel that the government was “closely following the events on the Golan Heights”.

Dr Benedetta Berti, a security analyst and research fellow at the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies, said Israel would likely continue small scale operations on the Syrian side in response to mortar shelling and other cross-border violence. “But I think a larger military involvement on the Syrian side of the demarcation border against rebel groups is not an especially likely - or let alone desirable - option at the moment,” she told Al Jazeera.

Israel is likely “to stick to its [present] Syria policy, which involves containing the threat by beefing up the border and by monitoring changes on the ground while seeking to avoid being dragged into the civil war”, Berti added.

Since the fighting began in Syria, Israel has bombed the Syrian military positions several times. In June, Israel reportedly struck nine military positions after a rocket from Syria hit an Israeli government vehicle in the Golan Heights and killed a teenage boy.

"The fall of Quneitra is a significant defeat for the regime, as it was the last stronghold in the Golan," Carl Yonker, a researcher at Tel Aviv University’s Moshe Dayan Center, told Al Jazeera. "That said, losing Quneitra doesn’t pose a threat to the survival of Assad’s regime."

Despite the long-standing conflict, Yonker added that under Assad’s rule, Israel enjoyed a “status quo that no longer exists” with Jabhat al-Nusra and other rebel forces on the border. “The situation is of great concern to Israeli military and political leaders,” he said. “Assad’s regime is not a good option [for Israel], but it is better than having an al-Qaeda affiliated group or even possibly the Islamic State right on Israel’s border.”

Yet, it is not just the regional political power balance that is affected by the fighting on Syria’s border, as local Golan Heights residents also feel the impact of the war. While residents are divided between supporting the Assad regime in Damascus and the opposition, many said they are united against groups like the Islamic State group and Jabhat al-Nusra.

Nazem Khatar, 64, is an apple farmer and retired school teacher from Majdal Shams. Walking through his field filling a burlap sack with apples, for which the Golan Heights is famous, he recalled a time when Syrians weren’t as divided.

Assad’s regime is not a good option [for Israel], but it is better than having an al-Qaeda affiliated group or even possibly the Islamic State right on Israel’s border

- Carl Yonker, Tel Aviv University’s Moshe Dayan Center

"When I was in high school in Qunietra in the early 1960s, we were in the same classes - Sunnis, Shias, Druze, Christians, and Kurds," he told Al Jazeera. "We were comfortable and happy together. My parents used to leave the house unlocked so neighbours could borrow things if they needed."

The daily sound of bombing “hurts my heart very much”, Khatar added. “I want to stand there with my people and my President Bashar al-Assad because Islamic State terrorists are trying to destroy the country.”

His brother Ahmed, however, supports the uprising against Assad. “But what’s happening now is benefitting only Israel and western countries that have an interest in seeing the region divided,” Ahmed told Al Jazeera. “The Assad regime was always good for Israel because it never challenged the occupation. The Islamic State is [Assad and Israel’s] handiwork.”

Shehadeh Nasrallah, 48, an agricultural engineer, said the largest concern for Syrians in the Golan Heights is the safety of their relatives and friends back in Syria. “There isn’t a home in the Golan that doesn’t have relatives in Syria. We’re all connected to this issue,” he said, adding that he calls his two sisters in Damascus at least once daily.

Across town, five men sat in a circle, chain smoking, sipping coffee, and talking about the rise of the Islamic State group in Syria. “Every single development in Syria scares us,” said Abu Firas, a 57-year-old former travel agent who didn’t give Al Jazeera his full name. “We are very scared of what will happen in the future to our people, as well as the students from here that are in Syria right now.”

Dozens of students from the Golan Heights are studying at Damascus University and other Syrian academic institutions. “Now that Jabhat al-Nusra is at the crossing, we don’t know how they’ll be able to return,” Abu Firas said.

Meanwhile, Nasrallah said many locals are trying their best to completely avoid discussing the Syria violence. “Everyone worries that the Assad regime or the Islamic State will punish our relatives if we speak out. I am fearful that the killing in Syria won’t stop for another 15 years.”

We Can’t Destroy ISIS Without Destroying Bashar al Assad First

September 12, 2014 by Frederic Hof

On Wednesday evening, President Obama took 14 minutes to articulate, in clear and persuasive language, a counter-terrorism strategy “to degrade and ultimately destroy the terrorist group known as ISIL.” Yet the problem presented by an ersatz caliph and an amalgam of criminals, terrorists, executioners, and foreign fighters goes far beyond one of counter-terrorism. The Islamic Statejust like its parent, Al Qaeda in Iraqcannot be killed unless the causes of state failure in Syria and Iraq are addressed and rectified. Although such a task cannot be the exclusive or even principal responsibility of the American taxpayer, the president’s strategy, its implementation, and its outcome will be incomplete if it remains solely one of counter-terrorism.

The essential problem that has permitted the Islamic State to roam freely in parts of Iraq and Syria amounting in size to New England is state failure in both places. Redressing this failure is far beyond the unilateral capacity of the United States, as occupation in Iraq and ongoing operations in Afghanistan demonstrate. Still the fact remains that until Syria and Iraq move from state failure to political legitimacyto systems reflecting public consensus about the rules of the political gamethe Islamic State will remain undead no matter how many of its kings, queens, bishops, rooks, and pawns are swept from the table. And yet a strategy that does not address how America and its partners can influence the endgamekeeping the Islamic State in its graveis simply incomplete.

Iraq and Syria are extreme examples of the fundamental grievances embodied by the 2011 Arab Spring.  Since the 1920s, much of the Arab World has been struggling to answer one fundamental question: what is it that follows the Ottoman Sultan-Caliph as the source of political legitimacy? The answer suggested by protesters in Tunis, Cairo, Deraa, and elsewhere was compellingly correct: the consent of the governed. That autocrats should reject the answer and push back is hardly surprising. Today only Tunisia seems to be on a clear path to legitimacy. Other Arab Spring countriesnotably Libya and Yementeeter on the brink of state failure. Syria has taken the plunge. Iraq, though not an Arab Spring country per se, is likewise in the pit.

The Obama administration’s strategy, though counter-terrorist in its essence, hints at the broader problem. In a fact sheet issued on September 10, the White House cites “Supporting effective governance in Iraq” as a key pillar of the president’s strategy. It argues, quite correctly, that “only a united Iraqwith a government in Baghdad that has support from all of Iraq’s communities can defeat ISIL.” An important obstacle to legitimate governance in Iraq will be Iran’s arming and financing of Shia militias, which see Iraqi Sunnisall of themas supporters of the Islamic State. Interestingly, however, the fact sheet makes no mention of promoting effective, legitimate governance in Syria.

Today’s crisisthat which obligated the President to speak on September 10has its roots in the March 2011 decision of Syrian President Bashar al Assad to respond with lethal violence to peaceful demonstrators seeking his protection from police brutality. The Assad regime initially escorted Al Qaeda in Iraq operatives from Syria to Iraq between 2003 and 2011, but its violently sectarian response to peaceful protest drew much of what was left of the seemingly beaten Al Qaeda in Iraq back to Syria, where it was joined by foreign fighters and split into two groups: the Islamic State and the Nusra Front.  Both groups compete with the nationalist opposition to Assadindeed, the Islamic State engages in de facto collaboration with the regime in western Syria to erase the nationalists, even as Assad and the caliph clash in eastern Syria over oil fields and air bases. And it was from secure bases in eastern Syria that the Islamic State launched its recent assault into Iraq, taking advantage of the depredations of yet another illegitimate, sectarian leader: Nouri al Maliki.

Indeed, if sidelining Maliki was the essential first step to getting to legitimate governance in Iraq, what about Assad in Syria? He is the face of Islamic State recruitment around the world. He is the author of war crimes and crimes against humanity that are breathtaking in scope and consequences.

President Obama decided, correctly if belatedly, to seek more robust assistance for beleaguered Syrian nationalists fighting in two directions: against the Islamic State and the regime. Will it work? It would have been easier two years ago, but now there is no choice. Airstrikes will not suffice in executing the counter-terrorism strategy. A ground element is essential, as it has been in Iraq. Indeed, airstrikes in Syria should focus first on Islamic State targets in western Syria, where nationalist forces are desperately trying to repulse the caliph and his forces.

Over three years ago, President Obama called on Bashar al Assad to step aside. Moving this murderous regime offstage will be neither easy nor quick. Yet unless it is a major facet of American strategy, the Islamic State will not be killed. It has been a gift to the Assad regime, one that will keep on giving so long as that regime exists. Legitimate governance in Syria will require much more than removing Assad. But regime removal is the first step, and without legitimate governance in Syria (as well as Iraq) the undead Islamic State will continue to march.

Kerry’s anti-ISIS push will not be an easy sell in Riyadh

US Secratery of State John Kerry waits for the start of a Gulf Cooperation Council and Regional Partners meeting at King Abdulaziz International Airport’s Royal Terminal on September 11, 2014 in Jeddah (AFP Photo/Brendan Smialowski/POOL)

A perceived lack of a clear US strategy will make the Saudis think twice about committing to the US effort. (AFP Photo/Brendan Smialowski/POOL)

September 11, 2014 by Fahed Nazer

As the Obama administration’s effort to build a coalition to “degrade and ultimately defeat” the Islamic State (ISIS) intensifies and widens, the US seems to have concluded that for its campaign to appear as a legitimate, international effort against a terrorist organization – and not as a continuation of what some Muslims characterize as a US “war against Islam” or an attempt to bolster the Iraqi government and the Assad regime in Syria – it will need the active participation, as opposed to the tacit support, of the one country that can claim to play a “leadership” role in both the Arab and wider Muslim worlds: Saudi Arabia.  

While the Saudis have made it clear that they consider ISIS to be a threat to their security and to the stability of the broader international community, it remains to be seen whether they are willing to do more than add to the humanitarian assistance they have already provided to both Syria and Iraq. Much will depend on Secretary of State Kerry’s visit to Jeddah on Thursday and his ability to clearly articulate the administration’s long-term objectives in Iraq and, more importantly, in Syria. A perceived lack of a clear US strategy will make the Saudis think twice about committing to the US effort, putting the entire endeavor in jeopardy.

Much as in the US, the rapid advance of ISIS in Iraq and its barbarism have dominated both traditional and social Saudi media over the past two months. In a recent meeting with ambassadors to the kingdom, King Abdullah raised eyebrows when he said that unless terrorists are dealt with quickly and decisively, “I am certain they will reach Europe in one month, and the US in two.” It was clear from the remarks that the king was referring to ISIS. A few days later, the most senior religious authority in the kingdom, the Grand Mufti, also appeared to be speaking about ISIS when he characterized the group as “the number one enemy of Islam.” More recently, he enjoined Muslims to “fight” to repel ISIS’ attack against them, in what could be considered a fatwa sanctioning military action against the group. Early in the summer, the Saudis busted what they described as a “vast network” of terror suspects acting as conduits between ISIS and militant groups in Yemen. However, Riyadh’s badly-damaged relations with Baghdad and its long-standing support of the Syrian opposition means that the Saudis will likely press Secretary Kerry on what the US envisions happening in both Iraq and Syria once ISIS is destroyed.

The Saudis have repeatedly criticized the US for its 2003 invasion of Iraq, arguing that the toppling of Saddam Hussein handed the country to Iran on a “silver platter.” They never trusted Nouri al-Maliki, considering him nothing more than Iran’s representative in Iraq. They also largely blame Maliki’s sectarianism for creating the fertile ground in which ISIS was able to flourish, as it capitalized on widespread Sunni discontent. For his part, Maliki accused Saudi Arabia of supporting ISIS and blamed it for much of the sectarian violence that was threatening to tear apart the social fabric of the country. The formation of a new Iraqi government under the leadership of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi could potentially usher in a new, more cooperative chapter in Saudi-Iraqi relations, but the Saudis will likely tell Kerry that to ensure that ISIS does not regroup, the legitimate grievances of the Sunni minority there must be addressed. Given the long years of tense relations between the two countries, however, it is unlikely that the Saudis will play a significant role in the aerial campaign against ISIS strongholds in western and central Iraq.

An even bigger challenge for Secretary Kerry will be articulating a clear US vision for Syria. Much like their view of the violence in Iraq, the Saudis do not believe that ISIS’ presence in Syria can be eliminated without ending the civil war there. To them, that cannot be accomplished as long as Bashar al-Assad remains in power.

Not only has Saudi Arabia publicly accused Assad of conducing a “genocide” against the Sunni majority in Syria, it has also been one of the biggest supporters of the more moderate elements of the opposition. As such, US reluctance to provide military support to the Syrian opposition has been a major point of contention with the Saudis. Unlike some countries in the West – or some corners in Washington – the Saudis cannot see themselves turning a new page with a “rehabilitated” Assad. He has become a reviled figure across much of the Muslim world and any intimation that the Saudis are entertaining reversing course on Syria would be politically costly. As far as they are concerned, both ISIS and Assad have to go. 

Any US military strikes against ISIS strongholds in Syria that could potentially strengthen Assad’s grip on power will be a very tough sell in Riyadh. The US will have to commit to a significant increase in support for the Syrian opposition and renew its commitment to Assad’s departure if it is to garner full Saudi support.

Just before President Obama addressed the nation on Wednesday night, news reports surfaced indicating that the Saudis have agreed to host a US training program for Syrian opposition fighters. It is not entirely clear whether the US requested this or if the Saudis did, but in either case, assuming the report is accurate, such a move is very uncharacteristic of the Saudis, whose preference has often been for quiet, behind-the-scenes diplomacy. Earlier in the day, the White House issued a readout of a phone conversation President Obama had with Saudi Kind Abdullah. In addition to the standard language about strengthening the “strategic partnership,” the release also included the following: “Both leaders agreed that a stronger Syrian opposition is essential to confronting extremists like ISIL as well as the Assad regime, which has lost all legitimacy.”

Secretary Kerry will attend a Saudi-sponsored meeting in Jeddah on Thursday that will focus on the threat posed by ISIS and that will also include high-level representatives from other regional actors, including Iraq. 

In addition to the difficult tasks above, Kerry will also have to overcome and perhaps recast the Obama administration’s tarnished reputation in Riyadh. He has to convince the Saudis that the US is a determined, trustworthy and reliable partner that shares Riyadh’s main interests in the region. That may be the toughest challenge of all.

Syria opposition head seeks support of anti-IS coalition

Abu Dhabi, September 15, 2014 by AFP

The head of the main Syrian opposition group in exile said Sunday he expected the support of the international community to press the fight against Damascus and Islamic State jihadists.

The United States is pushing for the formation of a broad international coalition to tackle IS which has captured swathes of Iraq and Syria, and has already secured the backing of 10 Arab states including Saudi Arabia.

"The role of [the] international coalition against terrorism should be very clear,” Hadi el-Bahra, head of the Syrian National Coalition, said at a news conference in Abu Dhabi.

The SNC gathers together various groups seeking the overthrow of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad but has been weakened by divisions despite the support of Western countries and Saudi Arabia.

"We are the Syrians, we are the people in charge," he said, adding "the international community should support our effort."

Bahra said the SNC was “100 percent” capable of fighting the IS “with a proper plan which we have put in place and which we ask the international community to support.”

The group would launch two offensives at the same time, “one against the regime and one against IS,” Bahra said.

US President Barack Obama said on Wednesday he had authorized the expansion to Syria of the US air campaign against IS he launched in Iraq in early August.

There have been no US strikes on Syria so far, but Obama’s announcement drew protests from Damascus and its Iranian and Russian allies.

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